Last Thursday, I was walking through central London when I saw a friend of mine, not a close friend but someone with whom I’d shared a good few hours on a golf course and some amusing times afterwards. He, too, worked in the media and we had a number of mutual acquaintances.
When I saw him, he was – of course – on the phone, but he cut short his conversation to have a chat with me. He looked exceptionally smart in suit and tie, and, never one to avoid the obvious joke, I asked him whether he thought he had got the job or not. We exchanged a few pleasantries, and resolved to meet up for a round of golf very soon. It was more or less like all our encounters – teasing, warm and life-affirming.
That game of golf will never happen. Nick Milligan’s smiling face looked out at me from the front page of several national newspapers on Tuesday morning, the casualty, along with his eight-year-old daughter, Emily, of an accident of gut-wrenching, heart-breaking proportions in the sea off Padstow in Cornwall. There they are in a stylised black-and-white photograph, the Milligan family – husband, wife, three girls, one boy – attractive, sharing a joke, full of character, but now rent asunder by a tragedy whose circumstances are, horribly, all too easy to imagine but whose consequences are almost impossible to comprehend.
I had spent a couple of days cut off from my electronic means of communication, so although I had been aware of an awful boating accident in the Camel Estuary, it was not until I saw the morning papers that the story resonated in such a personally affecting way. We proponents of newspapers will always talk about the power of the printed word, which has an authority beyond anything you will read on screen. Well, let me tell you this. Nothing quite prepares you these days for the shock of seeing a piece of shattering news for the first time in black-and-white.
I felt sick. And then a little guilty. I didn’t know Nick terribly well, and I wondered whether I was co-opting his tragedy, and, in the modern way, making it about me? Should I tweet my message of condolence, or could that be interpreted as muscling in on a private tragedy that, through its nature and significance – Nick, pictured, was an advertising honcho at Sky, and was well-known in media circles – had become public?
But then I thought of my great friend, Phil, who was best mates with “Milly”, as he and most people called him. They had only just returned from a jolly weekend in Spain, and Phil couldn’t wait to tell me about their golf successes. I can’t imagine the distress of Nick’s close family: as well as coping with the death of her husband and one daughter, Victoria Milligan must live with the life-changing injuries which she and another daughter sustained in the incident. But I can imagine what Phil’s going through: the pain, the loss, the anguish, and the jolting reminder of mortality that comes from the brutally sudden removal of a good friend, and one of the world’s good guys. That’s what made me cry.