Tuesday 1 November 2016

My personal tribute to Alex Danchev

On Saturday 29th October I spoke at the University of St Andrews memorial event for my stepfather-in-law Alex Danchev, held at St Salvator's Chapel. I've received a number of requests from family, friends and colleagues of Alex for the transcript of the speech, so I have posted it here. For those who attended, I'm sorry for losing my composure toward the end. This was far and away the most difficult bit of public speaking I have done in my life. From around the word "owlishness" I'm afraid my emotions got the better of me, but it was heartening to see when I looked up that I wasn't alone. Alex was truly irreplaceable and will be greatly missed by all who knew him.


It is a great honour to speak about Alex, and on behalf of the family I want thank all of his many friends and colleagues for joining us here today.

It’s nearly three months since we lost Alex, and it remains a heavy loss. But though it borders on cliché, I do feel that what we have lost is outweighed, many times over, by what we all gained from his life.

Personally speaking, my interactions with Alex often crossed between his world of the arts and mine of science, a bridge that Alex managed with a casual grace while I often laboured intensely coming the other way.

I recall last year when I was writing a part of a book that deals with the practice of science, and how quickly Alex found examples in his world that helped me understand mine. That is a rare gift even among scientists, let alone for someone who has never studied science for a day. And it was one that I felt deeply privileged to benefit from.

And, of course, there his own incredible, irreplaceable books that we all know. His many speeches, the accolades and awards.

But – if I may – I would like to put aside for a moment the sweeping achievements and talk about Alex himself. For as much as Alex’s work was at the core of his character, it was only a part of who he really was, and what he meant to his family.

In 2006, Jemma and I spent our first year back in the UK living with Dee and Alex in Oxford. I got to know Alex well. 

Each of us is a complex tapestry. The millions of small threads are, I believe, as vital as the bigger picture. Alex’s life was a rich and colourful tapestry. 

Sure there were high-minded discussions about foreign policy, literature and art. But I also remember, even more vividly, his post-jog reports on the activities of the local canal cats in North Oxford. How many cats, which ones, their general disposition, colour, degree of fluffiness. All as he whooshed past them at high speed. 

His coining of the term “Snicker cat” for the pesky animal that would slice its way into the rubbish bags on bin night. 

His unfathomable love of Turkish delight. 

His excellent recipe for tuna and tomato ragu, which I have still never managed to get right. The secret is in the onions, so he told me. 

In later years, his gentle nature around our children, even as they sometimes terrified him. 

His extraordinary running. One year he finished in the top 100 of the London marathon. And what a patient running companion! The last time I ran with him, I was 30, he was 52, and he zoomed along like a wolf while I felt like I was climbing Everest. 

One time while running together, he ran the entire route then circled back to run alongside me, without a word of ridicule or judgment. I would have thanked him if I could breathe. 

After his family and his work, his next great love was fine wines, and in his youth he worked for a time as a sommelier. This made buying him wine an intimidating prospect, to say the least.

I tried hard to avoid embarrassing myself, but at times failed rather spectacularly. On one occasion, I landed in front him a bottle of what I triumphantly declared would be the next big thing in New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs. After one taste, he simply went “Hmmm, yes”, left the room and promptly reappeared with one from his own cellar. Suffice to say, the wine I bought was never seen again. 

Of course I extracted some measure of balance by teasing him as much as possible about his 1970s Wine Encyclopaedia, a book he bought in his youth that is possibly the most pompous thing ever committed to print.

Alex, as always, absorbed my ridiculous Australian nature with saintly patience and urbane charm.

Some more memories. 

In the years that followed, after Jemma and I had bought our first home, his regular posting of newspaper cutouts containing cats to Jemma – his own, very personal way of reminding her that he loved her as a daughter. 

Hedge trimming with him last summer in Crail using a lethal piece of machinery that could easily have killed us and everyone else within a 10 metre radius. At one point I very nearly electrocuted us but he had a steady hand. 

A remarkably efficient loader and unloader of the dishwasher, yet forever perplexed by the workings of the washing machine, which he would refer to as “the clothes washer” – in his words, a “disturbing contraption”, as though he was a time traveller from the 1850s. 

A man, who if left to do the shopping, would return with two dozen tins of baked beans because they are a handy snack after all. 

One thing few people know is that in later life he planned to turn from writing non-fiction to historical fiction. What incredible novels he would have written! 

Alex had a million special and unique ways about him. His world intersected with ours and yet it was also set apart by his quest for scholarly understanding. 

He was, I think, Art History’s answer to a deep sea explorer – continually combing the abyss for new sources of understanding. And it wasn’t merely a search undertaken for his own satisfaction: what made his work worthwhile for him was surfacing with so much to report and describe.

He made that act of communication seem easy, yet I believe most of us never come close to seeing the world as he did, and fewer still are able to articulate their visions so vividly. 

When immersed in his writing, he would turn down the volume on the world outside. One time in Crail, while Dee was away, he allowed the lawn to grow so high it went to seed. Suffice to say, Dee was less than amused on her return. I still smile at this memory because his office window overlooks the garden. He literally (in every sense of the word) watched it turn into a jungle.

And yet even at his busiest he never turned the world off completely. One of Alex’s greatest virtues was his generosity. He always made the time to help others.

I still have the first draft of my own book manuscript, full of his detailed notes, and written – of all times – during his intense construction of Magritte. He insisted on editing a printed copy, old school. 

Having made the revisions I was on the verge put the draft in the recycling, but now it has become priceless to me. Especially his patient reminders about split infinitives and his uncanny, almost clairvoyant, ability to suggest the word I MEANT to write rather than the one I actually wrote.

In an email to me in earlier this year he gave me some general advice about writing which, reflecting on it now, is actually pretty good life advice:

“I'd be inclined to look out for ways in which you can add like bits of colour, or spice - maybe in the vocabulary, or formulation, and especially at the conclusion of each chapter. When you let yourself go a little, in the expression, it works well, I think. Too much of that would be inadvisable, no doubt, but perhaps there's room for a judicious dash more.”

One of my favourite writers, David Dobbs, recommends that after a hard day’s writing it is best to stop half way through a thought. Even if you know exactly what you’re going to say, resist the temptation to finish it. That way it’s easier to pick up where you left off tomorrow and so avoid writer’s block. 

Alex left a life unfinished. He won’t wake up tomorrow to carry on, so it’s now up to us to pick up where he left off. 

Few among us would be able to carry on his work but I believe all of us can take forward his kindness and generosity and sense of purpose, and perhaps some of what made him so unique will continue to live through us. 

As I say goodbye to Alex, I’m reminded how fortunate he was to do what he loved, in the place he loved, with the one person he loved above all others – and how fortunate we were to know him. We are all fortunate in another way too, that his words will live on in a way that immortalises him.

But his written words, as extraordinary as they are, are not how I will remember him. For me, it is a simpler picture. 

It is summer in Crail. Alex is sitting at his desk overlooking the sea, working on Magritte with his customary owlishness.

Then my 1-year old son, who is just starting to walk, finishes an epic crawl up the stairs and toddles triumphantly into his office. Without a hint of irritation, Alex emerges from the depths to greet him. My son climbs on his lap and they sit together, for a moment in silence, watching the waves roll in. 

I’m a scientist so, for me, there is no doubt that death is final and we bring nothing of ourselves beyond that door. And yet part of me clings to a conceit, that if I freeze this memory in time – in amber, as it were – then Alex never dies.

Whenever I need Alex, I will know where to find him. He is by the window, sitting with his grandson on a warm summer’s evening. And he is happy. 

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