It was a shock to receive a Christmas card in mid-November – inexcusably premature on the part of brother Malcolm in New Zealand – but now as it gets towards the end of the month it seems timely to put together a summary of yet another year fled all too fast. It has been an exceedingly busy year for me, principally as a result of my new role as president of the European Humanist Federation, which has taken up far more time than I would have wished. So I have had much less time for reading, for exhibitions, for holidays (though I have fitted in a couple of short ones), and for gardening (invasive vigorous perennials are taking over some beds, tender plants have succumbed for lack of care, and the lawn has on average been about four inches high!)
When I wrote last year I was about to leave for Florida to spend Christmas with my friend Sheila at her place there. That was a wonderful restful break! Her house is on a quiet key on the Gulf coast: a narrow winding road with houses (some of them huge modern mansions in appalling taste) on both the lagoon and the sea sides. Sheila’s place (moderate-sized and in excellent taste) faces the sea over a 10-yard band of sea oats (which function like marram grass). The weather was hot (often up into the 80s – though Xmas day was marked by a torrential storm with flooded roads and a rough sea that re-shaped the beach – the first rain for 3 months).
We were up before dawn (7 am) every day for a 2-hour walk up and down the beach and its abundant bird life – pelicans by the hundred flying in formation an inch above the waves, ospreys, a frigate bird, turkey vultures, cormorants, loons, sandlings, ruddy turnstones, sandpipers, terns, gulls, egrets, herons – the last two coming up to the house wanting scraps! – and a large stingray, seahorses, and many dolphins. I spent much of the time reading – got through 7 books in 14 days (all right, some were short!) though we made a few visits – one to the northern part of the Everglades, with alligators basking beside the road, turtles propping themselves up to sun their bellies and more masses of bird life. Another trip was to the Ringling museums at Tampa. The seven Ringling brothers went into circus in a big way in the 1870s-1910s – eventually they took over Barnum and Bailey. At one time had three circuses on the road at once – or rather, on the rails: two of them had 84 rail wagons each, the other 44 – flats, carriages, animal cages, etc. They made one-night stands at town after town from April to November – re-erecting every day a huge city of tents (cookhouse and canteen, changing rooms, stables for the working horses, another for the show horses, menagerie to put the 40 elephants, numerous camels, lions, etc. etc. on display, others for sideshows, a blacksmith, etc., plus of course the huge three-ring big top). They put on a matinee and an evening show: by the time the evening performance started, the first of four trains was already leaving for the next town. They did all this every 24 hours – except on Sundays! One of the brothers made an immense and good collection of European baroque art – also on display.
Holidays this year were more limited in ambition and length, though not in number. Early in May our local walking group conveyed itself en masse to Church Stretton in Shropshire where we had three days of fairly strenuous walking in the hills – delightful scenery; mainly good weather; good food and excellent company.
I had a few days in Rome at the end of May, the core of which was four days of guided tours of Roman remains led by Paul Wilkinson, who runs the Kent Archaeological Field Service (KAFS). I had not been to Rome since 1959, when we had two days there on a sixth-form trip: £30 limit on currency, and the headmaster lost his wallet at the first stop! all travel by train, with short stops also in Venice, Naples and Florence: Italy still shabby and war-torn; the US fleet in the Bay of Naples; in Rome a bus strike and people clinging to the sides of lorries to get around. Rather different today! We were there for the Italian national day – indeed, two of us got cut off by road closures for the military parade and had nothing to do but watch the flamboyant costumes of one contingent after another as they got ready to march along Mussolini’s Via dei Fori Imperiali – so much regard did he have for the emperors’ forums that he cut his road straight through them! Too much to recount here, but I recommend a visit to the 12th century church of San Clemente near the Colosseum, where you go down a flight of stairs to find beneath it a fourth century church, damaged by an earthquake and abandoned, and from there down more stairs to a second century Mithraic temple and a maze of rooms and roadways. Yet further down is a noisy rushing aqueduct in an ancient conduit and there are reports of another level – all buried and filled with rubble until excavated, partly in the 18th century but mostly more recently. The lower levels are mainly full ceiling height but, built originally in a valley between the hills, are now 60-80 feet below the present ground level. In Rome I also got to the Opera House to see recreations (choreography, costumes, sets) of the original Nijinski/Fokine Petruska, Jeux, L’Après Midi d’un Faun and Firebird.
