Three weeks ago, one of my closest friends died.
I’ve been a bit torn about how I record this event. On the one hand, what has Sean’s death got to do with a blog about running a bike tour company? On the other hand, any true account of my life over the last 2 years should make some mention of Sean’s struggle to overcome leukaemia, and the awful final days when he eventually lost.
I didn’t write anything immediately, because I imagined that any comments would lack perspective, but it seems disrespectful of me towards a friend who I loved dearly if I don’t mark his passing.
A few people reading this blog will already know that they knew Sean, but some of you may not know that you knew about him through his ownership of the specialist music bookshop and publishing company, Helter Skelter.
How I Met Sean
Sean and I worked together in the early nineties. I was running the European office of a Japanese software company, looking to recruit an accountant. A friend of a friend asked if I would meet a good pal of hers who had trained at KPMG with her, and was unhappy in his current job. I met Sean, we liked each other immediately, and as well as working together for a couple of years we’ve been friends ever since.
After about 2 years Sean left to set up a specialist music bookshop called Helter Skelter. Lots of people were aware of the shop – people travelled, literally, from all over the world and I heard Sean boast in a radio interview that Helter Skelter was the only music bookshop in the world. Mark Lamarr asked him how he knew this was true, and Sean said “I’ve been saying it for 5 years and nobody has ever contradicted me. People come from New York to visit our shop.” So I reckon it was true.
Lots of famous musicians visited the shop in Denmark Street, London, but the shop struggled from the day it opened. When I set up The Chain Gang, my office was half a mile away from Helter Skelter, and one of the things we had in common was sharing the travails of running a small business. As Sean once said to me, if you own a small business, when one door opens, another two slam in your face.
The salvation of Helter Skelter came with a move into publishing. If you read the obituary in the Guardian, you wouldn’t really understand how successful Helter Skelter the book publisher became. The irony is that when Sean was diagnosed with leukaemia in December 2005, 2 days after his 40th birthday party (aged 39, for some reason), he was living life to the full, on his own terms.
He’d become a keen surfer, had just returned from trekking in the Himalayas with two childhood friends, Patrick and Adrian, and was absurdly fit. He appeared on the TV series “SAS – Are You Tough Enough”, and it turned out the answer was no, not quite, but almost. He also ran a number of mountain marathons, and that’s how we all met Medium Sized Dave, or MSD.
Sean came on the very first Chain Gang tour, along with his good friend Dave, named ‘Tantor’ after Tarzan’s elephant, for some reason. That was a very special week for me, and I’ll always remember cycling around the Dordogne with Helen, Sarah, Derek, Sean, Dave and Stéphane. It was a great week.
How’s this for an intriguing little coincidence? Several years later, Helen was working as a doctor with the Metropolitan Police, and worked alongside Inspector Adrian Usher, a friend of Sean’s since the age of 4 (and now Detective Chief Inspector, I’m proud to say).
Sean shared all the darkest days of The Chain Gang, between 1997 and 2001 when we were really fighting for survival, and he was a terrific help to The Chain Gang as well as a good mate to me. I see quite a lot of Dave Tantor, and we were both lucky enough to hear Adrian deliver a eulogy for Sean at his funeral last Friday – one of the funniest speeches I’ve ever heard.
As well as Dave, Pete McGee was there, a good friend of Sean’s, and my brother Mike, both of whom are guiding for us this summer. My Mum was there, one of our shareholders as well as a Chain Gang cyclist (Loire Valley), as were MSD and Joahanna, veterans of our Provence tour.
Damaris was there, who in early June will become the 2nd person to have completed every one of our seven tours, and Danny Daly, theatre guru, sports fanatic, and an alumni of our Dordogne and Provence trips. Claire was there, my sister’s best friend and Dordogne cyclist. So The Chain Gang was well represented, which is appropriate when you know how much Sean helped me.
If you’ll forgive me, I’d like to share a final thought. A shared favourite film was ‘Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead’, starring Andy Garcia as Jimmy the Saint. In the film Jimmy and his gang share the concept of ‘Boat Drinks’, a mythical time in the future when you’ve made all your money, and you’re relaxing on the back of your boat enjoying a drink.
A few of us got into the habit of re-enacting Boat Drinks each year, as often as not on a Thames riverboat, until Sean fell ill. I’m struck by how much this illustrates that Sean was the glue that held a lot of people together. I know that Adrian, Pete, Dave Holmes (Hovis), Simon, MSD, Dave Tantor and Phil the Brief will know exactly what I mean when I propose “Boat Drinks” in honour of my very special friend Bookshop Sean.
Goodbye mate, and thanks for everything.