It’s that time again! But this year I am running much later than usual in preparing for Christmas. Insofar as it is an orgy of consumption, one feels somewhat alienated from the whole idea: (memo to Anne Atkins and assorted pontificators on Thought for the Day: lack of religion does not equal thoughtless devotion to self-indulgence), but it has the undoubted virtue of forcing one to step aside from the demands of the quotidian regime to get in touch with people who might otherwise be neglected and eventually forgotten. And that is a pertinent thought this year, which has seen three family gatherings – one joyful and two sad – bringing together long absent cousins of various degrees.
For me the year has been dominated by my father, to whom two of these occasions belong: first, his 90th birthday in August and then his death in November. Those of you who had my letter last year know that at that time Dad was in hospital and very unwell. He made a good recovery, however, and I visited him for short stays several times and he made visits to me and my brothers, had a happy week in Sidmouth with my cousin Valerie and her parents Jack & Vera, and was on top form for his birthday, which we celebrated four days late on 10 August. My brothers and I (Ken took the lead) arranged a lunch party at a riverside hotel in Worcester to which about 50 friends and relatives came. It was the height of the heatwave, but luckily we were in a marquee in the garden. The four of us – Malcolm came over specially from New Zealand – made short speeches to congratulate and thank him, and he made a short reply. We had a professional photographer to record the extensive family gathering and we presented Dad with a 40-page biographical album with photos from his youth to his old age and a brief accompanying commentary. (Such are the wonders of the digital age – but as a follow-on I am now engaged in transferring all the old (some c19th!) family photos to CD so that we can all have copies!)
The whole occasion went very well, and Dad certainly enjoyed it immensely, albeit he was somewhat overwhelmed at so much adoration and attention! The only significant family absentees were a cousin who was ill and my uncle Lionel (Mum’s younger brother) and his wife Ruth: he was taken ill just before setting out and sadly never recovered. His funeral was the third occasion for reunion this year, coming only two weeks after Dad’s own. For Dad was taken ill at the end of October – only two days after I had left him after a short visit and a trip for him to see an old friend – and after a week in hospital in Exeter, during which he only briefly recovered conscientiousness, he died on November 2, with his three England-based sons with him. At the funeral, which Malcolm again came over for, we all four spoke in tribute to him, and the large attendance at the ceremony, including about 30 people from the village where he lived, and the letters of sympathy we received made clear that he was a special person for many people besides his immediate family.
Now I am deep into the aftermath – a week with my brothers clearing the house, and now the mysteries of probate and the frustrations of dealing with incompetent computerised companies (insurance, banking, utilities etc) who send endless self-contradictory communications about what should surely be fairly routine. One result is my lateness in composing this letter, which in turn means that I have sadly no time to personalise it for most of you. Normal service will be resumed (I hope) next year!
What then are the rest of the news? (for ‘news’ was of course originally a plural). Lindsay has landed himself a well paid job with the NUJ in their membership department but does not intend to stay there for long: his attention is focussed strongly on his creative ambitions in film-making. He has made two or three short films this year – one of Dad’s 90th birthday party, another for the Visual Learning Foundation (a wonderful charity teaching teachers how to teach art to primary school children), another an imaginative work I have not yet seen – and is now set on making a full-length documentary about Health Aid Romania, the charity that provides family-style homes for orphans with HIV in huge contrast to the appalling “homes” most such children are condemned to. He plans to go out there for about three months next spring with a friend and collaborator, and they are studying Rumanian at evening classes in preparation and trying to raise some money.
My stepdaughter Christina has had a third baby – Tiahna (anyone hear of that as a name previously?) – and seems to be settling down well with her new partner Stephen. Lois is still living in Sydney but now concentrating on writing and lecturing, having left her job with a local Jewish hospice. My brother Kenneth (the TV independent producer) is deeply involved with a new motor-racing-come-Operatunity-for-women series for ITV called Formula Woman, screening in the spring until July. Malcolm & Geoffrey and their families continue to do well. I’m planning to go out to New Zealand in February to see Malcolm and will call on Lois briefly en route – and on my good friend Henry in Canada on the way back.
