As I start writing this letter the sun is shining brightly and it is difficult to realise it is already almost halfway through December. Last year the weather was much more wintry. Almost a year ago today I went to Bletchley Park with a group of the archaeologists that I have dug with from time to time in the last few years (though not in 2011). With thick snow on the ground there were travel warnings and most of the party never arrived. The few of us who made it had our guided tour cut short when the snow came down in a blizzard, perceptibly thicker on the ground by the minute – a shame as the place is worth a much longer visit that we had.
I ended last year and started this with several days sorting out my archives! I have about 50 archive boxes in my loft: my humanist records (dating back to 1961) were already in order, but now I sorted out everything else (school, Oxford, National Coal Board, Hackney Council, Labour Party, ASH, and so on). I threw out some stuff (not much!) and found new homes for more – the London Business School was interested for their own archives in my papers from courses in 1968 and 1976, Liberty in a pile of old NCCL reports and papers, for example.
What then of 2011? It has been a year of very heavy work for the European Humanist Federation (EHF), crowding out other things: happily, an end is in sight, as I end my term as president at the end of May. It’s a year when I planned a holiday – in Libya! – and when that was cancelled, I booked one instead in Jordan and Syria! So, no real holiday, but I added a few days to both the EHF and International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) meetings, in Genoa and Oslo respectively. There’s been little time to work in the garden, but I had to call in a firm to re-line the ‘stream’ as it was leaking badly: this required the brick capping to be removed and then replaced but they did it all in less than a day.
It’s also the year in which my ex-wife Lois returned to the UK after many years in Sydney in her native Australia (where Lindsay spent Christmas with her in 2010). She came back for a month in April/May, staying with us part of the time, and then returned for good in September, again staying here a week before moving to a rented flat locally. She is in course of buying a house in Rochester, Kent. I had a very pleasant day with her in November, driving to Cambridge for the Vermeer exhibition at the Fitzwilliam. Lois continues her voluntary work at village level in Uganda and is going out there again in the spring.
Lindsay remains very busy, and continues living here (though he moved in with a girlfriend for a few months during the year). He and Sam worked hard to complete their film for HBO – and to HBO’s specification (he who pays the piper. . .) so that it has ended up with the emphasis on the romance of Tommy and Edith meeting as teenagers in an internment camp in occupied Hungary, their separate escapes and survival, and their meeting again actually during the filming of Tommy’s story, leaving them living together as a couple getting on for 70 years after they met. It is being shown on TV in Hungary in a few days’ time and HBO plan then to show it elsewhere in central Europe before trying to sell it round the world.
Linds is now moving on to two other projects. One is with Tom (with whom he produced the Moochowski comics a few years ago). Tom is now working for the animation company that produced the dinosaur animations for the recent BBC series, and he and Linds are putting together a proposal for an animated TV series with a family resemblance to Moochowski: they are already doing a strip for the magazine Stool Pigeon featuring their new characters.
The other project is for a documentary-style graphic novel about the last days of the civil war in Sri Lanka, told from the Tamil side. This would be in collaboration with someone who was there working for the UN and has a considerable range of relevant connections and a big photographic archive. Linds is joining him in Tamil Nadu for some background research in the new year but the project will depend on persuading someone to finance it. They are presenting it at the Hay festival in May/June.
This year saw us four brothers getting together for the first time for many years. Malcolm was over from New Zealand with Regan for a visit and he, Kenneth & Geoffrey came here at the start of May and stayed overnight. We talked non-stop and watched a lot of old family videos. Ken’s daughter Lucy (now working at GCHQ) came to lunch with me and Linds in March, and Linds and I had a very pleasant lunch with her sister Tavy at her flat in Baron’s Court in May. Geoff has stayed here once or twice (generally on the eve of a Crystal Palace home match!). I also called on my auntie Ruth in April after a speaking engagement with the Dorset Humanists and was glad to find her well and still bird watching in her attractive garden at the age of 86. Her youngest son Graham came round while I was there.
