If you think this letter is a little earlier than usual, you’re right. And if it is too long, that is the perennial price of hurry – my apologies. As I sit down to start it I am wondering if I can get through everything that needs doing before I go away on 14th for a fortnight in Florida at my friend Sheila’s place there. Lindsay simultaneously will be spending Christmas in Australia with Lois and Christina – he actually leaves on the 4th.
So, greetings and best wishes to you for whatever season this is. The Archbishop of York is outraged by ‘the change in official Government cards from ‘Happy Christmas’ to ‘Seasons Greetings’, one of many alleged ‘minor changes which drip by drip erode centuries of Christian heritage and identity’ (another is the ‘Royal Mail’s decision to go with Santa and not Jesus on Christmas stamps’). The poor Archbishop was ill-informed: for years the stamps have alternated between Christ and Santa Claus (hands up whoever said ‘What’s the difference?’ – sanctimoniousness, obviously), and the ‘Season’s Greetings’ cards are apparently a variant to send to known non-Christians!
What of the eleven months just past, then? If anything, it has been marked by even deeper involvement in things humanist – for one thing, I’ve become the President of the European Humanist Federation, of which more below. The highlights of the year have been a visit from Australia by Christina and her 2-year-old Tiahna, and trips to New York & Canada, to Toledo and to Warsaw – though all these have been linked to humanist activity.
Christina came over at the invitation (and expense) of her natural father who is ill and wanted to see her. I think that aspect of her trip was satisfactory for both of them. For me and Lindsay it was delightful to have her and Tiahna staying here. It was also a reminder of the chaos induced by children – scattered food, sticky fingers, toys and tantrums – not to speak of gates across the stairs! And of the extraordinary length of time needed to do the simplest thing (like leave the house) when children are involved. But talking with Tig was a pleasure – she is much more grounded and mature than when she was younger, and her marriage with Stephen seems strong.
Her visit happened to fall immediately after the death of her grandmother Jean (Lois’s mother), a sad farewell if foreseen, and the year also saw the death of my old friend Dick Clark, who had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for the last several years. Sheila had cared for him devotedly but it had become impossible to have him at home and for the last year he was in an excellent home, where I visited him once – but he was by then pretty well unable to recognise anyone. It was so unfair that he, so energetic, knowledgeable, warm and humorous, should end so reduced. A contrasting very happy occasion later in the year was the wedding of Sam, Dick & Sheila’s older son – albeit (with Andi coming from a devout German family) it took place in an Catholic church!
I had two trips during the year to La Sacristière, the splendid place owned by Sheila’s sister Barbara and her husband Angus just a few miles east of Avignon. On each occasion Angus flew us out from Luton in his private jet, much used for his business but a definite pleasure for him too: he’s been flying for 40 years or so! It was an eye-opener to sit in the co-pilot’s seat on one trip and see the complexity of the electronics to fly the plane and program the autopilot. I was able to listen in to the constant exchanges with air traffic control: we seemed to be passed from one centre to another every five minutes! One trip was just for a long weekend, the later one, in August, for a lazy week in the sun, eating well, reading and swimming in their pool.
The summer saw the usual get-together with Tony & Phyllis, Mike and Camilla, and Sheila up at T&P’s place in a Derbyshire village near Cressbrookdale (this winter’s gathering in London has been postponed to January). We met at Sudbury Hall (interesting National Trust place) and took in a walk or two and a visit to the Buxton Festival to see Gluck’s Armide. By serendipity while we were still sitting over a protracted breakfast in the garden sun two other old Coal Board friends – Colin Ambler and Jim Shearer – happened by: they were already completing a country walk with their partners. Later (but by arrangement!) another – Chris Pennell and his wife – came to dinner: so it turned into a mini-Coal Board re-union. Another such happened earlier in the year when Gill Henchley had a birthday party at the RIBA and Phil Turner, Jane Rowe and Marilyn Stanley were there – and later in the year I had dinner with Lesley Holland, met Phil again for a drink, and (with Sheila) visited Mike and Camilla down in Sussex. So 2006 has seen more ex-Coal Board encounters than for a long time.
