It scarcely seems a year ago that I was writing my last Christmas letter – how (as they say) time flies. Partly a matter of age: how slowly it crawled in childhood – and partly a matter of being busy: I note that “scientists” (as they also say) have demonstrated this effect: in an experiment they found that the busier people had been doing a range of set tasks, the shorter the time they estimated they had taken (See http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/ 2004-08/uoa-spt080604.php.) So to justify my impression that it was only yesterday (well, a couple of months ago) that I signed off my last letter, I must demonstrate that I have been especially busy in 2008. It will not be difficult!
This year has in fact at times been desperately busy, with the European Humanist Federation dominating much of my time, mainly owing to temporary problems. The result has been fewer books, fewer exhibitions, no extended holiday – but just as much theatre: 35 visits in the year! But more of all that later.
After Christmas last year I joined a crowd of local friends for a week at Woody Bay, in north Devon, staying (as on several past occasions) at a large Victorian mansion, now divided into self-catering units, halfway down the high steeply sloping cliffs above a rocky bay where the beach appears only at low tide. The views are magnificent, especially as some trees have been cleared since we were there last. The mansion was built by a Victorian entrepreneur who constructed a jetty where for a few years steamers called bringing tourists (they must have been dismayed by the long climb to find any entertainment) until a storm brought down the jetty and the locals (with whom the entrepreneur was unpopular – he was later found to be a crook) demolished what was left. We had cliff-top and cross-country walks, ending in pub meals, and shared dinners back at the ranch, where we were the only guests, and saw the new year in together. The rain and snow failed to damp our spirits.
This was the first of several short breaks. At the end of August came four days of digging at the same site as last year near Faversham with the Kent Archaeological Field Service (a group of us took a couple of self-catering cottages, which was companionable). We exposed the chalk foundations of what may turn out to be an open-air auditorium in an extensive grouping of baths and temples). This was flanked by two weekends organised by KAFS: one in May on Hadrian’s Wall and the other in November in Bath. For the first, we had the benefit of the expert on Roman frontier fortifications, David Breeze, who provided the sort of commentary that brings alive a confusion of stone foundations and earth embankments; and he surprised us all by revealing that the landscape in which the wall was built was no frontier wilderness but agricultural land farmed already for 2000 years. So it was a serious obstruction to the social and economic life on north Britain – albeit it was probably more an administrative than a military barrier. The area is so rich in Roman archaeology it is amazing it is not better celebrated and visited – where else can you find the daily chit-chat of Roman life – gossip and invitations to birthday parties – but in the extraordinary wooden tablets excavated at Vindolanda? At South Shields we found in the drizzle the well-regarded reconstruction of the gate to the fort; at Wallsend we saw the wall end at the edge of the idle Swan Hunter shipyard, a stone’s throw from the Tyne, before discovering that the bread for our pre-ordered sandwiches for lunch was still in the freezer! At Bath, the weather was less clement, but the Roman baths at least were indoors – if that is the right word for excavations largely covered by a modern piazza: the well known open-air bath you see in photos is only a small part of the assemblage.
Then there was a long weekend in May at Angus and Barbara’s place near Avignon for a large gathering to celebrate his 70th birthday – I travelled by train with Sheila and we went also to see les Baux and Villeneuve lès Avignon. I spent a few days in August in Deal with Stoke Newington friends and others: we walked to Dover and next day a route down the Stour to Richborough, where (almost certainly) the Romans landed in 43 CE, and on to the wonderful mediaeval town of Sandwich, saved for us by its poverty when otherwise it would have been modernised and redeveloped.
Sheila, Tony & Phyllis and I managed three gatherings instead of two this year, part of the time with Mike and Camilla also – last year’s winter one was postponed. At the end of January we gathered at Sheila’s and took in the First Emperor exhibition at the BM, Henry Moore splendidly displayed in Kew Gardens, and David Hare’s The Vertical Hour. In the summer we were at Tony and Phyllis’s place in Derbyshire – trips to Quarry Bank Mill at Styal, Arkwright’s Cromford Mill, walks round Eyam and along Stanage Edge, dinners with friends, and two operas at the Buxton Festival (Dido and Aeneas and Handel’s Samson): every year we go, Roy Hattersley, who lives locally, is also there – does he go every night? – and this year Katherine (Cooking in a Bedsitter) Whitehorn, who is a friend of Sheila’s and whom I also know, was there too). Then we had our second winter gathering at Sheila’s place in Ealing last month, going to the Byzantium exhibition at the RA (wonderful objects, badly displayed), Renaissance Faces at the National Gallery, the Wallace collection and a special Osbert Lancaster exhibition there, plus Ivanov with Kenneth Branagh, and a day trip to Mike and Camilla’s under the Sussex Downs with a walk from Ditchling Beacon to the Jack and Jill windmills and the extraordinary mediaeval wall paintings in Clayton Church.