My family genealogy website (http://www.david-pollock. me.uk/docs/family-intro.htm) attracts a few emails each year, and one came some time ago from a very distant relative, Stephen Pollock-Hill, who has over the last couple of years sent me relevant material that he has researched and rebuked me for repeating from another website what he is certain is wrong, that Fulbert, our earliest known ancestor, was a Saxon. Apparently Fulbert is a Breton name and not a Saxon one, and Fulbert was almost certainly a Norman who was born soon after the conquest. Stephen runs a glassworks at Nazeing just north of London and invited me to lunch there in August, producing endless papers and books relating to early family history. I have not yet found time to correct my website!
Other family news was not so happy. Two of my cousins died during the year, both daughters of my father’s older sister Marjorie – Diane of cancer in March and Jacqueline of pneumonia a few days ago. They were two of seven siblings who have always been admirably close and the other five must be feeling their loss severely.
Two close friends also died during the year. Sean Lawlor, father of Lindsay’s friend and film collaborator Sam, died very young of a brain tumour in August. He was a world expert on Samuel Beckett, as was testified by the many academics who came to his funeral, and he managed before the end to complete a book, to be published next year, on Beckett’s poetry. And at the end of May Barbara Mills died suddenly while apparently in the best of health. She was director of public prosecutions before her (semi-)retirement and a distinguished lawyer as demonstrated by the tributes at her memorial meeting in Middle Temple Hall in September.
She was the sister of my friend Sheila with whom I often go to the theatre, husband of Angus (John) who runs a very successful business and writes books on economic policy. Our friendship went back to holidays when I joined Barbara and Angus, Dick & Sheila and their families on the canals in the early 1970s. Angus invited me to join him, Sheila and her new partner David (confusing!) at his mas near Avignon for a very pleasant weekend at the end of August: Angus flew us out and back in his private jet from Luton – luxury!
Sheila was host as usual for our January gathering of Tony & Phyllis from Derbyshire and Mike and Camilla from Sussex, joined now by the new David. Our main excursion was to the Royal Opera House, first for a backstage tour (insulated from the real business by glass windows!) and in the evening for the Barber of Seville. We all gathered again chez Tony & Phyllis in July for a few days in Derbyshire including a trip to the Buxton Opera to see a fine performance of Donizetti’s late opera Maria di Rohan. And in September we all visited Mike and Camilla in Sussex and went to Battle Abbey and the battlefield (worth at least a detour!) and Lewes and its ruined priory that was rediscovered when the railway was driven through the site in the nineteenth century.
My old Oxford friend Henry, the philosophy professor from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, has been on sabbatical leave this year and spent most of it with his wife France at Padua university (where I visited him – see below). They stayed with me on and off for a month in April (we visited Oxford to go to the BHA’s inaugural Shelley lecture, and Kew Gardens) and Henry came again in October, working hard on philosophical papers, but we had some good talk. We also met over a pub lunch an old friend from the Oxford University Humanist Group, Pete Binns: loads of old memories – I am thinking of maybe organising an OUHG reunion next year.
I went to the 40th anniversary reception of ASH at the Commons in June – an enjoyable reunion that showed that ASH is still vigorous in its pursuit of public health. Going back further, our small group of former Coal Board Staff Department friends had its annual lunch in September – and may convene for a weekend next year at the French house of one of our number near Honfleur. And from even further back, I visited in June an old schoolfriend (primary & grammar) who found me on the Web!
Another memorable occasion was a day trip to Paris in February with Miranda for an excellent lunch at La Mariette (rue Bosquin – highly recommended) and a visit to the Musée Marmottan and its special Monet exhibition (we’d missed out on tickets for the main Monet exhibition but this was a very good substitute). Then there was Justin’s weekend party at his place in Shaldon (one of four events by which he celebrated his 65th birthday!) complete with a superb picnic on the beach – in October! – and a weekend of walks from a base (in the railway station building!) at Darsham near Southwold with the walking group to which I very nominally belong (I generally manage the January walk which is followed by their organising ‘AGM’ and about one other during the year). The other local group I belong to, which we call the Wrinklies to indicate that we are all getting on a bit, is about to call me from writing this letter. We have occasional speakers – one this year told us about insulating our houses but seemed a bit over-zealous, recommending up to six inches of external cladding on Victorian terraces!
One of the Wrinklies has written a play based on her own experience of living next door to Hasidic Jews in Stamford Hill: when they moved in they objected strongly to her infra-red- operated front porch light, since its range covered their front path so that they were liable to illuminate it unlawfully on the Sabbath. Her play is admirably even-handed and perceptive: I went to a rehearsed reading at the Arcola and it may well be produced next year.
