Graeme, a polymath

“If there had been a Nobel prize for polymaths,” said the novelist, Ian Macewan, “it would have to go to Graeme Mitchison.”

He was speaking at the Memorial Day for my lifelong friend, Graeme, who died last year. And what a day it was.

In the afternoon there were several sessions attended by scientists who discussed Graeme’s contributions. According to Tim Mitchison, his cousin (an eminent professor of biology at Harvard), whom I sat opposite at dinner, these sessions were quite moving, as mathematicians, quantum physicists and biologists spoke one after another of the immense contributions that Graeme had made in their area, his brilliance, intellectual curiosity, and generosity.

Then there was a concert in King’s College Chapel. Again, musicians talked about his wonderful piano playing but also his immensely popular hosting of musical evenings at his house in Maids Causeway.

The most poignant – most upsetting – moment was when the two young pianists played the Fantasia in F minor by Schubert, one of Graeme’s favourite composers. The sound drifted gently up through the chapel, its mournful theme reducing many of us nearly to tears. It was played exquisitely by James Sherlock and another pianist. James, now conductor of the Copenhagen Opera, used to play this with Graeme. And Graeme was there, in every note.

This was followed by Bach and Dvorak. But nothing touched that raw moment of his presence so much as in the Schubert.

Dinner was in the splendid dining hall of the neighbouring Caius College. Hard to hear as over 100 friends and family all talked with energy, with many reminiscences and memories of moments spent with Graeme. I was overwhelmed by the communal sense of love for this unusual and exceptional man I have known all my life. I hadn’t appreciated how widely he had spread his network of friends in the decades he has lived in Cambridge. And the diversity of his friendships.

The most moving account perhaps came from Ian Macewan, whom he met when they were both visiting the Galápagos Islands. He recounted how Graeme tried to explain string theory to a non-scientist with the aid of three boots and laces. He spoke, as others who followed did, of the incredible range of Graeme’s interests and achievements. Indeed he said that he based a character in one of his novels on Graeme.

Another speaker Phillips Sands, the international human rights lawyer, described how Graeme’s wise comments on a problem he set him caused him to successfully win a case at international court at The Hague. And another eminent academic, who had come from Australia for this day, described an eventful visit to the V and A with Graeme, which ended with the being thrown out after Graeme attempted to discover how the statue of the Three Graces had been assembled – finding the key bolt that held them together. An example of Graeme’s sense of curiosity and mischief. Another described hair raising leaping over dangerous crevices and dodgy paragliding adventures.

They all managed to convey Graeme’s gentle modesty and delight in sharing with his friends. Never a prize winner or professor, but a brilliant and lovely man. Everybody left feeling that they had given him the send off he deserved (though of course he did not believe in an after life).

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