Not really a “short break” was my brief trip to Vancouver and then Baltimore before the triennial International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) congress in Washington DC. Vancouver was so that I could meet Henry and France (Laycock): they were having a few days off before he had a strenuous half-day session at a major philosophy conference there defending the revolutionary (in the world, that is, of philosophy) ideas in his Words without Objects – Semantics, Ontology, & Logic for Non-Singularity (OUP 2006) – well reviewed but not a light read: have a look at www.oup.com/uk/catalogue/?ci=9780199281718. We went inland to the Okanaga Valley, with its long lake surrounded by high hills and vineyards. We visited many wineries and sampled some really good wine, and at Lake Breeze had a delectable, lazy lunch in the sun looking out over the lake. The B&B place was beyond compare – we had our own dining and sitting rooms and garden with splendid views, and the breakfasts were works of inspired culinary art! Back in Vancouver we went to the ethnographic museum and the botanical gardens.
On my arrival in Vancouver, however, before meeting Henry and France, I had a day with my old school friend Alan Sanderson and his wife Rosalind – an occasion for reminiscence and catching up in parallel with exploration of the Vancouver coastline and city centre. In a park created from an old quarry there were crowds of celebrating high school “graduates” – boys in tuxedos and girls in long dresses squealing as they tottered around on unaccustomed high heels on the steep paths!
And after Vancouver I flew to Baltimore to have a day with Tom and Luciana – Sheila’s younger son and his wife – and baby. I had been to Ella’s (humanist) welcome ceremony in November 2007: now she was (just) walking. The Baltimore waterfront, where they live, is an attractive place, albeit the city has problems: there are little cobbled streets and squares and a sense of community. Tom is doing medical research on something to do with the way sensory nerves work at Johns Hopkins but is being courted with job offers by universities across the US.
I must move on – but not without the briefest mention of many encounters with friends for games of bridge, or a drink or a meal – for example, old family friends Peter and Helena from Toronto for lunch at the Riviera on the South Bank – good for summer views from its balcony but in need to a better chef; and a Coal Board reunion lunch with Peter, Phil, Gillian and Lesley – non-stop talk and reminiscence of the good old times combined with gratitude for a secure pension scheme!
Lindsay and friend Sam have been busy this year with the film (mentioned in my last letter) about Thomas Beck – you can read about it and see a trailer (designed for possible funders for its completion) on the web. Thomas now lives in Sydney. He is a larger than life character: eighty years old, he bounced off the plane at Heathrow at the end of May (the day before I left for Vancouver) dispensing bear-hugs and complaining that he’d been unable to do his daily exercises en route, and he produced a non-stop stream of anecdotes as we drove home. He was in Europe until October, staying in Spain with an ex-wife (he has several!). The filming was done in Hungary and Slovakia in August and September, but before that they engaged an assistant in each country and Linds made reconnaissance trips to both. Later, they went to Spain to do some voice-over recording with Thomas before he returned to Australia where they plan to go for further voice-overs and filming early in the new year. The film promises well: the footage I have seen is absorbing – including Thomas’s encounter for the first time in over 60 years with a best friend from school – and Thomas is a extraordinary man of great humanity with a remarkable story to tell of his survival as a teenager under first German occupation, then Russian and then German again.
The only trouble is getting the film financed. So far, their friends in the pop group Hot Chip have put up £10,000, but the outgoings have been about double that already. Even a sale to a major TV channel will not recoup the balance – it’s a mug’s game financially, until you get a breakthrough – and even then pretty unremunerative. So (happily for me) Linds continues to live here (he has the top floor). He is also pursuing his cartooning, though Moochowski has bitten the dust. He and friend Tom have a regular page in a music paper called Stool Pigeon and he has other plans too.
