When I was a child, Christmas came round about every ten years – or so it seemed. You counted the days – as you did to a seaside holiday – and the very hours went at the speed of a sloth. Now Christmases follow each other in hot pursuit. No sooner have you recovered from one than the next is looming, no sooner looming than it is panic stations: only two weeks to go! Now is that because in childhood one’s life was so full of new experiences that time was mentally stretched to accommodate them all? Ten new things before every breakfast – let alone at school? Or was it that life was so empty that time dragged and like a watched pot Christmas crept on at a snail-like pace? Don’t ask me, but I apologise for the mixed metaphors.
Anyhow, it is here again, and here is my usual mildly personalised Christmas missive to all and sundry. Before I launch into it, however, let me wish you all the best for Christmas and the New Year.
I have now been retired (from gainful employment, if in no other sense) for almost two years (well, 21½ months at the time of writing!) and it is a state to be recommended, even if it is a bit alarming at times to see the money flowing out with little chance of replenishment! It has been a year of less variety than I had expected as policy/campaigning work for the Humanists has taken more time than planned, so that one or two projects I had in mind have yet to get started (one is for a study of and some writing about the nineteenth century history of the struggle for universal education from Samuel Whitbread’s Bill in 1808 to the 1870 Act with particular attention to the churches’ resistance to it in favour of their own monopoly). That said, I cannot complain of monotony, as witness what follows.
And I completed my sixth decade – one of those essentially meaningless landmarks that set you thinking about how little you have achieved and stimulate you to greater efforts in future! (I guess when they cease having that effect, things are looking serious!) The other significant change this year is that Lindsay has moved out – he is now (as of mid-November) sharing a house with three friends at the other end of Hackney, near Victoria Park. As he is 22, I cannot complain that this is premature but it is something to adjust to, being by myself in the house.
Lindsay completed his degree course in the summer: much of his last year was spent writing and directing a 10-minute film that got shown not only at the college’s graduation show at the National Film Theatre but also later at an ICA new talent evening. He had a professional cast (working unpaid) for this story of an unsociable, failing college lecturer on a day everything goes wrong for him, starting when he finds his cat dead in the morning. Lindsay discovered a cat stuffed to look dead and floppy at a local taxidermist: it cost £75 to hire it for one day! Though he is now critical of it, the film was amusing and successful. He has also continued with the films made with his two friends in the “Mankf” group (see www.mankf.com). Their latest effort is a promotional video for a Romanian charity that provides family-like homes for orphans with HIV. Lois has been advising and helping this very worthwhile organisation for some years and took Lindsay there with her on her latest visit in May. He has a long list of projects – including more cartoons, films and scripts – but needs to support himself, so he is now looking for a day job.
Lois is still living in Sydney (under the pall of the bush fires, she tells me). She was over here in May and June (either side of her trip to Romania) and she came to lunch etc. a couple of times. She is working for a Jewish hospice / care home (the staff are fervently Zionist and circulate wild horror stories about the scarcely human Palestinians, which she finds very oppressive) but continues her research and is planning a further trip to Romania and Uganda next spring. Her daughter, my step-daughter Christina had some setbacks earlier in the year and Lois has invested all her savings in buying her a house in Perth to live in with her two children, and I provided cash for various immediate repairs.
Dad is currently in hospital after another of his blackouts – for the first time he was alone and not found for some time. I think and hope he will recover fully – up till now he has continued pretty well, though he is obviously getting older – we have begun planning his 90th birthday party next August. He came up here – or rather, I collected him from Brompton Regis – for a week in January and we went to see South Pacific at the National Theatre (very enjoyable) and also visited my uncle and aunt Jack & Vera in Sussex, en route calling without notice on old neighbours in Chelsfield, where we all lived from 1960 until Dad & Mum moved down to Somerset in the late 1970s. In April he was here again for a similar visit, only this time we went down to Sussex and brought Jack & Vera back here for the weekend and all went to see Kiss Me, Kate – an acclaimed production that sadly failed at the box office and closed after only a few months. I took them on a “trip down memory lane” – over to Peckham where Jack spent his childhood, Dulwich where he was at school and Beckenham where he lived from 1926 (& Vera and Dad from just before the war). When I took Dad back to Brompton (via Sussex), I stayed a couple of days and we visited in her nursing home Edna Chitty, who was our neighbour in Beckenham. She and her late husband George were singers in the old Carl Rosa opera company but left to run pubs in London and Oxford – with huge success. Later I took Dad up to Kenneth & Diana’s in Worcestershire and stayed overnight.
