Time for another annual stocktaking! For once it seems to have been a fairly long year: maybe too much work and too little play. Certainly the European Humanist Federation has been taking up more and more time, and I look forward to May 2012 when I shall step down at the end of my second three-year term as president. The result has been almost no exhibitions, fewer books, fewer speaking engagements – but no less theatre! The year has suffered also from the political disasters consequent on the general election: hard-won reforms (various equality measures, reform of the primary curriculum affecting PSHE, SRE and RE, etc.) suddenly scrapped; admirable experts thrown out of work as quangos such as the QCDA are scrapped unexamined for doctrinaire reasons; and free rein for any self-interested group (ladder-pulling middle class parents, evangelicals and Islamists) to set up their own schools – no need for trained teachers, and to hell with the effect on existing local schools). The Department for Education has had endless meetings with religious interests but has completely ignored the British Humanist Association’s repeated requests for a single meeting – behaviour unprecedented in recent years. And the ineffable Eric Pickles at Communities and Local Government, succeeding to a regime with a record of unbroken toadying to religious groups, stated: ‘Religion is often seen as a problem that needs solving. The new government sees it as part of the solution; the days of the state trying to suppress Christianity and other faiths are over.’ He has even bought into the myth of determined secularists trying to ‘abolish Christmas’. Help!
But 2010 was also an anniversary: 50 years after my going up to Oxford. I’ve not kept up with many of my old colleagues but arranged with two fellow classicists to return to Keble for a reunion weekend in September – but they both dropped out as the time approached! However, I did meet up with an old OUHG (humanist) colleague I’d not seen for 50 years, and we plan a new-year drink, and the occasion coincided – by design, of course – with the university’s annual gathering for alumni (a word barely used this side of the Atlantic in my day) when it lays on a rich menu of lectures and visits. Apart, therefore, from a high table lunch in college for barely a dozen of the 100+ 1960 intake, a reception in the newly refurbished Ashmolean and our own version of Antiques Roadshow (a bronze head I had from a great aunt appears to be of Frederick Lord Leighton), I learned about advances in carbon dating, the history of the DNB, the dissenters’ role in education and so on. One lecture was on the brilliant epidemiologist Richard Doll, by his biographer Conrad Keating, who had referenced my Denial and Delay several times. I had not realised until now that Doll was instrumental in creating (and funding) the old Agnostics Adoption Society. (This was set up in the 1970s when it was difficult for those without religion to adopt, and was merged into a bigger society when the specific need had passed, in line with the humanist objection to belief-based charities.)
The big success this year is not mine but Lindsay’s. He and Sam have won a contract from HBO (no less!) to complete the film they have been working on so hard for two years or more about Tommy, the 80+ holocaust survivor from Hungary who now lives in Australia. The contract is with the HBO branch in Budapest, for a 90-minutes film, and will tell several stories in parallel – Tommy’s wartime adventures and escapes, his return to their scene in old age, his post-war life of business and pleasure (six marriages!), and his re-encounter with the girl he fell in love with in the Hungarian internment camp who is now his new partner! The contract means that they have been able to fly back to Australia again to do some final filming – they left a couple of days ago; Lindsay will be back in January. They will get back what they have spent on the film and get a (very small) payment for their own time and work. But mainly they will get their work shown on TV, certainly in central Europe and maybe round the world – which they hope will lead to new commissions. Meantime, it means huge amounts of bureaucracy as Lindsay has to produce invoices, deal with VAT, sort out revised release forms and so on. Anyhow, this is an auspicious and well deserved success.
Linds met Tommy through my ex-wife Lois who lives in Sydney – though she visited very pleasantly from time to time before Christmas last year and up to March, before and after a long visit to Uganda where she sponsors and sets up valuable village projects. My adopted stepdaughter Christina was also over from Australia in March/April. She, her oldest daughter Paige and youngest Lucy stayed in a holiday flat nearby, and we saw them many times, including an enjoyable day out on the London Eye (my first time) followed by a trip up the river to Kew to visit the gardens.
Lois’s brother Michael and his wife Kath were also in London, just overlapping with Christina: we all had lunch here the day before she went home. I had two trips to the theatre with Kath & Michael, and Linds joined us for one of these and also for lunch in the sun on the roof terrace at Chez Gerard in Covent Garden, with a jazz band playing on the piazza below, just before they left for home after good prolonged stays in Italy and in Paris. It was lovely to see them again.
Other family occasions included my brother Ken’s two daughters, Tavy (a sub-editor at Country Life) and Lucy (who now has a job at GCHQ!) coming to dinner in February, Ken and Diana staying overnight in March, and two visits by brother Geoff and niece Alice (Malcolm’s younger daughter, over from NZ on her ‘grand tour’), joined once by Geoff’s daughter Kate. Geoff stayed overnight on other occasions, which all seemed oddly to coincide with Crystal Palace home matches the next day! Recently Ken has worryingly had to have a malignant lump removed from his leg but his prospects for a complete recovery are apparently good.
It is now just about a year since Lindsay started going out with his girlfriend Iona, who is very good company: whenever they are together they seem to be laughing. She has just completed her training as a nurse. We all went to the theatre in June.
