Dear all –
Well, I never expected to be writing this letter, but I have managed to survive another twelve months! It was a close thing – after a reasonable year (albeit with frequent visits to hospitals for check-ups, X-rays and other tests) I had five or six weeks in October and November when I was very ill, part of the time in the hospice. However, now I seem to be recovering enough to go out a bit – which echoes the situation at the start of the year when, after my spell in hospital and hospice at the end of 2021, I began cautiously going out – my first solo expedition was to the Queen’s Gallery to see the masterpieces temporarily displaced from Buckingham Palace by renovation works: usually you can see them only as you walk by on a expensive tour of the palace at the height of the tourist season.
Now that I am recovering from my latest bout of illness, Lois and I often go over to the (charitable) Camden Garden Centre for lunch (it has an excellent café and a small bookshop as well as infoor and outdoor plants and trees), and we have gone out to walk in the grounds of Forty Hall (a huge old mansion owned by Enfield Council with a large lake full of geese and overlooked by a huge shrubbery, with a splendid walled garden), and in the gardens at Capel Manor horticultural college. Recently we discovered the completely unexpected Walthamstow Village – a survival in the middle of suburbia of ancient half-timbered houses and 18th century almshouses along with the excellent Vestry museum – the best local museum I have come across.
Before my recent severe illness we often walked round the local Woodberry Wetlands nature reserve (a former reservoir at the end of the New River) and we also made trips to Kew Gardens, to the new developments behind Kings Cross along with the Camley Street nature park, and elsewhere. Very recently Lois and I had a weekend in Sheffield to see Lindsay and Jamila and go to a splendid ‘Victorian Christmas’ craft fair in the amazing Kelham Island Museum. This occupies old industrial buildings with much of the heavy machinery preserved in place as part of the display but for this weekend there were stalls for local craftsmen (three generationa of a family making penknives), others illustrating Sheffield’s history as a steel town plus bands and eating places and so on. Whether as planned we get to Stockton-on-Tees this coming weekend to see Christina and Stephen and family before Christmas is still in the lap of the railways.
Still, I remain basically unwell, lacking energy (Lois has taken over the garden assisted by an excellent Polish couple who come once a month or so), sometimes breathless, and with disfiguring marks on my skin – happily mainly on parts that do not show but part of the progress of the lymphoma. I have a ‘care package’ which since my recent bout in the hospice includes my carer Christopher, a meticulous and friendly Nigerian, coming twice a day to wash and apply various ointments to me. That said, most of the time I feel ‘normal’ and can get on with doing (non-energetic) things as well as previously – especially as now sitting at my desk with a list of a dozen things needing attention!
As I recovered from my problems at the end of last year and again during my recent bout Lois has worked marvels in looking after me, not just with companionship but providing food and new casual but warm clothes, understanding my medication (handfuls of pills twice a day!), being my go-between with the hospice and the care system and so on. During the time I was more or less well, or at least stable, she managed nevertheless to make a prolonged visit in March/April to Uganda to see the various people she helps through her charity the Education and Health Trust Uganda and another in August/September to Australia to see her family – the latter a happier occasion than the former as the regime in Uganda is more and more oppressive and corrupt.
Being unwell is indeed an excellent way of stimulating people to visit you! I have had extended visits by Christina, usually with family, and Lindsay and Jamila, and other family members – brothers Kenneth and Geoffrey (though Malcolm, being in New Zealand, actually sees more of me than they do via a weekly Zoom!), nieces Tavy and Lucy (plus at the time still husband-to-be Andy), and many friends. And some of these visits have included excursions – by boat to Greenwich with Christina and family; a drive round Essex villages ending just across the county boundary at Lavenham with Christina and Lindsay; the Supreme Court, St Margaret’s Westminster and the Museum of London with granddaughter Tiahna and her partner Emma, and so on. I have also made a few visits to friends including to Pavan in her art deco splendour and Andrew and Mark in their (soon to be) magnificent estate virtually on the battlefield on Bosworth. In addition the long-standing group of friends we call the Foolow Group has had a couple of get-togethers: at Mike and Camilla’s at Plumpton at the end of May (which was rudely interrupted by my suffering a TIA and spending most of a day in Brighton hospital but being well enough next day to climb all over Arundel Castle) and at Tony and Phyllis’s at Foolow in July, when we went to Rossini’s La Donna del Lago at the Buxton Opera. I’ve also managed to fit in nine sessions of bridge, mainly in the afternoon, and our penalties added up to enough for us to spend them on a fine dinner one warm evening in August commissioned from a local chef and served in Brigid’s garden!