The Hasidic community is at the root of much concern locally arising from the Government’s new planning regime: we are worried that it will once again open the way to uncontrolled roof and rear extensions of houses and yet more conversions of houses to synagogues and schools – private schools, that is, where Hasidic boys learn the Talmud by heart. These are sadly too often bad neighbours. We have had two meetings during the year on the subject with particular reference to the Localism Act. We’ve also got a battle on our hands with Sainsbury’s, which wants to develop a huge new supermarket with flats above on a small car park behind Stoke Newington Church Street. It would be a huge intrusion, create dreadful traffic problems (not least with delivery lorries), requiring demolition to provide access, and severely threaten the remarkable collection of independent shops in Church Street. A group was quickly formed to resist the plan and I took part in a protest march in October. We are suspicious about a temporary withdrawal of the plans.
I continued at the start of the year doing monthly days at the National Theatre helping in their Development office but decided not to continue as I was too busy to spare the time and the work had become too routine. On my last day they surprised me with a very warm vote of thanks and an upgrading of my NT membership for a year to the £500 supporting cast level! I am hoping to start some new voluntary work at Hackney Archives, but this is on hold until after a long-delayed move of premises.
The thing that has kept me really busy all year is the European Humanist Federation. I have been president since 2006 and for the last three years in effect general secretary also as noone else was willing. It has been something approaching a full-time job, not least this year because I’ve also been producing an entirely new and expanded website on the basis of a template designed for us professionally – see www.humanistfederation.eu. Every page transferred needed reformatting and every link had to be replaced! The site currently has 471 pages and over 300 attached pdfs, some of which are very substantial documents. But the new site is a great improvement – visits have gone up sharply – and includes three new pages on each country in Europe.
A big job early in the year was setting up a Europe-wide network of organisations in favour of a secular Europe – human rights, women’s, gay, humanist, secularist, liberal religious and other bodies opposed to the pervasive and too often reactionary religious influence on politics. This email network of getting on for 100 organisations is now beginning to function as intended, with calls for support in lobbying governments or the European bodies. Our opponents – the reactionary evangelical and Catholic lobbies – are, of course, far better organised and financed than we are, and they wield considerable influence.
The year has seen one significant development: like the churches, we now have meetings with each revolving presidency of the EU Council of Ministers. This started with Belgium and has continued with Hungary and Poland. For us this is more important as a matter of equal treatment than for its substance, though we have briefed ourselves thoroughly and raised serious matters at each meeting – and recorded the meetings in detail on our website. In Belgium we met the acting prime minister, Yves Leterme; in Budapest and in Warsaw we met government ministers. The first and the last were day trips but I extended the visit to Budapest to do some sightseeing – including the extraordinary Monument Park where they have set up heroic statues and plaques from the city’s Communist era and provide a detailed guide-book commentary on the background – story and truth – about each (the hero of the revolution on the left was popularly known as “the forgetful cloakroom attendant”!), and they also show a compilation of secret police training films on how to tail someone secretly, or openly so as to intimidate, or question a suspect, plant a bug, use a dead letter drop, recruit informers and so on! I also did a tour of the magnificent opera house and went to the opera (a strange production of Strauss’s Elektra which ended with Orestes turning a machine gun on not just Clytemnestra but even Elektra herself!)
The year also saw the European Court of Human Rights’ Grand Chamber (appeal) judgement in the Lautsi case (about compulsory display of crucifixes in every Italian classroom). This produced a 180-degree reversal of the original ruling in a judgement that was notable for its perverse – or even absent – logic: certainly the result of huge political pressure from Italy and eastern and central Europe, the Vatican and the Orthodox churches. The poor quality of the judgement was in effect admitted by one of the opposing counsel when I questioned him after a lecture he gave in London in September.
