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

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.