Family encounters have been mainly by email this year. I’ve visited both Ken & Diana and Geoff & Lin, whose daughter Kate came to stay for a few days in September, & niece Lucy (now doing an interpretation course and living in Islington) came to dinner. In Perth, Christina has had her fifth baby – Lucinda…
I have continued my half-day a week at the Museum of London and until recently (when time became too short) my day a month helping in the development office at the National Theatre, which I hope to resume next year. The former led to a special guided visit to the refurbished London Transport museum at Covent Garden (not enough buses!) and the latter to a fascinating morning discussing a redesign of some of their appeal literature with a group of NT volunteers ranging from office helpers like me up to high-powered fund-raisers with influential connections.
I started the year with a frozen shoulder, and it persisted, despite some physiotherapy and a couple of injections, till autumn – in fact, it is not totally recovered: but the experts say it is a self-limiting condition taking 12-18 months to clear up. The result was that the garden was almost totally neglected until late summer when word that the daughter of a friend of a friend was in the market for some jobbing gardening pending a professional gardening qualification led to Louise Alhadeff having so far spent three full days helping me – and me spending three almost full days in the garden that I should otherwise not have done! As a result it at least looks respectable, with reasonable hopes for next year. In the spring, however, I had pulled out a lot of overgrown iris from the pond and found that its liner was leaking and torn. In an extraordinary operation lasting only a morning three men from a pond maintenance outfit emptied the pond into a plastic holding tank, removed and repotted the plants, decanted the fish – 35 of them, of which half a dozen are a foot or 15 inches long, weighing up to 8 lb – and cleaned the pond out; put in a new liner, glued down the liner to the lip of the ‘waterfall’ via which the water circulates, re-connected the mains-linked top-up supply through the liner, refilled the pond with the retained water, returned the fish and the plants, cleared up and left!
Of course, most of my time has been spent on the British Humanist Association and the European Humanist Federation. I became president of the latter in 2006 and have been trying to pull it up by its bootstraps since then. This year has been particularly difficult, as for different reasons the 1.5 staff we are normally “lent” by the two Belgian member organisations (everything in Belgium is doubled – French- and Dutch-speaking!) have been unavailable for almost the whole year, on top of which our volunteer general secretary has announced his retirement and is continuing only in an acting capacity. Nevertheless, we have managed not too badly. We held a major one-day conference in Brussels in April to mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Manuel Barroso, the president of the Commission, spoke and the event was supported by the EU); and after our General Assembly in Athens we had another day-conference on the topic. Having a spare day in Athens was good – I visited the agora for the first time – but the event was a nightmare to organise as the Greek organisation that had agreed to do the local arrangements dropped out and I had to do most of it from London. I have been as before to several meetings in the European Parliament of its Working Group on Separation of Religion and Politics, and I was an invited speaker at an EU conference in November on intercultural dialogue – the representative from the Holy See was one of a panel to comment on my contribution!
We again went to the OSCE’s human rights meeting in Warsaw in October and attracted attention as before for our positive and principled contributions. At a side-meeting I spoke on the legitimate place of the church in the public arena, criticising in detail a recent speech by the Vatican secretary of state – the Holy See delegate said he would come but failed to turn up! More recently with a number of other EHF board members I went to a residential conference run by one of our German member organisations on beliefs and values education. I flew out to Hamburg with Andrew Copson (the BHA’s director of education and public affairs, who is on the EHF board). We had a cold but interesting day there before driving up to a unitarian conference centre (German unitarians, like those in the US, are in reality humanists) in a village in Schleswig-Holstein (famed for Palmerston’s quip “Only three people understood the Schleswig-Holstein Question. The first was Albert, the Prince consort, and he is dead; the second is a German professor, and he is in an asylum: and the third was myself – and I have forgotten it.” It had to do mainly with Danish territorial claims.) The conference brought out yet again the variety of ways of thinking and organising such education, a real problem for the EHF in formulating any general policy – but this is important as the EU is deliberately and increasingly involving itself in educational matters.
The EHF also took me to Paris in October for a meeting with the IHEU to discuss our division of labour, and to Berlin (at the end of last year after my last letter) and to Geneva (in June) for residential meetings of an informal but high-powered organisation called Focus on FoRB (freedom of religion or belief). This is attended by human rights academics and practitioners from across the world, including the EU Fundamental Rights Agency and the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (a body relatively independent of the administration). Our participation was welcomed.
