It's been a year of so many shocks but it was a particular shock to find out our dear friend Dorian van Braam died suddenly at the weekend only the day after we had spent a jovial evening with him in his flat. Luckily my partner Ollie had the presence of mind to take what turned out to be the last photographs of Dorian as he held forth in characteristic fashion and posed in authorial mode.
I met Dorian around three years ago when he started coming to the monthly writers group I ran in Hove Library and joined us in a nearby cafe with others to socialise over tea and cake afterwards. Although originally from Sussex he was new to Hove and didn't know many people. He also had books he wanted to sell in due course so it was useful to network.
From the start he impressed me as a charismatic and cultured chap. A genuine eccentric Englishman possessed of an extraordinary blend of arrogance, spirituality, humour and earthiness. I determined to adopt him as a second father. He came to my very first stand up comedy gig and brought the house down when the compere picked on him and asked him what he did. 'I'm a writer of 50 million unpublished words in longhand' came the answer. There was no comeback to that. The compere then moved onto another lady from my writers group (Sharon) who'd come to support me asking what Sharon did. 'I talk to angels' she replied. There was hardly any need for us comedians! Later on Dorian came to a new comedy night to support me when I tried some new material, He was asked if he wanted a try out. Without hesitation he took to the stage and did a routine about Wagon Wheel biscuits shrinking and his frustrations with consumerism. While not being uproariously funny material, the audience loved him and found him naturally hilarious. Sadly he didn't take things further, despite my suggestion of a retired Biggles scene involving him entering in leather flying jacket and goggles (both of which he apparently owned), strutting round the stage looking in various directions before finally asking the audience. 'Has anyone seen my plane?'
It turned out he had owned a plane. Before crashing it into a helicopter and livng to tell the tale. He rode motorbikes, broke in horses, married a minor Spanish aristocrat, played the grand piano, owned a manor house in Ireland, acted, wrote prose, was an early performance poet, married a second lady, the mother of his three grown up children, of whom he was inordinately proud. He practiced woodwork and would turn his hand to anything practical be it fixing roofs, motorbikes or boilers and even baking bread. Careerwise, he'd farmed, been an estate agent in Spain an NUJ photojournalist and founded a successful water bottling company in Ireland. He had also once stood for Parliament and was descended from Dutch nobility. I thought he must be a Walter Mitty character until the first time I visited his flat and saw photographs of him with his horses, photographs of him with his plane, pictures of his Irish manor house, old business cards from his water bottling company and beheld an unexpected baby grand piano in his 1-bed flat living room! Then there were his 50 million unpublished words neatly stacked in A4 leather bound notebooks about 10 feet high in the corner, awaiting painstaking transcription to his Apple Mac. It was all true!
As if all this weren't extraordinary enough, Dorian had taught himself astrology and hypnotism and believed he was a reincarnated Spitfire pilot whose plane had been shot down in WWII and that he had almost immediately been re-born into a Sussex farming family with Dutch ancestery. Looking at him I could well believe it. He also said that when he took flying lessons, he already knew how to fly. A prior life was spent in a monastery he told me, and he would try and stay at a retreat at least once a year. Moreover he held no truck with conventionalism and didn't buy into the Covid or Brexit nonsense from day one, though he and I had differing theories about what was really going on.
In the time I knew Dorian, he fell off the roof of his manor in Ireland while repairing it, crashed his car into a motorway barrier, got knocked off his bicycle by an AA rescue vehicle, had one of his two motorbikes stolen and was involved in at least two long-running legal battles (in his spare time he fancied himself as a bit of a Clarence Darrow though he clearly stressed himself out over his battles with the world as well). One thing that stood out however was his utter fearlessness. He would try anything at least once and even if it were inadvisable.
Then there was Dorian's undimmed love for the ladies. He still had a twinkle in his eye and liked nothing more than female attention. He was therefore delighted to be invited to afternoon tea by my friend Ariana and her lady friends to entertain them and play the piano. Braams, of course! He also had some hilarious stories, like the time he went up to London to attend an opera singer's house party with plans to work his charm on the glamorous diva, only to accidentally fall asleep on her sofa instead!
Despite saying he'd had a botched heart operation a few years ago, Dorian seemed indestructible and came along to a recent Freedom protest and a Mod weekender. He also had a soft side, an ability to laugh at himself and a lifelong interest in the spiritual.
He had more plans and dreams than any nearly 80 year old I've ever met including an additional university degree and could have easily done with an extra twenty years to achieve them all, even if he did have eccentricities that often got in the way, like the restless spirit, which couldn't decide where he wanted to live for the rest of his life. And while he adored his children and grandchildren, he didn't seem in a hurry to put down roots or streamline his life, even at his age, much as I offered to help him find his dream property locally with the garden and shed that he wanted, and large enough to accommodate a grand piano.
Despite his business acumen and other talents, Dorian identified with writing the most and yearned to be a celebrated writer and poet. It was his life's dream. He self published a couple of books to this end and very sweetly insisted on giving us copies.
I saw flashes of genius within the pages, but sadly undercut by the lack of a strict editorial scalpel coupled with a pointblank refusal to admit that he needed such. If Dorian asked you to look at something he had written, you quickly learned he expected nothing but flattery. He didn't want any other type of feedback. I felt this was a great shame as he certainly had no shortage of ideas. He also had an excellent command of the English language and the ability to really graft at his computer for up to eight hours a day. A level of commitment many writers would give their eye teeth for, including me!
RIP Dorian. A man who lived life to the full and on his own terms. A man who did it his way (to the extent of rebranding his motorbike to a de Braam!). We shall miss you enormously. You may have been nearly 80 when a suspected heart attack claimed you, but somehow you still left us long before your time.
*Photograph at top taken about six weeks ago when we spotted Dorian walking past from an outdoor cafe in Brighton. We invited him to join us for a cuppa but he was in a hurry so just posed outside the card shop opposite, aptly named Scribbler!