In July we were both at Uncle Jack’s 90th birthday party – a great gathering of up to four generations of the family on my mother’s side, and a fortnight later I collected Dad from Ken & Diana’s at Great Witley and we drove down to Southampton for the wedding of his nephew Peter’s daughter Katherine – a big family occasion on Dad’s side. I took him back to Brompton Regis and stayed a couple of days. Then in October I went down to see him again and we went over to Lampeter to visit Ken and Marion Yates-Smith. Ken taught me at junior school and became a good family friend. Sadly he has had several strokes and is now in a wheelchair and almost unable to speak. He was pleased to see us and clearly recalled the things we talked about, and Marion was on good form. On the way home we called on my cousin Michael and his wife Diane in Abergavenny. On this visit I was able to give Dad a short video transferred (by Lindsay) from old 8mm cine that I took in the 1960s, including one or two weddings of cousins and some footage of him and Mum working in the garden at Chelsfield.
I’ve not seen much of my brothers this year – I had my two visits to Kenneth’s (above), and Diana came down here with their second daughter Lucy for a few days of gallery visiting in August. Geoff has had a couple of nights here when he has been up in London on business and he and Lin and daughter Kate came up for a few days in June – Kate had some role in the golden jubilee celebrations in the Mall but Geoff, Lin and I, being less than fervent monarchists, went off for the day to Kew Gardens. Contact with Malcolm and Regan has naturally been confined to the telephone and email. They have moved house – allegedly down-market to release cash and prepare for retirement in due course to their very fine house at Cook’s Beach, 2 or 3 hours away from Auckland. I say “allegedly” because they have proceeded to spend money on the new place as if it were going out of fashion – I think scarcely a interior wall has remained in place! This despite the worryingly thin time that the IT consulting firm Malcolm works for (as marketing director) has been going through – a knock-on from both the general recession out there and the dot.com collapse. Things are, however, looking a little better now, he tells me.
I have continued to give most of my time to work for Humanism. I have produced a substantial website – www.learning-together.org.uk – of resources for the campaign against religious schools, the number of which the Government is determined to increase. Many studies have now shown that their performance is no better than would be expected given that they cream off the children of all the ambitious middle-class parents within reach, impoverishing (as did the grammar schools before them) the other neighbourhood schools. Meantime they are divisive, not just by religion but by social class and too often by ethnic group. I have been deeply involved in the British Humanist Association’s campaigning on this – briefing MPs, drafting letters to Ministers, corresponding with LEAs, writing letters to the press, getting on Any Answers, joining in arguments on various websites, and helping refine BHA policy. We have put out a new statement arguing that all schools should provide inspirational assemblies but without worship, and education about beliefs and values that is impartial, fair and balanced, but that parents (and older children) should have the right in addition to opt in to worship and committed religious education provided in school by their own churches, mosques etc. We maintain there would then be no need for religious schools, which do not respect the autonomy of young minds. (See “A Better Way Forward” on our website, www.humanism.org.uk).
But the main pre-occupation this year – which has taken me to a number of meetings and conferences – has been with various issues loosely touching on human rights legislation. The Human Rights Act, following the European Convention on Human Rights, is cast in terms of “religion or belief” and there are numbers of cases that show that this is to be interpreted almost as a single concept and that it certainly embraces atheism, Humanism and so on. Since public authorities are not permitted under the Act to discriminate on grounds such as religion or belief, I have been drafting a number of challenges based on the Act. One has succeeded at least in holding up discriminatory proposals from the Government to change the law about marriages in a way that would have perpetuated the current failure to recognise Humanist officiants while allowing any new religion to nominate ministers etc able to conduct legal marriages. Another has led to a recognition by the Charity Commission that they should amend a policy statement they put out.
