My Terrorist Friend, David (“John”) Dinsmore, Has Died


“A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”
Mao Zedong


The other day I got word that my Scottish terrorist friend, David Dinsmore, who for a short time in the mid 1980s was my best friend in Spain and the world, had died of cancer and AIDS. He was 54. Last Friday they buried him in London.

We were roommates when we were both very young. Then he decided to live his dream and fly to Rio de Janeiro to look for love and adventure, which he found in spades.  Later on, in the ‘90s, he gave himself up to British authorities and—courtesy of the police—was flown back to the U.K., where he stood trial for terrorist activities and was acquitted. He lived the rest of his life without needing to work, thanks to the British welfare state. He didn’t need to work because he’d been diagnosed with AIDS following his exploits in Brazil. He lived in a comfortable “council flat” in London’s popular Camden Town. He had plenty of money and was free to travel the world. He still worshiped Stalin and Lenin and marched for Scottish freedom from the “English dogs” until the end.

In all my life I never knew a more complex  man. David was a kind, generous, fire-breathing atheist; he was a fine debater, angry and righteous, addicted to booze and young men, political to the core of his being, smart, violently working class, tall, gaunt, explosive and gregarious; I never knew anyone who loved people so much.  We stayed on good terms all these years even though an ocean and a continent separated us, and even though he was, for me, a relic of a much earlier time in my life (something I never told him).

We met in Madrid in a bar in early 1985. We often hung out together, and one day David mentioned that there was a room in his rooming house for another roommate. Since I was still living in a hotel and new to Madrid, I said yes, why not? So I moved into the rooming house owned by the faded Flamenco singer Tomás de Antequera, who had been a big star in Spain between the Civil War and the ‘70s but was now decrepit and half-blind. Antequera made my bed every day—imagine, a bed being made by a Flamenco singer! The distance to the bathroom was very far, so late at night I would often pee in a wine bottle and forget about it the next morning. Unfortunately Mr. Antequera, being almost blind, would stumble into the room the next morning and more than once knocked over my bottle and all its contents…

After we knew each other for a while, David made this confession to me: he had been imprisoned in Ireland for his illegal political activities in Scotland and had been awaiting trial (though I don’t think he ever killed anyone, he once tried to send some Englishman a bomb…); then he was let out on bail, jumped bail, and fled to Spain…He was living under an assumed name (“John Parks”) with a fake passport.  I looked at him and just said “Oh!”  I was such a dumb American boy.

What was our life like in Spain? Teaching English as a foreign language, going to bars and bathhouses, drinking, teaching, going out, drinking (he did more drinking than I did). We both loved Spanish youths. He hated Americans (except me). He hated Reagan. He hated Israel. He hated Fascists. But he loved people. He had an insatiable appetite for people, even when their politics was very different from, or opposed to, his own. David’s other best friends were an old Italian priest and an impoverished Spanish count.

We taught in a summer camp that first summer. The camp directors didn’t like our untidiness or David’s drinking or the way he belted out Scottish ballads and eyed some of the kiddos. As for me, I read Thomas Mann, while he drank with a slew of Irish girls. Then, once free from the camp, we traveled to Berlin. One day in West Berlin David woke up and told me he wanted to defect to East Germany. I offered to help him in this enterprise, since I speak German. We spent a whole night interrogated by the East German authorities, but they didn’t accept him, for whatever reason. All night I had visions of being imprisoned for the rest of my life. I had visions of President Reagan going on national TV to promise the world that I was going to be rescued. In the end nothing good or bad happened. The police returned us to the Free World and I drank a schnapps in one of West Berlin’s five hundred empty gay bars.

After the German escapade we lived together in Barcelona for over a year. He wasn’t happy. He was bored. He always compared Barcelona unfavorably with Madrid. It was too staid for him, too bourgeois and European and boring. He wanted adventure in South America. Late at night he would get very drunk, after he finished our dinner of haggis or paella. He would call me a Fascist. He would talk about Scottish independence. He would rant about Stalin’s correct world view. He hated Trotsky and loved Stalin and Lenin.

David felt sorry for street people and invited them to come and live with us. One of them was a Peruvian hairdresser with AIDS. We took the hairdresser to the hospital and once he was fully recovered he became a male prostitute in a “house of boys” under the aegis of a lady named Madame Clot. She promised the hairdresser they would make millions. I don’t know if they made millions, but the Peruvian seemed completely restored after half a year with us. He was very critical of the mess and dirt in our apartment. Then he bought a kitten, even though I’m allergic to cats. Finally he robbed us blind and fled to Castile and a life of picking mushrooms.

The longer David lived in Barcelona, the less he liked it. We didn’t get along. He drank a lot and called me Fascist and sometimes taxi drivers would deposit him at the front door of our building, and I had to carry him up five flights (we had no elevator). He kept dreaming of South America. When his Scottish parents came to visit him, I was amazed they didn’t look at all like him. “Can’t you guess why that is?” David asked.

“Were you adopted?” I asked.

“Of course!”

His biological father had been an American airman who impregnated a Scottish girl and then abandoned her. His adoptive parents were much older than his birth parents; they were short and quiet and conservative—everything he wasn’t.  Now I understood part of the reason David hated America.

