Remembering Johnny Mackay - by Johnny's Mum

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Johnny was an inspiration, and maybe one day, before I die, I will write my book of my own observations of Johnny’s life because it is a life worth reading. 

Johnny was 29 when he died. He did suffer from mental health problems but his problem was more drink and drugs. 

We had many bad weeks with Johnny, certainly over the last two years of his life and before his teenage years. But, I want people to understand Johnny laughed and I have never been with anybody in my life who made me laugh every day, not just little titters but that full belly laugh where you keel over. Johnny did that with me every single day. If I was asked to be on a desert island alone with one person for the rest of my life it would have been with Johnny, nobody else, because we just got on we were never judgemental with each other, if I did something wrong, which was often, I forget things, we’d just laugh about it.

Even though he had a very loving and very forgiving and very giving family, nobody could have tried harder with an individual than we did, but there came a point especially the last week of his life that we knew we couldn’t do much but we felt that we would get through it because we always got through it.

When he was a child you couldn’t have found a more loving, more laughing, more entertaining young man than Johnny. Once he’d learned how to laugh he never stopped. He was loved by everybody, he had a great deal of wisdom, even when he was very young. He fought for the underdog, even at the age of 11 I was walking to town with him and one minute he was there and the next he was gone and he’d seen two older boys make fun of a couple of really nice people who used to sell the Evening Telegraph outside McDonald’s and these boys were ridiculing this couple and before I knew it Johnny had got them pinned against the wall of courage which was there then. He said “don’t you ever do that to these people, they are good hard working people.” He was 11 and he done that to these people, who are much older, much taller and much bigger than him but that was what he did, that was how he thought from a very young age.

He cared for people deeply. he was kind-hearted, in a way that I have never ever seen in anybody my life. 


He was a window cleaner and one story that came to me after he died was he went to see a lady to clean her windows in one of the villages and this lady wasn’t very well and he said “what can I do for you” and she said “no it’s alright Johnny just clean the windows”, but knowing this lady and her situation Johnny insisted on helping. Johnny cleaned this lady’s house top to bottom, he had a rifle through her fridge, made a lovely meal and cleaned her windows for nothing. I’m sure there are many stories out there similar, where Johnny was the good Samaritan, but one thing is for certain, he never came and told me about them he was like the quiet crusader. 

He would sit on a park bench and he would talk for hours with people if they needed it, not just strangers, not just people who lived rough, but his school friends he would see them in town, and say let’s go and have a coffee, let’s try and sort your problem out and Johnny did in such a way that was never condescending. His school friends have come to me and said Johnny turned my life around that day and you only had to look into this beautiful, honest, compassionate face, when he smiled you smiled, when he said to you how are you what have you done today he really meant how are you and what have you done today, He was deeply interested, it was never a throwaway remark as some many people do, he seriously meant it.


He went to college, the tutor never turned up so he decided one day having met somebody who did window-cleaning he’d go and work with him. He enjoyed the outdoor life enjoyed, the freedom, he didn’t really have a boss on his back and started his own company and went to Yorkshire.

That came to an end and he got himself a beautiful girlfriend, got engaged and they were serious about each other and he died loving her.

But what happened was because his van did not work which meant he could not work. The van was in the garage for a very long time and I was paying his rent, giving money for his everyday living. But in the end I said to Johnny I couldn’t continue to afford this - he either had to go to Halifax, find a job and be with his fiancé or come home and he said I don’t want to go live in Halifax I will come home. So that was all down to his van not working and not being able to afford a new vehicle. So that in itself changed the course of his life. 

So we came home and we did eventually get him a little run-around where he could do his window cleaning. 

We sought help from many areas, we got him treatment in London, we got him treatment in Bournemouth and we got him signed into a private health clinic and he saw a video of this centre and it looked so promisinghe said “I cannot wait to go!” He wanted to go sooner than later, he was telling me this on the Friday and we got him in on the Tuesday and we booked him in for a month. A week later he was home. 

