Richard Holloway Q&A: “Clem Attlee was the yang to Winston Churchill’s yin”

The former Bishop of Edinburgh discusses George Orwell, living in the Scottish capital and liberating the elderly from lockdown. 

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Richard Holloway was born in ­Glasgow in 1933. He held the roles of Bishop of ­Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church until 2000. Since then, he has described himself as an “after-religionist”.

What’s your earliest memory?

Aged four, going with my mother to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the local picture house in Possilpark, Glasgow, and peeing myself laughing at the antics of the dwarfs. The beginning of a lifelong addiction to the movies.

Who are your heroes?

My childhood hero was always the lonely drifter sorting out the bad guys in some town in the American West, then riding off into the sunset. As an adult, thinkers in every generation, such as George Orwell, who challenge the religious and political Thought Police with their final solutions to humanity’s incurable problem – itself.

What book last changed your thinking?

Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English by Jonathan Rée. He encourages us to do our own thinking and not be condescended to by those who think they know what it all means.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Clem Attlee, the quiet revolutionary who was the yang to the yin of Winston Churchill, the romantic conservative. As Lao Tzu taught us, balance is all, so we should seek out, not run from our opposites.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

It wouldn’t qualify for Mastermind, but I can remember where I saw most of the movies I have seen in my life – how sad is that?

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I would love to hover spectrally over Edinburgh in the first half of the 19th century, while Walter Scott was writing compulsively to pay off his bankruptcy. I’d like to see him at his desk in North Castle Street in the New Town, before he had to downsize to a flat in Shandwick Place. I’d love to follow him as he took the coach back to Abbotsford at the weekends.

What TV show could you not live without?

I don’t really have one, but watching every series of The West Wing helped us through the lockdown, though I got tired of President Jed Bartlet’s constant mansplaining.

Who would paint your portrait?

My friend Joyce Gunn Cairns, the Edinburgh artist, has been sketching me for years, so it would have to be her. She’d see things others who don’t know me might miss.

What’s your theme tune?

“A Raploch Air”, composed by my friend Francis Cummings.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

You are cursed with the gift of verbal fluency: use it carefully. I have not always followed it.

What single thing would make your life better?

The liberation of the elderly from the constraints of the lockdown.

When were you happiest?

Right now.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

Jazz musician.

Are we all doomed?

Doom is judgement on the human species, and I think the jury is still out. 

“Stories We Tell Ourselves” by Richard Holloway is published by Canongate

This article appears in the 25 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The autumn of discontent

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