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Paul Sommers: it’s not just the famous who deserve to be written about

October 6, 2015
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Norfolk 2013

The things I write about in this blog are often covered by other people. All I have to offer is my voice, my perspective, and sometimes there’s nothing to add.

Does the world really need another opinion on Jeremy Corbyn, ISIS, Syria, refugees, Donald Trump, the vanity and greed of business leaders, the megalomania of sports administrators, the Brits, the Saudis, the Iranians, the authors, musicians and all the other movers, shakers, creators and destroyers? Probably not, but I stick my oar in anyway.

But then something hits you. Something you must write about because it’s personal, and nobody else can say what you can, even if what you write has little direct relevance to more than a few people

Now is one of those moments.

This is a farewell to Paul Sommers, who died earlier this week. Ordinary people don’t usually get to be written about in the mainstream media unless they do something extraordinary that catches attention. When they die, they might merit a mention in the local press, but those opportunities are disappearing as fast as the newspapers themselves. But this is one of the reasons why a blog is a wondrous thing.

Like many people, Paul was ordinary in the sense that he never had his ten minutes of fame, but extraordinary to his family and many friends.

I’ve known him for forty-five years. He was the best man at my wedding. We first met at Birmingham University. Well, actually, he was no longer a student. He dropped out after his first year, largely, he would have you believe, because his energies were chiefly focused on the student magazine, and because he was one of those who “sat in” in the university Great Hall in protest against – what? You know, I can’t remember. No doubt the answer lies somewhere in the dusty archives of the university, and in the memories of those who took part, many of whom most likely live prosperous and comfortable lives, and chuckle at their youthful indiscretions.

File1458

c1988

We shared a girlfriend. No, not at the same time. His relationship with her was deep rooted and long-lasting. Mine was short, serious but ultimately not life-defining. It was that interest in a mutual friend that first brought us together. I knew about him, and he knew about me. We moved in intersecting circles. He was a year ahead of me. We would get together in the student’s union, or in the succession of dingy houses and flats that we lived in through the early seventies.

He would tell me stories about various people in his circle whom I didn’t know well. The luminaries – those who ran arts labs or what were known in those days as “underground magazines”, the hip capitalists (code name in those days for hypocrites), or people who otherwise stood out for their eccentricity and, in a few cases, talent – he would refer to by their surnames. Paul was always sceptical about people he referred to in this way, yet admiring at the same time. They were people who most successfully sought power or attention, and sometimes both. They were the ones with hidden agendas, but he knew what those agendas were.

He could be scathing of people he didn’t respect, but was never truly spiteful or malevolent. In fact around me he was one of the gentlest people I ever knew.

At one stage we shared a house. By that time I was working on night shifts at Cadbury’s and making tentative moves into the music business. Paul was sort of existing. He became a night dweller. He would sleep until late afternoon, and then stay up all night, thinking, talking, thinking. One morning I came downstairs to find that the living room ceiling was dark blue. Or at least that was what immediately struck me, until he explained that he had spent all night painting the night sky.

Was he depressed? Hard to tell. These days depression is a disease of the mind; in those days it was a state of mind. All I know was that he lived a fairly unstructured life at that time, with moments of joy but blank days as well.

Depression or otherwise, he had an active social life. Girlfriends in England and Sweden came and went, yet his thoughts always seemed to return to the one that got away. Even then, he seemed preoccupied with the past, a trait that stayed with him for the rest of his life.

One activity that gave him much joy was co-financing some of my music promotions. He loved music, and he loved being part of the concerts that I promoted at the Birmingham Town Hall and other venues – Supertramp, Curved Air, Paul Kossof, Tangerine Dream and John McLaughlin. This picture is of him in a bar after a Steeleye Span concert, peering across the room. He’s the guy not looking at the camera!

File0001

c1975

Speaking of photos, he was into selfies decades before the term was invented. He had a little book with passport photos of himself over several years from the age of eighteen onwards. In each photo, the hair got longer and the eyes wilder. In one or two of them he looked quite – how to put this delicately – scary. I suspect that this was a bit of a pose. We used to laugh at them when he produced the book from time to time.

Years later he would remind me of some of the scrapes we got into. I have no recollection of some of them. Other stories were outrageously embellished for dramatic effect.

After Birmingham, he lived for a while with his parents in their home in Surrey, but at various times he also went to Sweden, and helped our mutual friend Nick in Norfolk with his stained glass business.

