Another year has quickly rolled round and the time has come again to take stock. It has been a depressing year politically – the Labour government continually shooting itself in the foot, not least with irrational policies (e.g., on drugs, crime and punishment), without a moral compass, running scared of the Mail and Murdoch (pace some welcome words recently from Peter Mandelson). Sadly it is without doubt preferable to Tories, who plan repeal of the Human Rights Act, flirt with Murdoch over abolishing the rule that broadcast news must be unbiassed (roll on Fox News UK!) and plot the biggest upheaval in education since 1944 – kicking out local authorities and encouraging anyone whatever – especially religious groups – to start up new schools entirely at our expense.
And what a mess the House of Commons has made for itself – and us. The press has failed to distinguish between the small number of MPs who have made truly fraudulent claims and the great majority who merely did as they were told, claiming expenses in lieu of the salary increases they had been refused – for short-term PR purposes – by successive governments, starting with Thatcher. The Daily Telegraph’s scandalised presentation suggested pervasive corruption when its own souvenir summary showed that everyone (barring London MPs who were ineligible) claimed almost exactly £24,000 a year, meaning it mattered little what it was nominally for: the word had gone round that this was their salary by another name. It was a stupid arrangement but Ministers should have paid the price, not backbenchers, and now the whole institution of Parliament has been put at risk by the sins of a few, making it difficult for anyone to risk standing without wealth and a job to go back to.
But this letter is not for political pontification but a few personal paragraphs on the events of the year. In summary, since my last letter, 38 plays; over two dozen assorted books; 10 musical events ranging from Van Morrison (distorted sound amplification in the Albert Hall) to a rare Puccini mass sung by the Hackney Singers; half a dozen exhibitions – Babylon and the abominable Aztecs at the BM, Picasso and Cezanne in Aix-en-Provence and Van Dyck and Waterhouse at the Tate; only one trip to the cinema; plus humanistically, dozens of meetings here and abroad, some successful conferences, 15 speaking engagements, a lot of campaigning for the BHA and the EHF; plus socially and recreationally a week of archaeology; a trip to Croatia and various short stays with friends.
The year started with one of these when I joined a group of Stoke Newington friends on the Kent coast at Deal, where Monica has a second home. Robin, Hélène and I were in a high-class B&B with balconies (shiver, shiver!) overlooking the sea and a plentiful provision of complimentary fruit and chocolates in the rooms – plus a huge collection of assorted dolls on the stairs! We walked up the coast to Sandwich (unspoiled mediaeval Cinque port) for lunch and had a party at Monica’s culminating in seeing in the new year on the promenade, drinking champagne as the old ‘time ball’ was raised and dropped to signal midnight to any passing ship. Firework displays were going off all down the coast. We were back in Deal at the start of August for Monica’s 60th birthday – a grand and stylish party followed by a picnic on the beach next day watching a regatta; and many of us were in a group that in October had a great weekend walking on Exmoor, dodging deep puddles but on the whole avoiding the rain. I was happily able to stop en route for a pub lunch with Dad’s old friend and neighbour in Brompton Regis, Geoff Simpson, who was preparing to celebrate his 90th birthday.
Back in July came the first of the annual get-togethers with Sheila, Mike & Camilla and Tony & Phyllis when we gathered at Tony & Phyllis’s place in Derbyshire for several days. A key virtue of these visits is in the non-stop flow of only half-serious conversation about politics, economics and so on but we pack in a bit of culture too: physical with walks in the hills and dales and artistic with Lucrezia Borgia at the Buxton Opera and the odd stately home. The second get-together was only a few days ago when, with Sheila’s house in Ealing as a base, we visited Tate Britain for the exhibition ‘Turner and the Masters’ (not so much their influence on him as his determination that ‘anything they can do, I can do better’!); the National Theatre (for lunch and Alan Bennett’s latest and most excellent The Habit of Art, a sparkling but dense play within a play about an imagined meeting between WH Auden and Benjamin Britten in their old age – a wonderful cast including Richard Griffiths, Alex Jennings, Frances de la Tour, Adrian Scarborough); Eltham palace (superlative art deco interiors attached to a mediaeval hammerbeam-roofed great hall with moat and gardens all around), the new Supreme Court (an admirable adaptation, if controversial at the time, of the old Middlesex Guildhall in Parliament Square – well worth seeing for its own sake even if, like us, you do not find an interesting hearing to sit in on!), the Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum (deeply atmospheric – I could have stayed there much longer!), and a superb exhibition of Monet masterpieces from private Swiss collections: this is in a private gallery (with free admission) in Cork Street and very strongly recommended if you can get there before 26 February – see www.hellynahmad.com/currentexhibition.php.