Early in the year a British MP, Mike Connarty, who is one of the UK members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, tipped us off that the PACE committee on culture, science and education was producing a report on intercultural dialogue (this is in effect code for the place of religion in society) and had invited a string of priests, rabbis and imams to their next meeting. I quickly prepared a paper, based on the extensive one I wrote for the EU-financed Religare academic collaboration (see http://humanistfederation.eu /wp-content/uploads/2011/09/160-EHF-submission -to-Religare-project.pdf) and sent it in. As a result I was invited to join the religious representatives at the Committee’s meeting in the Senate building in Paris – and the resulting recommendation from PACE to the Committee of Ministers includes a high-level dialogue involving humanists as well as religions. This dialogue is likely to start next year.
We held our annual EHF conference in Genoa, mainly in the magnificent Palazzo Ducale, with a mainly Italian attendance of over 400. Our business meeting was held in an upstairs room off a mediaeval gallery round an atrium with windows on one side directly opening onto the piazza outside. Very soon a big strike meeting started outside our room, with loudly amplified speeches, banners and shouting. As we continued, strikers surged noisily up to the gallery outside, hung banners from the windows overlooking the piazza and let off orange smoke bombs that quickly made our room unusable! Another business meeting was held in the Palazzo Tursi where the mayor of Genoa welcomed us warmly.
After our conference I took a few days off to cross to Padua to stay with Henry and France. They were renting a comfortable and cool flat in the centre of the town (where there is almost no traffic – just ancient buildings, restaurants and markets!). We saw Galileo’s observatory (much altered since his day!) and house (still lived in), the (west-facing) duomo and the baptistery with its magnificent frescos, the Giotto frescos in another chapel, and the ancient Palace of Reason above the covered market with its almost comic-strip frescos and huge wooden horse. Mainly, it was a relaxing time, with discussion on philosophical points over wine and good meals.
Other trips for EHF included Warsaw (again) for the OSCE’s annual human rights conference, which I attended with Vera Pegna, the admirable Italian woman who has represented us there for years (on a visit to London in July she came here for lunch); Luxembourg for a two-day Council of Europe conference on intercultural dialogue where we talked about the media and religion and non-religious beliefs (my train from Brussels was delayed by over two hours by leaves on the line!), and endless trips (actually 11) to Brussels for our own board meetings, meetings of the European Parliament Platform for Secularism in Politics (EPPSP) and its advisory board, and meetings with EU and other people.
Our difficult relations with the (religiously inclined) office of EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso came to a head during the year. Last year, having offered to subsidise a conference for us, they rejected our chosen topic (on resolving conflicts between freedom of religion or belief and equality and non-discrimination) on the ludicrous grounds that we ‘wanted to talk about religion, which was outside the terms of reference of the Commission’. In vain did we reply that the topic was not religion but the law on non-discrimination and was plainly within their ambit, given that they issued directives on non-discrimination, had a commissioner for civil liberties, a charter of fundamental rights and a fundamental rights agency. They closed the exchange of letters by saying that conferences were not appropriate under Article 17: we should instead seek the sort of small ‘dialogue seminar’ that the churches have been having since the early 1990s.
So this year we proposed a seminar with EU officials on the same subject – and were again rejected, on the same grounds. This time we approached the head of Barroso’s cabinet privately, using a friendly retired senior Commission official as intermediary, and at a meeting in mid-June he was promised a reply by the end of the month. By the end of September, with no response despite reminders, we decided to go ahead with the letter direct to Barroso that we had shown his aide in draft, to which we asked for a reply within two weeks. When nothing came, we sent a complaint to the EU Ombudsman that the Commission was refusing to implement its Treaty obligation of a dialogue with us and issued a press release in multiple languages. Among the papers that reported it, the Belgian Le Soir, which we knew was read by Barroso (we have our sources!), gave us half a page with a trail on the front page. The result was that next morning we got a conciliatory letter, backdated to the previous day! After one more exchange, they finally conceded us the seminar we wanted, and we are now trying to make the arrangements.
Just after this came the annual “summit” meeting with the three EU presidents (Commission, Council and Parliament) – to which they had invited, as before, a huge preponderance of freemasons. In my contribution I went off subject to complain about the way the dialogue is run by the Commission, and Barroso made some very conciliatory noises in reply.
Later the same day there was a meeting in the European Parliament about how it should implement the mandated dialogue at which I was one of four platform speakers – the other three were freemasons! The chair was taken by Parliament vice-president Lazslo Tokes, who is a presbyterian bishop from Romania, which would not matter except that he cannot brook any criticism and takes every remark personally even when explicitly an observation on the system. The result was a very lively meeting! We are now hopeful that both the Commission and the Parliament will be more evenhanded in future.
