Perhaps it is because I did not get back from my ‘summer’ holiday until the start of November but the time for this Christmas letter seems to get earlier every year! It has been my first year without Dad, and a year of being his executor and dealing with his estate. I miss him considerably, and the realisation that there is noone senior to me in the family, noone to turn to for information about times of distant memory, keeps hitting home. I suppose one will get used to it, but it was reinforced when my last remaining uncle (Jack, Mum’s brother) died in March. Dealing with probate was time-consuming but not difficult; the Inland Revenue reopened the question of the value of his house in the estate, however, when we sold it for considerably more than the original valuation. (It would make little difference whether we had paid 40% inheritance tax on the estate or 40% capital gains tax on the additional proceeds – except for my brother in New Zealand who has no CGT!)
We sold the house, down in Brompton Regis, in the summer and were lucky to find buyers who so wanted it that they went ahead at the cusp of the market. We had a weekend family get-together to do the final clear-out, taking a mass more stuff to the local hospice’s charity shop, sending some to an auction and taking the rest for ourselves. I drove a vanload of furniture back to London and have still not sorted out all the consequential re-arrangements. I also spent some time earlier in the year (and must find time to complete the work) re-photographing digitally the old family photos and putting them onto DVDs so that everyone who wants can have copies. (I have done all the pre-war ones, including late-19th century ones of my mother’s parents as children and their parents, but will have to be selective with the innumerable and repetitive colour slides of more recent years.)
The year started at Ken & Diana’s, which I mention as we went on New Year’s Day to the local meet – my niece Tavy is a keen horsewoman and often goes hunting. I find the pursuit and its whole milieu quite alien but I am completely unconvinced that the main motivation of most supporters of a ban is the cruelty involved: factory farming is so hugely more cruel that so many people cannot genuinely have such distorted priorities. It seems instead to be a symbolic act of rebellion against the erstwhile ruling classes, and as such an unwarranted restriction of liberty and freedom of choice. On the other hand, the relentless pursuit of the ban is all of a piece with the tunnel-vision of the self-righteous animal rights activists who consider it virtuous to terrorise employees of the most distant connection of a pharmaceutical company. Enough!
Lindsay started the year working as a temp for the National Union of Journalists, & was taken onto the staff and then promoted before he quit (as planned) to go off to Romania for three months with his friend Sam to make a film about Health Aid Romania. This is a charity that provides family-style homes for children with HIV (largely from being inoculated with dirty needles under Ceaucescu). He went to Romanian evening classes for months before, sent back graphic email accounts of their experiences and returned with 70 hours of film (or rather digital video) which he is now working on. (Meantime he has been out to Australia to visit his mother Lois, sister Christina and other family members and to make – and be paid for – a video of someone’s bar mitzvah.) He’s also working with another friend on a comic book (sorry, graphic novel) the first pages of which look good – but it is a staggeringly time-consuming business.
What have I been doing during the year? A week in March at Ambleside in the Lake District with my friends Robin & Helene, with other friends staying not far off, took me to Dove Cottage (Wordsworth) & Brantwood (Ruskin) for the first time. (Ruskin’s secretary W G Collingwood later made friends with the young Arthur Ransome, whose proposal was turned down by his daughter Dora – instead, he went to Russia and married Trotsky’s secretary and she married Ernest Altounyan, a Syrian doctor – but Ernest & Dora’s children later became the real-life models for the Swallows in Swallows and Amazons. There are lots of Ransome connections in the Lakes – for example, the real-life Amazon is in the steam yacht museum at Windermere. Ransome was my favourite author in childhood & I have begun to collect first editions of his books.) Robin and I did a couple of very hairy walks during the week – Rydal Mount and Blencathra are not much in the summer but with snow underfoot, freezing rain and fog in the air, ice on the rocks and a penetrating wind they were enough to make you glad to get back to flat ground, let alone a warm room!
