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James Runcie interview: Something upon which to rejoice

02 December 2022

The novelist, playwright, and film-maker has written a tender and funny memoir in response to his wife’s terminal illness. Interview by Sarah Meyrick


JAMES RUNCIE’s new book Tell Me Good Things: On love, death and marriage is a departure for the novelist, playwright, and film-maker. It is a memoir, and deeply personal. It tells the story of his love for his late wife, Marilyn Imrie, a drama director, singer, and artist, who died of motor neurone disease (MND) in August 2020, just five months after her diagnosis.

“It’s about grief, and love. And I hope it’s also about gratitude and thankfulness,” Runcie says. They were together for 35 years and “immensely happy”. Her illness was devastating, and all the more terrible because the diagnosis came just as the pandemic began.

“It was very hard to deal with, both on a practical level in terms of nursing and the availability of staff, and also in terms of coping with her accelerated decline,” he says. The speed that the disease rattled through her body was a mercy and a blow at the same time.

The book is his “revenge” against the cruelties of MND, he says with a smile. He has attempted to “reclaim her” from the terrible last few months.

There are two things that make his memoir unusual. “One is Marilyn. She was very different and very vivacious and joyous, and had enormous velocity of character. And the second is, I thought I would try and make it funny. I thought I would have jokes in it and celebrate her life.” The resulting book is a comedy “in the broadest sense, the way you could argue that the Bible is a comedy, because it ends with hope”.

The book is tender, heart-breaking, and funny by turns. Marilyn’s vibrant character leaps off the page. The reader is drawn into the heady orbit of a profound love story, played out against a backdrop that sweeps from the East Neuk of Fife to Venice and back, to the strains of Bach and Mozart, and the poetry of John Donne and George Herbert.

The supporting cast is stuffed with household names: the actors Pip Torrens, Siobhan Redmond, and Bill Paterson are among the couple’s dearest friends. (Runcie refers to the 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume, writing: “These were our values. It’s what Marilyn and I believed in. Hospitality, Elegance, Literature and Friendship.”)

Marilyn was, Runcie says, a consummate director, at home as well as at work. “She would sometimes make a play out of a situation or a family lunch. . . She would direct absolutely everything, including my behaviour.”

Her approaching death was absorbed into this drama. “Given our background, the only way the family knew how to approach it was as some kind of weird and unexpected new production,” he writes. “We were working towards a last night, at an unspecified date, for one performance only.” The trouble was, there was no script, no budget — and no schedule, of course.

Nor was there an audience, because of the pandemic. “Nobody came — which was, in a way, a good thing, because she didn’t want to be seen in decline. She wanted to be remembered at her best,” he says now. “So she was grateful, actually, for that.”

They tried to plan for the end, inspired in part by the example of Runcie’s father, a former Archbishop of Canterbury. “My father did it when he had prostate cancer, writing his own memorial service and putting the script into a brown envelope called ‘The Event’,” he writes. “He took great care over it, and gave the script to me a few months before he died, saying: ‘I’m rather looking forward to this.’”

Runcie found himself drawn to familiar phrases from the Book of Common Prayer, the psalms, and poetry, as he tried to find comfort in his desperation. “I read the psalms to my father [when he was dying], and I read some to Marilyn,” he says. “And a lot of music. I had to be careful, because it’s so emotional and so rich. To play Bach or to play Mozart had to be limited because it would make us cry.”

IT IS now a little more than two years since Marilyn died. He has a new partner, Lucinda. How is he doing? “Kindness is always a problem. If you ask me nicely: ‘How are you feeling today?’ obviously, that makes you want to cry,” he says.

It is some time since he wrote the book. “I finished it a year ago. So it’s been a year since that, and those [experiences in the book] are very much the experiences of a year ago,” he says. “I suppose I turned grief into a story in order to find some way of dealing with all the things that have happened, in a way of defining my relationship and my grief.”

He says that he has tried to be honest in what he wrote, but “you have to leave stuff out and you have to keep stuff for yourself.” There are also “certain no-go areas” in order not to distress his children.

Otherwise, he says, “you live as best you can.” He goes about his daily business. “You do all these things and then suddenly something happens, or you’re reminded of something.”