As to the freemasons, we are beginning a dialogue with them with a view to cooperation, while simultaneously maintaining to the EU that when they take no public positions, speaking only as individuals, include religious people and indeed in some lodges/grand orients actually require religious belief, and we have 53 member organisations in 23 countries and are open and active in our campaigns, it is unjustifiable to give them such preference in a dialogue with ‘non-confessional’ organisations. (Remember, however, that these are not UK-style freemasons: after a nineteenth century schism they are not even on speaking terms! See Wikipedia: Continental Freemasonry.)
I leave the EHF board at the end of May after the next conference (at the Humanist University in Utrecht) and shall without doubt be succeeded by the president of the Belgian Centre d’Action Laique (CAL), Pierre Galand, a well-connected former Belgian senator, who will provide leadership and rely on the international unit in CAL to do the work. This should be very satisfactory, as the three staff there are keen and highly qualified.
I shall then have more time for the British Humanist Association, of which I remain a board member and active volunteer in the parliamentary campaigns team. Campaigns work with the new government is unrewarding, though we have been very active in briefing “our” MPs and (especially) Lords: not only are ministers unwilling to listen, but in meetings with our people they reveal themselves as profoundly ignorant and/or very badly briefed. But the BHA is well run, getting its finances back on a sound basis, and this year resumed its annual conference, with a highly successful event in Manchester.
I wrote a paper for and spoke at the launch in Portcullis House of a Humanist Philosophers’ Group booklet on rights to conscientious objection. A guest speaker with me was Richard Harries, the liberal former bishop of Oxford – by chance this came just two days after I had been debating with him before a large audience in Farnham on the religious basis for morality! I took on a number of other speaking engagements during the year – two sixth-form debates with clergymen at Brentwood (independent) School – in January on the existence of God and in October on the virtues of religious schools. I role-played as a reactionary evangelical in a debating workshop at the student humanist conference in February, went to Dublin in July to talk to the Irish humanists, to Wormwood Scrubs in October to talk (with a panel of Christians and others) to a large and intellectually lively audience of prisoners, and on a march in London in September to speak at a rally in Whitehall calling for a secular Europe. In May I gave a paper at the Cardiff Law School’s annual conference of its Law and Religion Scholars’ Network. There was a lot more besides!
In August we all went to Oslo for the triennial World Humanist Congress of the International Humanist and Ethical Union. This came a bare three weeks after the massacres there: windows in our conference venue and all the surrounding buildings were boarded up, the street nearby where the bomb had gone off was closed, and the chair of the conference organising committee had been on the island searching for bodies. Yet the reaction of the Norwegians was admirable – in stark contrast to what would have happened here. From the Crown Prince (who opened the Congress) down, everyone saw a need to reinforce democracy and social solidarity, to make society yet more open and equal. There were no calls for greater police powers, no calls for round-ups and detentions. There was, of course, a great sadness and pain. The massed wreaths laid in the streets were fading and pointing to the need for a new start.
The conference itself – on a theme of peace – was superb, with excellent speakers and good organisation. I chaired a session on the international institutions, myself speaking on the OSCE and Council of Europe, introducing Sophie in’t Veld MEP on the EU and Heiner Bielefeldt, the new UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, on his (entirely unpaid) work. He is a Catholic theologian but excellent on the subject and modest and friendly. We met again at one of the EPPSP meetings later in the year.
We had a speakers’ reception in the Nobel Peace Prize museum, a conference reception in the Oslo town hall, and a Congress Dinner in the new Oslo Opera House by the waterside. This wonderful building rises in a gradient from the water in a series of gentle inclines, all surfaced in white marble, that you can walk up as far as the fly tower. We started with drinks served outside in the sun before entering the foyer where round tables were laid out for about 400 or more of us. There was a jazz band playing at the start, and later a soprano from the opera, and after a good meal the IHEU awards – to two Africans, to an American academic and speaker, and then the IHEU president said “and now an award for distinguished service to Humanism by someone who is celebrating his fiftieth year in organised Humanism . . .” and I realised it meant me! I started in the Oxford University Humanist Group in January 1961 and have been involved ever since. Andrew Copson, the BHA chief executive, had picked this up and nominated me. It was very pleasing.
