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 – 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.