Book Review

Valeman’s reflections on life and death while ‘Waiting for the Last Bus’

Words and photographs by Bill Heaney

I never realised Richard Holloway was so popular. The big Valeman’s audience at the Edinburgh Book Festival packed the largest auditorium in the tented village on Charlotte Square for his reading from his latest book, Waiting for the Last Bus.

Mind you, Richard, deserves his popularity. He has had a marvellously interesting life.

And now, at the age of 85, he is looking forward to an amazing death.

Not that Richard is ill, of course. He is full of life and, from where I was sitting with 500 others, it will be quite some time yet before his wish for a happy death is granted.

That old cliché about “meeting his maker” is not appropriate in Richard’s case though.

Because he is not sure the making of him applies beyond his parents, who brought him up in humble circumstances in a crumbling tenement in Random Street, Alexandria.

“My parents gave me life,” he told his interviewer James Runcie. “I have my doubts about whether God was involved in any way at all.”

Now, that is strange, very strange.

It’s not what’s expected from a former Archbishop who was head of the Episcopal Church in Scotland before he retired in 2000 to become an exceptional writer and broadcaster.

An archbishop who said he believed in God maybe sometimes and then again not at all.

Richard Holloway became manna from heaven for the tabloids who inevitably dubbed him The Barmy Bishop in big, bold headlines.

But being brought up in the Vale of Leven gives a man backbone – and Richard Holloway has plenty of that. The superb biography Leaving Alexandria was the first of Richard’s many books that I ever read and reviewed in the old Lennox Herald.

The blurb for it on Amazon states: “At the tender age of 14, Richard Holloway left his home town of Alexandria, north of Glasgow, and travelled hundreds of miles to be educated and trained for the priesthood at an English monastery.

“By the age of 25, he had been ordained and was working in the slums of Glasgow.

“Through the 40 years that followed, Richard touched the lives of many people as he rose to one of the highest positions in the Anglican Church.

“But behind his confident public faith lay a restless heart and an inquisitive mind.

“Poignant, wise and fiercely honest, Leaving Alexandria is a remarkable memoir.”

Richard thought that was it – a valedictory message to the people of the Vale and the world as his life progressed towards old age – and death.

But it never turned out like that, and when he made a radio series for BBC Scotland about what it was like to know you had but a few short years to live, it was so highly acclaimed that his publisher came back to him and asked Richard to write a sequel to Leaving Alexandria.

That is when he took up the challenge of writing Waiting for the Last Bus, which has become a best seller and which is both controversial and comforting for so many people who have now read it.

People queued happily for two hours after his entertaining and often touching talk to have him sign their own personal copy of the book.

What’s it all about then? My dear, departed friend Dan Lynch, who was a kenspeckle figure in Dumbarton, used to tell people in his old age that he was “in the departure lounge”.

This may have been because Dumbarton folk always thought themselves that bit above Valemen and women,  and had become used to occasionally taking a plane.

Richard Holloway hasn’t forgotten his roots though and well remembers that Vale folk took the bus, occasionally the last bus, to the Fountain or Alexandria Cross.

In Waiting for the Last Bus, Richard gives his controversial views on life and death and religion.

Doctors are fighting too hard to keep the elderly alive “long after any joy in doing so has fled”, according to Richard.

The one-time Bishop of Edinburgh from 1986 until, said a tendency to over-treat patients left some older people stuck in a “medicalised existence whose sole purpose is staying alive” and “keeps too many people alive long after any pleasure or meaning has gone from their lives”.

Richard, 85, who shared his early life between Possilpark in Glasgow and Alexandria in the Vale of Leven, has an interesting take on death.

He says it was one of the great successes of modern medicine that most people would live into their eighties, but added that such increasing longevity was also having “a profoundly distorting effect on the balance of society as a whole”.

It was placing a huge financial strain on the NHS as the number of people surviving a long time with multiple chronic conditions increases.

He writes: “Care of the elderly is close to swamping the resources of the National Health Service, turning it into an agency for the postponement of death rather than the enhancement of life.”

Instead of being “sentenced to years of mournful dissolution” many of them “long to be blown out like a candle”.

Richard, who still attends church and from time to time conducts funerals, weddings and naming ceremonies, describes himself as an agnostic who “doesn’t expect” an afterlife.

He said he has already planned his own funeral and joked that his obituary will “be summed up in something that will then go in the cat litter tray”.

Richard told us he will opt for cremation and that his son has instructions to scatter his ashes in his beloved Pentland Hills.

Now widowed with three children and two grandchildren, he attended St Mungo’s Church in the Main Street in his youth before going off to become a monk and train for the Anglican priesthood.

His father worked in the Turkey Red dye works where he once wrapped himself in a piece of curtain material which he concealed under his coat and smuggled out to dress the windows in their humble abode.

And, instead of going to church with the rest of the family on Sundays, the bishop’s father made his way up to a card school at Jamestown railway crossing where he gambled along with other working men.

All this and more is detailed in his memoir, Leaving Alexandria, which includes recollections of nights at the pictures in the Strand and the Hall and long walks with his mother over Carman Hill.

Richard remains one of the most outspoken and controversial figures in the Church as an advocate for gay rights.

He was once condemned by George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, for his book ‘Godless Morality’, which argued in favour of keeping religion out of ethical debates.

His new book comes as the NHS continues to mark its 70th anniversary and amid a debate about its future direction.

Richard Holloway says: “Visiting the elderly can be a dispiriting experience if they spend their time rehearsing their ailments and complaining about the inattention of the local health professionals who are run off their feet trying to care for them.

“The reality is that death has rung their bell, and peace will come only when they open the door and say you got here sooner than I expected, but come in and sit down while I get my coat on.”

Richard maintains that people should turn the clock back to the days when death was accepted for what it was, the end of a life, which is inevitable and comes to us all.

Pretending that people were simply passing through did not amount to that acceptance and he for one was not convinced that there would be anything hereafter.

 Waiting for the Last Bus: Reflections on Life and Death is published by Canongate (£14.99). The book is available at all good bookshops and on-line at Amazon.

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