Well, it is December again, and time for another letter of greeting and news – for most of you regrettably – or perhaps thankfully? – the only letter I manage to send you each year! With another year over, most of my promises to people in last year’s cards – “We must get together some time in the new year” – remain unfulfilled, though not quite all. There was one major get together that came out of the blue – some people organised the first ever (in my experience) school reunion for Beckenham & Penge Grammar. I went with my youngest brother, Geoff, met four or five people I remembered, and looked nostalgically round the old building – which is now a primary school! By coincidence just a few days before I had an evening for the second time in about 30 years with Alan Sanderson, a close friend at school, who has lived that long in Vancouver and only been back twice.
I did not have a major holiday this year but took two weeks off in the spring to go round various parts of southern England with some friends from Canada – Helena and Peter, the latter the son of a close friend of my mother’s until they were parted at the age of seven by her family’s emigrating! Dad has been visiting them each autumn for a few years now, but this was their first return trip. Dad and I met them at Heathrow and immediately plunged off into Berkshire byways – thatched cottages, village ponds, narrow lanes with overarching trees and rare passing places – which made them glad I was driving! (As did roundabouts, the logic of which seemed totally to escape them – “what are you meant to do? how do you know . . .?”!) We were on balance lucky with the weather – blazing sun at Corfe Castle and torrential rain only when we were on the road or indoors (including on board HMS Victory)!
Dad at the age (then) of 86 managed all the steep companionways and bend-low decks very nimbly. He was also greeted with open arms by the proprietress of the fish and chip cafe we went to at Lyme Regis – an old friend who previously had lived in Brompton Regis! In London we went to the Courtauld gallery (I always forget what wonders it has, but Peter was impressed in another way: “Gee, David,” he said as we came out, “they’ve sure got some big pictures in there. You’d need a big wall to hang them on”) and the newly opened Gilbert collection, also in Somerset House – an extraordinary collection of gold and silver, miniatures and pietro duro pictures – wonderful but not quite lovable! We also went to see a very effective Hamlet at the Globe with Mark Rylands in the title role as well as directing.
Dad and I took Peter and Helena to the airport and went straight on to the diamond wedding of my uncle and aunt, Jack & Vera, which was a great gathering of their part of the clan! It was the first time I had seen various cousins for many years – a very enjoyable occasion.
The next day was a contrast – a memorial meeting for Nicolas Walter, who died early in the year. He worked for the Rationalist Press Association for many years, retiring only a couple of months before his early death from a recurrence of the cancer previous treatment of which had damaged his spine and left him in a wheelchair for many years. He was a sometimes cantankerous, often obstinate but essentially deeply rational and very acute thinker – and writer, though sadly mainly of occasional pieces (and famously of letters to the press), though he wrote two books for the RPA (on the blasphemy law and on the history of the word Humanism) and a celebrated and much translated book on anarchism.
He contributed to a TV programme that got shown only a few days ago – the one that looked back at the Grosvenor Square anti-Vietnam war demo in March 1967. An eye-opener for Lindsay, who watched it with me, and a trip down memory lane for me – I was there as an NCCL observer and later gave evidence at a disciplinary hearing at Scotland Yard against a PC who lost it completely and was thrashing a young woman who was already on the ground with his truncheon. She was Susie Orbach, now well known in her own right but then noted by me as being the daughter of Maurice Orbach, an MP in the Humanist Parliamentary Group that I was organising for the BHA.
I mentioned Somerset House: I must try to get there again soon to see the Hermitage exhibition from St Petersburg. I had a few hours actually at the Hermitage this summer in a side-trip after the annual International Continence Society conference which was this year held in Tampere in Finland. We stayed in the Sheraton on Nevskij Prospekt and went to the ballet at the tiny private theatre in the Hermitage palace and the next day went to the museum there. It was sacrilege rushing round as we had to – leaving galleries of Titian and Picasso to left and right as we hurried to take in the Rembrandt and the Matisse. It was a marvellous experience and I am determined to go back there again as soon as I can. We had an excellent guide for the whole visit, Ada Nezdikovskaia, who I hope will come to London next year.
The Continence Foundation continued busy – we published to much praise a 28-page summary I had compiled of the arguments for investing in an integrated continence service, I have scripted a video which is near completion and looks like being very useful, and I am getting near to finishing (in its first state) a huge website – the equivalent of a short book – which, when we start promoting it, will, we expect, attract a lot of attention and bring in a lot of enquiries.
We have many other things in hand, but I am planning to bow out: my job was advertised in November and interviews will be held before Christmas. I plan to retire next spring – at the end of March or April, with the possibility of carrying on for two days a week for a strictly limited period if the new director sees any value in that.
What then? Well, I want to spend a lot of time working for the British Humanist Association and maybe offer a day a week to ASH or some other organisation. I will manage to visit more exhibitions and miss fewer productions at the National Theatre. And catch up on some of the reading I should have done. And get the garden in shape, instead of always trying to keep it under control. And do some research for a (remotely) possible book. And travel a bit more. I do not think I shall be lacking in occupation!