In March came the year’s first gathering with Tony and Phyllis, Sheila, Mike & Camilla, when we visited the latter for three days at Plumpton, just under the South Downs and next to the racecourse. Mike cooked some wonderful food, we had some invigorating walks – to Ditchling Beacon and down the Cuckmere Valley to the beach – and visited Newhaven Fort in freezing cold wind. (On the way home I visited Down House for the first time: highly recommended, not least for the video/audio-guide. So now I also have paced the sandwalk!) The weather was better when we all gathered again in July at Tony & Phyllis’s in Derbyshire. We were joined by Sheila’s new partner, another David, who fitted in extraordinarily well. We had a walk from Monsal Head along Chee Dale, another up Deepdale to Sheldon for lunch (drying out over a pub lunch after a sudden downpour) and looping back to where we started, and another on the west bank of Ladybower reservoir and on to Peter and Hilary’s place above Hope for a very fine lunch. (Hilary can never be persuaded not to put herself out for us when we call in!)
Tony is a Coal Board connection, and in August I had what is becoming an annual reunion with NCB (mainly Staff Department) colleagues – Peter, Phil, Gillian, Lesley and Dorothy. We met for lunch at the Aurora brasserie in Soho and enjoyably caught up with each other’s lives. There was a certain amount of drinking afterwards by those not still in gainful employment!
For some reason our Stoke Newington bridge group found many fewer evenings on which to play bridge this year, but we started well with our annual trip to Rules to spend last year’s winnings; and we made up for lack of evenings with a weekend away in October: Andreas and Sabrina have a holiday home in Kingsdown and found room for Amanda and me. Miranda stayed in her caravan a couple of miles away, and Justin and Holly with Monica in her house nearby in Deal. So we combined lots of bridge with walks along the beach (the sun was out but the sea was rough) and some good food (including a real gourmet meal in a private room at a local dining club).
In June I drove down with Miranda to Southwold where Jim and Rachel had invited us for a weekend. En route we called at Beth Chatto’s garden in Colchester, which is a delight. We also visited Aldburgh where we saw Maggie Hambling’s wonderful (but controversial – why??) sculpture on the beach in memory of Benjamin Britten: it is tactile, dramatic, in shiny white metal shaped like huge upright and horizontal scallop shells with a quotation from Peter Grimes in punched out letters round the edge: “I hear the voices that will not be drowned”. Delightfully, children were climbing all over it! We all went to three Aldburgh Festival concerts: one, in Blythburgh Church, of unaccompanied 15th and 16th century choral music, followed at the Snape Maltings by some uncompromising modern music conducted by Pierre Boulez; then next day, after a good pub lunch, another at Snape with the Arcanto quartet playing Mozart, Schumann and several modern works. Most enjoyable!
The Maltings had an exhibition of oils by Kate Giles, including some wonderful re-imaginings of Constable’s painting of Salisbury Cathedral. I decided I could just afford a small painting: February Squall, of Butley Creek just to the south of Snape where Giles has her studio. She was in attendance and we talked with her: Miranda had met her some years ago and had a mutual acquaintance. My painting is now on my lounge wall, where I realise all the paintings are by women artists: not planned at all! I made some other acquisitions during the year: a 1798 Gilray cartoon of Pitt’s duel with Tilney, and three cartoons by Martin Rowson which I acquired at an auction at the opening of an exhibition in aid of the Rationalist Association: one the original of a superb cover for a 2005 issue of New Humanist magazine, which the RA publishes (and which goes from strength to strength) with Home Secretary David Blunkett anticipating the effects of his Bill on religious hatred.
I note that in the immense heat of May Amanda had her annual garden opening (hers is a magic walled garden with trees, water and sinuous lawn; she knows every plant and its history) which reminds me that my garden has been thoroughly neglected this year: though it has looked superficially attractive, it will need a lot more attention next year to retrieve lost ground. One advance, however, was that I employed Andrew, Liz’s son, to instal a paving surround to the pond backed by a three-course brick wall, with my patent stainless-steel Z-bent rods to support an anti-heron cord. This is a major improvement! I also had rather more work done at more expense than I originally intended on the house: repairs to the roof at the back were combined with redecorating Lindsay’s three rooms on the top floor, but the work extended to repairs to the front roof and redecorating the front of the house, plus several other bits and pieces. This was in August, and it is a measure of both Lindsay’s pre-occupation with his film and mine with the EHF etc that we have not yet found time to sort and take to charity shops all the clutter he decided to throw out when his rooms were done and which is still piled in the dining room!
