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A dear friend of mine, Mr Sean Cartwright passed away suddenly at New Year to the great shock and sadness of the many that knew and loved him. I wanted to write down a few recollections of him as my own small tribute.

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Sean Cartwright

Sean Cartwright

Sean Cartwright was a poet, an artist, a musician, a designer and a gentleman.

I remember Sean first from a Hallowe’en party in 1995. He was drinking in the basement cafe of the Catholic Students Union in Edinburgh and chatting in German with my flatmate Martin. These were strange environs for a free-spirited type like him, but then Sean found interest and friends in all sorts of places. I remember being envious of Martin bonding with this interesting hippy guy who I’d seen hanging around. Sean was a few years older than us and back then, as a conventional, unworldly kid I couldn’t quite fathom him. He had the air of an impish, arty odd-job man, dressed in charity shop clothes and quite often carrying some ‘found’ object or other. I didn’t know who he was or what he did but I definitely liked his vibe. If I had come to university to broaden my horizons, then meeting Sean was a godsend. For Sean, the horizon was very broad indeed.

Like so many others who were round at the time, he seemed to have a natural artistic flair which lent itself to all manner of things – art, poetry, music – but more so than most it seemed to be the very essence of Sean. In those early days, I got to know Sean firstly as a musician, the kind of guy who at a party or back at someone’s flat after a night at the pub would pick up an acoustic guitar or whatever other instrument was at hand and start hacking out a few tunes.  He played the guitar with his own particular syncopated rhythm, strangely impossible to imitate. His eyes would be closed as he sang and his big rubbery mouth would gurn out songs we grew to love in warm, northern tones. ‘Scotch Corner’, the only known song about the famous A1 landmark, was his most loved, but I recall with equal fondness a song he wrote about the night of my friend Rick’s 21st, when after too much wine we upended all the furniture and sat around telling ghost stories.

When you can't go on no longer, let Sean take you to Scotch Corner...

When you can’t go on no longer, let Sean take you to Scotch Corner…

Sean was also a lively accordion player and would regularly spice up other people’s songs with a bit of squeezebox. But most of all, in my mind, Sean was a keyboard man. He could easily have been a refugee from some 60s psychadelia band, a crazy, wiggy Hammond organist who’d somehow been transported into the 90s. He played with that same proggy 60s vibe too. It was once said of Damon Albarn that the beauty of his music came because he approached his instrument as if it were a strange creature he couldn’t quite figure out. Sean seemed to approach the keyboard with this same sort of fascination, as if thinking, “What is this strange box? I wonder what noises I can make with it?”

Sean with the 'Frankenstein' accordian he cobbled together from two old accordians

Sean with the ‘Frankenstein’ accordion he cobbled together from two old accordions

At University, I would also get to know Sean’s poetry at the regular In Vino Veritas poetry nights held by the Catholic Chaplain, Tom Kearns, in the office where Conan Doyle allegedly penned the early Sherlock Holmes stories. With his punky, playful poems Sean inevitably had the air of John Cooper Clarke about him, but his work had its own distinct energy and movement. I wish I had some of his poems to hand to quote from them, but on the page they don’t have the life that Sean could give them. In fact, the only time I have ever performed a poem, it was one of Sean’s – 80’s Man – at a gig at the Pleasance Cabaret Bar. There were a couple of us doing Sean’s poems, since he was on stage with his own band, Beat Noir, and though he was very encouraging about it, we really weren’t doing him justice.

When I remember back to those days now and Sean playing his songs or reading poems among friends in a warm, wine-filled Common Room or a whisky-filled bar with the Edinburgh weather doing its worst outside, it is almost like a childhood memory in the sense it gives of everything being right with the world.

And Mr Cartwright’s talents didn’t stop at music and poetry. He seemed to be able to turn his hand to all sorts of things. If you needed something making, Sean could do it. If you needed something designing, Sean would do it. If you needed a cracking good meal cooking, Sean would do it. And most of what he did, he seemed to do simply for the sheer joy of it.  Sean had an admirable way of finding great fascination in things. This curiosity drew him to take the photos with which he would build his familiar montages. With a Python-esque sense of the absurd, he would juxtapose Edinburgh buildings into the middle of seascapes, or rivers into streets, fields into industrial scenes. One he gave me to congratulate me on a new job in horse-racing in the north-east depicted thoroughbreds racing through a corn field scattered with Northumbrian ruins. Quite often, and for no particular reason other than a pranksterish sense of fun, Sean’s pictures would include images of him, naked, crouching in a forest. That is the only sense in which I can say I saw more of Sean that I would have liked.

