By Andrew Dembina
“Van Morrison’s playing reminds us that he used to be quite a sharp acoustic guitarist… a welcome inclusion on an engaging, enthusiastic but inessential set.” So concluded an incisive review of a then new CD called The Skiffle Sessions, published in the May 2000 issue of HMV’s now defunct magazine The Voice, penned by the late long-time Hong Kong resident and part of the furniture at the FCC’s Main Bar for decades: Robin Piers Lynam.
While pulling no punches in his music writing – mostly on rock, jazz and blues – for a great many publications, Lynam reached his conclusions via a wide, long-accrued knowledge that was closely rivaled by his in-depth understanding of food and (alcoholic) drink, another of his preferred areas of focus as a contributing writer.
While he would often tell it like he saw it in media or social gatherings, Lynam was not one to put someone down for the sake of it – generally, that is. On occasion, I recall him reaching boiling point when a know-it-all at a media gathering veered into verbose overdrive – or, even worse, got a fact wrong.
Anyone who knew him well loved this acerbic side of the otherwise exceptionally courteous, intelligent and witty Lynam. He “put the ‘gentle’ into gentleman” was one of the most apt tributes to appear on the Facebook page of Karin Malmstrom, his long-term partner, following his premature passing in the early hours of 20 February. A struggle with prostate cancer which shifted to his colon, bouts of chemotherapy and finally, ensuing surgical procedures were to take an accumulated toll. Appreciative remarks about Lynam, in social media and elsewhere, also expressed shock that he was gone far too soon, having just turned 63.
Despite illness hampering his activities for a while, Lynam had managed to catch up with his good friend and host of a longstanding Christmas get-together, Chris Davis, editor of Banking Today, in Hong Kong. “Lynam was a great pal for more than 30 years – it was not unusual to see each other two or three times each week,” he says. “He and Karin joined us for our journos’ and friends’ Christmas lunch for 20 years or more.
“Last year, he had to see us just before that lunch, as he couldn’t be exposed to many people [in his condition]. Previously, he was always the first to arrive and last to leave – his conversation was always as eloquent on his first glass as it was after his third bottle. With a pithy comment, he could say or write in one sentence what might take others 1,000 words.
“They both also played music at my wedding party in 2005. I miss him so much – he was one of my closest friends.”
Davis travelled on a number of press trips over the years, which were made all the more colourful for Lynam’s presence. One of Davis’ fondest memories is when “as someone with absolutely no interest whatsoever in sport – he actually went to the Rugby World Cup in Australia [in 2003], which I was also attending. He’d said ‘no thanks’ to the invitation from the PR company at first, but then they told him there would be some wine to try.” That changed Lynam’s mind and they had a great time – even at the rugby games.
Lynam was born in London in February 1959. Both his father and brother served in the British armed forces and he spent part of his early childhood in Tripoli, Libya, while his father was posted there. Family bonds were strong. “Robin was very close to his mum and dad,” says Malmstrom, “and he adored his [late] brother Jeremy [who was stationed in Hong Kong for some years].” Lynam attended Dulwich College Prep School and Cranbrook School, before moving to University College London to study English literature. He was also very fond of his cousin, the English actress Jenny Agutter, who he would occasionally see in London.
“My best memory of Robin is through knowing him as a child,” recalls Agutter, who was six years his senior. “Spending time with him over many years, I think always of his warmth and humour. When my husband and I visited Hong Kong, we had the benefit of his wealth of knowledge about food, and the joy of discovering great restaurants with him. I loved being in his company.”
Bernie Kingston, a young tutor at Cranbrook when Lynam was there, recalls: “He told me that he played guitar, and I told him I had always been fond of The Shadows and could play Apache note-perfect, so for fun we formed Bernie and The Jets, which may have been his first band.”
British TV presenter Sankha Guha, who studied at UCL at the same time, says: “Lynam was one of my closest friends over the years and across continents. From the moment we met, we plotted the hijacking of the university newspaper together.”
Upon arrival in 1982 in Hong Kong, Lynam’s first work was for Hong Kong Tatler and Hong Kong Business magazines. The editor of Tatler at that time, Steve Knipp, recalls his impression of the budding contributor: “a lovely guy, he was a true Edwardian-era English gent.
“As our arts and culture correspondent, he penned a stack of insightful, beautifully written film and book reviews, plus profiles of visiting jazz musicians.
“Lynam told me he had zero interest in ever taking a fixed staff post. I think installing him in a petite office cubicle would have been like trying to put a seagull in a birdcage – very noisy, quite messy and short-lived.
“Later, when I joined Travel & Leisure, I sent him on trips, including to then-exotic Shanghai on an old rust-bucket coastal liner. He loved it.”
While Knipp agrees with the consensus that Lynam was a kind and gentle fellow, he recalls some fearless tendencies: “On a press trip to Spain, he and I found ourselves in a dingy waterfront dive in Barcelona, well past midnight. The scruffy, unshaven barman looked like a super-sized Tony Soprano. Lynam smiled at him and said something in debauched Spanish; the scowling barman walked away, returning a minute later with two glasses and a bottle of sparkling white Cava wine.
“Lynam poured two glasses, sniffed his, then instantly held up his hand, waving to the brute behind the bar. I feverishly asked what the problem was. He glanced at me through the gloom and said, ‘Mr Knipp, as a colonial American, you may not be aware of this, but our wine has clearly not been properly chilled. The barman must bring us another bottle, promptly, and at the proper temperature.’
“Thankfully, I was able to convince him to let this late-night barbarism slide.”
Malmstrom, a strategic advisor to Cotton Council International who arrived in Hong Kong in 1980, met Lynam at the FCC. They became a romantic item in 1996, having both worked together planning events on club committees when she was Second Vice President. “At that time, one of his Mind Your Head bandmates retired and they invited me to join [playing an electric blue violin]. Being in his company sparked so much happiness.
“He was always so thoughtful,” she continues, describing their blossoming as a couple. “He made me feel very appreciated. He would surprise me with all sorts of information, insights about so many topics, especially arcane facts about 1960s and 1970s musicians and old movies.”
The couple enjoyed travel but with different preferences: “He was used to five-star hotels, I didn’t mind a backpacker hostel,” Malmstrom says. “We met in the middle and enjoyed years of globetrotting. He loved Paris and each time we visited he insisted on making a pilgrimage to Harry’s New York Bar [known for its live jazz, as much as its cocktails].”
Other journeys took them to North Korea, Cuba and the Blues Highway from Chicago to New Orleans – in time for its annual jazz festival. “We were fortunate to squeeze in possibly the best trip – just before Covid hit two years ago – when we lazily cruised aboard The Strand Hotel’s luxury riverboat on the Irrawaddy.
Lynam was formerly married to Gillian Smith “and they have remained good friends throughout the years,” says Malmstrom.
And how would Malmstrom most want Lynam remembered? “He was a kind, clever and caring soul whose wit and humour filled people’s lives with joy,” she replies, which seems spot-on – as long as some fool was not spouting nonsense within earshot for too long.