Tell Me Good Things: On Love, Death And Marriage

James Runcie

Bloomsbury, £12.99

Review by Susan Flockhart

When Marilyn Imrie died in August, 2020, tributes from Scotland’s thespian community were effusive. She is “written on the heart of Scottish theatre”, said playwright David Greig. Her impact on Scotland’s creative scene had been “truly incalculable”, wrote theatre critic Joyce McMillan.

Yet beyond the showbiz bubble, she wasn’t a household name. As a theatre director and radio drama producer, Imrie was a necessarily invisible presence on-stage and over the airwaves, whose genius lay in pulling a production together through a process of creative alchemy. Early in her career, noted her close friend, the actor Bill Paterson, she had taken “a heap of notes” written by John Byrne and turned it into his first radio play. “I don’t think John would ever have become a playwright, if it hadn’t been for Marilyn,” said Paterson.

James Runcie’s memoir, Tell Me Good Things, offers a vivid portrait of this dynamic force of nature. Runcie and Imrie were married for 35 years and Tell Me Good Things is in part a widower’s testimony of his enduring love for a woman who could light up a room with her trademark greeting: “Hello, gorgeousness. Tell me good things!”

As the subtitle suggests, the book is also an account of her illness and death, aged 72, from motor neurone disease (MND). So, while there are sparkling accounts of the couple’s romance, their travels and their happy family life with two daughters, those chapters are interspersed with harrowing descriptions of the onset of mysterious neurological symptoms and Imrie’s diagnosis, in February 2020, with the disease she most dreaded. (“Imagine hoping for a brain tumour,” she’d observed ruefully, shortly before MND was confirmed.) The rapid decline of her mobility, speech and even her ability to eat or breathe, is documented.

Yet this is by no means a depressing read. Runcie is a celebrated broadcaster, playwright and author – most recently of the acclaimed Bach-inspired novel, The Grand Passion but perhaps most famously of the popular Grantchester Mysteries, whose clerical sleuth, Canon Sidney Chambers, is partly inspired by his late father, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie. Now, he deploys those literary powers to impressive effect, adroitly conveying the tragedy of Imrie’s decline without ever becoming mawkish or defiling the dignity of a woman who couldn’t bear for friends to witness her deterioration.

In any case, part of Runcie’s reason for writing the book was to rescue his own memories of his beloved from the horrors that dominated her final weeks. The chronological list of medical equipment that arrived on their Edinburgh doorstep tells its own story: from bath aids and walking frames through ramps, specialist feeding equipment to hoists and ventilators. This being the time of Covid-19, medical assistance was often remote and Runcie and his daughters had to learn to use complex life-preserving instruments by YouTube, only to discover that “the pace of her illness made most of the props redundant within two weeks of their arrival”.

That word, “props” is deliberate. Given their shared immersion in the theatrical world, Runcie’s narrative makes liberal use of stage terminology, setting out the dramatis personae for what he jokingly describes as “a tragic farce in one act” whose action takes place in Edinburgh and Fife, where they’d recently bought a house near Imrie’s childhood home. Thus, Miss Marilyn Imrie is cast as “the Reluctant Patient”, and there are walk-on parts for various medical personnel, helpful locals and friends.

The cast list glitters with famous names. The couple moved in glamorous circles and this is a very writerly book, peppered with references to their artistic influences (Dr Johnson, Chekhov and Henry James feature prominently). Yet it’s an easy, accessible read and there is plenty of humour. Reflecting on the influence of Christianity in his and Imrie’s lives, Runcie describes his own baptism by his father’s friend, the absent-minded Bishop Lancelot Fleming. “Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live and is full of misery …” began Fleming. “'Lancelot,’ my father interrupted, ‘that’s the funeral service’.”

Another anecdote – shared by Bill Paterson on Imrie’s 70th birthday – had me in knots. (I won’t spoil the punchline but it involves an East Neuk minister and the comedian, Ken Dodd.)

“Oh, f*** off, you b******,” Runcie and his daughters all shout in unison, when – the day after Imrie’s death – an 87-year-old TV horticulturalist breezily predicts he has “10 more years of gardening still in him”. I loved this viscerally honest insight into the fury that can afflict mourners when confronted with anybody with the temerity to outlast the one they’ve lost.

In the bleak days that followed Imrie’s quiet, Covid-era funeral, Runcie struggled to motivate himself even to put on his socks each day in a Marilyn-less house still full of her clothes, perfumes and artful interior adornments. Writing the book seems to have been partly an exercise in soldiering on. It was also a way of continuing the most important creative partnership of his life. Imrie’s editorial input had always enhanced his work and now, drafting his memoir with her old pen, “it was almost as if we were writing it together”.

Determined to resist creating an “idealised apparition” of his late wife, Runcie observes that the challenge for the bereaved is to remember those we loved as real people, “with all their flaws and glories”. He hopes reading the book will be “like meeting her for the first time”. And so it is. Over 200 luminous pages, we get a powerful sense of a vivacious, clever human being who enriched the lives of her friends, family and even we strangers, through the stories she curated for stage and radio.

As Runcie reflects on page one, death comes to us all and even while writing the book, he seems to have questioned the wisdom of adding to the “countless tributes, biographies and laments written by the recently bereaved”. Yet he has succeeded in producing a fresh and deeply affecting meditation on that universal experience, which also sheds important light on the impact of lockdown-curtailed health services on a family ravaged by serious illness.

Tell me good things? This uplifting and lovely book is crammed full of them.