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.


Beijing, 4 February 2013

From time to time in Buddhist temples in this part of the world one sees a metal sculpture standing on altars, which takes the form of a stem of a lotus plant to which are attached a flower bud, a fully opened flower, and the seed pod from which the petals have fallen off; sometimes they are accompanied by a young leaf unrolling, a fully mature leaf, and an old leaf, ragged and torn.  It is a visual allegory for the cycle to which we are all subject: birth – life – death. It is a gentler reminder of what I was harshly told every Ash Wednesday when I was a boy: “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return”.

I was reminded of this as the tulips – so lovely two posts ago – paled, wilted, and lost their petals, to finally leave the stamens standing naked and forlorn. I decided to record this decay down to death.

Friday morning:

04 tulips

Saturday morning:

06 tulips-saturday morning

Saturday evening:

10 tulips-saturday evening

Sunday morning:

13 tulips-sunday morning

Sunday evening:

16 tulips-sunday evening

I would like to think that my life currently stands at Saturday evening.  Cold objectivity suggests instead that it stands at Sunday morning.


Beijing, 11 August 2012

My mother died a few days ago. My brother’s email telling me so didn’t give any details, and a later email from my sister simply said that she had passed away very peacefully; the usual words.

My mother has actually been dead for a while. The person I visited last month was not my mother. She didn’t talk, she didn’t react to my talking, she simply sat there gazing blankly. It was the hollowed-out shell of my mother, a moulted exoskeleton. So the news elicited no grief from me, just a melancholy relief that she had finally been spared the indignity of living on.

Did she die well? I would like to think that she did. I would like to hope that she – a fervent Catholic all her life – managed one last prayer to the Lord her God before her heart finally gave out. But I doubt it; she probably died the way an old, badly tuned car engine sputters out, just a last wheeze and jolt and that was it, in the little room that she occupied in the old person’s home.

I have always had this picture of the generations walking in cohorts towards the final end, one behind the other; rather like regiments marching across No Man’s Land. The generation ahead of mine – my parents and my aunts and uncles – is sadly depleted; only three very elderly aunts remain. Soon even they will be gone, and then there will be no-one between me and the end. Even my cohort is beginning to thin; death has picked off the husband of my sister, a cousin … the pace will pick up in the coming years.

This vision wouldn’t bother me so much if I – like my parents – could believe that death is merely an uncomfortable rite of passage to be endured, because it leads to a greater – and eternal – life. But I cannot. Decades ago, I played Claudius in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. As he awaits execution in prison, Claudius meditates on what will come after he dies:

…to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison’d in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendant world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thoughts
Imagine howling: ’tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.

At much the same time that I played Claudius I had come to the unalterable conclusion that there was no world beyond ours and I turned away forever from the religion of my forebears. So like Claudius, I am afraid “to lie in cold obstruction and to rot; this sensible warm motion to become a kneaded clod”. And I too feel that “the weariest and most loathed worldly life that age, ache, penury and imprisonment can lay on nature is a paradise to what we fear of death.” But I cannot follow Claudius in his belief of an afterworld, even if his vision is one of terror. I am merely afraid of disappearing forever.