After the Congress, Andrew was joined by his partner Mark and a group of us, including the excellent BHA director of public affairs, Naomi Phillips, who is so sadly leaving us at the end of January for a huge increase in salary and staff elsewhere, had a few days’ sightseeing in Oslo. We went to the Viking Ships museum (two complete and beautiful ships used for burials and one fragmentary one along with a large collection of artefacts including a cart and two sledges, all with fine decorative carvings) and to the Folk Museum – a collection of rescued buildings, ranging from mediaeval to modern (1950s) that was started as long ago as the late 19th century. We visited also Vigeland Park with its extraordinary installation of sculptures by this early 20th century Norwegian sculptor: naked muscular babies, children and young adults doing all sorts of ‘strength through joy’ exercises! There is a huge monolith obelisk entirely made up of writhing bodies! They are rather unsettling en masse – and it is certainly en masse! The work was completed by the early 1930s so its totalitarian aspect is probably unjustified back-projection.
I have of course continued to go to the theatre, but the year has perhaps had more disappointments than triumphs. In the latter category, however, was certainly the National Theatre’s Frankenstein, a new play by Nick Dear superbly staged by Mark Tildesley and directed by Danny Boyle, fully occupying the large Olivier auditorium with its torrent of lights pouring down on to the stage. I saw Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature and Benedict Cumberbatch as Frankenstein (they alternated the roles but – having been back to see two cinema relays of the production, one with the reverse casting, I think this was the better version). Miller was superlative as the new-born adult creature testing his limbs and slowly learning language, betrayed by his friends and finally out for revenge. Cumberbatch as Frankenstein had the less sympathetic role but conveyed well the irresistible drive to achieve the forbidden.
Another triumph that filled the Olivier even more was Fela, a political musical that I had serious doubts about beforehand. It told the story of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the Nigerian Afro-beat pioneer and campaigner against corruption, with the action set in his club, the Shrine, in the 1970s. The walls of the auditorium were covered in posters and projections, the light show, music and dance were overwhelming but overshadowed by the story of constant police raids and persecution that he suffered – he was arrested over 200 times and his mother was even thrown from a window and killed in one raid.
Men Should Weep evoked life in the Glasgow tenements in the 1930s far more powerfully and successfully than the recent Juno and the Paycock does life in 1920s Dublin, not least because in the lattr Ciaran Hinds in particular adopts an accent so thick that for the first fifteen minutes I did not understand a word he said! Peter Hall’s Twelfth Night had a hole at the centre: I fear his daughter Rebecca was wooden and monotonous as Viola. The Holy Rosenbergs was a good family drama (with Henry Goodman in the lead) about tensions in a Jewish north London family with politics impacting on the family business. London Road was a successful experiment marrying singing with documentary reportage of the experience of neighbours of the Ipswich serial killer of prostitutes. Deborah Warner’s School for Scandal at the Barbican was a bizarre production with comic-book flats for scenery and period costume worn loosely over T-shirts and jeans. There was loud music, flashing lights and acting that crossed Sheridan with the Young Ones. Not a success. Better, but not perfect, was the NT’s Cherry Orchard with a fine set and good acting except, I fear, that Zoe Wanamaker in the lead was just not strong enough to pull it together. Albee’s A Delicate Balance (at the Almeida) was an odd play (the visitors are devices with no plausibility as characters) but had impressive performances by Tim Piggott-Smith, Imelda Staunton and Penelope Wilton.
A total success, however, was One Man, Two Guvnors, the new play by Richard Bean based on Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters. This is a total joy from beginning to end with James Corden unforgettable in the central role. I saw it twice, and it is now in the West End and likely to stay there as long as the cast can take it! Howard Brenton’s Anna Boleyn at Shakespeare’s Globe was a bit like a pageant with by-play with the audience and a James I (yes, I know it’s historically improbable!) who was a bit like Eddy Izzard – fun but light. Schiller’s early Luise Miller at the Donmar was much more dramatic and satisfying. The (transatlantic) Bridge project at the Old Vic came to an end with Richard III – Sam Mendes directed Kevin Spacey as a very physical, deformed and dangerous Richard: the concentration on the villainy meant that his psychology was little explored but it made a good evening.