I am already, of course, busy with the Humanists – on their executive and chairing their education committee. There is scope for better presentation of valuable material and for better campaigning, but what exactly I shall do will have to wait upon the event. Being also in the board of the Rationalist Press Association, I have been behind plans for a relaunch next spring of their journal, New Humanist, which will for a year at least go also to BHA members – a big expense, shared by the RPA and BHA, but a good initial boost to circulation.
Dad remains basically very fit, though he was unfortunately unwell for a while – dizzy and passing out – in Canada when he visited Peter and Helena in October. At the start of the year he had another trip to New Zealand to visit Malcolm and Regan, going out there just before their older daughter, Bree, returned after a stay here over Christmas packed with discos and parties.
Lindsay is now in his second year of his film and video course, making short videos for the course and for fun, and long ones as wallpaper for projection at discos. He has a large circle of friends from both college and school, and not uncommonly half a dozen of them seem to spend the night here. He has taken over the whole top floor of the house and is almost self-contained up there.
Lois had an unfortunate year, going out to Mallorca where she thought she could settle for a year or so doing her psychotherapy and counselling on a part employed, part private basis but found herself let down by the people who had encouraged her to go. After a few months she was back in England, having lost a lot of money and sold up her house here, and she has now been in Australia again since the summer, planning on staying till February (house-sitting while her brother and sister-in-law holiday in Europe) but unsure what she will do thereafter.
My brothers and their families continue well – Ken has his own company now making programmes for TV, mainly on motor sport; Malcolm, in New Zealand, is thinking of retirement to his lovely Cook’s Beach house in the next two or three years, and Geoff is doing well in his position as a salaried director of an insurance broker.
It is untrue that I had no holiday during the year: I had a week in September with my good friends Dick and Sheila staying at their apartment in Chamonix. We took it easy: gentle expeditions in the mornings (up the incredible cable car to the Aiguille du Midi – more like something out of a fantasy novel illustration than real life – or a stroll along the contours on the opposite side of the valley) and spent the afternoons and evenings reading and eating! One wet day, when we escaped to an excellent van Gogh exhibition at Martigny, just over the pass into Switzerland.
I think I went to fewer special exhibitions this year than last (but a number of permanent collections, including twice to the Tate Modern, still too overcrowded to really appreciate, and to Tate Britain). At the Royal Academy there was a fascinating exhibition bringing together again many of the paintings exhibited at the Paris exhibition of 1900 – plus some of those left out then but now far more highly regarded than much that was included!
But I’ve been to the theatre 22 times in the year! – mainly at the National, where I saw (in each case by queuing for returns for stunning sell-out productions) both The Cherry Orchard (with Vanessa and Corin Redgrave) and All My Sons (with Julie Walters). I finally got to see the NT production of Tony Harrison’s version of The Mystery Plays, and also saw Ted Hughes’ two-part Oresteia. There was an excellent visiting production of Baby Doll, based on Tennessee Williams’ film script; and I went twice (taking Lindsay the second time) to Trevor Nunn’s superb Merchant of Venice, with Henry Goodman playing Shylock as a complex, inhibited family man.
Cinema this year I find in retrospect has been a bit disappointing: The Insider was a nice (if actually somewhat soft-pedalled) exposé of the tobacco industry’s power; The House of Mirth a beautifully realised period piece with fine direction and acting, and the Coen brothers’ O Brother Where art Thou? huge and stylish fun.
I have recorded reading 31 books this year – admittedly some of them fairly light (Michael Frayn’s Headlong is immensely amusing with a bit of presumably accurate art history thrown in, and David Maurer’s 50-year-old The Big Con reveals that the elaborate fake betting shop set-up at the end of the film The Sting was no exaggeration: in the ’20s and ’30s such establishments were a feature of most big US cities and “ropers” had to get appointments to bring their victims in to be fleeced!). I have much enjoyed David Gilmour’s biography of Curzon, Francis Wheen’s of Marx, John Keane’s of Tom Paine, and Dana Sobell’s Galileo’s Daughter. Irwin Matus’s Shakespeare in Fact was useful confirmation that I was right to resist the persuasions of a friend that the plays were actually written by the rather unpleasant Edward de Vere (the Earl of Oxford) – which did not detract from the enjoyment of taking part in reading a play she has written about de Vere on that premise. She – Sally Hazelton – and her partner also invited me to a meeting of the de Vere Society at the Globe Theatre: harmless obsessives all!!
A N Wilson’s God’s Funeral was another good read – a beautifully written book about the nineteenth century disillusion with religion – how some struggled to retain some elements of faith – like Wilson himself! – and others embraced the new and heady freedom.
A real find was Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel – a convincing explanation of how the natural environment determined that civilisation started in the Middle East and prospered where it did and not in (say) the Americas (before European settlement) or Australia. Highly recommended! As is Cecil Woodham Smith’s The Great Hunger – which I picked up in Denver last year at a sale in aid of the public library! This history of the Irish potato famine is a revelation, especially for the complete incomprehension of the situation on the part of the British government and officials (the principal of whom went on to introduce the major reforms of the civil service and was the grandfather of George Trevelyan, the historian).
Well, an end to this cultural catalogue before the page runs out. Every good wish for Christmas and the new year – indeed, new century and new millennium (for I am a stickler for logic!)