(8 December 2006)
There is an unfortunate tendency for motoring writers to be bitchy towards one another - there's even a website which all but encourages them to be like this - but from the time I first met him I have never known anyone to utter so much as a syllable of criticism about Malcolm Baylis. On the contrary, he has always been spoken of in the highest terms as one of the kindest people in the business; a gentleman and a gentle man, voluble in his praise and support of colleagues, softly-spoken when he felt the need to express disapproval.
You will understand, then, the sombre mood that has descended upon his fellow journalists in the week that Malcolm died. We had been expecting it for several months, and there is a feeling of relief that his suffering is over, but we nevertheless feel that something special has been taken from us, and that the world is somehow not so good a place as it once was.
I first met Malcolm during the press launch of the first Jeep Grand Cherokee. We drove together, everyone else having already been paired up, and in retrospect it seems trusting of him that he agreed to this, since I had a made a complete arse of jumping over a gate the previous day and hurt my left leg so badly that I could hardly walk. I could drive as long as the car had automatic transmission (which the Jeep did), but I don't think I would have wanted to sit beside myself on that event.
Two things became apparent that day. One was that Malcolm was a lovely man. The other was that he didn't like driving as quickly as I did, and wasn't the world's best passenger when I was doing it. He didn't actually complain about this, but I realised the depth of his concern a few years later when I was racing a Ford Fiesta guest car at Oulton Park. Just before the race, Malcolm came up to me and said, "Drive as if you're trying to frighten me!"
He was being encouraging, but it backfired slightly because frightening Malcolm was the last thing I would ever want to do and I started to worry about it. I was more careful about that every time we drove together from then on.
We met up again at a Volkswagen event in March this year. I didn't know he was going to be there, and as ever it was a delightful surprise when I found that he was. He looked a little more aerodynamic than usual, but he explained this by saying that he had lost his appetite - and several pounds - during a recent bout of flu. He also said that he was having some difficulty in swallowing and that he would be going to hospital for a check-up in a few days.
There seemed to be no cause for concern. Malcolm was in his 70s by now but he could have passed for 55, thanks no doubt to his enviably healthy lifestyle. I believe that he smoked and drank when he was younger, but by the time I knew him he did neither. Nor would he touch coffee, he even refused to eat chocolate, and he got a lot of exercise pursuing his hobby of birdwatching. Surely he was going to live to be 100?
It was Mike Grundon who gave me the shattering news that he wasn't. Mike is as much a gentleman as Malcolm was, and they were great friends even though they lived several hundred miles apart. In every conversation I had with either of them over the last five years, each made a point of saying what a fine chap the other was, and I always agreed enthusiastically.
I suppose it was appropriate, therefore, that Mike was the one who called me a week after the Volkswagen event to say that Malcolm had told him - quite casually, as if this were the least important thing he had to talk about - that he had been diagnosed with stomach cancer and had a year to live. It turned out to be an optimistic prognosis; Malcolm went through all the chemotherapy courses that were available, but they made no difference.
My final meeting with him was at the press launch of the Audi TT a few weeks ago. It was shocking to see how much weight he had lost, but within three sentences our conversation was already running along familiar lines. Apart from the dark cloud hanging over him, this was the same old Malcolm - witty, kind, asking after other people, dismissing his own difficulties.
He was moved to a hospice in late November and since I was in the area a few days later I wanted to visit him, but he lasted less than a week. Mike wrote him a letter which he never received, and so too did another colleague who told me he wanted "to say how much I had enjoyed knowing him. All we can do now is tell each other." Of all the things that have been said about Malcolm since his death, this, to me, has been the most moving, and perhaps also the most positive.
Goodbye, old friend. I wish I could have been like you.