Kathryn Mannix, book festival

At the Edinburgh International Book Festival and Death on the Fringe, Aug 2018

“The ‘d’ word” – a topic that was once part of everyday conversation in the Western world – makes us uncomfortable. In fact, many avoid using it at all costs and instead refer to ‘passing away’ or to ‘loosing someone’. It is the ultimate leveller (we will all get there sooner or later), and yet we are embarrassed and awkward if we have to refer to it, especially with the dying person themselves or grieving relatives.

Dr Kathryn Mannix however, is not discomfited by death, no not at all. In Being Mortal (a Death on the Fringeand an Edinburgh International Book Festival event at the same time) she launches in with direct questions about who has planned their funeral or spoken to loved ones about end-of-life care. At two Edinburgh events she receives an almost 100% response rate to the first question and notes how unusual we are, so perhaps things are changing. She is on a mission to reclaim the word because, “if we stop using this language we can’t do precision or actual reality when someone is in the process of dying.” And that means we cannot reassure them (which is something she is really good at) after receiving a terminal diagnosis, or find ways to give them the chance to “be the person who they are” without fear or pain getting in the way.

Sarfraz Manoor is Chair for this Book Festival event, and introduces her as a ”palliative medicine pioneer”, stating that the session will form part of a “conversation about life, death and the space between them” which her book, With the End in Mind (2017) is concerned with. A top-level physician and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy therapist, Mannix has obviously been a mover and a shaker in the National Health Service and tells us poignant and amusing stories about her early days in training and on the ward. She is keen to recognise her teachers and acknowledge fellow contributors such as Canadian neuroscientist Adrian Owen who was billed but unable to attend today.

Mannix is well practiced in explaining the likely trajectory of death, has clearly thought through her beliefs and ideas, and listened to many. She appears to be unflappable with a hint of the patronising, but that may be a manner she has had to develop as a woman of this status in the NHS. The knowledge she shares is prodigious and at times she speaks with real compassion. She is fluent in this dialect of death, and her presentation seems to be touching a chord, receiving nods and murmurs of agreement from listeners all round. There is many a wet eye in the audience and she knows and names it.

Richard Holloway – book festival

Richard Holloway was at the Book Festival on 16th August 2018. He is chairing the following events there: Stuart Kelly on 18th , Hilary Spurling and Jenny Uglow on 23rd at 15.45 and Claire Tomalin on 27th at 11.45.

Richard Holloway
Richard Holloway

Compared to James Runcie, 85 year old Richard Holloway is a small man, smooth headed and bespectacled. Runcie describes him in the introduction as ‘gorgeously unorthodox; a bold troublesome priest; repeating others’ words about him as ‘Britain’s barmiest Bishop’ and ‘an old bugger’ which brings a wry smile to Holloway’s face as he begins to speak about Waiting for the Last Bus, Reflections on Life and Death published by Canongate in Edinburgh. “It kept writing itself”, Holloway explains, ”right up until the last minute”. Beyond in fact, because he then smuggled an extra page at the end, beginning, “My dog Daisy died … We walked thousands of miles together on the Pentland Hills until she was too old. The first trek I took without her…I wept …”. Some in the audience wept too, and there is an aaah before the applause following this reading.

This is a moving and a humourous Edinburgh International Book Festival event. Runcie asked Holloway if his book is a 21st century Ars moriendi (Medieval end of life practical instruction, The Art of Dying, 1414) and he replied “I think that’s an excellent way of putting it”. He makes the point several times, that what with the increasing medicalisation of dying and the tendency for people to speak in certainties (which, he says, can never be), we are no longer allowed to do it ourselves. He tells us that he wishes to remain in his own bed, to die “at home so I can be cuddled. I might even come out with some famous last words.” “You could be there for hours!”, Runcie retorts, getting another laugh.

Replete with stories and quotes galore, Holloway’s conversation is slick and deeply informed. He’s aware, compassionate and demonstrates informed understanding. The sayings trip off his tongue – this is a subject he is an expert at, and he brings us up to date with his current thinking in response to the likes of Richard Dawkins “(he’s so certain and I am so unsure, that he has the same effect on me as an evangelical fundamentalist”); the Dalai Lama (who summed up the difference between them by saying “I am a cat man, you are a dog man”. “I like the old guy” Holloway told us!); assisted dying (an “intensely complicated “ subject); and how to explain the horror of death to a young person (“Don’t lie directly to a child. A consoling fiction may be.”).

After 50/60 years as a priest, “death’s an old friend”, Holloway explains in his clipped Scottish accent. He sways gently from side to side as he reads at the lectern, entertaining us: “I’m hoping Hollywood will turn me into a Zombie. I’m told I’ll require no make-up”.  And then he offers up his advice: “Cherish those you love, and indulge in melancholy. Let’s do it well.”