A third has so far been brushed off by the Department for Education, but we are fairly confident they will have to bend our way. It is about a rather obscure circular in which they tell LEAs that Humanists may not be appointed as such to the local conferences that draw up “agreed syllabuses” of RE for schools or to the local Standing Advisory Councils on RE. Since we have been at the forefront of thinking about RE for the last several decades and have a high reputation among professionals and others in the field, we have always resented this. The exclusion is based on the membership of these bodies including (among others) representatives of the various non-Anglican Christian denominations and the other religions (the C of E gets privileged membership of its own). Under the Human Rights Act, the courts (and therefore the authorities) are required to interpret existing law such as this to conform with the Act wherever possible. We are saying that “other religions” should be read as “other religions or beliefs”, which would mean that Humanism could no longer be discriminated against as it is by the DfES at present.
In addition to these challenges, I have been preparing one memorandum of evidence after another in response to various public consultations – on membership of the House of Lords (with particular attention to the 27 bishops!), on religious discrimination in employment (I spoke to a big local government conference on this last month), on children’s rights (for an enquiry by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights), and so on. By far the biggest single job has been on the vexed question of incitement of religious hatred. The proposal, originally by the Home Office but now taken up in the Lords by Lord Avebury (who used to be Eric Lubbock, my MP when I lived in Chelsfield), is to add “or religious” to the law on incitement of racial hatred. It sounds simple: the trouble (very briefly and ignoring lots of complicating factors) is that while there is little that can legitimately be said about race in a derogatory way, that is far from true of religion. Unlike race, religion makes controversial claims about the world, pronounces how people should behave, and exercises great power and influence. A law based (like the racial hatred one) on penalising “abusive or insulting words” etc would run a serious risk of becoming oppressive and inhibiting free speech. I have drafted two memoranda on the subject to the Lords Select Committee examining the subject (all bar one of whose meetings I have attended) and (with the BHA director) I gave oral evidence to them in the summer. This has involved a lot of research and a lot of (too often unproductive) requests for legal advice from eminent human rights lawyers. We have in the end, however, put together an alternative formulation that we think will not be dangerous to free speech but will protect those (especially Muslims) who are being targeted (especially by the BNP) with quite vicious propaganda that cannot be prosecuted under the race hatred law.
These have been the main but not the only Humanist things I’ve been involved with this year. I have also engaged in much correspondence with the BBC about their complete failure to recognise Humanism on a par with religion in their broadcasting, even to the extent of a single programme in the year (contrast the hundreds of hours of straight delivery of religion in its own terms); continued on the Hackney SACRE; spoken at a couple of local humanist groups and to a sixth form class in Ilford and other meetings; continued on the executive committee of the BHA and the board of the Rationalist Press Association (publishers of the New Humanist, a quarterly magazine that has gone from strength to strength this year in every sense except the commercial! – Laurie Taylor, the broadcaster and now retired academic, has become closely involved with it); and so on and so forth.
What else happened in 2002? Well, I continued enjoyably to spend half a day a week at the Museum of London cataloguing old prints and drawings – multiple images of 19th century stage celebrities, 18th century theatres, 17th century churches and 16th century martyrs. I did a lot of work in the garden, building low retaining walls for beds and creating gravel paths and so on. But as always there is a great deal still to do: the rockery has to be rebuilt, as it has subsided so that I can no longer run the stream from the top of it or it will flood all over the place; and I have a lot of overgrown plants that need to be split and replanted. I also need to get rid of an evergreen tree in a bed near the house which is becoming much too big. (No, it’s not leylandii!)
One section of fence had rotted badly (the neighbours had piled soil against it) and I had that replaced in the spring; then a few weeks ago another section blew down. Expensive – but that was only a minor element in what was a very expensive year. I had already ordered a pricey made-to-measure repro bookcase (I had books piled everywhere and nowhere to put them!) when my car broke down – terminally (at only 75,000 miles) – and had to be replaced. Then I had to have the house redecorated and some repointing done, etc. And I am now having to replace my computer – getting on for four years old and creaking at the joints. I hope next year will not be as expensive.