My own year – apart from near-constant pre-occupation with my father – has included struggling with installing a new computer (why does “faster processor and bigger memory” translate so reliably into “slower to operate”?); a pleasant if short visit from my former lodger Sami, now & for many years living in Singapore where he is now something big in a merchant bank; several enjoyable weekends with old friends, one including a visit to Chatsworth (what monstrous interiors!); taking part in the huge anti-war demo in February; an interesting day conference at King’s College London to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the structure of DNA (Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins were there!); the wonderful Chelsea Flower Show; a week in Greece in May and a weekend doing practical archaeology in Kent!
The trip to Greece was relaxing – if less so than I intended. I rented a tiny cottage in the Mani peninsula but forgot to take my driving licence with me, so that I had to get there from Athens by bus and then go to and from the beach on foot – it was about an hour and a half there and ditto back! Still, warm weather, wonderful scenery, good food from beach tavernas, & lots of time for reading – for example, of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Mani – his record of his travels in the Mani in the mid-1950s, when the outside world had hardly penetrated this remote peninsula, which was never overcome by the Turks and, in the midst of their eternal feuds, led the revolt that started the Greek War of Independence. The book has long and fascinating excursions into religious and secular history, art and mythology, told in prose that is rich and full of recondite vocabulary used with easy familiarity.
The weekend doing archaeology was arranged through the Friends of the Museum of London. (I continue to go there once a week to help re-catalogue their paintings, prints and drawings. This year among other things I came across a surveyor’s plan of 1680 signed by Christopher Wren and a watercolour of a ruined castle at Osterley by Robert Adam. We are making progress with the catalogue, but still with a fair way to go. They are asking me to spend some time at their associated Museum in Docklands, which opened earlier this year (highly recommended) and has an almost completely uncatalogued collection derived mainly from the Port of London Authority.
The weekend was run by the Kent Archaeology Field School – a.k.a. Paul Wilkinson (author of the BBC book about Pompeii that went with their recent play about the eruption) and his wife. They manage to make a living by (a) undertaking contract rescue archaeology; (b) charging their diggers for the privilege of digging, and (c) running courses on a wide range of topics, often also including digging. He has identified a string of Roman villas along the north Kent coast, each with about 1500 acres of land, with boundaries that often survive in present-day parish boundaries, each with its own access to the sea and its own approach road from Watling Street (south of which the plots are larger, to allow for the additional costs of transport!) We had a mixture of lectures – on digging technique and on Roman pots etc – and practical work on the site of what was probably a military fort dating from the first few days of Claudius’s invasion in 43 CE (it had a defensive ditch never subsequently re-dug). I spent a some hours in a trench cut across this ditch getting out discarded animal (food) bones, bits of pot and a loom weight – along with a stray flint arrowhead. I intend to return next year.
My work for the British Humanist Association and the Rationalist Association (publishers of New Humanist, now relaunched as a bi-monthly) continues to take up most of my time. Apart from the committee meetings, conferences and so on (we had a very successful conference on human rights this year, and the Humanist Philosophers’ Group ran a day-conference in October on “Faith, Community and the Common Good”, exploring what are the shared roots and assumptions (if any) of a community made up of multiple beliefs and allegiances), my main preoccupation has been with campaigns based on the humanist notion of an open society in which the common instruments of government and public services are neutral as between conflicting lifestances – i.e., the society has no established religion or privileged beliefs. This ties up very well with the Human Rights Act which establishes freedom of “religion or belief” (the latter includes humanism and atheism etc.). Government continues, nevertheless, to give privileges to the Church of England in particular (bishops in the Lords etc), to Christianity as a whole (e.g., its statutorily predominant position in schools worship and religious education), and to religion at large (faith schools, religious chaplains in the NHS, services and prisons without any humanist equivalent, special ministerial working group to improve government communication with faith groups, etc.).