The European Humanist Federation has kept me travelling – eleven times to Brussels, plus trips to Stockholm, Warsaw, Cordoba, Vienna and Lucca – but at least the last two included a few days’ holiday. The trip to Vienna came at the start of November and was all booked up when the OSCE changed the date of the conference three of us were planning to attend. Since part of the idea had been to help with the handover of the OSCE work from the wonderful Vera Pegna to Hans Christian Cars, a Swedish ex-OSCE employee living in Vienna, we decided not to cancel the trip but have a few days of gentle chat, coffee and sachertorte, and desultory sightseeing. Hans Christian drove us round the main sights and we visited the Kunsthistorisches Museum with its superb collection of paintings housed in a nineteenth century palace of grand staircases and double cupolas. I went also to the Leopold Museum to see the collection of works by Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt. The weather was mostly very kind – we sat outside for meals – if windy: one morning we saw half the golden leaves blown off the trees in a square where we sat for half an hour. We were disappointed when a studio cinema cancelled the afternoon showing of The Third Man we had planned to go to (many of the locations are still recognisable) but amazed when they put it on specially for us the next afternoon! We also had a meeting at HC’s luxurious apartment with four Austrian humanists representing as many (correspondingly weak) organisations.
Lucca was much earlier: we scheduled a Board meeting there in April and I flew out to Rome a few days early and hired a car. I stopped two nights at Tarquinia, an ancient hilltop town with extensive Etruscan remains both in its museum and at a necropolis with extraordinary tombs excavated in solid rock with walls painted with scenes of feasting and dancing. En route to Lucca I called at Capalbia, another picturesque hilltop town, and then had a couple of days in Lucca, where the old Roman amphitheatre has been converted into houses and shops round an oval piazza, and the massive 16-17th century walls round the town are still intact. The gardens of the Palazzo Pfanner are a delight. But while I was there the Icelandic volcano went off, creating huge confusion for our Board meeting. Enough people had like me come early for a day or so’s recreation that we were able to have a non-quorate meeting, but then came the problem of getting home. In the end I made it without too much trouble, a day late and £700 poorer, having shared a hire car (gold dust!) with a French family as far as Paris and then next day, linking with three others, managed to get a ferry crossing from Calais. The spirit of adventure was palpable!
I was back in Italy the next month for a weekend in the ancient town of Ravenna with guided tours of the 6-7th century wall mosaics organised by Paul Wilkinson of the Kent Archaeological Field Service. There were about a dozen of us; we had two sunny days with one very wet Saturday between. These mosaics are startling: they are made of glass and so are brilliant and colourful, unlike Roman floor mosaics. They are early Christian, in basilicas, mausoleums and baptisteries, and some date from the time of the Arian heresy (in Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo depictions of the Arian rulers in their palace colonnade were replaced later by mosaic curtains but the odd hand that was in front of a column has survived, disembodied!) The most memorable are those, dating from the mid-6th century, in the Basilica di San Vitale of the emperor Justinian and his court and (opposite across the apse) his bejewelled empress Theodora (one of many consorts in history who started as an actress!) with her richly dressed entourage. A splendid, packed weekend – and we got back to Stansted just before it was again briefly closed by the volcano!
I was with Paul again at the end of August when I had several days helping on his latest dig near Faversham in Kent. I stayed with a group of regulars in a self-catering farmhouse at the end of a dead-end lane (good company, good food & lots to drink!). The excavation was alongside Watling Street (parallel to the A2) and revealed a tomb and a confusion of chalk floors and ditches. Finds included a well-preserved pot and some coins. A few of us diggers are meeting up again in ten days’ time to visit Bletchley Park.
And so to my almost full-time work for the BHA and the EHF (I spend most days at my desk dealing with endless emails bringing requests for information, drafts for comment, information for filing, alerts for possible action, problems for solution.) The British Humanist Association has had its first year under the direction of Andrew Copson who is proving an excellent chief executive and has guided us through a valuable strategic review. The economic climate is a grave worry: fundraising will be the no.1 priority for 2011. My involvement has included revising my OSCE paper on conscientious objection for a seminar run by the Humanist Philosophers’ Group in June and again for a booklet to come out next year, continuing as the only non-staff member of the campaigns group, helping with revision of the BHA’s articles of association (including getting the Charity Commission to agree to new objects that include ‘advancement of Humanism’ – quite significant in charity law), and numbers of speaking engagements, including a full afternoon in York with 50 trainee RE teachers doing their PGCEs and a packed lunch-time debate at Cambridge against the ineffable Andrea (“Jesus answers all the needs of every human being”) Williams, stalwart of the Christian Legal Centre, who tried to maintain that Christians were “the UK’s new persecuted minority”. The CLC brings most of those hopeless court cases that allege discrimination against Christians at work and elsewhere and consistently loses, not because the law is unfair but because they and the people they represent demand grovelling deference to their religion whatever the context and bring legal cases as a device to publicise their demands. Lord Carey (ex-Archbishop of Canterbury) excelled himself this year when one such case reached the High Court: he demanded that judges hearing cases involving religion be drawn from a specially vetted panel! He was put in his place in a clear and uncompromising judgement amounting to a vindication of secularism by Lord Justice Laws, who turns out to be a distinguished amateur theologian married to a professional one!
In a free constitution such as ours there is an important distinction to be drawn between the law’s protection of the right to hold and express a belief and the law’s protection of that belief’s substance or content. The common law and ECHR Article 9 offer vigorous protection of the Christian’s right (and every other person’s right) to hold and express his or her beliefs. And so they should. By contrast they do not, and should not, offer any protection whatever of the substance or content of those beliefs on the ground only that they are based on religious precepts. These are twin conditions of a free society.
