Harvey Marcovitch on Jim

Harvey Marcovitch Last weekend we gathered in a clearing in a wood. Under a makeshift canvas awning, those who like to be active unwrapped the cakes, buttered the scones and boiled up huge urns of water for tea. Photographs, letters and notes were haphazardly pinned to the trees. A haze of smoke from the just-kindled campfire drifted through the falling leaves, joined by the sound of tent pegs being hammered by those who intended to stay overnight.

This particular festival story had started nearly 15 years before when my then teenage son, bullied out of school by teachers unwilling to accommodate eccentricity, went with his mother and a friend to work in an orphanage in Romania, and returned with a battered accordion and a fascination for Roma music. Jim Marcovitch

It took Jim a year to teach himself the rudiments of coordinating bellows, stops and keys, sufficient to scrape a basic living from busking. Armed with an atrocious fake Irish accent he entertained Celtic-naïve locals in a Norwegian pub, spending the money he earned on eight months in India.  Returning once again to what seemed to his parents a directionless and largely homeless existence, he surprised us all by enrolling evenings at London University’s Goldsmith’s College and infiltrating himself into the School of Oriental and African Studies

At the latter he came under the influence of elderly East European émigrés and became expert in Klezmer, Jewish music from the Pale of Settlement, with its infectious mixture of sadness and joy conjured up by wailing clarinets, crying violins and the solid bedrock of the accordion. 

Ultimately the band he and others started, Sh’Koyokh, loomed large on the celebrity wedding circuit, travelled around international festivals and entertained in schools, prisons and community centres. In the snow and on his own he played at the gates of Auschwitz.

Last weekend was a different sort of festival. True, piles of instruments in their cases leaned in unruly heaps against the trees like the stacked rifles of some medieval army on the eve of battle. But in the centre of the clearing, on trestles was a startlingly white cardboard coffin, surrounded by adults and a few children decorating it with poster paints, felt tip pens, glue and glitter, bells and flowers while all around musicians played their hearts out.

For an hour, his family and friends spoke of him, read poems or sang until it was time for me to be one of six hoisting my son’s coffin and processing slowly along the winding path that had brought us into the wood, through a field gate, along a wide grassy path and onto a narrow rutted track, our Wellington boots slipping in the mud and the coffin bouncing perilously on our shoulders. The clear tones of an Irish lament rang out sung a cappella by one of Jim’s devoted ex-schoolmates.  In a smaller clearing, surrounded by beech, oak and birch and carpeted with bracken, band members had risked callosities on their fingers from having dug the grave.   He was interred amongst friends – no clergymen, undertaker or municipal gravedigger in sight.

The violin and clarinet continued their half-sobbing, half exultant Klezmer, another old school friend softly sang Dylan’s He was my friend; an accordionist played who had told us at Jim’s wedding to Jenny six weeks previously how inspirational he had been. The wedding had been a two day explosion of music, joy and love, the guests knowing that within a few weeks or months they would be gathering again for a less welcome celebration.    Jim Marcovitch    

Jim approached his death with the same single-minded drive that he had lived his life. His last months, once he learned his bone marrow transplant had failed, were a fever of creativity, with CD launches, concerts and even the production of the illustration for the cover of a friend’s book.  At our last lunch together at his favourite Turkish restaurant I was amazed at how much a man with severe obstructive jaundice could put away. After our meal we posted the master tape for the first CD of his new venture, a trio playing gruesomely comic songs. Just outside the post office I caught him as he slumped to the ground with his first epileptic fit. In A&E he exhorted that his brain might be spared so he could complete his radio play and a new song on which he was working. Thankfully a little light radiotherapy allowed just that.

Scarcely a week before he died, now paraplegic, he was extracted from another sojourn in A&E to be carried gently by his brother to the launch of the CD at the Vortex in Dalston. He found he could not play while confined by the arms of a wheelchair but instead instructed us all to make sure we cherished every moment of our lives and filled them with everything we wanted to do.

