It is amazing how quickly the years turn round: it seems only a few weeks since I was last writing to wish you a very good Christmas and a happy new year, but that new year is now almost over and another is coming over the horizon. Another year older – which in Lindsay’s case of course means noticeably more adult (he has long been taller than me!) So, all the very best for Christmas 1997 and for the new year of 1998.
This has been a busy and enjoyable year. In particular I had an excellent holiday in Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Japan was the annual International Continence Society conference, but it enabled me to visit first Christina (Lindsay’s older half-sister) and Lois’s family in Perth, and then my brother Malcolm and his family in Auckland.
I had a warm welcome from Lois’s brother Michael and his wife Kath, with whom I stayed, and was driven round by them and by Lois’s parents Bernard & Jean. Perth is a sprawling city, with endless new residential developments as you drive out. Round where Michael & Kath live (and maybe generally) there is a separate grid of paths and parkland which enables you to move around almost without using the roads – very pleasant. The centre of the city is very fine, especially the river and the views across it to the high-rise buildings. There is an excellent art gallery and a very fine Edwardian theatre – but overall it seemed (on a 5-day acquaintance!) to be a small town and I do not think I should be happy living there. Christina, who went out to visit her grandparents and got married within 6 months while there, has very regrettably split up with her husband . . . and has very recently moved away with her young children, Paige and Kyle. . .
I went on to New Zealand and, after a day in Auckland with Malcolm and family I went off for a 4-day tour of the south island. The best part of this was the visit to Milford Sound in the far south-west. It lies in a huge area of fjords and temperate rain forest with virtually no road access at all. The vegetation in the forest was luxuriant, with creepers growing over the trees, fallen trunks rotting away quietly, lakes and rivers and waterfalls everywhere. Back in Auckland, I helped Malcolm celebrate his 50th birthday – he took several dozen friends to a restaurant (Auckland has very good restaurants – I sampled two or three). Later, he took me for a two-day trip to the beautiful Coromandel peninsula, a two-hour drive to the east of Auckland, with picturesque coves and bays, sandy beaches, a few villages only by way of habitation, and inland a spine of high, wooded hills with only a couple of roads across. This is where Captain Cook made his landfall in 1769, and there at Cook’s Beach Malcolm is building a house to which in due course he plans to retire. The site is high on the side of a green valley running down to the sea about half a mile away with only about ten or twelve other houses in sight. (There is a much larger group of holiday homes – “batches” – a mile away.) His house – which was at the foundations stage when I was there – will be large: four bedrooms, two bathrooms etc – with a wide balcony (“deck”), partly shaded, on which to sit and look out to the woods and the sea. Enviable!
Malcolm works flat out most of the time: he is the marketing director for a small consultancy company in the niche market of advising big concerns about major new computer systems. They are becoming very successful and have high standards which keep them all on their toes: e.g., contracts specify the results to be delivered and if clients are not satisfied they do not have to pay. His two daughters are growing up: one in the sixth form with her eye on an advertising career, the other (quite unlike her sister) putting in 3 or 4 hours every day as a member of the potential NZ gymnastics squad for the 2004 Olympics!
I went on to Tokyo and then the ICS conference in Yokohama (this part of my trip was sponsored by one of the company benefactors of the Continence Foundation and the day before the conference started I found myself lecturing in English to a hall full of extremely attentive Japanese nurses and doctors they had assembled: they had my text in advance and had prepared and issued a translation, had translated my slides into Japanese and had a consecutive interpreter so I felt rather de trop!)
The five-star conference hotel in Yokohama (virtually a suburb of Tokyo) was a marked contrast to my three days in a cheap hotel in Tokyo before the conference. (Despite the guidebooks which warn of the expense – and offer as cheap options the 4-foot high stacked coffin-like cubicles or else after 11 pm a room in a “love hotel”! – I booked in at a reasonably central business hotel for about £50 a night.) I spent most of the time walking round the city, mainly the older parts, doing five out of thirteen city walks in an excellent guidebook. Highlights were the Edo-Tokyo city museum (captions in English, excellent models, both full-size and miniature, of historic buildings, all on the 5th & 6th floors of a striking modern building that had no 3rd or 4th floors: only two pillars and an escalator!), the gardens (Tokyo has almost no open space and less greenery for its population of 25 million: car owners, required to have off-street parking, invest cooperatively in mechanical car stacking systems; but there are a few gardens – often originally belonging to a palace or temple – which are exquisite); and the fish market. The latter I visited early one morning. It covers several acres and sells over 4,000 varieties of fish. The wholesale section has a grid of narrow trolley-ways and walkways between stalls displaying fish and shellfish – and prepared parts of fish – of endless varieties and sizes. I walked slowly round taking dozens of photos – the busy stallholders and purchasers seemed either indifferent or positively welcoming.
