It is more than a year since Clare Wise, sister of the actor Greg Wise, died of cancer. She lived just down the street from the West Hampstead house her brother shares with his wife, Emma Thompson, and their daughter, Gaia. As Greg opens his front door and leads the way into his kitchen, one can see, within minutes, why he was such an indispensable carer to his sister during the last weeks of her life. Today, he has organised elevenses with good coffee and patisserie. As an actor, he is routinely cast as a reprobate (Mountbatten in The Crown a debatable exception). In life, he could not be nicer if he tried. And that’s precisely it: he does not appear to be trying – the charm is not fake. When I ask him how he is feeling about Clare’s death now, his eyes fill.
“I’ve had very few days when I’ve not been actively doing something about Clare, be it probate, sorting out her flat, moving furniture – or just the book.” The book is Not That Kind of Love and is a shared effort, written by Clare and Greg. It is fuelled by wisdom and wisecracks, a story of brotherly, and sisterly, love. Clare was 18 months Greg’s senior (he is 51) and worked for the UK Film Council and as vice president of Universal Pictures. She started a blog in 2013 (although the first lump in her breast was found in 2007) and her take on illness drew a crowd – 96,000 hits (by 2015). No wonder: her style is gallant, funny, self-deprecating. It was not until June 2015 that cancer made its terrible comeback into her bones and Greg moved into her flat to take care of her and Grably (her attention-seeking cat). He also took over the blog when she became too sick to write.
Clare’s devotion to her brother (she described him as her “best friend”) is the book’s brightest thread. She relies on him to come with her to hospital appointments knowing he will charm the nurses, tell the right jokes, keep her going. And as to taking on the blog, Greg explains this was a practical decision to protect them from “endless phone calls, emails and texts” and Facebook messages. “It was our way of saying: ‘Please, please, leave us alone. This is what’s happening. Don’t panic.’” Greg’s contribution, which makes up the book’s last third, starts as an update on how Clare is and becomes a meditation on life, on the importance of cherishing the small things – the bark on a silver birch tree in a certain light, matching socks, a slice of cake (he speculates on how differently we would feel were the cake “eternal”). The book ends with Clare’s death at home and is an unedited, un-dolled-up reproduction of their blogs. The writing sometimes has a rough-at-the-edges quality, and this is because Greg insisted it be published as first written: “The thing I felt most violently was: we can’t edit this. This is a real-time piece of writing.” He later discloses, “I’m lucky in that I’ve always been very present” (a good quality in an actor).
Now, returning to the question of how he is, his voice wobbles slightly: “When someone goes through a life-limiting disease – and you never know, at the time, how limiting it will be – you have to be careful not to pre-grieve. And yet I couldn’t help grieving for the state my sister was finding herself in. And when she died, I felt, fucking hell, thank God, because this was untenable. Bone cancer is excruciating and this was hard, hard, hard. A part of you is grateful and then you try not to give yourself a hard time for being grateful. I know I’ve not necessarily learned this – and, oh God, I sound like the Dalai Lama – but grief and pain and misery are important. They’re what make us. Life is going to throw shit at you and it’s how you deal with it. It will give you the opportunity to see who you really are.”
The Dalai Lama quip is typical Greg. What is so beguiling is that his seriousness refuses to part company from his talent for seeing absurdity in himself and in life: “It’s essential to be able to have a laugh and Clare was able to do that. Our sense of humour was similar. We loved puns – the groaningly bad sort – and, because of our history, we were able to vibe off each other, to jam, which is a glorious thing.”
I want to know more about Clare. There is a beautiful photograph, on the cover of their book, of Clare and Greg, taken when she was well. She was a generous beauty, with Titianesque red hair, and a teasing smile. She has one hand over Greg’s eyes. What would it have been like had she been with us this morning? “She was open, ebullient, loved socialising. She would have had the croissants at the ready. She’d probably have had a fire on. She might have given me a row for wearing a slightly scruffy top [a crushed, long-sleeved white cotton shirt] but be pleased I’d had a shave. She’d be able to talk well about anything you asked her. She was a ridiculously bright girl [she had a double first in history from Cambridge]. She was cerebral, a huge reader, artistic and wrote beautifully.