He eventually got into a settled relationship, and thirty years ago his daughter Rhiannon arrived. Around this time – I’m uncertain of the exact chronology – he went to work for a company that supplied planning engineers to the burgeoning North Sea oil business. There he discovered the joy of the database. As soon as computers were available for small businesses, recruiters started building databases of contractors and jobseekers. This became Paul’s responsibility. More than that, it was his pride and joy, lovingly tended and updated, as beautiful to him as an ornamental garden, and defended against the idiots who sought to change it.

Proximity to London enabled him to indulge in the passion that meant more to him than any other art form – theatre. Or more specifically, Shakespeare. He would go to the Barbican, and back to the Midlands to Stratford. Anywhere, in fact, where the Bard was on offer. He was also a dedicated Londoner, born in the East End. I used to walk with him through the City and he would provide a running commentary on the meaning of street names and the history of buildings.

Though the relationship with Rhiannon’s mother didn’t last, Paul didn’t walk away from his parental responsibilities. Far from it, and when his former partner had a daughter by someone else, he took that child under his wing as well. This was one of the character traits that ran as a spine through his life – a sense of responsibility and duty towards others, often to the detriment of his own well-being.

In the early nineties, I had started a business with a partner. It was growing fast. We needed someone to look after our database, and Paul was the man. This was also a time when we were getting into web and intranet design. Paul took to the web like a duck to water, and we eventually contracted him out to one of our clients, Credit Suisse.

This took him back to his old stamping ground, the City of London. He spent several happy years there, earning plenty of money and occasionally lapsing into bouts of excess for which banking is notorious. Like the time when he arrived home early one morning in less than an optimal state, only to find he had left his house keys in the office. He ended up sleeping in the potting shed, suited and booted, with only a deflated plastic swimming pool as a blanket. Most of us would have climbed through a window, or broken the back door if necessary. But Paul was always careful with money. We lived only a mile away, and he could have stayed with us, but perhaps he was too proud to do that, or too pre-occupied to think of it.

Towards the end of his spell at Credit Suisse, he met Lucy, who became his partner for the remainder of his life. They had a daughter, Bethan, and eventually moved to a village in Essex. It was a new phase in his life. Lucy had a demanding job in local government, and Paul became a house husband.

House husbands are sometimes looked upon with suspicion – often seen as glorified drones with some responsibility for the children but otherwise with little purpose. Paul was never that. Not only did he spend much of his time nurturing Bethan, but by the time she went to primary school he had thrown himself into village life. Andy, his brother-in law, told me:

“At Great Oakley, he made a tremendous contribution to the life of the school, working as an unpaid assistant and running all kinds of extra-curricular activities…….. He made a tremendous difference to many individual pupils and had a special talent for relating to the more difficult ones. He also made it his job to spread culture and enlightenment among the community as a whole, organising pantos and taking people to WEA meetings on art. In fact, if you take the last ten years of his life, this was Paul’s major preoccupation and a very worthy and altruistic one it was.”

It was strange to think of him as a pillar of a small community, but that was indeed what he became.

Bethan’s arrival didn’t mean that he forgot about Rhiannon, his first daughter. He helped her through university, and when she showed promise as an actress funded a second degree in drama. She’s now a professional actress, and a fine one at that. He supported her with all his heart. Here’s a review of one of her performances from a couple of years ago.

After several years at Great Oakley, Paul’s health took a downturn. He suffered a mild stroke, from which he recovered well, followed by a broken leg that left him unable to walk for the best part of a year. Both cramped his style somewhat, but not enough to get in the way of Bethan’s creative efforts, as can be seen here:

Paul Facepainting

c2008

Yet once he was on his feet he got his life back. Village activities, tending the huge garden at the rectory, finding the time to visit friends and making frequent sallies to Stratford and London to commune with his beloved Shakespeare.

We would see him several times a year. He made all our important anniversary parties, and often came to see my mother, who was by that time in a care home.

The last time my wife and I saw him in reasonable health was in March, when he showed up for my mother’s funeral. He had lost a lot of weight. He claimed that this was at his own volition. But as it turned out, he already had the cancer that killed him. In the following months we tried to see him, but he kept putting us off. It was clear that he was not well. Various text messages alluded to ailments that the doctors couldn’t positively identify. Looking back, we think that he probably didn’t want us to see him in his rapidly deteriorating state.

By mid-September all was revealed. He was dying of pancreatic cancer at the ridiculously young age of 66. We were all distraught, especially my older daughter Tara, to whom Paul was an active and concerned godfather, and our younger daughter Nicola, with whom he also spent much time.