I have also drafted several papers for the EHF responding to consultations – on public service broadcasting (endangered by EU competition policy), on the proposed EU anti-discrimination directive (potentially dangerous as it touches religion since it is likely – as with the UK’s Equality Act of 2006 – to enshrine in law extensive exemptions for religious organisations and thereby increase religious discrimination rather than diminish it), and the UN High Commission for Human Rights on the insistent and dangerous proposal from states in the Organisation of the Islamic Conference for defamation of religion to be treated as a breach of human rights in international law: they have several times got resolutions adopted on this in the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly. It would give “human” rights to ideas and organisations and seriously infringe freedom of speech.
Another preoccupation this year has been creating a totally new website for the EHF, still not complete after some technical hold-ups but infinitely better than before. I had to write it all (bar, obviously, the pre-existing material) and I have started posting developments as they happen on the site, including its News page. See www.humanistfederation.eu.
By contrast, going to the IHEU Congress in Washington was a holiday! I was one of the BHA’s delegates, with little in the way of duties other than listening to interesting speakers and taking part in discussions. On the last day before flying home some of us went in the sweltering heat to the Smithsonian gallery to see some marvellous paintings.
The BHA has seen some interesting developments this year – including realising that we need to raise a lot of money fast or else go bust. But we have a better Board than for many years, and the ‘atheist bus’ episode has shown that there is a new constituency ‘out there’ that we have not previously contacted. And we need to cultivate our wealthy supporters – something we have been bad at so far. (If you’ve not read about it – and it was reported across the world – an attempt in October, provoked by the widespread Alpha course ads and some hellfire material on their linked website, it aimed to raise £5,500 through the JustGiving website so that, with matching funds from Richard Dawkins, we could put some adverts on London buses (‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life’) but it produced the required total in two hours and went on to raise (including gift aid) £150,000 so far – and it continues: another £120+ has come in today as people make small donations just so as to exchange jokes and comments with each other! See http://www.justgiving.com/atheistbus. Though it comes to the BHA, all the money has to be spent on adverts on buses (and trains) throughout Britain – starting in January. Take a look at www.justgiving.com/faithschools too!)
We have now got good relations with several lawyers who are willing to give us free advice and act for us pro bono, and we have begun to take legal action where it seems useful. We were frustrated by total success in an industrial tribunal case: we had wanted to establish a point of law, but that required the case to go to appeal, and we won so comprehensively that the other side decided not to appeal. This was a case where a religious charity providing local authorities with services for adults with learning disabilities was moved by the exemptions for religious organisations in the Employment Equality regulations to start requiring all its staff to be evangelical Christians. A manager who was told he could not promote or appoint qualified staff who were not Christian enough, even if the alternative was to appoint unqualified staff, came to us for advice, and we financed his case. Sadly our monitoring shows that the charity, Prospects, appears to be continuing its practice despite losing the case, and we have asked the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to intervene.
This practice is not unusual: we are finding that very many religious charities are extending the range of posts they require to be filled by Christians and engaging in religious activities with their clients even when they are acting on behalf of local authorities to deliver statutory services. We have so far failed to get the Government even to recognise the problems: Hazel Blears at the Department of Communities and Local Government is so besotted with the virtues of religion that her department barely acknowledges our existence: when we get a meeting, it ends in frustration, and the DCLG persists in talking only of ‘faith’ communities, ignoring a Parliamentary committee’s recommendation to use inclusive language as required by the Human Rights Act, under which non-religious beliefs have equal standing with religion. At least we won a small grant from the EHRC to run four regional day-conferences for public sector employers and others on the problems of clashes of rights over religion or belief in employment law and practice: I’m off to the chair part of the second in Manchester next week. We continue to be deeply involved in all equality and non-discrimination developments.
Meantime the Government continues to dish out millions to religious groups – Christians and Muslims especially – under the cloak of ‘community cohesion’. In the last two months, Blears has given £1.3 mn to Muslim groups and announced a £4 mn fund for religious groups, the Lottery has given £950,000 to the Faithworks organisation to “strengthen the infrastructure of faith groups on the ground” and the Ministry of Justice has given £2.3 mn to religious groups to do work with offenders (without any evidence that they are any more effective than anyone else). This has been going on for three or four years.
In another legal case we had to back down: we wanted to judicially review the QCA (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) over their refusal to allow Humanism to be studied for a religious education GCSE (in line with the official guidelines that Humanism should be included in RE), but there were problems over what they had technically (rather than effectively) decided. At least we are very fully involved in an overdue review of the official DCSF guidance on RE – but the review still excludes the requirement for collective worship.