Zoom of course figures largely in keeping up with friends – I have a weekly engagement with the Foolow group, another with my brother in New Zealand, and occasional virtual gatherings with a group of old Coal Board friends. Zoom is also the favoured channel for talks and lectures which this year have included one from the UCL Constitution Unit on constitutional reform, one of the regular day-conferences of the invaluable Voice of the Listener and Viewer, a Hackney Society talk on Brooke House (a grand Tudor mansion once owned by Henry III that fell into disrepair and was demolished after the War) and several Humanists UK and other lectures, including the HUK ‘Rosalind Franklin’ lecture by Maggie Aderin-Pocock who enthused wildly and autobiographically about science, space, and the contribution of women; one from Gresham College on the attempts in the eighteenth century of Protestant missionaries to reconcile Christianity and slavery; and the inaugural professorial lecture by Ronan McCrea (whom I used to meet often at meetings at the law department of UCL) on various aspects of the relationship between modernisation and secularisation. There was also an interesting talk by SI Martin about black Georgians and their interaction with religion, sponsored by the flourishing HUK section Humanist Heritage (https://heritage.humanists.uk/), which is the single-handed achievement of Madeleine Goodall who is uncovering a very rich and previously unsuspected trove of humanists and quasi-humanists from Roman times on. The website is well worth a browse! I continued to help also with the history of the humanist movement in Britain, publication of which has unfortunately been postponed by Bloomsbury to (here’s hoping!) next March – see https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/humanist-movement-in-modern-britain-9781350136618/.
I continue to spend some time on further research of my family history – see my website at https://www.david-pollock.me.uk/the-family-file/, finding occasional items relevat to Humanist Heritage. It led also to a renewal of contact with my very distant relative Stephen (we share a great great great great grandfather!). He was a friend of Lois before we met and is now an (active elected hereditary Labour) member of the Lords, where he invited me to dinner with his wife Lisa and, by coincidence, Jude Rea, the widow of Dr (Lord) Nic Rea, who was a helpful contact for me when I was at ASH and the Continence Foundation.
I have despite everything managed to go to the theatre – ten times in all. The first trip was a disappointment: Lois and I went to the local Park Theatre to see The 4th Country, a post-modern self-referential play about Northern Ireland. This was made up for in March when I went with Christina and Lindsay to the Hampstead Theatre (here’s hoping it survives the entire loss of its grant from the Arts Council) for a very good new play called The Animal Kingdom about a family going through family therapy, where each of them (including the therapist) gets to come centre stage (not literally!) for a while – uptight father, gushing touchy-feely mother, neglected daughter and her older student brother who has precipitated the sessions by self-harming and attempted suicide: it was a well shaped play, perceptive and plausible as well as dramatic, with a mildly upbeat ending.
Then in May Miranda and I went twice to the National for two good plays, entirely different from each other: first, in the Dorfman, a new play by David Eldridge, Middle, about a couple going through a crisis in the middle of their marriage. The dialogue was eloquent and believable (though it was unlikely that in real life they would get through so much in 100 minutes!) A few days later we saw The Father and the Assassin in the Olivier – a very good provocative play by an Indian woman playwright, Anupama Chandrasekhar, about Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin and the Hindu nationalism that inspired him – pre-echoes of Modi’s Hindutva. The lead was taken by a young actor Shubham Saraf who was able to command the huge stage and the audience: the play started in darkness and then a spotlight picked him out wearing a bloodied shirt and asking us whether we often spent time with a murderer such as himself! In June I went to the Hackney Picturehouse for a live relay from the Bridge theatre of Straight Line Crazy, a new play by David Hare directed by Nick Hytner with Ralph Fiennes as the domineering New York urban planner Robert Moses who was obsessed with roads (and strongly against mass transit – too working class!). In Act 1 in the 1920s he overcame the resistance of the mega-wealthy owners of estates on Long Island to open up the south beach, ploughing ahead despite having no legal authority; in Act 2 in the 1960s he was defeated by middle-class opposition to his plan for a major road through Washington Square Park. Fiennes was magnificent in his eloquence, determination and lack of human warmth.
