When Richard E Grant’s wife, Joan Washington, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer just before Christmas 2020, she didn’t really want anyone to know. “It won’t cure me!” she said. But Grant and their daughter, Oilly (Olivia), had different ideas. They felt they needed the support of their huge circle of friends: anything else would be too lonely. And perhaps, they also pointed out, this worked both ways. Grant remembered how upset he’d been on hearing, out of the blue, of Victoria Wood’s death in 2016. The news had made him feel he’d failed her; that he wasn’t close enough to her to be told her cancer had returned.
There followed a brief standoff. But in the end, Washington allowed her family to break the news and the three of them found themselves in the embrace of a highly sustaining – and sustained – outpouring of love and affection. Sometimes, this took the form of cheering visits: our now King Charles, for instance, arrived at their cottage bearing a bag of mangoes and flowers from Highgrove. Sometimes, it took the form of practical help: on Sundays, Nigella Lawson would send supper over in a taxi. Even Washington could see they’d made the right decision. When she felt utterly terrible, it was wonderfully distracting to have Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson eating ice-cream on her bed; to listen to Rupert Everett talk of his latest starring role (“I’ve just finished playing a gay stroke victim so might as well go straight to the Oscars now, darling, as I’m a shoo-in”).
All this is carefully described by Grant in his new memoir, A Pocketful of Happiness, which takes the form mostly of the diary he wrote in the last year of his wife’s life (Washington, a celebrated voice coach, died in September 2021, two months before their 35th wedding anniversary). And, yes, it is heartening how kind people can be – even very busy, famous people. But this territory is also, I think, somewhat uncomfortable for the reader, particularly since Grant pads out his narrative with glitzy memories of 2019, when he was nominated for an Oscar for his role in Can You Ever Forgive Me?. I did not always know quite how to feel about what I was reading. One minute, I was feasting on what amounted to high-class gossip; the next, I was being told the most intimate things about a woman I understood to have been fiercely private. Even as I admired Grant for his obvious devotion to, and care for, his wife at the end, I was uneasy: suspicious, you might say. Is it unfair to call a man with so many well-known friends a name-dropper? Isn’t he only describing his world? This is a question I’m still unable to answer.
It may be, of course, that he simply has a bit missing: a layer, or a filter, or something. Certainly, he seems to be quite unlike most other people. He is so… untrammelled, his feelings for everyone and everything so immediate, so absolute and always blasted out undiluted. There is a too-muchness about him, a Tiggerish-ness born of his desire to please (a trait common in those whose parents divorced when they were children, as his did). When he’s seated next to Camilla, the then Duchess of Cornwall, at dinner, they’re “instant friends”; when he has psychotherapy, his problems are fixed, seemingly within minutes. Convinced of his own persuasiveness, he once tried, he tells us, to get a part exchange, not on a car, but on a loo seat. Perhaps this is the kind of behaviour his friend Bruce Robinson had in mind when he described Grant as “in fact, mad” (Robinson wrote and directed Withnail and I, the film that made Grant famous).
But it’s also possible that he hopes to make the reader understand that it doesn’t matter how many glamorous friends a person has if their true love is dying. Widowed, Grant isn’t particularly articulate. It’s enough for him simply to tell us, over and over, how happy he and Washington were together, that they mated, like swans, for life. Nevertheless, those things that he is able to describe – the sight of her tapestry kit by their bed, the way he still talks to her even though she is no longer in the world – have a universality about them, an ordinariness that resonates. Darkness falls on us all eventually, even on those who know Elton John well enough to receive his condolences by phone.
And if he is giddy, he’s also surprisingly grounded, a quality he may owe in part to Washington, who disliked such things as award ceremonies and who was always ready to take the piss out of him (his memoir is called A Pocketful of Happiness because she urged him to try to find such a thing every day). The most revealing moment in his book comes late on, when Grant spends a night alone in Salisbury, where he has been filming Persuasion with Dakota Johnson. His wife is very ill at this point and having wound up in a deserted branch of Côte (he ruled out the Chinese takeaway recommended by TripAdvisor as the city’s best dining option), he calls her. Washington, as always, is avid for his news and they share their days, as they’ve done for 38 years.
It was at this point that I suddenly felt for him. The guy who goes to the Oscars is the same guy who sits alone in a chain restaurant in Salisbury waiting for his béarnaise sauce to arrive. To have someone always beside you – or even just on the end of the phone – who understands these dizzying shifts and all their attendant lonelinesses, and who loves you wherever in the world you are, is a precious thing indeed. I think he wrote his book too soon, but I also see that he needed to do something, the gap in his life being so unimaginably huge, so very hard to bear.