We won a significant battle this year in getting the “public service obligation” for the BBC, ITV, C4, five, etc. extended from doing enough programmes to satisfy Ofcom on “religion” (among a list of other subjects) to “religion and other beliefs”, with the Minister specifically mentioning Humanism. Now we are engaged in correspondence and meetings with the broadcasters – Channel 4 this week, the BBC in January – to try to persuade them to do more than they are at present. C4 open in principle but looking for the humanist equivalent of Inside the Mind of a Suicide Bomber (not sure there is one!); the BBC very complacent about their present output and resistant on principle to any concession but we hope for the best.
The current major argument continues to be on marriage – the Government is proposing extensive reforms that will allow any religion – even a new one – to nominate ministers who can then conduct legally valid weddings but they refuse to extend the same power to the humanists. We have made detailed and well argued submissions at each of several stages of consultation, and now, just before they were due to go to Parliament under the regulatory reform procedure, they have at last invited us to a meeting.
We are also continuing to argue with the Foreign Office – without success so far – over an article in the proposed EU constitution that as it stands will allow the churches privileged access to EU policy-making before other (health, economic, environmental etc) groups. Nominally the privilege extends to all belief groups including ourselves but (a) unbelievers generally identify with and work through specific pressure or representative groups so that humanist bodies are pretty weak (better campaign for condoms to prevent AIDS through health/overseas aid etc organisations than through the BHA!) and (b) we are opposed in principle to privileges for religious and belief organisations: why should this one strand be given special access to Commission discussions at the formative stage? The great pressure for Article I.51 has come from the Vatican and they are by far the best placed to exploit it – in fact, are already moving in on the Commission’s offices and Monsignor Noel Treanor, the secretary-general of the (Roman Catholic) Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the EU, talked at a meeting I was at in London in April of “the dynamic polarity between the churches and the EU institutions . . . lead[ing] to a form of mutual interactive control”! Liberal Catholics very recently brought out an alarming report warning of the risks of the Vatican stymying EU AIDS and family planning policy in the same way as it has already in the USA and the UN.
Last year’s preoccupation was the Lords Select Committee on Religious Offences. Their report this year gave a lot of attention to our proposals – more than to anyone else’s – but failed to make any recommendations. The problem of how to draft a law against incitement of religious hatred remains but will be coming up again soon as there is an EU directive that has to be implemented.
Another EU directive lay behind the regulations banning discrimination in employment on grounds of religion or belief or of sexuality. The successive consultations on these kept us very busy, but we failed to persuade the Government of the risks of defining what is meant by “belief” and their wording (about beliefs that are similar to a religion) has already led Lord Lester and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development to suggest that atheists and people without any particular belief at all will not be protected. As to the sexuality regulations, Blair forced through at the last minute a capitulation to the churches which will certainly be challenged in the courts and overthrown as incompatible with the directive. At least our excellent director Hanne Stinson has been appointed to the task force preparing the way for the new Commission on Equality and Human Rights.
I have taken part in meetings with the Home Office on charity law, with Home Office minister Fiona Mactaggart on the government’s review of relations with faith groups, with the Lib Dem education spokesperson Phil Willis on religion on schools and – at his own request rather than ours – with Charles Clarke, the education secretary, on the same subject. Our education officer is on his new task force to prepare a draft national framework for RE. Meantime, I have given talks at two schools – to a sixth form group on morality without religion and to several groups making up the complete year 10 at an Ilford secondary on science and religion. I was afraid my talk was going to be too demanding for them, but they took it well in their stride and one group even broke into applause when I stopped! (I’ve put an article based on the talk (or rather vice versa) on my website at www.learning-together.org.uk – see in the yellow box on the home page.)
Enough of humanist work – except to note that I spoke for the BHA at the 100th birthday lunch in March for Harold Blackham, our first Director, and in the autumn visited him at his house overlooking the river Wye near Hereford – he remains bright and interested in how things are going. If anyone is interested in more detail on our campaigns, do look at the BHA website where you can see topic by topic all the letters and submissions we have made, most of which have started with my drafts.
