What is a life?

sunset winterbourne

What is a life? This is a question I found myself asking (to myself) as we collected my late brother Simon King’s possessions from his flat.

I went through the vinyl records, LPs, 45’s, some I recognised from our childhood, others he had collected after leaving home. It was and is an extraordinarily eclectic mix – but also a bit like archaeology, there are strata. There were records collected when Simon first became interested in music, starting around 1972 I reckon. These included David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Emerson Lake and Palmer, then Rush, ACDC. Then in the early 80s, after punk and as the new wave started to appear, the collection reflects this, particularly with his favourite band of that time (perhaps of all time) Wire.

By then Simon was playing guitar in bands – firstly the “school band” Flashman, followed by The Walking Floors. They produced a record and Simon played many gigs with them, even while holding a job in equine insurance in the City. After that Simon joined the Keatons and toured even more, played even more gigs, ultimately supporting Blur before they made it big. After so many years of playing, Simon became disillusioned with music and left it behind. His records (and CDs) reflect the time when his passion for music overflowed.

Simon’s book collection reflects his interests and how they changed too. Simon loved Spike Milligan and the Goons from the beginning, with the Marx Brothers providing strong competition. There is a dark side to the humour, and in Simon’s film collection, much Film Noir and black comedy. David Lynch films figure quite strongly in the collection.

Simon was always interested in wildlife and his earliest books are ones I recognise from childhood, a fantastic book on dinosaurs, a surprisingly technical book on spiders (for a 10 year old). He won prize book from the RSPCA “Mammals of the World” for writing an essay aged 11. Later, themes appear – science fiction and fantasy. All of the Thomas Pynchon’s are there. There is some philosophy: I noticed Kant and Nietszche, but no doubt there are others. And a great section of books dedicated to reptiles and fishing.

Looking back, I think I can divine a life long fascination with snakes, fish and reptiles. So it was no surprise that Simon would evolve into an expert on snakes and reptiles, and a highly respected angler. This reflects Simon’s total commitment to something once he had a taste for it and liked it. Simon started working in other people’s exotic pet shops, and learnt a great deal from them, enabling him to open his first, in Parkway Camden about 20 years ago, shortly after leaving The Keatons. When Palmers closed, Simon opened King’s Reptile World in Mornington Crescent. This shop became well known in London amongst both the reptile keeping community, but also more widely. Film and photo shoots were a regular feature of Simon’s life there and I think this income helped keep the shop going through difficult times. One time Simon had to provide 200 goldfish so Penn and Teller could make them disappear.

You might be surprised at the number of celebrities who keep exotic pets, and they often popped into Simon’s shop for a chat.  Ronnie Corbett was in the shop when the phone rang. Corbett said to Simon “shall I answer it?”, to which of course Simon said yes. “King’s Reptile World” said Corbett using his most thespian vowels, before passing the phone to Simon. They both collapsed in laughter. People came to Simon’s shop because not only was he an expert, but he was also more than happy to help and advise people. He became an authority. He successfully bred some snakes and reptiles that were very difficult to breed in captivity – for a long time Simon’s flat was full of vivaria with various snakes and lizards in them. He developed friendships with the reptile department at London Zoo and there was a great deal of mutual respect between them.

Simon was in many ways quite a libertarian. He believed that as long as he wasn’t doing any harm to anyone else, he should be allowed to do what he wanted to do. He was very involved with the reptile trade and their ongoing battles with animal welfare and animal rights organisations. As a nature conservationist I can remember having some interesting conversations with Simon around these subjects. Simon had very high standards when it came to his personal relationship with animals. He would simply refuse to sell reptiles to customers if he didn’t think they were prepared to put in the time to learn of those animal’s needs and care for their welfare. I think this is why he was so infuriated by the “anti’s” who he felt had no right to claim to be the sole defenders of animal welfare. Simon was quite prepared to stand up and act as a spokesman for the reptile trade and became quite a regular feature in the media and on TV.

I am not going to say anything about Simon and fishing, because others have written a great deal and know far more about it than me. Suffice to say that now, after Simon’s untimely death, I understand far better how much fishing meant to him. Not because of how many pounds this Chub weighed, or how long it took to catch that Mirror Carp, but because of the amazing friends he had and the wonderful times (and stories) they shared.

 So, returning to my original question; what is a life? Simon was devout atheist. He knew there was nothing after, except a return to the earth, where our constituent parts find their way into new life – a fish here, an insect there, maybe even a human, or an alien on some far distant planet. The other way we live on is in our family and our friends, and what we give to society. And Simon gave a lot.

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About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
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