Miranda and I went to a cinema relay from the Harold Pinter Theatre of Prima Facie, a very powerful one-hander by Suzie Miller in which Jodie Comer played a young barrister who starts off rejoicing in her skills in defending men accused of rape or the like but who is then herself raped by a Chambers colleague in a date that gets out of control and (rather implausibly) ends up as the sort of witness she has previously torn apart – which is what happens to her. The play ended well with reflections on the dilemma of why ‘innocent until proven guilty’ goes so wrong in this area of law. Comer was extraordinary: she switched in micro-seconds between roles (or rather reporting her interactions with other people – her northern mother, police, etc) – a tour de force for which she has had highly laudatory reviews: she surely felt wrung out at the end of each performance: doing it eight times a week must have been a killer.
During a visit in August Kenneth & Diana joined me to see Jack Absolute Flies Again at the Olivier, a (major) adaptation by Richard (Two Guv’nors) Bean of Sheridan’s The Rivals set on an air force base during the war, with Mrs Malaprop played by Caroline Quentin, well produced and very funny. Miranda and I went to a relay of Much Ado from the National which was marred by technical problems rather than by the death of the Queen that afternoon; her funeral was on the day we went to the Hampstead Theatre to see The Snail House, a first play by the former NT director Richard Eyre: sadly a major disappointment. My latest trip to the theatre, however, was definitely rewarding: I went with Pavan Dhaliwal to the Olivier to see Arthur Miller’s The Crucible directed by Lyndsey Turner. The oppressive isolated nature of the village was symbolised by a wall of water front and side of the stage before each act. The domination of unquestionable superstition, the power of the judges defending their own positions and the hysteria driven by the panic-stricken girls all came across well from a cast who were effectively unknown to me.
It was delightful in April to go to a local concert in which my friend Emma Dogliani sang beautifully Strauss’s Four Last Songs – not, apparently, composed as a unity but put together after his death. And while Lindsay was visiting in August we went to the Charterhouse – a previously undiscovered treasure on a hidden seven-acre site between Smithfield and the Barbican. It started as a Carthusian monastery founded soon after the Black Death (many of whose victims were found buried in Charthouse Square) but was largely demolished after the Dissolution when it was bought by Lord North and turned into a Tudor mansion. Later it came into the hands of one Thomas Sutton, who sold arms to the Crown. He left it as a trust providing a school (which moved out in the 19th century) and some rather superior almshouses (which remain). It was opened to the public only a few years ago and I heard of it only recently. We were accompanied round the small museum by one of the staff (or maybe he was a volunteer) – a knowledgeable old Sikh(?). When we reached the entrance to the chapel, he was accosted by another visitor and we went on by ourselves, but when we came out the two were still talking and it emerged that he was a descendant of one of the old boys of the school, Colonel Sir Richmond Campbell Shakespear, who had a commemorative plaque on the wall and had in the 1840s served under my great great great grand uncle Field Marshall Sir George Pollock! Shakespear was a cousin of Thackeray, another old boy with a plaque there; both were born in India but only he returned there after school. The museum is well worth a visit and is open without charge but in the afternoon Linds and I returned for a guided tour of the rest of the site which was even more worthwhile: the Tudor conversion of the old abbey is like a series of Oxbridge quadrangles and there are also very fine gardens. Highly recommended!