I seem to have been to the theatre 26 times this year so far – and another two trips booked before Christmas! Mostly it has been at the marvellous National Theatre, often with Dick & Sheila Clark or (latterly) with Sheila alone, as Dick’s Alzheimer’s has progressed too far for him to be able to come: it is dreadful to watch him deteriorate: he is now only rarely able to make remarks that make real sense. Such early onset Alzheimer’s is very rare (he’s a few months younger than me) and the doctors can make no predictions about its development. Anyhow, back to the theatre.
I think I would pick out this year an excellent Duchess of Malfi with Janet McTeer in the lead; a powerful new play by an Australian writer, Joanna Murray-Smith, called Honour, with Corin Redgrave and Eileen Atkins as a couple in a troubled marriage; Richard II with Mark Rylance (superb) in the mediaeval Middle Temple Hall before its opening at Shakespeare’s Globe; later, Richard III at the Globe itself with an all-women cast led by Kathryn Hunter who must surely have done herself permanent damage by so twisting her body in this half-comic half-sinister interpretation of the role; and Henry V at the National directed by Nicholas Hytner in modern (army) dress, bringing out all the moral ambiguity (to put the best gloss on it) of Henry’s invasion: most timely with the war in Iraq in progress. Katie Mitchell directed Three Sisters in the summer, with the excellent Eve Best as Masha – I am looking forward to seeing her with Helen Mirren next week in Mourning Becomes Electra.
This autumn, Arthur Miller’s The Price (at the Apollo Theatre, with Warren Mitchell stealing the first act before the dramatic tension really racked up in the second) was superb, and Power, the new play by Nick Dear about the assertion of his authority by the young Louis XIV, stealing the idea of emulating the sun (along with all his possessions and his freedom) from his erstwhile courtier and financier Nicolas Fouquet, involved also the fascinating characters of ‘Monsieur’ (Louis’s effeminate cross-dressing brother) and his wife ‘Madame’, the daughter of our Charles I. Last week, another well-made play about recent history by Michael Frayn: Democracy explores the story of Willy Brandt and Gunther Guillaume, the East German spy who became his close assistant. Martin McDonagh (whose earlier work I had missed) has a new play at the National: The Pillowman binds you in a sort of modern Grimm’s fairy story with a writer under interrogation in a police state about the way a series of singularly nasty but simple stories of children’s deaths he has written is coming to life: it combines a horrid fascination with a lot of black comedy – highly recommended!
The revival of Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers, with Simon Russell Beale in the lead, has had good write-ups but it disappointed me by comparison with the original production (over 30 years ago!) with Michael Hordern. Beale spoke too fast and confidently for the dithering lost soul that George surely is. One of the features of the National is of course its so-called Platform events – short early evening talks or discussions, not always related to the current productions, and at the one about Jumpers I was able to ask about the way the production seemed to skate over the philosophical jokes. Simon Russell Beale said he would hate it if that were so but acknowledged that he spoke much faster than Hordern and pointed out that philosophy was much more in the air in the air in the ’70s with Russell only recently dead and A J Ayer and others often on TV.
Lastly, of course, there was the splendid revival at the National of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes, which Lindsay and I went to twice (once after the transfer to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, where we also saw My Fair Lady for a second time in May). Lindsay is very keen on these superlative old musicals and I am quite happy to have him pressure me to go back a second time!
I must turn briefly to the cinema – but I’ve seen only a few films this year. One or two remain vivid in the memory: The Hours, for example (and I for one could see nothing wrong with Nicole Kidman’s prosthetic nose!), and Far from Heaven, which took a penetrating look at the reality of US suburban life in the 1950s while sticking to the filmic conventions of 1950s’ soaps. Worth a mention were Polanski’s The Pianist, Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things and the marvellous documentary Etre et Avoir about a quietly inspirational village school teacher in the depths of rural France.