Cramond Dream, 2011 - a classic Sean montage

Cramond Dream, 2011 – a classic Sean montage

I must confess I knew less of his graphic novel work, but I still proudly have a collection of his works that he gave me on graduation – his inventive cartoons accompanied by his scratchy, runic handwriting.

Through Sean I got a deeper and broader appreciation of all sorts of music – the mighty Julian Cope (who Sean was proud to have kissed at a gig), The Stranglers, The Doors, Felt. I even remember him trying to convince me of the merits of dubious prog overlords Tangerine Dream.  And, for better or for worse, I also got to experience many things which a charitable person might call ‘performance art’, but most others would use as an argument to withdraw all arts funding forthwith. One of my first forays into the world of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival events, for example, was when Sean blagged us some free tickets to see a naked man doing graphic monologues about his sex life.  More recently, he led us to a cabaret night in the dissection room of the vet school. Even in the last month, I sat equally enthralled and pained at an industrial electronic night at the Art College, recommended by Sean.  Sean’s example encouraged me to broaden my mind, and I’m glad I did.  From Sean, I also learnt that you can find virtually anything if you spend enough time nosying round skips in Edinburgh.

Julian Cope - a favourite of Mr Cartwright's

Julian Cope – a favourite of Mr Cartwright’s

Whenever I organised a gig myself, and I presume the same goes for others who knew him, Sean would be the first person who sprang to mind to perform. His performances were less about him adopting a performing persona and more just an extension of Sean the man. I remember last time he did a poetry set at one of my events, he texted me to ask if I could get hold of Autobahn by Kraftwerk because he needed some car noises. You always knew Sean was going to pull something brilliant out of the bag.

Sean was always incredibly supportive of other people’s artistic endeavours too, never judgemental or critical, just interested and observant. Despite not even being there, I can hear him welcoming people to ‘Musotron’, the event he helped organise in the Tron Ceilidh House c.2001, as I’ve listened to the recording many times. I can also see him desperately trying to fix the recording equipment for ‘The Canon’s Ball’ he organised at The Canon’s Gait pub, a frustration at the time, but now even more saddening since it robbed us of another Sean recording.

Sean making like a tourist, 2007

Sean making like a tourist, 2007

It’s true I didn’t really ‘get’ Sean for many years, but as my own life drifted off the regular course of university, career, house, marriage, kids, I came to appreciate the way Sean had ploughed his own furrow, and how no-one, but no-one, could say he wasn’t true to his own spirit and to his many friends. I came to admire his playful attitude and the way he could find interest and a good word to say about anything. I imagine him in his cleaning and janitoring jobs amusing himself, finding reflections in windows which would make a good photo, or bits of wood which could be made into something. This attitude to life paid off in other ways too. In the near twenty years I knew him, he didn’t seem to age a day. There must have been something about his way of being that kept him young.

Me, Tony Davis and Sean, early 2011

Me, Tony Davis and Sean, early 2011

Whenever I talked about him to someone who didn’t know him, it would be along the lines, ‘You’ve not met Sean? Oh, you’ve got to meet Sean. He’s such a great guy.’  The worst anyone could say of him was that he was too unconventional for their taste; that was usually to his credit and their detriment.  In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that the prospect of the good company of Sean and his girlfriend Jo, and the weird and wonderful events I’d go to as a result was a big factor in me upping sticks and relocating back to Edinburgh late last year.  I feel incredibly lucky to have known Sean and distraught to think of the future things that he and we are missing out on.  The last time I saw him at the poetry event, Caesura, he was full of excitement for doing his own set there in 2014 and for carrying on with the experimental music group he had played with in Brighton last year.  This was a man who was not nearly done with living his life.

Sean, you will always be a hero of mine. I promise I shall remember you every time I read strange poetry, hear weird music, drink good whisky or see a crazy, long-haired dude crouching naked in a forest. Rest in peace, mate. We will all miss you.

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I was trying to think of a suitable piece of music with which to pay tribute to Sean. There are many I could choose, but I selected this, as it is exactly the kind of tune I can see Sean himself noodling about on the keyboard with.