And then one day, suddenly, he decided to relocate  to Rio de Janeiro. “You can find love in Rio,” he argued. “In Brazil they’re not just looking for sex. They’re looking for love. And it’s nothing like Barcelona! In Rio people dance while they’re waiting for the bus!”

And so he started making plans to leave. With my father’s help, I gave him two thousand dollars. He also lifted several grand from one of the language schools where he worked.  It was all right to steal from the rich, in his book. I saw him off at the airport, together with two other close friends of his. I wasn’t sorry to see him go, because he was a hard roommate and “teacher” to have, but I didn’t know what would happen to me in Spain without a friend.

The day after he left, I went to Sitges by the coast; I was alone. People chatted me up on the train, but by the time we got to the beach they made it very clear I wasn’t welcome in their party anymore. I spent the day in the sand alone. When I got home, I was completely and utterly alone, I broke down in tears—and a lady in the building across the street saw me from her balcony, and took pity on me.

Things got better. I lived for many years in that apartment on my own. In the beginning David and I talked a few times on the phone. He was enjoying life—boys galore, cocaine, buddies in the drug cartel, teaching, booze, loads of friends, even a lover for a while. He was becoming fluent in Brazilian Portuguese. And me? I moved on. I loved my apartment on the fifth floor of our building in the center of Barcelona on the Carrer de Casanova. David and I had painted the walls yellow and pink. I took over what had been his bedroom, with the French windows overlooking the noisy street and the ambulance sirens and the swallows that descended on the city in May and the potent smell of bread from the busy bakery downstairs. I didn’t miss him. I made new friends. I spent years in therapy. David was now part of the past, a quaint relic of an early and immature phase. Years passed and I assumed I’d never hear from him again.

I did hear from him again, of course, after seven years. He was back in London. He’d decided to leave Brazil and return home to Scotland, even though it meant possibly doing time in prison. He’d wanted to see his adoptive parents, who were getting old. He turned himself in and stood trial and was found not-guilty. This was good for him, but unfortunately around the same time I received an unpleasant phone call from the anti-terrorist branch of Scotland Yard (or some such organization) and my father in San Francisco received a visit from the FBI. Apparently David had given the authorities my name so that someone (I) could corroborate his (true) story that at one time he had been living in Spain. There wasn’t much I could help them with, but for a few nights I didn’t sleep…

And so—with good boundaries—we reinitiated our friendship in the ‘90s, but things were never the same. I visited London often, even after I’d moved back to the States. We got our ears pierced in Camden Town in 1997. He was very accepting of me changing my first name from “Marcel” to “Alex.” I told him about writing poetry and living in America and being in a program for sex addicts. He was mildly amused. We never fought at all. He never shouted at me or called me Fascist. That first visit to London in the mid ‘90s, he cried when we said good-bye at Paddington Station. This touched me, especially because I no longer felt the same closeness. And yet we were still in each other’s lives, and stayed that way until the end. But though he was now cured of cocaine addiction, his drinking was getting worse. I once took him to an AA meeting in London. He even shared about his drinking binges and everyone in that room was listening intently and nodding–“There but for the grace of God…”  But he never joined.

The last time I saw him was in the summer of 2008. He had met his birth family (partly due to my encouragement) but was now estranged from most of them. As always, his apartment in Camden was open to all sorts of folks who wanted his help, or were fleeing the police for immigration violations, or needed a space where they could go with their johns for an hour. David was very disturbed by the cockroach situation. They were abundant and alive and healthy on all the walls and ceilings, even beside my bed, where he’d also placed some good roach poison. Finally I moved into a hotel but didn’t tell him I was doing so. I doubt he noticed. He was standing in his living room alone, completely lost in his alcoholized haze. He was very far away. He just stood there and smiled. Many, many empty beer bottles littered the floor. The statuette of Lenin was as prominent as ever on his dusty shelf, along with books on the militant proletariat and the story of Che Guevara.

This was the last message he sent me, just a few weeks ago:

“Hi Alex, how are things going?” he wrote. “Unfortunately not too great here, since in May I have been told that my head and neck cancer has spread to my lungs and intestine. This time there isn’t much other than palliative (including chemo) that can be done. At that time they gave me up to a year (or at any time in between). Strangely it doesn’t seem to bother me too much! Though I’ve been in and out of hospital a few times since, right now I don’t feel too bad and no pain at all really. I hope to head off to Barcelona for a couple of weeks in October with a few friends, all things permitting….”

He never did make it to Barcelona.

I got word of his death by glancing at Facebook in a small town in Utah in the middle of watching The Good, the Bad and Ugly.

I looked at his pictures again. I hadn’t looked at them carefully. I hadn’t fully accepted how sick he was. How could anyone sound so lucid in a written message and yet be so sick? (He was always braver than I.) The next day I hiked around Zion National Park and thought about David “John” Dinsmore all day. My best friend in Spain for a while. Wild, loving, gentle, confused, insane, rowdy, and passionate about an independent socialist Scotland.  Someone once said of him that he’d make a good Christian. Even though I’m halfway around the world, I feel the loss acutely. I feel that someone who should be there is no longer there. He did not believe in heaven and hell. He always argued that we just stop being. Just stop. I don’t know where he is. I feel he will always be a part of me. For a short time in my life, I lived in the fast lane, lived among street people and beggars and hookers and counts, and my best friend was a Scottish terrorist.


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