While on the subject of renewing acquaintance, I went to the wedding of my (slightly older) cousin Peter this autumn: he and partner Chris were putting a legal gloss on their long-standing relationship. So of course this was a great family reunion – including a cousin I had not seen for a good 50 years! And the next day, the wedding being in Winchester, I had lunch with Christine and Joe, old friends from the days of my marriage with Lois, who live there. We have been exchanging Christmas cards for twenty years promising to meet in the ‘new year’ and finally it has happened!
I took advantage of the same trip to call on my old ASH colleague Mark Flannagan and wife Sophie and to visit the G F Watts Gallery at Cobham. This, you may have noticed, came second in the BBC’s Restoration Village series. Its new curator is Mark Bills, who was until spring the curator of paintings, prints and drawings at the Museum of London, where I continue to do a half day a week’s voluntary work, so I had a guided tour. It is well worth visiting unless you have a 1960s distaste for the Victorians – and do not miss just up the road the lovely chapel and cemetery, complete with art nouveau and Celtic decoration, that Watts’s wife Mary designed. Another link with the past was renewed when Marion Yates-Smith (old family friend, whose late husband Ken was briefly but memorably my teacher at junior school) came up for a weekend and we visited the Courtauld gallery, had dinner chez Gerrard in Covent Garden and went to see Noel Coward’s Hay Fever.
Lindsay has had a busy year by the end of which he and Tom have brought out volume 2 of their planned comic graphic novel Mooochowski (do have a look at www.moochowski.com) and he and his friend Sam have completed their documentary film on the Romanian orphanages for children with HIV. They are submitting the comic to various US publishers and the film to various festivals in the hope of attracting notice. Both, in my biassed reckoning, are high class products – but that doesn’t guarantee either will lead to earning a living. Anyhow, it’s absolutely great having Linds around at home, where we lead pretty independent lives, him on the 2nd floor, me on the 1st, occasionally encountering each other in the kitchen or (rarely) to watch something of quality on TV.
I’ve continued to play bridge about twice a month in a thoroughly amateur but fun way. In one foursome (two of us overlap with the other) we pay 1p a point into a pot and we racked up £150 or so and spent it on a dinner at Rules in the summer. Another trip there is arranged for January – very bad cards recently! As well as my weekly half-day at the Museum of London (where I continued to help a bit with the preparation for the outstanding Satire exhibition (sorry – you’re too late) and got an acknowledgement in the catalogue – still available!) I responded back in January to a request from the National Theatre for voluntary work. They emailed people within easy reach who seemed to buy a lot of tickets to find helpers for the Development Office (= extracting more money from people and companies than it costs to service them as Patrons, Priority Members or whatever). I’ve been down there roughly a day a month, working mainly on fairly routine database things in a lively office high up above the Thames. We get offered free staff tickets – I’ve only taken this up once, as I generally buy mine as soon as they go on sale!
I come to humanist activities. I suppose I’m working not far short of full-time on this, with evenings and weekends making up for the time I take off for other things during the day. I’ve had eight meetings of the Rationalist Association (publishers of the ever-improving New Humanist), about 20 British Humanist Association meetings (Board of Trustees, sub-committees etc.), three (terminally boring) meetings of the Hackney Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education (where I am barely tolerated by the ultra-religious chair and RE Advisor), as well as going to the BHA’s Darwin and Bentham lectures and half a dozenmeetings and seminars (IPPR and so on). The routine tasks are monitoring developments (I get 4 or 5 e-newsletters and have daily Google news and blog alerts for various topics) and taking ad hoc action (draft letters to Ministers, MPs, the press etc for the BHA to send, my own letters to the press and postings on blogs, such as the Guardian commentisfree pages, recording information on the databases of MPs, Lords and MEPs, etc). The semi-routine is responding to requests from the BHA (Hanne, our chief exec, and Andrew, our public affairs/education officer, both desperately overworked) for commentaries on consultation papers or drafts emanating from Whitehall or other official sources, or for draft comments for us to submit, and going through relevant parliamentary debates to pick up points for action or for recording on the databases.