I see Sheila fairly often – in April for the (Roman Catholic – don’t ask!) christening of her granddaughter Lara, and on theatre outings, when I usually go either with her or with Stoke Newington friend Miranda (and occasionally with both). Sheila and I also had a relaxing and immensely enjoyable week in August at Barbara and Angus’s house near Avignon (Barbara is her sister). The weather was superb: no wind (unusual) and hot sun every day (the temperature never dropped below 30o – and that was in the pool!) With books to read, ripe grapes hanging at the door, dinner invitations from other north London second-homers to accept, a trip to the Camargue and the above-mentioned Picasso and Cézanne exhibition in Aix the week went all too fast.
I had five days in September with my friends from the Kent Archaeological Field School (google it!) near Faversham: during the days we were on a stubble-covered hill digging up the remains of an octagonal Roman bathhouse; in the evenings we ate together in our self-catering cottages or at a pub. This was immediately before Lindsay and I flew to Split in Croatia for a week. We explored Diocletian’s ‘palace’ – really, retirement home (he was the only Roman emperor ever to quit while the going was good!); hired a car and spent three days based at a relaxing resort, Brela; drove (a slow journey) to the walled coastal city of Dubrovnik; visited the mediaeval peninsula town of Trogir, and explored some of the hinterland.
Other enjoyable occasions during the year included our bridge-players’ outing to Rules in January (sadly we’ve not managed to play anything like so much this year – constant diary problems); going with Robin & Hélène to celebrate his birthday with old Stoke Newington friend Mick in a restaurant way south of the river, where he lives in self-imposed exile; and in February, old Chelsfield friend Alison Rice’s annual party, at which I found the mother of New Humanist editor Caspar Melville, former Chelsfield near-neighbour Elizabeth Roseveare and an old schoolfriend of brother Malcolm’s as well. (I had an enjoyable catch-up lunch with Alison in May).
Brother Kenneth & wife Diana visited for two days in February (and a badly chosen play which we saw with their daughter Lucy: Complicit at the Old Vic). Lucy was back in London after her year in Italy and France and she came to stay for a few weeks in September before moving to her new flat-share. I spent a couple of days with Ken & Diana in Great Witley in October, taking advantage of an invitation to talk to a humanist group in Ludlow (about the basis of morality). My Cirencester brother Geoff stayed overnight several times – always on a Friday before going to see Crystal Palace the next day! – and once came with his daughter Kate. To complete the family round, we are looking forward to seeing Alice, the younger daughter of New Zealand brother Malcolm, who has just arrived in London; and my ex-wife Lois arrives from Australia in a day or so en route to Uganda. And to complete the old-times connections, schoolfriend Alan Sanderson and wife Rosalind came to visit in September on their way back to Vancouver after a long European holiday.
I had lunch in August with old Coal Board friend Dorothy Smith, back now from Brussels where she worked for several years, and she joined our annual NCB mini-reunion in September with Peter, Phil, Gill and me (Lesley could not make it at the last minute) for lunch at the Babylon restaurant in the roof garden of what used to be Derry and Toms (and then Biba – it’s all a long, long time ago!)
I went up to Oxford in May to vote in the abortive election of Ruth Padel as professor of poetry. Andrew Copson (Balliol and BHA) and partner Mark were there also and it was a pleasant day with a garden party at Holywell Manor and the meeting of Convocation in the Divinity School at which the vice-chancellor, accompanied by two hat-doffing proctors, declared the result – all in vain, for she resigned a day later.
And what else? The annual meeting of ASH (an occasion to renew old acquaintance and catch up with tobacco politics); an interesting conference run by the very effective liberal pressure group the Voice of the Listener and Viewer; several meetings of the Stoke Newington ‘Wrinklies’ who are nominally concerned with growing old(er) gracefully but actually just get together in each other’s houses for a communal meal and talk; a couple of fundraisers for Sing for Joy, a choir that combines fun and therapy for Monica and other people with Parkinson’s – one a quiz at the pub Amanda & John’s son helps run, the other, which raised over £2,000, an al fresco dinner and auction run by Andreas & Sabrina with next-door-neighbours Robin & Hélène in their combined lantern-lit gardens.
My garden has begun to look better since, after years of doing it all myself, I resorted to engaging the considerable help for five full days’ work of the wonderful Louise, who is studying to become a professional gardener. It could still do with a lot more TLC than I have time to give it but at least it looks presentable, especially in early summer.
I continue to volunteer at the National Theatre – in theory a day a month but actually much less as it has worked out this year. I never cease to wonder at their extraordinary Tessitura contact database, which includes everyone from purchasers of tickets to major donors, with a dozen or more drop-down tabs providing the facility to attach documents and record every last contact and transaction with each of them – a matter of major importance when it comes to fundraising. But my time volunteering at the Museum of London sadly has come to an end, at least for the time being: the work on the catalogue of prints and drawings ran out and they were too busy and understaffed (my immediate contact was going on maternity leave) to set me off on anything new. So, not with a bang but a whimper, I was simply ‘laid off’ – but it was an absorbing and rewarding seven-and-a-half years and maybe something new will come up.