In another case we wanted to judicially review the Office of National Statistics, who had led us up the garden path over the 2011 census question on religion. The question was introduced at the last minute in 2001 under pressure from politicians who wanted to know how many Muslims there were in the country. It asked “What is your religion?” (not “Do you have a religion? If so, what is it?”) and did so in a context of questions about ethnicity. Hence the 70% Christian result that has been incessantly quoted ever since. The ONS agreed in friendly meetings with us that the question was unsatisfactory and said they would test another for 2011. But the question they tested was rejected, apparently on the grounds that it revealed that many Sikhs were not religious and so failed to provide a full total of Sikhs as required! So they have decided to re-use the same 2001 question. Our court action was frustrated by their contention (which our lawyers accepted) that their decision is only a recommendation to Parliament: our only recourse is to fight it there. We shall!
As I write we are about to have a meeting with the BBC (sought for years if not decades) to ask for some humanist broadcasting. Don’t hold your breath! I have also again been deeply involved in questions of charity law as the Charity Commission has produced consultation papers on how to test the public benefit delivered by, first, religious charities and then those “advancing [non-religious] moral or ethical belief systems” (surprisingly, as this is not a recognised category of charity: humanist charities have to qualify under some other head). Their papers are of an appallingly low standard: muddled, ambiguous, legally dubious. I have had fun taking them apart, but it has all taken a lot of work. I did, however, get called to give oral evidence on the subject to the Commons Public Administration Committee: Paul Flynn MP later blogged that I “spoke with clarity and precision”, whereas one Christian witness “preached at us with an evangelical fervour” and the other was “fluent in the babbling non-speak of verbal ectoplasm”!
By the way, if you are at all in doubt how much in thrall the authorities are to anything religious, then look at http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/server/show/nav.19819 which is a consultation on a claim by the (full-time) Reburial Officer of the Council of British Druid Orders that some ancient human remains excavated in the Avebury area, rather than being scientifically studied, should be handed over to the Druids for reburial with full religious rites. Over a period of 20 months English Heritage and the National Trust have had seven meetings with the Druids to assess their claim before putting it out for consultation. Remember, these ‘Druids’ are a 19th century invention: next to nothing is known of the ancient religion they lay claim to. But English Heritage and the National Trust are not to blame: they are taking seriously some appalling guidance produced by the DCMS a few years ago that, in reasonable penitence for the slaughter of Australian aborigines whose bodies were shipped off to museums ‘back home’, drew far too little distinction between the bones of those deceased in living memory or not long before and those of whom no-one knows anything at all. If you have views on the Druid claim, send them to AveRebCons@english-heritage.org.uk before the end of January!
I must reduce the rest of my humanist year to a list in order to save trees: we are examining how best to fight the use of the Arbitration Act to introduce, as favoured by Rowan Williams, shari’a law into the UK (the Act is fine for arbitration between willing equals, but shari’a counts women as only half-humans and they are too easily dragooned into informal religious tribunals). We had a memorial meeting for the educational psychologist Dr James Hemming, a wonderful man who pioneered much of our work on moral and religious education and died aged 97 on Christmas Day last year. We had our usual sell-out audiences for our Darwin, Bentham and Voltaire lectures. I prepared our lengthy response to Ofcom’s consultation on the difference between citizens and consumers – two groups whose interests they have a statutory duty to protect: they have hitherto treated ‘citizens’ as a mere variety of consumer, a failing I had been chasing them on for years. I went to numerous meetings and lectures – by Rowan Williams, David Cameron, Michael Wills and others – for the BHA. And I continued to be on the board of the Rationalist Association, which publishes New Humanist – increasingly successful in all ways except financially!
I also took on rather more speaking engagements than in recent years – including a Rotary Club and the Eastbourne branch of the European Movement, who turned out 80+ people for a dinner meeting! They were amazed at some of what I told them about the way religion is feather-bedded in Europe and privileged in the EU. I gave the same talk to a fringe meeting at the Lib-Dem conference, went to several local humanist groups and three schools. I also helped the Scripture Union launch a bible website! They wanted a hook to get local radio stations to give them interviews and so asked the BHA to debate with them: I sat in a studio all day with their spokesman and politely undermined their case!