I returned to KAFS, based at Faversham, in August for four days with several of the Rome party, digging in a muddy field, uncovering Roman foundations and potsherds – and (though not personally) an informal burial of a months-old infant: rewarding in itself and for the enjoyable evenings we had together.
At the start of September I had a week in Crete with Lindsay, borrowing brother Geoff’s house at Plaka, a village along the coast from Chania. We did not do a great deal – lots of reading, good tavernas and swimming off the rocks – plus trips to Knossos, to the south coast over the mountains to Chora Sfakion, and to the west coast to Falassarna which has a latish archaeological site open to all-comers.
My role as president of EHF has involved seven trips to Brussels plus one each to Strasbourg, Turin, Warsaw, and Berlin, as well as hours at my desk, currently re-writing the EHF website. In fact the meetings are the easy part: the problems lie in dealing with endless e-mails to keep in touch with developments and steering a course through the ambushes set by the widely different views of our member organisations! It is not only that there is a (broadly) north-south divide between the Catholic countries, where our members are largely pre-occupied with breaking free of the iron grip of the Vatican, and the Protestant areas where the notion of Humanism as a positive non-religious lifestance has developed to provide an alternative for those for whom religion is no longer an option. As well, there is a divide between the countries where the aim is total separation of religion and politics (the French kid themselves they have achieved it and will learn nothing from anyone else!) and those where the state is neutral but supports all the main beliefs indifferently – at least in theory. Thus, in the Netherlands, for example, the Catholics, Lutherans and Humanists all receive large subsidies from the state and indeed carry out various state functions on its behalf (e.g., overseas aid). Similar arrangements are found in Belgium, Norway and parts of Germany.
With a six-year battle now lost to stop treaty arrangements being made for privileged channels of consultation and dialogue between the EU institutions and the churches and other such groups – ourselves nominally included – the EHF is now divided over how far we should take up the opportunity offered for meetings with the president of the Commission and for subsidised colloquia. The churches are already exploiting them fully – with regular meetings several times a year with the Commission, Council and Parliament presidents and (I quote) ‘seminars which the European Commission has been arranging for years on fundamental issues with church representatives in Brussels’ – and want more, as the president of the council of European Catholic bishops COMECE has said very clearly. We have therefore decided – not without a struggle – that we need to use the same provisions as the churches to ensure that our message also is put across. (Our opposition to the provisions is based on the principle that bodies such as EHF and the churches should be treated just like any other NGO (non-governmental organisation), not given privileged access that disregards the unrepresentative character of the church hierarchy.)
So, in July I led an EHF deputation of six to meet Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and to try with some but far from total success to prevent him beguiling away our hour with anecdotes and reminiscences! We did manage to make a number of points, and we are to have an EU-subsidised seminar next spring which he will (he says) open.
Apart from Board meetings, I have also been going to Brussels to contribute to meetings of the European Parliament’s all-party working group on separation of religion and politics. This is chaired by the feisty young Dutch MEP Sophie in’t’ Veld (featured on a recent Radio 4 programme) and meets monthly when the Parliament is sitting. At one meeting we launched the ‘Brussels Declaration’ – a riposte in advance to Angela Merkel’s planned Berlin Declaration for the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, in which (she made no secret of it) she wished to incorporate a claim that Europe’s values were essentially Christian. In the end her declaration became a damp squib, but the Brussels alternative, prepared by a small group including Muslim, Catholic and humanist members (it was started by the humanists), gained huge numbers of signatures, originally from academics, politicians and commentators and later from the public, all across Europe. I spent weeks seeking signatures from prominent UK figures and got over 130. The Declaration is backed by a longer exposition, A Secular Vision for Europe, which I commend strongly to you. (For both see http://www.values4europe.org.)
