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.


I have spent so much time obsessively following every tortuous turn of the miserable Brexit saga that I have let March come and go without comment. I find it a truly magical month (unlike April, which should be so wonderful but so often disappoints with unseasonal rain or chilly spells).

At the start of March there are no leaves, just a hint of colour in the branches of trees and a few timid buds appearing. Then everything changes. Almost overnight you can see the buds turn into blossom and lovely, light young leaves unfurl. As I drive into le Vigan, there is one weeping willow in particular, whose transformation I have failed to capture (always too late for an appointment or too cold to stop). The sun shone all month and people walked around with a spring in their step and smile on their faces.

I have just put up an odd collection of photos to record this lovely month. The first two were taken on a crisp day at the start of March. Then a couple of pictures of the moon, as this year we have had spectacularly splendid full moons, with not a cloud to be seen. I thought I would pop in a picture of rush-hour traffic on my way home – this herd of sheep has a donkey as well as the usual dog to encourage it up the road to Mars.

The next photo is an old mill, taken with my drone. This is one of a group beside the river below Bréau which several of us want saving before it is too late. The picture afterwards is the old farmhouse near it which is too far gone to rescue.

The rest are the usual mixture of buds and flowers that everybody snaps on walks or in the garden.

Now we are into April. The weather has continued to be unseasonably cold, but a couple of days ago, the non-stop blue sunshine came to an end: we have just had 36 hours of heavy rain. Typically this was on Saturday, more or less washing out the weekly market. But as everybody was saying, since this is only the second time it has rained this year, we desperately need the water. It is good to once again hear the River Souls, in the valley below my house. It was more violent towards the coast, with hailstorms and ‘tornadoes’.

It is raining again now and more is forecast for the coming days. I want it to rain and rain – until next Saturday, when my daughter Jude and family arrive for an all too short week. At present it looks as if it will be cold and dry the first half and then warmer but wet thereafter. Lots of board games will be needed 🙁

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.

The screws tighten

What a surreal day. We lurch even closer to the abyss. Monday’s indicative vote is the last chance.

Brexit is high up on the news here as well. People are baffled, sad at what they see as the collapse of everything they thought the British were – pragmatic, calm, dignified (well, yes, also arrogant, cherry pickers).

Last week my English neighbours, here on a brief visit, were shopping in my favourite veg shop and the owner asked them with sympathy how they were coping. (The assumption is that any Brits here are not for Brexit.) She told them that she had several British customers worrying about their futures in France

At lunch with my friends Charles and Pierre we returned to the old question, what made people vote for Brexit. In the afternoon I went to the pharmacy (where I am greeted by name – a sad réflection of where I shop these days!) and again was asked what I thought might happen now.

Then, on to the vernissage of an art exhibition – a vernissage is the opening, to invited guests, with drinks and nibbles. There are quite a few artists in the region and this was a gathering of le Vigan’s cultural set, of which I appear to be a member. I was hardly able to look at the paintings and sculptures as I was accosted again and again by people wanting to express sympathy and to exclaim at what a catastrophe this was for le Royaume Uni.

People here are under no illusions about the problems facing the EU, but there is a strong sense of what it has done to unite people beyond nationalism. They are worried about the forthcoming elections and the rising right wing populism.

Nobody was surprised I am still waiting for my carte de séjour; the French are only too aware of the shortcomings of their administrative bureaucracy. One woman said she had an American nephew who had been told by the Paris prefecture that his application for French citizenship might take three years to be considered.

More pressing than my desire to retain European nationality is my need to be in the health system. Friends were appalled to hear that my carte vitale (the crucial health passport here) might only last for a year after Brexit.

They understand when I say that for two years my life has been on hold. Sadly the Resume button may soon be pushed, but who knows what will be playing.

French or Irish?

I find it hard to concentrate on anything other than the political mess in Britain. I weep for my country of birth; and I fear for my future in my country of adoption.

I won’t rehearse yet again all the reasons why I am so angry and despairing about Brexit. I think I am more depressed and upset about it than any other event that has happened in my life – yes, including the failure of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which dominated my life as a teenager.

It is not simply witnessing the country stepping ever closer to the cliff, with all the potential damage to the British economy, industry, health system, universities, research… … It is the realisation that Britain is a broken country, with polarised views, a rising populism, and a parliamentary system in crisis. Whatever the result – and goodness knows where we will be in two months – how can attitudes be changed, how can the damage be repaired? How can parliamentary democracy regain credibility, for example, and how can we again believe in and respect politicians, statisticians and journalists?

Meanwhile, what can I personally do? Not a lot. I signed the petition to revoke Article 50 of course (on day one). I can’t demonstrate (but I am glad that Kate and family – as well as at least one cousin – are currently marching in London).

If there is another referendum I can’t vote as I have lived in France for more than 15 years and the overseas voters bill, which would restore my right to vote, has been held up by Brexit. It is a private members bill, introduced in 2017, and was only debated in Parliament last week – to a virtually empty Chamber.