Here is my own review of  ‘Waiting for the Last Bus’

book festival

Never Steady, Never Still

2017 Film directed by Kathleen Hepburn. 5 stars.

A stunning film in both definitions of the word, Kathleen Hepburn’s best known film is also painfully realistic. Very gradually, we come to understand how desperately challenging Judy’s life is. Shirley Henderson brilliantly inhabits the body of someone with Parkinson’s – the gait, the gestures, the voice – and evinces incredible pathos as a result. Her 18 year old son, Jamie (played by Théodore Pellerin) is the other key character in this Canadian feature, and he, too, is deeply immersed in his role so that we squirm when he is embarrassed and cry when he cries. It is no wonder Hepburn has won a whole raft of accolades for this.

Gently, the extent this illness has on Judy’s life unfolds. Set against the exquisite, quiet backdrop of the water and hills, icy forests and snowy roads of Alberta, the physical pain and mental challenge is terrible. The setting or rising sun, rose-glowing at the horizon, may be indicative of the atmosphere in the home, but it is never overly obvious. This is because we are slowing down with the pace of the film and increasingly mindful, unable to avoid empathising with what is taking place.

As if Judy and Jamie do not have enough to contend with, they must also deal with death and consequent grieving (there are marvellous views of the simple funeral chapel); bullying around heavy machinery; drug taking; an unpleasant sex scene with a prostitute in a tiny portacabin toilet; teenage pregnancy and the inevitable questions about sexual orientation – although I thoroughly enjoyed the candid, awkward conversations between Jamie and 17 year old Kaly (Mary Galloway) in the final section.

The opening scene of the mother in her white nightie standing thigh-high in the sea outside her lodge, and the accompanying narrative of her miscarriage and stillbirth, manages to be both light in tone and heavy in implication. Again and again, we see the cast from behind, although we might be shown, over a shoulder, a second character facing us. Often intense close up is used, so close that it can be almost out of focus, such as the upsetting, but fantastically realised, getting-dressed sequence at the end; or the camera is at ground level, for example, when Jamie and his best buddy play ice hockey: the sound and sight of the blades cutting, chillingly, through the ice.

With so many beautiful and artful images to stay with you after it ends, there is nevertheless a sense of discomfort and danger. Despite the occasional easy humour, you cannot avoid understanding something about life with this debilitating disease.

Richard Holloway – Waiting for the Last Bus, reflections on life and death

Book Review *****

How do I sum up Richard Holloway’s Waiting for the Last Bus, Reflections on Life and Death in a few 100 words when it tackles the broadest subjects imaginable? This octogenarian is so insightful and informed, his text so littered with erudite quotes, and his advice so spot-on, that I am tempted to simply say, you must read it!

Part personal musing on living, and part teachings on ageing and the reality of decease, Waiting for.. is brutally honest and pragmatic: “A death well faced can be redemptive of a life that may not have been well lived.” “We want to make it (life) more just and abundant and joyful for everyone.” states the author, thus he forces the reader to be as thorough as he has been in his thinking. His writing tone is crystal clear: “there is no escape from anguish…. Accepting the reality of… our death …might save us from the greater unhappiness of trying to ignore or hide from these realities…It takes fortitude,…the ability to endure the reality of our condition without flinching.”

Holloway is an ex-Bishop of Edinburgh and former Episcopalian, past Chairman of the Scottish Arts Council, and writer of divers volumes including the 2012 Leaving Alexandria, his biographical enquiry into faith and doubt. This background goes some way to explain his expansive knowledge: the bible, the liturgy in its complexity, poetry, music and art, all of which he plunders and delves into for apposite sayings to back-up his theories and assist in his expositions. “..let Me live to my sad self hereafter kind, Charitable” from GM Hopkins’ Poems.

Whether sermonising on the meaning of the universe, on jealousy versus envy, loss, sexuality or forgiveness and compassion (“Wherever it comes from, one of the paradoxes of compassion – forgiveness is that it can release the sorrow of offenders at their own action.”) even John Wayne! most aspects of death are given an equally rigorous treatment. Medical intervention and the tendency towards avoidance of our mortality is tackled in detail, but the quantum approach is not. More recent understandings of time and the consciousness of matter are not alluded to and might offer a different perspective to the “naked silence and profound stillness” (Leopardi) which he believes will come inevitably after the universe ceases. Perhaps he would tell me that that was my compulsion to find an alternative to this nihilation.

Published by Canongate

Canongate page on this book

Richard Holloway was at the Edinburgh Book Festival speaking about this book. Here is my review of that event.