The first of these conditions is largely uncontentious. I should say a little more, however, about the second. The general law may of course protect a particular social or moral position which is espoused by Christianity, not because of its religious imprimatur, but on the footing that in reason its merits commend themselves. . . But the conferment of any legal protection or preference upon a particular substantive moral position on the ground only that it is espoused by the adherents of a particular faith, however long its tradition, however rich its culture, is deeply unprincipled. It imposes compulsory law, not to advance the general good on objective grounds, but to give effect to the force of subjective opinion. This must be so, since in the eye of everyone save the believer religious faith is necessarily subjective, being incommunicable by any kind of proof or evidence. It may of course be true; but the ascertainment of such a truth lies beyond the means by which laws are made in a reasonable society. Therefore it lies only in the heart of the believer, who is alone bound by it. No one else is or can be so bound, unless by his own free choice he accepts its claims.
The promulgation of law for the protection of a position held purely on religious grounds cannot therefore be justified. It is irrational, as preferring the subjective over the objective. But it is also divisive, capricious and arbitrary. We do not live in a society where all the people share uniform religious beliefs. The precepts of any one religion – any belief system – cannot, by force of their religious origins, sound any louder in the general law than the precepts of any other. If they did, those out in the cold would be less than citizens; and our constitution would be on the way to a theocracy, which is of necessity autocratic. The law of a theocracy is dictated without option to the people, not made by their judges and governments. The individual conscience is free to accept such dictated law; but the State, if its people are to be free, has the burdensome duty of thinking for itself.
So it is that the law must firmly safeguard the right to hold and express religious belief; equally firmly, it must eschew any protection of such a belief’s content in the name only of its religious credentials. Both principles are necessary conditions of a free and rational regime. (http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2010/B1.html)
I’ve been to many interesting meetings, including the BHA’s Voltaire Lecture – this year Brian Cox on ‘The value of Big Science: CERN, the LHC and the exploration of the Universe’ and Bentham Lecture – Janet Radcliffe Richards on ‘The Darwin Wars and the Battle of the Sexes: The Sceptical Feminist Thirty Years On’ – each followed by dinner with the speaker. An emergency Rationalist Association board meeting kept me from the Darwin lecture, and the Holyoake lecture is too far away up in Manchester, but next March we have a Shelley lecture in Oxford to mark the 200th anniversary of The Necessity of Atheism which I shall certainly go to.
Then there have been some good conferences – among them a two-day conference in Oxford on Law, Religion and Education and the annual meeting in Cardiff of the Law and Religion Scholars Network. This came as part of a great concatenation of engagements, starting with a Monday afternoon INSET session for teachers at a Newham school, from which I went straight to Cardiff for the all-day conference next day, returning to London that evening just in time for the last Eurostar of the day to Brussels for two meetings next day in the European Parliament and back to London grateful that a meeting that evening had been postponed!
Non-humanist meetings included the BBC’s Michael Lyons at the Voice of the Listener and Viewer; a day conference of the Centre for Inquiry on alternative medicine; several sessions at the peculiar (contrarian) Institute of Ideas Battle of Ideas weekend; Tariq Modood on varieties of secularism at UCL (very moderate but he seemed in essence to want a modified type of establishment that extended the Church of England’s privileges to Islam!); a seminar on the Lisbon Treaty at the offices of the European Parliament in London; and a meeting of the (vital) Libel Reform Campaign – Britain’s libel laws are so repressive that pharma companies are using them to prevent doctors reporting problems with treatments.
Another packed meeting was a lecture at LSE by Geoffrey Robertson QC based on the (superb must-read) Penguin Special he wrote in advance of the Pope’s visit. This is a devastating account of the failure of the Vatican to deal with the scandal of sexual assaults by priests on children and of the way Canon Law, so far from being a method of tackling the problem, is actually a way of hushing it up (it requires even the victim to be sworn to total secrecy on pain of excommunication). It goes on to analyse the Lateran Treaty (by which Mussolini bought Vatican support for fascism in return for gifting it alleged statehood) and the way the Holy See has clawed its way into the United Nations and other international bodies and uses its position to block measures designed to advance family planning, the dignity of women, equality for LGBTs and any other liberal cause that offends some mediaeval scholastic principle of so-called natural law. Highly recommended!
Robertson was a speaker at the hugely successful demonstration on 18 September not against the Pope’s visit but against it being a state visit. The BHA was the principal organiser of the Protest the Pope coalition (I spoke at a meeting in Richmond and twice on BBC radio). For the march we thought we might get 1,500-2,000 people if we were lucky but in the event we got ten times as many (even the police conceded 12,000 and that was before the march started). When we reached Whitehall the police actually told us to move further up towards Parliament Square as the tail of the march was still in Haymarket! It was an immensely good humoured demonstration: placards included ‘Get your rosaries off my ovaries’ and ‘Abstinence makes the Church grow Fondlers’! But on the march were numbers of victims of priestly abuse, one brave young woman whom I’d met at Richmond holding a placard saying ‘Raped at 6 – waiting for justice at 28’ and as a result giving endless radio and TV interviews along the way.
