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.

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I like writing, but I’ve spent most of my life writing about things that don’t particularly interest me. Finally, as I neared the age of 60, I decided to change that. I wanted to write about things that interested me. What really interests me is beauty. So I’ve focused this blog on beautiful things. I could be writing about a formally beautiful object in a museum. But it could also be something sitting quietly on a shelf. Or it could be just a fleeting view that's caught my eye, or a momentary splash of colour-on-colour at the turn of the road. Or it could be a piece of music I've just heard. Or a piece of poetry. Or food. And I’m sure I’ve missed things. But I’ll also write about interesting things that I hear or read about. Isn't there a beauty about things pleasing to the mind? I started just writing, but my wife quickly persuaded me to include photos. I tried it and I liked it. So my posts are now a mix of words and pictures, most of which I find on the internet. What else about me? When I first started this blog, my wife and I lived in Beijing where I was head of the regional office of the UN Agency I worked for. So at the beginning I wrote a lot about things Chinese. Then we moved to Bangkok, where again I headed up my Agency's regional office. So for a period I wrote about Thailand and South-East Asia more generally. But we had lived in Austria for many years before moving to China, and anyway we both come from Europe my wife is Italian while I'm half English, half French - so I often write about things European. Now I'm retired and we've moved back to Europe, so I suppose I will be writing a lot more about the Old Continent, interspersed with posts we have gone to visit. What else? We have two grown children, who had already left the nest when we moved to China, but they still figure from time to time in my posts. I’ll let my readers figure out more about me from reading what I've written. As these readers will discover, I really like trees. So I chose a tree - an apple tree, painted by the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt - as my gravatar. And I chose Abellio as my name because he is the Celtic God of the apple tree. I hope you enjoy my posts. Klimt/big/Apple Tree I.jpg


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