Lindsay has continued with Sam working on their film about Tommy, the 80-year-old looking back on his life from privileged pre-war Jewish childhood in Hungary to internment, escape and living on the run as a teenager during the war and then a post-war life of multiple marriages and alternating business success and failure, now seen as shaped by his wartime traumas. Their concept of the film – to which Tommy is very committed (he is constantly on the phone from Australia where he now lives) – has changed a lot during the year as new filmed interviews and visits (Sydney in January and February, Budapest in June, Vienna in November) revealed more angles and insights. With maybe six months of post-production ahead of them, they have attracted some interest from an American TV company, so we live in hope!
My humanist year was focussed on a long week in June in London when we packed in the general assemblies of the European Humanist Federation and the International Humanist and Ethical Union, a highly successful joint day conference on Darwin, Science and Humanism (see and hear parts of it at http://www.youtube.com/BritishHumanists), the IHEU’s two-day conference on Untouchability (a huge problem not just in Hindu India but among the immigrant population here as well as in other cultures, especially Nigeria and until recently Japan). Along with these main events went numerous board meetings, liaison meetings, official and unofficial dinners, and a memorial meeting (which I organised and chaired) for Harold Blackham, the British Humanist Association’s first director and a co-founder of IHEU, who died in January at the age of 105. Being one of the very few who knew Harold before he retired in 1968 I was also interviewed about him in Radio 4’s Last Word programme.
The year started with the ‘atheist bus’ campaign of advertisements on buses throughout Britain saying ‘There’s probably no God; now stop worrying and enjoy your life’. I wrote last year about the phenomenal flow of funds (over £182,000 in the end) when we launched an appeal to finance this campaign. This year came the immense publicity from the actual campaign, leading to yet more donations – and members. What is more, our campaign stimulated copycat campaigns (though not on the same scale) across the world – in Italy, Finland, Netherlands, Switzerland, Australia, the USA (Indiana, Chicago, Washington), Austria, Canada, Croatia and Spain – and that is not a complete list!
My humanist work is mainly at my desk, monitoring the press and blogs and intervening with letters and comments, drafting and amending papers for the BHA and EHF, responding to consultations, updating and expanding the EHF website, and dealing with several hundred emails and web alerts every week. Of course, I get out sometimes – board meetings, AGMs and strategy awaydays for the BHA, EHF and Rationalist Association (New Humanist publishers), monthly BHA campaigns planning meetings, and the BHA’s several annual lectures. This year we had Professor Sir David King’s Darwin lecture in February on ‘Can British Science Rise to the New Challenges of the Twenty First Century?’, Daniel Dennett in March on ‘A Darwinian Perspective on Religions: Past, Present and Future’, Kenan Malik’s Voltaire Lecture in April on ‘The Guilt of Science? Race, Science and Darwin’, and Richard Reeve’s Bentham Lecture in November on ‘The Strange Rebirth of Liberalism’ (also on YouTube). I did not make it to Manchester for our Holyoake lecture in October by Professor Steve Jones on ‘Is Human Evolution Over?’ but I went to a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group when he repeated it last week. Similar meetings included an absorbing day conference run by the Humanist Philosophers’ Group on ‘Evolutionary Theory: is this all there is?’ in October. All these BHA events are nowadays fully booked and we sometimes have to turn people away.
I attended debates that the BHA’s Andrew Copson had on morality with a Muslim at Birkbeck in April and on Thought for the Day with Giles Fraser in October; the launch of a new BHA-backed student humanist federation in February; the annual meeting (which I chair) for the BHA’s dedicated representatives on about half the SACREs in England and Wales (Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education – local authority bodies with responsibility for RE in community and voluntary controlled schools: I am on the Hackney SACRE where progress has been blocked for 16 years by a reactionary but efficient RE advisor who – rejoice! rejoice! – has now retired); and a BHA reception addressed by Polly Toynbee and AC Grayling at the House of Lords in October. I represented the BHA at the a meeting of the UCL Constitution Unit to mark publication of a book, Church and State in 21st Britain: the Future of Church Establishment, and at the launch in November of the Government’s Inter Faith Week (yet more pandering to religion!) and attended a joint meeting with the Inter Faith Network. Non-BHA meetings included two run by the Centre for Inquiry – one a debate on religion between Stephen Law and a verbose and singularly uncompelling Alister (The Dawkins Delusion) McGrath, another a day on Weird Science, where Richard Wiseman was among the speakers (see his wonderful video at www.quirkology.com/UK/Video_ColourChangingTrick.shtml !)
After my last letter, at the end of 2008, the BHA met the BBC Director-General, Mark Thompson. I presented our case and it appeared that he was not only sympathetic but proposed to act on our request for humanist programmes. A year later nothing has happened (bar adding Andrew to their new Religion & Belief Advisory Council) and we feel let down. Next week we meet the new BBC head of religion and ethics, Aaqil Ahmend, and will see whether he can deliver anything or will we need to go back to the D-G or up to the Trust.