Robertson’s book provided the material for my plenary intervention at the OSCE conference in Warsaw in October, when I pointed out how the Holy See (a full OSCE member) acted in a thoroughly undiplomatic manner by interfering in the internal politics of other member states (threats of excommunication if Catholic politicians did not toe the line) and in their administration of justice (not reporting crimes by priests and even hiding them and giving them refuge abroad). We handed out bulk-purchased copies of the book to all and sundry. The EHF held a side-meeting on the Lautsi case; we still await the result of Italy’s Grand Chamber appeal against the European Court of Human Rights’ trenchant judgement in favour of secularism. I also drafted our would-be intervention in the case, rejected by the Court, which nevertheless admitted several much more shoddily argued hostile interventions.
It has in fact been the European Humanist Federation that has taken up the bulk of my time this year: endless administration, organisation, website updating, meetings and just monitoring what is going on in the EU, OSCE, Council of Europe and other countries so as to be able to put our oar in where needed. I’ve also had several academics wanting to consult me about religion and belief in Europe, particularly in the EU. There have been five meetings of the European Parliament Platform for Secularism in Politics, four of them preceded by meetings of its new advisory board of core NGOs, in which the EHF plays a leading role. In January we had a successful lobby of the European Parliament, with ten people from ten EHF member organisations in seven countries having meetings with 15 MEPs and the assistants to two others in a single day. I had extra trips to Brussels for meetings with other MEPs including the leader of the ALDE (liberal) group, Guy Verhofstadt, who is supportive, and other people, and am due to go over next week for a meeting with the Belgian PM qua Council president. We had our annual meeting in Stockholm (another city, like Vienna, made pleasant by the lack of high-rise buildings – arriving early, I had time for some sightseeing, including the almost completely preserved 64-gun warship Vasa that sank on her maiden voyage in 1628 ).
I went to Cordoba (in Andalucia) in May to represent the EHF at a conference sponsored by the then Spanish presidency of the EU Council and by the UN’s Alliance of Civilisations and attended by about 200 people from across Europe – academics, religious figures, politicians, diplomats and representatives of a variety of NGOs. There was a persistent blindness in the conference papers – even in the title of the conference (Religious Freedom in Democratic Societies) to the existence of non-religious beliefs let alone the fact that a third to a half of Europeans are not religious. When I spoke up on this, I got pleasingly strong support from the hall – though it was not reflected in the concluding reports. It was, however, a generally useful occasion – and I had the experience, albeit in a coachful of delegates, of being escorted from the hotel to the conference centre by police motorcyclists who looped ahead of us to stop the traffic at every road junction so that we could sweep straight through!
One of the EHF’s main concerns is the way the ‘Article 17’ dialogue with religions and non-religious beliefs is being put into effect by the EU Commission. The churches have numerous meetings with EU officials, topped by the annual symbolic meeting between the presidents of the Council, Commission and Parliament with leaders from many religions. Barroso has refused to allow the non-religious into this summit meeting and has under EHF pressure invented instead a parallel gathering (which took place in October) at which he seems determined to minimise the role of the EHF, despite its 42 member organisations in 20+ countries. Of the 30 people invited to represent what the Treaty calls ‘philosophical and non-confessional organisations’, about two-thirds were freemasons (often secularist in Europe) and only two came from the EHF, with another four from member organisations picked by the Commission. Our request to nominate people from our member organisations who had something to say on the topic of the meeting (poverty and social exclusion) was rejected. Some of the other organisations invited are tiny – Atheist Ireland, with two invitations, has only a handful of members. This unfair treatment we see as the result of our activism: we shall be pursuing it in 2011.
The whole operation of Article 17 a major worry: the churches have made clear in a detailed submission that they now expect to intervene in every EU body and to be consulted in advance about the EU’s legislative programme. There is no way we can match them. I was invited to a significant conference at Aston University on the subject and wrote a detailed paper but was gallingly struck by a powerful virus on the day I was meant to go there to deliver it: it was all I could do to send an e-mail apology! Nevertheless the paper was circulated and may be published next year.
And so to the culture! As I said, I have missed out on exhibitions this year, but Van Gogh at the Royal Academy was worth putting up with the crowds – I recall some remarkable large charcoal sketches of peasants and a stunning still life of oranges. More recently I very much enjoyed the Thomas Lawrence portraits at the NPG. Another rarity was a visit to the cinema but The White Ribbon was worth it: a depiction of corruption and persecution the more powerful for its low-key monochrome presentation.