I had two excellent weekends as usual with my friends Tony & Phyllis Palmer who live in Derbyshire near the “plague village” of Eyam and Dick & Sheila Clark, who live in Ealing. In the summer we go to Derbyshire, in the winter we go to Ealing. Wherever, we combine non-stop talk with walks and visits to exhibitions or stately homes. Last month we went to the English National Opera to see Handel’s Xerxes which was wonderful (and I bumped into Lord Avebury – see above – who was sitting a couple of rows behind us).
I also had another very enjoyable week on the canals with Dick & Sheila, their two sons and partners. This was in September, and we did the Stratford ring again, anti-clockwise for a change. I was away also at the end of March, when I had a week’s trek in the Anti-Atlas mountains in Morocco with Exodus, the outfit I have been away with several times previously. (One of the party was a doctor who by extraordinary chance was the first doctor to see Dad when he went into hospital at Taunton a few days ago!) We were camping but had mules to carry the tents and baggage. The area was suffering from a severe years-long drought, so that even in the village oases the prickly pear was dying and one palm tree collapsed while I was watching it. All the men and boys have gone off to town to earn some cash, leaving the women and children to go through the largely futile exercise of tilling and planting: the barley should have been ready for harvest when we were there, and we saw a couple of tiny room-size patches that were – but the rest was still little dry sprouts looking like couch grass. But for a holiday it offered vistas of endless rugged peaks, and we climbed the highest of them.
Lindsay and I went away together at the end of November to spend a week in the Naples area – actually at a hotel above Sorrento. We hired a small car and went to Paestum as well as the nearby major attractions – Pompeii, Herculaneum, the Villa Oplontis, the museum in Naples – and we climbed Vesuvius. All very marvellous – as was the way most people escaped death despite the horrendous driving, both on the autostrada and in the towns, where motor scooters buzzed like flies in every direction through the moving traffic!
Throw in a few other items and that is my year – lunches and dinners with friends; speaking at a Common Purpose seminar (about how to run a campaign, based on my experience at the Continence Foundation – whose tenth anniversary conference I attended later in the year to meet lots of old friends); a study day at the Museum of London on Victorian London (did you know that the pseudo-science of physiognomy can be used to “read” paintings of crowds – who is a villain, who virtuous?); the Chelsea Flower Show; a reception at the Austrian cultural centre to mark the centenary of Karl Popper; a memorial meeting at Oxford for my old tutor, Spencer Barrett; sitting in on a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee that tore apart the pretence of their witnesses from Imperial Tobacco that they were not up to their eyes in a conspiracy to export cigarettes to unlikely destinations and then smuggle them back into the UK (one senior MP ended by saying to their MD “You are either crooks or stupid, and you don’t look stupid”); writing a paper for a commemorative publication for the 40th anniversary of the Royal College of Physicians’s first, complacency-shattering report on smoking and health (this drew on my work for my book Denial & Delay – copies available free of charge to anyone who wants!); going to the International Humanist and Ethical Union’s 50th anniversary conference near Amsterdam in June; continuing to play bridge with friends on an irregular basis; having a few delightful days near Deal with my old friend from Coal Board days, Gillian Henchley, and her husband Richard (they have a lovely house virtually on the beach); visiting Walmer Castle with them and a week later Chartwell with Dick & Sheila; entertaining friends from abroad; taking part in the huge demo against war with Iraq; and so on.
I have also spent a lot of time helping a Kurdish family who were living in a flat in the next-door house but got evicted through the maze of getting rehoused. Yusuf is blind and his wife has a gammy leg; and they have two very bright children, a boy of 10 and a girl of 8. They were evicted because Hackney Council failed to pay their housing benefit – a bureaucratic cock-up linked with privatisation of some council services. But they have spent over 9 months in emergency housing and in helping them with the numerous official letters and forms I have had an object lesson in how abysmal social security and housing administration is – unfriendly, obscure letters, complex procedures, phones never answered and so on. In the last few days they have at last been rehoused in a suitable place.
What I have not mentioned, of course, is my usual list of plays and books. My records show a total of 33 plays in the year, plus 11 films, over 20 exhibitions or gallery visits, but only about twenty books. So it cannot be an exhaustive list!
