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).

In the UK

I’m here to attend memorial events in Cambridge for my friend Graeme, who died last year – a short trip, dates constrained by my concert on Tuesday evening and family arriving in France this weekend.

My uneventful flight was enhanced by the presence of a huge number of French school children, going over for an Easter trip to the UK. Next to me sat a small 14 or 15-year-old, who politely offered me some of his Toblerone. He came from Clermont l’Herault and the girl next to him from the village of Octon on the Lac de Salagosse.Ah, I said, I knew a girl of her age who lives in Octon – Mattie, the daughter of some winemakers. Oh yes, she said, Matilde. Small world!

The boy switched to English – good English. I congratulated him on his accent and asked how he came to be speaking so well, had he been often to the UK? No, he replied, clearly pleased at the compliment. He had been once when small with his parents, and once to Sri Lanka, where he practised his English. Otherwise, he tried where possible to watch films on TV in English. He added, with some pride, that this was a cultural trip for children who had performed well in their English classes. Good luck to him, and bravo for the good manners shown.

As usual I was struck by how much colder it is in England and cursed myself for yet again not bringing a warmer coat. It’s is only a few degrees less than in France, but I think the lack of sunshine and increased humidity makes it seem much more.

I have been staying in Dulwich, with Kate and family, so have seen a lot of my grandchildren, Otto and Willow, now nine and seven. I’ve never been good with small children, so I am enjoying all the grandchildren getting older, and watching their very distinctive characters evolve.

Then, via a quick detour to Kentish Town for lunch with my brother-in-law, Peter, up to Cambridge to stay with my cousin, Ursula. She and Nick (away in Berlin) have a delightful house looout over Jesus Green and five minutes from the town centre. It reminds me of many academic houses I have known in Oxford: books, books and more books, piled up in every room and in bookshelves narrowing all passageways. And a decor cheerfully ignoring modern fashions – plumbing and paintwork dating back decades. I was staying in an attic room which was once occupied, when the house was digs, by Ian Macewan (see next blog entry!).

Nice to get to know Ursula’s two daughters, Helen (post doc researcher linguistics researcher at Surrey University) and Frances (!) who works n the Oxfam bookshop.

And now, on a long, tortuous train trip to Gatwick Airport = made worse by major rail problems.

Le traque


Tuesday night I was fizzing with frustration. I was well prepared for the Ecole de Musique’s end of term concert, but then – comme d’habitude- my performance was ruined by nerves.

As soon as I had finished the Allemande from the first Cello Suite of Bach, I wanted to play it again – properly.

I am enjoying my lessons with the cello prof, Anne, and she is painstakingly working on all the ‘mauvaises habitudes’ I have picked up as a largely self taught player.  I have actually felt the improvement in my playing.Still very much a low level amateur, but better than a year ago.  It helps that my shoulder has also been less painful, allowing my bow arm to move better.

In the morning I played for Anne and she was pleased with many of the nuances and phrasing I had achieved. Then come the actual performance in the evening, and unfortunately I was first on stage and had not properly psyched myself up. Also, the spike holder slid slightly on the floor and I was playing in an awkward position.  Too late to adjust this once I had started.

Soooo annoying.  All those little details I had worked on were forgotten, intonation was not as good as it should have been and I stumbled on one or two of the passages that were a bit more tricky. Pah!

I’m relieved I was not the only one: the violinist, Elisabeth, with whom I will be playing a trio next term, had to stop twice because either she or the pianist lost the place.

This was a concert for the adult students and the general level was not bad.  It ended with some lively singing by a chorale class of 20 pupils.  I love the singing teacher, Sabine, who teaches and conducts using her whole body with energetic enthusiasm, as you can see from this last song in the audition.

Chez moi

A different sort of lunch the following day: nine people at my house. Given my energetic pursuit of avoiding the kitchen, this was a meal in which responsibility for the courses was shared out.

Before my Saturday lunches at Fatou’s, I have somehow got drawn into a Saturday morning drink in the Café des Cévennes, with an equally amiable but very different group of people. They all came to lunch yesterday. Nationalities covered are French, British, German and Dutch/American (Dessa!). The common language is French (though sometimes it is hard not to lapse into English if you find yourself beside an anglophone, particularly if the subject is Brexit!).

I was supposed to provide the cheese course but I even managed to delegate this to Dessa, as I was playing in the Ecole de Musique until after the market closed.

So, excellent food and good conversation. This is now going to be a routine gathering of the group.

Chez Fatou

Saturday was a sad day: Fatou offered lunch in her restaurant for the last time. She has sold the business to the cafe across the square and is moving on to new pastures.

Chez Fatou was the smallest restaurant in le Vigan, but with some of the finest food: a wonderful, subtle spicy mixture of African, Middle Eastern and French dishes, served with a cheerful albeit leisurely service.

Fatou is a magnificent, larger than life character: a tall, elegant woman from Mali, with splendid Afro hairstyles, a great smile, strong opinions and a wonderful laugh.