Music (apart from the Aldburgh Festival) included my friend the soprano Emma Dogliani in a concert performance of Gluck’s lovely Orfeo e Euridice at St John’s Smith Square in a version incorporating additions by later composers (including one written by J C Bach for a revival in London in 1770 and never since performed). This was my farewell to Emma’s father, William Wynne-Willson, a remarkable gentle polymath, who had transcribed the Bach manuscript but died later in the year from cancer. I made it to only one of this year’s Sutton House (NT Tudor mansion in the middle of Hackney) recitals but it was excellent: the Greenwich Trio playing Beethoven and Mendelssohn with vigour and musicality. And this year’s innovation was high-definition live relays at the Everyman cinema in Hampstead from the Metropolitan Opera in New York: Der Rosenkavalier and (with Miranda) Rossini’s Armida (these two with the superlative Renée Fleming) and Das Rheingold – for which I missed the last and most interesting session of the Oxford conference referred to above only to find that the digital projector had broken down, so that we got sound only (and our money back). Last night we had Verdi’s Don Carlo – wonderful!
Let me pick the highlights from my three dozen theatre trips this year! Those of you who have been receiving this letter for long enough will recall my remarking in 1998 on the memorable experience of Fiona Shaw performing T S Eliot’s The Wasteland at Wilton’s Music Hall near Tower Bridge. She revived it in the same venue in January and her performance was even more packed with detail and allusion and character. I wish she would record it!
The National Theatre had a good year with some outstanding productions, some of which I saw more than once! Among these was Dion Boucicault’s hilarious 1842 romp London Assurance, with Simon Russell Beale and Fiona Shaw, which I saw in March with Sheila and in June with Lindsay and Iona. The first occasion was a complimentary ‘thank you’ for NT volunteers (I have continued to give the odd day as an ‘angel’ in their fundraising Development Department) preceded by a reception where I had a short chat with Nicholas Hytner, the NT director. He said that even after press night he returns every couple of weeks to make sure his productions are still working right. Then there came Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard, which combined drama, tenderness, comedy and tragedy in sheer perfection (it shows the plight of the Ukrainian aristocracy loyal to imperial Russia in 1918 squeezed between retreating Germans, ruthless peasant nationalists and advancing Russian communists) which I saw three times (I’d go again if they revived it!) – with Miranda with complimentary ‘angels’ tickets, with Sheila, and later with Lindsay and Kath and Michael from Australia – with whom next day I also saw a revival at the Old Vic of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, with Toby Stephens outstanding – another play worth seeing again – which I did (with Miranda) a month later.
No more repeats! The NT welcomed two superlative productions from the Northampton Royal and Derngate theatre of early plays by American masters: Beyond the Horizon by Eugene O’Neill (intense and well constructed) and Tennessee Williams’ equally dramatic Spring Storm. Another early play was Terence Rattigan’s After the Dance which he regarded as a failure and suppressed after it closed when war broke out: but it is a fine play of intense psychological observation and was marvellously directed by Thea Sharrock with very fine performances by Nancy Carroll and Benedict Cumberbatch.
Miranda and I saw Arthur Miller’s The Crucible powerfully performed on a chilly June evening at the Open Air Theatre in Regents’ Park; the next month the NT transported Sheila and me to Africa for a highly original take on the Theban myths set in a war-torn African republic: Welcome to Thebes by Moira Buffini, remarkable for its array of parts for middle-aged women, all of them really strong. After Sam Mendes’ first class double bill at the Old Vic last year for his US/UK Bridge Project, this year’s As You Like It and The Tempest were slightly disappointing – Stephen Dillane was a muted, laid-back Prospero – and the brasserie at the Oxo Tower provided Miranda and me with mediocre food in the interval. Dillane redeemed himself, however, a couple of nights ago when Miranda and I went to see The Master Builder at the Almeida: this was a fine production that brought out all the complexity of the play and also featured a fine performance by Gemma Arterton (Tamara Drewe in the eponymous film) as (to quote one review) the ‘voraciously innocent’ Hilde.
Sadly I found Nick Hytner’s Hamlet with the generally reliable Rory Kinnear disappointing: it did not stand up to the RSC’s version last year with David Tennant, lacking subtlety and inwardness. But it has had excellent reviews: perhaps I was having an ‘off’ night. Other wonderful evenings out were provided by Kleist’s Prince of Homburg at the Donmar, Miller’s All My Sons at the Apollo and Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie at the Young Vic – and by a host of other productions I must pass over so as to leave a little room for some books!
I’ve recently read A Truth Universally Acknowledged by Susannah Carson – a delightful collection of ‘33 reasons why we can’t stop reading Jane Austen’ – essays by people like Somerset Maugham, Virginia Woolf, David Lodge, C S Lewis, A S Byatt, Fay Weldon and so on. The essays include stories of tracking down the manuscripts – some still in family ownership on a farm near Deal (via Jane’s rich Kent relatives) only 50 years ago – and advocacy of the rival merits of each novel – a surprising number of people are prepared to defend Mansfield Park as the best of all. But most of all the essays dwell on the implied and explicit morality of the characters, and here they abound with insights. Other interesting observations include that a reference to a ‘natural daughter’ in the 1811 edition of Sense and Sensibility was omitted in the 1813 edition – maybe as c19th propriety began to stir; that the plots of four of the novels depend on unduly tardy self-knowledge on the part of the heroine; and that there is an almost complete absence of personal description or indeed of description of landscape or houses or even of balls (forget the screen adaptations and go back to Netherfield in Pride and Prejudice and you will find, it seems, nothing but that Elizabeth had ‘dressed with more than usual care’ and that they entered a drawing room and ate cold ham and chicken for supper – no gowns, candlelight, bands, flowers or uniforms. Also absent are the servants who must have been ubiquitous in the families she describes.