So that brings me to exhibitions, music, theatre and books. As I said at the start, exhibitions have lost out this year as the volume of EHF work mounted, but I got to the BM with Sheila for both their major transformations of the Reading Room: the First (Chinese) Emperor and Hadrian. The former was especially absorbing, including as it did numbers of the famous terracotta warriors that you could inspect close up – and a modern reproduction of one painted brilliantly as they all were originally – a link here with Hadrian since Greek and Roman statues were also originally painted, which seems utterly wrong to us with our inauthentic admiration for white marble. I also went with Sheila to the Bacon exhibition at the Tate Britain before going to the opening of the Chris Beetles 2008 Illustrators exhibition; and we are off to Babylon at the BM next week.
Music, apart from the operas at Buxton, mainly had local connections. For years Farquhar McKay, who bought the house in Allerton Road when I moved here, has been organising his vastly entertaining annual Opera Cabarets where accomplished young local singers in full evening rig sing arias to piano accompaniment with humorous compering from one of them while the audience sit at candle-lit trestle tables, sip wine, and in the interval dine from their own picnics. The events raise money for charity. The latest was not long after my last letter. Then there was a song recital in the NT’s Hackney property, Sutton House, and later a concert performance in St John Smith Square of Handel’s Semele, both with Emma Dogliani, a wonderful singer who happens to be the daughter of a long-time humanist friend – I’m listening as I write to a CD of hers! Among other things, and more recently, there was the Hackney Singers’ performance of Rossini’s strange Petite Messe Solennelle, in which friend and ex-neighbour Liz takes part. Quite differently, I went with Miranda to the O2 to hear the amazing Leonard Cohen – poetry and music combined to deliver a humanist vision of personal life.
To the theatre – but selectively! Ian McKellen’s Lear for the RSC was universally praised but not nearly so much fun as Simon Russell-Beale (“S R-B” as they call him in the NT Development Office!) and Zoe Wanamaker in a magic Much Ado at the National – I saw it twice, as also a very fine Major Barbara with S R-B again and the wonderful Clare Higgins (who was Jocasta in Oedipus recently, opposite Ralph Fiennes, and whom Sheila & I saw in an NT Platform where she interestingly applied her training as a psychotherapist – undertaken after her great success in Vincent in Brixton a few years ago – to the role of Jocasta). SR-B and Higgins were paired again at the NT in a short play by Pinter, A Slight Ache. Olivia Williams in Happy Now? (NT) gave a fine portrait of a marriage under strain. In Never So Good Jeremy Irons took us through Harold Macmillan’s life from school to resignation. Howard Brenton had planned a demolition of the last Victorian Prime Minister but ended up admiring him. Two short performances at the NT were good value: Vanessa Redgrave explored bereavement in Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and her brother Corin was Oscar Wilde in De Profundis – his condemnatory but addicted gaol letter to Bosie. Another excellent offering at the NT – though an imported production – was The Pitmen Painters which told the story of the Ashington group, all working miners, who started painting when a WEA lecturer decided that academic lectures were not going to succeed with them. It returns in the new year – recommended. David Hare’s Gethsemane (currently at the NT) is never less than enjoyable, sometimes tense, but adds little to received thinking about the state of Labour under Blair. Lastly in my selection from the National’s offerings, another play I went twice to see: Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy, with rising star Rory Kinnear in the lead: a dark exploration with eloquent language, fast moving action, a great set and effective use of music – both set and music combining modern and period styles.
The Almeida is an excellent theatre and conveniently near home. I went four times, always with Miranda: Pinter’s The Homecoming was as usual powerful and enigmatic; The Last Days of Judas Iscariot promised more than it delivered; but Harley Granville Barker’s political drama Waste was decidedly worth reviving and had a very fine set – as did In a Dark Dark House, the new play by Neil la Bute that stirred up the dangerous past in two brothers’ lives.
Elsewhere the revival of Dealer’s Choice by Patrick Marber was funny and dramatic; the Donmar’s revival of Enid Bagnold’s The Chalk Garden was an interesting period piece, and Kenneth Branagh got better and better as Ivanov took shape in the second half.
