t h e d e a t h o f m i c h a e l

[ 00:30 thursday 17 january – piscita, isola di stromboli ]

michael young left this life on monday night.

the words are still incredible to me. writing them brings another spasm of grief upon me. michael was never particularly healthy and for twenty years had suffered from a macabre assortment of cancers. but always his vigour and stubborness carried him through. it was too easy to assume this would be so for ever.

the news arrived in an email from my friend james smith early on tuesday afternoon. i had just started washing up in the kitchen. for a few moments i went back to this mundane labour, numb and incomprehending. but then the information started to sink in and i dropped into a wailing trembling pile on the floor.

my first contact with michael was an interview in the new statesman which i read on an aeroplane to finland in july 1997. i remember making a prediction to my friend kirmo as we left helsinki airport that this extraordinary man was going to have an important part in my life. i met him at the end of 1998 and got to know him over the next couple of years. in april 2001 he agreed to be my mentor.

i was with him just before christmas at his house in islington. he was frail, but no more so than i have seen him before. it was a lovely day, crisp and blue-skied, the grey london stone shining in the golden-white light. coming in from the hall i was immediately bid play some dances at the piano in order that gaia’s dolls could have a dance. there they all were, arrayed on the floor in a semi-circle, with little gaia sitting wide-eyed and delighted in their midst. i sat myself down and hammered through a few waltzes and tangos as she twirled her festively-arrayed friends around the floor. michael sat at the end of the room entranced by the energetic bundle of new life he summoned into being five years ago.

we talked of many things over lunch and afterwards. parliamentary process, various of my ventures, his latest ideas for reforming the health service, his health, his endlessly-gestating successor to “family and kinship in east london”. i remember him commenting rather apologetically that he might not have a very long life left to help me. i scolded him for giving voice to such nonsense and thought nothing of it. typically he offered to drive me back to bethnal green, where i was staying, but it was clear he was feeling weak and i already felt bad about drawing on his energy. bidding him farewell i was moved by some instinct to kneel at his feet and clasp his old hands firmly between my own. then i took my leave, urging him that i saw ample cause for hope in the world.

i seem to have a talent for making good exits and then messing them up. sure enough as i rounded the corner from gibson square i realised i had forgotten my scarf. returning to his front door and ringing the bell the door opened immediately. there was michael with the object in his hands. as i took the scarf i suggested to michael that he was telepathic. he smiled his childlike pursed-lip smile, bid me farewell once more and then the door was closing and i was hurrying on my way.

i shall not see him again in this life.

oh i cannot bear to write this. i cannot bear to be without him.

yesterday evening, desperate to share my grief, i stumbled round the coast to my friends matteus and sara. they held me while i sobbed, comforting me with wise words about life and death. carlos, their ten-month-old son, clung to me also, a vigorous intelligence of these cycles through which all pass.

matteus gave me a black and brown scarf for my mourning, which i am wearing tied around my head for seven days. sara gave me a candle she made with red bougainvilla leaves scattered throughout it. this burns behind me now, on the table, beside a big M assembled from pieces of white pummice stone washed up in the storms.

on sunday night i hosted a dinner party. mid-way through the evening my friend giuseppe picked up a copy of one of my most recent photographs of michael and asked if he could have a copy. to me this seemed like an extraordinary request. around the room there are more almost forty of my pictures, all of which i would presume to be of more interest than this particular image of michael. but that was the one he wanted and of course i was over-joyed to print off a copy and write beneath it the name of its subject. this in turn aroused my friends’ curiosity about michael so i at their beckoning i talked of him at length. after dinner, when everyone had gone, i picked up the photograph which had caught giuseppe’s interest in the first place and fixed it to the wall in my bedroom, beside my bed.

thus, mysteriously and portentously, was the final night of michael’s life celebrated here amongst my friends on stromboli. michael hoped he might be able to visit me here in the spring. his name at least will be honoured in this place.

writing all of this is perhaps a part of the grieving process. i find myself focusing on the words for a few sentences, then recalling what it is i am describing and breaking foolishly into tears again. the muscles of my face ache from crying. but i sense the emphasis moving slowly from misery at what is lost to celebration of what has existed.

i always knew i would not have enough time with michael. i could have spent a century with him and would still have felt cheated to have him snatched away.

early on in my time with him i sent him a note saying that i would never meet another human from whom i had so much to learn. i knew this from the moment i read that interview with him.

throughout my life i have been blessed with wonderful teachers but michael was something beyond this. he is the closest thing i have had to a role model. his whole way of living and working, his sensibility, his gentle selfless guile, his humanity and warmth. he was a fine painter and writer, a lousy politician, an imperfect father, a brilliant thinker, analyst, problem-solver, pursuader, opportunist. i shall not trivialise him by eulogising. that is for the obituaries.

last autumn he wanted me to take charge of a project in hull piloting an “open health service” using digital interactive television to provide citizens with access to information, organise self-help groups for particular conditions, and generally to empower users in their interactions with the health bureaucracy. i worked on the proposals with him and accompanied him to a project meeting in hull, but in the end i knew my path lay here in the south of italy and i would not be pursuaded otherwise. thus passed my one and only opportunity to collaborate with him directly. i made the right decision.

today the english newspapers are full of michael. even mr blair has issued a few encomious paragraphs, despite michael’s mischievous sniping in the guardian of the last year. now i brace myself for the hateful and inevitable process whereby michael’s shade will be claimed by cause upon cause, from most of which he would have run a mile. already he regretted writing “the rise of the meritocracy” as a satire, since politicians are wont to miss the point of the book altogether and come away with the errant conclusion that michael supported the system he describes in it.

oh i could write endlessly about michael. perhaps i feel if i keep writing this he will stay with me a while longer. but he would not approve of the dilation and i feel the close must soon be upon me.

so he is gone. he is really gone. how alone i feel, having had the privilege of this gorgeous giant for a moment as my guide. my journey seems darker and more perilous without him.

during my final months in london i taught michael to use a computer. it was not easy for him. but he persevered, got to grips with the web and email and, finally, gained an insight into the current era he could not have reached any other way. he has been reading these wanderer despatches since i have been in italy. this message will find its way still to his inbox. i would like to think that somehow his spirit may yet receive these words.

so michael, i hope the journey was interesting and if you’d consider a job as a guardian angel i know someone who needs one. i love you always.

: charles

– – – – –

links to obituaries


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