Highly recommended for sheer amusement as well as political insight are Chris Mullins’ diaries – I read those covering from 1999 to the 2005 election – indiscreet, vivid and full of anecdote and revelation. He had an healthy attitude to work: he would not allow the red boxes into his home, preferring to work late at the office; he avoided as long as possible having either an official car or a pager; he avoided pointless work and deplored (and usually rewrote) the turgid speeches he was often expected to deliver. His career in the foothills of Government was frustrating in its powerlessness until he got to be the minister for Africa in the Department for International Development, a job that gave him scope to have some real effect but that he lost after the 2005 election. Before and between his ministerial service he was an active backbencher and chair of the Home Affairs select committee (where he admired the young David Cameron) and a member of the little known (Labour) Parliamentary Committee which regularly met the prime minister to pass on backbench opinion and be briefed from on high. His judgements are usually perceptive but not always sound at first (he changes his mind over Prescott, for example, as he sees more of his political capacity) but he admires Blair for his brilliant presentation and political capacity while deploring his kowtowing to the Americans and decisions over Iraq; and he finds that Gordon Brown’s single-minded ambition and surreptitious sniping at Blair outweigh his ability as chancellor. Mullin comes across as an immensely likeable man of principle and sensible values. I’m glad that there are other volumes I’ve still got to read.
Politics again but more seriously: Rumy Hasan’s Multiculturalism – some inconvenient truths is a powerful, sustained and well informed attack on multiculturalism in its interpretation as separate provision – and over-deference – to group (especially Islamic) customs and values. Hasan shows how the policy pursued by the Government over the last decade or more leads to ‘parallel lives’ with different communities insulated from each other. One result is that women and despised minorities within the group are severely oppressed. He questions the whole existence on any significant scale of Islamophobia, defends universal human values and argues for integration and conditional respect. ‘Freedom of cultural and religious expression has too often transgressed into freedom of cultural and religious oppression and so has become, in reality, a carte blanche for all manner of abuses, obscurantist practices, and domination by predominantly male community and “religious leaders”, with only the most egregious beliefs, practices and traditions being deemed out of bounds. Autonomy for communities does not translate into autonomy for members of ghettoised religious-ethnic minority communities: rather, “from birth . . . their lives are dictated by incessant levels of intervention. . .”’
This is a book that should be widely read – as is the late Lord (Tom) Bingham’s The Rule of Law, a splendid short exposition and defence of rule of law by the former Master of the Rolls. He is particularly good on the question of torture, abolished of course in English common law (not, as is so often suggested, by the Human Rights Act) as long ago as the fifteenth century. Blackstone and Coke contrasted England’s advanced practice with the abuses found across the Channel – though the practice actually continued into the 17th century in the royal prerogative courts such as the Star Chamber. Abolition swept across the rest of Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries – yet we are still today assaulted by outrage that suspected terrorists cannot be deported to places where they would undoubtedly face torture. Bingham has an extended treatment of terrorism in a later chapter, defending the courts for standing up to unprincipled politicians. In the main part of the book he defines in successive chapters the elements that make up rule of law – accessibility of the law, proceeding according to defined laws, not the discretion of those in power, equality before the law, human rights, fair trial and so on. He looks at international questions and ends with an interesting chapter questioning whether ultimately rule of law is compatible with the sovereignty of Parliament in the absence of a written constitution with entrenched guarantees. Absorbing stuff!
I started the year with The Age of Austerity, a Penguin edited by Michael Sissons and Philip French which had been sitting on my shelf since 1965 but merited reading long ago! It is a series of essays on aspects of the period of the 1945 Labour government, seen from the vantage point of twelve years after it collapsed. It covers foreign affairs (the withdrawal from India, Greece and from Palestine), domestic problems (the food shortage, spivs, the BMA’s resistance to creation of the NHS, the Lynskey tribunal – how innocent!) and culture (the New Look, writing by Angela Thirkell, Christopher Fry and T S Eliot, the woes of the film industry and the start of TV, the Festival of Britain), and politics (the 1945 election, Stafford Cripps, the nationalisation of steel) by writers then young who later made a mark, David Marquand, Peter Jenkins and Michael Frayn among them. These well written and entertaining pieces paint a vivid picture of a period already seeming distant in 1963 but now almost alien. I followed this up with David Kynaston’s A World to Build – Austerity Britain 1945-48, the first part of his projected history from 1945 to 1979. This is wonderfully evocative, rich with quotations from contemporary diaries, letters and reports, questioning the myths but giving a realistic appraisal of an amazing few years in a forgotten and almost unimaginable world: the victory celebrations followed immediately by the political revolution of a Labour government, the faith in planning as a solution to everything, competing visions of the future, the modernist rebuilding of Coventry and the beginnings of new towns (with remarkably little opposition), the difficulty in facing up to Britain’s poverty and reduced world status, and the desperate shortages of everything, consistently growing worse, with queues out into the street from shops that had a fresh supply, rationing widening its scope and rations constantly cut so that a week’s supplies for a family could easily be consumed today by one person. The great freeze of January to March 1947 gets several pages – I can remember it well (for a five-year-old): bitter cold indoors, a tiny coal fire in the centre of the grate, piles of dirty frozen snow and ice in the streets. And of course the fascinating fern-like frost patterns on the inside of bedroom windows – but they were standard for winter in those days before central heating.
