Sean O’Sean: Not Fearing the Reaper

Wednesday, 13th September 2017

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LtoR – Sean O’Sean, Peter Churchill, Jon Li. – Credit Tessa Kate Lowe
LtoR – Sean O’Sean, Peter Churchill, Jon Li. – Credit Tessa Kate Lowe

Sean O’Sean has a bucket list. His bucket is rapidly filling up with one more of life’s joys being added on a daily basis, usually accompanied by a joke.

Sean doesn’t have much time left to complete his list, top of which is still to be alive to enjoy this coming Christmas. Before that though, he is looking forward to enjoying his living wake. We start planning one together one night at Brainstorm, a monthly open mic night on the third Wednesday of every month held at the Spotted Dog in Digbeth. Sean does a regular stand-up slot. “I only have about six months left to live” Sean suddenly says. “The aneurysms in my brain could burst at any time”. I think it might be another of his jokes, or at least be leading up to some dark but witty punchline. It isn’t.

Sean’s given name is John Johnson. He calls that his slave name. He is a serious funny man. He has a deadpan delivery and when he’s not on stage I am not alone in not being quite sure when he’s joking. “Honestly?! Is that true Sean?” I’ll all too often have to ask. Usually it isn’t.

We have an arrangement now. Just for me he will flag up a joke alert somewhere along the way. Like the time he was telling me a tale of when he used to teach English to adults in Germany. “I’d never done it before but reckoned I could crack it. I began at the beginning – with the alphabet. The first day was A day with all things starting with A, then came B day etc. It got a bit awkward when we got to D-Day!”

Sean’s personal D-Day is not too far away now. He is taking that fact seriously but making light of it. “Isn’t it a shame you can’t be at your own funeral Sean! People always seem to leave it until they’re dead to say nice things about others” I say, once I realise he’s serious about the short time he has left. Before we know it we are dreaming up a living Wake for him.

“You must choose who you want to hear perform Sean” I tell him. That’s easy for him. I make the list. People are moved when invited to do it and are happy to have the chance to tell him how they value him whilst they still can.

It will be a great line-up on the night. Members of The Choir with No Name will sing the favourite ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ and Brooklyn, a rare treat of a performer, has offered to sing a special song on the occasion. The bands ADHD and The Strangest Feeling have agreed to play Sean’s special requests. Jon Li will be working with Steve Ison to perfect ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’.

Sean had an early encounter with the Reaper as a young Catholic boy growing up in Belfast. He was himself shot and saw his close friend killed nearby. He began joking then to keep the darkness at bay. His humour has kept going one day at a time ever after.

Sean came to Moseley in his early teens. He was ‘ a good Catholic boy’ who went to St. Philips Grammar School, but happily ran riot with the local likely lads, egging them on in their mischief. He was great friends with the legendary Pete the Feet. He and his mate Victor Knowles, a dentist’s son who lived in a 21 roomed mansion complete with basement billiard room and bar on Salisbury Road, were regulars of ‘Piggy’s Corner’ in The Fighting Cocks.

Piggy’s Corner was the cool place to be. It was the brainchild of Pete the Feet. You had to pay 10p to get in and all the money went to charity. Many a madcap race round Moseley Hall grounds, in Minis or on motorbikes or Raleigh 20s was plotted from that wild corner. And the rest.

Most of Sean’s adult life was dedicated to teaching children and to play-work. He’s never taught young goats though. That’s one of his jokes I’ve slipped in there. He’s serious about children’s lives. He quotes me a favourite saying of his by David Lloyd George. ‘Children at play are learning to live. Any society that denies the opportunity for its young citizens to develop through play will do deep and enduring harm to those young citizens.’ Sean later specialised in delivering Equality and Diversity training all around the country, with a particular interest in the plight of travellers.

Johnson is a remarkable man.