But I can try to obtain dual nationality, to remain a citizen of an EU country in the event of Brexit happening. Unlike my Carte de Séjour which I am still waiting for), becoming the citizen of another European country would have no practical benefit – other than my childish pleasure at being able to continue to walk through the EU Citizens gate at the airport.

It is more a personal statement, that I am a European, that I wish to distance myself from these horrible nationalistic, xenophobic views in Britain. They are elsewhere as well, of course, and whatever his other faults, Macron made a good distinction last November between patriotism – love of your country, which can be an inclusive sentiment, and nationalism (

I am not proposing to give up British citizenship, but rather to have dual nationality. The question is, which country? Well, the obvious choice is France and last year, in between hospital crises, I started to collect together the information required, though it was clear that the priority should be applying for residency.

There are three problems about applying for French citizenship. The first is that I have to gather together an enormous amount of documentation (as well as writing yet another essay about why I am applying). This includes a host of birth, marriage and death certificates (which all have to have official, legal, costly translations). And in due course there will be difficult interviews no doubt.

My second problem is that I do not have a birth certificate for my father, who was born in India, and it is impossible to obtain a copy. Thanks to my cousin, Ursula, who works in the British Library, we found the record for his baptism, and the Library has produced a letter saying that government departments sometimes accept their official evidence of a baptism in lieu of a birth certificate. I can but try, though I worry about the word “sometimes”.

My third problem is that I might have to wait years rather than months to get French citizenship. Every time a French person asks if I have applied yet, I mention the problem of delays in the process and they raise their eyes in shared frustration at the tortuous workings of “l’administration franchise”.

So how about joining the apparently growing queue of Brits using their familial links with Ireland to seek Irish citizenship? Both my paternal grandparents were Irish. My grandfather was born in Portaferry in northern Ireland and my grandmother in County Cork in southern Ireland.

The procedure should be so much more straightforward than applying for French citizenship. But that is before one takes into account the amazing lack of documentation for my Irish family. Apart from my father’s missing birth certificate, which could be a problem here as well, there is the question of evidence of my grandparents’ marriage. They were married in Ceylon (don’t know why, as my grandfather was in the Indian Police in Madras). There is no marriage certificate, just a newspaper report recording the wedding and what the bride wore.

Yet another complication, I do have my grandmother’s birth certificate, but there is a blank in the box for her name! I have paid Irish genealogists to track down her baptism records, but they have drawn a complete blank. (What they did throw up was something else I had not known. My great grandfather was a leading light in the Church of Ireland, but it turns out he was married in a Methodist church and that his father was a Methodist minister.)

All of this might prove to be too many dodgy records, even for the Irish. So I am currently thinking of returning to my French citizenship papers. Big sigh.

An expensive week

My iPad is an absolute essential part of my life. I use it each evening to watch Channel 4 News (with depression, anger and disbelief at the latest Brexit instalment). I sit on the sofa with it rather than in front of my computer and invariably write emails, watch rubbish on telly, look at photos, listen to music (played out on my speakers) – and generally pass the evening with it. Living alone, it is my companion, a buffer against solitude. Well, it and Poppy, of course…

So imagine the disaster when last week, when carrying my water, my iPad (minus its sleeve), a notebook and pen, and some medication from the bedroom to the main room, the iPad slid from my hand and tumbled to the floor, landing face down on the hard tiles. Yes, in one careless move I had smashed my iPad screen.

I then discovered that the the price of replacing an iPad screen has risen with each model. If I went to Apple it would cost 400 euros and the cheapest quote I could get in Montpellier was for 239 euros- for an iPad which is over three years old.

I swithered for a week and then I took a deep breath and bought a new iPad, for an astronomic price which I am to embarrassed to repeat here. I just could not bear shelling out all that money for what is, in the world of technology, an ageing piece of kit. I paid out even more as for the first time Ihave bought AppleShare insurance against breakages!

My partner in crime in the trip to the Montpellier Apple Store was my friend Dessa, whose collection of gadgets probably equals mine – we bought our Apple watches together. Embarrassingly as we entered the store several of the assistants greeted us like old friends.

The assistant who helped me set up my new iPad was a new acquaintance, a charming young man of Algerian descent. I know this because before long we were talking about Brexit and becoming French (he has double nationality now and said it was not difficult to obtain – times have changed, I fear). We then had the most extraordinary discussion in which he expressed sympathy with the Brexiteers and went on to praise Trump. That got Dessa (American/Dutch) really going, as she tried to convince him how wrong he was. I suspect he could have been a gilet jaune supporter, but he certainly stunned us. We parted amicably of course and he said how much he had enjoyed a challenging disagreement.

As for my old iPad, I have given it to my friend, Sonia, the ambulance driver. So it is going to a good home.

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