Space gets tight, so on to exhibitions. One highlight was certainly Titian at the National Gallery, which I was able to see before the public were let in one morning by joining a group of people from the Museum of London: wonderful colours, sensuous goddesses, striking portraits. Then there was art deco at the V&A – covetable stuff but the exhibition was crowded and was smaller than I expected. The excellent new Twenties exhibition at the Museum of London has some deco stuff, including gates from the much lamented Firestone building, demolished over a weekend before its grade 1 listing came into effect and some stunning dresses. “Constable to Delacroix” at Tate Britain had some fine works among the flights of high romanticism that went rather over the top; Andrew Lloyd Webber’s pre-Raphaelites at the Royal Academy (has he completely cornered the market?) were a bit much in such a profusion of romantic chivalry; and Bridget Riley at Tate Britain appealed to me much more for her early black and white work than for the complex works in colour that followed – mainly, I guess, because of my inadequate colour vision. Best of all was the National Gallery’s exhibition of the Winthrop collection from Harvard – a very personal collection which included a wonderful portrait of Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès by David, amazing drawings by Ingres, a digestibly small number of good pre-Raphaelites and some fine works by an American I’d never heard of, Winslow Homer.
Other highlights were the British Museum’s exhibition of London in 1753, which marked its own 250th anniversary. This connected well with the work I am doing at the Museum of London and many of the prints on display were ones I’d already catalogued at the Barbican, but there was so much more here, so that you could get a rounded picture of life in London at one point in time. The National Portrait Gallery (wonderful place!) has currently a fascinating collection of portraits of servants – Below Stairs. And so on, and on!
Lastly, to books. Everyone of course has raved about Claire Tomalin’s biography of Pepys, a fine portrait of a complex character, filling the gaps before and after the diary – I had not known that he was a non-juror in 1688 and retained his Jacobite loyalty to the end despite his early republicanism and his contempt for the corruption and misrule of the restored monarchy. (And it reminded me that ‘mob’ comes from ‘mobile vulgus’!) David Attenborough’s Life on Air was a very readable autobiography covering his career in the BBC, with successive expeditions benefiting from increasingly sophisticated filming equipment. He was particularly interesting on the BBC and his time as controller of BBC2, and his endearing boyish enthusiasm came across well. Michael Coveney’s The World According to Mike Leigh is an enthusiastic account of Mike Leigh’s life and work on stage and screen, ending as Secrets and Lies was being shot. It strongly refutes the frequent charge of a cynical patronising approach to his characters and is insightful on his method and style.
C John Somerville’s The News Revolution in England, a book I found in a second-hand bookshop in a church in Suffolk during a weekend at their cottage in Southwold with friends Jim & Rachel, is an absorbing account less of the way the press developed in the 17th and early 18th centuries than of the effect of regular “commodified” news on social attitudes, thinking and behaviour. News creates an expectation of change, and for example undermines religion by introducing an inappropriate mode of discourse into an area of supposed eternal verities. News started with corantos reproducing dispatches from abroad; home news came in only slowly – originally in private handwritten news letters at a high subscription. Reports on Parliament took off at the start of the 1640s with the crisis that led to the civil war. Journalism became immediately a profession whose expert practitioners were able to ply their skills for hire, with Marchamont Nedham, after five years editing the Mercurius Britanicus (sic) for the Parliamentary side, selling his skills to the King’s side to run the Mercurius Pragmaticus, but later turning back again to Parliament. The “yellow press” appeared from the start, with more or less pornographic papers, while other papers dealt with moral tales of ordinary folk such as had long been the basis of ballads and broadsheets. With the suppression of the press under the restored monarchy (bar the official London Gazette – which nevertheless provided an opportunity for paid-for mildly subversive ‘loyal addresses’) the coffee house culture provided a lively environment for political discussion on the basis of what information was available. As weekly magazines became established (with journals covering science, literature and religion as well as domestic and foreign politics) and the daily press started, news became less a stimulus to discussion, more a given, a product that was processed prior to consumption, and news about culture tended to make culture a consumable to be kept abreast of rather than participated in. So what’s different?
Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men – the story of Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgwood, Matthew Boulton, James Watt, Joseph Priestley and the other Enlightenment men of science and engineering who met at the full moon in Birmingham when they were not away installing steam engines, caring for patients, or finding patterns for porcelain – is a good story, but perhaps too long, not tying together quite adequately its many strands. But the sad end of the 18th century in riots against radicals and reformers (with the sacking of Priestley’s home and laboratory, the burning of libraries and so on) is a warning against complacency at any time.
