Sean Body – A Very Special Friend Indeed

Sean BodyThree 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.

Helter Skelter

Sean Running

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’s Influence

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.

10 thoughts on “Sean Body – A Very Special Friend Indeed

  1. Pingback: Nothing to Declare » Farewell, Sean Body

  2. Mike-We-Like?

    Bernie, Mike from the shop here. Just seen your post and want to say that that’s something really special. I know he would have appreciated it. I said to Maeve that I was proud to meet a lot of his family and friends and I would like to meet sometime with you, Dave and whoever to toast Sean, especially since we didn’t get to in Sheffield, though I had a quick drink with Tim (will also keep you posted on a tribute/benefit night idea that’s being bandied about) – it seems almost unbearable that he wouldn’t be there, but it should be done. Feel free to mail me at work address above, will always welcome a mail from you Bern. Cheers and Boat Drinks!

  3. Julian Palacios

    Sean was a magic man. I was a starving writer working on my first book, and Sean invited me to sit at a table in his shop and freely reference any book in the store for as long as I wanted. Most small business owners would have run me off, but not Sean. I owe a lot to his initial enthusiasm and interest. He will be missed.

  4. margaret

    Hi. This is an experience I’ve not had yet; normal/good people watching normal/good friends die. I hesitate to enter into this conversation, but this is a human condition, and one which I will experience (two people come to mind). You have put your thoughts/feelings out on the public web, and I have come across it. I appreciate your (though I have never met you) compassion and loss, and appreciate your honesty.

  5. Lucy Galvin

    Hello Bernard
    Thankyou for your words and pictures about Sean, or Seamus as I called him (he took it in good part). We were great friends at university – together with Sara Mulcahy and Kate Dash just the four of us did the same degree. I did not know he was even ill… had not heard from him over the past two years though I often thought of him. Before that we were occasionally in touch.

    He was a truly wonderful person, as you say. When I think of him I think of his unusual combination of creative spirit with conservative, responsible man, his blue eyes, his smile, his knackered clothes, his funny walk, his way of looking at you very intensely and opening his eyes wide. I think of how he loved Gatsby. At Uni he had the ending typed out on a little card:

    “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——
    So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

    The paragraph before that seems fitting too… he loved all that American west mythology: “And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.”

    I wish I could talk to him, that he hadn’t suffered, that I could have helped. I wish I hadn’t taken life for granted and seen him more and that he was still alive.

    I’m so glad he achieved what he did and that he enjoyed his life so much. If there is any way I can be involved in anything to remember him, I would love to. Also I would really like to write to his family, so any contact details you have with them I would be so grateful for.
    Thanks again for sharing your memories of him, and please accept my sympathies for your loss. I’d really appreciate a response if you can. This is all a big shock right now but I’m hoping that I can do something for him to remember him by.
    all very best

    (was Williams)

  6. Kate Ward

    Hello Bernard,

    Like Lucy, I was at University with Sean, doing the same course. I knew he had been diagnosed with Leukaemia as we had kept loosley in touch via e-mail of late, the commitments of family life having seen me move to Nottingham and taken away much of my ‘free time’ for keeping up with old friends very diligently. The last time I saw him was at my wedding 12 years ago. I had a feeling because I hadn’t heard from him that things were not good, but had no contact details for anyone who might have known the situation.

    I echo all that Lucy says above about our time at University, and would like to add that Sean was a true friend to me at a time when I wasn’t always finding life easy. He was without doubt a most gifted writer and artist, but always had time for me and my struggles to ‘keep up’, giving me lots of help and encouragement.

    I’m so glad that he reached so many of his goals within the world of publishing and writing that was so important to him. I will fondly remember our ‘heart to hearts’ on the bus trip from campus back up the Bristol Road to where we lived in Birmingham, not to mention how Sean and I played squash every week without fail. He was loads better than me but often let me win and, typically, carried on this routine although I’m sure he would have had a better game with someone else!

    My thoughts go out to Sean’s family and friends. I wish I could have said goodbye but I welcome this opportunity to express how I feel today (very very sad)

    Kate Ward (was Dash)

  7. Jason Walker

    Hi Bernard!
    It’s Jason Walker here – I don’t know if you remember me or not – I landed in London in early November, 2000 to sign my contract with Sean, who had offered to publish my Gram Parsons biography. I’d just finished a disastrously unsuccessful American tour with my band, then quit, sold my guitar in a Nashville guitar store and got on a plane that night to come to London.
    Sean took me in, offered me his bed to sleep in while he dossed on the sofa cushions downstairs and went out of his way to help me. He gave me my advance in ten and twenty pound notes and we went out and celebrated several times while I was there. He was always immensely cheerful whenever I rang him from Australia, or just dropped into the shop if I’d decided to come back to London again for no good reason. I didn’t find out that Sean had passed away until August, when Sylvie Simmons wrote me an email and mentioned it. I was and am still devastated by the news, because I’d heard that Sean’s prospects for recovery were quite good. I’m very touched by what you wrote, Bernard. I remember you very well – I seem to recall going to the pub with you one evening for several pints and a yarn. I hope that you’re well! Best wishes and kind regards, Jason

  8. Peter Counsell

    I am not sure when I last saw Sean, but it was after the shop had closed and after the SAS – Are You Tough Enough saga.
    He and I had worked on the same job for KPMG back in the late 80s and his company brightened a (frankly dull) job (the audit of Top Rank bingo for those in the know). We shared a love of music and that sure helped to pass the time between analytical reviews. Went to a Christmas party, got horribly drunk and stayed at his flat. We kept in touch and then we didn’t.
    For no reason, I’ve just been listening to Like A Hurricane and thought “I wonder what’s happened to Body?”. Then I found out. Bugger.


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