The BHA also took me to Fareham for a last gasp meeting with the Office of National Statistics on the census. They are determined to ask ‘What is your religion?’ again in 2011 even though they admit it is a leading question and captures as Christian the vaguest of cultural affiliations – in a paper they cite getting married in church or having been baptised as good enough reasons for such an answer! We wanted them to ask (for example) ‘Do you have a religion? If so, what is it?’ which in Scotland in 2001 found 28% with ‘no religion’ by stark contrast with 14% in England and Wales, but they won’t – even though the answers will be used to allocate resources and plan services and anyway they have a legal duty not to discriminate on the basis of religion or belief! Look for a big viral campaign in 2011 to get people to answer ‘No religion’!
Another interesting meeting was last month with the Ministry of Justice on their planned Bill of Rights and Responsibilities: a ragbag idea in reaction to the Tories’ gutter threat to repeal the Human Rights Act, itself possible only because of the Government’s failure to accompany introduction of the Act with any public education campaign, allowing grossly misleading ideas to gain currency through the dirty work of the Daily Mail and its ilk. More recently, of course, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has totally failed in the same way: Trevor Phillips has been a disaster as its chair and one can only hope that when the Joint Committee on Human Rights reports on its current enquiry he will have the decency to resign.
The BHA nowadays consistently gets exceptionally good candidates for vacancies. I was one of the interviewers for a BHA faith school campaigner in March, and in November, after the retirement of Hanne Stinson, our chief executive for eight years, I was on the panel that appointed Andrew Copson to replace her – he is the right choice and will be excellent in the job but he had very strong competition from a wide field of external candidates.
The EHF took me to Warsaw again at the end of September with two other EHF representatives for the OSCE’s annual human rights meeting. We held a side-meeting on the proper limits to legal accommodation of conscientious objection: the religious are increasingly asking for a free pass every time they object to some law or duty. We spoke in three plenary sessions and had some useful exchanges with diplomats and other NGOs. The summer saw me enter my second three-year term on the EHF board: I do not intend to stay for a third and will happily yield the chair before then to any promising candidate! Meantime, we are planning a lobby of the European Parliament in Brussels in January. I continue to go to all the meetings of the secularist backbench group, now renamed the European Parliamentary Platform for Secularism in Politics, and in March I was an invited speaker at a conference in the Parliament on secularism and the EU. We have also applied for accreditation to the UN which will allow us to back up the work of IHEU in the Human Rights Council in Geneva, opposing the runaway Islamist alliance that continues to succeed in passing resolutions stating that ‘defamation of religion’ (read, any criticism of Islam whatever) should be treated as an abuse of human rights and criminalised.
I was also in Berlin for a three-day conference in July on moral education, and in Brussels in June for a peculiar ‘working lunch’ with Commission president Barroso and Parliament (then) president Pöttering in the Berlaymont building. This seemed to be an incompetent attempt to placate us in our demands for equal treatment with the churches but, with no agenda and no notice of who would be present until I forced it out of them 24 hours in advance, it was barely satisfactory. Our feelings were reinforced when we found that our fellow guests, apart from a few of our own member organisations, were Masonic lodges and other Masonic bodies! Admittedly these were secularist Masons of a type not found in the UK but we will not be sidelined and fobbed off with them.
And that sums up my humanist year, apart from one or two Rationalist Association events (one before Christmas last year – and about to be repeated – was a combination of comedy and science under the title ‘Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People’ which each year has been a sell-out for several nights running at the Bloomsbury Theatre and for one night at the huge Hammersmith Apollo) and those speaking engagements – which this year included several school visits and (a first for me!) a soap box in Hyde Park at an anti-shariah law rally organised by the formidable and brave Maryam Namazie (google her), this time wearing her One Law for All hat – see me and the other speakers at www.onelawforall.org.uk/21-nov-2009-rally-video .
And so at last to theatre and books. It is a cause for sadness that as David Hare gets more overtly political his plays become weaker. Gethsemane (seen at the end of 2008 after my previous letter) was the thinly disguised recent history of the Labour Party – enjoyable, occasionally dramatic, but with nothing new to say; while The Power of Yes, about the banking crisis, was a lazy compilation of undigested interviews. Oh for the days of Racing Demon, Skylight, and Amy’s View! But there were two treats at the end of 2008: August: Osage County, a visiting production from Chicago’s Steppenwolf company. This was a three-hour masterpiece of family drama in which, as the initially appalling characters fall out and reveal their traumatic pasts, you gradually develop a grudging sympathy for them all. The set on the NT’s Lyttelton stage was an amazing three-storey interior. Then there was Ayckbourn’s tremendous Norman Conquests trilogy which I saw in one day (morning, afternoon and evening) with Sheila at the Old Vic, transformed for the purpose into a theatre in the round – a hugely funny, poignant and perceptive set of simultaneous dramas.