Lastly, to books. I started the year with Karen Armstrong’s The Bible – The Biography – a short book (230 pp) in which she moves rapidly from the Babylonian exile to the 20th century, surveying the successive and widely differing ways of reading the Torah/Bible, with only brief glances at its textual history. Interestingly, it was only with the destruction of the Temple that the Torah assumed central and sacred importance for Jews: previously the ritual of Temple was their means of access to God. The role of midrash (interpretation of the scripture) was rarely if ever to discern the true meaning of the original author: instead, it was to dig out meanings relevant to the problems of the day. The same was true of the Christians once the second coming failed to arrive, and by the third century Origen already had a three-fold way of reading the texts: first, the literal, surface meaning; second, the moral lessons being taught; and (when the literal meaning was impossibly obscure or repulsive) an allegorical meaning, found even at the expense of extreme violence to the literal meaning (thus, when Abraham sold his wife Sarah to Pharaoh, pretending – as if that made it more acceptable – that she was his sister, Sarah represented virtue and Abraham was wanting to spread virtue around rather than keep it for himself!). With Luther the wish to see the Old Testament as a series of predictions of the coming and career of Christ became dominant. Karen Armstrong shows vividly how the Bible has been interpreted to support opposing vested interests (for example, both slave-owning and emancipation), and ends with a chapter rehearsing again the theme of her The Battle for God of how literalist, fundamentalist interpretation is a modern phenomenon, a reaction against the threat of modern scholarship which casts so much doubt on the origin and validity of the texts. Later in the year I read her Islam: A Short History – clear on the first 300 years of bloody struggles. At the end of the year I read AC Grayling’s little book Against All Gods – a very short collection of newspaper articles that could have done with editing out the repetition and amplification of the thinking, but with compelling and clearly expressed sentiments. Far better value is Austin Dacey’s The Secular Conscience whose sub-title says it all: why belief belongs in public life: if religion is allowed to shelter behind the veil of total privacy as a matter of conscience only then it is protected and not open to scrutiny, its most outrageous claims are privileged free from criticism. Freedom of belief should free belief for, not from, examination on the basis of moral standards – the objectivity of which Dacey strongly defends. This is a valuable and interesting book that I intend to re-read.
I caught up belatedly with Jared Diamond’s Collapse. Comparable in sweep with his Guns, Germs and Steel, it is an insightful and persuasive study of why societies collapse but could better have been 100 pages shorter. He is compelling on how societies drift into self-destructive behaviour, less so (sadly) on how the human race as a whole can change its present suicidal course: the chapter on “Reasons for Hope” is mainly reasons for despair. Shall we end up extinct like the Norsemen in Greenland, with ways to rescue ourselves only too obvious but which we are culturally unable to accept?
Charles Nichol spoke at an NT Platform about his book The Lodger – Shakespeare on Silver Street, a fascinating study of Jacobean London based on the evidence Shakespeare gave in a case brought by his one-time landlord’s son-in-law against the landlord, Christopher Mountjoy, over his failure to pay an agreed dowry. The book takes in a wide sweep of life – the fabric of London (Mountjoy lived in a corner house near Cripplegate and close to where the Museum of London now stands); the theatre; the Mountjoys’ trade of ‘tire-making’ – tires (the word is linked with ‘attire’) were elaborate decorative headgear worn at court and by the demi-mondaines; the immigrant community (the Mountjoys were French); the lowlife (the son-in-law was no angel); marriage customs (‘hand-fasting’ made a legal marriage); and the ubiquitous Dr Simon Forman, astrologer and physician. It is thoroughly researched from the plentiful contemporary records and absorbingly well written.
Moving on three-quarters of a century, one comes to The Plot Against Pepys by James and Ben Long: the intriguing story of how Samuel Pepys ended up in the Tower in 1679 and in grave danger of his life when he was seen as too close to Charles II’s brother James at the time of the Exclusion Crisis. The accusation was built on his assistant Will Hewer’s having accompanied his friend Anthony Deane the shipwright to Paris to deliver two small boats as a gift from Charles to Louis XIV. Pepys was and remained loyal to James II even after 1688 so that he was in difficulty even though the charges were unfounded – but his problems were compounded by the involvement in the plot of an extraordinary unscrupulous serial con man and pretender, ‘Colonel’ John Scott, (worth a book in himself!) whose evidence had to be disproved. Pepys from his cell organised with eventual last-minute success a series of enquiries, commissioning often reluctant friends and relatives to travel to France and the Low Countries. The book is meticulously researched and documented but still reads as a gripping story of adventure and detection.