Of course I have not stopped reading, though I have less time for it than before. Over Christmas last year I read Choose Your Weapons by Douglas Hurd, in which he examines the office of Foreign Secretary in the 19th and 20th centuries. He contrasts Castlereagh, who after the Congress of Vienna tried to establish a framework of agreement between the great powers of the day aimed at deterring or preventing disruptive behaviour by themselves or other states, and Canning who succeeded him and was more typical of later foreign secretaries in wishing to retain freedom of action without prior obligations, which led for a while to a doctrine that foreign treaties were unconstitutional as purporting to bind future Parliaments. The Castlereagh model re-emerged with the League of Nations and then with the UN, NATO and other fundamental agreements of recent times. The book is full of anecdote and quotations from private correspondence (little differentiated in the day from official exchanges as witness the extent to which letters to and from ambassadors are to be found in private collections in various great houses). Until surprisingly late in the day Britain, with Salisbury as foreign secretary, was absorbed by the ‘Eastern Question’, seeing Constantinople as the gateway to India (never a sensible view!) and hence looked favourably on the alliance of Germany, Austria and Italy, guarding against entanglement with France (too volatile) and Russia (playing the Great Game)!
Andrew Roberts’ biography of George III is superb (and incidentally demolishes the porphyria theory of his madness, substituting manic depressive psychosis). It portrays him above all as a constitutionalist, wanting to preserve the 1688 disposition of powers and duties and so far from dictating to Parliament (as especially American historians have alleged) shows that he often had to defer to his Ministers and indeed to make ministerial appointments against his own better judgement (but sometimes clung to prime ministers who – like Lord North – recognised their limitations and were desperate to leave office because he so disliked their old Whig alternatives). His judgement in military matters was sometimes better than theirs but he backed their deluded opinion that if the American rebels were treated with gentleness the loyalists would assert themselves and end the rebellion. A devout Anglican, he was obstinately against Catholic emancipation as going against his Coronation oath. He had a warm and close relationship with his father, unlike the other Hanoverians, but was despised by his grandfather George II who left his father’s body decomposing for weeks before arranging his funeral. His arranged marriage was (until his later bouts of madness) a highly successful, loving match. Personally from his youth opposed to slavery, he did not act on his feelings for fear of detriment of the economy. He was a cultured man, seeking out knowledge and experts, including early scientists such as Herschel, founding the Royal Academy, and creating (and constantly reading from) a huge library. He was abstemious (unlike his son), personally brave in the face of assassination attempts, merciful to a madwoman responsible for one such attempt, and conversed easily (sometimes anonymously) with ordinary people whom he met on the road.
Jeremy Paxman wrote Black Gold, a history of the coal industry starting with the industrial revolution, and with a concentration on the north-east, on mining disasters and on the appalling conditions in which (especially) face-workers toiled. He is eloquent on how dreadful the coal owners were, collecting royalties for coal dug from under their rolling estates, but gives no clear idea of how the private companies came into existence or worked and indeed only a sketchy idea of the economics of the industry, although he makes a theme of the successive commissions set up to advise on reform (or stave off the need to make decisions). He is very clear on how fundamental coal was to British prosperity up to the First World War – peak production was in 1913 – and then on the industry’s rapid decline, becoming a burden. As to the 1984 strike, he quotes a note of a meeting (made public in 2014) between the PM, Chancellor and Secretaries for Energy and Employment which endorsed a plan by Ian MacGregor to close 75 pits over two years, probably more even than Scargill envisaged: the meeting was held on 15 September 1983, showing how prepared the Government was for the coming confrontation, in stark contrast to the NUM’s divided and improvised approach.
Square Haunting by Francesca Wade is an unusual but rewarding book that examines the lives of five women writers who all at various lived – sometimes in the very same room – in Mecklenburg Square on the edge of Bloomsbury; but any overlap in their acquaintance was never more than incidental to their rich lives in a variety of areas. Taken in the order of their sometimes short residences, the book starts with HD (Hilda Doolittle), the American poet whose acquaintance included Ezra Pound and D H Lawrence. Dorothy Sayers was there briefly in her twenties, set on a literary career – anything but teaching! – but yet to turn to the detective stories about Lord Peter Wimsey that she later (when she turned to theology and religious plays) relegated to a means of making a living at a difficult time. Jane Harrison was by far the oldest of the group, retiring to the square from a distinguished Cambridge academic career pioneering ideas about fertility goddesses in classical times. Eileen Power was there for most of the inter-war period and was a widely travelled economist and economic historian. Virginia Woolf had barely a year in the Square at the start of the War, commuting between there and Monk’s House in Sussex, before the house was made uninhabitable in the Blitz. At the time she was struggling with her biography of Roger Fry but enthusiastic about new projects that were cut short by her sudden plunge into depression and suicide linked (as had happened previously) to worry about how her latest book (in this case Between the Acts) would be received. The author shows that all five were serious feminists insofar as they were in one way or another forcing their way into what had been seen as male preserves or exploring life from a female perspective. It also effectively evokes marginally bohemian life between the wars.