As good as these people were they knew they couldn’t help him and they’d helped many people, they were highly specialised in all manners of addictions. But, Johnny went down there with this rather rebellious attitude. I think in his heart of hearts he knew that nobody could help him, he said to me time and time again only I know what my demons are like, only I can sort them out.  I said Johnny you have tried so many times, we have tried on your behalf to do this either independently of you or with you and it hasn’t worked, he said it will never work because these demons will follow me no matter where I go which is why he suddenly took off on his bike and went up the east coast of England stopping off more or less every town. He was always finding friends because people were attracted to him because of his bubbly, lovely, talkative manner. 

He cycled to Leeds and then got the train home and it was at that point that he went into St Mary’s for three days and he was as good as gold they couldn’t find anything wrong with him but what they don’t know is that during those three days he was a brilliant patient because he was writing Norman the caterpillar. He’d written lots of it prior to going into this assessment and he continued it when he came out. We were very surprised that he came out after three days because we knew what he was like before he went in but because of writing this book he was calm and he was so heavily focused on this adorable book. 

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Norman the Catterpillar has inspired so many people, it’s in schools across Northampton and we’ve worked with Northampton University where they’ve had dedicated book readings. It is an inspirational book, it’s not about mental health, it's just a question of everybody can walk the wrong direction in life, everybody can take that left or right turn.  Norman walked backwards - as so many of us do - he had the love of Cynthia and through that inspirational love and that one person calling his name, wanting him to be in her life that suddenly he started walking through the fog of life and started seeing for the first time people as he never seen before and then one day he got his wings and he flew. 

I think a lot of people can be inspired by Norman and that we can develop these wings and develop into something that we never knew we could. 

Johnny’s Happy Place was inspired by his friends. It was their deep fondness of Johnny, their knowledge of him, that they helped us to develop what is now Johnny’s Happy Place. They sought this cafe which had been home to boxing and all sorts of youth clubs.

On May 9th 2015 we got a load of people and we got rid of all the garish colours. We got furniture from the charity shops and we created what is now Johnny’s Happy Place. I would suggest even if you are completely fit and healthy and have no mental health issues, to come in see what we do for those people that do need us. The times we’ve been told by people “we couldn’t wait for Saturday, could not wait for 10 o’clock we just needed to come” because they know they can come in and they can chat and have tea and they will feel comfortable with nobody judging them. They can tell their story and they can feel at home and they do stay all day, or they come in the morning go shopping and come back and they will do a bit of artwork and they get involved or become volunteers, they help us when we do quiz nights and summer fetes.


We’re evolving and we’ve often been asked where will you go from here but unless we inherit a great deal of money where we can start-up proper day centres and proper night centres we’re just happy to be Johnny’s Happy Place. For people to walk through the door, feel extremely comfortable and extremely happy is almost like getting into a lovely warm bed.Just to feel enveloped by friendship and love, because that’s what this place is. We just want people to come in and love us the way that we love them because it is a two-way unit, they say you’ve helped us but by God they’ve helped me because when I leave here I could go home and cry, because of the love that people have shown to me and we just run the cafe for people but it’s is all linked in Johnny’s legacy, it’s all down to Johnny and we thank Johnny every day but by God I wish this place wasn’t here because that would mean that Johnny hadn’t died. Johnny would have loved for us giving to other people and we thank him for creating this lovely place because without him, without his love of humanity and his deep love of other people this place wouldn’t be here.

Johnny had a great many friends and the word in the early hours of the morning got out there very quickly. I think Kettering was alive with vocals going off with emails being sent, nobody could believe the news that they were receiving. On the Friday a lot of his friends went to a pub to console each other and one of his friends -Simon Warner - picked up his guitar and sung this song called Johnny Mackay and it moved everybody to tears. Simon recorded and recorded and recorded this song he sang off-the-cuff that night and eventually we got the CD. Also on the CD (there are two versions of the same song) Johnny had a piano and a keyboard and he was on the keyboard - he was in the process of recording this song with his friend Warren and that track is also on the CD.

- Denise Mackay

Listen to Johnny’s song here:

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