I’m in a cemetery today.
I don’t want to be.
Anyone who knows me will know one of my favourite jokes, considering my passion for cemeteries as museums of people, is to ‘threaten’ people with a blog post. “I’ll be writing about you one day!” I say, tongue in cheek.
Earlier this month, it finally happened. An exceptionally good friend of mine died after a brief battle with cancer and I am now writing a blog I’d prefer to have written years in the future. There is a little more flourish in the words below compared to my usual output, but I knew this deceased person extremely well and I have to channel the grief I’m feeling somewhere.
Paul Vesty was one of those characters in life where the stories you hear are often true. From nearly being run over by a colleague (who had a genuine reason to be angry with him) to his very old-fashioned way of dealing with shoplifters at the branch of HMV he managed in Bromley (they often never returned…!), Vesty was unapologetically complicated but funny, charismatic and warm.
Born in 1963 and growing up in Birstall, he attended the Manchester Polytechnic where he studied English and Politics, before working at a menswear shop in Leicester. Coincidentally, the soul disco he and his friend Ian used to attend as students was helmed by a guy known as Ginger Mick, who would later go on to find fame with his cover of Money’s Too Tight by the Valentine Brothers.
After studying he travelled to the States, where he worked as a painter and decorator in Los Angeles whilst also doing occasional bits of DJ work. Dodging the muggings and gang fights of Alexander Park in Manchester (where he lived around the corner in Manley Road) he then started working for Oddbins, knowing absolutely nothing about wine, and as a trainee manger in 1987 he rose to Divisional Manager in 1999, in the process overseeing 15 stores in West London and the north west of England. At the London Bridge branch he would frequently take business trips to ‘meeting Room G’ – not an actual meeting room, but the Globe pub in Borough Market. During this time he earnt the moniker, The Oddfather, as well as becoming something of a lothario.
“Still no word from Chris Packham. Never trust Bill Oddie to pass on a message.”Paul on trying to identify birds in his garden. Oct 2020
His role exposed him to the hidden London he adored: be it the seedy underbelly of Soho or the pulsating duality of Southwark. The bewilderment he still told me of the time a board of directors at company he provided wine for inviting him to their christmas party, which was actually held in what is now the Clink Museum – except it was a fetish event with acid house music played top volume, with everyone in bondage gear. “People had gags in their mouths and some people were in cages.” Still trying to process the sights before him, nearly two decades later, he added ‘…but the music was good, as was the wine, obviously’.
His approach to managing people – in pubs, or on the street with a cigarette in his hand (usually accompanied with ‘we having this fucking meeting, then?’) – was refreshing, if not unconventional. When a restructure at Oddbins had him find himself in the employ of HMV in 2003, again as a trainee store manager at Wandsworth it was onward to Bexleyheath, Orpington and Bromley where, his personable approach to colleagues and customers garnered him popularity and affection. His love of music often saw the Bromley branch head the company in terms of profitability, often outpacing the flagship on Oxford Street.
If he was insulting you, it meant that he generally liked you. From calling me a ‘shit cyberman’ to constant comparisons to Dumbo on account of the size of my ears, this affable ribbing sometimes threw people, especially if they didn’t know him very well. The texts I have with him are so filthy I can’t share them many of them publicly but how I’ll miss images of the Daily Sport, Little and Large and Bob Carolgees being used to create his own memes. I delighted in his inappropriate humour and I missed it when I left his employ to work in the City.
On the face of it, the friendship we had was an unlikely one. We would immerse ourselves in watching documentaries on old London to Star Treks Discovery and Picard. I rather liked that he had the audacity to often holler at me ‘OI! BUMMER!’ when he was trying to get my attention, even at work – inappropriate? Perhaps, but I knew what his intention and meaning was. He was no homophobe, often directly addressing the occasional troll on social media who would rebuke my own efforts in furthering queer history with a very sternly worded direct message.
I owe him so very much when it comes to Cemetery Club. The badge I gave him proudly pinned to the wooden boxes of claret (you can just about see it in the picture below) he had stacked up in his lounge. Our roadtrip to see the Krays and some drowned Nuns in the cemeteries of north-east London remain one of my fondest memories, as was the big bottle of champagne he got me as I completed my masters in September.
His death was half expected (and could have been avoided, had he simply gone to the doctor) but we thought we had a few more months with him at least, before his life came to an end on April 5th. He fought for his life, and it wasn’t pretty. Delirious in bed, he swore he had six days left – and that’s exactly what he had. He died as he lived – as himself.
Losing a family member is one thing, but a friend – a very close friend – is something else entirely and the effect it’s had on me in the past month is devastating. As an historian I’m trying to maintain the distance I have when writing about Rosa Nouchette Carey or Edward ‘Moonlight’ Williams, but when it comes to writing about Paul, this is impossible. As someone who always had my back, who gave me a job, who I could freely discuss affairs of the heart with to be removed from such a crucial part of my being: suddenly, ‘you’ll be a blog post one day!’ is no longer funny. Grief very rarely infiltrates my relationship with the dead. It has in this case and I’m blindsided.
Today is his funeral at the Bluebell Cemetery in Halstead.
Such a person. Such a mind. Now with the ages.
1963 – 2021
My thanks to Ian Bent and Rob Davis in the writing of this blog.