I received a preview copy of Richard Holloway's Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt from Canongate last year, but it's only just out on sale this month. So technically it qualifies under my TBR resolution, although you could probably argue otherwise and win your case. I probably wouldn't have picked it up so promptly if not for the way the title echoes the blog. Shallow eh? Alright, it wasn't just that. I was honestly interested in how Holloway, who was Bishop of Edinburgh and then Primus (the equivalent of Archbishop) of the Scottish Episcopal Church, came around to his current atheistic worldview. And also fascinated to read about the various brands and orders of organised Christianity he had passed through to get there. The title of the book just gave me the final push. I entertained thoughts of some classic Alexandria-based punning review titles.
The disappointing thing is that I haven't been able to finish the book, and rather than writing a review I find myself writing about why that is. I have dithered and dallied my way to page 202 of 350, battling with my frustration and disappointment, almost giving up and then at the last minute finding a sentence or a paragraph that convinced me to continue. But a reader can't survive indefinitely on one pleasing sentence per hundred sentences, so I have had to put the book to one side. And since I read a rave review of it by Andrew Motion in the Guardian at the weekend I have to question: why is that? I fear that the crux of the matter is personality: Richard Holloway and I do not get along. He rubs me up the wrong way; I think he privileges the wrong aspects of his life and glosses over others. As this is his memoir of faith and doubt not mine, I guess the content is his prerogative. Still, I can't quite get over my disappointment.
Holloway fixed on a religious life very early on, leaving his home in the Vale of Leven at 14 to enter a seminary for working class boys run by The Society of the Sacred Mission (SSM) at their base in Kelham.* He was inspired to live a 'given away life', he says, by the American Westerns that he loved to see at the cinema. The image of the lone man, who cannot settle down to happiness and stability, but must always walk alone, combating evil where he finds it and sacrificing himself for the good of others was singularly appealing to Holloway. And with a teenager's zeal he made the decision to give away his whole life to God. When he was old enough he signed up to become a professed member of the SSM - the Anglo-Catholic equivalent of becoming a monk, with all the giving up that implies. Celibacy, poverty, communal living. But during his novitiate he began to struggle with sexual yearnings - for women and also, he hints, for men - and, after two years working for the Mission in Africa, gave it up. Instead he returned to Scotland, was ordained into the Episcopal Chuch and embarked on his long and successful career, first in Glasgow and then in Edinburgh.
Those first chapters on life at Kelham kept me reading. The idea of such an institution, schooling boys from such a young age (and they took them much, much younger than 14 in the early 20th century), fascinated me. Probably, I guess, because it was a world with which women were only tangentally connected. The opportunity to draw back that curtain and peer in was irresistable. Which isn't to say my curiousity about those years of his life was satisfied. Holloway is very detailed about some things, and skims entirely over others (the interesting bits mostly), and by the end of it I felt that he was concealing more in those lacuna than he was telling elsewhere. For example, he mentions in one throwaway paragraph that he left Kelham for 2 years at the age of 18 for his National Service. He was a drill sergeant in the Army. Afterwards he went back to training to be a monk. And I can't quite believe that he says nothing, nothing at all, about this experience. What is it like to go from spending hours a day in chapel to drilling soldiers? What effects does living in such a notoriously worldly environment have on a man who has decided to become a monk? Surely there is something to say about this? No, nothing.
Later, in the same chapter, the SSM send him to Africa for two years to act as secretary to the Bishop of Accra (also a member of the order). Later he says himself that this experience was difficult for him; the sexuality of the place both tormented and fascinated him, and led him to take a reactive moral line that he later repented. Alas, this is also glossed over. The only observations he makes about his time in Accra are singularly and tragically focused on breasts, which many of the African women leave bare.
Obviously Holloway's African experiences went a little deeper, prompting him to leave the Order. He'd worn a cassock for years after all, and he sent it back to the UK. As he tells it, this followed a stream of correspondence with his novitiate master, whom he refused to obey and whose rules he could not conform to. And this is where I begin to feel that Holloway doesn't just leave things out; he is disingenuous. He says:
I can't remember why I felt it necessary to tell him what had been going on in my life, but I wrote to the Bishop of Glasgow to bring him up to date. By airmail return he cancelled my plans [to go to university in Aberdeen]. Forget about Aberdeen. When you return you will do a year's study at the College of the Scottish Church in Edinburgh, then I'll ordain you. When you get back, get in touch and we'll fix it. Yours Francis Moncreiff. I had not, after all, completely lost the habit of obedience. I went along with his plan.
There is no further analysis of this decision. After several pages of detailed recollection about his rebellion against SSM, Holloway simple shrugs and goes along with the Bishop of Glasgow. Even if he couldn't remember why he wrote to the Bishop or what prompted him to accept his offer (I don't really believe this), he must be able to interpret his behaviour in retrospect. The very fact that he doesn't examine his actions, makes me feel he is glossing the story to present us with the Hollywood version he wants us to believe. Much more romantic to see him as a young man swept up in the indecision of the moment, embarking on a Church career because he was told to, than as a young man who was simply following his situation through to the inevitable conclusion.
This is not the last time this happens. Little by little a pattern emerges, of Holloway lamenting what a base pretender of a person he is, all the while, apparently by magic, rising through the Church like a natural. It starts to seem as though he doth protest too much, and that this whole narrative of the struggle between faith and doubt is nothing but an epic re-enactment of those Hollywood movies he loved so much as a boy. The man that emerges is not the self-aware, radical thinker that I had anticipated. Instead Holloway's protestations that he was a great big faker - designed no doubt to make us see him as authentically honest - begin to ring painfully true. He's as fragile and uncertain as the rest of us. I start to wonder who the real Richard Holloway is and what he really believes. I'd love to know the answer - wouldn't we all like to know those things about ourselves? - but I fear that I'll never know.
*Bizarrely I know quite a lot about SSM, because Kelham closed down in the 1970s and when it did (for equally bizarre reasons) their papers were deposited at the Archive I formally worked at. I did some work on them at one time and another. Richard Holloway's records were probably in there somewhere; my hands might have unknowingly passed over them.