“We shared a lot of traits but were very different. It was more than just a boy/girl thing. We were brought up in Northumberland [they lived in Newcastle and had a weekend cottage in the country]. Clare was a city dweller, she couldn’t do countryside.” The cosmopolitan sister was also a virtuoso aunt: “Aunts are fantastically important. On the odd occasions I’ve been asked to be a godparent, I’ve said: ‘I don’t believe in God, but can I please be a rogue uncle? I might be a bit shit for the first years but once they get to 17/18, I’ll take them out and get them pissed.’” Clare was “a rogue aunt” and “an extraordinary travelling companion”. She had a rapport with both their children. Tindy is Greg and Emma Thompson’s adopted son – now 31 – a former child soldier from Rwanda whom they met at a Refugee Council event when he was 16 and who is now a human rights lawyer. In the book, Greg describes Clare as having been “a powerful figure” in Tindy’s life: “She drove him around showing him his new country; introduced him to the sea (where he rushed in fully clothed) and to his first gay couple; got him his first bike; taught him what a ‘holiday’ is; taught him lessons about family.” She was equally close to Gaia (18) who, by the sound of it, could come up with her own version of Travels With My Aunt. “Gaia has been lucky. It is so important to have someone of your parents’ generation who you can go to and say: ‘My dad is such an arse.’ And they can go: ‘He’s always been an arse.’”
In the book, he explains the closeness he and Clare shared as a united front against a “tricky” upbringing. Why tricky? “I would opine that perhaps our parents should never have married (“opine” comes across as a joke choice of verb, suggestive of his caution about getting launched into the subject at all). “It’s difficult because although my parents are dead, I don’t want to upset folk who knew them. Yet anyone who knew the set-up would know it had a reasonably tricky dynamic which made Clare and I work together well, play well and keep our heads down.”
Their parents were architects and Greg initially studied architecture himself and still has plenty of practical flair. Being a carer, he volunteers, is about “minute by minute problem solving” and “trying not to catastrophise”. He goes on: “Generally, if you sit and think – and one of the things you do most as a carer is sit – you can work things through.” He has a sympathetic sensitivity to the potential imbalance between sick person and carer. He maintains that Clare’s “focus on trying to find solutions” helped them both. He would try to “facilitate” whatever she dreamt up. Most importantly, he writes, “It is a hard thing to do, to accept help. It is so much easier to give.”
The impression I am getting is of someone not as different from his description of Clare as he makes out. Like Clare, he is an avid reader and determined to come to grips with what he has been through. In his non-aggressive way, he is a man on a mission. Our “dysfunctional” relationship with death, he suggests, may be about to change: “Almost daily, there are pieces on the radio and television about death and dying. It is the zeitgeist. And it may be because we have never been more anxious about our future, with Brexit, Trump and North Korea. And books like Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal and Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air – about a surgeon dealing with critical illness, and about a surgeon dying – hit the public imagination.” He also raves about Kathryn Mannix’s recently published With the End in Mind. He is convinced that we are frightened of death partly because we don’t “see” it.
Caring for Clare has given him the keenest sense of how much the UK depends upon its carers. “There are 7m carers in the UK and generally with little help and almost no support from government. If they all went: ‘We can’t do this any more,’ and made the state responsible, the NHS would be bankrupt overnight.” Clare was treated in the NHS’s Macmillan Cancer Centre, “a huge, beautiful, bespoke building with extraordinary people in it”. And even though they sometimes had to wait hours before being seen, he remains a passionate champion of the NHS: “We must fight to the death against the NHS being sold off,” he says and wagers: “I’m pretty sure people would accept a ringfenced increase in tax to pay for it.”
What particularly preoccupies him is that “hospitals are not designed for people to get better in. Most people want to die at home but end up dying in hospital. Did you know that most doctors die at home? We have to sort this out as a society. We must demedicalise death. At the point where the palliative care needs to kick in, we have to be professional enough to have that conversation.” He recognises that palliative care has become a fine art: “It is extraordinary.” And he explains: “One of the main conversations you have as a carer is: what is the trade-off between pain management and still being able to be active, if that is what you want to be?”
He briefly speculates, too, about why there is a cancer epidemic at the moment. He does not buy into the idea that it has anything to do with stress: “African subsistence farmers are more stressed than we are,” he says. But he wonders whether certain food manufactures will, one day, be sued for the toxicity of their products – as the tobacco companies once were. And then he adds quietly: “No one is to blame for getting ill.”