Then there are the temporarily important topics – either Bills that need special attention or initiatives we are taking ourselves. This year saw the scrappy end (for now) of one Bill – the Government’s attempt to legislate against stirring up religious hatred. The BHA was in principle in favour of this but appalled at the drafting of the Government’s Bill, which had little in the way of safeguards for freedom of speech. (It merely added religious hatred to the existing law on racial hatred, paying no regard to the need for different treatment of the former since religion, unlike race, makes claims about the world, tells us how we should behave, and is the basis for powerful organisations: it has highly contentious content whereas race has none.) So we were relieved when the Opposition ambushed the Government in the Commons with the result that the new Act has little effect at all.
One big preoccupation was the Charities Bill, now an Act, where the Government adamantly refused to the end to remove the discrimination against non-religious beliefs in the definition of charity: advancement of religion is ipso facto charitable but organisations for the advancement of humanism only gets in by pleading some other public benefit, and in practice often have difficulty in getting accepted by the Charity Commission. The Government never gave us an explanation of why they would not accept our proposal, which would seem to be required by the Human Rights Act’s bar on discrimination on grounds of ‘religion or belief’ – a view endorsed by the Joint (Commons & Lords) Committee on Human Rights.
Educational matters took up a lot of energy. Members of the Humanist Parliamentary Group (now up to 68 members) moved two debates on religious schools – one in each House – early in the year. The Education and Inspections Act (as it now is) allows commercial or religious etc sponsors of ordinary state schools on the same pattern as creationists and others who sponsor the legally-independent-but-99%-taxpayer-funded academies. It gave rise to all the fuss over admissions to faith schools – should they be forced to offer 25% of their places to children of other or no faiths? This was a hare started by Kenneth (Gerbil) Baker, who dislikes faith schools unless they are Anglican. It sadly distracted attention from more important debates and was never going to be any use, even if they Government had persisted with it instead of yielding at the first whiff of grapeshot from the Catholics. (It would not, for example, have touched Muslim schools as no non-Muslim parents would agree to send their children to one, especially if they required hijabs as school uniform as one threatened.) The grand solution lauded by Alan Johnson was a craven capitulation that leaves us worse off than before: now new faith schools can be deliberately planned 25% larger than the faith requires, so expanding yet more their hold on the education system. My short letter to this effect got published in the Telegraph, Guardian, Independent and TES – scoring 4 out of 5 (The Times was the delinquent!).
The concession made over the legally required act of worship – that sixth-formers can exercise a right of conscience and opt out – is pretty valueless as few attend anyway in most schools and an extension to competent (by the Gillick test) children below the Sixth was refused. A more valuable proposal that I drafted was moved in the Lords by members of the Humanist Parliamentary Group for the act of worship to be replaced by assemblies designed to further pupils’ ‘spiritual, moral, social and cultural education’ (a recognised legal formula). We had support for this from the Association of School and College Leaders, the National Union of Teachers, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the UK and the Sikh Education Council but it was rejected by the Government.
Also demanding attention was the appalling new US-funded Truth in Science initiative, which has sent expensively produced teaching materials to all UK secondary schools promoting the ‘intelligent design’ (creationist) idea – and dozens of schools have taken them up. It is an appalling indictment of the state of science in schools that any teacher should do so: it betrays a complete blindness to the fundamental nature of science. We worked hard to get the DfES to denounce the materials and to agree to send out some sort of warning – not yet done.
We are currently pushing hard to get the 2001 census question on religion changed for the 2011 census: so far the Office of National Statistics has refused. This is despite its obvious bias – ‘what is your religion?’ not ‘do you have a religion and if so what is it?, and asked immediately after questions about ethnicity, so maximising the crop of ‘cultural Christians’: the 70+% in 2001 is beyond any other explanation, especially as a different question in Scotland produced a much lower score. Opinion polls (where, of course, the head of household does not answer for the whole family) always produce much lower figures and show that belief is very strongly age-related, with over 60% of teenagers consistently saying they have no religion.
And this autumn we commissioned our own rather special MORI poll. We have got tired of meetings in parts of Whitehall where our credentials are questioned – ‘whom do you speak for beyond your 6,000 members?’ The old DTI Women and Equality Unit (in charge of the Government’s equality agenda) was never like this, but the ex-Home Office Faiths and Communities Unit (now united with the WEU in the blessed Ruth Kelly’s new department) barely took us seriously at a meeting early in the year, and we felt nothing short of insulted when we saw Harriet Harman at the Department of Constitutional Affairs in the summer on the law’s failure to recognise humanist weddings though it recognises most religious weddings – she started by asking if Humanism was the same as Unitarianism, responded to our ‘no, it’s a non-religious belief system’ with ‘oh, like tree-hugging?’ and then told us that we should seek the support of the Church of England as the Government could not make any change without their consent! Behold a front-running candidate for deputy leader of the Labour Party!