I have also read several books about the current depressing state of the world. The subtitle of Oliver Bullough’s Butler to the World says it all – ‘How Britain Became the Servant of Tycoons, Tax Dodgers, Kleptocrats and Criminals’. He proposes that as Britain lost its empire it looked for another role in which it could sustain its wealth and stumbled upon providing the most amenable environment for financial services to the wealthy of the world, who happened to include a load of crooks and kleptocrats along with the tax avoiders and ordinary investors – and that the risk of alienating the respectable end of this wide spectrum has led to complete inaction and denial about the crooked end. He writes in a thoroughly approachable way about what can be a technical subject, telling a series of stories to illustrate how the UK and its overseas territories led the way in catering for a string of crooks – and indeed treating them as honoured guests. Dmitry Firtash, whose money comes from a dubious deal in which in better days he inserted himself between Russia’s Gazprom and Ukraine, owning 45% of an unnecessary middle-man company, used fractions of his ill-gotten billions to buy respectability in Parliament, in Cambridge University and with the royal family despite all the time being investigated by the FBI – until he foolishly got arrested in Austria from which the FBI, after their long pursuit, thought they had a better chance of extradition than from the UK. Bullough covers the origin of the totally opaque shell companies in the British Virgin Islands, the way Gibraltar is entirely dependent on tax-sheltering British and other gambling companies, the scandal of limited partnerships (especially in Scotland) which are used on an industrial scale to hide stolen money, and so on. He shows how the elaborate system of multiple supposed enforcement agencies in the UK is a sham: the work is either farmed out to the very people (the banks, accountants etc) whose profits come from not acknowledging the crooked nature of their clients (they produce annually over half a million Suspicious Activity Reports that never get read let alone followed up) or else is assigned to agencies such as the National Crime Agency that are starved of funds so as to keep them tame: the NCA, with a budget of only £4.5m, originally planned to bring 200 ‘unexplained wealth orders’ within ten years at a cost of only £1.5m but their second case blew up when their quarry from the ruling family in Kazakhstan overwhelmed them with 268 pages of legal argument from city solicitors Mishcon de Reya that they had not the resources to cope with. Their case got thrown out by the court and the costs awarded against them took up one-third of their annual budget. So, almost no more UWOs! In any case NCA staff, up against the best paid lawyers in Britain, are paid even less than police of equivalent seniority and are forever being tempted to add zeros to their salaries by switching sides. It is a depressing story.
Tom Burgis’s Kleptopia describes another corner of this corrupt world, telling a staggering story of how the dictator of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and a trio of associates robbed the state blind of immense billions of wealth in oil and minerals, covered it up through networks of front companies, got the principal one listed on the London Stock Exchange and recruited City accountants and lawyers to assist in the cover-up, fell out with another Kazakh billionaire and pursued him across Europe, contrived a false extradition case for his wife and child and whisked them out of Italy instantly it was granted, and collaborated with the notorious financial gangster Semyon Mogilevich (who figures also in Butler to the World). Nazarbayev meantime ran a cruel and oppressive regime in Kazakhstan, with striking workers killed with impunity – and, being due to deliver a prestigious speech in Cambridge, called in no less than Tony Blair to advise on how to deal with these ‘tragic events’(‘best to meet head on… these events, tragic though they were, should not obscure the enormous progress that Kazakhstan has made… best way for the Western media… serve as a quote that can be used in future…’). Blair’s fee for this advice is not revealed.