The theatre that stands out this year includes Glenn Close in Trevor Nunn’s A Streetcar Named Desire at the National, with a superb set by Bunny Christie that made full use of the revolve and really conveyed a sense of place. Then there was Twelfth Night done in authentic Elizabethan style at Shakespeare’s Globe; and an Antony and Cleopatra at the RSC to rival Judy Dench and Anthony Hopkins years ago at the National: this had Sinead Cusack and Stuart Wilson in the lead roles and was directed by Michael Attenborough (who is taking over the Almeida). The RSC also did a very enjoyable Much Ado at the Theatre Royal with Harriet Walter and Nicholas le Prevost, a highly successful circus-style Pericles at the Roundhouse, and (back at the beginning of the year) a chilling Julius Caesar at the much-missed Barbican. In the Pit there, I saw also Guy Henry in the rarely revived Shakespeare King John, and David Edgar’s intellectually thrilling play The Prisoner’s Dilemma about the problems of negotiating peace in complex conflicts: it drew on much of the Oslo negotiations on Palestine but also from elsewhere.
The National put on with the Mamaloucos circus company a trapeze & wire-flying version of Aristophanes’ The Birds (which I read in Greek at school) – and I found myself sitting next to a classics colleague from Oxford! Also at the National, Peter Hall did a stunning version of Euripides’ Baccchai, very effective in masks; and Martin Clunes showed his classical training in a hilarious Tartuffe. Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman were superlative in Private Lives in the West End, which I went to with my cousin Valerie, who came for a weekend.
I was less than thrilled by the National’s new Tom Stoppard trilogy The Coast of Utopia – he packed in too many characters, too much history and philosophy, too many events, so that it became confusing and lacked dramatic shape. But the best play by far of the year was at the National – in fact I saw it again when it transferred to the West End: Vincent in Brixton by Nicholas Wright built a moving piece of drama on the framework of the known facts about van Gogh’s time in London in the early 1880s, when he lodged in Brixton with a widow who kept a school and her daughter. Richard Eyre directed a cast that could not have been bettered: they were led by Clare Higgins as the widow, and the Dutch actor Jochum ten Haaf as van Gogh.
The best book I have read this year was the late Roy Porter’s Enlightenment, a densely packed mine of insights and information about the development of ideas and culture in the long 18th century. Porter shows how Britain, so far from being bypassed by it, stood at the vanguard of the enlightenment, with the ideas of Locke and Hume, the new rationality applied to religion, human nature, morals, nature, economics, education and society – and the gradual and partial reversal of the optimism as the century closed, with reaction against the French revolution a key factor. Highly recommended! Staying in the 18th century, Malcolm Balen’s A Very English Deceit is a popular account of the South Sea Bubble that is good on the parallel between John Blunt’s scam in England and John Law’s more respectable career in France (where he pioneered the idea of paper money), on the politics (especially on Robert Walpole manipulating the crisis to consolidate his power). But it was weak on the economics and dissatisfying at the end in leaving unanswered the questions what was the ultimate effect on the national debt and how did the company manage to survive the collapse (ultimately until Gladstone finished it off).
I also read and (a rarity) made extensive notes on volume one of Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies (but have not yet started on volume two) – he delivers a devastating critique of Plato’s totalitarian agenda in The Republic. At a much more popular level of philosophy I read Daniel Harbour’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Atheism, in which he contrasts the success of what he calls “Spartan meritocracy” (i.e., minimal assumptions that have to prove themselves) with the failure of “baroque monarchy” (elaborate and inviolate ruling principles) as mental approaches to problem solving, and establishes atheism as a Spartan meritocracy that has been outstandingly successful (whereas religions are usually baroque monarchies and the rare religious attempts at meritocracy have failed). A short book with a good idea well worked out (and with frequent summaries of progress to date), it ends with a refutation of the claim that religion has led in reform and humane advances, showing that in the abolition of slavery, emancipation of the Jews and female suffrage the religious were to be found on both sides and much pioneering was done by atheists. Just recently, I have caught up with Godless Morality by Richard Holloway, the former bishop of Edinburgh, who propounds a practical morality without religion and maintains that religion too often gets in the way of sensible thinking about moral issues. A book of commonsense observations without any substantial theoretical backing, it is remarkable for who wrote it rather than what it says.