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16 thoughts on “A Tribute to Sean Cartwright

  1. Great tribute to Sean. I only knew him in York when we were both teenagers and big David Bowie fans. We were both writing songs then – me on a guitar, Sean on an electric keyboard that, I think, his grandmother bought him. Sean’s songs certainly had something. As a Bowie fan he used to invent ‘characters’ – one was called Lemon Heights, if I recall. The song I remember best of his was called S.X.D and it had such a remarkable tune that I can still remember it to this day. I might try recording it and putting it online as it is worth hearing. Another of his songs was ‘The Trees are too tall.’ I was shocked and saddened to hear of his sudden death and his family and friends have all my sympathy.

  2. Rob – I am very touched by your tribute to Sean. I didn’t know him, in fact I did not know of him, but he sounds like a wondrous spirit and a special person to know. In spite of the 3 degrees of separation (liked reference to Rick’s 21st…) your tribute reminds me to be touched by the integrity of those who follow their true path – as Sean did. May he rest in peace, and may we all learn something from his example. Simon

  3. Rob, Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. Sitting here in Germany with (apart from my husband Will) nobody to share my thoughts of Sean with, it was great to read about your experiences and memories of him.

    The way I met Sean starts pretty similar. I remember entering the Common room of the Catholic Student Union and there was Sean, sitting on one of the sofas with his guitar and a glass of whisky. Next to him Anthony lecturing him about some article he had read on the newspaper the other day whilst drinking diet coke. I was observing them for a while and thought they were a really strange couple.
    Later Sean brought something up from the basement, some sort of paper mache creature he had built for a stage set recently as he explained.
    Over the years I would see more of these “stage sets” that he constructed, made of paper mache, wood, wire, anything really that he could find.
    I remember one year when Jo, Sean, Ed and myself went to a “Heaven and Hell” party at a friend of Ed’s. While I was buying some flared sleeved top to resemble something remotely to an angel in order to get in, Sean had spent days constructing the most crazy costume I have ever seen.
    Not only did he have the coolest costume, he quickly sat behind some keyboard and started entertaining the party. We proudly presented us as his not so cool friends.

    Whenever we met, he brought his portfolio of newest art. He could produce stuff in no time. I loved his collages and bought one that I particularly liked. It was full of facades that did not match and looked like tumbling down. In the front Sean holding his arms over his head. Sean and I took it to a framing shop and we were both happy that it got the proper frame it deserved (it is hanging over me as I write this).
    I always wanted to get another one, but somehow I could never decide on which one to get. Sean always assured me he was working on another one that I would like even better…

    I think of him many dinner parties with him and Jo. I always challenged myself to cook something really spicy for him. He would smack his lips and proclaim that it was “lovely” in his Yorkshire accent. As a thank you he’d play “sensible hat” for me. In return I would serve him another Bunnahabhain, which he loved (followed by some Highland Park, followed by some Macallan, Sprinbank… he was always the last one to leave!).

    One day he brought me a leather coat as a gift. I was really surprised about this spontaneous present and he said “I was walking past a skip the other day and found it. Had to think of you straight away so I want you to have it. I think you look dashing in that coat, Tinka!”

    Last time I was in Edinburgh (May 2013), we were both sick at the same time and did not manage to see each other. I had brought him some Bavarian sausages and Ritter Sport chocolate which should remind him of his student days in Germany. I left it with a friend for him to pick up.

    I forgot to email him at his birthday, which I usually always did. Not because I forgot him on that day, but because I was on vacation and did not have email access.

    Shortly before this Xmas, my family and I went to the Xmas market in Cadolzburg, which is only 5km from where we now live. Sean had spent his student time there, working on a farm.
    Will and I made plans to invite him and Jo around in 2014 for him to rediscover the place he once lived. I always think of Sean when I am there and wonder on which farm he had worked, which paths he had walked along and which pubs he might have gone to.

    When I heard of his death, I was still in Berlin for my Xmas and New Years celebration.
    It was a real shock. I had so many more plans with him. I want to listen to “sensible hat” again, see more of his surreal collages and finally get another one, experience his poems, see him raising his whisky on my spicy meals and show him what Cadolzburg looks like now.

