TRIBUTES have been flooding in from the Isle of Wight arts community following the death of one of its most treasured members.

John Armstrong died at the age of 65 on Friday April 21, having been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in January.

John was born in Middlesbrough in 1955, the only child of Russ and Marion Armstrong.

He met first wife, Annette Lamballe, when as seven year-olds she chased him around the playground dressed as a witch and terrified him.

John excelled in school in areas he saw fit to apply himself to, mainly English, which saw his lifelong passion of poetry begin at a young age.

By 15 he was already a published poet and had started dating Annette ‘on and off.’

John's teenage years were punctuated by rebellions from his working class roots.

He joined the communist party before deciding it was 'all a sham', he had worked through the four-day week, seen the miners riots, and felt a strong obligation to call out injustice wherever it arose.

He fell in love with jazz and even formed a spoken word poetry group in Middlesbrough who once attempted a performance in a ‘working mans pub’ and were summarily booed off stage.

After an extended adventure including a hitchhiking trip around Europe, an Ethiopian ex-pat commune and briefly holding the record for the fastest trip from Italy to Paris, he became a social worker, with very damaged and angry young men.

Isle of Wight County Press: John Armstrong made huge waves on the Isle of Wight's arts and performance scene. Photo: Ian Boyd.John Armstrong made huge waves on the Isle of Wight's arts and performance scene. Photo: Ian Boyd.

In 1977, at the age of 22, he and Annette married and bought their first house together in Middlesbrough's Breckon Hill Road.

Their first child, Kayt arrived in 1981, followed by Beth in 1984, who sadly died shortly after her birth, and son Jack in 1985.

John and Annette campaigned on a series of interconnected political issues including the Cleveland Inquiry, and the campaign to have child sexual abuse recognised and taken seriously.

Following the wake of the Cleveland Inquiry and compelled to spread his wings, they decided to leave Middlesbrough, with John finding a job as head of care at a residential school in Chigwell, Essex.

The family lived near to a farm that was part of the school and this began a relationship to the animal kingdom that flummoxed both John and those around him.

Isle of Wight County Press: John during the 2019 Ventnor Fringe festival. Photo: Chris Jones.John during the 2019 Ventnor Fringe festival. Photo: Chris Jones.

Animals were drawn to him — a goat named Benji fell in love with John and once followed him into the school dining hall while everyone was having breakfast.

While working at the school John uncovered serious cases of abuse perpetrated by a former member of staff. He raised his voice and demanded action be taken.

The perpetrator ended up in prison, but the experience of shepherding his young team of inexperienced social workers through the trial was shattering.

The school inevitably closed, and this brought his job to an end and meant the family needed to relocate once more.

Isle of Wight County Press: Photo: Ivana Popov.Photo: Ivana Popov.

This time it was to the Isle of Wight in 1990, where John began working for social services, representing the interests of children in places such as family court, and as head of the joint registration and inspection unit.

He soon fell in love with the town of Ventnor, and the Island's long standing history with the arts.

He retired from the council in 1998 following a period of ill health, and started his own business.

Isle of Wight County Press: John with Matilda, who called him and Annette her 'glob parents.'John with Matilda, who called him and Annette her 'glob parents.'

John taught himself how to code and build websites and created benefitsnow which sought to provide disability living equipment to individuals directly, subsequently selling the business to retire in the late 2000s and throwing himself into his creative endeavours.

He branched out into audio recording and was once chased out of a Ventnor supermarket for hanging a boom mic over the aisles to record what he termed ‘shop noise’.

John became involved with the Quay Arts, exhibiting his audio work alongside images created by long standing friend and partner in mischief, Julian Winslow, also organising a series of poetry gigs.

Isle of Wight County Press: One of John's art installations at the Quay Arts.One of John's art installations at the Quay Arts.

He became synonymous with Ventnor Exchange and the Fringe Festival, for his Doubting Dereks and Chorderize shows, and unpredictably brilliant performance pieces.

Annette was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2016, and died at home the following February, with John, Kayt and Jack by her side.

Over the previous decade they had enjoyed a series of adventures, visiting the kids in their overseas homes, and trips to Italy and Greece.

Isle of Wight County Press: After Annette died, John had a small prison built as part of an installation. Photo: Christopher Gutteridge.After Annette died, John had a small prison built as part of an installation. Photo: Christopher Gutteridge.

Now living alone, John exercised his full creativity, turning the family home into a bright and minimalist space with oversized red furniture and evocative lighting.

His wardrobe expanded and he often boasted of the compliments he received for his eye-catching attire.

In his later years, John visited Malaysia, India, Bolivia and Ecuador, where he had friendly encounters with revolutionaries, and slightly concerning ones with rockfalls on the 'road of death'.

Isle of Wight County Press: Photo credit: Julian Winslow.Photo credit: Julian Winslow.

He spent two weeks in Japan being enjoyably baffled by everything from the urban geography to the flower arrangements.

In 2019 he struck up a friendship with Megan, an artist, singer and actor.

Being the hopeless romantic he was, by the end of the year they were an item, finding solace in shared life experience and a mutual sense of joy and creativity.

