Here we go again! I suppose this was a momentous year in that I turned 70 – I still feel about 40 but get tired a bit quicker than is right and proper. Extraordinarily (as some of you already know) my birthday was recognised in The Times in a “birthday column”! One nice consequence of this was that I got an email from a childhood friend – the daughter of one of my father’s work colleagues, who used to visit with her parents and sister back in the 1950s. I was also treated to a very grand celebration lunch by good friends Amanda, John and Monica. Otherwise, as I told The Times, “I absolutely ignore birthdays”.
The year saw in May the end of my six years as president of the European Humanist Federation (more below) and at home some overdue attention to the house and garden – I have a cleaner (having done without for years) and a wonderful gardener (Henrietta is so keen she frets every second she is not actually working!), and earlier in the year I had the builders in to “do up” the basement room that has the laundry machines and garden tools with the result that it now has yards of shelves to take overflow “stuff” from upstairs. They also built me a fine new metal balcony overlooking the garden to replace the rickety wooden one. And the other great improvement is that Andreas made me some splendid new decorative glass panes for the window beside the front door.
I have seen quite a lot of Lois during the year: she has had a lot of work done on her house and garden in Rochester making them now very attractive. (And Rochester itself is much to be commended: castle, cathedral, high street with antique shops and second-hand bookshops, and the house where Charles II spent his first night back in England, beautifully restored and with lovely gardens: we went there when Kath and Michael – Lois’s brother – and their daughter and granddaughter were here in September.) Before her house was habitable she spent some time here, and again while she did a creative writing course in October. While she was on a long trip to Uganda (where she continues her devoted efforts on projects to train people dealing with AIDS and to empower village people) I made a couple of trips down to Rochester to check on work being done by her local builder. She went again to Uganda later in the year and in between to Australia where she saw her (very old and failing) father for the last time before he died. We had a pleasant day at Ightham Mote a couple of weeks ago.
Lindsay has been very busy during the year but somewhat frustrated as progress with his projects has been slow. His film about Tommy and Edith – the young teenagers in the war in Hungary who escaped the Nazis and met again while Lindsay and Sam were actually making the film – was shown on tv in Hungary and Slovakia by HBO Europe who approved a “directors’ cut” of 75 minutes rather than 60 for entry in film festivals: this was shown to some acclaim in November in the Jewish Film Festivals in Sydney and in Melbourne (where they live – Lindsay went out there for the showings in Melbourne) and has been accepted for the significant Big Sky documentary festival in Montana. HBO, however, have shown themselves slow and bureaucratic and have made little progress with selling the film to other tv stations round the world.
Lindsay’s main preoccupation has been the graphic novel about the plight of the Tamil civilians in the Sri Lankan civil war. He and his ex-UN collaborator Benjamin Dix spent nearly two months doing research in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere in India – he came home with thousands of photos and sketches – and the project was launched at an Amnesty meeting on Sri Lanka in October when the raw emotions of the Tamils present were starkly evident in their frustration that their extraordinary sufferings are so neglected and ignored. However, attempts to fund in advance this major project – www.kickstarter. com/projects/651360878/the-vanni – have taken up a lot of time, so far without raising the funds required. The project will go ahead but Lindsay has other irons in the fire – and happily has also acquired a serious girlfriend, Iona, a nurse working in a hospice, with whom he spends a lot of time.
I’ve seen my brother Ken and his wife Diana a couple of times: they stayed in February when we went to the NPG Lucien Freud exhibition; I went with Diana to the RA Hockney exhibition; and at the end of October I spent a couple of days with them. They are planning to move to Cheltenham in the new year, partly to be near daughter Lucy who lives there and partly because the marvellous view from their house on the steep hillside at Great Witley is not sufficient to compensate for the disadvantages as they get older. Both their daughters, Tavy and Lucy, who each came to lunch during the summer, are prospering, and I shall soon see Diana at an exhibition of her paintings in Cheltenham.