She has – oh dear, had – a regular small clientele of people who loved her food and the casual, friendly ambiance.

On Saturdays there is a regular group of half a dozen friends, whom I sort of know (friends of friends) and gradually over the last year they have welcomed me at their table.

They were there when I arrived (late – but Fatou is more relaxed than most French restaurants about what hour she serves lunch), greeted me – and Poppy – with enthusiasm, and they slid up the bench to make room for me.

Everyone talks with great animation and as so often, neighbouring tables became involved in the conversation. It’s not a place for people who cannot handle noise. The restaurant is a semi-basement cave with no sound insulation, so it is quite a challenge for me sometimes to follow fast flowing conversation in French, accompanied by the wonderfully energetic waving of hands and shrugging of shoulders. (A glass of Fatou’s delicious punch occasionally helps.)

I don’t know where we are going to eat on Saturdays, but with any luck I will enjoy Fatou’s dishes again, as she plans to offer to cook at parties and other events.

A truly Renaissance man

Next month I will be attending a memorial day in Cambridge for my lifelong friend, Graeme Mitchison, who died last year.

When I received the invitation and detailed programme, which includes sessions on maths, biology and a concert, as well as the usual dinner and speeches, I once again found myself thinking of this remarkable man, whom I have known since we were small children and will always miss. Amazingly I have found the best obituary in one of my bêtes-noires, the Daily Telegraph.  I have sneakily reproduced it here.

Obituary in Daily Telegraph


Collectors

Yesterday I visited a house with the largest collection of books I have ever seen (apart from the larger stately homes).

My friend, Dessa, and I have become part of a small but cosmopolitan group – German, Dutch, American, British and French – who tend to congregate for a drink in our favourite bar on Saturdays. And the German couple, Hans Leo and Doris, had invited us for lunch.

The setting was magnificent – the house is perched on the saddle of a hill near Sumène, with panoramic views of the Cévennes. The first view of the house itself (after a nearly disastrous wrong turn ending up in a neighbour’s onion field) was very Cévenol but deceptively low-key.

The full extent of this rambling three storey old house only became apparent as we were take on a tour and at first sight seems quite modest – a traditional kitchen, dining room and sitting room, and then, along further little passages, some very handsome bedrooms.

Upstairs, however, was a larger sitting room which led onto a massive barn-like library, every wall covered from top to bottom with books. And another surprise: this library led onto a second, equally vast library! Down in the basement, more rooms and more books.

Doris and Hans Leo are voracious readers with catholic tastes. Even so, their rich and varied collections revealed that they are also formidable collectors! I hazarded a guess – at least 10,000 books? Doris nodded.

They have one daughter who lives near Montpellier. She apparently also loves books. But given my family’s experience of disposing of book collections every time someone in the family dies (as the non-reader in the family, I am the exception) I don’t envy her task some time in the future!

Equally impressive are their walls covered with a prolific collection of, mainly modern, paintings. Although I am pretty ignorant about modern art there were quite a lot that I coveted.

Hans Leo and Doris bought their house as a spectacular ruin in the early seventies. Doris continued to work as a psychiatrist in Germany until she found a post in Montpellier and Hans Leo initially worked on the house while also running an art gallery in Montpellier.

In a very thorough, German, way, he learnt the skills of house restoration by watching a local builder, all the time taking extensive notes. The skills he acquired and the years of hard graft he put into this house have produced something which is a wonderful mixture of old, simple Cévenol style and detailed, clever adaptation to make it into a comfortable modern home with (relatively – heating is always a problem in stone houses). Well, I should say rather, they have created a magnificent library and art gallery, with living accommodation attached.

We had a delicious meal (another good cook that I will hesitate to invite chez moi!) and lots of good conversation. I will return – with my drone as well as camera – one day when the weather is not so dreich, a wonderful word I learnt living in Scotland, to describe days when it is grey, damp and generally not inviting.

Bonne Année

When Margaret heard I was to spend New Year’s Eve on my own, I found myself invited to a small dinner at her friends Danièle and Jean-Claude.

It was an amiable, low-key event, but with good food (almost as good as Margaret’s!). Poppy could not attend because they have an overexcited terrier – a rescue dog, so with no early training.

I think my days for surviving four or five hours of dinner leading up to midnight, followed by an hour winding down afterwards, are perhaps numbered.  I take my hat off to the French; they have a stamina I don’t have for long meals.

Margaret and I attempted a bit of Auld Lang Syne at midnight, without great success, not least because of our inability to remember all the words.  Instead, we gave in to the local practise of going round the table, kissing everybody and wishing “Bonne Année”.