(The EHF itself marked the Treaty of Rome anniversary with a rather grandiloquent booklet The European Dream which we launched this at a press conference in Brussels – another trip there! I wrote a preface and translated the principal essay from the French: my French comes on, helped during much of the year by weekly conversation classes with my friend Hélène.)
We held our annual General Assembly in Turin in June – a productive meeting with a good one-day conference attached, followed by the two-day general assembly of the International Humanist and Ethical Union. I travelled by train and took the opportunity of seeing Turin’s marvellous Egyptian museum and a visiting exhibition of treasures from Afghanistan – gold and ivory with Silk Road cross-cultural motifs from Greece and China and India! – and of having a day in Genoa with my ex-lodger friend Antonia, who lives nearby at La Spezzia.
Then in September we went again to Warsaw for the annual meeting fo the OSCE Office of Human Rights & Democratic Institutions that I described last year. This meeting brings together governments, the Council of Europe and NGOs, with the latter generally complaining about abuses by governments, who in turn protest their innocence. The NGOs range from respected organisations such as Amnesty to bizarre ones like the Raelians (“My name is Princess Loona and I believe that human scientists from another planet created all life on earth using DNA”) – who nevertheless have genuine persecutions to complain about.
If anything, this year was even more successful for EHF than last, with a good side meeting, some useful lobbying of diplomats about what OSCE should be doing, and clear signs that our interventions were welcomed by many delegates. We intervened in all four relevant sessions. I warned against political Islam and against the pusillanimous reaction of many western liberals to its demands, including immunity from “defamation”. This provoked a rebuke in the next session from the official rapporteur for Islamophobia who in a departure from his prepared text warned that “confusing criticism and defamation is an error – they are quite different things”; and the Holy See delegate among others also demanded protection for religion: “mocking and undermining Christianity is against religious freedom – a subversive attempt to undermine freedom and tolerance”. I therefore changed my next intervention (on church privileges in European states) to warn against such demands: “human rights belong to individuals, not to institutions or religions, and attempts to extend human rights to religion itself and to religious institutions are a false and dangerous development that is to be resisted.”. These interventions brought private congratulations from several delegates, including from some governmental delegates and several ODIHR staff.
Meantime my work for the British Humanist Association has not slackened off! Internally, we have had productive board meetings on strategy and fraught meetings about the organisation of our ceremonies service (herding cats has nothing on trying to organise freelance officiants!) I’ve been involved in short-listing and interviewing four times for three new posts (the chosen candidate for one strung us along and then turned us down) – we are, you will see, expanding, as is our membership. Fundraising continues to be a problem but will be a key focus next year – or else we shall be in big trouble! We are preparing a new (replacement) main website and a new (additional) website for schools – both due soon. I’ve been to numerous day conferences and evening meetings on topics we are engaged in (constitutional reform, the idea of a Bill of Rights, multiculturalism, education etc) and to our usual three lectures for Darwin (12 February), Voltaire (20 April) and Bentham (20 November), all of them with good audiences in academic settings in London. The Humanist Philosophers’ Group published a booklet defending the idea of a secular (=neutral) state which was launched at a meeting at the Royal Society of Arts. I generally manage to say something at all these meetings! I’ve not had so many speaking engagements this year, though: three in schools and five others (including one in Newcastle which allowed me to visit the Baltic – wonderful space, strange transgressive exhibits – and see the wonderful Sage Music Centre, and one in Dublin, a first visit: I managed to see something of the city and visit the national gallery and museum). On a single day in June I represented the BHA at a meeting in Parliament of the Foreign Policy Centre on multiculturalism at 2 pm, spoke to the Parliamentary Humanist Group about the European picture at 4 pm, and represented the BHA at a meeting at 6 pm with the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Asma Jahangir (excellent woman, recently under house arrest in Pakistan).