Before then I had already had my major trip of the year: round the world to Australia, New Zealand and Canada. In Australia I stayed a few days each with Lois in Sydney and with her sister Christine & husband John in Melbourne. The National Gallery of Victoria there has a very fine collection – not least of which are the Australian artists: I was especially pleased by Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton, very accomplished painters of the first quarter of the 20th century. I went on to Auckland to visit my brother Malcolm and his family – a most enjoyable time. I made a trip by train (was it really 14 hours?) to Wellington, picked up a car and drove back up the east coast, visiting cousins of my mother’s en route and staying in Napier, ‘the art deco capital of the world’ – and it is! The town suffered a devastating earthquake in the 1930s and was rebuilt almost entirely in the art deco style of the day – a marvellous sight. I then changed seasons from summer to winter, going to Canada (& in transit in LA had my luggage ransacked by the US security people) and had a night with Dad’s friends Peter and Helena in Toronto before crossing to snow-bound Kingston for a short stay with Henry & France. We walked on the thick ice of Lake Ontario, had lots of good talk, and went to a gallery installation of computers suspended from the ceiling in a darkened room which severally repeated back what you said to them and what they heard from each other until if you kept silent long enough they were all saying the same thing in unison – eery! Henry’s philosophical magnum opus is due to be published by OUP next year.
I had five days on an archaeological dig at Teynham (north Kent) in April (found mediaeval walls and not much else!), the customary two weekends with friends Tony & Phyllis (at their place in Derbyshire in the summer), Dick & Sheila (at their place in London a week ago) and Mike and Camilla (whom we additionally visited in Sussex for a day in the autumn). I also had a week in August with Dick (now at a sadly advanced stage of his Alzheimer’s) & Sheila staying with her sister Barbara at her newly acquired mas near Avignon, and had three weeks in Andalucia in October. The first week was with the Kent archaeologists looking at Roman sites and Moorish palaces (I read a couple of very good histories of Moorish Spain) and the rest with an Exodus group walking in the Sierra Nevada and Sierra Cazorla: day walks from bases in cheap hotels – more convenient but not so satisfying as being on the move from place to place. The walking was only occasionally demanding: 3,000 feet up a mountain and back, up to eight hours a day, but all on paths. We saw deer, wild goats, red squirrels, vultures and wild boar and I came back with nearly 700 photos in the camera which some time I need to label and edit down!
At home I have sort-of joined a local walking group but have only been out with them three times. There is a membership overlap with another local group which we call the Wrinklies – people of a certain age allegedly facing up to getting older all the time. We meet in each other’s houses once a quarter and have had outside speakers on inheritance tax and on memory. I continue to play bridge with friends once or twice a month – not seriously, but great fun. The garden should get more time than it does but it looked quite good earlier in the year, with delphinium spikes over 10 feet high and 10 inches wide.
I have continued to do voluntary work at the Museum of London, helping re-catalogue their paintings, prints and drawings. I came across an impressive series of watercolours painted in 1948-50 showing the panorama from the dome of St Paul’s (the artist was one Lawrence Wright) – street patterns among the bomb sites, distant views of the Tower and of Westminster. I went up the dome and took photos to correspond with his paintings and presented them to the museum on a CD. The comparison is full of interest: church towers that survived the war but were demolished afterwards, buildings still there but dwarfed by the height and density of modern development. I have also spent a few days at the associated Museum in Docklands doing similar work, and after a Friends event there went to a wine bar with a freelance computer programmer. Casual conversation led to him taking up an idea I suggested (based on experience at ASH and the Continence Foundation) that there was a gap in the market for a moderately priced membership database for charities and other small organisations. His MemberPlus system is now being beta-tested by the Rationalist Association (who publish New Humanist).
That brings me to my main preoccupation, Humanism and my work for (especially) the British Humanist Association. Those of you who are members will know from my reports in each issue of BHA News how much has been going on (and please any of you who are not members, consider joining!) We started the year with a meeting with the Office of National Statistics (responsible for the registration service) who at last seemed to take seriously our case that if their reform of the marriage law under the Regulatory Reform procedure was to enable any religion to conduct legally recognised marriages then it was discriminatory and contrary to the Human Rights Act to refuse to recognise humanist weddings. But come the summer they went ahead to the next step with the same old proposals. We immediately put in an objection in the strongest terms, making it clear we should take our case to Parliament. In July they announced in the Lords that the marriage reform required ‘further consultation’ on a legal problem, since when we have heard no more of it. We live in hope that they will back down.
