Tutorial, Bayes net for forensic DNA analysis, Satellite, Dice, DNA Helix, Distance Matrix of pairs of amino acids, Bristol Balloon festival
Tributes Family & early life Oxford & Liverpool Durham & Newcastle Seattle Shorter contributions Obituaries Memorial gathering and symposium Programme Music Abstracts of talks (pdf)


Family and early life

Hilde Übelacker-Besag

Dear Julian,

This is a letter to say farewell to you. For the last time I want to talk to you and to be near to you at least in my thoughts. They go back to your start in life, the 25th March 1945. We were living near Basel at that time, my mother and my grandmother hoping to join the family in England soon. But my grandmother was lying on her deathbed after a stroke when we got the news of your birth. She had been looking forward so much to that event: her beloved grandson's first child. She was unconscious, but we told her the news, and I have always hoped that she heard it. So your birth for me was linked with my grandmother's death. Was it a forecast of what you would have to experience as a little boy? Because there was the shadow of death. Your mother was taken away when you were four years old, but you found a new loving home with your grandparents near Birmingham. Then, after two years your grandfather died whom you had dearly loved. You stayed with your grandmother until your father married again when you were nine years old and, again, you had to leave a beloved home and a second mother.

I always have thought that all this really was too much for a little boy and that it was at least part of the reason for problems you had later in your life.

So my love for you has always been joined with feeling sorry for that hard beginning of your life. And we two have always been very close to each other. I remember how you explained your work to me and I understood that mathematical statistics is by far not so abstract as I had thought, and I could very well imagine your teaching.

A highlight of our meetings was my visit at Seattle when you took me out on a magic trip with your boat on the lake in the evening, with good talks and the lights of Seattle around us. And the next day our wonderful hike in the mountains above the city.

Then the last time we met, a few years later. You came to me without having told me before. You just stood there at my door and I took you in my arms, so delighted to see you again. The next day we hiked to the Yburg as we always did when you were here. We stood a long time on the terrace of the old castle, looking down on the villages between the vineyards and on the wide Rhine valley. We didn't talk much, we quietly stood there together, feeling very near to each other, and somehow we both knew it would be the last time. But I thought I would be the first to go. I shall never forget that.

Good-bye Julian. You will always stay in my mind. And I pray that you have found peace now in the light and mercy of the Lord.

May God bless you and take you in his arms.


Julian's father, Emile Besag, was my brother. He was born in Frankfurt/Main in 1913 and died in 1987 in Loughborough. He was an engineer. He studied in Munich and left Germany after his graduation in 1936. He went to England and worked with a firm at Birmingham - Crabtree - until the war broke out. Then he was interned as German for some time. When he came free he was no longer allowed to work in the industry. So he started teaching at Loughborough University, at first as lecturer, then as professor and specialised in techniques of measurement. He stayed in Loughborough until his retirement.

Julian's grandfather was born in Bühl, a little town near Baden-Baden, in 1878 and died in Birmingham in 1951. He studied in Karlsruhe and was one of the pioneers of automatic control. He invented the first automatic protective switch (Schutzchalter in German) worldwide in 1912. Since this was absolutely new he could realise his invention only after the first world war, in 1921, with a firm in Hornberg in the Black Forest. He was very successful and had many patents for his invention. But as he was of Jewish origin he had to leave Germany and went to England in 1939, just before the war. He started work in the same firm as his son, with Crabtree in Birmingham, which had already a licence arrangement with the firm in Hornberg. When the war broke out, my father also was interned for some time but, afterwards, he was allowed to continue his work for Crabtree.

My mother was born in Frankfurt/Main in 1891 and died 1963 in Baden-Baden.

When my father had left Germany we, his wife and four daughters, were thought to follow soon. But we did not get our passports because the Nazi authorities wanted my father to come back to Germany because he was an important person for the industry. Then the war broke out and we had no possibility to emigrate. We were deported to the camp of Gurs in southern France in October 1940 and stayed there until July 1942, when we were liberated by the protestant church of France who claimed us as members of the church, and they helped us to escape to Switzerland in October 1942. My mother joined my father in England in May 1945. After studies at Geneva I went back here in 1946 to work in the protestant church.

I know very little of Julian's mother. When I came to England for the first time in 1946 she was already very ill from cancer and knew that she would not live much longer. She had wanted her child even knowing that it was a risk for her own life. But she was very brave.

Julian has often visited me. He liked to come here into the old family house. We were very fond of each other, and it was also the link to his grandparents whom he had liked so much.

I hope you don't mind this long letter, but I thought you should know the family story to know the background of Julian's life. I am very sad that he had to go so early.

My daughter told me yesterday that you can find Julian's grandfather Ernest and his father Emil in the internet.

Valerie Besag (Newcastle)

Julian's bumpy start in life was influential. His mother died when he was two. An aunt came over from Germany to care for him but she eventually had to return home. His grandparents looked after him until his father re-married. Julian's perception was not that he had gained a new family but that he had lost his grandparents as well as his father. By the time he was 19 when I first met him, he felt he had lost the most significant people in his life. Early loss can be a contributing factor to later depression and Julian suffered greatly from depression, often finding it difficult to face a new day.

Julian enjoyed much of his childhood, as can be seen in the photograph of him in a dress with one of his two step-sisters and a cousin. The Besags were enthusiastic mountaineers and Julian spent many family holidays climbing in the Alps. The photo shows him at the family house in Baden-Baden which backs onto the Black Forest. I understand that in his teens he held the record for the longest survived drop from rocks in the UK.

Julian was a passionate hockey player. Although not Welsh, he played for North Wales and had a trial for Wales. One time he was taking his not unusual early exit from the field when, looking back to give the referee the benefit of his advice, he suddenly disappeared from view. He had fallen into the footings dug for a new clubhouse. He was a member of the North Wales team that played in the final of the European Cup in Lyon.

The day before Julian was to present his work at the famous 1974 RSS meeting in London, he had an extremely high temperature. The doctor said he must remain in bed for a couple of days. I put cold compresses on his forehead throughout the night and he was up and out the next day to go to London. Once he had given his talk, he was fine. The doctor said it was the worst case of panic he had ever seen. Around that time, he had the only nightmare I am aware of. He shouted out in his sleep that he was being chased. When I asked by whom, still asleep he shouted, "The Markov Chains are strangling me". Julian was a nervous, shy and vulnerable man. At any gathering, I did the meet and greet while he "parked the car". He was often tense in social situations saying he had no small talk.

Julian became a passionate sailor. David and I were in Seattle when he bought his first boat. Julian always said he couldn't be taught anything. He had to find his own way through a problem whether it be statistics or sailing. Determined to frighten me, he had the boat rocking and rolling. On collecting my developed photographs, I saw that one showed the boat lop-sided. I asked the shop assistant if he could correct my bad photography. He looked quizzical and said `Look at the horizon, Pet. The boat IS on its side.' Even after renal failure, Julian sailed alone from his house up to the small islands off Canada, an area he loved.

Julian also loved Italy. By the time he last came in 2009 he was very tired, weak and not as seen in the photo, which was taken on an earlier visit. He hung his dialysis bag from the dresser as usual and a nurse came each day to pack his foot wound. He no longer wanted to do anything but sit in the garden. We both knew he would not see Italy again.

It is impossible to sum up such a complex man as Julian. One word I would use is passionate. Julian was passionate about everything he allowed on his radar. He faced several hurdles that could have been insurmountable but his passion allowed him to overcome them and excel in many different areas.