The new year started exceptionally well too, with David Tennant’s Hamlet – Miranda had had the foresight to buy tickets the moment they went on sale and to choose a performance just after Tennant came back from his back operation! He played Hamlet very physically, as a truculent teenager, speaking the lines as if he was making them up as he went along so that the play seemed new-minted and gripping. And what a dream cast to support him – Penny Downie as Gertrude and Patrick Stewart as Claudius, Oliver Ford-Davies as Polonius (his voice trailing hesitantly away as he became internally distracted by the potential for a play on words), John Wood as the player king, and Mariah Gale as an Ophelia to match her Hamlet, responding aggressively to all attempts at sympathy. The production was all darkness and mirrors offset by chandeliers, torches and fireworks and accompanied by imaginative soundscapes. It fully deserved its standing ovation.
Nothing quite matched this in the rest of the year but from those 38 theatre trips I will pick out just a few. Juliet Stevenson, in Duet for One at the Almeida, was the brilliant violinist struck by MS who, supported by Henry Goodman as her therapist, moves from the brittle efficiency of denial through an intense progression of pain, rage, false hope, self-neglect and despair to a slow reconciliation to her fate.
Ken Stott was powerful in Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge (though maybe not quite up to Michael Gambon at the NT years ago); and Janie Dee was superb as the suburban housewife going slowly, delusively mad in Ayckbourn’s Woman in Mind. Ciaran Hinds was the retired general and hero of the Russian revolution falling victim to Stalin’s purges in Burnt by the Sun at the NT, which had another great success in Phèdre with Helen Mirren and a strong cast: Nicholas Hytner’s version got away from Racine’s neat poetry by using Ted Hughes’ translation to bring out the drama.
Only a week later came another NT triumph: Marianne Elliott’s All’s Well that Ends Well, which made the awkward play into a fairy tale on a set after Arthur Rackham – but a fairy tale that shows Michelle Terry’s Helena grow from story princess to mature woman well aware at the end that her long-sought marriage to the immature Bertram will be far from a bed of roses. I saw this twice – the second time as a live relay at the Screen on the Green – an effective innovation by the NT this year with dozens of cinemas around the world showing selected performances live or as-live.
Another great day came with the Bridge Project, which brought together great actors – Simon Russell Beale, Sinead Cusack, Ethan Hawke, Rebecca Hall among them – from the UK and USA in a way that Equity restrictions usually rule out. Miranda and I had a day at the Old Vic seeing The Cherry Orchard in the afternoon, having an early meal in the sun on the balcony at the Oxo Tower brasserie and returning for The Winter’s Tale in the evening. Both were directed by Sam Mendes. This was another treat – especially the Chekhov in a new Tom Stoppard translation.
I saw two excellent productions at the Royal Court this year – Mark Rylance was kaleidoscopic in Jerusalem as a drop-out Pied Piper living rough in a caravan in woods near a new estate and falling victim to the hostility of his new neighbours; and quite recently came Enron which brought to failing capitalism all the theatricality that The Power of Yes so lacked. There were a lot more good theatrical evenings in the year – Calderon’s Life as a Dream with Dominic West at the Donmar, the stark Our Class at the NT (Poles massacre their Jewish former classmates; the survivors cover up and fall out as Germans and Russians each twice invade), Judgement Day (a study in guilt) at the Almeida, The Observer (havoc as UN official takes sides) and England People Very Nice (the same patterns as successive immigrants reach Brick Lane) at the NT – but I have no more room!
Before I move to books I must mention a couple of musical occasions. In March my humanist friend Jane’s daughter Emma Dogliani took the Joan Sutherland role in an immensely enjoyable concert performance of Lucia di Lammermoor; and she also gave a recital in the series that Rachel helps organise at Sutton House (the National Trust’s lovely 16th century survival in Hackney), where on two other Sundays the Fitzwilliam quartet played Haydn and Shostakovich. And in April there was another great Opera Cabaret (bring your own picnic, buy wine to benefit a charity, sit at candle-lit trestle tables and be entertained by top class local young singers in evening dress doing gobbets from opera linked by hilarious commentary). This is indefatigably organised by the man I sold my Allerton Road house to back in 1983, Farquhar McKay. But I will pass over a disappointing Peter Grimes at the ENO – unatmospheric and grotesque.
