WESTERN culture in the 21st century has a problem with two closely related, if distinct, things: death and ageing. In the view of some, “the Last Enemy” is on the verge of being defeated. Indeed, there are regular think pieces on the mortal possibilities of flesh; some claim that there is no upper limit on life.
Others have become so obsessed with youthfulness that there is a sense that to grow old at all is shameful. Indeed, the Greek myth of Tithonus — who is given eternal life, yet forgets to ask to be for ever young — haunts the modern world’s imagination.
In this wise and, at times, exquisite book (based on a Radio 4 series), Richard Holloway faces death and ageing with dignity, honesty, and — rather wonderfully — with thanksgiving. Not for him the fate of Tithonus, but a gracious welcome of the Last Enemy as an Old Friend. Indeed, at the heart of this book lies a sense that, for him, the approach of death is a gift for wisdom and hope.
Structured, in part, through reminiscence and autobiography, each chapter meditates on some facet of death’s unavoidability. There are “The Dance of Death”, “Looking Back”, and “Defying Death”, among other titles. Holloway, characteristically, uses personal reminiscence, wide reading, and decades of priestly ministry as a way of worrying at the beliefs that we hold about death.
It is a beautifully woven text. If Holloway might now count as “post-Christian”, his style remains an exemplar of Anglican writing at its best: nuanced and elegant. At one point Holloway states: “It is not the thought of being dead that troubles us; it is the prospect of leaving and losing that grabs us by the throat.” In the hands of a youthful writer, such a line might read as cliché. Perhaps it is cliché, but when it is written by a nonagenarian there is pathos. Indeed, for all of Holloway’s disavowal of religion, it’s his vulnerable humanity that gestures to the depths.
He acknowledges how much of life he has missed because he was obsessed with the “next thing”. His reading of our tendency to live the masks that we give ourselves, using St Peter and (surprisingly) John Wayne, is unexpectedly affecting.
Alan Bennett once said that he never attended closing nights of his plays, because the actors tended to be more concerned about “saying goodbye” to their roles than serving the production. I had not foreseen that Holloway — so much a performer, so alert to flash and bangs — would, at this late hour, be able to “serve the production” so well. If this is goodbye, it is fitting and generous.
Canon Rachel Mann is Rector of St Nicholas’s, Burnage, and Visiting Fellow of Manchester Met University.
Waiting for the Last Bus
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