So we now have a MORI poll that shows that the key aspects of a humanist outlook are shared by 1 in 3 of the population: seeing no need for religion in an understanding of the universe, basing moral decisions on the consequences for people, etc. – the questions forced a choice between tough ‘humanist’ statements and ‘soft’ religious ones and 36% chose 3 out of 3 humanist answers. We added a question about groups to which the Government pays too much attention: religious groups and leaders came a close second to leaders of foreign countries (Bush? the EU?).
I’ve left out the whole equality agenda because I do not get closely involved, but it produces endless documents on which Hanne asks for urgent comments. She is deeply involved with the Equalities Review, the Discrimination Law Review and all the preparatory work for the new Commission on Equality and Human Rights – there was near unanimous dismay at Ruth Kelly’s appointment of Trevor Phillips to its chair: apart from lack of credibility in the BME community, he has been useless as chair of the Equalities Review.
The year also saw the tragically early death of the BHA’s only recently appointed president, Linda Smith, the comedian. She had a private humanist funeral, followed the next day by a memorial meeting at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, and later by benefit performances in Sheffield and at the Victoria Palace of which the BHA received about half the proceeds – I went to the three last of these, taking the opportunity to have a day with Tony & Phyllis after the Sheffield one.
I’ve also spoken to five schools (usually sixth form conferences) on humanism or other topics (usually lively and enjoyable occasions), debated religious hatred at the Cambridge Union with Shami Chakrabarti, and undertaken other speaking engagements, including at the International Humanist and Ethical Union conference in New York and the European Humanist Federation conference in Toledo. It was then that, having joined the EHF board (quot places, tot candidates), I got elected as its president. The idea had been mooted by the (volunteer) EHF general secretary, a Belgian who is retired rather after the same fashion as me, back in January after a meeting in Brussels of the European Parliament All Party Group on Separation of Religion and Politics (hereinafter APG). I was not keen but did not do enough to block the idea – Georges Liénard wanted a campaigning approach in the EHF and no-one else could offer it. So now I have to keep an eye on the EU, the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe as well as the UK! And I’ve started weekly French classes with Hélène – subjunctives, conditionals, colloquialisms and chunks of Libération!
Three of us from EHF went to four days of an OSCE conference in October. This is an unusual affair. The OSCE was the Helsinki-process body, and one-third of its remit is now concerned with democratic institutions and human rights, on which it has a two-week annual conference in Warsaw. We attended for the four days that included topics of particular interest. The conference brings together on equal terms the member states – 60+ of them – and European NGOs, ranging from the EHF to Islamic bodies, from LGBT organisations to groups representing the rights of national minorities – Macedonians in Greece or Roma in Bulgaria: a huge range. After a keynote speaker in each session, delegates get called in the order they put their names down on a list – so the diplomats and the interest groups are all muddled together. We ran a side-meeting on equal rights for non-believers, asked awkward questions at another on the alleged European epidemic of ‘Christianophobia’, lobbied some of the diplomats, and spoke at two of the plenary sessions (See http://www.osce.org/ conferences/hdim_2006.html?page=documents&author_id=293) for our contributions). We also had a meeting with the numerous but tiny local humanist organisations.
Warsaw is an amazing place – not that I had much time to look round, but I did get to the ‘old town’ a couple of times – ‘old’ in quotes as, despite its mediaeval looks, it had to be totally reconstructed after the retreating Germans dynamited it at the end of the war. Warsaw lost all but about 30 of its 600+ historic buildings, but most of the centre has been rebuilt in a more or less ‘authentic’ style.