Bill Browder’s Freezing Order is the extraordinary follow-up to his Red Notice, telling of his work to achieve ‘Magnitsky’ sanctions legislation in the USA, Canada and Europe against the very active opposition of the Russians. He discovers (mainly through the ready availability for sale of Russian databases) not just the movements of the guilty people but the transfers of their money through laundromats of long chains of shell companies, tracking part of it to the property market in New York. The extreme steps the Russians take to silence him and his helpers, not stopping short of murder, eventually make it clear that the $230mn stolen from the Russian tax authority as shown in Red Notice actually ‘belongs’ to Putin himself. The book reads like a thriller but is in fact a fully documented account of the moves and counter-moves over many years and demonstrates links with Putin’s backing of Trump in the 2016 US election.
We Are Bellingcat is the amazing story of how its author Eliot Higgins, starting from a casual interest in social media posts about the Syrian civil war, became the head of a specialist organisation of several hundred volunteers and 30 or so paid staff capable of outrunning official security organisations in digging out the truth about (for example) the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines flight over eastern Ukraine in 2014 or the poisoning of Alexei Navalny in Siberia in 2020 – all by minute examination of publicly available data. They geo-locate photos of atrocities or of military vehicles etc by identifying features shoen in the background from other sources – Google Earth or other uploaded photos; they track military personnel from their social media postings (‘Here I am on the border of Ukraine!’); and they buy on the Russian black market data from official sources such as airline bookings. The result is that they can name the individual agents involved in (for example) the Salisbury poisonings, specify their movements as they shadow their targets and their positions in the hierarchy of (say) the GRU. They have developed sophisticated computerised techniques and apply them to situations across the world – a truly astounding achievement that must place some of them in serious danger of becoming targets themselves – especially when after the nerve agent attack on Alexei Navalny in Siberia, they discover the identities of those responsible, tell Navalny and get him to phone one of the poison team in the persona of a senior GRU boss demanding a full explanation of why the operation went wrong and then wait for the mocking denial from Putin before releasing the video recording of Navalny on the phone to the hapless agent.
Rory Stewart describes in The Places In Between his trek on foot across the wild and inaccessible centre of Afghanistan in the winter of early 2002 in the footsteps of the Moghul emperor Babur the Great – an extraordinary and hazardous adventure undertaken in appalling weather where the danger to his life came as much from snowdrifts as from the the threats and guns of people he encountered, albeit their initial suspicion when he sought shelter usually yielded to hospitality despite their almost unimaginable poverty: bread and water seemed to be the staple diet of many. Their suffering was exacerbated by their tribal and political divisions: territorial and tribal rivalries had led to feuding throughout history but the last few decades brought death and destruction to their villages on a huge scale, partly at the hands of the successive Russian and Taliban interventions and the then recent American invasion to drive out al Qaeda. Many were deeply religious in uncomprehending illiterate ways that treated their Korans rather like holy relics; some were looting unknown archaeological sites for anything saleable for a couple of dollars; few had any knowledge of the world outside their immediate environs. The book resolves itself into a demonstration of how ill advised and ill informed the western intervention post 9/11 was – and how frustrating it was for him – even in 2014 when he wrote an afterword to the book – that western policy remained unchanged: the scuttle last year in the face of the resurgent Taliban cannot have come as any surprise to him. After his trek he returned to live in Kabul and ran the Turquoise Mountain Foundation to restore historic buildings and preserve traditional crafts. Later, determined to influence western policy, he took a post at Harvard and had contacts with the Obama regime and when this failed he decided to stand for Parliament and was a Tory MP from 2010 to 2019 when he was effectively expelled by Boris Johnson along with other liberal and Remain MPs.