His new wife and devoted brother nursed him, at home, through the final ravages of his lymphoma. He died, as he lived, with magic and grace. I have never properly understood the compulsion many people have to visit graves but we will go back to his clearing in the spring to see the new life that has sprung up around him from the hundreds of bulbs we planted last weekend.

Harvey Marcovitch is Associate Editor, BMJ.


  • Pamela

    I wanted to pass on my saddness at the passing of your son. He is just the kind of person we all need to have in our lives. I’m sure that as the bulbs will bloom so will his memory be honoured through the positive change he made in those who knew him.

  • Ajit Kashyap

    Dear Dr Harvey Marcovitch, My heart felt condolences and prayers for your brilliant and talented son.
    Ajit Kashyap MD

  • Dear Dr Markowitch
    That wonderful tribute will keep your son’s memories alive in the minds of several readers for a long time to come.Reading that has provided me with an awakening and a new outlook to life.I a certain I am not the only one.Lots of prayers
    Geetha Anand

  • Judith Harvey

    I recall with pleasure the stimulation of a two week attachment to Banbury 25 years ago. Thank you for that and for this.

  • Dr Harry Brown

    What a moving story and I wish you and your family a long life

  • LES

    a very moving story and a wonderfull tribute from father to son.

  • Mimi

    I was moved to tears reading this tribute. What an exceptional person and my sincerest sympathies to you his father and to all of his family

  • kim wallace

    Dear Dr Markovitch,
    23 years ago I was your SHO on the GP VTS at Banbury and always remember you as an inspiring teacher with wonderful funny anecdotes. i am so sorry to hear that you have been living through every parents worst nightmare and found your blog very beautiful and as inspirational as anything else you ever taught me Thank you Kim Wallace

  • ann robinson

    Dear Dr Marcovitch

    You have written such a beautiful tribute to your son. Somehow the motif of klezmer says it all-all that sadness, yearning, missing but shot through with some pure notes of optimism against all the odds. With very heartfelt condolences to you and your family
    Ann Robinson

  • Dr M J Notaras

    What a wonderful way to celebrate your son’s life!
    Although life in our universe is fleeting your son’s contribution brought joy and inspiration to the people who were fortunate to come into contact with him and his music during his sadly shortened life
    The place you described where he is buried, I would like to know more about. I was greatly moved by the appropriateness of the nature that surrounds his resting place.
    My deepest sympathy to all the family.

  • caroline richmond

    I, too, wept at this wry, sparing account.
    There is probably nothing worse than the death of one’s own children.
    I have a protege called Jimmy, a wonderful busker and cartoonist. He’s well, I’m relieved to say.
    I had a stem cell transplant five years ago and survived. It’s a ****** lottery, ain’t it?
    Please, post us news of the radio play in time to tune in.

  • Susan

    from the far side of the world, as a parent of adult children scattered around the world, thank you for this

  • Linda Tonner

    Dear Harvey,

    Years ago, my brother sent me with my baby to see you. She was a very unhappy sick child. I vividly picture to this day, you two sitting on the carpet in your house, with her playing with a puzzle, totally unaware that you were examining her.

    I was, and still am, impressed by your sensitivity, empathy and kindness. Needless to say, her ‘illness’ was cured in 24 hours, because you knew what you were doing.

    My SIL sent this blog because of that episode.

    Your beautiful and poignant writing moved me to tears, just imagining the natural setting and the joy and grief mingled with music.

    Your son touched many lives in a way that we all wish we could, and hopefully his music will continue to do so.

    With sadness and thanks,


  • Laurie Jacobs

    Dear Harvey,

    I was deeply saddened to read of your son’s untimely death. Your words were a very moving tribute to Jim, giving us an insight into his life story along with all that he achieved, his passion for the music and what an incredibly brave person he was when the chips were down. One of our close family have recently lost their daughter and as much as we get used to trauma and bereavement in our working lives, when it hits home it is a very different matter.

    The memory of all that he was and did will never go and his band and their music are on disc forever. I must get a copy of the CD- I’ve always loved Klezmer.