Books. I started the year with Claire Tomalin’s fascinating biography of Mary Wollstonecraft. The author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was born ahead of her time (1759). She came from a Spitalfields silk-weaving family and her grandfather was wealthy but her father was no businessman and descended steadily into poverty as he drifted round the country. She was self-educated, ran a short-lived school in Newington Green with her sisters, where she moved in Dissenter circles and knew Richard Price, worked as a governess in Ireland, then joined with radical publisher Joseph Johnson in London and wrote for his Analytical Review. Her Vindication of the Rights of Man preceded Paine’s Rights of Man and was quickly followed by the exceptionally advanced companion volume on the rights of woman (1792). She went alone to Paris where she was closely involved with the Girondins as they contested the direction of the revolution with the Montaigne group, and many of her friends were arrested and guillotined as the struggle reached its bloody climax. She escaped briefly from Paris, but by this time was romantically involved with an American scoundrel Gilbert Imlay, by whom she had a child. He abandoned her but she, obsessed with her own rationality and ideas of freedom, was unable to acknowledge his true nature and for long clung to the idea that he would come back to her. Returning dismally to London, she tried twice to kill herself (1795), between attempts going to Scandinavia on a successful business mission for Imlay. She became lovers with William Godwin (also a publisher) whom she had met some years previously, became pregnant, married (with some embarrassment given her views on the institution), and died in giving birth to the future author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley. As horror at the French Revolution and pre-occupation with the Napoleonic Wars took hold, radical politics went out of fashion, and her ideas of the place of women in society disappeared for a hundred years.
Mary Shelley reappears in Richard Holmes’ the Age of Wonder which has as its subtitle ‘How the Romantic Generation discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science’. Holmes narrates the lives of the key figures of 18th/19th century science – Joseph Banks, William and Caroline Herschel, Humphrey Davy, Michael Faraday and so on – with additional attention to the balloonists and explorers such as Mungo Park. What he adds to this is not only the involvement of the poets with the scientists but the scientists’ involvement in writing poetry about their discoveries. They saw themselves engaged in a joint enterprise: as he points out the word ‘scientist’ was not coined until 1833. He also explores how Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was a reflection of popular worries about scientific experiment, at a time when electricity was being applied to dead bodies and producing movements that suggested resurrection. A fascinating book!
I read two fine biographies by William Hague this year. In his Wilberforce he makes clear how far the leading campaigner against the slave trade was inspired by his evangelical Christian belief (he wrote influentially on moral reform and was instrumental in forcing the East India Company to allow Christian missionaries into India, a policy that stoked up much future trouble) and how basically conservative he was in his social attitudes – although the denunciations of him by William Cobbett are embarrassingly over the top, seeing his work on slavery as part and parcel of his support for oppressive domestic measures whereas – as Hague points out – it was at least in part motivated by his primary need to keep together his wide coalition against the slave trade. Similarly, he opposed Catholic emancipation and naively thought an end to the slave trade would lead to better treatment of existing slaves: actual abolition of slavery itself came in his old age as a new, more impatient, generation took over. But Wilberforce was an able politician, building tactical alliances and fighting notable election campaigns in Yorkshire, generous to the extent of giving away the bulk of his fortune, a sociable and much loved man with a wide circle of friends whose moral abhorrence at the slave trade drove him to maintain his campaign against all discouragement over decades at the expense of his health.
Wilberforce’s friend William Pitt also sacrificed his health in the public interest. He aspired to political leadership from childhood, determined to emulate his father but equally determined, unlike him, not to be a creature of George III and so vulnerable to dismissal – which led him to reject office when first offered it by the king, instead waiting until there was no alternative and he could exercise full power. He was then in office for many years (after a shaky start when he had no majority in Parliament) until he fell out with the King over Catholic emancipation: he saw it as a necessary quid pro quo for the abolition of the Irish Parliament but the King saw it as a betrayal of his Coronation oath to uphold the 1688 constitutional settlement. He returned to office after ousting his erstwhile nominee Addington but was never as effective or powerful as before. Though he relaxed with close friends he had a reputation as austere and he never married – the once he came close to it he took fright and backed off. He learned huge chunks of the Latin classics by heart as a child and could readily and aptly quote from memory all his life. His oratory was acknowledged as unsurpassed – he would speak for three or four hours on end with barely a note but delivering a structured, compelling and logical case. As First Lord he took total charge of the Treasury and devised income tax as a fair method of raising money and the Sinking Fund to repay over time the national debt – a scheme frustrated by the cost of the Napoleonic Wars. Exhausted by his duties and with his poor constitution undermined by heavy drinking of port undertaken originally on his doctor’s advice, he died with huge debts, having been adamant against personal profit in office, not just incorruptible but insistent on refusing sinecures – though willing to offer them and other advantages to those he needed to persuade in Parliament.
As a total contrast I read three books derived from the Mass Observation archive: Nella Last’s War, Nella Last’s Peace and Olivia Cockett’s Love and War in London. Nella Last, a housewife in Barrow-in-Furness, wrote with feeling, eloquence, perception and sympathy in the diaries she kept for Mass Observation. She had insight into other people’s experiences, and we learn a great deal about her two sons, though less about her old-fashioned and taciturn husband who figures very small in the book and never by name. She was proud of her ability to manage a household and especially to make nourishing meals out of almost nothing, which she taught to other women. The short period of bombing of Barrow is vividly described, and her peacetime love of the Lakes appears recurrently. After the War she coped with the rationing, shortages, dreariness of post-war life and her unpleasant, insensitive husband but found cause for hope and energy to help others and overcome class resentment at her efficiency and capability. A real insight into a society so removed from our present day life as to be quite foreign – but sometimes attractive for its concern with essentials rather than fripperies. Olivia Cockett was a young woman in her mid-20s as the War started who had already been involved in a passionate affair with married lover for ten years – she met him for a few minutes each day at Waterloo en route to and from her backroom job with the Metropolitan Police. She describes her feelings, her wide reading, life with her parents and friends (a jolly evening in her bedroom often includes a sing-song of old favourites), coping with shortages and the blitz. With her lover tragically refused a divorce on grounds of suspected collusion, after the war they lived together in the west country but never had the children she so longed for.