BHA ‘political’ campaigning has continued all year. We now have a small team working on it – three staff as well as Hanne (the Chief Executive), but one of them also covers all our educational work and another is on a short-term contract. We think we have won a battle over the question on religion to be asked in the 2011 Census – partially at least – after many submissions and two or three meetings with the census team at the Office for National Statistics.
The subject that has most pre-occupied me during the year, however, has been charity law. We lost our battle in Parliament for the head of charity ‘advancement of religion’ to be extended to include non-religious beliefs: the Government dug in their heels for reasons that we are unable to fathom since in many ways the concession would have been no more than symbolic, since the Human Rights Act already requires that officialdom does not discriminate between religions and non-religious beliefs. Now we have moved on to the implementation phase. One change in the law is the removal of the presumption that educational and religious charities are for the public good, and the Charity Commission are consulting on what ‘public good’ means (given the thin but established case law). I wrote a response which anticipated a further consultation, still to come as I write, specifically about religious charities, and it caught the eye of the Commission people who asked us to a meeting. When they then showed themselves concerned about the legal definition of ‘religion’ (in common law it requires a supreme being – but the new Act specifically includes religions with no gods; it requires worship – but how to worship if you have no god? and it requires proselytising – but some religions don’t go out trying to convert others) we jumped in to say that they did not need to distinguish religions, only ‘religions and [non-religious] beliefs’.
They were immediately interested and asked us to submit further ideas, and so I prepared a long, closely argued paper for them, full of case law and obiter dicta, which seems to have impressed them: when they asked for another meeting to discuss it, they fielded a member of the Commission as well as the departmental head we had previously met. What happens in the end is far from settled and there will be a lot more work to do yet.
What else has been occupying my time? Well, I’ve had huge hassles over my computer (the old one grinding to a halt, and the powerful replacement not working properly), and with the central heating (had to replace the boiler in October). I’ve been involved a bit with protests over Hackney Council’s planning policies (public meetings and objection letters over a plan to impose lower standards on this neighbourhood than elsewhere for domestic extensions – the result of lobbying by Hasidic councillors purportedly to assist with housing their exceptionally large families, but we suspect actually to favour the property developers among them who are constantly buying big houses, extending, sub-dividing and selling them off).
I have continued to do my half-day a week at the Museum of London. They are partially closed for redevelopment of half their galleries, which meant some special work to prepare for paintings coming off display into store, but mainly I’ve been continuing with cataloguing prints and drawings. An irritating security scare early in the year means that under new tighter procedures I no longer have access to the print room unescorted, but it makes little difference in practice. I’ve also continued giving (rather less than) a day a month to the Development Office (fundraising) at the National Theatre – mainly a matter of database and other fairly routine work but I also helped out at a fundraising dinner (£600 a plate!) at the Roundhouse in March when they raised about £750,000 in an evening! We volunteers get free seats for the ‘staff nights’ at previews of new productions: I’ve been to a couple, but usually book up for later dates when the production has ‘settled down’. You bump into people in the canteen – last week Simon Russell-Beale and Zoe Wanamaker were at the table next to me, having just started rehearsals for Much Ado.
Lindsay continues to live here, much to my satisfaction. He and Sam have had success with their film of the Romanian orphanages: it was selected for the Human Rights Watch film festival in London (two well attended showings in March), then for the HRW New York festival (they flew Linds and Sam over for a week) and for the HRW touring festival round the USA. The film attracts praise wherever it is shown.
But they are now totally absorbed in trying to set up their next documentary. They have met a 80-year-old man, Thomas, born in Hungary and caught up as a teenager in the Nazi occupation. Jewish, he was ‘hiding in the open’ and passing for a gentile. He had numbers of adventures and narrow escapes (his family bar his mother died in Auschwitz) including being arrested and escaping and being recruited as an interpreter by a member of the SS. Linds and Sam want to bring him back from Australia (where he now lives) to tell his story in the places where it happened (they have checked that most of the significant buildings are still there). He is a good raconteur and an interesting person – he married six times and made and lost a fortune in private gyms (he starts each day with 50 pull-ups and 50 press-ups!) and is very keen on the project.
