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Tell Me Good Things by James Runcie review – love, loss and lessons learned | Autobiography and memoir

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When James Runcie recalls his late wife Marilyn Imrie, the much-loved drama director, he does so in colour. First there is the extraordinary skin, pale as milk, which he noticed the first time he set eyes on her at a BBC meeting in the early 80s. Later, in the course of their 35-year marriage, he learns to relish her vibrant fashion palette: “She generally wore clothes as boldly as those old Soviet posters in red, black and white, with accents of silver, pink and blue.” He knows – and cares – enough to itemise her favourite pieces: a deep-purple blouse from Issey Miyake, a jacket bought from Biba in the late 60s, an antique Japanese kimono. The impression Runcie paints is of a bird of paradise flashing across the muddy pond of conventional good taste.

Sound is part of Imrie’s extraordinary call to her broken-hearted widower, too. “I had always thought she had the most beautiful voice in the world,” he recalls, explaining how Imrie had started her career as a folk singer and spent their years together belting out Joni Mitchell or Strauss in the shower. When the neurologist writes in his notes that Imrie is now “unable to sing”, it is clear something terrible has happened. “Instead of Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera.” says Runcie grimly, “we were faced with Terminal Illness in the Time of Covid 19.”

In 2020, just as the pandemic was spreading, the 72-year-old Imrie was diagnosed with motor neurone disease (MND), the pitiless neurological wipeout that kills in the cruellest way. First come unexplained sharp pains, then an inability to twist off lids and finally the hideous business of drowning in your own saliva. As the symptoms start to intensify, Runcie and Imrie find themselves hoping that it might “just” be a brain tumour or perhaps multiple sclerosis – a disease that has a high prevalence in Imrie’s native Scotland. But it is the worst news. MND is called “the thousand-day disease”, but really it is two years if you are lucky. In the end, Imrie lasts five months and 22 days and, you can’t help feeling, is blessed to have got through it so quickly.

Runcie, though, is not writing a death memoir, nor even an illness memoir. While he alludes to Imrie’s deterioration and the dismal succession of special equipment that arrives at their door in Edinburgh – nebuliser, power-assisted bed, hoist, ventilator – he does not share the graphic indignities of what happens when you lose control of every bodily function. Rather, Runcie has written a love letter to the woman who, when he announced to his parents that he was going to marry her, prompted a less than ecstatic response. Imrie was 12 years older than Runcie, previously married, and already had a child. “She’s very nice but it’ll never last,” said Runcie’s mother, while his father, who doubled as the archbishop of Canterbury, said: “We’ll do everything we can to support you,” which hardly sounds like a vote of confidence.

That promised support didn’t, couldn’t, extend to marrying the couple in church since, at that time, Anglicans still took a dim view of divorce. Instead, a blessing at Lambeth Palace was arranged. Imrie wore a crimson, floor-length red gown hired from a theatrical costumier, which sounds as though she may have been trying to outdo her new father-in-law. It certainly got the lady from the archbishop’s press office in a tizz: “The scarlet woman. What will the papers say?” The papers, it turned out, had not noticed.

Despite these slightly sketchy beginnings, the marriage did indeed survive and flourish. Runcie, now celebrated for his Grantchester crime series, credits Imrie with turning him into a novelist. For all her lavishness of speech – “Hello Gorgeousness! Tell Me Good Things!” was her standard greeting to friends – she had a scalpel sense when it came to text. She encouraged Runcie to cut anything slack or sloppy from his drafts, so what was left was the pure essence of character and the logical energy of a story that could only end one way.

These are qualities that Runcie brings to this memoir. He is, for instance, flinty-eyed about the callousness that comes with caring for an ailing loved one. When his elderly neighbours mention that they are getting the Covid vaccine next week, which will be “quite a relief”, Runcie finds himself flooded with “visceral hatred” towards them for their outrageous good fortune in still having a future to protect. Likewise, the addicts queueing up in front of the local methadone clinic infuriate him for the casual way they knowingly gamble with their bodies when Marilyn has no such luxury.

While Tell Me Good Things is not intended as any kind of manual, Runcie is keen to pass on tips about how to be a good friend to someone who is caring for a dying partner. Do not text “How are you?” as one of his pals, a psychotherapist, did. The real answer, “How the fuck do you think I am?”, might cause offence. Yet nor does Runcie have 20 minutes spare to craft a reply to a message that took all of three seconds to compose. Far better, he says, to send a text that says “thinking of you” and expect nothing in return. Oh, and a tip for doctors and nurses, magnificent though many of them are: do not describe MND as a “journey”, nor even “a rollercoaster”. Both imply fun bits, happy pit-stops, temporary respites. With this wicked disease, there simply aren’t any.

Tell Me Good Things by James Runcie is published by Bloomsbury (£12.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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