This tribute was originally published on a personal blog shortly after Sean’s untimely death in January 2014. It is republished here to mark To Absent Friends, the people’s festival of storytelling and remembrance, a festival which Sean himself would no doubt be enthusiastically taking part in if he were still with us. RIP Sean.
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.
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?”
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 – 70s 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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
To Absent Friends, a people’s festival of storytelling and remembrance takes place across Scotland from 1 – 7 November each year.
Robert will be reading some of Sean’s poems at Poetry Circus: Never Forgotten @ Woodland Creatures, Leith on Wed 7 Nov 2018 as part of To Absent Friends