Alice, the permanently(?) globe-trotting younger daughter of my New Zealand brother Malcolm, stayed with us for a total of about a month earlier in the year before moving to a live-in nannying job for a few months. Linds, Iona and I welcomed my brother Geoff and wife Lin to dinner in October with Alice to bid her farewell before she set off on the next stage of her prolonged grand tour: she will return briefly to Auckland after Christmas before going off to Australia and later maybe a year in South America. Geoff and Lin’s daughter Kate also came to lunch in the summer. Geoff and Lin themselves are themselves in process of moving permanently from Cirencester to their house in Crete following Geoff’s retirement earlier in the year.
As to myself, I’ve continued to play bridge in a very amateur but enjoyable way with friends Amanda, Andreas, Justin, Miranda and Sharon, notching up about 15 sessions plus our annual excursion for a dinner, this year at Sheekey’s, that is (partly) paid for from the pot into which go all our losses over the year. I’ve managed only two of the monthly walks organised by Amanda and co. – both watery: one to the Thames near Bexleyheath and one along the Blackwater estuary – and in addition we had a weekend of walks in November based on excellent self-catering at Little Quebb near Hay-on-Wye which was watery in another sense: the ground was sodden, muddy and often flowing with water, but modern walking boots are waterproof! One long walk took us up the Hengist ridge – wonderful views across to snow-clad mountains – but later we could not reconcile the OS map with what we saw and as it got dark we were squelching along the side of fields looking for gates, heading for dense black hedgerows and then peering for the glimmer of an opening. Google maps on my i-Phone showed only streams and emptiness! Rescue came when we saw fireworks and made towards them, finding kind people who drove us back to our cottages!
The bridge group and the walks group overlap with the “Wrinklies” group of friends of a certain age who meet quarterly, mainly to enjoy ourselves but occasionally to focus on problems of aging. In March we had an interesting evening at my house when we invited a local Hasidic rabbi to speak to us. Herschel Gluck is a larger-than-life, immensely friendly character whom I met him at the Council of Europe Intercultural Dialogue meeting in Luxembourg last year. We asked him to speak about the Hasidic community’s view of living amidst the non-Jewish community in Stamford Hill, but he preferred to answer questions which he did for 90 minutes. He was eloquent and plausible – but unconvincing on the narrowness of boys’ education (he pleaded the educational value of Talmudic scholarship), widespread disregard of planning laws to build intrusive house extensions (he pleaded a rapidly expanding community needing to live within walking distance of their synagogues), and the position of women (he said they were immensely important and strong, and often the breadwinners – noone said ‘perforce, as all the men are studying the Torah!’).
Other local occasions included not just the annual Opera Cabaret but another fundraising event also organised by Farquhar McKay (who bought our house in Allerton Road back in 1983) on similar lines (you bring a picnic but buy your ticket and their wine, sit at trestle tables and enjoy the music): this was an evening of Victorian parlour songs – Come into the Garden, Maud; The Road to Mandalay; Pale Hands I Love beside the Shalimar; My Grandfather’s Clock (which we all joined in) – and two dramatic recitations, including There’s a one-eyed yellow idol / To the north of Kathmandu – immense fun! More recently my friend soprano Emma Dogliani and four instrumentalists gave a recital of Handel and other 18th century music at a Hackney Prom in Stoke Newington’s very fine art deco town hall. The Sunday morning audience, sitting in a square around the performers, numbered about 250 including (as intended by the promoters) many families with young children – generally very well behaved but there was a ‘chill-out’ room when they got bored.