    I don’t understand why he had to die so soon. It makes me sad, angry, helpless. I wonder what he would have thought of his early death. Perhaps he would have been pragmatic about it, or philosophical.

    He lived his life the way he wanted, never compromised. In this respect, we do not need to be sorry for him for things he has not done, only for things we cannot share with him any longer.

    I won’t forget him though. He taught me an awful lot about life and what really counts. In this respect I am going to have a Bunnahabhain now and I raise my glass on him.

    Really miss you, Sean.

    • That’s lovely, Tinka. Thank you. So much of that made me smile. I can see those scenes now, especially Sean and Anthony the odd couple! And I can see Sean coming up the stairs with a paper mache creature too! Makes me laugh just thinking about it. You’ll be pleased to know we all went round to Sandy and Rebecca’s and toasted Sean with whisky the night after we heard the news. It won’t be the last glass raised in his honour either.

  4. Some very good memories of Sean and very sorry to hear this news. The first time I spoke to him was the day after John Lennon died. We were eleven or twelve and I don’t think I knew much about Lennon, but Sean did. I didn’t know then that he was already writing songs. When we got to become good friends around 14 or 15 he wrote songs with great lines like: ‘She’s a salamander, I can’t understand her’. I never really got on with The Doors but we both liked Syd Barrett and psychedelic stuff. I was jealous of his many talents I think – music, poetry, art. Good memories of watching The Clash on their busking tour in 1985 and seeing York City get hammer at Anfield 7-0. RIP

  5. Thanks Sean for, as a teenager showing me that seeing the world differently from 99.9% of the population was not a thing to fear. And that lift back from a party on the back of your moped, both without helmets, along the streets of York at 1am was unforgettable

  6. I knew Sean a long time ago in Edinburgh. For some reason today I decided to look him up and found this. I am totally shocked. I still have cartoons that he did for me back then. What happened to him?

  7. Well, thank you Robert for posting this up – I would never have known otherwise. I haven’t lived in Edinburgh for several years and have lost touch with anyone I knew who knew him.
    Your tribute is wonderful – it totally captured Sean, I could remember him so well from how you described him.
    I met him around 91/92 through another friend of mine who wrote poetry. I remember him being unemployed and returning from the Job Club really downhearted after they disallowed him from making his CV in cartoon form…
    I lived in the servant’s quarters of a gothic mansion in the borders at that time. Sean and Jo, with some other friends came down for weekenders several times. He made me a thank you picture once – a drawing of a severed head on a plate with a knife and fork! I found it today after searching for ages. Eventually I said, ‘hey Sean! Stop messin’!’ Two minutes later I found it in an unexpected place. That was Sean.
    You’re right, he was totally individual – they broke the mould.
    My love and thoughts go to Jo.

  8. Hi all friends and compadres of Sean “Oi Hippy” Cartwright – a lovely and very fitting tribute to Sean who I first met in 1987 in Castle Leazes halls of Residence in Newcastle when we were both callow faced youths. Too say we were from opposite ends of the spectrum is not an exaggeration but as so often with people Sean met he was always glad to see you and entertained us many times with his music and cartoons – I still have the one he did for me for my 21st birthday (it was something of a tradition for us all) and the time and effort he put into it was very touching (though I never did those things to sheep!). I will miss our all too irregular reunions and his uncanny knack of leaving his jumper/coat in the pub you started the evening in – and only remembering when you were a couple of miles away at the bottom of a steep hill! – remember Lincoln! Sean will be sadly missed but a little part of his soul and joy of all things weird/wonderful/odd will stay with us all in the years to come. Jim

  9. Well you certainly turned out an interesting character ….I remember you as a boy drawing your cartoons and writing, I had such happy days with your family. Rest In peace dear soul ….i am far away put sending your family loving thoughts ….Diane xx

  10. Pingback: Remembering Sean Cartwright | MacMercury.org

  11. Dear Rob!
    Thanks for these wonderful thoughts! I’ve been Thrown back to my Edinburgh years during my 1999 Erasmus Project.
    I’ve written a few lines about our Sean here:
    http://www.macmercury.org/2017/02/remembering-sean-cartwright/

    It would be great to have some poems or songs from him. It’s 2 weeks since I’m listening to Musotron CD and reading Sean’s poems.

    I hope you are fine and your life is giving you all that you wish.

    A big hug.

    Luca from Italy

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