Deep Deception is the story, (ghost-)written by themselves, of five of the very numerous women who were deceived into long-term relationships (up to seven years) by undercover Metropolitan police officers who infiltrated environmental, peace and similar legitimate protest groups over a period of 25 years or more. They stole identities of dead children, they worked to a textbook of methods, each had to have a van to drive people to demos or meetings so as to quickly to get acceptedby the group, each purported to have the sort of job that would allow them to come and go (e.g., to go to see their true wives and children), each ‘mirrored’ the interests and views of their target partners. As a result the police gained a little advance knowledge of some marginally illegal demonstrations (with their own agents on occasion pushing for the most extreme action, leading to convictions eventually being quashed!) but their women victims were deceived into thinking they were in genuine, deep, loving and maybe lifelong relationships (some – but not any of these authors – having children) to the extent that when eventually and inevitably and in Helen Steel’s case repeatedly abandoned by their partners (‘I’ve got to sort my head out’) they were not just shattered but actually deeply concerned for the welfare of their erstwhile loving partners. Some spent years trying to track them down – and so gradually, working alone, their doubts began to grow and when they met others in the same situation they realised that they had been deliberately deceived by heartless police operating to the same playbook. When finally some of them got together to take legal action against the Metropolitan Police it was difficult to define the offence in law. The police used every trick in the book to prevent the case coming into court and, the only available recompense being money, whatever value they put on the damage they had suffered the police offered more so as to prevent a trial. Judges in preliminary hearings made light of the women’s suffering and gutter journalists, briefed by the police, disparaged the women as ‘unwashed dopey birds… what are these officers supposed to do when an obliging madwoman in an anarchist group takes a fancy to them?…’ (Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail, March 2014). Eventually they got a fairly abject video apology from the police but no trial, and the enquiry into the operation of undercover police is likely to drag on for another three years or so.
Of rather specialised interest is Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus – Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt in which he systematically reviews (in over 700 pages) the evidence for the historical existence of Jesus, considering logically what counts as evidence (e.g., is it definitely independent or perhaps derivative from another existing source?), applying (very generous) estimates of the likelihood of a historic Jesus based on each item of evidence, and finally reaching a conclusion that the chances of Jesus having existed in history are near to zero. The purported evidence from sources other than the Bible comes from decades later and proves little more than the existence of Christians. As to the Bible, what is striking is that the earlier the date of composition the less detail there is about any alleged historical figure, with no evidence at all in the earliest sources, Paul’s letters. He contrasts this with the wealth of evidence for the historical existence of (for example) Socrates about 300 years earlier and points to the way other figures were wrongly supposed (either now or previously for many centuries) to be historical – Romulus, Theseus, Aesop, King Arthur, Ned Ludd are among many examples. He highlights the interest of the Church once it had survived and settled its doctrines in its first couple of centuries in selectively preserving writings that backed its beliefs and suppressing (maybe simply by choosing not to copy) others that raised difficulties. That such selection went on is an undeniable fact: there is no way that the few surviving letters and books we have were the only ones written. How then to explain the origin of Christianity, if the ‘founding figure’ was a myth? Judaism at the time was sectarian and fissiparous, and before the 20s CE there were Jews who believed in a celestial ‘Jesus’. Carrier’s central hypothesis is that in the 20s-40s a sect led by Cephas (= Peter) shared a belief in salvation from a demonic world order through baptism (John the Baptist, if he existed, was obviously pre-Christian) and communion – such beliefs were common in the proliferating mystery religions of the time. They would have worshipped a celestial Jesus who had made salvation possible by undergoing a celestial ‘incarnation’, ‘death’ and ‘resurrection’. This heretical group would have been subject to persecution by (perhaps) Saul, prior to his conversion on the road to Damascus (for which incidentally there are several parallel stories in other places around this time). The converted Paul would then in the 30s and 40s have spread the beliefs of his newly adopted sect, preaching and writing letters to his ‘planted’ groups (i.e. the early churches). Between the 30s and the 70s some of the followers of the growing sect followed the common habit of mystery religions of the time and developed a presentation of their beliefs designed for the outside world and for new and less engaged members in which the celestial Jesus was seen as a (somewhat remote) historical figure, with the esoteric celestial truth reserved for those who had been fully initiated. Then came the Jewish wars in 66 that led to the Romans destroying the Temple in 70CE. Persecution led to the dispersal of those unwilling to accept Roman rule, including perforce many who had not been fully initiated and who now preserved and spread the belief in a historical Jesus, increasingly seen as relatively recent. The appeal of a historical founding figure helped these groups to prevail over those who clung to the esoteric but more demanding beliefs in a celestial saviour and over time they labelled themselves orthodox and the others heretical and to be suppressed.
