Celebrating a great friend
Last weekend I drove to Edinburgh to attend the funeral of one of my oldest and dearest friends. Michael had been diagnosed with cancer three years ago. After a period of remission the cancer returned and he refused further chemotherapy, choosing quality over quantity of life. He died three days before his seventieth birthday.
During a visit to his stately home, Monkton House, on the south-eastern edge of Edinburgh three months ago, I talked to him about death – while he was busying himself as ever in his workshop. He said he was glad it was cancer and not dementia because he retained his mental and manual abilities and his relationships with family and friends; “And I’m dying in my seventieth year, not my fortieth; and I’ve lived to see the birth of my third grandchild. What have I to complain about?”
I met Michael and his future wife Zoë while we were undergraduates. Zoë became a consultant paediatrician and the boss of the Sick Children’s Hospital in Edinburgh, and now, in ‘retirement’, works for the Care Quality Commission. Michael obtained degrees in science (focus on chemistry) and business studies (focus on economics), but far more important to him, as to all of us, was the key virtue of university education in that era: we weren’t taught information as much as the skills we needed to discover and evaluate information when we wanted it.
It’s difficult to describe Michael. I could tell a hundred stories about him. He packed more into his seventy years than most people could hope to pack into a hundred. He was a man of boundless enthusiasm and energy, bursting with confidence though occasionally self-deprecating, great-hearted and generous, with a remarkable capacity for getting himself into scrapes and out of them again, and a loyal and trustworthy friend to me and to many others. He set up and ran businesses, went to spend time with Zoë in India, came back and opened an antique shop, and then started to specialize in collecting and restoring pieces of early technology and old medical and scientific instruments. This was shortly after he and Zoë had bought Monkton in 1976 – a semi-ruin which they restored with love, respect and artistic brilliance to the beautiful house it is today.
The phrase “collecting and restoring” does scant justice to Michael’s remarkable skills and achievements. His collection of 250 old television sets (including the first-ever colour television in Europe) made him a small fortune, gave him contacts with other collectors around the world, and established him as a world authority on the history of television; I have a copy of his book, signed by the author. He had similar collections of gramophones/phonographs including wax cylinder players and the cylinders to go with them – restored to working order. Among the numerous medical and scientific instruments he acquired and subsequently sold was the first ether anaesthesia apparatus ever made.
These vignettes exemplify the combination of talents he brought to bear on his business (or rather, his passion). First, he knew how to research the provenance of everything he bought. For instance, he had a whole file of documents – articles in the Lancet, personal correspondence, and so forth – establishing the authenticity of the ether anaesthesia apparatus (he used his science degree and his understanding of how to find information). His library contains some very rare volumes and is worth a small fortune, and he used them all. Second, he knew exactly how to make the contacts needed to acquire and then to sell the items on which he worked (the business degree and his personal experience were used to the full). And third, his principle for restoration was that the finished work must look exactly like the original; there should be no evidence it had ever been restored.
In order to accomplish this feat he built a workshop like no other – no other in the world, I believe – in the basement of Monkton House, deep in the medieval stonework of the original building. It was full of an incredible range of specialist tools, drawer upon drawer, box upon box, and he knew exactly where to lay his hands on every one of them when they were needed for a very specific task. And to ensure that all his restorations were authentic in every last detail he toured the country in his Volvo Estate (station wagon in American parlance), buying items that contained what he needed from auctions and house sales. If he needed a length of phosphor-bronze wire dating from the 1820s because he was restoring a piece of 1820s equipment, he’d buy any item with phosphor-bronze wire of that era. Phosphor-bronze wire of any other age wouldn’t do. He never compromised. He never accepted second best. He was committed, extraordinarily skilled and patient, meticulous to a fault, and always justly proud and satisfied of his achievements.
Yet he once said to me, “You know, I’ve succeeded in what I do because I’m not outstandingly good at anything. I’m just fairly good at a lot of things.” I knew what he meant, but most of those who were privileged to know him would have described him as outstandingly good at a lot of things. There never was any second best with Michael.
Some 400 people attended his funeral ceremony – or rather, celebration – on Saturday. They came from all around the world: business contacts who’d become friends, family members, the cream of Edinburgh society, and a fair smattering of eccentrics. We all assembled in a huge marquee on the lawn of Monkton. At the front was his cardboard coffin, on which we were all invited to write and sign personal messages, and in the middle of the coffin perched a ridiculous hat he’d owned for years. He’d commissioned another of my oldest friends, Phil, a fine singer and guitarist, to open proceedings by singing “All Around My Hat”. When Phil protested that the song would be inappropriate because it’s about forsaken love, Michael had waved a dismissive hand and said “Oh, just change the words”. So Phil changed the words, and made a wonderful job of it. The ceremony was a series of tributes, applause and whooping, and then we all lined the drive, 200 of us on each side, while a piper led the pall-bearers to the car waiting at the gates, followed by the family. The applause continued throughout the slow march and again while the family returned to the house.
Michael and Zoë were one of the closest and most loving couples I’ve ever known. They had two sons and a daughter, now all married with families of their own. I can’t resist quoting one little family incident to finish this blog. It happened a year or so ago, while we were in the kitchen at Monkton and dinner was in the oven. Michael was busy removing every last speck of verdigris from the copper cover or some piece of apparatus or other when the phone rang. Zoë went to the next room to answer it. We heard her say “Hello, darling!”, and then Michael grinned at me, asked “I wonder which darling that is – the heir, the spare or the mistake?”, and burst into a fit of his characteristically infectious laughter, never pausing for an instant in his verdigris-elimination exercise. Zoë took the quip in her stride. She always did.
His death leaves a hole in the lives of many people and we’ll all feel the loss, but what wonderful memories he’s bequeathed to us. Thank you, old friend.
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This wonderful bit of writing captures the uniqueness of your friend, Michael. I enjoy that there are those who celebrate the impact of an individual’s contribution to this world rather than focusing solely on the tragedy of the loss. It doesn’t deny the significance of the hole that is left, but puts the significance on the proper noun rather than the common… on Michael rather than his passing. He sounds like a wonderful person – I’m sorry for your loss.
Thanks, Shai. Yes, all of us – including Michael’s immediate family – were intent on celebrating his life and his achievements and the great effect he had on all of us, friends and colleagues and family alike. He was indeed a wonderful person and the world is a poorer place without him – but a better place because he’s been in it.