    We haven’t met for many years- I was one of your SHO’s in Barnstaple in 1977/78- one of our happiest times.

    My wife and I send you and your family our sincere condolences and will be thinking of you.

  • Emma Alter

    I met Jim, at Klezfest several years ago, and was struck by his kindness, gentleness, and generosity. It was a week filled with music, dancing, learning and laughter.

    I send my condolences to you all, and will think of him with a song and a smile.


  • Charlotte Boyall

    Thank you for allowing us to read such a wonderful tribute to your son, and you have my deepest sympathies. You treated me as an ALL patient at the Horton (1989-92, as Charlotte Weaver). I have never forgotten your kindness, and the way you calmed a very angry 14 year old by always answering questions honestly. I now have three daughters of my own.

  • rachel weston

    what a moving tribute, and a beautiful way to honour Jim’s life – thankyou x

  • Jaime Gaspare

    Dear Mr Marcovitch
    I knew Jim a long time ago in Banbury and we kept in touch but never met up while we lived at opposite ends of London… I came across the news that Jim had passed away today and I just wanted to say what a brilliant man you had a son and I am deeply blessed to have known him. I now have two sons and cannot comprehend the sadness you must feel… Your tribute to Jims life and magic is beautiful and I am so sorry for your loss……

  • Don Adsett

    Dear Harvey, I was very shocked and moved by your tribute/eulogy for Jim. Please accept the sympathy from me and my wife, Philippa. It sounded like a tragic process with the opportunity to anticipate and “prepare”. I am told that is still not enough to diminish the pain or fill the vacuum in your life.
    Don Adsett, Toowoomba, Australia

  • anne m jones

    It is almost eighteen months now since the death of our amazing son ( i nearly wrote sun but he was that too, bringing such joy and inspiration to us all even at the very end). His courage was astonishing.I am so grateful for teh support of all his friends in this past bleak year, for their music making and continued tributes to Jim.
    Less known about Jim is that he worked in Romanian orphanges, inparticular one in Southern Romania, for children with learning difficulties.Hewent there with his friend Oli Cumming and when I went out to visit I was greetred by a crowd of children delightedly singing songs by Bob Dylan. In the evening Jim and Oli used to go into the town and there got to know the gypsies, and were inspired by their music and dancing. One time I visited Jim’s first wordds were ‘ there’s an accordion for sale'(it was rare to see anything for sale in that sad country let alone an accordion) so we clubbed together all our dollars. That accordion later was ransacked by the Israeli customs officials , as he was departing , who were convinced it was something more sinister than a maker of lovely music. It was never playable after that.
    It has taken me all this time to revive my interest in the world’s needy children but I would be doing Jim a disservice if I did not follow his inspiration, so have just returned from a project in Bangladesh , teh BAnyan Trust ( see its website). I played SHekoyah’ s first CD during one of my workshops, and it went down a treat. So dear Jim, you and She’koyah, continue to inspire everywhere! From Anne m JOnes (Jim’s mum)

  • Paula

    Recently a friend introduced me to the music of Sh”Koyokh whom i had never heard of before, and whilst looking up albums i came across jim”s name. The name was very familiar to me from years ago and led me to your post here. Strangely i”d known your son. I was one of the first people he and Oli met when they arrived at the Filiasi orphanage back in 1992/1993. Many of the previous volunteers had left and there was only about ten of us left there at the time. I distinctly remember Jim especially and how good he was with the children. He and Oli got on really well with Andrew one of the last male volunteers left and they would go with him to listen to the Gypsy”s play in town. We women couldn”t go unfortunately as we had received threats of Rape etc from some local”s and could only go out in daytime. Also i remember due to these threats, the 3 men including Jim slept just outside our dormitory on the top floor each night. I was very upset to learn of his death and can only imagine if he made such an impression on me years ago, how much he must be missed by you all. My deepest sympathy goes out to you all as a family. We never met again in this country although i did meet Anne his mum and she updated me on his work in Romania when i attended a meeting in Banbury. You had a very special son and i am glad i met him even briefly. x