We managed to see him in the hospital, and subsequently in the hospice to which he moved for his final two weeks. He had said that he wanted eight hours with me on his own, but that never happened. By the time we saw him he was not well enough for a sustained conversation. So I will never know what he wanted to say. And besides, it was more important that his family – his wife Lucy, his sister Angela and his daughters – had as much time with him as was available.

What can I say about the character of my departed best friend? Which truth do you want? My truth? His truth? His family’s truth? If you believe that there are multiple truths, it’s easier to accept that there might be multiple universes. Anyway, I’ll stick with what I know.

In all the time I knew Paul, I hardly ever heard him raise his voice in anger. On those odd occasions it would mainly be expressions of exasperation rather than the blood-curdling fury I’m capable of venting.

I suppose in these halcyon days of psychobabble he would be referred to as a beta male. Gentle, kind, sometimes stubborn, sometimes passive-aggressive. Loved by many women, not always in a physical way. Women found him unthreatening. Some loved to mother him. Many wanted to change him. Those with whom he had close relationships would sometimes walk away with exasperation, because under the soft surface was a core that would not be fashioned or manipulated.

Men would also find him unthreatening. There was no overt macho competitiveness that raised the male hackles. As a result he had many friends of both sexes. If he lost friends it was because he disappointed them by not rising to their expectations. Even among the many who loved him, the phrase “you know Paul” was a code for the things that drove us round the bend: procrastination, chronic unreliability, mysterious changes of mind, saying yes and meaning no, obsessiveness over tasks beyond the bounds of reason.

Yet we would forgive him because we loved him. We especially valued his ability to listen, really listen. That’s why he was so good with children, especially his daughters and god-children. He didn’t talk down to them. He had great reserves of patience that were only occasionally exhausted.

That was my truth. There are undoubtedly others. There were dark sides he sometimes talked about but that we never witnessed. He had the habit of maintaining several circles of friends, and doing his utmost to ensure that they rarely intersected. Even when there were people that we both knew, Paul would not make much effort to bring us together. So I would hear about people and get-togethers over decades without being invited to participate. I didn’t have a problem with this – I could have made the effort to reach out to these people without his assistance.

But for this reason, for all our closeness, I got the impression that I only knew part of the man. Did he behave differently in his other circles? Almost certainly. After all, most of us modify our behaviour among groups that don’t mix – at work, at play, in mixed company, among men, among women.

So he seemed to me to be a man with many secrets. Few, if any, knew them all, let alone that most secret of repositories: emotions – love, hate, fear, jealousy and worship. Perhaps he was planning to fill in some of the gaps in the eight hours he asked for as he was nearing death.

So I can only speak of the Paul I know: student activist, writer, stained glass maker, keeper of databases, web designer, nurturer, educator, gardener, set designer, lover of music, devotee of Shakespeare, father, husband, brother, man of mystery and beloved friend.

When he was lying in hospital, knowing he was dying, I asked him to send me a sign. There has been no sign, and anyway if he’s moved on to another place I’m sure he has much to pre-occupy him. Communicating with me would not be high on his agenda.

But wherever he is, this is my way of trying to make him immortal, or at least as immortal as digital information is likely to be. It’s the fulfilment of a promise I made to him before he died. The rich, the famous, the saints and the sinners are not the only ones who deserve to live forever. Everyone at some stage of their life is special to someone. Some pass through their lives unnoticed and unloved. Others disappear along with all who know them in a cataclysmic event. Those that can be remembered should be.

So this is a record, imperfect and incomplete, of a life that is remembered. A record that I hope will survive me and everyone else who knew the man. That’s my parting gift to my dear friend Paul Brett Sommers.

From → Social, UK

19 Comments
  1. Dawn Kidd permalink

    I live in Great Oakley, my daughter grew up with Bethan, having first met Paul at the village toddler group, a truly genuine person, a pleasure to have known him. Xx

    • Thank you dawn. Hopefully see you at the funeral. S

    • Hi again Dawn, I’m not sure you’re aware of this, but there’s a memorial site for Paul created by Rhiannon. You can reach it by googling paul.sommers.muchloved.com. You might like to paste your comment on my piece into the site, or write something new! S