So Linds and Sam went out to Spain to meet Thomas when he was there in the spring and made hours of recordings from which they worked up ‘treatments’ on which they worked hard and consulted Thomas in detail. Linds more recently spent nearly three weeks in Australia filming Thomas so that they could produce quasi-trailers to help them raise some money to make the film. Money for ‘authored’ documentaries is almost impossible to come by – but commissions for TV-format documentaries (even if Linds could bring himself to make one) never go to film-makers without a good track-record. So it is not easy . . .
Linds is also still working with Tom on their comics, especially Moochowski, but they have decided on a change of format – in future it will come not as a part-work (stretched over half a lifetime!) but as self-contained stories, longer, with more text (=jokes) and other changes that they hope will speed up production. Look for nothing, however, before early 2009!
The biggest family get-together of the year was, sadly, for the funeral of my aunt Vera, my mother’s brother Jack’s wife. My parents and Jack and Vera were a very close quartet from their teens before the war right through their lives: now they are all gone. My brother Geoff and I went to the funeral. Geoff stays the night here a few times a year when he visits clients in London (and wants to watch Crystal Palace the next day!) I had dinner with Kenneth and Diana when they were in town in March, and Diana and daughter Lucy visited in August. We all keep fairly closely in touch by e-mail. Malcolm in New Zealand has left his job to start up as a consultant; he and Regan have down-sized in Auckland and are planning to live more at their house on the Coromandel peninsula. I visited cousin Valerie at her new house in Witney in October (and had a blow-out on the motorway en route!): we went to the Pitt Rivers ethnographic museum in Oxford – an amazing survival of Victorian exhibiting practice, so that the principal exhibit is the museum itself! And so badly lit that they handed out wind-up torches to allow you to illuminate the hand-written labels – those of them that were not upside down or concealed under other exhibits!
Space presses, so I must skimp my accounts of my annual winter get-together in January (Stoppard’s Rock ’n’ Roll again, stunning Velasquez at the National Gallery, wonderful David Hockney portraits at the NPG, the Soane and Hunterian museums etc) with Tony and Phyllis from Derbyshire, Mike and Camilla from Sussex, and Sheila at her place in Ealing; of the same group’s annual summer re-union in July in Derbyshire (Donnizetti’s Roberto Devereux at the Buxton Opera, exhibitions in Sheffield, walks and dinners with other friends); of visiting Mike & Camilla with Sheila in October (pub lunch, walk on the Downs, shops in Alfriston, visit to Beachy Head and one of Mike’s excellent dinners); of The Barber of Seville at the Holland Park Opera with Sheila, Angus and Barbara – preceded by a gourmet picnic in the marquee (the weather was not clement); of being Sheila’s guest at Wimbledon – she has a pair of debenture tickets on the centre court (unexpectedly absorbing for one of the least sports-minded people on earth!); of two most enjoyable long weekends with friends Jim and Rachel at their cottage outside Southwold (Sunday afternoon chamber concerts, walks over heathland and along the shore, all too evidently being eroded by the sea, with expert tuition in bird-watching from Jim); of bridge evenings in overlapping foursomes plus another dinner at Rules restaurant on the proceeds of one foursome’s penalty payments (almost enough for the next one already in the kitty!); and of walks and encounters with other friends for lunches and dinners and drinks, and much else.
Save to mention that in Derbyshire I saw and later bought a large oil painting by a local but fine artist, Deborah Allitt, of nearby moorland, which she delivered to my door in August: it now hangs opposite the french windows where I can happily look at it at length. Which makes up slightly for my neglect of exhibitions this year: I just haven’t found the time. Apart from the Velasquez and Hockney, I went to see Kings and Citizens at the RA exhibition with Sheila in February, Hogarth at Tate Britain with Lindsay in March, Canaletto at Dulwich in April, Antony Gormley at the Hayward (don’t usually much take to him but the delicate stainless steel Matrices and Expansions, each trapping within itself the space of a human body – guess whose! – were fascinating), and the First Emperor at the British Museum with Sheila in September – a meagre haul though very high quality!
