From where I sit, as a slightly dank and darkening December afternoon slips into evening, I watch a bicycle rickshaw pull up below the window.
A happy, giggling couple spill on to the pavement and music, cascading from the speakers fixed to the rickshaw’s frame, fills the air and swirls around the bustling streets.
Permeating my senses as evocatively as the aroma of mulled wine, the festive melody takes me to a place where smiling friends laugh and chatter excitedly at the close of another year.
However, as the rickshaw moves off and the music recedes, another, less welcome feeling descends on me.
George Michael and his bandmate Andrew Ridgeley performing on stage Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1991
I’ve said little in the year since George Michael’s death, save for an appearance at this year’s Brit awards.
It has only been as we make our way towards Christmas and the anniversary of his passing that I have decided to speak in depth, and to lend my support to the most fitting tribute to my dearest friend of all – a bid to make Last Christmas this year’s Christmas No 1.
For me and so many others, the bittersweet nature of the song means it will forever mark the best and the worst of times. Released in 1984, it is one of the most popular and iconic Christmas records of all time, selling more than two million copies.
Yet Last Christmas remains the biggest-selling UK chart single never to have taken the No 1 spot – pipped to the post by Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas.
George was passionate about getting his songs to No 1, which is why it is important to me now that the anniversary of his death be marked by an accolade of this kind.
When I received the news of my oldest friend’s death on the afternoon of Christmas Day last year, I had, only five minutes beforehand, sent him a message wishing him a wonderful Christmas.
That night, after I had phoned our friends to convey the dreadful news – and despite having shed an ocean of tears already that day – the sheer eviscerating sense of loss cut my legs from beneath me and, on the deck and on my knees, I cried like I’d never cried before.
Nothing had prepared me for the depth of pain George’s death precipitated.
Heart-throbs: George and Andrew film a Wham! video in 1983
The shock and disbelief were overwhelming. I had lost my parents in recent years and yet, this was entirely different, a loss I had not contemplated, a loss that was inconceivable, one so abysmally sad that in that moment I was consumed by it.
I had always been aware of George’s importance to me, of the bond of friendship and of the sparkle and light, effervescence and electricity that suffused the music we made.
Yet in the intervening years between our career together as Wham! and where our different lives had subsequently led us, I had somehow lost sight of quite what my childhood best friend meant to me.
GEORGE and I met in 1975 at Bushey Meads secondary school in Bushey, Hertfordshire. I was in my second year – self-confident, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and excitable. He was the new boy and I was keen that I should get to look after him.
Our friendship was kick-started when, at morning break that first day at his new school, he deposed me as King of The Wall, a rough and tumble game that involved wrestling your opponent off the low wall in the school playground.
A trivial moment, but the good humour and sense of fun in which it occurred was to define our friendship through those school years and into our career.
While fairly ebullient for a new boy, he had a circumspection about him. George could be very funny, but he was also quite serious and I like to think I played a part in bringing out his humour – and that became the foundation stone of our relationship. Well, that and music.
We were voracious record buyers. New releases from our favourite artists were eagerly awaited: Elton John, Queen, Stevie Wonder, The Eagles, Elvis Costello, Earth Wind & Fire, David Bowie.
The list was endless. The Radio One charts were anticipated in high excitement, and Monday mornings, before register was called, were a joyous babble on the merits or otherwise of the Top Ten.
And so Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou became my best friend. ‘Yorgos’, ‘Yoriyoss’, ‘Yoghurt’, ‘Yog’, and in time, as the world came to know him, George Michael, the kid with whom I became an adult, the boyhood buddy whose gift I’d had a part in cultivating.
The best and dearest friend of my youth. The lad I propped up against the phone box at the bottom of Ashfield Avenue as he drunkenly misdialled his home phone number to persuade his dad – without much success – to collect him at half five in the morning.
With whom, as guiltily furtive 16-year-olds, we blagged our way into The Empire, Watford, to see Saturday Night Fever, a seminal moment in our creative development. The chum with whom I sat at break time quizzing each other on Genesis lyrics.
This was the friend and partner with whom the first steps toward the ambition we both held like a burning torch, were taken.
On the Fifth of November 1979, I told my form tutor I was leaving school there and then. My decision, I was informed, was prescient as I was going to be asked to leave anyway. Then, I called George.
We had talked about forming a band for what had seemed like years. George was under pressure to go to university and so the decision had been endlessly deferred.
Ageing genius: George pictured in 2015 in Switzerland
I knew that if I didn’t force the issue, the pressure would scupper any plans, so I said to him: ‘It’s now or never.’ To my surprise, there was no hesitation. The Rubicon had been crossed.
We signed our record deal in February 1982 and within nine months had a No 2 hit with Young Guns. From then on, our career as Wham! went stellar and over the next four and a half years, George and I sold more than 30 million records.
However, Wham! was never meant to grow old. We knew it had a finite lifespan. Neither of us could see how we could carry off Young Guns in our 40s.
Also, we both understood that for George to realise his full potential, he would have to do it alone.
So it was with that knowledge that around 18 months before our final show at Wembley Stadium on June 28, 1986, we took the decision to call it a day.
Best friends: The pair at Newmarket races in 1993
LAST Christmas had its beginnings on an ordinary Sunday two years earlier, in 1984. George and I were visiting his parents.
We’d had a bite to eat and were sitting together relaxing with the television on in the background when, almost unnoticed, George disappeared upstairs for an hour or so.
When he came back down, such was his excitement, it was as if he had discovered gold which, in a sense, he had.
We went to his old room, the room in which we had spent hours as kids recording pastiches of radio shows and jingles, the room where he kept a keyboard and something on which to record his sparks of inspiration, and he played me the introduction and the beguiling, wistful chorus melody to Last Christmas. It was a moment of wonder.
George had performed musical alchemy, distilling the essence of Christmas into music. Adding a lyric which told the tale of betrayed love was a masterstroke and, as he did so often, he touched hearts.
George loved Christmas. In the early days of our success as Wham! he would host an annual Christmas Eve get-together.
They were jolly and ribald affairs and we were invariably compelled, by our rather booze-emboldened host, to go carol singing.
It was not, however, a conventional choir. Rather, it comprised two dozen merry revellers minus sheet music but with a blow-up doll. We were not to the taste of every household visited.
George liked to be generous, not only to his friends – who each Christmas received hampers packed with seasonal goodies – but, in particular, to those in hardship.
From major gestures, such as supporting the families of striking miners in the early 1980s (not born of political ideology but as a basic response to the hardships of others), through to many smaller acts of kindness, George’s humanity was a large part of that which made him.
For me and for countless others, this coming Christmas will be tinged with sadness. I hope the haunting beauty of Last Christmas and the pleasure it brings might ease that sorrow – and that, with your help, posterity may one day record Last Christmas as a No 1. It would please my old chum no end!
- My fee for this article will go to The Dallaglio RugbyWorks Charity, a charity I have supported for several years, which steers marginalised young people away from the scrapheap and helps them into work and a future with prospects. Should you wish to help please consider donating via www.dallagliocycleslam.com and go to the page called Dallaglio Rugby Works. Alternatively, click here