Other titles more briefly! David Caute has perused the records at the National Archives to produce Red List, the story of how MI5 and the Special Branch, often on the slimmest grounds, spied on prominent figures in a series of fields (science, the arts, history, the law, the Labour Party, the BBC, trade unions etc) who were often on the slimmest grounds suspected of treason, subversion or simply opposition to prevailing opinion. The anonymous but probably female ‘Secret Barrister’ deals in her third book with her entry in to the legal profession with (she says) all the usual Daily Mail prejudices about the system being soft and biassed in favour of criminals and how she was driven to change her views by real-life experience. It provides a horrifying account of the collapse of the criminal legal system. By contrast Lady (Brenda) Hale’s Spider Woman is an inspiring and insightful professional (but not personal) autobiography that captures her character and makes her extraordinary achievements seem an inevitable progression. She is of course excellent on the role of the courts and the way they work, not least when it comes to the Miller cases in the Supreme Court, but she is splendid also on her early years in Richmond (Yorks) and in academia. In Unmasking Our Leaders Michael Cockerell, who spent his life making documentary profiles of political leaders for television, provides endless revealing anecdotes and character sketches of prime ministers from Wilson on. Wilson, he suggests, was already suffering from incipient dementia when re-elected in 1974 and came more and more under the influence of Marcia Williams (hence the lavender list). Callaghan is seen as over- obsessed with detail but to nowhere near the extent of Brown – who, accustomed to exiting the front bench when Blair as PM was about to make a speech, on one occasion when he heard the Speaker announce ‘Statement – the Prime Minister’ absentmindedly stood up to go before remembering suddenly that he had become PM himself!
Margaret Wiles’ In the Shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral is a detailed history of the commercial activities that from early mediaeval times until very recently clustered around (and inside) the cathedral: there was what amounted to a pathway north and south right through the nave and small traders set up there, but there was no pulpit inside old St Paul’s: instead sermons were preached outside from St Paul’s Cross, in the north-east quadrant. These, often controversial, provided a major and lucrative source of material for the publishers, printers and booksellers who filled the area. In the great fire of 1666 they lost 90% of their stock but recovered remarkably quickly, helped by the efficient trade with the Continent, where the Frankfurt Book Fair was established by the 15th century if not earlier.
Finally a novel or two. Gill Hornby’s Miss Austen, written in a sub-Janeite style, is a pleasing and complex fantasy of her sister Cassandra’s life, with interlaced episodes before and after Jane Austen’s death, seeking to provide a motive for her destruction of so many of Jane’s letters. Beryl Bainbridge’s Watson’s Apology also has a plot based partly on fact: it is the sad story of a repressed Victorian headmaster and classical scholar who marries a woman from Ireland he has barely met and how their incompatibilities gradually emerge until he impulsively murders her. Likewise Charlotte Philby’s Edith and Kim uses genuine archives to explore her grandfather Kim Philby’s world and in particular the story of Edith Tudor-Hart née Suschitzky who lived at first in Vienna with her anti-fascist bookshop-keeping father, joined the Communist Party there, learnt photography at the Bauhaus, and met Kim Philby through his wife Litzi Friedmann and was involved in their recruitment to the NKVD. She lived for many years in London, managing to escape serious notice by the security forces.
Robert Peston’s first novel The Whistleblower is set in 1997 as the general election approaches. Its cast includes thinly disguised versions of Murdoch-cum-Maxwell, Blair and others in a complex plot involving a narrator journalist stumbling through threats and physical violence towards the truth about his brilliant Treasury civil servant sister’s death (accident or murder?). He saves a number of twists for the end but the book suffers from bad editing, as does Tom Watson’s The House, a cleverly plotted political thriller set (very quickly!) against the Covid pandemic but stretching back to the later years of the Labour government pre-2010. The play of ambition against character and ethics against party politics is well conveyed.
In complete contrast, P G Wodehouse’s Full Moon may not perhaps be the best of the Blandings novels but this can be forgiven for Lord Emsworth’s wry assessment of his youngest son, Freddie: ‘He had just about enough intelligence to open his mouth when he wanted to eat, but certainly no more’!
Enough! I ended last year’s letter with some not-quite-posthumous reflections on life and if you want any such now I will refer you back to them: in ending this letter I will simply warn you that there is no guarantee – far from it – of a 2023 version but meantime wish you all a happy and fulfilling new year!