We are hitting elsewhere also the same refusal to recognise that the Human Rights Act requires ‘belief’ (in German the much stronger Weltanschauung) to be treated by public authorities and the law on a par with religion. The proposed reform of charity law will extend the heads of charity from four to 12 but still keep ‘advancement of religion’ (rather than ‘religion or belief’) as a separate head, leaving humanist organisations to creep in under the ragbag ‘other charitable purposes’ head. Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights has backed us on this – and also on the need to subsidise school transport for families sending children to distant community schools on conscientious non-religious grounds on the same basis as it is given to those sending children to distant religious schools on religious grounds. The DfES, however, is still jibbing at issuing revised guidance to education authorities. However, we made significant advance in the new National Framework for Religious Education, which recommends at every key stage study of Humanism ‘where appropriate’ – that leaves us to persuade local ‘agreed syllabus committees’ that it is rarely inappropriate. (My committee in Hackney is going to be the hardest nut to crack: full of religious zealots certain that there is no place for a non-religious lifestance in anything called ‘religious education’.)
We have had meetings with the Ministry of Defence, the NHS and the Prison Service to press the need for humanist ‘chaplaincy’ services. The NHS has 425 full-time Christian chaplains (330 of them Anglican) plus thousands of part-timers, but ruled out converting even one of these posts to serve the non-religious. The Prison Service was the most receptive but we are a long way off practical progress. And scandalously we have failed so far to persuade the BBC to provide any programmes at all on Humanism despite their obligation under the Communications Act. It is not for want of trying: we have sent endless letters to successive directors-general and to their head of religion and ethics, and we have now sent a reasoned case to the Governors. We shall take the matter to Ofcom in due course – but we have been highly critical of them on various matters such as their draft broadcasting code! Meantime Radio 4 continues to provide well over three hours a week of broadcasting by Christians for Christians about Christianity.
We are currently deep into work on the proposals for a commission on equality and human rights – our executive director is a member of the Government’s steering group preparing the way for it and we have been commenting on the draft legislation, which will include new laws on religious discrimination. We are also engaged with the bill to make incitement of religious hatred a crime. There is a lot of exaggerated talk about this, and we have accepted the case for a law if carefully drafted, but regrettably the Home Office is going ahead with virtually the same proposal that was defeated in the Lords in 2001. We are briefing MPs on the amendments we see as necessary if freedom of speech is not to be adversely affected. (The bill, incidentally, is another example of the Government ignoring positive but non-religious beliefs: it will protect religious believers but cover the non-religious only by virtue of their rejection of religion, not as humanists as such – despite the Human Rights Act.) We have a meeting with the Home Office on some of this in two days’ time.
There are many other topics I have been working on – various consultations by the Home Office Faith Communities Unit, the EU constitution and its privileged consultation procedures for the churches, burial law, treatment of historic human remains, euthanasia, asylum law, Ofcom’s review of public service broadcasting, renewal of the BBC charter, Lords reform, the law on prostitution, and ritual slaughter, for example. I’ve given two or three talks, including one sharing a platform with Claire Rayner (just succeeded as BHA president by the comedian Linda Smith) at a fringe meeting at the LibDem conference which resulted in a humanist group being started within the party.
And so to theatre, books and so on. I’ve seen 28 plays this year, often going with Sheila Clark – Dick is far too gone now. Among the best were the National Theatre’s two-evening adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (currently revived) – a wonderful theatrical tour-de-force but it could have done with a sharper knife to some of the plot: it is too rushed with incident to develop the ideas and characters well. It attracted lots of attention for its supposedly anti-religious theme (Pullman is a BHA supporter) – actually anti-authoritarian, as came out in a pre-performance Platform encounter between Pullman and Rowan Williams (at which I managed to ask the Archbishop a question about his repeated dismissive remarks about Humanism as merely negative: I noticed recently that this has got through into the published transcript).
