In Memory of Bill Purves

What do we mean when we say someone’s a character? It’s a word with many nuances, but I can think of no-one about whom it is more appropriate than my neighbour of twenty years, Bill Purves. 

I live in a mews and when I first moved here twenty years ago, there were still two working garages. In one called Motolux, Alan Forbes and his merry band restored and occasionally sold Indian motorcyles, those classics of American design that went out of production in the early 1950’s. In the other, Bill and his wife Sandra variously worked on boats, cars and particularly an elderly Jowett Bradford van called Belinda when they weren’t running the legendary Mr. Purves’s Lamp Emporium in St. Stephen Street.

Bill & Sandra had their wedding reception on The Waverley

I knew Bill was a lifelong and enthusiastic collector, restorer and champion of all things gas, oil or steam powered. He’d been a prime mover in the campaign to rescue and restore the paddle steamer Waverley,  and the Boatman of the Canal Boat Society. He’d led the campaign to restore the cast iron railings to the gardens in Drummond Place which had been melted down as part of ‘the war effort’ during the 1940’s.

From the start, Bill was friendly, chatty, and discursive. I soon learned that if I was to engage him in conversation, I’d need to book myself out for at least an hour. He was a great one for fixing you with a piercing gaze, like the Ancient Mariner and giving you a monologue on the pros and cons of double-flanged pin hinges. It didn’t really matter if the subject didn’t interest you, or if you were in a bit of a rush, Bill was interested, so you had to go with the flow and wait for him to stop. 

But It wasn’t until he died and I had a chance to have a long chat to Sandra that I discovered that Bill’s past was even more complex and interesting than I thought. He’d served in Naval Intelligence, and understood both Russian and German. He’d studied art and architectural history at the Courtauld Institute under the infamous member of the Cambridge Spy Ring, Anthony Blunt, he’d been a mover and a groover in the Soho of the Swinging Sixties, but before all that, he’d had a family and worked for many boring years in an insurance office before escaping to pursue his real interests.

That’s Belinda in the blue, and Bill in the kilt

Bill zagged where the world zigged. He was a kind of combination of Malcolm McLaren and Grayson Perry. As my then girlfriend remarked when she first met him twenty years ago, he certainly had his own style, and to this day Bill is the only person I’ve known able to get away with wearing medium heeled court shoes and a boilersuit.  

His funeral was as original as he was. A procession of beautiful vintage Jowett Javelins and Jupiters formed a cortege that followed the hearse to Portobello Cemetery, where he was buried alongside his parents. Then everyone drove a few miles along the coast to Newhailes House, where more than a hundred people squeezed into a marquee to listen to me deliver his eulogy, with help from two of his friends. 

 I’m pleased that bits of my ceremony have been recycled into obituaries in The Scotsman, as well as The Edinburgh Reporter and The Broughton Spurtle. Bill was a much loved man, and it’s heartening to know that he will long be remembered.

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