Mark Blackburn

This, this was not the kind of funerary inscription I meant but as with the last time I had to bump a post for this reason, the reason cannot be brooked. Mark Blackburn, Keeper of Coins and Medals at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Fellow of Gonville & Caius College Cambridge and half-a-dozen other rôles and dignities, also my erstwhile boss, died of cancer on Thursday morning, this 1st of September. To some this is going to be a nasty shock; others closer will know that Mark had had a running battle with melanoma for the last twenty-two years, and that two years ago when the latest lump appeared on his skin the doctors examined him, found more and told him that he probably had only a year to live. Mark, with the help of the tremendous oncology department at Addenbrookes Hospital whose research case he willingly became, went on to stretch that prediction by 100%, which is about right: Mark was a 100% kind of guy. In the intervening time he was awarded several prizes and medals, saw a volume of his collected papers and two of the department’s outstanding publications to press and was still available to write references, answer e-mail and so on as far as his circumstances would permit. Meanwhile, almost the first thing he did when he got the terminal prognosis was to go on holiday with his children. This will surprise no-one who knew him and will hopefully give those who didn’t some idea what he was like.

Mark Blackburn receiving a cake bearing the cover of his new volume of collected essays

Mark Blackburn receiving a cake bearing the cover of his new volume of collected essays; my apologies to my erstwhile colleague Rory Naismith, whom I've rudely disembodied, but I wanted Mark to get centre stage here. The bow tie was customary.

I think this is the worst news, personally, I’ve ever put on the blog, but when I justify that by saying that Mark was a mentor and teacher to me, an involved and trusting boss, a ready source of academic help and advice and a patron without who I could not have generated the career profile I have or indeed got the job I now have, for which he cheerfully wrote me a reference, I am keenly aware that I can think of four or five people straight away who could say as much, perhaps twice that again with a bit more thought and that there must be many many more I don’t know about; there are probably a hundred people with as much reason to grieve that he’s dead as I have, because he was genial, helpful and supportive to so many people. Compared to many of them, not least his family who were so important to him, I’m distant and though obviously I’m upset it’s not going to slow me down or prevent me driving on with the projects I was doing for him which will still, dammit, be done. It had become clear in recent weeks that he wouldn’t see them completed and I was already expecting the phone-call when finally it came, as I think were most of those in the Department and close by, but the projects were important for more reasons than his involvement and we will get them done for him and for those he intended them to be for.

He was mostly unconscious in his last few days, apparently, but did rouse enough to assent to having some tea when asked, the day before he died. On getting it, too, he managed to get it understood that he wanted a different, better, tea, and that (“Dimbula“) was pretty much his last intelligible word. Now, there are an awful lot of things one could have learnt from Mark, and not just about numismatics although there were few people indeed from whom you could have learnt so much about coins so easily as from Mark. He was a colossus of productivity, even if one didn’t always see that when one only knew about parts of what he was working on; there was so much that only he knew about it all. But he was also a great example of how to enjoy yourself; he had friends right round the globe from collaborations and research trips, he’d been to a great many places and while I worked with him I was many times impressed by how much guiltless fun this top academic managed to get out of his holidays, his job, meeting people, eating and drinking and of course his research; he really did make the absolute most of his life, though I know he would have been pretty happy to make more of it also. So, though his scholarship will stand unsurpassed for a good long time and it’s a crying shame there won’t be more of it, even those who are not bothered with coins can learn a few things from Mark, lessons to take to heart, and the ones I’m trying to take are: (i) do what’s important, do it now and don’t fret about the rest while you’re doing it; (ii) make sure and enjoy what life gives you, especially if you made it yourself, and (iii) if all else fails, demand really high-quality tea in your final hours. I salute you, Mark, you were one of a kind and one of the best, and you fought on for longer than anyone should have to against an adversary who couldn’t stop you having fun.

Mark Blackburn showing Queen Elizabeth II around the coins displays in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Mark Blackburn showing Queen Elizabeth II around the coins displays in the Fitzwilliam Museum

(I have funeral details if anyone reading needs them and hasn’t got them; e-mail me quickly if so. It will be a full church.)

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11 responses to “Mark Blackburn

  1. Hi Jon,

    Lovely post, and I entirely concur with what you say about Mark as a
    scholar, mentor and friend. His death is a terrible and untimely loss.

    I just wanted to add that the volume of collected essays pictured on Mark’s
    cake – ‘Viking Coinage and Curency in the British Isles’ – is now available
    from Spink (see http://www.britnumsoc.org/publications/special.shtml). It
    includes 14 previously published articles, among them all five of his
    recent presidential addresses to the British Numismatic Society, and also a
    new piece on the important Viking site at Torksey.

    Rory

  2. I’m sorry for your loss, and thank you for how lovely a eulogy you’ve written, from someone in an entirely different discipline who enjoys learning a little through your blogging.

  3. highlyeccentric

    (iii) if all else fails, demand really high-quality tea in your final hours.

    Now that is a very wise example, that is.

    I’m sorry to hear this, but, on the other hand, glad to hear that an – by all accounts – excellent human being went out accompanied by excellent tea. :)

  4. Thanks very much for your tribute to Mark. Although he’s technically been my boss for the last year or two, I haven’t had the chance to see that much of him, because of his illness. But I saw enough to agree that not only was he a great scholar, he was a thoroughly nice man.

    For anyone who wants to hear Mark in action, he was given a BBC iPM New Year’s award in Dec 2010, and audio clips of him are still available on the BBC website. There’s also a picture of him in a corner of the room in which I’m currently working, which shows a fraction of the clutter of the Coins and Medals Department.

  5. A lovely post for a sad occasion. I’m so sorry.

  6. Pingback: Name in prints II & VI part two: where to buy my works « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  7. The Anglo-Saxon Norse & Celtic Department, where Mark was a Reader, have now posted this round-up of obituaries for him on their blog here.

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  9. Pingback: Seminars CXXVII-CXXIX: the price, the mark and the buildings of early medieval Christianity | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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