A few days ago I spoke on the virtues of a secular (=neutral) constitution for Europe at the APG in Brussels, a well received short speech of which many people asked to have copies. (It is now on the EHF and IHEU websites – www.iheu.org/node/2429, www.humanism.be/in/doc/pdfs/TalkDavidPollockWGSRP.pdf.) This was precipitated by what seems to be a concerted campaign in the UK and across Europe to create the impression that the churches are underprivileged and persecuted and so build a platform for ‘regaining their rights’ – i.e., securing new privileges. The evidence they quote is pathetic and often false: for example, Sentamu and others have made much of Torbay removing a cross from a crematorium wall for fear of offending other religions. The truth is that in this municipal, unconsecrated building they have replaced a fixed cross with a removable one – something we, as providers of humanist funerals, have sought for years and which is now common. I mentioned the Christianophobia meeting in Warsaw. There have been more or less hysterical (the right word, I think) contributions from Archbishops Rowan Williams (‘When people talk about whether we should ‘become a secular society’ . . .they are in effect echoing the idea that the basic and natural form of political organisation is a central authority that ‘franchises’ associations, and grants or withholds their right to exist publicly and legally within the State’) and Sentamu (He has spoken of a ‘clash of traditions, perceptions and aspirations between those who want to see faith privatised and those of us who see a proper role for faith in the public sphere; in our schools, in our workplaces and in our politics. . . the claim of the Church today to be heard in relation to political and economic problems is no new usurpation, but a reassertion of a right once universally admitted’), Rowan Williams and the RC Cormac Murphy O’Connor together (‘The secular public square, properly understood, is a Christian legacy and one that requires an ongoing Christian presence in order to remain true to itself’), Bishop Nazir Ali (‘British society is based on a Christian vision and Christian values – its institutions, its laws, its customs – all of these arise out of a Christian vision … equality, or … liberty, freedom of expression, all these things are under threat, … All of these things derive from a common vision … if there’s a clearer Christian basis to society which is acknowledged the result will be a better basis for a more inclusive society, a better basis for welcoming people than a kind of secularist lowest common denominator’), RC Archbishop Vincent Nichols (‘Those in government and political life rightly have a growing respect for the contribution made by the faith communities. What government must also realise is that it is not possible to seek cooperation with us while at the same time trying to impose upon us conditions which contradict our moral values’ [he referred to ‘the beginnings and endings of human life’ (i.e., stem cell research, abortion and voluntary euthanasia) and to civil partnerships] – and threatened closing down church ‘schools, adoption agencies, welfare programmes, halls and shelters’ if the Government did not bow to church demands), the Bishop of Winchester (he alleged attempts to ‘drive faith from the street’ and complained of ‘anti-religious language in Parliament, particularly in the debates on assisted-suicide and faith schools’), the Catholic Bishop of Arundel and Brighton (he talked of attempts ‘to demonise’ religion: ‘We’re in danger of becoming a beleaguered and isolated group on the margins’) and others. Meanwhile in Europe the president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has proposed a ‘special status’ for churches in the Council, and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who will preside over the EU at its 50th anniversary next March, is hand in glove with the Vatican and its council of bishops, COMECE, to prepare a ‘Berlin Declaration’ of alleged European values and is planning to revive the question of attributing European values to the church: she ‘emphasised’ to the Pope on a recent visit (she herself said) ‘the need for a constitution and that it should refer to our Christian values. . . I believe this treaty should be linked to Christianity and God because Christianity was decisive in the formation of Europe.’
So domestically we have attempts to intimidate a government that is already putty in the hands of the churches – it is reliably reported that Jack Straw has bought the votes of the bishops in favour of kicking out the last hereditary peers by promising to preserve 16 seats for them in perpetuity so that they can continue to save us from voluntary euthanasia (80% public support) and preserve religious schools (comparable public opposition) – and abroad the attempt officially to base the European Union on Christian values – in context, Vatican values, as they are so formidably organised as lobbyists. And serious consequences cannot be discounted – don’t look just at the USA but at Australia where the churches and religious charities rule the roost, free of any accountability even in terms of auditing of accounts and flush with government money as more and more public services are contracted out.
So it is not a quiet time to take over as EHF president. We are planning a counter-declaration in favour of a secular (=neutral) constitution and trying to find very senior politicians and liberal churchmen etc to sign it – anyone know how I can get in touch with some ex-cabinet ministers?
