A tale of friendship and printer’s ink
A big heart and a good mind
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.