The day before we met, his publisher gave him a pair of espresso cups and saucers to celebrate the book’s publication. They happened to be by Susie Cooper, Marilyn’s favourite china designer. “It was the most ridiculously appropriate, accidentally appropriate present. . . far more loving, far more generous, and far more thoughtful than she’d ever anticipated it being. And obviously, as a result, it was upsetting, even though it was really kind.”

JAMES RUNCIEMarilyn Imrie, James Runcie’s late wife, taken on their honeymoon in Venice in November 1985

He could, he reflects, just have written the book for family and friends. “But it is meant to be of some benefit other people who are bereaved, and is meant to be entertaining as well,” he says. “Because I am a writer, and that is sort of my job.”

He expands on this in the preface to the book, writing: “There are countless tributes, biographies and laments written by the recently bereaved. In the best of them the writing reaches out beyond therapy and recollection to share what Dr Johnson called ‘moral instruction’ in the art of bearing calamities.

“This is not only my way of reclaiming [Marilyn] from the last months of terminal illness but an attempt to provide my own version of Johnson’s ‘moral instruction’ and to offer both the consolation of sorrow and the possibility of hope in the face of despair.”

It’s not that dissimilar to the Grantchester series, he says. “You could argue, of course, that every episode of Grantchester is a sermon.” As an aside, he believes that crime fiction has a part to play in helping people safely confront the reality of death, because we are so removed from it.

“Death becomes this kind of awful thing that you’re trying to pretend doesn’t exist,” he says. “What strikes me is that crime fiction forces you to do that. And also, it provides resolution, because obviously somebody’s guilty. But it gives people the opportunity to have imaginative thoughts about the nature of life, death, and moral responsibility, and what a life means and what loss means. It’s another bit of anticipatory bereavement.”

As he writes in this book: “I cannot avoid writing about faith, love and death. They are my only subjects, even if I cannot fully trust in the promise that an all-powerful God has an actively benevolent presence in the world. . . Whenever I have been asked about it publicly, I have tended to hide behind Thomas Carlyle’s idea of a life of doubt enriched by faith.”

But, as he writes, the consolations of Christianity arrived “from the most surprising places” after Marilyn’s death, and were real. A friend sent him a text, quoting Psalm 34: “God is close to the broken-hearted.” His “feisty, no-nonsense dry-cleaners” sent him a condolence card saying that they praying for God’s grace: “As one day gives way to another, so may darkness give way to light, sadness yield to joy, and despair surrender to hope in you.”

Pastorally, the couple were supported by the Revd Neil Gardner, a friend and a minister at Canongate Kirk, in Edinburgh. In spite of the Covid restrictions, Mr Gardner came to the house before Marilyn died. “We talked quite naturally and easily about the funeral service as if we were preparing for some kind of party,” Runcie writes.

“Neil understood. He’d done this before, He is, as we like to say in our family, ‘a proper priest’, serious and compassionate, kind and funny.”

In the end, there could be just 11 people at the funeral which took place at St Monans, in Fife, on the headland looking out to the Firth of Forth. There was a piper, and psalms of the sea.

It was another year before “the full theatrical production” of a memorial service with hundreds of mourners, once again conducted by Mr Gardner. “And it was absolutely the full show,” Runcie says.

BY THEN, in 2020, Runcie was in the middle of writing his most recent novel, The Great Passion, about Bach and the writing of the St Matthew Passion. “It’s obviously about the music of love, suffering, grief, and consolation. And at the same time, as I was finishing it, Marilyn was dying,” he says. “My daughter Charlotte said, ‘Do not tinker with that book, because it will finish you off.’ But of course, I did.”

Somehow, he finished it, and the novel was published to critical acclaim earlier this year. But now he thinks he needs a break. “What I’m trying to do now is write something that isn’t so emotionally wrecking, just an entertaining crime story set in Scotland in the 1840s. Something that doesn’t do my head in.” He yearns for a sabbatical “to read more and think more and listen to music and just not have to write”.

There’s still music he struggles to listen to. “Last Christmas, I went to the Messiah at Wigmore Hall. And that was absolutely disastrous because it was so beautiful. It was like hearing the music for the first time: it had this incredible freshness, and dynamism, and it was absolutely beautiful. And it’s hopeful, of course, the Messiah: it’s all about my childhood and my faith and the loss of Marilyn.

