It is always the warning sign: Christmas cards start arriving, and some of them have letters inside! The time has come for buying cards and writing letters. The deadline for Australia and New Zealand goes by, then that for North America, and now the date looms even for inland letters! Luckily the Post Office knows there are people like me and uses the deadlines to get the bulk of the mail through early so that it can (I hope) get most of my missives delivered anyway – just in time, as they are said to say in manufacturing and retailing these days. (Or just not in time, at my local badly managed Safeway!) And so, here is the dreaded Christmas letter.
This has been a fairly quiet year. No exotic holidays – in fact, barely a holiday at all. At first I postponed making any decision in case Lindsay, after leaving school, fancied joining me on a trip somewhere, but he had far preferable engagements with his close-knit group of friends from school, who even now spend a remarkable amount of time together on the brink of gap-year trips to India and Vietnam, in the midst of courses and jobs. (Not infrequently Lindsay finds mattress-space for 6 or 8 of them in his room!)
Then I had to take most of a fortnight off work when I was unable to do anything after my computer broke down and had to go back the makers to be repaired! It has been a frustrating year with computers: the more marvels one gets them to perform, the more reliant one becomes on them. First we had a break-in at the office and mine was stolen and then within weeks the spare machine I had started using (with rather out-of-date back-up files – the “automatic” back-up system had failed without us realising two months earlier!) developed a temperamental unwillingness to do anything at all – even load Windows, and I realised how useless I was to the organisation without this bit of gadgetry. So after getting in the others’ way for a day I started some gardening leave, which went on with the odd day’s interruption for over two weeks.
In the end I had a week away in September with my old friends Dick and Sheila Clark on the canals – as we did for several years in the early 1970s! Little was changed: the same narrow boats with their marvels of compression of facilities, the same restful pace, where walking is fast compared with the speed of the boat on the narrow canals. We did the familiar circuit from Wootton Wawen to Stratford and down the Avon to Tewkesbury, up the Severn to Worcester, and back via the Worcester and Birmingham Canal and again the Stratford-on-Avon. The Avon was notable for the aftermath of the floods in the spring: tatters of waste plastic and paper were stretched in uniform direction on the fences and hedges right round neighbouring fields – a good twelve feet above the summer water level – a bit like some modern art work.
Lindsay did his A-levels in the summer, getting reasonably good results and going on as planned to a foundation year at Camberwell School of Art. His skills lie in graphic art (what I still tend to call commercial art) but his ambitions lie in films: he writes extraordinarily good dialogue and he teamed up with a determined French student at the college who fancies himself as a cinematographer to try to produce a ten-minute film. His script was excellent, but the project has fallen through for practical reasons (like a lack of cash!) He has just had a week in New York with the college – walking, taking (excellent) photos, sketching and going to the cinema. All right for some!
We had a big family gathering in August to celebrate my father’s 85th birthday. Malcolm was unable to come from NZ, but Kenneth, Geoffrey and I with our families spent a sunny weekend in Brompton Regis and took him and some friends out to a good restaurant. Dad remains in excellent health and generally cheerful, though sometimes lonely, but we cannot persuade him to move from his small and distant Exmoor village. He had another trip to New Zealand to visit Malcolm and family in January, and went to Canada again this autumn to visit his friends there – enjoying himself immensely both times.
Workwise, we moved the Continence Foundation offices back in February – a non-stop weekend of carting office furniture and heavy boxes of literature by the vanload up from our old lease-expired basement to our new office a mile away on the third floor of a block of what were once workshops (some still are: goldsmiths, mainly, as it is near Hatton Garden) but are now relatively cheap offices largely occupied by charities and voluntary organisations. Then at the beginning of April, taking advantage of the retirement of a key member of the staff there, we moved our Helpline operation down from Newcastle-upon-Tyne (where it was set up before the Foundation was created) to our new office in London: another weekend with a hired van and tired muscles! The last call to the old Helpline came in on Friday about 5 pm, and it was open for business in London complete with reference library and databases by 9.30 on Monday!
The work has been made interesting by a successful (so far) political campaign to force the Government to give higher priority to continence services in NHS budgets. The success has been to get them so tied in knots of self-contradiction over (especially) their imposition of VAT on NHS purchases of continence pads that the only way out was to set up a review of their whole policy. They have appointed an expert review group, including three of our trustees, and we are hoping (and working) for the best when it reports next spring. Funding remains a worry: we had a large deficit in 1997/98, but things are a bit better so far this year.