I had the now customary three meetings in London (February), Derbyshire (July) and Sussex (August) with friends linked in some way with early days in the Coal Board: Sheila and David, Tony and Phyllis, Mike and Camilla – for the first we went to the orchids in Kew Gardens, to Hogarth’s house (which until the 1950s was in a backwater: then they drove the new A4 straight past it!), to the British Library exhibition of magnificent illuminated manuscripts from the royal collection, and to the National Theatre to see a play about the early days of cinema, Travelling Light. When we visited Tony & Phyllis we went to Trentham Gardens and returned to Quarry Bank Mill at Styal (highly recommended, even with its basement flooded from recent torrential rain); we walked round the lower reservoir at Strine and went to the Buxton Festival’s rather strange staging of Handel’s oratorio Jephtha. In Sussex it was too hot to do much but we had a walk from Dunkery Beacon and played pétanque and croquet in the garden. I saw Sheila and David again in November at the publication party of her brother-in-law John (Angus) Mills’ new book on exchange rate policy.
Another gathering of former Coal Board friends came later in August when Dorothy and her new husband (yet another David) invited me, Gillian and Richard and others who in the event could not come to her former farmhouse (thatched roof topped with iris growing on the ridge) in Normandy. We visited Deauville and Trouville, Pont l’Eveque and Honfleur. I also made my first visit to Bayeux to see the “tapestry” – far more impressive in real life than it seems on paper. This NCB group met again for lunch in November, this time complete with Phil and Peter and Lesley.
I added to the IHEU annual meeting in Montreal (below) a week’s holiday in Ontario with Henry and France and the latter’s rather wonderful mother Mme Pellicano – partly doing a B&B trip to Prince Edward County and partly back at their place in Kingston, where we had a splendid garden party to celebrate Madame’s 92nd birthday. In Prince Edward County – a “squashed” peninsula in Lake Ontario – we divided our time between visits to the local wineries, art galleries (I bought another lovely piece of glass) and restaurants.
Time to turn to my humanist activities: in the year I ended my six-year presidency of the European Humanist Federation. I have handed over to Pierre Galand from the Centre d’Action Laïque in Belgium who is backed up by the three excellent staff in CAL’s cellule internationale. Having been such a hands-on president, I had much work to do for the handover and made two special trips to Brussels in addition to going there for board meetings and meetings of the European Parliament Platform for Secularism in Europe (EPPSP) (to which I returned in September as a speaker). After one board meeting, some of us joined a march in defence of abortion rights and I got on the tv news after an impromptu interview in the street! I also went with Pierre Galand to Paris to meet the French freemasons to try (with mixed results) to achieve a degree of cooperation in the meetings with the EU under Article 17. (Our complaint to the Ombudsman about how badly we are treated in this dialogue still awaits adjudication but the Commission’s defence was pathetic).
Our General Assembly and conference were held in May at the Humanist University in Utrecht. The old town is very attractive with canals and semi-pedestrianised cobbled streets. Elsewhere there is a lot of building work going on and they are restoring a canal after some 30-40 years as an inner ring road! The University (small but government-funded under the “pillar constitution” of the Netherlands) is in a couple of large old houses the other side of a narrow canal from the narrow, cobbled street. The weather was hot and sunny, and we had a good time. The meetings went well, and I delivered a farewell address on the importance of campaigning. I spoke of the strong campaigning by the religious right, with organisations such as the European Centre for Law and Justice, funded by American televangelist Pat Robertson to employ expert lawyers to intervene in the European Court of Human Rights as an outer defence for the USA against liberalism creeping in from Europe, and of the way that extensions of the rights of religious organisations were regarded as extensions of freedom of religion or belief without realising that all too often they curtailed the freedom of the non-religious – now 23% of the EU population according to the latest Eurobarometer poll. I illustrated the value of what the EHF was already doing but pointed to the need to find answers to difficult questions over clashes of rights, and to overcome or circumvent our chronic underfunding, divergences of outlook and the overall lack of identity of the non-religious (as MEP Sophie in’t Veld says, stamp collectors form stamp collecting clubs but noone forms clubs for non-stamp-collectors). All member organisations needed to join in and neither despair nor become complacent because of their local situations. This went down very well and elicited undertakings of increased activity from some member organisations.