KT BRUCEJames Runcie with Jane Williams at a previous Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature

“And at the interval, I thought I can’t go back in, but I did. I did, and then I couldn’t leave the seat, and it was just because it was wonderful as well as completely terrible. It was also utterly wonderful because it is the most vital energetic, wonderfully resolving piece of music and it keeps coming, piece after piece, aria after aria. It’s just fantastic.”

Can he bring himself to listen to Bach? He has to ration himself, he says. Bach at Advent and Christmas is one thing; Good Friday another.

When we met, he was looking forward to Advent Sunday. “I said to Lucinda: ‘I want to go to church on Advent Sunday,’ and she said: ‘Where do you want to go? Would it be Canterbury, by any chance?’ and I said: ‘Yes. Yes, of course.’

“I like darkness and light. I want to go to a church where there’s darkness and candlelight, and then the light coming into the world. And that will be very moving, and I will cry.”

James Runcie will be in conversation with the tenor James Gilchrist  at the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature in February 2023. Tickets available now.

‘Not a bloody roller coaster’

Shortly after the diagnosis, a friend who is a psychiatrist told us that we should make sure we “make the most of the precious time there is left”.

I told him that Marilyn and I didn’t actually need a terminal illness to enjoy each other’s company. All our time was precious. In another telephone call, he said that I could phone him ‘whenever you like’ but that “Saturday afternoons are best for me”.

It’s difficult to know what to say in these situations but I thought psychiatrists were supposed to be good at this sort of thing.

A friend in America emailed to say how shocked she was. She had a friend with MND in Bristol. Did I know him? Maybe she thought the diagnosis gave us access to its every victim.

Nurses with experiences of MND warned us that the disease was “like a roller coaster” but, as the illness progressed, I thought, No, it’s not. It’s nothing like a roller coaster.

Stop saying that. But all the professionals kept coming out with the same phrase, as if it were a mantra or a prayer or a way of filling the silence with a fact. “Like a roller coaster”.

Sometimes they added the word “journey” for extra effect.

“The journey’s like a roller coaster.”

“NO IT ISN’T,” I kept wanting to say. “We’re not going on a journey at all. We’re stuck in this flat in Edinburgh in the middle of a lockdown. It is NOT A JOURNEY. And, more importantly, IT IS NOT A BLOODY ROLLER COASTER EITHER. With a roller coaster you have ups as well as downs. The ride is thrilling. With this disease there ARE NO UPS. It is down all the way and it is NEVER thrilling. Try to find some other metaphor. And, while you’re at it, you might as well learn from us not to come out with such crap to your future patients.”

But I didn’t ever say this. I just replied, “Yes, I suppose it is.” I sat on a sofa with the girls and said, ‘If anyone tells us that we’re going to come out of this stronger, I’m going to kill them.”

“MND,” said Rosie. “The disease that brings families closer together.”

Dr R said, “I’m sorry. You wouldn’t wish this on your worst enemy.”

“Well, I don’t know,” said Charlotte. “I wouldn’t rule it out. Maybe one day I’ll meet someone really awful.”

If it was “like” anything, it was similar to the myth of Sisyphus. No matter how far we pushed the stone up the hill it was always going to roll back down again.

Another friend, who is a therapist, sent me a text. How are you?

Three words that take under three seconds to write, requiring an answer that takes far longer. I have come to despise this phrase. There is an immediate answer. Fine.

Coping. And there is a more hostile response too: How the fuck do you think I am?

What those caring for the sick need least of all is more work; more explanation, more things to do. To answer a friend’s “How are you?” takes time if you want to do it properly.

Almost as bad is “I wish there was something I could do.”

Well unless you are prepared to help with the shopping, the feeding, the washing, there isn’t anything really.

I translated the phrase “I wish there was something I could do” into “There’s nothing I can do” or even “There’s nothing I am prepared to do.”

All these remarks put the onus on the recipient.

Tip: “Thinking of you” is better. As is “Do not reply. Just to say that I know it must be impossible. I am sending all my love.”

Or this: “James. Call any time if you want to, but not if you can’t. Any time. Day or night. I mean it.”

This is an extract from
Tell Me Good Things: On Love, Death and Marriage by James Runcie, published by Bloomsbury at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.69); 978-1526655448.


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