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Loss of a Friend

I lost a good friend, Alex McCallum, last week.

He died, suddenly in his sleep, apparently from a stroke – a good way to go, as people will probably say, though not so good for his wife, who was lying beside him.  He was 77, two years older than I am.

Alex had been a colleague of mine at Reuters, the British news agency, and a good friend of long standing.  I suppose we must have met in the early 1960s, but we didn’t get to know each other socially until we both fetched up in New York City later in the decade to work on a new financial news wire to compete with the famed Dow Jones Broad Tape.

Breaking the Dow Jones monopoly was a formidable task – some used the word ‘hopeless’ at the time – but one that brought us both a great deal of professional satisfaction, he as the editor of the wire and me as a reporter.  We were complementary: he was Steady Eddie, I was Bolshie Bill.  We worked hard on that project, perhaps as hard as we had worked at anything in our lives until then – and probably since.  He once paid me the compliment (undeserved) of calling me the best reporter he had ever met and I returned it by describing him (most deservedly) as the best writer I had ever come across.  He excelled in the editor’s chair, with a fine judgement of what was important in a story and what was dispensable – and no dangling participles ever escaped his eagle eye.  

We were both going through marital difficulties at the time, and found mutual solace of sorts, almost nightly, in a bar round the corner from the office called the Pig and Whistle (still there, on 78th Street, under a different name).  There were other distractions, too, some of them too delicate to recall. 

He left Reuters for a public relations job with a New York bank, which at the time I thought, from the jaundiced perspective of a scribbler, was a waste of his talent.  I often wondered, and sometimes asked him, whether he had ever regretted the move, but Alex was polite to a fault, and never one to court controversy, so all I ever got was a wry smile.  I have always suspected that he did.

We kept in touch over the years, by which time my own career had proceeded in a different direction and he had moved to the Boston area.  He and I would later dream up an unlikely event – the staging of an annual cricket match, which was played on my extensive property in Greenwich, Connecticut.  It was a big hit in the British ex-pat community for several years.  Alex was as competent on the cricket square as he had once been on the rugby field, especially at Oxford University, where he just missed out on a ‘blue’ in both sports.  

He was by then married to Karen (Kate), who was, and is, a world-class player in the rather different game of bridge. 

He was, in the time-honoured cliché, a gentleman as well as a scholar, and will be greatly missed by his many friends and acquaintances on both sides of the Atlantic – especially by this one.

As my mother often used to say in her later years (which extended well into her nineties): “it’s no fun getting old, especially when you realise one day that you’ve lost most of your friends”.

I’m starting to understand what she meant.  I haven’t lost most of mine yet, but the last few months have claimed several, and all of them too close in age to me for comfort.

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