Mike Sparks, 1941-2021: singer, songwriter and Herga stalwart

Mike and Jenny Sparks
Mike Sparks and his wife, Jenny, after he had received his MBE from the Queen in 2000.

Mike Sparks MBE, an accomplished singer, songwriter, playwright and enthusiastic charity fundraiser, has died aged 79 from Covid-19. The sudden death of this much-loved, kind, generous and inspirational man has left his friends and family shocked.

Mike, who had been reasonably fit and healthy, had a nasty fall downstairs at his home in early January, suffering severe bruising. He was taken to hospital, tested for Covid-19 and allowed home.

The test was positive and after readmission to hospital Mike’s health sadly deteriorated rapidly and he died in Barnet General hospital a few days later.

Mike was born and spent his early years in Ipswich but moved along with his parents and brothers, Paul and Andrew, to London where he met and married Jenny, who shared his love of folk music, his interest in amateur dramatics and his strong Christian faith. Some of their early times together were spent at their church youth club.

They brought up three children: twin sons, Jon and Richard, and daughter Sue.

Together they worked – he as writer and director and she making costumes and cakes – to help produce the many pantomimes and Holy Week mystery plays that Mike wrote and produced for the Guild Players, at Finchley Methodist church. They were also both very active church members and were evolved in organising the church maintenance and the Sunday services.

‘Many of Mike’s friends and colleagues spoke of his remarkable energy and he seemed even busier after he retired’

In the early 1990s, Mike with his brother, Paul, longtime friend Trevor Crawford, and others formed the Wrockin Wrinklies, who played hits from the 1950s and 60s – always for free to good causes.

For many years they were stalwarts of Herga Folk Club with Mike doing the bookings and Jenny the books until the closure of the club (which has since reopened) in the summer of 2017.

They remained a devoted couple, celebrating their golden wedding anniversary on 10 October 2014.

Sadly, Jenny passed away from a brain tumour in the same year that Herga closed, Mike having cared for her at home throughout her illness.

It was at Herga that many friends first heard Mike sing his songs. His early life, living near the sea, may well have sparked his interest in boats and all things nautical. Sailing Down The Orwell, Launch The Lifeboat and Reach For The Gin come to mind.

The name of his shanty group, the Barnet Hill Lifeboat Crew, reflected his sense of humour: Barnet Hill is not only several hundred feet above sea level but about as far from it as is possible to go in England.

As with many of Mike’s singing ventures, the group’s activities raised money for charity, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution benefiting from their many gigs and events.

Mike and Jenny – together with various friends including Les Sullivan, who wrote most of the songs – performed The Glorious Madness, Mike’s presentation of different personal views of the first world war, which raised funds for the Royal British Legion poppy appeal.

Mike’s song Thirteen Florins On The Bar relates to the men of Hartest in Suffolk who left a half-crown on the bar of the Crown pub for a drink when they got back from serving in the war. The coins are still there.

The song featured in the presentation and has been recorded by Graeme Knights on his CD Echoes From Afar, the title of which is from a line in the song. It has become known in many countries.

Mike’s one-man performances of Singing Sydney, his show celebrating the songs of Sydney Carter, and sales of the associated CD raised money for the Alzheimer’s Society – Carter, the author of Lord Of The Dance and One More Step Along The World I Go, having died from this terrible disease.

For a time Mike was a cemetery supervisor and some of his humorous songs (graveyard humour?), including Jack Hamble and Embalming Tommy, were inspired by speaking to the workers he encountered.

‘A vegetarian co-worker who had remarked on his eating a ham sandwich was rewarded with a song, A Potato Has Feelings As Well’

He also spent some time working for the local council but it was during his time working for Sir John Cass’s Foundation that he was presented with an MBE for services to young people in Barnet. Mike worked for the foundation for nearly 20 years, including eight as chief executive from 1989-97.

For many years he taught kayaking and canoeing and was a British Canoe Union advanced instructor. He was a huge part of the Welsh Harp Youth Sailing Base and helped set up and run the Phoenix Canoe Club when the Welsh Harp facility in Wembley was closed by the council.

Co-workers have said: “He had the ability to involve others and make them feel included no matter their background and was particularly good at working with special needs young people who attended the base and later the environmental education centre.”

Many of Mike’s friends and colleagues commented upon his remarkable energy and he seemed even busier after he retired from the day job. There would always be good causes to support as well as gigs or performances in the pipeline and a sequel to The Glorious Madness, this time about the second world war, had been planned.

There was nearly always an element of humour in whatever Mike was involved in and working with him at his gigs or productions was more like having fun.

A vegetarian co-worker who had remarked upon his eating a ham sandwich in front of her was rewarded with his song A Potato Has Feelings As Well.

He seemed to be able to write a song about anything. Puddings and potatoes, Tesco checkout operators, sea sickness, even drain-rodding were subjected to his gentle humour. There was poignancy too, with Leather And Last, the story of how his grandfather, after an injury, made a living from shoemaking and repairs in the hard times between the wars: “But my wages were halved and we damn nearly starved/But my missus scrubbed floors to buy leather.”

A member of Mike’s church said what so many who knew him found: “Mike brought so much joy to so many and his enthusiasm and spirit was inspirational.”

Mike Sparks, born 24 June 1941; died 9 January 2021. This article appeared in Folk London 312, April-May 2021