Theatre – usually with Sheila or Miranda – at least I did not allow to suffer from overwork: I’ve averaged once a fortnight through the year! I did not think much of Fiona Shaw’s Happy Days at the National – too relentlessly rushed when it is meant to be full of pauses and generally lacking in subtlety – but a few days later the unpromising material (four Irish drunks at Christmas visited by a Mephistophelean figure) of The Seafarer by Conor McPherson turned out both funny and dramatic and extraordinarily well acted: I think it is now doing well on Broadway. I very much enjoyed Man of Mode at the National – 1676 brought bang up to date, all Harvey Nicks and minimalist bars, played with enthusiasm by Tom Hardy, Rory Kinnear and Nancy Carroll. Then the NT scored again with Nicholas (Vincent in Brixton) Wright’s The Reporter, about Panorama reporter James Mossman investigating his own life and suicide, with Ben Chaplin in the lead role. Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman (Donmar, with a strong cast including Ian McDiarmid, Deborah Finlay, Penelope Wilton and David Burke) was a bleak late play with a calm resolution. Maggie Smith was superb in The Lady from Dubuque at the Theatre Royal – an odd, unbalanced piece by Edward Albee. I did not take to Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo at the NT – comedy was not his métier and Zoe Wanamaker seemed ill-cast though much praised. But the NT came up trumps again with Landscape with Weapon by Joe (Blue Orange) Penhall: good dialogue exploring the morality of government and big business in a tense and menacing story of the arms trade.
But if the year started well – these were all in the first four months – it continued weakly. I didn’t care for the sprawling story of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle at the NT, and Katie Mitchell’s Attempts on her Life also at the NT, was a messy impressionistic farrago that failed to build on the similar techniques she used in her rather good version of The Waves at the end of 2006. Rafta Rafta was fun but too evidently an Indian update of the old film The Family Way (itself from Bill Naughton’s All in Good Time); and The Five Wives of Maurice Pinder was self-indulgent and shallow. I did enjoy the NT’s imaginative adaptation (with Cornwall’s Knee-high company) of the old Powell and Pressburger film A Matter of Life & Death – though I wish I’d been at one of the nights when the decisive coin-toss on stage at the end produced an acquittal in the celestial trial. I scraped in to the last night at the Donmar of Pinter’s Betrayal: even from the side of the circle it was plain this was a wonderful production: Sam West, Toby Stephens and Dervala Kirwan were compelling.
Other good NT productions were Gorky’s Philistines (excellent cast including Rory Kinnear, Ruth Wilson and the splendid Phil Davis who has been in many of Mike Leigh’s films); Shaw’s St Joan in which everyone and everything was excellent – Anne-Marie Duff in the lead, Oliver Ford Davies as the Inquisitor, the music, the design, and Marianne Elliott’s direction; Pinter’s early The Hothouse – a mixture of Kafka and absurdism; Noel Coward’s still very funny Present Laughter with Alex Jennings in the lead; and their ‘family’ show War Horse set in the first World War which, despite an appallingly sentimental story, is a must-see for its superlative full-size horse puppets and fantastic staging.
I will mention also the compelling The Enchantment, an autobiographical play by Victoria Benedictsson, a Norwegian contemporary of Ibsen’s, about a woman whose obsessive but misplaced love for a philandering man drives her to suicide: chillingly, Benedictsson killed herself a week or so after finishing the play. Also Paterson Joseph’s tour de force in O’Neill’s Emperor Jones at the NT and Clifford Odets’ Rejoice & Sing at the Almeida with Stockard (West Wing) Channing in the lead – and lastly a new and very funny farce called On Your Honour at the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre in which Lindsay’s friend Sam’s sister Luciana Lawlor made her West End debut: look out for her – she’s going to be great!