What I find just as exhausting is remembering to greet everybody with “Bonne Année” or “Meilleurs Voeux” for days – no, weeks afterwards. The next day I was in Montpellier for my thermocoagulation injection.  As I was wheeled into the operating room, I met the surgeon, Dr Dhenin, who held out his hand and said “Bonne Année” – I had to struggle to extract my arm from the blankets to respond. And I noticed that the woman next to me in the recovery room said “Bonne Année” to every new nurse or assistant who attended to her.

Charles and Pierre marry

On Saturday I attended a joyful and moving wedding, that of Charles and Pierre, my good friends with whom I have played much music over the years.

They have been together since 1972, when they met singing Renaissance and Baroque music.  Pierre, formerly a tenor, no longer sings; instead he has played the recorder in our baroque music trio.  Charles has continued to sing baritone until quite recently, but mainly played the harpsichord in our trio.

They are an unusual and entertaining couple.  I think the French use of the word “original” is perhaps appropriate: full of opinions and strong sentiments, slightly removed from the modern world, and always full of energy remarkable for friends who are, shall we say, a little older than I am.

The ceremony reminded me of Jude and Ed’s wedding, in the same local Mairie ten years ago, though now there is a better room, thankfully on the ground floor given the average age of the 60+ guests.

The same mayor, Alain Durand, performed the ceremony – his first with a gay couple, although fellow councillors have already conducted two other gay marriages in our tiny commune. It was all quite lighthearted and everyone laughed when Alain included the usual text from the French Civil Code about the couple’s duties when bringing  any eventual children arising from the union.

The couple followed the formal proceedings by each giving a speech.  Pierre’s was eloquent and, as usual, floral.  He referred to landmarks in France’s history such as women’s right to vote, the abolition of capital punishment, the introduction of gay marriage….. and now a new date, his marriage with Charles, after over 40 years together.  And of course he could not resist ending with a poem.

Charles, visibly more nervous, mentioned his happiness when teaching at the Sorbonne and then an allusion to his feeling of not being accepted here for the first couple of years. Then he played a selection of, mainly French, recordings. As he said to me afterwards, he wanted people to listen to the music,  rather than it being pleasant wallpaper in the background.  What stands out for me was hearing again an absolutely beautiful old recording of a song by the French Renaissance composer, Claude Lejeun, exquisitely sung by Charles and Pierre and their friends at the Sorbonne.

Then out of the Mairie – passing through the traditional tossing of rice, and we all walked up the hill to their beautiful house, Le Caladon (where Jude and Ed also had their wedding party). It turned out that the reception was in the courtyard, with an excellent buffet, and despite turning a little chilly by nine, the threatened rain stayed off until 11 in the evening (by which time Hans, Margaret, who was driving me home, and I were well tucked up in bed).

Roy’s 75th birthday lunch

I spent a very pleasant afternoon at Roy’s, despite having to forego most of the barbecued lunch.  There is nothing more pleasant than sitting out in the lovely September sun (temperatures high twenties but no humidity) just talking.

Sitting next to me was a Frenchman who arrived ranting about the imminent, mindless cutting down of mature trees in the village ‘place’ below.  He sought advice from the Dutch (bigshot) European lawyer sitting on his other side. I picked up that there was little to do, as these small rural mayors and councillors may these days have relatively limited powers of governance, but exercise these autocratically.  As one councillor said: “We consulted – what more do you want? Now it is our job to decide – and we are cutting the trees – they are too old.”  The fact that the consultation gave rise to a big petition cut no ice.

On leaving the lunch I discovered that this man is the owner of the beautiful old family house below Roy’s much more modest dwelling.  And indeed, his house looks over a backstream to the river Herault onto these trees.

The conversation moved on, as it so often does here, to Brexit and Europe.  I overheard the Dutchman and Roy agreeing that Europe was in a very bad way both economically (pending disasters in Italy and maybe later France) and politically (with the upsurge of the populist right everywhere. The Dutchman was of the view that Germany should heed the views of the Scandinavian bloc and agree to compromises to keep the UK in Europe as a valuable political and economically.

His forecast as to what would happen to Brits in Europe was as uncertain as everybody else’s.  I showed him an alarming  article in the latest issue of an online magazine aimed at British expats in France, reporting that some officials are interpreting a hard Brexit as meaning pensioners like me would have all rights to healthcare cut off on 29 March next year.

His reaction was very much a lawyer’s: this should be fought in the courts on the basis that we long-term residents are covered by the principle of protection universelle maladie . But this legal right is qualified by your economic circumstances and in my case I would have to pay an additional 8% income tax.

I’m currently very much absorbed by this problem, as at last – after nearly three months waiting – I have received an email instructing me to attend an interview on Thursday at the Prefecture in Nimes to present my large dossier in support of my case for having a Carte de Séjour. Obtaining this carte is a prerequisite if I wish to continue and apply for French citizenship while retaining my British one). A growing number of commentators, including the British ambassador in Paris advise this to help strengthen our case next March.

The whole thing is a dreadful mess, philosophically, politically (regardless of inefficiencies and corruption in Brussels), economically and personally.