I have remained active in the Humanist movement – on the Executive of the British Humanist Association and now chair of its education committee, on the board of the Rationalist Press Association etc. – and this occupies several evenings a month and a few weekends a year. The BHA is slowly winning official recognition, if that is the meaning of our being on most lists for official consultation on anything from genetic engineering to the millennium, but in the area where we have greatest concern – education – Blunkett has shown no sign either of reforming the law for state schools (which gives Christianity a highly privileged position) or of recognising the risks of funding more and more religious schools – including now even Seventh Day Adventist schools teaching creationism as against evolution. And in Parliament there is an alarming intolerance for any criticism of this trend. “Christian Socialism” seems to be part of the New Labour orthodoxy.
I’ve also been busy completing my short book on the way the civil service and the government handled the revelations about the risks of smoking in the period up to the change of government in 1964. This is based on the work I did at the Public Records Office before leaving ASH. I went back to the PRO for two or three days in the summer and made several trips to the BL Newspaper Library, the BMA library etc. It is a story of refusal to believe what the scientists said and reluctance to act on it when belief was unavoidable, building defensible positions while doing as little as possible. The only Ministers who come out of the story well are Lord Hailsham and Enoch Powell, as Ministers for Science and Health respectively in the early 1960s. I sent copies of the draft to both early in the year – Powell died within a few weeks and was already too ill to comment, and Hailsham is also unwell and has not responded. I have, however, incorporated extensive comments from Sir Richard Doll and Sir George Godber, the scientist who did the definitive studies and the Chief Medical Officer under Powell.
Writing it is one thing, however, and getting it published is quite another. I have sent a synopsis and sample chapters to over 30 selected publishers and so far the best response has been agreement to take it on if I can find a buyer for 500 copies at £22.40 each! For 58,000 words that is a pretty steep price, especially as it is a 20% discount on the proposed cover price. I have not given up on it, but the chances are plainly not good.
In the garden I have completed the pergola and planted it with clematis and old-fashioned roses. I am now reshaping another part of the garden (widening a bed and laying a path through it) and have an agenda that will keep me busy for years.
Of recent months I have not been going to the theatre very much: a matter mainly of too much work leading to too long office hours. Highlights of the year have included “A Letter of Resignation” (which I took Dad to see back in January: a well-constructed play about Harold Macmillan being forced to reflect on his own marriage in the light of the Profumo crisis) and Michael Frayn’s excellent “Copenhagen”, about the meeting of Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in that city in 1941: an exploration alike of the social responsibility of the scientist and of the uncertainty of our knowledge of history. Other theatre trips were less exciting or else positively disappointing (like the Helen Mirren/Alan Rickman “Antony and Cleopatra” at the National this autumn – not a patch on Peter Hall’s production with Judi Dench and Anthony Hopkins in the 1980s). The NT scored well, however, with another in its long succession of money-making musicals, this time “Oklahoma!”, to which I took Dad in September. Back in January, I went to see Fiona Shaw performing T S Eliot’s The Wasteland at the semi-derelict Wilton’s Music Hall: a memorable experience.
I also went with my friend Dick Clark to the complete Ring cycle, “semi-staged” at the Royal Albert Hall by the troubled Royal Opera – nothing wrong with this production, however, bar a rather weak Brunnhilde (Anne Evans) in Siegfried and Gotterdammerung. The orchestra was magnificent under Haitink. And rather at the other end of the spectrum was a highly imaginative staging of Purcell’s wonderful “Fairy Queen” by the English National Opera in May – marred only by being seated behind a seven-foot giant!
I’ve been reading a fair bit: I have just finished Tom Bower’s scathing biography of that incredible crook Mohamed al Fayed; before that, The Kennedy Tapes – fascinating transcripts of secret recordings of the Oval Office meetings during the Cuba crisis; earlier, the very fine biography of TH Huxley by Adrian Desmond; Philip Ziegler’s book on the Black Death; Claire Tomalin’s biography of Jane Austen; six more Trollopes (the Palliser sequence this year); Peter Hennessey’s The Hidden Wiring (an examination of the UK’s constitution); “Shakespeare’s Professional Career”; and a dozen other assorted titles.
All these books have spilled out from my study onto floors and tables elsewhere, and the room was piled with papers and stuffed with desk, filing cabinets and so on. This was not efficient or pleasing and so I have now taken over the spare bedroom and made it into an office/study, with a fine old (1930s) oak desk and a specially made new oak table. The old study is now purely a library – except it has a new sofa-bed in the window for visitors. The new study is not completed yet – still encumbered by redundant furniture! – but overall this will be a much more satisfactory arrangement.
I see the end of page three approaching, which means this letter is far too long. So, enough! I send you best wishes for Christmas and for the last new year before chaos allegedly descends.