Adieu old friend – Remembering Michael Balfour

October 2011

You don’t invent people like Michael Balfour. He was an original, the incarnate of how the non-English see a slightly eccentric Englishman – although his veins were teeming with Scottish blood, not to mention a wee dram or two of the hard stuff.

Tall, softly spoken and articulate, Michael was at ease with himself and the world and although he was ready at the drop of a pencil to partake of some liquid refreshment with a friend or colleague, he was just as happy to be alone with his thoughts, his newspaper, his coffee or a glass or two of white. At breakfast he always sat alone with his inevitable companion – his beloved Financial Times – that was sacrosanct, it was his private time and you knew not to intrude. The rest of the day he was yours if need be.

Sitting here at my computer, I can see him sitting at a table patiently waiting for his next appointment or an upcoming press conference at BaselWorld or the SIHH in Geneva. He could sit for ages, patiently, never appearing ill at ease, bored or impatient. He’s wearing those familiar red or multi-coloured woollen socks of his and he has some curiously anomalous shoelaces that rarely seem to match his shoes. As usual, his brightly tinted handkerchief hangs languidly from his top pocket and he may well be wearing what I always referred to as his rust-coloured St. Tropez trousers. I think I can just make out an empty carafe too.

In the many years that I knew Michael, I never once heard him raise his voice, show impatience, annoyance, or irritation, a gentle nudge with his elbow was sufficient when something didn’t make sense. One year in Basel, he had an argument with a tram. When I saw him later that evening he was sitting at a table with his favourite brew, covered with plaster, badly bruised and clearly in pain. When I asked what had happened he shrugged and wearily conceded that he hadn’t heard the tram coming – adding somewhat disconsolately that he hadn’t even had a drink.

Rarely, if ever, did he openly pass judgement; he kept any critical thoughts to himself. At his wedding to Elisabeth some years ago, he had organized a magnificent reception at the Grosvenor House hotel in London and the hundreds of guests were dressed to the nines, the ladies in long flowing robes, the men sartorially splendid in their dinner jackets and black ties. As the skirl of the bagpipes invaded every corner of the ballroom I suddenly caught sight of Calandra, his daughter, coming towards us wearing a pair of the hairiest moon boots that resembled a yeti’s feet. They would not have been out of place in the Himalayas, but in one of London’s chic hotels at the height of the summer at a wedding reception they were outrageously incongruous. Michael, who must have seen the surprised look on my face, simply mumbled, “The forecast is for changeable weather.” That was Michael.

Typically, Michael lived with what was a fatal illness for five years without any of us knowing about it and his unexpected disappearance makes it that much harder to come to terms with.

I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to him, but that’s how he would have wanted it. No outward signs of emotion, no trembling lips, no tears. His Englishness, his understated greeting, his unaffected eccentricity will be missed in the watch world. But worst of all, I have lost a friend.