Move on a few decades and we reach The House by the Thames. Gillian Tindall, who wrote the fascinating local history of Kentish Town, The Fields Beneath, has here researched and described the history of Bankside, focussing on 49 Bankside, an early 18th century house that has survived in between Tate Modern and Shakespeare’s Globe. She takes it from the time when a single row of houses stood between the river and fields and marshes, (at which time the site of the house was occupied by an inn and brothel called the Cardinal’s Hat – commemorated in the name of the alley beside the house: Cardinal Cap Alley) through the rise and fall of the river trades – watermen, lightermen, coal traders – and up to the vicissitudes of the 20th century, when the house was restored and a fashionable resort, owned at one time by a film star, and then fell during the war into the worst dereliction ever, only to be restored again as the relics of industrial Bankside yielded to revival as a tourist attraction.
Fifty years after the house was built and thrills of horror and revulsion were running through society. The Black Hole – Money, Myth and Empire is Jan Dalley’s interesting account of the facts behind the largely mythical story of the Black Hole of Calcutta – the reckless and complacent mishandling by the local East India Company officials of a dangerous situation when a hothead succeeded as the local nawab representing the distant Mogul emperor. Few come out of the story with credit, with incompetence and shortsightedness offset only by the extraordinary bravery of a few in the unnecessary battles. Many of the facts have been lost beyond retrieval – for example, how many were confined in the ‘black hole’ – a pre-existing name for a large prison cell at one side of the courtyard in the decaying fort – and how many died. The original memorial was lost, and a new one put up after decades by Lord Curzon that bought fully into the myth was moved after Indian independence to a suburban cemetery.
A century later and similar thrills and speculation were focussed on a murder in Wiltshire. The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is Kate Summerscale’s page-turning account of the investigation of the notorious murder of a young child at Road Hill House in 1860, based on thorough research about the case and the background. The case strongly influenced the future of the ‘country house’ detective story where the culprit has to be one of the residents and Jonathan Whicher, the senior Scotland Yard detective, was the model for Inspector Bucket in Bleak House. The case was unsolved at the time but years later the culprit confessed and subsequent events showed that Whicher was right in his further surmises about a collaborator.
Alistair Campbell’s The Blair Years – his diaries from 1994 to 2003 – describe his work for Tony Blair in opposition and in government. He claims the selections are unedited, but he has an odd way of often using the past tense as if writing history. The diaries reveal an extraordinarily close relationship which he was nevertheless plainly anxious to bring to an end long before he actually quit: Blair found him indispensable and he stayed even after his partner Fiona Millar quit working for Cherie Blair. Campbell was plainly far more intimate with Blair than any ordinary communications manager: his role was as a very close policy and personal adviser, involved in everything from policy to summit meetings. He tells of his own informal exchanges with Clinton and Bush, of the political sins and incompetence of cabinet members, of Blair’s inability to deliver a key speech (such as to the Labour Party conference) without first getting into a panic and going through a dozen drafts till late into the small hours – even on one occasion when the draft was patently excellent at an earlier stage. He is scathing about Carole Caplin and sometimes about Cherie Blair, and has no time at all for Clare Short: ineffective, wearing her conscience on her sleeve and unable to accept Cabinet collective responsibility. Campbell appears at root to have been friends with Peter Mandelson, whose feud with Gordon Brown is a constant feature of life in No 10: Blair’s own difficulties with Brown are much less apparent.
Space runs out: but I must mention Mary Warnock’s A Memoir: a short autobiographical sketch followed by a series of fascinating portraits of people – such as, especially, Philippa Foot and Elizabeth Anscombe in their days as Oxford philosophers before I was aware of them (and went to Foot’s moral philosophy lectures); and Katharine Whitehorn’s Selective Memory which is a very engaging memoir packed full of anecdotes. It shows her as a feisty and engaging character – which of course she is – and takes you back at the start to the 1950s, a decade so different from today but in some ways remarkably advanced and liberated despite the laws and prevailing attitudes.
And lastly a recommendation for (gifts for) girls (boys too) at the late primary/early secondary stage: Caroline Corby (who is the daughter of Angus and Barbara Mills) has published the first two of six stories telling about the fictional early years of women later famous – page-turners with well researched background in annexes but huge freedom for plotting and character given the lack of documentary evidence for their early lives. These are Cleopatra – Escape Down the Nile and Boudicca – The Secrets of the Druids (Walker Books). I read both at a sitting and though they were plainly not intended for me I could not put them down!
Well, that pretty well exhausts my space – and my energy – for now! So, with every good wish for what looks a rather threatening new year –

2007 ————— 2009