Book Review of Leaving Alexandria by Richard Holloway

Book Review of Leaving Alexandria by Richard Holloway
Harry Reid

Richard Holloway, erstwhile Anglican priest and bishop, has written many books. The latest is his autobiography, and it may well be his best. The story of his life is told deftly and entertainingly. He whisks us along in a fast-moving journey from Alexandria in the Vale of Leven to the English Midlands, to West Africa, to the Gorbals in Glasgow, to Carrubers Close in Edinburgh, to Boston in the US, to Oxford and, at last, back to Scotland for the long and magnificent coda to his rich life – and amid all this he intersperses brief religious and theological reflections which have a genuine profundity.

This carefully crafted technique allows the book to be thoughtful as well as colourful, meditative as well action-packed. It is also, in an unshowy way, exceptionally well written. Holloway is a great phrasemaker. Just two examples: ‘The Clyde was a majestic river, but she was a worker as well as a queen’; ‘Scotland’s largest regiment, the drinkers.’

This is the candid memoir of a deeply religious man who could never give himself completely to God. It is the account of a dedicated and busy non-celibate priest’s very full life. For much of it Holloway was doing his best for people who were needier than he was. Happily married to Jean, and in most ways fulfilled, he was a good man doing good things.

He was often mired in controversy, yet by his own account – and I believe him – he was not a natural rebel or troublemaker. When he disobeyed his church’s rule on marrying divorced people, or when he officiated at his first gay wedding as early as 1972, he was, as he saw it, responding to people who needed ‘a kind of mercy’.

As he notes, the ultimate test of belief is obedience. Holloway could not reach the requisite level of obedience.

He is not defiant or truculent. He is a confident and clever man, and this is not a modest book, but neither is it self-serving. Holloway’s prose has poetic grace. He has the poet’s eye for the insidious telling detail, and he can switch from the general to the particular with an ease which makes for unusually rewarding reading.

The book starts particularly well. The long opening passage tells us of his love for Kelham Hall, by the River Trent, which housed the Anglican religious order that trained him for the priesthood. Holloway had an uneventful childhood in a happy working class home in Alexandria in the Vale of Leven – he describes this in a warm glow of fond reminiscence which is very moving – and then he was packed off to Kelham when he was 14.

As he puts it, he fell in love with both the place and the high purpose it served. He duly became a priest, and eventually, the distinguished Bishop of Edinburgh and a respected theologian.

He describes the simple rhythms and routines of life at Kelham with a soft numinous beauty. He also writes about adolescent longings. There is quite a lot about sex in this book, though not as much as I expected. As the young Richard stared at the breasts of a girl called Lily at a farm near Balloch, he saw exactly what his life would be: ‘An endless struggle with the flesh.’

When, still a young man, he went off to West Africa to be secretary to the Bishop of Accra, he was indeed battling his flesh, trying to make his body submit to the spirit. He was ‘electrified’ by the bare-breasted women he saw in Africa. ‘I had never seen anything so beautiful or so tormenting. It filled me with a longing that was as much sadness as lust.’

Holloway compares erotic longing with spiritual longing; both promise more than they deliver. He muses on the unavailability of the Great Lover, and the parallel ‘Great Absence’ of God.

Before I met Richard Holloway, I disapproved of him. I thought he was a serial self-publicist, who had made overmuch of his doubts and his eventual loss of faith. We met in an unlikely setting: a small community centre situated between two bleak housing estates in north Edinburgh. I was moderating an event at which he was discussing some of his books.

He addressed the small audience briefly and well. Then, at the questions, I noticed how he never patronised anyone, but answered sometimes halting and confused queries with understanding, empathy and clarity. He created a warm solidarity, and the evening became an unlikely success.

I became a Holloway fan then and I have been ever since. This very fine book confirms and indeed strengthens my admiration for a questing, unquiet man who is good, gifted and gracious.

by Harry Reid