Play without Words was a superb and immensely enjoyable mimed and danced adaptation of the classic Losey film The Servant (in which some of the ambiguities were imaginatively expressed by having two or three actors for each character). The Permanent Way was David Hare’s tragi-comic take on railway privatisation, and later his Stuff Happens was a biting documentary on the run-up to the Iraq war: Alex Jennings was superb as Bush. Lifegame was an unscripted venture by a group called Improbable Theatre in which two members of the audience were chosen by lot and plucked onto the stage to be interviewed about their early life, episodes of which the actors then improvised: sounds unlikely but it worked a treat. Thank goodness my seat number did not come up! Alan Bennett’s The History Boys is still on: a probing contrast between education for life and education for success full of acute observation, great jokes and masterly acting from (among others) Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour. Complicité’s Simon McBurney directed Measure for Measure powerfully and with imagination: the prison scenes, which evoked Guantanamo Bay, were created only with light (showing a ground plan of corridors and cells) and much amplified sound (locks turning, doors slamming). Then Katie Mitchell directed Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis as another oblique comment on the war, set in a run-down and abandoned 1930s hotel and portraying the sacrifice of human values to affairs of state. Sam Shepard’s Buried Child featured the ultimate dysfunctional family – highly dramatic, great acting, but ultimately implausible.
All these were at the National, but one of the best treats of the year was Trevor Nunn’s Hamlet at the Old Vic with an extremely young cast, some still at drama school, with an extraordinary Hamlet in Ben Whishaw. It was far better than the RSC’s current Hamlet but their Toby Stephens is an interesting Prince, playing him with royal but superficial self-confidence & disdain that mask his inner weakness. And then there was a claustrophobic Suddenly Last Summer with Diana Rigg and Victoria Hamilton, the RSC’s Othello with Antony Scher as the ultimate manipulative Iago.
I saw only twelve films during the year but eight are worth a mention: The Girl with the Pearl Earring captured exactly the lighting and look of a Vermeer; A Mighty Wind was a hilarious spoof on the American folk scene; Sylvia looked sympathetically and evenhandedly at Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath (the excellent Gwyneth Paltrow); Cold Mountain was a dramatic story of the American civil war (Renée Zellweger stood out); Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was an entertaining look at a future in which unwanted memories can be erased; and Before Sunset was a totally engaging talk piece – an 80-minute conversation in real time between two putative lovers meeting in Paris nine years after their first brief encounter (in Before Sunrise) in Vienna. I loved it!
The year was notable for three powerful political documentaries: The Fog of War was an illustrated interview with Robert McNamara about his career from Japan in 1945 to the Vietnam war; everyone knows about Fahrenheit 9/11, but few will have seen The Corporation, based on a book by Joel Bakan, law professor at the University of British Columbia, which I bought at the airport as I left Canada. Both book and film are highly recommended. The thesis is that companies – legally treated as persons – behave in ways which in humans we should call pathological, ultimately letting nothing stand between them and the pursuit of profit – both US and UK law allow no other legitimate object to a company than the benefit of its shareholders. It is a very persuasive thesis, depending not on grotesque cases like Enron but on mainstream companies like Ford which coldly calculated the chances and cost of bad publicity if they made a car with a fuel tank liable to split and catch fire in an accident against the cost of redesigning the vehicle to be safer and concluded that the redesign would not be profitable. Unfortunately for them, they miscalculated – but it has done them little lasting damage, whereas numbers of their customers were burnt to death.
No time to do more than mention the best exhibitions of the year: two at the V&A: Gothic and Encounters – the latter, just closed, was about the influence of Europe and Asia (India, China and Japan) on each other from 1500 to 1800, when relationships soured. My London interest was fed by an exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery about the Crystal Palace. There were Pre-Raphaelite landscapes at Tate Britain, Edward Hopper at Tate Modern, Caravaggio in Sydney, and the current Royal Academy show of treasures from the Ny Carlsberg Glypotek (on loan while it is refurbished), notable especially for the wonderful Egyptian, Etruscan, Greek and Roman sculptures, superbly presented and lit.
And that leaves space only for a selection of 2004’s thirty books! I mentioned last year that I was reading The Jesus Mysteries by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy. This is a powerful and persuasive account of the origins of Christianity as a Jewish variant of the mystery religions so pervasive in the eastern Mediterranean in Hellenistic times. It posits that gnosticism, so far from being a late heresy, was the original form of Christianity. The evidence mounts steadily through the book – the parallels with Osiris, Dionysus, Mithras both in myth and imagery (cross, sacred meal, death & resurrection etc); the late appearance of any literal interpretation of the Jesus stories, the lack of any corroboration of his existence in other writings (other than late forgeries), the utter unreliability of early church histories (e.g. by Eusebius, the only ‘authority’ for the first three centuries) – unreliability recognised in ancient times as well as by modern scholars, and so on. The suggestion is that Christianity as we know it originated in the Outer Mysteries, where the myth was told ‘for real’, later to be revealed as having a deeper, non-literal meaning in the Inner Mysteries (to which ‘many are called but few are chosen’). Some scattered communities (especially after the Roman sack of Jerusalem in 70 CE) lost touch with the priests able to reveal the secret inner mysteries and developed a sternly literalist interpretation, fixing the story in history. A literal interpretation required intolerance of any ‘wrong’ version – unlike the tolerant gnostic approach where myths could have many meanings and the meaning was more important than the story. So the literalist church – based from the start in Rome – was dogmatic and intolerant as a necessary consequence of its literalism – and this fitted very well the requirements of the Roman imperial system when Constantine (a very nasty piece of work) decided to adopt the religion: it sanctioned rigid thought control and ruthless suppression of deviant groups. The pagans were the really numerous martyrs in Roman times – periods of persecution of Christians were few and short, and later martyrologies are lifted straight from pagan writings with the names changed. It is an extremely well written and well referenced account, and highly persuasive.
There are thematic echoes in Hitler’s Pope – the Secret History of Pius XII by John Cornwell – a penetrating study of the man who put the Vatican’s central control of the church through canon law above all merely human considerations, betraying the anti-Hitler RC church in Germany in the concordat and constantly refusing pleas to intervene even when (for example) the Jews of Rome were shipped out to their deaths from under the walls of the Vatican. He was a spiritual man, perhaps covering an inner weakness with an unwavering determination not to bend from his path. Not that he was without hypocrisy, being happy to promote the idea after the War that he had worked hard to save the Jews and other victims. The book is highly impressive for its sources (Vatican documents and state archives from other countries, personal testimony etc) and for the fact that the author set out to vindicate Pius XII but was drawn ineluctably to a deeper condemnation of him than he had set out to refute. The fact that the Roman Catholic church is today fast tracking him to sainthood is testimony to the lasting influence of his own distorted priorities.
Another highly impressive and readable study was AN Wilson’s The Victorians – a decade by decade revelation of the Victorians in politics, society, philosophy and thought, art , literature, science and religion, bringing them to life and casting judgements on them: Wilson dislikes Gladstone, and labels as Benthamite or utilitarian all the developments he disapproves of. He knows his subject back to front and sideways, using telling anecdotes and making revealing connections on every page.
Lighter reading included Alan Clark’s The Last Diaries (1991-99) – a sad end to a likeable rogue, Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything about the creation of the indispensable Oxford English Dictionary (I have it in full on my computer – what a contrast to the bundles of readers’ slips from which it started!), Hugh Brogan’s The Life of Arthur Ransome, and Tom Holland’s Rubicon, a page-turner of a history book covering the final years of the Republic: Holland brings the characters to life – Sulla, Marius, Pompey, Antony, Caesar and all – and paints a vivid portrait of life in Rome as the excesses of the games took hold and the politics of the Republic became locked in the trammels of an inflexible constitution, unable to adapt as Rome became an empire instead of a city. I finally got round to Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels and then read Mary Lovell’s very fine collective biography The Mitford Girls which set Jessica’s account in context and showed up its biasses. It is a sparkling account of the lives of Nancy, Pam, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah, their brother Tom, and their much maligned parents David (Lord Redesdale) and Sydney, whose reputations will never recover from the distortions of Nancy’s Pursuit of Love (he never hunted his children on horseback in the forest with bloodhounds – only had childish romps they all loved!). The book charts not just their wildly imaginative childhood but the storms of their adult lives: Nancy’s unrequited love of de Gaulle’s chief of staff, Pam (nicknamed ‘Woman’) and her quiet farm life, Diana snatched from conventional marriage to a Guinness by lifelong and mutual love for Oswald Mosley; Unity seduced (and her parents half-seduced) by the personal charms of Hitler (who treated her with huge personal favours and paid her hospital bills and got her out to Switzerland after her failed suicide when the war started), Jessica (‘Decca’) traumatising the family by running away with her reprobate cousin Esmond Romilly (Churchill’s nephew – or perhaps son, by Clemmie’s disreputable sister Leonie), espousing a dogmatic Communism and renouncing her ‘Nazi’ family; and the youngest, Debo, marrying a duke as she had predicted – and not just any duke (though it took his brother’s death in the war to make him heir). The story is as full of heartbreak as of fun, but it would be hard to find anywhere a family who packed so much sensation into their allotted spans.
Richard Norman, a member of the Humanist Philosophers’ Group, has brought out On Humanism, an good introduction to Humanism in four clear parts – the undermining of religion by science, the special nature of human beings, morality without religion, and an excellent chapter on the meaning of life and the need for stories – the need for mystery and beauty, for creative achievement and discovery, for relationships and emotions; and the place of stories in allowing us to explore ways of living and develop our ability to perceive patterns and meanings. He deals sympathetically but devastatingly with religion and satisfactorily dispatches all the usual objections against Humanism.
Bare mentions of a few more: Steve Fuller’s Kuhn vs Popper was a demanding read, defending Popper’s rigorous falsifiability thesis against Kuhn’s normative science; Mary Midgley’s The Myths We Live By looks at a string of unconscious assumptions that underlie our thinking and ideas; Bill Cooke’s The Blasphemy Depot is a history of the Rationalist Press Association’s first hundred years which is both readable and revelatory: for example, the RPA pioneered cheap reprints long before Penguin and was hugely successful before the War; George Soros’s The Bubble of American Supremacy is a devastating critique of Bush’s foreign policy with constructive proposals for a new international order and a valuable annex on the notion of an open society; Kabul Catastrophe by Patrick Macrory, is a history of the disaster known as the First Afghan War (1838-40) – after which a Pollock ancestor of mine led an expedition to rescue the last hostages and mark Britain’s displeasure by blowing up the ancient covered market in Kabul.
Finally, all the information you ever needed to argue the Palestinian case is in Nick Guyatt’s The Absence of Peace – an exposé of the almost unchecked success of Israel in suppressing the Palestinians, annexing their land, dividing their communities, intimidating their allies and presenting themselves to the world as the victims. He ignores almost totally the violence on both sides and looks at the underlying, utterly one-sided power struggle. Most significantly, he analyses how the Oslo process played into Israeli hands, leaving the Palestinians worse off than before, and how the left and the Peace Now movement in Israel share almost every aspect of the right-wing’s policies. It is a depressing book, written before the latest intifada, which (like the lamented Edward Said) argues – but only tentatively – for a one-state solution.
Well, there you are: a compressed account of another busy year: if I had not been so busy I might have made it shorter! As it is, I fear that as last year any personal notes must be relegated to the accompanying card: time presses on the BHA campaigns front with Tuesday’s Home Office meeting demanding immediate attention! With all best wishes for the coming twelve months –