Back home, it has been a busy year with the Continence Foundation, not least because from March we are without a core-funding grant from the Department of Health. We took on a fundraiser in February who is determined to make a success of his work, but it is a slow job selecting and cultivating trusts, building databases of potential donors and preparing projects and appeals to send them. He doubles as a publicity officer and spent his first four months mainly on planning our “public awareness campaign” – the so-called “National Pelvic Floorathon” – on June 3. (The idea was to promote exercise of the pelvic floor muscles, a good prophylactic as well as cure for stress incontinence. We got the cooperation of exercise and many other organisations and through them and the network of community continence nurses got over 300 local events organised. We also had a stand for four days at the Your Health Show at Olympia and a press conference with Sharron Davies on the day. It got huge publicity in women’s weekly and monthly magazines but barely a column inch in the national press.)
Otherwise work seems to centre too much on going to conferences and liaising with other organisations. At least a meeting of the Association for Continence Advice in Penrith (where its chair lives!) enabled me to extend a pleasant weekend with friends in Yorkshire by taking the Settle to Carlisle railway – and getting off at every other stop to walk round before catching the next train!
At Easter, Lindsay and I went to Venice for a long weekend. (The flights were paid for by my Barclaycard points!) We stayed in a converted “palace” a short walk from the Piazza San Marco and had a thoroughly enjoyable time. The weather was sunny and warm although it was still March, and we walked and took the vaporetto all round the city, ate lunchtime pizzas beside the Grand Canal and took a boat trip to Murano and Burano. One evening we ate – very well indeed – beside the Rialto Bridge, protected from the evening chill in a clear plastic “tent” alongside the canal and warmed by roaring gas heaters!
Lindsay is now approaching his A levels and very clear that his future will have everything to do with his Art and little to do with his other subjects (English and Religious – and philosophical – Studies). He wants to go to art school and foresees a career in graphic art – that is, if he cannot get into films! He did a week’s work experience in the summer at a major advertising company and they said his work was already better than that of some art college graduates they recruit, so with luck he will be able to support me in my old age!!
My father continues to live in Somerset despite my and my brothers urging him to move somewhere less remote. He has been diagnosed with bladder cancer, which was luckily caught at a very early stage, but he has had to – and will probably continue to have to – have three-monthly operations to control it. As a result, he cancelled his planned trip to see Malcolm in New Zealand in January but went to Canada in October to visit old family friends (and see the stupendous fall colours) and is again planning to go to NZ in February to stay first with friends and then visit Malcolm and Regan, perhaps at their new house. After each hospital episode he has spent up to a week each first with my brother Kenneth and Diana and then with me. On these occasions, we have eaten out a lot and gone to the theatre (the hugely enjoyable National Theatre Guys and Dolls; By Jeeves – a fun revue based on PG Wodehouse; a well-structured play about Shakespeare’s daughter, The Herbal Bed, and a real plonker, The Woman in Black). We have also visited rarely seen relations (my uncle and aunt, a second cousin & family) – and I took the opportunity of gathering from them information about my mother’s (Holt) family tree: nothing to balance the Pollock side, which we can trace to 1088, but interesting, including a boy who walked to London playing his fiddle for food.
I have continued active in the Humanist movement, this year taking something of an elder statesman role in trying to keep the peace between the go-ahead BHA Executive Committee and the Education Committee with which they had fallen out of sympathy despite its excellent work, and between the BHA and its companion humanist organisations when it announced without warning a move out of our shared offices. I chaired a working party that has resulted in them staying but with a radical rearrangement to accommodate their expansion. Partly because of all this, I stood for and was re-elected to the BHA Executive in the summer, returning to it after a break of over 20 years! I have therefore stood down as chair of the Rationalist Press Association, though I remain on its Board. The RPA in my view should merge with the BHA, but there are opponents to this view in both organisations and it is unlikely to happen. The RPA publishes the quarterly New Humanist and a very occasional book (an interesting if scholarly one this year on the history of the words “humanist” and “humanism”) and has a minute radio (and potentially TV) production company that has had some success getting onto the World Service (with regular contributions to their Pause for Thought slot and a fine play about Bosnia, Mirad, now in the shops as a tape) but so far little or none with the domestic services.
I have made no further progress in writing up my research about the way the Government reacted to the findings on smoking and health in the 1950s but really must do so: I sent Sir Richard Doll my draft, which he corrected in a couple of details, and at the ASH AGM a few weeks ago he came up to me to ask when I was publishing! “Tobacco” work this year has been confined to (a) keeping track of the rapid developments in the USA via the Web (logging on every 3 or 4 days I typically find 40 or 50 items in my in-tray!), (b) taking part in a Cancer Research Campaign working party that drew up a code of practice for them on not funding research in faculties etc that were in receipt of money from tobacco companies (this was a follow-on to the row over Cambridge University accepting tobacco endowment for a chair of international relations), and (c) writing some letters in the run-up to the overdue agreement of the EU ban on tobacco advertising (which still has many stages to get through before it becomes a Directive). This included, of course, the disgraceful Formula 1 betrayal (of his health ministers by Blair, of the public by the Government) over which I resigned, with many others, from the Labour Party – a wrench after so many years, but their priorities generally seem at least sadly questionable now they are in office.