Enough of Humanism – except to mention the IHEU general assembly in New York at the end of April, which I managed to combine with much enjoyment: meeting my old friend Jane who lives there and with her visiting the new MOMA (incidentally catching up with the Edvard Munch exhibition that I’d missed in London) and going to see Eileen Atkins being superb in a reasonably good play Doubt. I also went for the first time to the Cloisters (the wonderful mediaeval architecture and statuary etc wing of the Metropolitan Museum up on Washington Heights in the north of Manhattan); went twice to the Frick (simply the best gallery anywhere in the world) – once catching there by chance a chamber music concert; went to the Metropolitan Museum itself, concentrating on the complete rooms from America and Europe and on the Tiffany glass; went to the cinema twice and twice also to the Metropolitan Opera, seeing Deborah Voight in Tosca and Andreas Scholl in Rodelinda – marvellous! On the same trip I met up with my philosopher friend Henry and we had a couple of days doing B&B in the Adirondacks in northern NY state before ending up back at his place in Kingston where I had a restful three or four days in blazing sunshine, renewed acquaintance and got on with some reading.
And so to my account of this year’s attenuated tally of books (only 13 recorded this year), exhibitions (9 temporary and 9 galleries plus several National Trust-type visits), plays (28), operas (4) and films (6) – there simply has not been the time to do more. The only films worth a mention were well noticed everywhere – Brokeback Mountain, Goodnight and Good Luck, and the very entertaining The Queen. One exhibition I particularly enjoyed was Satire at the Museum of London, as already mentioned: it took in the ‘golden age’ of Hogarth, Gilray and Cruikshank but stretched back far earlier and forward to the present day to Spitting Image and Martin Rowson (who is house cartoonist to New Humanist) – I talked to him and to Will Self at the opening. The early Rubens exhibition left me wishing he had stuck to his intimate portraits and forgone the fleshy acres and massacres of the innocents. The Michelangelo drawings at the BM were breathtaking – until he tried to draw women – all very masculine, with add-on protuberances! I liked the big Constables a lot more than I’d expected – but still preferred (the same day) the Howard Hodgkin retrospective: I should love to have one of his middle-period works on my wall! Just to pick out one permanent gallery – the Musée du Petit Palais in Avignon, which has the most marvellous and approachable collection of mediaeval paintings: the Siennese school was, as they say, to die for.
There have been some disappointments at the theatre this year (Caroline, or Change may be the best musical but it is still trite, through-composed sub-Sondheim and with none of the transgressiveness of Angels in America; Market Boy won huge praise but we saw it on a turgid preview before they took out 40 minutes and some of the characters; Royal Hunt of the Sun may have been marvellous in the ’60s but only intermittently came alive in the arguments in the second act; Osborne’s Epitaph for George Dillon was a revival from a decade earlier and creaked at the joints; The Seagull directed by Katie Mitchell at the National divided the critics but I thought it was awful despite having Juliet Stevenson in the lead). But there were good things too, notably the NT’s Voysey Inheritance (even better than when they did it last in the ’80s), The Overwhelming – a new play about the build up to the massacre in Rwanda, with a dysfunctional American family providing links to (and complete misunderstanding of) the various factions as they moved inexorably to disaster; Simon Russell Beale in Brecht’s Life of Galileo with so much that is relevant to the present day; Beale, Alex Jennings, Ian Richardson and Lesley Manville all in a superb revival of The Alchemist; and Mike Leigh’s perceptive and very funny 200 Years. Away from the National, there was Tom & Viv at the Almeida (the play surely too indulgent to Viv!), Tom Stoppard’s scintillating but serious Rock ’n’ Roll; Racine’s Phèdre at the Donmar (the purity of Euripides’ Hippolytos – it was my special book at Oxford – spoiled by giving him an unneeded love affair!); and (maybe best of all) Kevin Spacey and the wonderful Eve Best in A Moon for the Misbegotten at the Old Vic.