It was on 12 September 2015 that Clare described in her blog the moment of being told: “Clare, you have incurable bone cancer…” Her reaction? “WTF, I THINK IS WHAT THE MODERN KIDS SAY…” It was a bombshell that was cruelly timed. She had been about to go with Greg, Emma and Gaia on the “holiday of a lifetime to Greece”. Instead: “I called Greg. Poor Greg – for the second time in his life he had to get a phone call from me saying, ‘Drop everything, it’s cancer.’” What is most striking is that she never had the slightest doubt that Greg would drop everything. There must have been times when being taken for granted was a burden? “Of course – but this was my choice. It was not to do with her. Or maybe it was equally about us both. For there was a contract struck between us that went all the way back to when we were three.” But he then adds the emphatic afterthought that he was not a one-man band.
Clare had a true friend in her sister-in-law. In her blog, she thanks “Em” for her love, strength and “overwhelming generosity and kindness”. And for the laughs. It was Emma who looked after her after her breast cancer surgery. It was Emma who gave herself a new role as hair stylist. On 23 November 2015, Clare writes: “I feel pretty good – have a new trendy pixie haircut (courtesy of my sis-in-law).” It was Emma who took on the not unchallenging task of giving her a shower. Greg’s later efforts used “every bath towel in north London”. Her steadfast qualities were a match for her husband’s. Just before the bone cancer diagnosis, Clare writes: “Em decided she couldn’t stay away with me not being well so gave up her holiday to look after me.” At the same time, she “instituted a very strict and healthy eating regime (also very tasty)”. Clare seemed to relish the side-effects of having a mega-celebrity as sister-in-law. It involved more than going to premieres of films (although this was an undeniable perk). It turned hospital itself into an event. She reports that hospital staff were respectful of Emma until Clare was discharged but that they then “all wanted selfies. As most of the staff there are from the Philippines, I suspect that Em is now more famous than Imelda Marcos.”
Seven months before she died, Emma took Clare to India. “They had a remarkable couple of weeks in an Ayurvedic clinic in Kerala,” Greg says, “Clare was pretty sick. But they had moments when it was just the two of them and they were able to talk.” In Kerala, Clare admitted to Emma that she wished she had let a different sort of love into her life. Greg writes: “She had an extraordinary amount of love in her life – she knew that – but not that kind of love…” And he now recalls: “The day Clare came back from India, I’ve never in my life – or hers – seen her look more beautiful and happy. She was radiating happiness and peace. But then literally the next day, she took herself to bed.” That was, in a sense, the end of her life – although there were to be gruelling clinical trials ahead.
When I ask whether losing Clare taught him any big things, he reacts instantly – not cross but urgent: “I didn’t lose Clare – she died. We’ve got to be clear about that. Passing. Losing. Slipped away. Please… We have to be able to speak death. We don’t know how to talk about death which is odd because we’re all going to die. So: my sister died, she didn’t go to sleep… or pass… or whatever else.” And yet he knows from his own experience that we end up, for all sorts of reasons, skirting around the subject – as his experience of filming The Crown reveals. The first series was made while Clare was ill, and Greg did the job because Mountbatten was a small role. The filming of the second series began two days after Clare’s funeral. “Only the director, producer and first assistant producer knew. I didn’t talk to anyone else.” Protecting yourself? “I was protecting them as well – because people are going to think: oh God, what can I say? This was the first day of a seven-month shoot and everyone was excited. I thought: OK, make sure you know your lines, do them as well as you can.” When he watched the second series, he anxiously scrutinised his face to see whether he had given himself away (he hadn’t).
The big thing death teaches is, he believes, that life is unpredictable. The night before Clare died, Greg had no idea her death was imminent. He quotes from William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade – a “spectacular” book, published 30 years ago: “Goldman said the most important thing to know in the film business is that no one knows anything. We forget that. We never know what is going to happen.”
Towards the end, Clare couldn’t countenance the idea of anyone other than Greg looking after her, although she admitted to a friend, shortly before she died, that she knew her brother needed “time away”. She never said this to his face, afraid, presumably, of being without him. With hindsight, it seems possible that in registering Greg’s need to get away, she was also registering her own. He does not fail to record her last moments and characteristically assures Clare (he wasn’t lying) that he is sorting everything out:
“I wiped Clare’s face. I held her hand. I kissed her forehead. I told her I loved her. I said how unbelievable we had both been, but I said it was all just getting too fucked-up now. I told her that she didn’t have to worry, that everything was sorted. And I told her she could go now, if she wanted to.”
She died – a minute later – holding his hand.
• Not That Kind of Love by Clare and Greg Wise is published by Quercus (£16.99). To order a copy for £14.44 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
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