Some people have the unfortunate opportunity to read their own obituaries, mistakenly published by newspapers. It's rumoured that Alfred Nobel, having seen himself described as a 'merchant of death' (he was an arms manufacturer) founded the eponymous prize to make amends. Marcus Garvey supposedly died of a stroke on reading his own obituary ('broke, alone and unpopular'), which seems rather ironic. Samuel Taylor Coleridge read his own obituary and coroner's report in a newspaper: a man who hanged himself was wearing a shirt apparently stolen from the poet with his name on a label. It was Mark Twain of course who quipped that 'Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated'.
Quite gloriously, it was reported that having survived two plane crashes, Ernest Hemingway used to regularly read a scrapbook of his obituaries, while swigging champagne. This is what I hope my friend – and Vole reader – MT is going to do, because I'm going to write a little bit of his obituary here and now. It's only partial, because I only see a small part of his life, but that's what makes it personal.
M is well known to my office colleagues, even though they've never met or spoken to him. He phones me regularly, more times than I can answer him. Often, of course, it's because I'm out teaching, or in meetings or whatever. Sometimes it's because I'm stuck deep into some marking or research and I know that there's no such thing as a short conversation with M. We have too much in common. We're both slightly obsessive geeks on the same subjects. We agree – and disagree – about politics and economics and can spend hours talking around the most obscure topics. If I need advice about hi-fi electronics, he's the one to consult. We both Mac obsessives and photography enthusiasts. He's from a technical/engineering background and is endlessly fascinated by design, by society as a system, and by the way making things well has been replaced in the nation's economic structure by speculation and fiscal trickery. We profoundly disagree on so many things (he doesn't feel most of you belong in internment camps, for one) but one of the things I most respect about him is his determination to test ideas to destruction rather than adopt an ideological position and stick to it in the face of the evidence, which is sometimes beyond me. For a long time he ran one of the early electric cars, for which I admired him deeply. I've never spoken to him without learning something new or seeing an issue from another perspective. This is why my colleagues know M: because when I pick up that phone, they know I'll be elsewhere for quite some time.
I've known M for probably 10-15 years now, though it's only over the past few years that we've become friends rather than acquaintances. He is a leading fencing coach, referee and former director of England Fencing. Without him, many of the stars past and present would never have got where they are today. I'm not one of those stars: I first encountered M in his refereeing role. Having seen me fence and referee around the circuit, we got to know each other to the extent that when he refereed my fights, he'd intersperse his judgements with a running commentary on how awful my style and technique really are. If I won, he would loudly suggest that I should be ashamed of myself. This is when I knew that we were destined to be friends: not only does this approach match my sense of humour, I secretly knew that he was right. I'm the Stoke City of fencing: I play ugly and sometimes win ugly against much better people.
So that was the start of a friendship forged in dank sports halls across the country, one which started in sport and came to encompass so many other aspects of our lives. MT is at the heart of a network of fencers who meet up for plotting, gossip and teasing occasionally interrupted by a little light coaching or competition. Being initiated into the club means always seeing a friendly face whether you're at an Under-8s competition or a World Cup event in the Polish boondocks. It means being inducted into the cultural memory of my sport, and it means joining the Resistance: M and his friends are the ones who do the real work, underpaid and often in spite of the efforts of the toff in blazers still infesting the upper reaches of the organisation. If there's an Awkward Squad, he's its general and plenty of people bear the scars of battle, yet he's one of those people who never leave the vanquished resentful because he always plays the ball, not the man (though some devastatingly witty character judgements will be uttered accompanied by a disarming giggle which I'll miss enormously.
MT has now been diagnosed with inoperable cancer. The last few times I didn't dare answer the phone because I could see my afternoons disappearing, he wanted to tell me this. So you can probably imagine how guilty I now feel. As to how he's feeling? Well, he's taken the diagnosis exactly as I'd have expected. Like Wilko Johnson, he's laughing in its face. He doesn't know how long he has, some treatment might slow its progress, but he's feeling OK. When I spoke to him, we talked about it briefly before moving on to the things that we usually talk about - this week it was of course Margaret Thatcher's death, a topic on which he was as nuanced as he always is.
MT: I know you're reading this. I know too that you're probably cringing with embarrassment and will brush off all this sentiment with a cutting remark, which is why I've typed it out rather than trying to say it to your face. There's no point saying this stuff when you've gone: I want you to know how we all feel about you, then we can all get back to mercilessly teasing each other. I'll answer the phone a lot more in the coming years and look forward to seeing you treat cancer the way you treat recalcitrant bureaucrats or stroppy prima-donna fencers: with amused disdain and infinite patience. When I say that he's my ideal of an Awkward Git, I mean it with all the warmth and respect I can muster.