Hilary Spurling’s The Girl from the Fiction Department is a short biography of Sonia Orwell, who married a previous lover, George Orwell, on his deathbed. She had been his model for Julia in 1984 and he made her his literary executor. She was vilified after her death by Orwell’s biographers (starting with Bernard Crick) as a gold-digger profiting from his royalties. Far from it: the estate was little but a burden to her, as she protected his reputation and fought off would-be biographers in accordance with his wishes. Naïve in legal and business affairs, she paid her own earnings into the estate trust and drew only a small salary, but was cheated by Orwell’s accountant and as she was dying had to make a very unequal settlement with him to regain control of the estate for Orwell’s son by his first marriage. In herself, she was a very attractive character – beautiful and fiercely idealistic. After a problematic childhood (Anglo-Indian divorced and unsatisfactory parents, repressive Catholic boarding school), she lived in artistic circles (the Euston Road school – William Coldstream was a lover), became assistant (and effective) editor of the magazine Horizon during and after the war (the editors were Stephen Spender and Cyril Connolly; this was how she met Orwell), lived in Paris with Jaques Lacan, Margueurite Duras, and others in the Sartre circle; knew Lucien Freud, Francis Bacon, Ivy Compton-Burnett, A J Ayer and a string of other well-known literary and artistic people. After Orwell’s death, she became a much loved literary hostess for wide circles of London and Paris society and was a devoted friend of many, making great efforts to care for the ailing Jean Rhys, but herself ended sadly in poverty and effectively homeless.
What else is worth mentioning? Richard Eyre’s National Service, his edited diaries of his time as director of the NT, is remarkable for his manic depressive mood swings and for his remarkable memory for quotations and anecdotes, and Julian Baggini’s Atheism in the Oxford “Very Short Introductions” series is an excellent introduction to – in effect – Humanism, strong on why atheism is not a faith, on meaning and on ethics – but it lacks the evolutionary approach to our moral capacity that I find quite convincing. By way of novels, I caught up with Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April when the Folio Society brought it out, and with Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, a delightful story of adolescence and eccentricity set in the 1930s. Michael Frayn’s Spies is an atmospheric, rather claustrophobic story of recollected ignorant childhood grappling with adults’ unfathomable problems; and on the same theme Ian McEwan’s Atonement is a compelling account of the havoc wrought by an over-imaginative pre-war 13-year-old misunderstanding what she sees of her older sister and boyfriend, with a nice twist in the tail. I also read the page-turning His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman (good humanist and BHA supporter!) in preparation for the National Theatre’s two-part adaptation by Nicholas (Vincent in Brixton) Wright, which Lindsay and I are seeing in January.
But the best novel by far was Iain Pears’ The Dream of Scipio, a superb evocation of Provence at three crucial times – the collapse of Roman rule, the Black Death, and the German occupation in WW2 – with cleverly linked themes and an extraordinarily intricate plot, exploring the dilemma of sustaining principle at any price or compromising to limit immediate harm. The misunderstandings of later ages of what happened in previous ones are a warning about the nature of history, while the individual stories, each involving a man as protagonist and a woman in the role of muse, overlap seamlessly and each engage deeply. Very highly recommended!
Two books that I am reading currently are worth a mention (but will probably reappear next year!) – Brian Barry’s Culture and Equality, which demolishes the case for ‘strong’ multi-culturalism (with the state devolving powers to cultural/religious groups in a way that restricts the freedom of individuals who happen to be born into those groups – there are serious political philosophers who defend this and discount the resulting violence to women and children etc.) and The Jesus Mysteries, by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, which argues that Christianity arose from a Jewish version of the pervasive mystery religions of the ancient world whose myths a small group began to take literally. The parallels between the pagan and the Christian (especially the gnostic) religions are very striking and the argument is very persuasive.
Space runs out, so I must come to an end with seasonal good wishes for the forthcoming pagan festival and the new year that follows quick on its heels.

2002 ————— 2004