Well, here we are at the end of the 1990s – certainly not of the century or millennium – it would be short measure indeed if you got only 99 to the hundred – but that is a lost battle and Horace’s odi profanum vulgus et arceo is now quite impractical as well as non-PC!!
The highlight of my year was undoubtedly a holiday trekking in India – in the Lahoul valley in Himalchal Pradesh in the Himalayan foothills – followed by a quick tour that took in Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. The trek was beset by problems – a landslide blocking the approach road for 24 hours (it came down literally 5 minutes before we got there), missing pack animals, and bridges washed away so that we had to divert into side valleys and climb steeper and rougher terrain than planned – but this only made the trip the better, and the group – fifteen of us plus leader plus local guides and porters – all got on excellently. (There was by chance another David Pollock in the party – a retired but very active engineer in his 70s!)
We never managed to get to the top even of a ridge, let alone a hill or mountain, but it was not for want of trying: they’re just too big! The scenery was magnificent, and the valleys full of interest, with villages built with wood frames and dry-stone walls, sometimes rendered with mud, animals below and people above, sometimes with satellite aerials and solar panels; people working hard in the small but abundant fields and water rushing in irrigation channels everywhere. The torrential rivers rolled big booming boulders in their churning depths.
After the trek four of us exchanged tents (I actually mostly slept in the open) for 4-star hotels for the “extension” trip to see the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort, the abandoned Moghul capital at Fatipur Sikri, the palaces at Amber and Jaipur and the extraordinary observatory at Jaipur – astronomical instruments built of stone 50 feet high, all in much better repair than the (admittedly much older) similar observatory I saw in Samarkand in 1994. We ended with a day in Delhi, when I wandered with a camera through the narrow alleys of the old market (I came home with several hundred slides).
I got back to Heathrow about 4.00 in the morning and by 1.00 in the afternoon was en route to Denver in the USA with work colleagues for the annual international continence conference! I had no time to go home and change, so I had left my Denver luggage in the car at Heathrow and did a quick wash and change in a hotel before driving to Gatwick and leaving my Indian luggage in the car park there! After the conference three of us had a few days in the Rocky Mountains National Park – all rather tame, I am afraid, after the Himalayas. I finally got home after all but five weeks away, quite glad to be back.
Work at the Continence Foundation was exceptionally heavy for the first few months of the year and is only easier now in comparative terms: from January to April I did an average of over 10 hours a day in the office. That is the problem with charities: you cannot just walk out at 5.30. But it remains rewarding: I think we have been quite influential with detailed contributions to the (now overdue) new NHS guidance on continence services, for example, and we are now averaging over 13,000 phone calls and letters seeking help every year. On the whole work does not invade the weekends, but Humanism does, with three weekend strategy meetings as well as two conferences and regular committee meetings also held at the weekend. What I look forward to is being able to go part-time at the Continence Foundation – 3 days a week would be ideal, but it needs us to raise money to bring in another member of staff – and then have a day a week for the British Humanist Association and maybe a day also for work with Action on Smoking and Health.
Though it is really a private venture, ASH this year lent their name as publishers of my book on the political history of smoking and health in Britain from 1951 to 1964: the title Denial & Delay sums up the contents pretty accurately! It is the result of my work in the Public Records Office some years ago. Sir Richard Doll and the former CMO Sir George Godber contributed complimentary forewords; otherwise I did it all myself – producing the page masters on my PC and the cover with a collage of photocopies of documents from the files – and am now trying to sell a few of the 1,000 copies I got printed. About 120 have gone so far, plus another 30+ as review or complementary copies. It has, however, been a thoroughly worthwhile venture, even if I do not get back all the £2,500 or so it cost. I will enclose a flier with this letter rather than write more here – many apologies if I have already sent you one.
Lindsay has won a highly competitive place at the London College of Printing to do a degree course in film and video which he started in September and is enjoying enormously. He is now 19 going on 20 and leads a pretty independent life, with a lot of close friends with whom he spends a lot of time. For the last 14 years he has spent alternate weeks with Lois and with me, but Lois is now moving to Mallorca, where she is starting a career as a consultant psychotherapist – an unpredictable move but one she is keen on and has worked out in some detail (an early hurdle is learning Spanish!) So earlier this month Lindsay and I moved all his things from Lois’s place back here, where he is now half way through sorting them out and trying to fit them in.
Not much else to say, except that I continue to go to the theatre (regrettably less often than I should like – about once a month, I see on checking – but tiring office hours are not conducive to the spur-of-the-moment decisions that I like to turn right rather than left at the door) and to read books (mainly on the bus to and from work!)
Of the books I’ve read this year, I remember particularly some historical books (Alison Weir’s The Princes in the Tower: Richard III was guilty as hell and all the revisionists are wrong); George III by Christopher Hibbert (really a rather likeable man, traduced by being remembered only for his dementia); Raj – the making and unmaking of British India (Lawrence James) (how accidentally we acquired an empire – in Africa too – see Thomas Pakenham’s The Scramble for Africa); a biography of Isaac Newton; and The Gunpowder Plot by Antonia Fraser (which I found reduced in a Denver bookshop: odd to find myself sympathising with the Catholics!); then four successive biographies of women: Georgiana by Amanda Foreman (a very modern duchess), Bride of Science about Ada Lovelace, Byron’s unhappy daughter and Babbage’s inspired colleague; and biographies of George Eliot, a 19th century meliorist humanist, by Kathryn Hughes, and of Dame Judi Dench by John Miller. Other theatre-related reading included Woza Shakespeare by Antony Sher and his partner Greg Doran, about a production of Titus Andronicus in South Africa. and a biography of Shakespeare by Schoenbaum. Lighter but entertaining stuff was Bill Deedes’ wonderful Dear Bill and John Carvel’s Turn Again, Livingstone (what a travesty if he does not become London’s mayor!). Then there were two wonderful books by Stephen Pinker: The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works – truly enlightening and (with last year’s Origin of Virtue (Matt Ridley) providing a coherent and potentially complete naturalistic account of human existence.
Theatre included an excellent Troilus & Cressida, Gorky’s Summerfolk and Ostrovsky’s The Forest, and Pinter’s Betrayal all at the National Theatre, a fine Measure for Measure, a rather staid Tempest and a disappointing Lear (Nigel Hawthorne did not have the necessary weight but the Japanese design was thrilling) at the RSC. And we have had some excellent exhibitions: late Monet (all the waterlilies and much else beside), portraits by Millais bringing some eminent Victorians back to life and by Ingres doing the same for some earlier French notables; then the awe-inspiring Rembrandt self-portraits and a superb Van Dyke exhibition. I’ve packed in a few films too: I’d recommend The Matrix but not Pi (pretentious nonsense), Shakespeare in Love (great fun) but not Elizabeth for all the awards it won; two films about unpleasant young women – Christine Ricci in each case: The Opposite of Sex and Election, and (an unreserved recommendation) Ang Lee’s drama of the American Civil War Ride with the Devil for its humanity, nice observation, excellent sets and settings, great action sequences and superb acting.
Time is running out and I risk never getting this in the post! So, enough for now: do have a happy Christmas (if this tardy letter reaches you in time) and a very happy final year of the 20th century!