Some very good reading this year: I must confine myself to a selected list. In a rare venture into fiction I romped through all six Barchester novels and am tempted to follow up with the rest of Trollope. Among the rest I have read: Ian Wilson’s Shakespeare – the Evidence (a great deal better on Shakespeare than on the Turin Shroud, I think); Matt Ridley’s The Origins of Virtue (the development of cooperation and enlightened self-interest in animal and human behaviour – a fascinating and readable study); Richard Dawkins’ River Out of Eden and Paul Davies’ The Last Three Minutes, two of the new “Science Masters” series; James Gleick’s biography of Richard Feynman Genius; a biography of Lady Jane Digby – born in 1807 into the Dorset aristocracy and ending in domesticity with a Bedouin sheikh in Damascus in 1881 – by Mary Lovell (A Scandalous Life); and Flora Fraser’s first-class life of Queen Caroline, The Unruly Queen. I am currently delighting in The Lost Leaders by Edward Pearce – short biographies of Rab Butler, Denis Healey and Iain Macleod, full of sharp observation and perceptive judgements – highly recommended.
Counting up, I find I have been to the theatre about twice a month on average all year, mainly at the National. I have good memories of Pinter’s The Homecoming; of the two theatre-in-the-round productions in the extraordinarily transformed Olivier auditorium – the Marat/Sade and The Caucasian Chalk Circle; of the beautifully produced Kurt Weill musical Lady in the Dark; of Judi Dench in David Hare’s latest, Amy’s View; of Ian Holm magnificent as Lear; of Ian McKellen in a powerful Enemy of the People; of Patrick Marber’s Closer (don’t take Aunt Agatha!), and of Othello to which I took Lindsay and a friend as it is one of their set books. Most recently I have seen a rather nostalgic revival of Wesker’s Chips with Everything and Tom Stoppard’s latest, The Invention of Love, in which a dying or dead A E Houseman revisits his youth while waiting on the banks of the Styx and exchanging banter with Charon.
In the West End (on transfer from the National, where I had missed it) Lindsay and I enthused about Hare’s Skylight. I saw Waste at the Old Vic, before Peter Hall’s successful experiment with a new commercial rep company was brought to a premature end by the Mirvishes’ decision to sell the theatre, and went twice to the new Globe Theatre on Bankside. First I saw Henry V the day after the Queen opened the theatre (the fireworks for which intruded faintly on the Caucasian Chalk Circle upstream at the National!). The whole experience is quite unlike any other theatre. The audience is not separated from the action – by the proscenium arch, by darkness and lighting effects, by the whole tradition of modern theatre – but cheek by jowl with the actors. The sense of participation is very real – as the papers have reported, the audience participate: when the French herald came on, he got booed, and when Henry, before Agincourt, told his troops “ . . . he which have no stomach for this fight, let him depart”, one of the “groundlings” shouted back “We’re with you, King Hal!” There was a vigour and directness that was very appealing – even despite the occasional anachronistic drone of a helicopter overhead. And it did not rain!
My second visit to the Globe was on the eve of leaving for Australia, when I went to an afternoon workshop and evening performance of As You Like It by the Original Shakespeare Company, an “occasional” group of professionals brought together to perform in the manner the company director thinks plays were done in Shakespeare’s day, namely, without rehearsal! Each actor is given his or her own part, with two-word cues, and learns it. Apart from a broad understanding of the plot, that is all: they go on and act, listening very hard so as not to miss a cue and so as to follow the nuances and improvise their performance accordingly. I am not totally convinced of the historic truth of the theory (based on the extraordinary number of plays put on for a very few performances each by the company at the Rose Theatre, whose records have survived, which certainly left little time for rehearsal) but the performance in the evening was remarkably exciting, direct and clear – and received with huge enthusiasm. (Surprisingly, most of the cast – with whom the audience chatted before and after the performance – were unfamiliar with the play; and they do very obscure c.17th works as well as Shakespeare.)
This letter gets far too long – you may well have given up by now, I dare say, or be reading it in March or June! So I must close, with just a brief report that the garden continues to occupy much of my time: the “new” section at last takes shape, with paths, a new lawn, a summerhouse, and (half built) a pergola, with a brick step to the lawn and a brick wall to retain a raised bed and support five brick columns, which I am still building. I bought myself a cement mixer so as to be able to spend a day on the work whenever it was convenient, and was last at it two weeks ago. Oh for 48 hours in the day and 14 days in the week!
Well, that’s it, folks! It remains only to wish you again both a thoroughly enjoyable Christmas and a healthy and prosperous 1998.

1996 —————- 1998