Ian Toothill climbed Mount Everest while he had terminal cancer – and that wasn’t the most impressive thing about him. Not even close. He was a truly beautiful human being – how strange it is to refer to him in the past tense – and for all his spirit of adventure, which was extraordinary, his greatest quality by far was his kindness.
I don’t know much about climbing Everest, and I don’t wish to find out. I get nervous enough looking out over a fifth-floor balcony in a stiff breeze. All I know about climbing that beast of a landmark, a feat which Ian presumably found no more difficult than a brisk walk, was that it was probably a journey far less painful and terrifying than the one Ian faced in hospital these last few months. Yes, we would all visit him: but every night, visiting hours would end, and he would be alone with the journey, ascending to the bleakest of summits.
Ian was – is – remarkable. The BBC, reporting on his death – the Everest feat, undertaken for charity, had won him widespread acclaim in the media – mentioned that he was childless and unmarried, a dispassionate description that might have implied he had no family. But like the footballer Cyrille Regis, who also passed away this week, I have rarely seen someone so loved. He was universally admired. His gifts as a musician were considerable, as I learned when he played bass for one of my previous bands. More importantly, he was what a man, what any human, should aspire to be – gentle, empathetic, compassionate. The only time I ever saw him upset in those last few weeks was when discussion focused too much upon the latest antics of the current American president, whose cruelty and narcissism could not be any further from who Ian was.
Ian was so considerate. In December, when I said I would visit him in hospital, he said I didn’t need to pop in for more than ten minutes – he didn’t want to take up too much of my time on my return to the city. He was wrong, of course; I could have talked to him all night. During that visit, he was the very soul of warmth, even as his health was deteriorating all the while. I don’t know how he managed to summon such positivity in the face of a fate so, so unfair. He was only 48. I would have expected and understood him if he had withdrawn into himself – and I suspect that, privately, he had several of those moments. Overall, though, I think he was furiously determined to wring every last moment of joy from this world before he left it.
Ian had something you don’t see often enough in a world this brutal: he had the courage to love. Not just his friends, or his partners, but life itself. His last gift to me, one of so many, is a message I will forever treasure.
A few years ago a close friend of mine, Nick Eziefula, once gave me a simple and vital piece of advice that I have lived by ever since he delivered it. Nick said: if you think of someone, contact them. I thought of Ian last week, when consuming the very latest of my beloved sweet treats in a Berlin cafe. So I dropped him a line, and he replied:
“Enjoy every single moment, you are living! Not doing deals, not worrying about making loadsa money, and what everyone else is doing, just “being”. It sounds beautiful. I have spent hours in cafes, escaping, dreaming, realising what I have to be grateful for… even getting excited planning impossible climbing/charity Everest climbs on there 😊. Enjoy x”
Enjoy. That was last Wednesday, when his already severe condition was getting steadily worse, though there was no sign of that in his words. It was the last time I heard from him, and is an instruction both vital and inspiring. Enjoy. I will, my dear friend. I will.