Rosemary Ashton’s 142 Strand is the story of John Chapman’s time at the eponymous address during which he took over the Westminster Gazette, adding it to his publishing business, and made it a well-regarded radical journal, benefiting from the substantial assistance of Marian (George Eliot) Evans. There is a packed cast – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frank Newman (the Cardinal’s brother), J A Froude, T H Huxley, George Henry Lewes, Harriet Martineau, Herbert Spencer, Thomas Carlyle and so on. Chapman lurched from financial crisis to financial crisis, always more interested in publishing than in making money, but insensitively quarrelling with one contributor or benefactor after another.
Barbara Tuchman’s first book The Zimmermann Telegram tells the extraordinary story of the WW1 cable from the German government to their ambassador in Mexico asking him to suggest that Mexico make war on the USA and seek US ally Japan’s cooperation in return for large areas of US territory. Relations between the USA and Mexico were fraught but Mexico was only just recovering – and that uncertainly – from civil war and the plan was never likely to work. Moreover, the allies had hooked up and cut Germany’s transatlantic cables a few hours after the declaration of war and Germany had throughout the war to rely on radio and other insecure methods for its diplomacy. Britain was intercepting and decoding all their radio signals and realised that this telegram was gold in the struggle to persuade the USA to join the war. Moreover, the telegram had been sent – in code – over a US government secure cable to the German ambassador in Washington for onward transmission to Mexico – all under cover of being part of the continuing hopeless negotiations Woodrow Wilson was pursuing to find a peace settlement. But revealing the telegram risked compromising the interception of future radio traffic, and so weeks went by before a plausible scenario of interception of the onward commercial (but of course coded) telegram to Mexico could be established. Even then there was strong US resistance to joining the war, but this was eventually overcome. A fascinating story with a cast of extraordinary characters.
Two similar books dealt with the second world war. J C Masterman’s The Double Cross System was written for the official files just as the war was ending and published nearly 30 years later. It is a spare but fascinating account of how all German spies without exception sent into Britain in the war were detected and either turned or neutralised. Many gave themselves up; others gave themselves away; increasingly they were known to be coming because the German network had been turned against its masters. Some were volunteers: Garbo, a Spaniard, tried to get recruited by the British but was rejected, so he made himself more valuable before trying again by getting taken on by the Germans in Madrid. He pretended to them that he had gone to England (which he had never visited) and made up reports for nine months, supposedly sent by courier to neutral Portugal and supposedly coming not just from himself but from three sub-agents! He came to British attention when we learnt that the Germans were planning to intercept a large convoy that existed only in Garbo’s head. He was taken on and proved exceptionally useful. German confidence in the whole partly turned and partly fictional network was built by transmitting carefully vetted true information cleared by the Twenty (= XX or Double-Cross) Committee and then it was used to deceive the enemy, especially at the time of D-Day but also long before – for example, about the strength of the forces that would meet any invasion – and afterwards when the network was used to suggest that the V-weapons were overshooting London when in fact they were already undershooting. The account stresses the way that the cover stories for agents were meticulously recorded and built into rounded stories, with the investigations requested by the Germans actually carried out to ensure the plausibility of reports either by the turned agent or by someone from MI5. Strikingly, the account, given its official nature, is full of lessons for future wars with Germany – ‘next time we must remember . . .’ and so on. And it notes that the whole operation was almost wholly paid for by the cash the Germans sent to their supposed agents!
By contrast M R D Foot’s history of the Special Operations Executive in WW2 is not an easy read as it takes for granted substantial existing knowledge and has to cope with an organisation that was (almost essentially) disorganised. It is not helped by starting (perhaps necessarily) with a long section on the central politics and administration of SOE – in his preface the author suggests that the casual reader might start at page 210! That said, it gives a warts-and-all picture of the failures and successes of what was a huge unit operating in countries across the world, with a clear balance of success over nevertheless extensive failure. The individual stories of extraordinary courage – and sometimes egregious stupidity and appalling betrayal – are given in extreme summary but are still compelling.
