I first met Malcolm at London Airport on September 25th 1973, both of us expecting birds from Tim & Jane Barnley in Kenya. My consignment included pairs of juvenile Crowned cranes, Red-billed hornbills, Jacanas, Grey-headed kingfishers and a Woodland kingfisher; Malcolm was waiting for 10 Lesser flamingos on behalf of The Wildfowl Trust (as was). A strike at Nairobi airport saw us spend hours on the phone trying to get the birds moved off sun-baked tarmac under cover and given water. My brief diary entry for that day ends: “Eventually gave up and drove home. Malcolm Ellis is very nice chap.” He remained so ever since. Home then for me was Padstow Bird Gardens in Cornwall. The birds came the next day – which involved “20 phone calls and much patience, a) trying to get them on a flight to Newquay, or b) to the RSPCA hostel where M.E. was waiting, and also trying his best. Eventually in the evening (20.40) they got there (14 hrs late).”
Thus began a friendship which never faltered. The first letter I received from Malcolm quickly followed on October 4th, and our correspondence continued from then on wherever we were in the world. His letters from 1980 onwards which I have just collected weigh well over half a kilogram. The only time our correspondence ceased was when we lived together writing books – mostly me writing (under the name Richard Mark Martin), and Malcolm his beautiful illustrations. I suppose our “Cage & Aviary Birds” first published in 1980 by Collins and reprinted many times since is the best known. We wrote this in the Lake District, subsequently Malcolm followed us down to Cornwall, where he remained, becoming a popular and distinctive local ‘character’ in Wadebridge, at the library photocopier and on his little motorbike. To make ‘ends meet’, alongside his editorship of the Avicultural Magazine – which occupied most of his time after he ‘retired’ from illustration – he did a little gardening for people and was even a postman for a spell.
Reading back through his letters I realise once again what a unique and staunch ally Malcolm was through good and bad times, rapidly becoming a firm member of the family. All my children loved him for he became more of an uncle to them, in fact much more so than my own brother ever did. Through his gossip (never malicious) and anecdotes, he was one of the funniest people I’ve ever knew, and about the only person capable of reducing my daughter, Josie, to hysterics – a difficult thing to do. I’m not sure how I’ll manage without his regular letters usually with their selection of wide and varied cuttings, his gentle reminders of my age and jokes about who would get to write each other’s obituary first. Sadly that has fallen to me, I think I’d much rather it had been the other way round.
Dr Richard Meyer
North Devon, February 2013