A tale of friend­ship and printer’s ink

A big heart and a good mind

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Carla Carlisle

Carla Carlisle pays trib­ute to a big heart and a good mind

IN this age of spir­i­tual doubt, I con­fess that my one stead­fast be­lief is in the power of the printed word. News­pa­pers and mag­a­zines may be on an eco­nomic cliff edge (this one ex­cepted) and fake news the scourge of our time, but there is still some­thing solemn and sig­nif­i­cant about thoughts in print. I’d even suggest that the printed page is trans­for­ma­tive. In the years I oc­cu­pied the back page of COUN­TRY LIFE, I was cer­tain that my words weighed more in print than they did on my screen. The power of printer’s ink also had another mag­i­cal ef­fect: friend­ship.

A col­umn I wrote in praise of E. B. White led to a let­ter from read­ers in Amer­ica— they had bought the writer’s homestead in Brook­lin, Maine. Would I like to stay there? We or­gan­ised a swap: they be­gan their English trip with us and then we took off for Maine. It’s a friend­ship that lives on.

Another friend I owe to COUN­TRY LIFE is Bob Michell. Or Alas­tair Robert Michell, BVETMED, DSC, FRSA, MRCVS. One Satur­day at the farmer’s mar­ket, an at­trac­tive woman came up to me and said: ‘My hus­band is a reg­u­lar reader of yours.’ The hus­band was a safe dis­tance away and what I took for shy­ness turned out to be mod­esty.

I joined them for cof­fee and learned that Bob was a vet and that he, too, wrote a col­umn, ‘Specu­lum’, for Vet­eri­nary Times. I begged for copies and my per­sis­tence paid off. With­out them, I’d never have learned that this ‘vet’ held a per­sonal chair in com­par­a­tive medicine from the Univer­sity of Lon­don, first at the Royal Vet­eri­nary Col­lege, lat­terly at Bart’s, was pres­i­dent of the RVVS, on the Ad­den­brooke’s board of gov­er­nors and a re­cip­i­ent of the most distin­guished prizes in his field.

That first morn­ing, how­ever, I learned only that he and Pauline had spent a year in New York, where Bob did re­search for his PHD and another two years on a Hark­ness Fel­low­ship in Santa Mon­ica, Cal­i­for­nia.

At­tached to the first batch of col­umns was a note ex­plain­ing that, early on, he’d dis­pensed with the need to find a vet­eri­nary ‘hook’, although, at times—dur­ing the footand-mouth tragedy, for in­stance—he com­bined his fury and his sci­en­tific knowl­edge with the clar­ity and pas­sion­ate con­science of Dar­win and Pas­teur.

Over the years, I joined them for a drink when­ever they came to the vine­yard for lunch. We shared pol­i­tics and mu­sic, writ­ers and books, and I was pleased to sur­prise him with a cou­ple of vol­umes by the critic John Leonard, whom they knew in their New York days. Then, one hot sum­mer day, Bob took me aside and told me that Pauline had been di­ag­nosed with pan­cre­atic cancer. Seven months later, she died.

Af­ter Pauline’s death, Bob moved to Ox­ford­shire to be near his daugh­ter. Hap­pily for me, his eru­dite and orig­i­nal col­umns still ar­rived. Over time, he had writ­ten about as­sisted dy­ing—the first one in my ‘Michell Ar­chive’ is dated Novem­ber 2001, writ­ten af­ter a joint meet­ing be­tween the Royal So­ci­ety of Medicine and the New York Academy of Medicine on the sub­ject of ‘Eth­i­cal Dilem­mas at the Be­gin­ning and End of Life’. It was my in­tro­duc­tion to a be­lief that Bob felt strongly: that hu­man medicine needs to learn from the hu­man­ity of an­i­mal medicine.

He re­turned to the sub­ject in June 2013, de­scrib­ing the mo­ment in his wife’s ill­ness when the pal­lia­tive care that had achieved mir­a­cles had gone beyond the reach of its ef­fec­tive­ness. Twice she asked him for the ten­der­ness and mercy that had been shown to their black lab two years ear­lier when the dog had suf­fered a stroke. ‘Un­doubt­edly, had there just been the two of us, I could not have re­fused her pleas, but I didn’t want our daugh­ter to have a court case as well as a be­reave­ment.’ He added: ‘If such pain was in­flicted on a lab­o­ra­tory rat, it would be il­le­gal. If an an­i­mal in my care was al­lowed to suf­fer like this, I would re­ceive a com­plaint, dis­ci­pline, even be­ing struck off.’

Hu­man medicine needs to learn from the hu­man­ity of an­i­mal medicine Grief is like be­ing at sea with­out a com­pass

One of Bob’s last col­umns be­gins: ‘There is one dis­ease of the heart that is un­der­stood bet­ter by writ­ers and mu­si­cians than by sci­en­tists: grief. It’s like be­ing at sea with­out a com­pass.’ The rich mem­o­ries of nearly 50 years of happy mar­riage, a beloved daugh­ter, Ta­nia, three lov­ing grand­chil­dren and the af­fec­tion of the young lab Pauline left be­hind couldn’t dis­lodge the agony of Bob’s grief. ‘Ra­tio­nal­ity has lit­tle to con­trib­ute,’ he writes and quotes Joan Did­ion: ‘Grief turns out to be a place none of us know un­til we reach it… we might ex­pect that we will be crazy with loss: we do not ex­pect to be lit­er­ally crazy.’

On March 10, friends, fam­ily and col­leagues said farewell to Bob in a memo­rial ser­vice in a beau­ti­ful chapel next to Dul­wich Col­lege, where he went to school. In the end, Bob’s grief was more than he could or wanted to bear. I am lucky to have known this re­mark­able man. Thanks to the printed word, it was a friend­ship that cov­ered more ter­rain than we would ever have man­aged in a few short meet­ings. And, thanks to my blue box la­belled ‘Specu­lum’, I have the re­ward and com­fort of a big heart and very good mind.

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