Musically, apart from the Elias quartet and the Tallis chamber orchestra in Suffolk, and a Prom with Jim, Rachel and friends, I relied on local events – and very good too: friend Liz Webber was in the Hackney Singers for Beethoven’s Mass in C in April; wonderful local soprano (and daughter of humanist friend Jane Wynne Willson) Emma Dogliani sang in a recent concert that also included Shostakovich’s brooding first violin concerto; and one of the concerts in the National Trust’s Tudor Sutton House in Homerton (which Rachel helps organise) included the compelling Shostakovich piano quintet.
All of which leaves little room for this year’s books – but reading is what has suffered most from my overload of humanist work. The mere seventeen I managed are in retrospect an odd bunch! Christopher Hibbert’s The Marlboroughs was a readable personal biography of the couple with less detailed political background than one could have wished, though strong on the great battles – Blenheim, Ramillies, Oudenarde and Malplaquet. Despite the Duke’s huge contribution to the allied side in the War of the Spanish Succession, he displayed equivocal loyalties, keeping closely in touch with the exiled James II in case fortune changed sides, and he exercised considerable parsimony while extracting the maximum public subsidy for his grand palace at Woodstock. The book is strong on the sad unreasonable quarrels picked by Sarah in later life, especially with Queen Anne, her erstwhile close friend – they had corresponded intimately as Mrs Freeman and Mrs Morley.
The dreadful Piers Morgan’s The Insider was the extraordinary (reconstructed) diary of the editor first of the News of the World and then the Mirror – a staggering insight into the frantic life of a tabloid editor, with royalty, celebrities and politicians falling over themselves to confide in him – and usually getting immediately exposed in the paper! It is revealing of the ways Fleet Street works and the short cuts that sometimes lead to disaster – though Morgan was probably unfortunate to have got sacked over the allegedly faked Iraq abuse photos. What was most shocking was the constant courting by Blair, Brown and their entourages – and the way Downing Street did the dirty on the paper: for example, after the Mirror had the idea of an open letter from President Clinton urging acceptance of the Good Friday settlement in the pending referendum in Northern Ireland and had cleared the draft with the White House, Downing Street blatantly gave the whole thing to the Sun, which (having a longer print run) went to press earlier and so cut them out.
Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s Enigma told the story of the deciphering of the Enigma codes in the Second World War, starting from the sale of secrets by Hans Thilo Schmidt to the French from the early 1930s on and the early successes of the Poles in decoding Enigma (which they kept to themselves) and on to 1943 when reading Enigma was almost routine. What I had not realised was that the Germans felt so secure they ignored endless clues that their messages were being read – from inexplicable repeated interception of tankers refuelling their submarines to obvious targeting of coasters to seize code books. Nor did they realise even when Gustave Bertrand, the French secret service man who had handled Schmidt and knew everything, having with criminal negligence not only stayed in France after the occupation but played an active role in the Resistance, was arrested by the Gestapo – nor when Robert Lemoine, having also refused to leave France, turned traitor and betrayed Schmidt and his secrets in 1943. Nevertheless, the effort was prodigious (and well told by the author) and invaluable – when codes were temporarily unbroken it could be disastrous, as with the Russian convoy PQ17 (PQ, incidentally, used for east-bound Russian convoys, came from the initials of Admiralty planner Peter Quennell Russell).
The biography of Francis Crick by Matt Ridley (yes, he of the Northern Rock but also of the excellent book The Origin of Virtue) gave a short readable account of the seminal discovery of the double helix and a rather less clear one of the more extraordinary discovery of the genetic code (the science being more detailed). It made Crick’s character come alive – always needing for his best work a partner to bounce ideas off non-stop from lab to pub to home to lab, a genius at leaping to a clear conception of structures, living a full life of partying and holidays outside work but still voraciously reading the literature even in old age. Ridley suggests he resigned his fellowship at Churchill so as not to be distracted from a crucial phase of his work on the code by a sustained campaign against the proposed college chapel (for which Hugh Montefiore deliberately raised the money from Timothy Beaumont to ensure that even a science college had a chapel). Ridley interestingly rather discounts Rosalind Franklin’s work as technically excellent but uninspired, having more time for Maurice Wilkins.