History from an earlier period came in Thomas Levenson’s Newton and the Counterfeiter, a short biography of Isaac Newton wrapped round a detailed account of his time as Warden of the Royal Mint and his titanic struggle with the criminal gangs that seriously threatened the value of the currency by counterfeiting and coin clipping (there were two types of coinage then in circulation, the old type vulnerable to clipping by having unmilled edges). Newton’s chief antagonist was William Chaloner, a counterfeiter-cum-conman who for years kept up a respectable front advising the Treasury on how to combat counterfeiting and even gave evidence to official enquiries and denounced Newton as inefficient and wrong-headed. Newton’s problem was that Britain’s silver coinage was worth more as bullion abroad than its face value in England. He masterminded a total re-issue of all coinage in far less time than seemed possible. The desperate need for revenue led to early experiments in paper currency in the shape of lottery tickets backed by the expected revenue from the tax on ‘malt’ or beer which had a guaranteed face value. These of course Chaloner forged, but this led to his downfall, caught when betrayed by his accomplices who yielded to rewards and pressure from James Vernon, the secretary of state. Chaloner was prosecuted and, despite his best prevarications from the dock, finally hanged. The book reads easily with a fast pace of narrative and colourful conjuring of the London of the time. Newton emerges as an obsessive and rather unpleasant man.
I also read AD 381, a follow-up by Charles Freeman to his marvellous The Closing of the Western Mind. It concentrates on the few years during which the Roman emperors – especially Theodosius – got sucked into dictating to their unruly bishops a resolution of their insoluble but often violent and disruptive disputes over the nature of Jesus (of the same substance as God, or a similar substance, pre-existing his human birth or not, divine during his lifetime or only (before and?) afterwards, etc) and of the Trinity (what exactly is the Holy Spirit?). These disputes were often settled locally by mobs battling against each other to seize churches and sees, and this mattered as the bishops were increasingly assuming a political and administrative role in both the collapsing western empire and (more particularly) the theocratic eastern empire. But Theodosius’s backing for the Nicene creed came at the price of declaring all other beliefs heresy and criminal, stamping out the freedom of thought and speculation that had been the mark of (especially) Greek intellectual life for centuries. Notwithstanding the chaotic and rigged nature of most of the church synods at which emperors laid down the law, later theology – from Augustine but up to the present day – has ignored the historical record and maintained that their outcome was the inevitable result of careful, systematic spiritual and theological examination!
Melissa Katsoulis’s Telling Tales is a history of literary hoaxes – fifty-three short narrations of mainly modern hoaxes, a few designed to entrap the pretentious (like the famous Ern Malley poems, one of a disproportionate number of Australian cases, or William Boyd’s invention of the neglected painter Nat Tate, whom everyone turned out to have long admired, or of course the Alan Sokal spoof post-modern academic paper), some designed to make money (like William Ireland’s forged Shakespeareana that culminated – and collapsed – with the staging of his spoof play Vortigern), others more the result of a disturbed personality (like numbers of modern faked misery memoirs). Some are attempts by failing writers to make a new start (Romain Gary won the prix Goncourt both in his own name and again – against the rules – when his alter ego the invented Algerian Emile Ajar won it for a novel that was translated in to 22 language and made into a film), yet others the work of religious enthusiasts determined to provide evidence for their beliefs where perversely none was currently available! Then, of course, there was the runaway success of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (on which The Da Vinci Code was based) – complete invention from beginning to end but backed by the surreptitious placing of fake documents in the official French archives. This is a romping good read that leaves you both amazed at the gullibility of some people and (inconsistently) sorry for the publishers who got hooked by a plausible author and found themselves with a best-seller they had to denounce.
I’m currently reading a novel (unusual for me – but I have to admit romping through Wodehouse’s six main Blandings novels during the summer: perfection of language, impossibly complex plots, characters of quintessential English eccentricity). Most of you will probably already have read Hilary Mantel’s masterly Wolf Hall – the first part of her brilliantly evocative fictional life of Thomas Cromwell. This has led to me dipping into Geoffrey Elton’s England Under The Tudors to compare fact and fiction. I’m also reading Robin Lane Fox’s Pagans and Christians – but unsure if I shall complete all three volumes! So far it has demonstrated conclusively that the gods of the Greeks and Romans were not empty Olympian myths to them but living presences, especially in their local manifestations.
There were other books during the year but enough! Time presses and if you are to get this letter timeously I must bring it to a conclusion with the best of wishes for Christmas and the new year.