  2. hayley forrest permalink

    What a wonderful tribute Steve,thank you so very much. I am one of the Gt.Oakley village friends,along with many other women! I met Paul when Bethan started at my pre school,Oakey Dokeys,and very quickly he became the best asset we could of hoped for,what an incredible man he was! He celebrated our success and helped us through the lows,when I needed someone to pour my troubles out to,he was there.He gave up his time so freely,and as you wrote,probably at much detriment to his own needs. He also took great care of my twins,Alice and Phoebe,regularly cooking them meals and inviting them to give him an honest opinion-he particularly enjoyed the reply of “not your best”,and would try harder the following week! I know I will never meet another man like him,that mould most certainly got broken,and can only thank my lucky stars that for 11years I got to call him my friend. I am trying very hard to celebrate all that he was and yet feel such a huge sense of sadness that I will never again see his gentle face or hear his funny stories. Your description of his strange sleep pattern and odd moods describes my oldest daughter Jazmin to a tee,Paul had a lovely friendship with her and his last gift to her,and me,was to give her the job of typing up some of his notes and memories and ‘Pail’ list (his version of a bucket list,replacing the u for an I in his typical witty way.He paid her for this work and wanted to employ her,even writing a reference out for her Before she even done anything,just in case! He so wanted her to find a job and her niche in this world,if he could of willed her depression away he really would of succeeded.I could go on and on but perhaps will save a few stories if I get to meet you at the funeral,I do hope so. Thank you for sharing your memories,you done him proud x Kind regards from Hayley xxx

    • Thank you so much for your feedback Hayley. You make me realise how much I missed by not visiting him in Great Oakley often enough. we saw him often when he came to us, but Gt Oakley was another circle, another world. Fascinating to learn how he helped your daughter too. Yes, we’ll be at the funeral, so I look forward to meeting you then. S

    • Hi Hayley, I’m not sure you’re aware of this, but there’s a memorial site for Paul created by Rhiannon. You can reach it by googling paul.sommers.muchloved.com. You might like to paste your comment on my piece into the site, or write something new! S

  3. I did not know Paul on such a personal level as others but when you live in a small village and your children attend the village school, you get to see people who are involved in all activities on a regular basis. He always came across as a kind man and pretty much game for anything, as your story in which you wrote proves. I did not know that paul was ill and it came as a great shock to hear of his passing, from my son, on our way home from school on Monday. Your tribute was a great read and very interesting to hear of his younger days.
    Thinking of his family and friends right now.

    • Thanks for the comment Kelly. Yes, he was game for more or less anything, though I’m not sure he was into bungee jumping! S

    • Hi Kelly. I’m not sure you’re aware of this, but there’s a memorial site for Paul created by Rhiannon. You can reach it by googling paul.sommers.muchloved.com. You might like to paste your comment on my piece into the site, or write something new! S

  4. Steve, what a brilliant tribute to a dear friend. Moving and evocative. Thank you.

  5. Sioux permalink

    It’s a lovely moving piece Steve and you’ve summed up Paul very well. I cried and I laughed, I wasn’t going to post a comment as I felt I may not do him the justice he deserved, but changed my mind. For Paul nothing was ever too much trouble, and he put his all into everything he helped anyone with. He was a huge fountain of knowledge and a great help at our local Cub Pack at 1st Little Oakley as well as being a very dear friend. The last song he and I listened to in the car on the way to cubs was ‘bridge over troubled water’ I said “they’ve summed you up Paul” and he just smiled.

    • Thank you, I’m glad you did comment. Pity he’s not around to read all the things people are saying about him. I’m sure all of us could try harder to praise the living as well as the dead! S

    • Hi again. I’m not sure you’re aware of this, but there’s a memorial site for Paul created by Rhiannon. You can reach it by googling paul.sommers.muchloved.com. You might like to paste your comment on my piece into the site, or write something new! S

  6. Neil Andrews permalink

    To give you some idea of how many people loved him, I posted your piece on Facebook and tagged a few people from Oakley – it has now gone viral, with people now sending my wife and I the very same link. I think Hayley has summed things up perfectly. A scholar, a gentleman, a thoroughly nice bloke and an all-round good egg. A good adversary in a pub quiz too. I shall miss him greatly.

    • Hi Neil, I never opposed him in a quiz – he was always on my side, fortunately! Yes, I’m amazed. This post has been read by nearly six hundred people in two days, and shared on Facebook 148 times. An indication that he touched a lot of people. See you Tuesday hopefully. S

    • Hi Neil, I’m not sure you’re aware of this, but there’s a memorial site for Paul created by Rhiannon. You can reach it by googling paul.sommers.muchloved.com. You might like to paste your comment on my piece into the site, or write something new! S

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