He proposed to her in February, 2020, and with the arrival of Covid and the lockdown, Megan moved in.

They married on October 31, before realising how unwell John was. He carried on writing and working on planned performance pieces until admission to a hospice, and had a plan for how his piece about the pandemic could be finished and performed without him.

Isle of Wight County Press: John and Megan on their October 31 wedding day.John and Megan on their October 31 wedding day.

An emotive wordsmith, John provided a platform for aspiring performers, intent on jabbing them from comfort zones if he felt they were resting on their laurels.

One of his greatest qualities was an ability to effortlessly unify large groups of all ages, backgrounds and beliefs — hence the eclectic makeup of his own social circle.

His funeral takes place today (Friday), with a loud and colourful dress code befitting of the man.

Isle of Wight County Press: John Armstrong relaxing at home. Photo: Julian Winslow.John Armstrong relaxing at home. Photo: Julian Winslow.

Tributes to John Armstrong (1955-2021)

Angela Freebrey, poet:

John was a kind and wonderful friend. The fact I cannot send him random stories about goats, see his posts about his pelican entourage, or listen to winding descriptions of his travel adventures, is a desperately sad thing.

Sophie Robinson, Bestival competition winning spoken word artist:

I am still very much in shock. John has always been a straight-up and rare individual and you knew it was going to be a standout, almost barbaric evening when he was performing!

He had a soft interior and was full of advice and support whenever I performed on the same night as him — this is a very sad loss indeed.

Jess Langton, Odd Daughter/Artist​:

John, one resounding image of you is the pointy finger dancing with the bad cardigan. The cardigan that was so bad it was good. 'Fab', in fact. The memory is probably from an infamous NY party.

For many years you were “Kayt's grumpy dad,” — who in fact wasn't grumpy at all — holding court in a haze of smoke and pools of vino (until reformed). No-one with a cardigan like that could really be grumpy, and I always knew that. I guess it's part of why we became such good friends.

Your family home was a safe-haven for us teenagers and I think it was when Annette passed we all realised to what extent we were true ‘familia’; You, Kayt, Jack and me.

You seized life, it was wonderful to see, it was bold. When you came to stay in Bristol with me to do the Clowning course, one of my friends said he liked you for being 'so utterly John'.

Isle of Wight County Press: Jess Langton and Arnold (aka John Armstrong) at the Quay Arts 2018, Making. Very. Serious. Art. Photo credit: Julian Winslow.Jess Langton and Arnold (aka John Armstrong) at the Quay Arts 2018, Making. Very. Serious. Art. Photo credit: Julian Winslow.

You were good at that, although I know it wasn't always easy.

Most recently, it was fun getting to spend the week with you at The Quay making Very Serious Art, I'm so very glad of that time.

You were, and will continue to be in many ways, my champion, propelling a steady under-toe of 'C'mon Jess - you know you can' talk, especially on the creative front.

I still never really knew what happened inside that big brain of yours. But I did know what happened inside that big heart. Thank you.

Ian Boyd, Poet, illustrator and writer:

That great sparky, snarky, demanding, difficult intellect and his absolute refusal to settle for half measures, were at work in him as poet, critic, clown, impresario, performer and friend.

Every event was created and delivered by John with the intention of making room for new performance, new material, new opportunities for anyone he could persuade to bring that poem, that story, that song, out of their bedroom and into the spotlight.

He helped and encouraged so many to take that step.

Isle of Wight County Press: A poster for one of the many event Ian and John collaborated on.A poster for one of the many event Ian and John collaborated on.

In a bland world crowded with inflated egos, he was flare gun and needle; in a time of superficial pleasantry, he would ask you how you were, and mean it.

His death leaves a hole that cannot be filled, a John-shaped space will always be there, and he will never be forgotten.

Graham Brown, poet, actor & Wight Lines organiser:

John was a unique character whose work veered towards the experimental latterly.

He was a great promoter of local music and poetry and helped many people to start their artistic journeys at Ventnor Exchange and Aspire in Ryde.

Doris Doolally, spoken word artist:

How do you describe in words a man who inspires you to awkwardly eat a (very dry) sandwich in front of two unsuspecting people as an act in front of an audience?

A man who is the very reason you and so many others began performing publicly in the first place, and a man who stood up for what he believed to be right through many creative outlets.

John Armstrong was never scared to tell you what he thought, his attitude was refreshing, honest and direct. This is how John helped so many people.

I feel so very privileged to have known him and am so thankful for everything he taught myself and so many others around me. My thoughts are with his family and friends.

Jeni Law, actor, teacher and poet:

They say that life imitates art, which means society can be directed by the work of artists. Many squander this opportunity in search of recognition, but John Armstrong exploited it to the fullest.

John helped me to hone my skills, he showed me that my art was relevant and he gave me the chance to experiment with my writing.

More than that, he showed me that middle-age was not the barrier where creativity stopped, but the gateway where it begins.

John Armstrong led the way and it is our privilege to follow on behind.

Isle of Wight County Press: