I notice that the date on last year’s letter was the same as today’s – but by the time I get this one off it will be far later, I fear. Your cards and letters started arriving about a month ago, but when you are as busy as I have been there’s a strong temptation to procrastinate, even at the cost of an increasingly guilty conscience!
What sort of year has this been? If you can be bothered to read further, you will find the usual catalogue of humanist activity, and of books and plays and exhibitions – lots of worthwhile things. No big holiday, though – because my major preoccupation has been some work on the house – nothing major, but the lounge looked drab, the kitchen was shabby, the hall carpet was wearing out and so on.
Easy enough to diagnose, but deciding what to do involved many (often fruitless) trips to furniture, lighting shops, builders’ merchants and so on, many changes of mind about what I wanted, much difficulty finding builders and decorators and so on. Now it is over – and the hall carpet is being laid only as I write – I am pleased, but the process was tedious: I hate shopping, and when it comes to choosing colours or furnishings I can say what I don’t like but have much greater difficulty making a positive choice. In the end I decided against a whole new kitchen but have renewed the sink and worktop and flooring, etc. so it looks like new. And I’ve had a leather settee and armchair made by a small firm off the King’s Road in imitation of an extremely comfortable old chair they had just sold. I’ve put some glass shelves in one alcove with lighting to display my bits of modern glass, and have bought very fancy new hi-fi/video equipment from the wonderful Richer Sounds (so that it did not cost an arm and a leg – well, an arm, maybe). I’ve had an elegant openwork settee (from Mum & Dad’s house) and two small chairs re-upholstered (one that used to be my grandmother’s I’ve had the back re-caned as well) and other old pieces repaired. So, an expensive year but the result is – or will be, when everything is back in place – very pleasing.
In between these domestic distractions, I’ve had three short holidays – in the Orkneys, in France and in Canada – and have been to Berlin, Paris and Brussels for Humanist conferences. In May half of Stoke Newington seemed to decamp to the Orkneys when Amanda (one of my bridge-playing friends) decided to hold her 60th birthday party on Westray – a great success despite some nasty weather. I drove up, taking the opportunity en route to have lunch in Oxford with my niece Lucy (and catch up on how the Oxford Union has changed in the last 45 years), and to stay a couple of nights with my old friends Tony & Phyllis in Derbyshire (we had a walk in the dales and took in the Comedy of Errors at the Crucible). I made it to Cromarty the next night and spent the following afternoon exploring the lovely gardens at Inverewe and the surrounding area. Next day I drove up the west coast, across to Scrabster and took the ferry to Orkney ‘mainland’ where I stayed comfortably at the Stromness Hotel (a real old 1940s railway hotel!) while exploring (usually with friends from Stoke Newington who were also up there) the marvels of Hoy, Skara Brae (older than the pyramids), Maes Howe and so on. The (only) village on Westray had postponed their annual ceilidh from February when they heard that 50 visitors would be coming in May, so we had the warmest welcome; and Amanda had her party the next night in a hostel she had block-booked. I did the return journey from Scrabster in one surprisingly easy day.
In August I went with my friend Sheila for a very relaxing six days near Avignon at the mas of her sister Barbara Mills and brother-in-law Angus. (Sheila’s husband Dick is now so advanced in his Alzheimer’s that he has had to move to a residential home where he seems moderately content if perpetually mildly disturbed. He did not recognise me when I visited him earlier in the year.) The house was already worthy of any glossy magazine; now they have laid out the grounds with a parterre with a traditional Provençal fountain at the centre, a pergola leading to an (imported) ancient olive tree, a deck above the bordering river, marble paving around the pool, and so on. The stay was an alternation of sunbathing, swimming, reading, good food, good conversation and occasional trips to local markets, punctuated by a big party for local Londoners and French neighbours.
The other holiday was a crowded six-day visit at the beginning of September to my friend Henry and his wife France in Kingston, Ontario. Henry is a philosophy professor and has a major book coming out in April from OUP. The first day, by saying I was a ‘retired classicist’ from England he inveigled me in to the viva voce exam of a student whose thesis was on Nietzsche’s critique of Kant. I know very little about Kant and even less about Nietzsche and was glad that the conversation afterwards at the home of one of the examining professors kept strictly clear of my implied academic career! The holiday combined philosophical debates (on old intractables like freewill and determinism – always a pleasure to get the brain working hard again), good food and wine, visits to the local art gallery, walks along the lake shore and in the wilder terrain of the Frontenac national park, a weekend away in the Madawaska valley area, visits to and from friends and colleagues of Henry’s and a speedboat trip to one of the islands in the bay (‘on’ might be more accurate as it rode up on top of the waves) courtesy of one of those friends.
Very pleasingly Lindsay has continued to live here while working hard (but without remuneration!) at his films and – a major venture just started at the end of last year – a graphic comic novel. This is a joint enterprise with his friend Tom Brass and stands a good chance, I hope, of getting a publisher and earning him some financial reward. The standard of draftsmanship is very high and the story is hilarious. They have produced 100 copies of part 1 of 12 (to a high standard – full colour cover, good quality paper) and are now sending them to west coast American comic publishers (apparently that is where the action is). They have the complete story mapped out, and the dialogue is written for the early parts. Tom pencils the characters’ faces and makes them recognisable from every angle; Lindsay does all the inking, including creating the backgrounds, and they use a computer program to add the bubbles and captions to the scanned images. They are looking for ways to speed up the process – the final version of each page has been taking about a day to complete.
Lindsay has also continued with his films: with his friend Sam he made a short film about three retired lighthouse keepers, and he made an animated (stop-motion) film of origami birds and frogs to a soundtrack by another friend. The work on the major Romania film has taken a back seat but is continuing – he went back to Bucharest for a two days in October and met some of the Health Aid people – though the trip was mainly to accompany the band Hot Chip to a gig: two or three of the group are good friends and he has done publicity photos and (with Sam) abstract video ‘projections’ for them for use at gigs (and got paid by EMI for the latter). He also went to Spain with a Japanese performance artist for whom he and Sam had made a film which she used at an exhibition.
News also of Christina, my step-daughter who lives with her (new) husband Stephen in (or near) Perth in Australia and who emails many photos of her wonderfully photogenic children, to whose number she is due to add another next year – but not before a visit to London in April, with her youngest daughter Tiahna (not yet 3). She will stay here, which is something to look forward to.
What else of the year? I’ve continued going once a week to the Museum of London, where the Paintings, Prints and Drawings department is now said to be the best catalogued in the museum – but there is still plenty to do. I’ve also lent a marginal hand to the curator who is preparing an exhibition of satirical prints for next spring. (Emma, the assistant curator – my original contact – has left to become curator at the Royal College of Physicians, so the curator is the only member of staff for the department.) I’ve continued to play bridge with Amanda and Jim and Rachel once a month – for fun – and with Amanda and Andreas and Miranda also once a month and likewise for fun but also in the hope that some time before long the penny-a-point penalty each of the losers puts into a pot will add up to enough for a dinner out! I’ve continued also to assist Yusuf, my former neighbour, a blind Kurdish man, and his family, with their perpetual problems with utility companies and other bodies. And I’ve continued very enjoyably to visit friends for dinner and (within the limitations of the work on the house) have them visit me.
It goes without saying, however, that the vast majority of my time has been spent helping the British Humanist Association with its campaigns and on other aspects of humanist activity. The underlying theme of pretty well all our work is to demand equal treatment for those with non-religious lifestances. This very religious government has constantly strongly favoured the churches and other religions, from the huge expansion in ‘faith schools’ and the £5 million fund for ‘capacity building’ in faith groups to help them to influence government policy (for which we were told we were not eligible) to the failure to include us in a consultation with ‘faith communities’ on its proposed commission on integration and cohesion. As an ex-teacher friend pointed out, ‘multi-cultural’ used to be about culture – arts, customs etc. Now it has become a synonym for ‘multi-faith’.
Against this we appeal to the government’s own equality agenda, to which they are also committed, and to the Human Rights Act, which forbids public authorities to discriminate on grounds of religion or belief (where belief includes non-religious lifestances like Humanism). Hanne Stinson, our executive director, is being paid a large daily consultancy fee to serve on the DTI’s steering group for the new CEHR (the Commission for Equality and Human Rights, which will cover all six discrimination strands: race, sex, disability, sexuality, age, and religion or belief) and on the parallel steering group for the equalities review being chaired by Trevor Phillips and the discrimination law review which will follow. She and a Muslim (with who we have worked before) are the two representatives on the steering group for the entire religion and belief strand, reporting back to the churches! So the quality of our work in this area is very high – and has to be kept so.
This year we have had the Equality Bill to set up the CEHR and to introduce a ban on discrimination based on religion or belief and pave the way for a similar ban on discrimination based on sexuality (a Lords backbench addition). We were horrified at the original drafts of the Bill (we saw several) and had several meetings with the Home Office to protest and propose amendments. The problem was that whereas previous anti-discrimination laws had forced changes of behaviour this Bill had near blanket exemptions for the bodies that most practise religious discrimination: the churches and religious organisations themselves. So, religious schools could ignore the law totally, and religious charities (e.g., hospices or sheltered housing) could continue to discriminate or harass on the basis of religion, even where they were providing a public service under contract to the NHS or a local authority.
And when in the Lords a backbencher got worried that the Scouts and Guides could not under the Bill continue to exclude unbelievers (which they do: any religion whatever is OK, but if you are an atheist they will not have you unless you will hypocritically pretend belief, and we get a steady trickle of reports of children and would-be adult volunteers being encouraged to “just say it: it doesn’t matter”) the Government immediately drafted a special clause to allow them to continue to discriminate against people who will not make “a statement which asserts or implies membership or acceptance of a religion or belief” – a direct encouragement of hypocrisy and, as we said, excellent moral education for young people! Sadly the clause remains in the Bill.
We – along with others – worked hard to brief Parliament at each stage as the Bill progressed (and then started again after the election), providing detailed amendments that would mitigate some of the problems. The Government made some alterations and had others forced on it by the Lords. There is no easy answer to some of the difficulties: if harassment based on religion or belief is to be banned, then if the Salvation Army runs a hostel for the homeless under contract to a local authority it should not try to force such people to pray (not that they do anyway) – but what if an anti-religious homeless man complains that the pictures on the wall of hostel constitute harassment? Where should the line be drawn – and how do you draft a law to define it? This sort of problem inevitably arises time and again in the Bill, and we have been preparing many improved drafts and putting them forward. Anyhow, the harassment provisions were completely removed by the Lords so that they can be better considered in the forthcoming discrimination law review – a change the Government has reluctantly accepted.
There’s a lot of work involved in all this. The Bill is 90 pages long; page after page of amendments gets put down at every stage, all of which we need to check out. There are long debates at every stage, which need careful reading. We monitor what multiple other organisations are saying (try reading the Evangelical Alliance website for fun!), and we meet friendly ones to concert a line. We have meetings with Government departments – jointly with religious groups two or three times this year, mainly on the Equality Bill but also on religious hatred, separately with the Home Office and again with the Department for Education and Skills; and we have in addition met the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the Cabinet Office in relation to the equalities review (which is trying to identify the real roadblocks to equality).
And that is only one subject. We have continued to battle away on faith schools (referring in our comments on the latest education white paper, which I drafted, to the ‘creeping gift of the education system to religious interests’; I also did two BBC Asian Network phone-ins on religious schools), on the Charities Bill (where the Government has persisted in keeping a separate ‘head of charity’ for religion, including atheistic religions like Buddhism, but refuses to include non-religious beliefs under the same head: instead we are demeaningly left in the ragbag of miscellaneous unspecified charitable causes), on the lack of ‘chaplains’ for the non-religious in hospital, the services etc (the Ministry of Defence has just employed four full-time chaplains to care for just 850 service personnel who are Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh but the 16,000 non-religious service personnel are recommended to talk over their problems with their commanding officers!) and on the vexed question of stirring up religious hatred, where we started the year with a crowded meeting at Portcullis House jointly sponsored with the Muslim Council of Britain, the CRE and others: I was one of the speakers. Our line at that time was that the Bill was justified but needed amendments to provide necessary safeguards, but the Home Office, despite friendly meetings with officials, has been deaf to all suggestions, so we are now firmly opposing the bill.
Then there are the constant little things: the Judicial Studies Board was among those that wanted comments on a draft, in their case a ‘benchbook’ for magistrates on equality. A woman wanted advice because she feared the sack if she refused to join an office excursion to a cathedral carol service. A local councillor has pointed out to us that churches often get land given to them free of charge in new developments courtesy of planning agreements between local authorities and developers – and with no strings requiring non-discrimination. A Sussex local authority gave a grant to local churches to finance prayers for local prosperity (positively mediaeval!). The Scottish humanists used the Human Rights Act to win the right to conduct legally valid humanist weddings and I was on BBC Breakfast TV programme and on Radio 5 etc demanding the same right in England and Wales. A meeting we were to have with Baroness Ashton of the DCA on this was postponed by her at short notice and has not yet been refixed.
The big thing I’ve not mentioned so far is the consultation on the renewal of the BBC’s charter. We have major problems with the generally admirable BBC, which is completely blind to the validity of non-religious beliefs. (At a reception for the 120th anniversary of New Humanist magazine I talked to John Birt about this: he said that as director-general he had recognised there were battles he could win and others he could not: interfering with religious broadcasting was one of the latter – and he was no shrinking violet!) So, in vain do we quote back to them their talk of reflecting the nation back to the nation, of being fair to minority groups and so on; in vain do we call on the 2003 Communications Act which defines public service broadcasting as including programmes about religion and other beliefs – with Humanism explicitly mentioned by the Government in the Lords when the Bill was debated. In fact, when we made a freedom of information enquiry early in the year the BBC said it had not generated a single piece of paper on this new legal requirement – but in letters at the same time they were saying they were confident they were fulfilling their duty under the Act. So this year, apart from continued correspondence with the BBC and an attempt to widen the remit and membership of its Central Religious Advisory Council to include Humanism, I was particularly engaged in drafting our evidence to the DCMS on charter renewal and then to a Lords select committee that chose to look specifically at religious broadcasting.
We took the line that the BBC was right to provide religious broadcasting but ought to provide the same service to those with non-religious beliefs. We said it, along with the education system, was doing ‘immense damage’ to society by blocking the community’s major channels of communication from any discussion of coherent, positive non-religious beliefs. We pointed out that a DfES survey had found 65% of teenagers were atheist or agnostic, and that a majority of the population as a whole was close to if not already in the same position, but that they were largely left to struggle for their own answers to ‘ultimate questions’, since the BBC and the schools prevented them from hearing from those who could tell them of the millennia-old tradition of naturalistic philosophy and non-religious moral systems and help them articulate their own beliefs. The select committee was interested enough to invite us to give oral evidence, and on 2 November Hanne Stinson and I appeared before them to enlarge on what we had written. The session went well, and humanist friends who saw it on BBC Parliament the following Sunday were congratulatory (you can read the transcript at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld/lduncorr/bbc0211.pdf). However, when I went the following week to hear the committee question the BBC, their witnesses were given a very easy ride and none of our concerns was put to them.
We had a very successful (except financially!) BHA conference in Gateshead in June (I chaired a session with Bernard Crick & Frank Furedi), and two weeks later I went to the European Humanist Federation general assembly in Berlin and gave a paper on Church and State. It was my first visit to Berlin: I had not realised that all the interesting parts had been behind the Wall – likewise with most of the good new buildings. I had just one extra day for sightseeing (the Reichstag with the Norman Foster dome, Potsdam and the Sans Souci gardens, etc) – unfortunately it was a Monday when all the museums were closed! Berlin has an excellent and well integrated transport system – enviable! Then at the start of July it was Paris and the congress of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, with the French going for prestigious but inconvenient locations all over town and high-flown bombastic declarations and getting very worked up when we tried to analyse what they meant and criticise their careless drafting!
I have had to extend my database of members of the Commons and Lords to take in the UK MEPs as we need to extend our campaigning to Europe. We failed in the end to stop a €1.5 million EU subsidy for a Vatican ‘world youth rally’ in Cologne, despite defeating it in the budget debate, because we were not quick enough to spot it coming back in a quite different guise. But we think (well, hope!) we have stopped the EU President having special briefing meetings for religious groups from which we are excluded.
Apart from all this, I’ve also done a couple of talks to schools and one to a local humanist group, gone to several public meetings on faith schools and participated from the floor (or tried to), been to two meetings of our now better established Parliamentary Humanist Group, been to the BHA’s Darwin and Bentham lectures, been to about 20 business meetings of the BHA and Rationalist Association (publishers of New Humanist which continues to get better and better), started a website – www.david-pollock.me.uk – for pieces of writing on humanism, the open society, science and religion etc. – and, sadly, been to the funeral of the wonderful Hermann Bondi, extremely distinguished scientist, public servant and past president of the BHA: I drove a carload of BHA and RA people up to Cambridge for this well attended ceremony in September.
I’ll need to be briefer than usual about books (only 15 recorded this year), exhibitions (16), plays (33) and films (5). The films were Mike Leigh’s superlative Vera Drake, the very enjoyable Sideways, Woody Allen’s disappointing Melinda and Melinda, the new Pride and Prejudice – muddy, down-to-earth and Georgian to fit the time of Jane Austen’s first draft rather than prissily Regency (though Kieran Knightley as Elizabeth was anachronistically 21st century, as were the dialogue and manners) and with the minor characters ruthlessly excised to give room for the main story to breathe: overall impressive), and The Constant Gardener, a near-perfect adaptation of John le Carré’s very fine and angry novel (though not as angry as his searing post-Iraq Absolute Friends – highly recommended, both of them).
Highlights among my other reading were Francis Wheen’s hilarious but appalling How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World which at root is a passionate defence of reason and enlightenment values; and Jim Naughtie’s The Accidental American – a study of Blair as a true believer – from moral rather than religious conviction – in tackling Iraq, by war if necessary, right from the start, adding to rather than restraining Bush’s basic determination to go to war, unworried by the lack of evidence for WMD because already convinced; unworried by – or even ignorant of – the neo-con agenda because they shared the same immediate policy: a conviction politician glorying in getting his hands dirty and a loner finding reward in battling on though isolated and unpopular. Then there was Edward Pearce’s Reform – a detailed account of the parliamentary battles for the 1832 Great Reform Act; Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy’s Jesus and the Lost Goddess, amplifying the convincing story already told in The Jesus Mysteries of Christianity starting as a Jewish mystery religion (it has so much in common with so many earlier cults that the early church fathers had to claim that the Devil had copied Christianity in advance so as to confuse mankind!) with its story being taken literally only after the dispersal of the Jews when the Romans sacked Jerusalem and the followers of the religion became separated from the priests who knew it was all a sacred myth; Christopher Hibbert’s Disraeli – a personal history – an insight into the man but with almost no political background; and the revised edition of Bill Deedes’ Dear Bill – what a wonderful life!
Then there was Point of Departure, the much-lamented Robin Cook’s memoir of his time as Leader of the House after the 2001 election, with diary entries interspersed with later reflections. He tells of the infighting over reform of the House of Lords (where he was double-crossed by Tony Blair and the Whips) and of his success in reforming procedure in the Commons, but mainly of the build-up to the Iraq war, showing throughout how thin and artificial was the case for war: Blair had committed himself to Bush and was scrabbling to make a case. To have this confirmed so devastatingly in moderate language by an insider who praises Blair’s achievements in most other fields is a powerful indictment. He set out in his reflections and a final chapter a manifesto for a moderate left Labour government based on a plural democracy, proportional representation at Westminster as in the devolved assemblies & Europe, social fairness and curtailing of the excesses of the market system, and commitment to Europe. The book reads easily and with much humour and tolerance.
Finally I recommend Karen Armstrong’s The Spiral Staircase, her follow-up to her early memoir of leaving the convent she went into as a teenager against the advice of her family. (Her several books on aspects of religion are well worth reading.) Leaving the Order while seconded in the early 1960s to study at Oxford, she took years to adjust, going through phases of isolation, of mis-diagnosed illness, of anger, of rekindling of objective and somewhat hostile interest in religion and finally of sympathetic absorption in it but not as a believer in the ordinary sense – she sees it as an activity or discipline that rewards with insight or moments of ecstasy and claims that belief as literal is an 18th-century invention (surely highly questionable given the Inquisition, the church councils to debate and fix doctrine, choose the books of the Bible etc.). She says the ‘best theology’ tends to a universal compassion and to view God as Nothing (in the Nirvana sense); because it is a theology independent of individual religions it is about mankind. This is a view with only very marginal support in the real world but has some similarities to the gnostic doctrines of the mystery-religion Christians postulated by Freke and Gandy. Her journey and the troubles she overcame along the way are admirable and inspiring – and full of rewarding vignettes, such as of the domestic arrangements of the welcoming but chaotic family she lodged with in early days in Oxford – Herbert Hart, the professor of jurisprudence (a humanist who spoke to the Oxford University Humanist Group while I was involved in it), and his wife Judith, who coincidentally died this year.
Special mention for Lisa Jardine’s On a Grander Scale – much more than a biography of Christopher Wren, more an account of his whole generation. It goes into great detail about the origins of the Royal Society in the informal gatherings of royalists living quietly in Oxford during the Commonwealth and subsequently (including the Newton/Hooke and Newton/ Flamsteed feuds). Wren was a polymath who could have had many careers but chose architecture when the Restoration offered opportunities for advancement through Charles II’s need for new and improved palaces. He overcame great misfortunes – his father was registrar of the Order of the Garter, to which Charles I attached almost mystic importance, and so the family lost everything during the Commonwealth; Wren married twice but was quickly widowed in each case and lost most of his children in infancy; and he never accumulated the fortune he craved, mainly because he was too scrupulous to do as everyone else did and divert public funds to his own account. His salary for rebuilding St Paul’s was a mere £200 a year – which was halved when progress allegedly became too slow.
The best exhibitions I caught were early in the year: the vibrant portraits by G F Watts at the National Portrait Gallery, and the Royal Academy’s show of William Nicholson’s woodcuts, still lives and other paintings – his earlier work especially appealed. In one splendid day in May I packed in Turner, Whistler and Monet at Tate Britain, John Virtue’s huge black and white London canvasses at the National Gallery and Lee Miller’s portraits at the National Portrait Gallery. More recently I saw Sickert, Whistler & Toulouse Lautrec at Tate Britain – a fine exhibition; and have twice been to Kew to see Dale Chihuly’s wonderful glass sculptures installed in the conservatories among the plants and in the pools.
Finally, and perforce more briefly, to the theatre, which often I go to with Sheila, meeting first for a meal. The Royal Shakespeare tragedies (Lear, Macbeth, Hecuba this year after Romeo & Juliet last) were all rather undistinguished: Vanessa Redgrave was sadly off form as Hecuba, her brother Corin as Lear was powerful but lacked the necessary overweening self-confidence to start, and everyone spoke at high volume without the contrast of a soft voice. The successful Festen was disappointingly predictable; Complicité’s A Minute too Late at the National was underwhelming, The UN Inspector – also at the National – an unnecessary adaptation of Gogol, and David Edgar’s Playing with Fire (new Labour and racial politics) embarrassingly amateurish. So much for the turkeys, but there were wonders as well. Schiller’s Mary Stuart with Janet McTeer, Harriet Walter and Guy Henry was outstanding. It was a Donmar production transferred to Shaftesbury Avenue; at the Donmar itself we saw a revival of Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist which had superb dialogue and wonderful acting, especially from Simon Russell Beale with fingers and hands twitching overtime as the nervous academic unable to believe ill of anyone and so unable to cope with his louche and loose-moralled companions. Earlier there was a very fine Death of a Salesman with Brian Dennehey as Willy Loman and Claire Higgins as his wife – and she was back with an entirely different character in Night of the Iguana which we saw a few days ago: not as good as the National production some years ago but still worth seeing.
The good things at the National were Fix-Up – five strongly differentiated characters in a Tottenham black bookshop in this follow-up by Kwame Kwei-Armah to his successful Elmina’s Kitchen; Strindberg’s A Dream Play – it was the production that was wonderful: the play had been radically re-written by Caryl Churchill and was directed by Katie Mitchell with extraordinarily dreamlike effects – a technical tour de force that obscured the plot; and Tristan and Yseult, a visiting production by the Cornish Knee-High theatre that set the old story in a night-club for the loveless who peered at it voyeuristically through binoculars – sounds silly but it worked wonderfully! (But for out-and-outrageous fun you could not beat The Producers which Lindsay and I enjoyed so much we went again later in the year!)
Tristan – like many of the best things at the National – was in the Cottesloe studio theatre: so was a new play On the Shore of the Wide World by Simon Stephens: acute observation of well drawn characters from three generations of a somewhat dysfunctional family – and Paul, a new play by Howard Brenton taking a naturalistic view of St Paul as a powerful and charismatic character discovering at the end of his life that his convictions are founded on misunderstanding of his early experiences.
Eve Best will I am sure sooner or later be one of our great theatrical dames: she is excellent in everything but was superlative as Hedda Gabler in Richard Eyre’s Almeida production. The National’s House of Bernarda Alba was too spacious to capture the claustrophobia of the play but had some good things. Its Henry IV (both parts) had a strong cast – David Bradley as the king was especially good, and Michael Gambon would have been a very memorable Falstaff if he had not swallowed many of his words. Ibsen’s early Pillars of the Community was well produced but an unsatisfactory play: it sets you up for tragedy and then forces in a semi-happy ending. Then there was Deborah’s Warner’s very enjoyable modern dress Julius Caesar at the Barbican, with Simon Russell Beale excellent as Cassius and Ralph Fiennes a powerful Antony, and the poignant and funny Heroes (translated from the French by Tom Stoppard) with John Hurt, Richard Griffiths and Ken Stott as three ageing veterans in a military retirement home.
I cannot mention everything, but just a word for the non-metropolitan! My two visits to Derbyshire included (as mentioned above) a hilarious evening at the Crucible to see the Comedy of Errors played with excellent timing and great verve, and a memorably silly opera by the 15-year-old Mozart, Ascanio in Alba, given a surreal and wholehearted production at the Buxton Opera.
Well, another encapsulation of another year that has somehow raced by. Busy as I have been, there are things not yet done that I was sure would be accomplished in 2005: the rockery rebuilt with its stream fed from the pond (partly done but not complete), the sorting of my loft-full of old papers: I probably have a better archive for the 1960s and 1970s of BHA and RPA papers than they have themselves but though I have made progress there is a lot to do yet – and I keep coming across distractions like old copies of Oz and IT! Meanwhile the floor of my office is strewn with piles of paper. . . Still, 2006 should see these jobs done – I hope, at least.
So, let me wish you a happy Christmas and that you too are able in 2006 to get through that backlog of things that have to be done some time – or maybe you don’t have one?
I notice that the date on last year’s letter was the same as today’s – but by the time I get this one off it will be far later, I fear. Your cards and letters started arriving about a month ago, but when you are as busy as I have been there’s a strong temptation to procrastinate, even at the cost of an increasingly guilty conscience!