Never underestimate how much it can delight an author to hear from an appreciative reader.
On this date five years ago, I had the opportunity to meet the author of a book I really enjoyed.
It was the day after I had attended the 2016 Templeton Prize Ceremony honouring Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks when I set off to Oxford to meet the author of a biography of another Templeton Prize winner, Cecily Saunders.
Saunders’ biographer Shirley du Boulay was in her early 80s. She had received my handwritten letter of approximately eight pages praising her for her beautiful biography of the founder of the modern hospice and palliative care movement in the U.K. and eventually sent me an email in reply.
Naturally, I was thrilled when she invited me to her Oxford home for tea should I ever be passing through.
I took a cab from the Oxford bus station to her address and arrived just before 1 o’clock.
I rang the bell and, a moment later, she answered.
As I followed her inside, she hurriedly began to prepare a light lunch even though I’d insisted on only coming for tea.
The table was set in a lovely manner and there was a bottle of rosé, meats, potato salad, green salad, bread, and butter.
As we sat down she said to me, “I was a bit half-hearted about getting all of this ready since I wasn’t absolutely sure you were coming.”
Then she said, “Please, remind me again how we got in touch and why you wanted to meet.”
I found it quite moving: here, I had travelled to Oxford from London specifically in order to seek out this author whose biography had so affected me and to whom I had written a long letter, and yet she could not quite recall why I was there but was nevertheless determined to show me the utmost hospitality.
I reminded her and we began to make pleasant conversation.
Next, I invited her to tell me some more about Cecily.
“Oh, you won’t get any more from me,” she began. “It’s all in the book.”
She paused for a moment of recollection and then she said, “Well, I suppose there are a few personal things.”
“Yes,” I affirmed encouragingly.
Shirley said she knew Cecily quite well and that they shared a lot of similarities owing to their British background. She recalled a time when Cecily introduced Shirley to someone a bit self-consciously saying, “She’s writing my life!”
Shirley said that Cecily had been very free with interviews, not like [Desmond] Tutu about whom Shirley also wrote a biography. She didn’t think that Tutu cared someone was writing a book about him, but Cecily loved it!
If Cecily enjoyed being written about, Shirley loved doing the writing.
“It was quite a lot of work. It was absolutely, totally full-time obsessional. I loved it,” she told me.
Shirley was very interested in what I was studying and in what I hoped to do after graduation.
I told her that I was not sure but that I would like to do something meaningful that meets a real need, where I can give myself generously.
To this she appeared thoughtful. “Do you find you first start with finding the need in the world or in here?” she asked, gesturing toward her heart.
We discussed many other topics of vocation, community, friendship, and biographies.
Quite often I would refer to her 1984 biography of Saunders that I had read recently and she would say such things as, “Did I really write that?” or “That was fairly clever, wasn’t it?” or “I beg you to forgive me for not knowing my own book as well as you do, but that was so long ago that it almost feels like a different lifetime!”
In discussing a C.S. Lewis quotation on friendship, I lamented a poverty among young people of the kind of friendship he described.
To this, Shirley exclaimed, “And among old people, too!”
“Most of my friends are dead,” she said. “None of my friends now would come under the sort of the friends I’ve lost. They’re wonderful people, and I enjoy being with them very much but there’s nothing to tie us back in the way that there was with my dead friends.”
This was a beautiful and memorable visit for which I remain grateful even years later.
Since meeting her, when I have heard other seniors say that most or all of their friends are dead, I remember how Shirley described her affection for her “dead friends.”
If you knew that someone had lost all their friends, what kind of friend would you try to be to them?