While in Morocco I read Morocco that Was by Walter Harris, who was The Times’ correspondent there in the first 20 years of last century: he recorded life at the court and elsewhere from 1895 to 1921 – the weak and spendthrift and cruel sheikhs, the viziers, the rebels, his captivity with one, his exploits (somewhat exaggerated), and the start of the French and Spanish protectorates etc. It had some almost incredible stories to tell.
Closer to home, like everyone else I could not put down Andrew Rawnsley’s Servants of the People, a fascinating account of the internal machinations of the Government from the election of 1997 to that of 2001, with extraordinary access to private information, especially about the Blair/Brown conflict. John Major’s autobiography showed him as an essentially decent man – an image that has had to be reshaped somewhat by a more recent publication! I also read Roy Jenkins’ splendid, evocative and readable biography of Churchill, from which he springs as very much his own man, not a party man or rigidly right-wing. I had not realised he was against going back on the Gold Standard in 1925 but was let down by Keynes and others whom he relied on to back up his resistance.
I read David Starkey’s Elizabeth – Apprenticeship – a short but informative account of Elizabeth I’s years up to her accession – before moving back to Alison Weir’s Henry VIII, which at greater length gives a vivid picture of life at court in Tudor times. One fascinating section deals with food: did you know that a void was a sweet – such as perhaps a subtlety (a sculpture in spun sugar)? Or that a buttery is a place to keep bottles, a pantry bread, an acatery – as in “catering” – perishable goods? A sewer was a servant, and manners were food you left which was given to the poor.
Totally different was Mick Farren’s autobiography Give the Anarchist a Cigarette which I stumbled on in the Islington Green bookshop: he covers the “underground” culture of the 60s and 70s – UFO, the 14-hour Technicolor Dream, IT & so on) but lost me when he moved on to the punk era. His long-term girlfriend Ingrid worked for the BHA back in Prince of Wales Terrace for a while: through her I was invited to observe (in case of any legal aftermath) the launch at Central Hall, Westminster of the evangelical and moralistic Festival of Light on behalf of Gay Lib, who by a escalating series of inspired stunts reduced the meeting to a shambles!
Finally, though I read few novels, I must mention one – recommended by my brother Malcolm, that I very much enjoyed: An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears is a superb evocation of life in Oxford in the early 1660s just after the Restoration, with almost all the characters being real people, closely modelled on historical fact (Charles II’s flirtation with Catholicism, secret plots before and after the Restoration) so that the fictional plot is welded seamlessly into the true background – even the fictional characters are modelled on real ones! It captures the feeling and state of mind in political and intellectual circles with what seems like considerable accuracy, and the device of having the events told by four separate narrators with their own axes to grind and own delusions and reasons for covering up aspects of the story works superbly.
Skipping cinema again this year except to commend the Australian psychological thriller Lantana and heap praise on Mike Leigh’s All or Nothing (why is his genius not better recognised in his own country?), I will close with a mention of a few of those many exhibitions. I have just been to the Gainsborough show at Tate Britain. Very enjoyable – but how odd that he saw his landscapes as his real metier and his portraits, which are so revealing and full of character, as a mere means to support himself. Earlier Tate Britain had Lucien Freud, which I went to out of duty but actually thoroughly enjoyed. Before that again was the exhibition American Sublime, of nineteenth century American paintings of wild frontier landscapes – high mountains and rocky rivers, typically suffused with setting sunlight, so that it was said of one painting at least that its subject was really the light between the spectator and the distant far side of the valley it portrayed.
Two utterly different exhibitions were the one of political cartoons by the master David Low in Westminster Hall and, of course, the Picasso/Matisse show at Tate Modern. This was highly informative about their parallel lives but while one could admire their works as masterpieces I find it difficult to warm towards them. Lastly, while I was at the IHEU conference, I found time for a quick visit to the (now once again depleted!) van Gogh museum and for a whole day at the superb Rijksmuseum: what a fabulous collection! Not that one should underestimate through its proximity and assumed familiarity our own National Gallery – a couple of recent visits have revealed that I had previously missed huge sections of it altogether! Nor can I fail to mention the superlative new British Galleries at the V&A (where, incidentally,.Gillian Henchley, mentioned above, is personnel director).
Well, enough of all that. It remains to wish you again all the best for Christmas and the new year.

2001 —————- 2003