Sandra Koa Wing’s Mass Observation was an absorbing series of extracts from the diaries volunteers kept for the organisation during the War. They were (not altogether surprisingly) unconcerned most of the time about the progress of hostilities. Some of them were plainly having the best time of their lives – including a land girl working all round the country in horticulture. The women often worried about what would happen when the men returned and took back their jobs. There is much detail about life in the shelters and excellent photographs, many of them unusual – one of them of a bomb site scattered with wooden notices on posts announcing where businesses and shops had relocated.
I managed more novels than usual – a sign of overwork and the need for something lighter? Forster’s early Where Angels Fear to Tread anticipated A Room with a View in its study of the effect of Italy and Italians on the hypocrisy, snobbery, and self-assuredness of the English middle classes. Very late, I caught up with Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man, a novel that so encapsulates the ’70s – acutely observed, hilariously recorded, with a measure of sympathy threaded through the scathing criticism. However, John le Carré’s The Mission Song was below par with too passive a central character.
The lamented Roy Porter’s London – A Social History is full of interesting detail – especially, I thought, on governance – the development of the City council through the parishes, the failure of the City to seek or gain control outside the square mile, so that it eventually became irrelevant to the overall conurbation, the slow emergence of the Metropolitan Board of Works and then the LCC (1889) and the boroughs (1899) and then the GLC – and its abolition by Thatcher, an extreme act in the long history of uneasy relations between central government and the capital. Porter wrote before Labour came to power in 1997 and ends with a jeremiad for London as the only western capital without its own governing body.
Lorna Gibb’s Lady Hester tells the story of Lady Hester Stanhope who went from being William Pitt’s trusted private secretary (she was his niece) to poverty after his death, and notoriety and scandal when she went travelling in the Mediterranean with male companions during the Napoleonic wars. She was an imperious woman: one can sympathise with her but not like her. She showed little understanding of others – her personal travelling doctor Charles Meryon was devoted to her but ruthlessly exploited in later years, the staff he engaged for her were mistreated, and she accepted the ways of the Middle East to the extent of owning slaves and condoning cruel punishments. She dressed in the clothing of an Arab man, dealt with powerful rulers on her own terms but finally played too dangerous a game and was isolated and abandoned. There was another side to her: she was devoted to her lover Michael Bruce even after he finally abandoned her under family pressure and returned to England, and she spent everything she had – and all the loans she could raise – taking in penniless refugees to her retreat at Joun (near Damascus). The book starts in a muddled way – her early life is skimped and her extraordinary family background told in confused flashbacks – but it becomes much better when she leaves England.
The only other book I will mention is James Tertius de Kay’s The Rebel Raiders – the story of how James Bulloch escaped to Liverpool, commissioned four warships on behalf of the southern Confederate states and got two of them out of Britain by subterfuge and bamboozling the British establishment – who were in fact quite happy to turn a blind eye when he framed legal excuses for them, since they saw Britain’s interests lying in the splitting of the USA into two less powerful nations. It continues with Raphael Semmes’ exploits as captain of the Alabama, wreaking havoc on the Northerners’ merchant shipping until he ran out of luck and was sunk in a duel with a US warship off Cherbourg; and with the post-war manoeuvres and long delayed negotiations in Geneva to settle British liabilities to the USA. It is extraordinary that, at the height of their sufferings owing to the blockade of the South, British cotton workers and the working class generally rallied strongly to the North and against their government’s Southern flirtation in order to support the cause of anti-slavery.
So that leaves only a tiny space for my annual good wishes to you and yours – apologies if I’ve not been in touch during the year and good resolutions for the new year may seem routine but they are nonetheless heartfelt.

2006 ————— 2008