Finally the books. Kate Fox is a professional anthropologist who turned her skills onto Watching the English: it is a highly amusing but professionally researched study of English behaviour, with anecdotes and observations that repeatedly describe your own behaviour or that of people you know. It concludes that the English suffer from chronic social dis-ease which interacts with values of fair play, courtesy and modesty, reflexes of humour, moderation and hypocrisy and outlooks of empiricism, ‘eeyorishness’ and class-consciousness. We are unable (social dis-ease) to deal straightforwardly with human relations so we react with humour or hypocritical self-deprecation, and we are constantly acutely aware of class (she closely analyses class patterns of language). We are bad complainers – too demanding for our weak social abilities – so we mutter to others ‘typical!’. Kate Fox goes through our nervous grooming talk – weather, mainly, about which one must always agree, since the words are not meant to be taken literally for their own sake, and behaviour in pubs, at work, eating, etc. She describes amusingly how difficult it was for her deliberately to jump queues so as to observe how queuers reacted or to bump into people so as to test that the English (but rarely others) apologise when they are not the least at fault.
Bess of Hardwick is another excellent and highly readable biography by Mary (Mitford Sisters, A Scandalous Life) Lovell. She has researched her subject well and so can demonstrate that her fourth marriage – to the Earl of Shrewsbury – was, contrary to general report, for many years as happy as her earlier ones, until torn apart by the strains of permanently entertaining the guileful Mary Queen of Scots under close guard and by his increasing mental disturbance – every time (& there were many) that the dispute between them was referred to the Queen & to Burghley and Exeter they sided – gently – with her. Bess comes across as warm, talented and very capable, energetic and skilful in looking after the interests of her family and firm in dealing with those (including two sons) who crossed her. And though she took risks with her relationship with Elizabeth, she never seriously quarrelled with her. The book is full of period detail about family relations, placing of young people in the homes of relatives or friends who could teach them polite manners, arranged dynastic marriages, and everyday life – food, clothes, travel and so on.
In Canada I picked up a secondhand copy of C P Snow’s first novel. The Search tells the story of an ambitious and competent young scientist and how his career ambitions challenge his scientific honesty, his eventual careless downfall and reconciliation to a different life, against a background of the different paths trodden by his early colleagues to success or failure. It is very much of its period but clearly laying the foundations for the later Strangers and Brothers sequence. A N Wilson’s After the Victorians is a follow-up to his superb The Victorians. He is more at home in the earlier period, with more characteristic flashes of connection, but they are not absent in this well-digested study of Britain and the world from 1900 to 1953. He is potent on the disgrace of Amritsar, on Churchill’s forced surrender of all Britain’s scientific expertise and discoveries (radar, atomic research) to the Americans for use without payment or even acknowledgement, on the brutal Cold War motivation of Hiroshima, on the USA’s determination to see Britain humbled and bereft of empire after the second world war, and much else. There are vivid pen portraits of key figures and fully integrated descriptions of key developments in (especially) literature. The pervasive quiet racism of attitudes (right up to Attlee), is a constant subtext.
On my brother Malcolm’s recommendation I read Nick Mason’s Inside Out – a lavishly illustrated history of Pink Floyd from the earliest days – even before it (or its predecessor group with Mason & Roger Waters) was called Tea Set. The account is uneven – full of detail at times, then skipping lightly over other events, for example the re-forming of the band after the break-up with Roger Waters and the legal difficulties with him and the position (unclear) of Rick Wright in the new version, etc. But overall a fascinating account – surprising how little they were actually involved in the 1960s’ underground scene, just riding it as a wave.
I read two books on the origins of religion – Lewis Wolpert’s short Six Impossible Things before Breakfast and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell. Wolpert argues that the origins of the human capacity for belief (of any kind) lie in the use of tools and the conceptualisation of what a tool will achieve – i.e. of causes. Misplaced attribution of cause (post hoc ergo propter hoc and elaborate rationalisations by priests and others with vested interests) lead to religious and other irrational beliefs. The argument is incomplete but plausible (if no more) though it may identify a contributory factor. He quotes Francis Bacon: ‘Man prefers to believe what he prefers to be true.’ Dennett conducts a quasi-scientific examination of religion as a natural phenomenon and how it might have arisen and survived – as a ‘meme’ residing in its human host or as conducing to human survival. He moves slowly, supposedly addressing American believers reluctant to follow him, which becomes tedious (the book should have been about half its length), but he has some good stuff – including the notion of belief in belief: many religious people plainly do not believe the propositions put forward by their religion but they do believe in the virtue (social or personal utility?) of belief itself. Hence the phenomenon of people who plainly do not assent to the basic propositions of their religion nevertheless deploring the decline of belief, the desperation of those who doubt and their heroic struggles to restore their faith against all the evidence. ‘Say the words – you will come to believe them’. Dennett proposes that because belief is so important, the propositions to be believed have been made incomprehensible so as not to be open to disproof.
