Saturday, 22 October 2016

No.37 - Mike Skinner: Elegy for a friend

Mike has crossed the border
from which there is no return
Mike Skinner and I were the same age, both originally from Bulawayo, both incorrigible bachelors, and of similar build.  We shared for some years a passion for the slightly mad activity of rock-climbing, until for some reason he more or less abandoned that for the slightly madder activity of para-sailing.  For both of us Rhodes and Grahamstown had become our second home.

Mike loved the desert, drawn repeatedly to the Kalahari.  I never got to join him there; but we did climb many local crags, and the Compassberg, and Mary near Tarkastad; and we 4x4’d with John McKinnell through mountainous Lesotho.   He and I shared one particularly memorable desert adventure – a trip to Namibia, with our friend Nikki.  We visited Ais-Ais and Sossusvlei and Windhoek, then headed north for even drier regions.  We camped one night in the lee of the massif of the Brandberg, and Mikey decided to bake some bread, from scratch.  This poem relates what happened:


The night of the Brandberg closes about us,
warm as fur.  Our fire, fading on the sand, feels
like the centre of life.  Mike rakes away the coals
and unearths the pot beneath them
where the bread’s been invisibly baking.
He lifts the heavy lid, shines the torch in.
There is no bread.  Nothing.  A black iron hole
swallowing our astonishment.
We do find it after some seconds –
so puffed up with exuberant yeasty life
it was stuck to the lid itself.

But now there really is no loaf:
death has lifted its lid on a hollow
black as an impenetrable hunger.
Whatever else we might cherish and taste,
that is a loaf from which we cannot eat again.

Mikey has the best view of all now.
We went on then to climb the famous Spitzkoppe, spectacularly shaped in yellowing colours but made of ghastly decomposing granite chutes that skinned our knees.  Then it was on to the petroglyph galleries of Twyfelfontein, and the strangely pristine coastal town of Swakopmund – where we found that the police were looking for us.  Or, specifically, looking for Mike: his father had been shot in a house break-in in Bulawayo.  We raced him back to Windhoek to catch a plane home – then Nikki and I continued the holiday in Mike’s white Toyota 4x4.  We felt weird, vaguely guilty, and bereft of Mike’s robust pragmatism, mechanical acumen, and genial quietness.  But it was what Mike wanted us to do.

Mike at Twyfelfontein
He was always so: unfailingly selfless, gently uncomplicated, keeping any distress close to himself.  He could express robust criticism of the world’s miscreants, including whoever killed his father, but there wasn’t a mean fibre in his body.  He was a man of parts – he could play the piano, cook, build stuff with meticulous care, run his pharmaceutical unit – but was not one for introspection, or saying much about his inner self, or imposing on one for help.

I saw relatively little of him these last couple of years, though most recently I think he was grateful that he and I could share some illness stories – rather as we had periodically commiserated over our expanding middle-aged bellies.  He would shrug and monosyllabically profess his positivity and hand it all over to God, blinking his eyes like a slightly nervous raccoon and grinning shyly with his small teeth.  I told him to call me, any time, for anything, but he did not – and suddenly it was too late. 

I am so grateful for having known him, knowing I could do no better than to judge my own life-decisions by the single criterion: would Mikey Skinner have approved?


I am cutting out alien trees
halfway down the hill
when the phone call comes.
A knot in my stomach has been waiting.
Our lovely Mike is gone.
So blessed in his modesty and quiet
almost none of us even knew he was ill.
Our lovely Mikey is gone.
The cellphone sits like a hollow in my hand.
The sun is a hollow in the low sky.
I think of the world that Mike has left:
our campuses afire, Somalia starving,
Syria ruined, etcetera, etcetera.
Sometimes it seems it’s not Death
that is so intractable and opaque
but Life itself.  I should have
spent more time with him.  I should,
I should... But Mikey is gone.
And now we can only
leave the lopped branches of guilt
to lie where they fall, and try to love
whoever we can, when we can,
as much as we can, for as long
as time is running in our veins.



  1. A lovely person. The fct that none of us knew that he was ill made his death even more shocking.

    Brian Jackson

  2. I feel your pain and loss too Dan. Sometime one doesn't have to be together (or "in contact") to feel supported though. And I'm sure the nature of your friendship was such that Mike did call/contact you in his own way.