Roland Chambers has written an excellent new biography of Ransome (The Last Englishman) that draws on newly opened official files in both the UK and Russia to provide a much fuller account of his time in Russia than Hugh Brogan’s 1984 biography. It concentrates on his time there, relegating the Swallows and Amazons years to a couple of chapters at the end, showing him as an undoubtedly strong supporter of the Bolsheviks, but also an agent of MI6, and it could plausibly be argued – though the author leaves it open – that his cooperation with Lenin, Trotsky and others was a cover for his MI6 work. However, he left out of his newspaper reports some developments unfavourable to the new regime. The book provides as background a useful account of Russian politics in the period – showing, for example, that the social democrat Kerensky government was hopelessly divided and probably doomed from the start in the violently unsettled society of the time.
A total contrast: Sheila lent me Michael Crick’s 1995 Jeffrey Archer – Stranger than Fiction. This is an hilarious account of his early years – as Mark Lawson wrote in the Guardian: ‘The book divides into the stuff you just couldn’t make up and the stuff that Jeffrey Archer did just make up’. Extraordinarily (or perhaps not), his father was just the same – or worse: a conman and bigamist here and in the USA who invented a distinguished army career for himself. Crick explores Archer’s early life and failed careers in the army and the police, his dubious career at Oxford (he did a one-year Dip Ed for which he was not qualified and won his blue in the two years he hung around after technically going down!), his phenomenal success at fundraising for Oxfam by sheer effrontery and corner-cutting and his later much less successful career in the same line, his election as MP for Louth and his near-bankruptcy when (unknown to his wife) he put every penny he had in a scam investment, forcing his resignation as an MP and prompting his successful career as a novelist. His books were appallingly written and riddled with errors, needing the most intense editing imaginable, but of course were immensely successful – so much so that in due course he commanded ludicrously uncommercial advances of $30 million. But the book was written long ago – it takes in the weird episode of his getting a friend to hand cash to the prostitute Monica Coghlan to help her leave the country – under the eyes of a dozen pressmen at Victoria Station – and his successful action for libel that followed, helped by the ‘fragrant’ Mary, but not his revived political career in the Lords or his disgrace in the perjury trial that followed. Crick should write a follow-up!
Georgina Howell’s Daughter of the Desert is a superb biography of Gertrude Bell, an extraordinary woman, original, brilliant, and brave. Her family were ironmasters in Redcar; born in 1868, she took a first at Oxford, travelled widely including several adventurous journeys in Arabia (one seriously dangerous and without the permission of the authorities), learnt Persian and Arabic, translated classical Arabic poetry, became an expert archaeologist, and then a famous Alpinist making several first ascents and a near-disastrous near-ascent of an unclimbed peak. In the first world war she ran with noted efficiency the Red Cross office at the Belgian front and then in London that tracked the missing and dead, before being recruited for her expertise on the Arabs and knowledge of their warring sheikhs, tribes and histories to the Cairo intelligence office alongside T E Lawrence, with whom she shared an ambition to see the Arabs self-governing once the Turks had been defeated – an ambition largely thwarted by the Sykes-Picot pact and the Balfour declaration. She moved to Basra and then Baghdad when they were liberated and worked actively as a British diplomat to create a nation based on Mesopotamia – Iraq, whose frontiers remained undefined for years as the post-war negotiations dragged on. She became a firm friend of Faisal, who (after being unceremoniously ousted from Syria by the French) was chosen in an elaborate process that she designed as king of Iraq. As an advisor to his government, she drafted the constitution and laws on elections and then a law on antiquities after which she founded the Baghdad museum that was ransacked in the recent war. She lived permanently in Baghdad and created (as previously in England) a noted garden that was thronged with pet animals until she died sadly young in 1926. The kingdom of Iraq survived until 1958 when Faisal’s grandson was assassinated in a coup.
A C Grayling’s What is Good? is a wonderful book: a short history of ideas of the good life from classical times through the desperate setback of Christianity’s debasement of human nature with the invention of inescapable ‘original sin’ to the ‘second enlightenment’ of the Renaissance and the third of the 17th/18th century Enlightenment and on up to the revival of moral philosophy after the sterile mid-20th century years. Written with clarity and lucidity from a firmly humanist viewpoint, it is inspiring and highly recommended.
Finally, a confession that this year I have read a few quick novels too: a couple of P G Wodehouses on holiday, three thrillers by Robert Harris that (Pompeii and Imperium) plausibly capture Roman life and (Fatherland) imagine life in 1960s’ Berlin if Hitler had won; and (best by far) David Lodge’s Deaf Sentence which is by turns hilarious and immensely moving. It is a perceptive story about an elderly academic coping with growing deafness, with the decline and death of his father, with an entanglement with a young woman who seeks to engage him in supervising her linguistics PhD (an analysis of suicide notes) and with a complex of family relationships. The scenes with his father are poignant, and I recognise some of his problems with deafness (if not yet the coping techniques that create so much hilarious chaos) from my own imperfect hearing – these are the two aspects of the novel from which Lodge says he drew from his own experience, and it shows.
That then is the latest episode of these annals, which I sign off with every good wish for the year to come and whatever it may bring – miraculous Labour recovery or government by the Bullingdon Club included!

2008 —————- 2010