The capital with the eye of an expat

Life is too short to lack colour

‘Michael Gambon is dead’, he said. ‘I was there when he first set eyes on E. It was like seeing lightning strike.’

Such was my introduction to Mark Rimmel, one of Budapest’s more famous expats. Much has been written about the Crown Maker; he has packed an incredible amount into his ninety years and has plans to see out his centenary, at the very least. While our orbits had intersected in the guise of mutual friends, our paths had never crossed.

Until recently.

On the day the world heard that Michael Gambon had died.

On that day, I knowingly broke the tenth commandment. Over. And over. And over again.

For a couple of hours on the weekday afternoon, I watched and listened as his inner raconteur generously offered insights into what it was like to have his father pay a doctor to have his mum certified insane and then for him to grow up in a children’s home in London and be evacuated to the countryside during the war. I heard how he fell into antiquing, how Sir Paul McCartney would drop by his gallery to shoot the breeze after walking his dog up Primrose Hill, how he had to leave Dame Judy Dench to go check on his adopted mum, how he hosted Derek Jarman’s first solo exhibition.

Jeremy Irons. John Malkovich. Charlie Chaplin. Marlon Brando. Notable names popped up in conversation. Popped. Not dropped. Rather carefully placed to illustrate a point or further an argument.

His apartment in Budapest looks out over the Danube, across at the Parliament. It is packed with mementoes from his travels, pieces of jewellery he has fashioned out of stones and gems he picked up while on location. He showed me a necklace he made from a raw emerald he found in Bogota when working on the set of Love in a Time Of Cholera, where he first came across the concept of mystical realism. He pointed to another necklace he designed and had fashioned by a silversmith in Havana.

Everywhere I turned something else caught my eye.

Everything I pointed to had a story attached to it. I asked, and Mark Rimmell was happy to oblige.

There was no chronology. It was like skipping through an autobiography, landing on pages that caught my attention and then getting lost in paragraphs that came alive in the telling.

Nothing was just something. Every thing was some thing.

That tenth commandment: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s goods.

We’re not neighbours, Mark Rimmell and I. We live on opposite sides of the river that bisects the city of Budapest. He has the better view.

We’re not contemporaries. In another life, he might have been my father.

We’re not compatriots.

And yet, there I was, actively coveting.

The six icon prints that had been rescued by the principal of a religious school when the Communists came.

The holy pictures painted on glass from Serbia that he acquired somewhere.

The exquisite artwork made of a jewelled piece of bark set on a backdrop of red and gold Chinese silk.

The metal statues of three figures in an ellipse.

The tall standing crucifix lacquered in gold.

And the crowns.

All were modelled from his imagination bar one that was inspired by the Queen herself when she appeared on a BBC programme talking about the Imperial State Crown with its four hanging pearls. While the royal crown is made of ‘gold, silver and platinum, and decorated with 2,868 diamonds, 273 pearls, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds, and 5 rubies’, Rimmell’s version is framed in chicken wire. Both have four pearls hanging from the monde.

The first crown he made was for the winner of the World Top Model Beauty pageant in 2013. He found inspiration in a straw sun visor he saw hanging in a shop on Váci. The most recent creation he has aptly named the Angel of Peace and Freedom. It is quite the collection. Little wonder, then, that he’s spoken of as the Crown Maker.

And yet, amid all the jewels and glass baubles, amid all the glitter and the gold, none sparkles quite as much as the man himself.

Although we’d never met, I felt a strange affinity, as if we had run into each other in a previous life.

As I watched and listened to him share snapshots of his life, a curious thing happened.

A turn of the head, a wave of the hand, a word or phrase reminded me of someone else, somewhere else. Memories of happy times spent with friends who have since shrugged off this mortal coil came flooding back. Art. Boss. Johnny P. Pat B. Ray. Rex. All of them dead but yet very much alive. So alive, that I half expected to turn and see Mark Rimmell in conversation with one of them.

It was the strangest thing, this compositing of memories.

I blogged recently about Toby Keith writing a song based on an answer Clint Eastwood gave when Keith asked him about how he says to vibrant. Eastwood may have a couple of years on Rimmell but I suspect they share the same philosophy – don’t let the old man in. Had he not said he was 90, I’d never have known.

We live in a world where diversity is undervalued and homogeneity overrated. We only have to look at the headlines to see how being different is too often conflated with being dangerous. Some would go back to a time when everyone but the rich and the intrepid stayed in their corner of the world, and kept their opinions to themselves. Others happily subscribe to conformity.

But life is too short to lack colour. Every now and then I meet someone who shows remarkable disdain for shoulds and shouldn’ts and instead embraces the why nots.

Mark Rimmell is an inspiration. If his essence could be bottled and sold, he’d fund his favourite charity, Noah’s Ark, in perpetuity.

Mr Rimmell, Sir, it was a pleasure.

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