The NT put on Ibsen’s Emperor and Galilean in a spectacular staging that could not redeem an overlong and dated play (the dialogue about religion was very nineteenth century). They also revived Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen, with the hectic lunchtime service treated almost as ballet. There were two big disappointments from good writers: Mike Leigh’s Grief at the NT showed us a 1950s family of widow, daughter, brother stuck in impassive suffering without any meaningful interaction, with cardboard external characters and no plot development until the daughter’s suicide was dragged in to bring the play to a conclusion, and Stephen Poliakoff’s My City at the Almeida applied a formula without proper character development, minimal plot and that lacking proper motivation. Both plays needed more work before being staged.
The Veil, however, a new play by Conor McPherson at the NT was a distinct success: a tense drama set among English settlers in 1820s Ireland; and John Hodge’s Collaborators brought together Simon Russell-Beale as Stalin and Alex Jennings as Mikhail Bulgakov. As Billington said in the Guardian, the proposition that Bulgakov became guilty of Stalin’s crimes by collaborating in writing a propagandist play about his youth was scarcely supportable: he had no choice; but the acting was superb and the staging was dramatic, with a zig-zag stage on different inclined levels right through the length of the Cottesloe, with seating either side.
A new play, 13, by Mike (Earthquakes in London) Bartlett was very odd: set in the run-up to the launch of an invasion of Iran its first act was a succession of overlapping short scenes of a large cast of ordinary people plus a prime minister (Geraldine James) and a strange Jesus-like friend of her dead son who returns after a long absence and begins speaking at Speakers’ Corner and (how unlikely!) attracting a following for vaguely demanding a new clean politics. This was all very unsatisfactory (though the set was impressive). The second act suddenly became dramatic as it contrived a confrontation between the PM, ‘Jesus’ and an atheist realpolitik friend of the PM to argue the issues. Bartlett’s earlier play was boring propaganda, the first act of this one was going the same way, but the second act redeemed it.
So much for theatre, but there was also music and opera. Briefly, the ENO’s production of Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse at the Young Vic was wonderful both for its singing and for the set: a revolving glass box containing the rooms of the palace in Ithaca which started pristine and gleaming, all sterile glass and chrome, but was progressively reduced to dirt and chaos by the suitors and then by Ulysses’s slaughter of them. At the NT, Jonathan Miller’s semi-staging of Bach’s St Matthew Passion was surprisingly effective. The Mikado at the ENO was a romp. The live relays from the Metropolitan Opera are a joy, not least because of the deep leather armchairs at the Everyman at Hampstead and the snacks and wine before the performance and in the intervals. Miranda and I saw Wagner’s Die Walkure and Siegfried; Verdi’s Don Carlo; Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Handel’s Rodelinda. I went also – with my brother Geoff – to a memorial concert for Geoffrey Burgon, who had been a client of his; and a fine concert performance of Rossini’s Armida at St John’s Smith Square organised by Emma Dogliani (Hackney resident, friend and daughter of my BHA friend Jane Wynne-Willson) who understudied the role for Garsington Opera in 2010: none of the understudies got to sing a note and so she got them together for this rewarding performance.
What else before I come to books? Well, almost nothing in the way of exhibitions (though the Courtauld’s small exhibition of Cezanne’s Cardplayers was a treat) or cinema (I think the only film I saw was The King’s Speech).
So, to books, and I realise that I have read far less this year than in most recent years, and that rather lighter: the result of preoccupation with the EHF and a lot of ‘work’ reading that I would not include here (Law and Religion in Europe: a comparative introduction is not likely to excite much interest, I guess!) It seems appropriate to start with State of the Nation by Michael Billington, the Guardian’s theatre critic for 40 years. It is an insightful history of British theatre since the War set against the background of the politics of the day, perceptive, enlightening and a thoroughly good read, exciting memories of many productions I saw, even back in the 1960s.
