Creative Conversations: Richard Holloway on dying and the value of poetry

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Credit: Creative Commons

Niki Radman
Writer

“The bus might have already left the depot.”

Richard Holloway seems on good terms with death. He has been reading a lot of obituaries lately and finds the activity “strangely comforting”. The writer, philosopher and former Bishop of Edinburgh was this week’s guest on “Creative Conversations”, where he discussed the prospect of dying with serene humour: “Obituaries work like those meetings of substance abusers, who help each other overcome their addictions by sharing. […] Good evening, my name is Richard and I suffer from a terminal disease called mortality.”

Holloway explained that he got bored by the kinds of obituaries that drily enumerate the deceased person’s various achievements: “the ones that seem like a post-mortem petition for an OBE.” Instead, he prefers reading ones that “reveal something of the turmoil of a life”.

Holloway’s latest memoir Waiting For The Last Bus, which started as a series of regular broadcasts on the BBC, takes an honest look at the writer’s own “peculiar” life. A famously progressive cleric (example: the former Bishop of Edinburgh is also patron of LGTB Youth Scotland), theologian, philosopher and writer, he finds many polarities within himself. Writing memoirs, though, is Holloway’s way of better understanding his own journey and the preparation for the final stop. “It’s cheaper than psychiatry,” he pointed out, laughing. Interestingly, he also made a clear distinction between writing a memoir and writing an autobiography. While he considers most autobiographies tedious and “basicay humanly unreadable,” Holloway argued that memoirs were better outlets for creative freedom. “In some ways”, he said, “they are closer to fiction.”

Waiting For The Last Bus seems “almost like a kind of reading list… for poetry,” as host Louise Welsh pointed out. To Holloway, this extensive referencing of poetic works – from Philip Larkin to Don Patterson – made utter sense. An overarching theme of the book being his personal coming-to-terms with death, Holloway found in poems the unique ability to encapsulate that existential melancholy we are all faced with when contemplating our own mortality.

With Larkin, Holloway especially admired a “constant awareness of the passing of time, a great fear of death”. While pointing to mortality as a common thread in this literary form, the memoirist also said he considered poetry a genuine lifeline. Loosely quoting English playwright Alan Bennett, he said that there might be a time “when a poem, that is out there waiting for you, will save you”. To Richard Holloway, art is simply “the best of us”. He expressed his frustration at the practice of seeing art as a commodity, an “instrumental good” rather than an “intrinsic” one. When an audience member remarked that poetry doesn’t tend to be financially fruitful, Holloway paused for a moment and asked: “Should it matter? Should this last sacred good be commercialised?”

The 84-year-old poetry enthusiast, who clenches his fist mid-air with passion while reciting Larkin, doesn’t think so. If anyone saw Holloway for the first time on Monday and expected a man worn down by age, they would have been surprised by the vigorous projection of his voice into the room. When he made a point, he would often stretch out his arms to the audience and speak to them with his whole body. It was easy for anyone to tell that he still possessed the rhetorical skill of a preacher and the alert mind of a philosopher. And for anyone anticipating this week’s “Creative Conversations” guest to be a man consumed by his own piousness, Holloway’s resistance to dogma and his dry humour would have been a refreshing surprise. Several times during the talk, he had to remind himself to paraphrase “since I’m not allowed to curse in here”. On the idea of life after death, he simply remarked: “I am still conflicted, possibly yes, possibly no. In the end, I will die agnostic – and if I get surprised, I hope it’s pleasant.”