I was hit hard to receive this e-mail a week ago from Richard Smith, who was a mainstay on this site in its early years. Morag was Richard’s long-standing partner:
Morag has untreatable cancer and is in a good hospice in Oxford. For the last few days, I’ve been trying to think of all my friends who have met her, and telling them.
She is in no pain and is unafraid. She has provided terminal care herself many times over the years and knows there is nothing to be afraid of. Useful training.
Despite the Covid restrictions I can see her every day. She has ‘a multitude’ of secondaries in her brain but, for the moment anyway, she is still herself, despite difficulties swallowing and speaking. She has a sort of electronic notepad for working round the sentences that have the wrong consonants in them for the state of her speech. It works quite well.
It all brewed up very fast – the symptoms came from the brain secondaries; the primary must have been in her lungs for many months but had given no symptoms.
I mentioned I’d be telling you and she sent her best.
Even though I didn’t have the opportunity to spend much time with Morag, she was ebullient, generous, witty, and forceful in her good-natured way. So forgive the long-winded introduction to her and why her passing is such a loss.
I first met Morag after Richard had become very involved in the site. His first guest post was in 2009, on book by someone in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s circle: Review of Pablo Triana’s “Lecturing Birds on Flying”. Richard, as a recovering bank IT professional with serious mathematical chops, would regularly tackle complex regulatory and finance topics. Another early piece was “Basel III – the OK, the Unfinished and the Ugly” Richard was particularly fond of erudite irony. From the beginning of TED gets furious, tells Yves to go away and, errm, not be so furious:
Hmm, I wonder if Yves’s resolution authority post will become the econoblogosphere’s equivalent to Clochemerle’s shattered urinal and its entourage of rioters. Surely not; yet it’s impressive how often such modest, utilitarian objects – a pissoir, a blog post about a financial reform proposal – can unexpectedly become the focus of great public ire.
Richard played an absolutely indispensable role on ECONNED, where my publisher had given me only 6 months to get the manuscript in. They were rigid about that deadline, which led to my regularly blowing up at my agent as my editor proved to be a negative value added time sink (she came out of marketing and couldn’t even compose grammatically correct sentences). Richard graciously took on a lot of yeoman’s work, including proofreading the entire book and sanity-checking.
In spring 2010, my publisher provided a bargain-basement book tour: a coach ticket to London, where they could get me some media, with the per diem for two days so low that it wouldn’t cover a single night in a hotel in Central London.
Richard volunteered to let me stay in his flat in the Barbican, warning that the three of us would be in a 800 foot space. I upgraded my ticket with frequent flier miles and planned to be there three evenings. Given that we’d never met, I thought this offer was brave, particularly on Morag’s part.
It would up being a 12 day stay because I became a volcano refugee and it never occurred to Richard and Morag to turf me out. Morag and Richard had a long-established commuter relationship. She was on the faculty of Oxford Brookes University, teaching developmental psychology, with over 30 papers to her name, some of which she had lead-authored. She kept a small flat in Oxford while Richard worked as an IT consultant to big financial firms in London. Morag was in London even less than she normally would have been because she was spending time with her father, who was dying of dementia. Despite the stress of watching his deterioration and dealing with her mother, Morag would enter after a two hour drive, full of energy, and would manage to find a colorful spin for the story of her day. She genuinely seemed to regard my visit as a Good Thing, since it kept Richard entertained while she was on parental duty.
With a name like Morag, I’d pictured her as dark haired, Wuthering Heights sort, but she was very blond, bespectacled, and buxom. She was Scot and Richard was half Scot. They’d met at Oxford, where Scots were treated like second-class citizens; she told a couple of horror stories about her tutors.
I got to know Morag a bit better later, during a second visit after Richard had given up his London flat and they’d bought a lovely house in old market town near Oxford. The original house, now the first floor of three stories, dated back to 1400 and was on a winding, close-packed street; it did have a small back yard. Even though this visit was shorter, Morag was there every day and took extra steps to make me feel welcome, like putting some yellow tulips in the guest room and making sure to cook fish for me (salmon, as I recall). Richard had recently gotten two Bengal cats, a brother and sister, Fisher and Minksy, which he’d taught to do a lot of tricks for treats (they looked forward to them and would come to the den in the AM to be put through their paces). Fisher had just worked out how to get to the second floor and popped into the bathroom through the window for the first time when I was in it.
Morag and Richard had an exceptionally good relationship. You see so few these days, where both members of a couple still genuinely like and look forward to seeing each other. It didn’t hurt that Richard and Morag were both easy-going personalities yet intellectually lively. But Morag made clear she’d always regarded Richard as a catch, and seemed to have mastered the art of making her sure her partner believed he’d made the right choice every day.
I would call Richard regularly, sometimes for input, sometimes to vent, and would often wind up chatting with Morag before she got him on the phone. She always sounded glad to hear from me and happy to put me on to Richard. Whether or not that was always true, I always appreciated being treated that way.
She’d often be contending with the hassles or drudgery of academic life, like grading tests or papers or dealing with bureaucratic changes that seemed to serve only the interest of the bureaucrats, or handling some difficulty with her mother, who was getting to be more physically limited and as I recall was also a bit of a drama queen. But there was never a hint of complaint in any of these accounts. Morag would adopt a bemused tone and make these hassles sound like a big cosmic joke. I never worked out whether Morag had always been like this, or whether she had resolved not to let outside forces disrupt her inner equipoise, and had made this attitude hers through years of practice.
Morag later developed a mysterious back problem which according to Richard was regularly painful. It also seemed to be difficult for her to find treatment, although eventually she did get some therapy that provided relief. When I’d get her on the phone and ask about it, she’d acknowledge the issue and discuss how she was getting on without sounding burdened by it.
I had only little stories of Richard’s and Morag’s life together. A couple of times, they went to Italy, which they clearly enjoyed. They also would go to the Scottish coast. They had an inn they liked, and would go on hikes along the rocky cliffs when the weather permitted, and when not, they’d curl up in front of a fire and read.
In their house near Oxford, they had a large sunny kitchen and would putter around in it, since Richard was also a good cook. They had offices across from each other on the top floor, and Richard would spend a lot of time in his, deep in his new avocation of tracking down international con artists, eventually becoming an expert on shell companies and dodgy corporate registries, writing for the Herald Scotland, working on legislation, and now publishing at openDemocracy.
Richard sent me this note yesterday morning:
Morag died early this morning. She was still in good spirits on Sunday, and communicative, but lost consciousness that night and never woke up again.
I suppose I watched her dream her last dreams, never to be reported to me, as the others were.
Not that bad of a death, but I wish she’d not been in such a hurry. Another 25 years would have been fine by me.
I know it must seem ridiculous for me to be as broken up about this as I am. After all, this is Richard’s loss, and a tragic one given that Morag was still young in modern terms. But Morag was an exceptionally fine person, without a mean-spirited bone in her body. The lowest she might stoop was occasional schadenfreude, and then only with very deserving objects. There are too few good people in this word, and it’s sad to see one go before her time. I wish I had gotten to know her better to give her a more worthy tribute.