I re-read Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians with great pleasure, not least for its style. The preface to the chapter on Cardinal Manning deserves to be read aloud, with every word cherished! Also thoroughly enjoyable were two political memoirs: Off Message by Bob Marshall-Andrews, that doughty defender of liberty, reminds you of the influence that an able backbencher with no career ambitions can wield: would there were more of them rather than so many young MPs trying to climb the greasy pole and so putty in the hands of the whips. The book is witty and amusing with a serious message and trenchant observations of the outrages of the Blair government. Very different was Alastair Darling’s Back from the Brink. The core of the book is the behind-the-scenes story of the collapse of the banks in 2008 – it is a compelling narrative that shows that the politicians and civil servants were considerably more competent than the bankers and financial advisors. But it also shows in grim detail Gordon Brown’s risky indecisiveness as budget deadlines approached and the political chicanery as the government fell apart.
Kenan Malik’s From Fatwa to Jihad is sub-titled “The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy”. He shows, with plentiful evidence, how neither The Satanic Verses nor the Danish cartoons excited outrage until it was politically convenient to exploit them. Portraits of Mohammed are in fact commonplace – the Iranian newspaper Hamshrarhi launched as a riposte a competition for cartoons mocking the Holocaust but at the same time it published a photo of a new mural in Iran that depicted Mohammed! Malik shows how pusillanimous were western politicians and supposed defenders of human rights, failing to distinguish respect for people as believers from uncritical deference to – even silence about – their beliefs. More interestingly he traces the development of Muslim sentiment in the immigrant populations of Europe, especially Britain, from well before The Satanic Verses and points up the wrong analyses and mistaken policies of governments, not least in creating religious/cultural multicultural “silos” that separated people and celebrated their differences rather than seeking out everything they had in common. With the financial handouts that followed, this created opportunities for self-advancement by so-called community leaders with political agendas who were often far from representative of the people they claimed as followers.
A New History of Early Christianity is by Charles Freeman, author of The Closing of the Western Mind which I praised to the skies a few years ago. Freeman here traces the first 600 years of Christianity not with a churchman’s but a historian’s eye. He analyses the political currents between the different players in first-century Palestine, the low ranking of the post of governor of Judaea by comparison with neighbouring territories (it was granted to those of equestrian rather than senatorial rank), the political astuteness of Caiaphas, appointed by Pilate’s predecessor as his fifth high priest in three years but able to survive in post for eighteen years by making himself indispensable. Freeman suggests ways the story of the resurrection could have taken hold, and goes on to trace the multiplicity and diversity of the early churches before the religion’s adoption by the Roman Empire forced a centralised and authoritarian discipline to fashion it as an instrument of imperial control.
Map Addict by Mike Parker is a lovely book about maps and their history and those who make them, collect them and use them. It is full of quirky stories and well researched history. Spies of the Kaiser – Plotting the Downfall of England is a historical oddity. It is a novel (or rather collection of stories featuring the same doughty heroes whose foresight and courage again and again save England from disaster but are rarely if ever recognised by the obtuse authorities) written in 1909 by William Le Queux who was convinced that there was an elaborate network of German spies throughout the land busy recording targets for sabotage the moment a war began. He provided the book with fake documentation and technical drawings. Despite its ludicrous implausibility it apparently played a large part in driving the creation of MI5, which then embarked on a frustrating hunt for non-existent spies.
Then, maybe because I wanted some light relief from the toil of the EHF website, I read a number of novels – two by Ian McEwan: Enduring Love (when a man dies falling from a blown-away hot-air balloon, the hero’s life falls apart as he is stalked by a fellow witness to the tragedy who is erotically obsessed with him) and Solar (a splendid comical satire about a scientist who steals the ideas of a dead junior and finds his whole life caught in a net of consequences); When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro – a strange 1930s fantasy in which becoming a ‘society’ private detective is an unremarkable career option that leads the hero into a series of fanciful but compelling adventures and disasters in London and war-torn Shanghai; P D James’s Death Comes to Pemberley (a “murder-mystery sequel” to Pride and Prejudice that references on its margins characters from other Austen novels and at least holds the attention although written with only moderate success in a pastiche Austen style) and finally two stories published many years ago: Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey (the story of an imposture to claim an inheritance and the emotional mayhem it causes) and a children’s classic I had never read: The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff – a cracking story with well researched background.
Well, so much for 2011! I wish you all the best for 2012: let us hope it is a more prosperous year than its predecessor: and well done if you have completed reading this episode of these annals before the next is due!