Review: Richard Holloway: Memento Mori *****

Edinburgh International Book Festival

Richard Holloway: Memento Mori

Baillie Gifford Main Theatre, Charlotte Square

15:15 (16 August only)

***** (5 stars)

Richard Holloway has long been one of my heroes. An ex-Episcopalian bishop who used to be priest in charge of Old St Paul’s, where he would famously conduct weddings for lesbian and gay couples when the Scottish Episcopal church refused to allow that we were human beings too, he has been described as “gorgeously unorthodox” and “Britain’s barmiest bishop”. I admire him because of his searingly honest writing, which over the years has charted his progress from almost evangelical certainty to frank and open uncertainty about the ‘whateveritis’ that many people call ‘god’. 85 years old in November, he was at the book festival ostensibly to promote his latest book Waiting for the Last Bus but in practice to have a fascinating and deeply moving conversation with James Runcie.

Richard explained that this most recent book started life as a series of essays for the BBC and then expanded. As a priest, he spent much of his life with death, tending both to the dying and to those who were left behind to mourn, and so has a deeper acquaintance with the subject than most of us. He suggests that man is the only living creature with a foreknowledge of death: animals have different ways of dealing with imminent death and its aftermath, but they don’t live their lives in the consciousness or mortality, whereas wo/man can spend her/his whole life so terrified of death that he or she is unable to live. In the past, religion helped people face the unknown and promising immortality in the afterlife: now scientists are taking over, and science-based technology offers the horrifying prospect of physical immortality. Richard hopes that Hollywood will take over this idea and produce the ultimate zombie apocalypse movie, with himself as the chief zombie….

He has much wisdom to offer us all. He spoke movingly of his own advancing years, and particularly of the ageing and death of Daisy, “his last dog”. As we age, we look back at our past selves: he advises us to do this with tenderness – it’s okay to be embarrassed by this younger self, but we need to forgive it, too. The worst thing is “dying not knowing who you were” – and being aware of our eventual death doesn’t mean we have to live in a state of morbid obsession – say yes to death, but don’t ruin life because of it!

As religion fades out of our consciousness, present-day people tend to ignore or gloss over the knowledge that this life has an end. In the Middle Ages, people knew they would die, and prepared for dying while they were still alive. Ars Moriendi, the art of dying, was studied and talked about, the illiterate were reminded by carvings in churches and cathedrals. Richard hopes that his book will be an ars moriendi for the present day because it is vital to prepare for dying, not only for ourselves but for those who are left behind – it is horrible to have to watch someone die who is angry, terrified, or simply doesn’t want to go. He spoke of the comfort and consolation of poetry and well-know passages from religious writings – it doesn’t matter whether one believes in what they say, the important thing is the comfort it brings people nearing death, even those who profess no particular religious beliefs.

The hour raced by, and we could have stayed as long again and more. I rushed out of the tent to go buy the book and queue to have it signed – glad not only to get a copy of yet another of Richard’s wise and thought-provoking works, but also to have the opportunity to thank him for his honesty and kindness: he is the epitome of his own maxim “kindness to all, including yourself, is the essential”.

Mary Woodward