Milan, 18 March 2020

Mark and I went to school together, although we didn’t really get to know each other until we’d already been there a few years. We played rugby together, we were school monitors, we went to the pub on Saturdays, we hid in our rooms to have a quiet fag. And one summer, we traveled for a couple of weeks through France together, ending up staying with another school friend at the less posh end of the Côte d’Azur. The only thing I remember about that trip was that both of us tried water skiing for the first (and me the last) time in our lives.

Then we went our separate ways, Mark to medical school and me to university to do engineering. He was in London, I in Edinburgh.  But we kept in touch, by letter – the only way which existed then (the phone was too expensive). And when I passed through London, we would get together for a pint and a chat.

Once, he invited me and my girlfriend (who a few years later became my wife) to spend the weekend with him and his girlfriend at his parent’s second home in North Wales. The only thing that I remember about that visit is that I managed to stove in their dinghy on some rocks while mucking about on the nearby lake.

Then our paths diverged even further. My wife and I left the UK, never to return except for rare and brief visits. Mark instead got embedded in the UK health system. He came and visited us once in Paris, but then the cord connecting us, already frayed by distance, finally snapped.

The years, the decades went by, and the internet arrived. One day, I decided to do a search for Mark, and was lucky to find an address and email. We reconnected. We were going to the UK with our two children for a family holiday that year, so we agreed that we would pass by his place. I was nervous about this reunion. So many years had passed, I was afraid that we would find no common ground anymore. But when he opened the door, he swept me up in a big bear hug and it was as if we had never been out of contact.

We caught up. He had become a GP, he had married another doctor, they’d had four kids. We had a noisy, boisterous lunch, all of them and all of us around the table. After lunch, we settled down in the living room and chatted on about this and that for several hours. Eventually, we took our leave.  I was really happy we had come.

We saw each other again a few years later, when we were taking our daughter on a tour of universities – she would be applying that Autumn. But otherwise we kept in fitful contact by email. We updated each other on changes in the family and work situations. And I was flattered when a couple of his children asked me my advice about possible career moves – they both wanted to get into the environmental world. I even, somewhat apprehensively, invited him to read this blog. I shouldn’t have worried. He was fantastically supportive about my writings, and wrote me many comments. That was Mark. He was one of the kindest people I have ever known, there wasn’t an evil bone in his body. Whenever you talked, or wrote, to him his answers showed a deep and sympathetic interest in what you were saying. He really cared about people.

Four years ago, when I was preparing to retire, our email traffic considerably increased. He was already retired and I was asking him questions about how he had managed the transition. The Brexit Referendum had also just occurred, and this and the years-long aftermath led to many emails as we metaphorically cried on each other’s shoulders as the whole sorry saga of leaving the EU unfolded. We tried to meet a couple of times, but it never seemed the right time. I proposed to him that we go to Israel together, but at that time he couldn’t walk properly because of blockages in the arteries in his legs and he was waiting to have operations to clear them. Another time, he told me that he and his wife were thinking of visiting Vienna and taking in a fantastic exhibition on Brueghel, but we weren’t in Vienna at the time. But we kept emailing away, vituperating about Brexit, and updating each other about holidays taken, our state of health, and our children. Recently, he had become a grandfather for the first time and proudly sent me a photo of the newborn.

The Coronavirus led to a new round of emails as I updated him on rapidly worsening situation in Italy and finally the lockdown. He told me that he and his wife were off to Jamaica for a couple of weeks of sun and warmth. I wished him well. And then silence. I wrote a further email about the Coronavirus situation here, but got no reply. I found that a little odd since Mark normally answered very promptly. I wrote again, and again no answer. I got concerned – had either Mark or his wife or both of them come down with the Coronavirus? And then yesterday, I received an email from one of his daughters: could I call her. With a mounting sense of dread, I called. She told me that Mark had had a bad fall, that he had been operated on, and that he had had a heart attack and died a few days after.

The news of Mark’s death has left me in the depths of depression.  I have become so used to my electronic chats with him. I had imagined that they would continue as we both slowly entered the Autumn and Winter of our lives. But it is not to be. I won’t even be able to pay my last respects to him since the Coronavirus imprisons me in my apartment.

So let me use this post to say, bye-bye, Mark, you have been the best of friends to me. I will miss you terribly.


Milan, 9 March 2020

A virus stalks the land,  it goes by the name of Covid-19.


For weeks it has been spreading quietly, behind our backs, skipping from hand to hand, riding on droplets we cough out. Now it is out in the open. The patients are pouring into the hospitals. The hospitals are struggling. The frailest – the old, the weak – are dying. The government has enacted drastic measures. Here in Milan, we are in lock-down. No-one can enter or leave the region without a good and serious reason, no-one can even move around within the region. The government exhorts us to stay home. In fact, if we have even a small temperature it orders us to stay home. If we are infected, we are to go to the hospital only if we can no longer breathe. These are anxious times for us all.

True to the philosophy behind this blog, I have been looking around me for beauty and the peace it can bring the anxious soul. I have found it, in a magnolia tree behind Milan’s cathedral.

As a previous post of mine attests, I love magnolias – who does not? I discovered this particular magnolia tree a few years ago. It grows on a small lawn tucked away between the cathedral’s gothic apse and its southern transept. Last year, I happened to pass by when it was in full bloom. Here, I took the photo with the apse behind.

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Here, I took it with the transept behind.

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On impulse, I decided to watch the tree cycle through the seasons, finding excuses to walk this way from time to time. The next time I came by it was summer. The flowers had given way to thick foliage.

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As a previous post attests, I have a weakness for this shade of green, but I found the contrast between the green of the leaves and the white of the cathedral’s stone particularly stunning.  So entranced was I that I snapped several photos of this symphony of green and white.

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Shortly after taking this photo, we moved up to Vienna for the rest of the summer, and the autumn took us to Japan once more. So it was only in the dead of winter that I saw the tree again. I saw it at night, its skeleton of branches barely lit by the lights illuminating the cathedral.

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The delicate tracery of the cathedral’s gothic windows took pride of place.

And now, in these dark times, I have gone back to see the tree in flower once more, to draw solace from it.

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