Then of course there is Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, a wonderful romp full of telling quotations from unexpected sources. Dawkins writes with effortless clarity and is straightforward about religion, treating it in the way he would any other irrational belief (say, a political dogma) rather than with the kid gloves that the religious expect and demand. This is the main origin of complaints about him. In fact he is penetrating and forceful: many religious ‘blogs’ say he has to be taken seriously but none I have seen does better than say he ‘just hasn’t understood what religion is about’ followed by some meaningless form of words about God being outside time and sustaining the universe in existence – a role that is not obviously necessary! Dawkins does spend a lot of time on what might seem extremes of belief: there are two responses to this, one that in the USA and in the world at large these are not extremes, the second that (as he argues) the moderates ‘give cover’ to the extremes, wrapping a cloak of respectability around them. Two last books on a humanist theme: one a superb little work by Stephen Law, The War for Children’s Minds, a fully committed and beautifully argued defence of liberal education against indoctrination of any kind – highly recommended (especially for Blair and DfES ministers!); and the other a collection of essays, Debating Humanism, based on a conference organised by that very odd (and rather dubious) successor of Living Marxism, the Institute of Ideas (see also the Manifesto Club), who for reasons unclear have decided that humanism needs rescuing from itself – they are looking far wider than the organised humanist movement, at the whole humanist tradition, but it is far from clear that any such rescue is needed. However, there are interesting essays in the book, some of the criticism is valid and some of the ideas worth thinking about.
Roy Porter’s final book – he had completed the text but not the notes when a fatal heart attack cut him off long before his time as he cycled to his allotment – was Flesh in the Age of Reason, a very readable and erudite book on attitudes to the body and the body-and-mind/soul problem in the eighteenth century. He plots a course parallel to his masterpiece Enlightenment, tracing his theme through thinkers, writers and doers such as Locke, Mandeville, Shaftesbury, Swift, Johnson, Gibbon and Godwin from the Puritan vilification of the flesh through periods of obsession with diets and fashion, and ending with the revulsion against over-stretched reason and the exaltation of the spirit in early nineteenth century romanticism, with Coleridge, Blake and Byron. Worth reading again!
But the best book of the year was Charles Freeman’s The Closing of the Western Mind – a superb study of the way that Christianity’s claim to exclusive truth – alien to the Greek and Roman world – led after its cynical adoption by Constantine for the whole Roman empire to the suppression of enquiry, science, freedom of speech, belief and thought for over 1000 years. It shows how now-central tenets of the faith were invented over the centuries as emperors intervened to resolve bitter and sometimes violent disputes between rival Christian factions – the very idea that Jesus was divine, let alone that he had existed from all time, the pernicious concept of original sin, the cult of the virgin Mary, the idea of the Holy Trinity all emerged only in the 4th century or later, while transubstantiation did not appear until the Middle Ages. Not only were the twenty or so original early gospels weeded to the canonical four to exclude unwanted elements but the surviving scriptures were ignored or highly selectively read as they tended to undermine the later emerging doctrines – hence the insistence on the church’s role as interpreter and the need for faith rather than personal study and enquiry. It leaves you ever more grateful to the Arabs for preserving and advancing classical learning and regretting the Europe that might have emerged a millennium earlier if such totalitarian religion had not been adopted as a prop by the fading empire. There are some telling quotations in it: none better than the pair which start the book. Contrast Euripides (c5th BCE) who in a fragment from a lost play says ‘Blessed is he who learns how to engage in enquiry, with no impulse to harm his countrymen or to pursue wrongful actions, but perceives the order of immortal and ageless nature, how it is structured’ with Saint Augustine (c5th CE): ‘There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity . . . It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn.’ Nor was Augustine alone: Freeman quotes many other Christian fathers to the same effect. Thus, 1100 years after Thales accurately predicted an eclipse in 585BCE came the last recorded astronomical observation (by an Athenian philosopher Proclus) in 475 CE – and then more than 1000 years of darkness until Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus in 1543.

2005 ————— 2007