Overall I have left the EHF in much better shape than I found it, but I have not achieved as much as I had hoped before discovering the way the odds are stacked against us. I am also pleased that the Alliance for a Secular Europe email network that I more or less created through the EPPSP seems to be taking off: it was heavily used to rally and coordinate opposition to appointing as Malta’s EU Commissioner the extremely conservative Tonio Borg with his appalling human rights record, though sadly the campaign ultimately failed. (He replaced a health commissioner brought down by tobacco industry dirty tricks in their attempts to derail an EU directive on tobacco.)
Though no longer president I was back in Brussels within the week for a long-postponed meeting with EU officials on that little recognised question of the competing rights of the religious and the non-religious. I have also continued to monitor the EU-financed academic collaboration Religare on the place of religion in society – a project with a remit to make recommendations to the EU Commission but seemingly unduly (but subtly) biassed in membership and attitudes towards the Catholic church. I was at their two-day conference in Strasbourg in June, had another two days in Leuven and Brussels in December, and in between in email correspondence sought reassurances from the project leader at the Catholic University of Leuven – I hope with some effect.
My international interests have switched to the Council of Europe where I am now the leader of the delegation from the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU). I had a week in Strasbourg in January and another in June, attending meetings of the NGOs affiliated to the Council and making contact with members of the Parliamentary Assembly. Sadly the Committee of Ministers rejected last year’s proposal from the Assembly for a new high-level intercultural dialogue. This was intended to be more high-powered than the present annual series of meetings, the latest of which I attended for three days in September in Durres, Albania. My two platform contributions were well received and I made some useful contacts.
Durres is an Adriatic resort and as you approach it from Tirana the road divides: docks and industry to the right, beach to the left down a dual carriageway between dusty small hotels and cafés, market stalls selling tat, busy with traffic and people. Ours was a big modern hotel, the Adriatik, allegedly five star but they are still learning the trade: there was marble everywhere but almost umbrellas and deck chairs. In the evening, workmen drive a dust cart along the narrow strip above the water to gather the heaps of rubbish discarded by sunbathers. A few hundred yards away an old stone pier has swapped fishermen for a funfair. After the conference we were taken by coach with a relay of police escorts through Tirana to a restaurant high in the hills for lunch and then back for a tour of cathedrals, mosques and synagogues in the capital where the apparently true message was that after the Hoxha tyranny relations between the three religions are now close and friendly.
The IHEU Montreal meeting was fairly routine but was linked to the Canadian Humanists’ annual conference on sex and religion which was excellent. We stayed and met in a Hilton hotel on the top floors of a 1960s brutalist concrete exhibition centre: on the flat roof there was a mature garden with trees, ponds, waterfalls and ducks, and an open-air swimming pool and restaurant.
At home I have of course continued on the board of the British Humanist Association. The BHA has undertaken to host, in Oxford, IHEU’s 2014 World Humanist Congress and I am a member of the organising group. Our own conference this year was in Cardiff: it included a superb lecture by former government chief scientist Sir David King (left) on the problems facing mankind and possible solutions. He has such a depth of knowledge and wisdom that, answering questions, he was able time and again to say “yes, I’ve looked into that matter in detail” and deliver an expert answer. His message is that we have the means to solve our problems but have to persuade the politicians and ourselves to adopt them.
I have been to a number of conferences on religion and human rights and allied subjects, three at least at UCL, another at LSE, a three-day gathering of the Non-Religion and Secularity Network at Goldsmiths, and so on. There were three in a week in early November! I have also given interviews to several researchers – and a long interview last year has resulted in my being quoted a dozen times in a big report commissioned by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (Research report 84: Religion or belief, equality and human rights in England and Wales). I went to some of the Westminster Faith debates including the one involving Tony Blair and Rowan Williams. I managed to get the first question, asking Blair (who had said that Christians had to be admitted to the public square – with which I said I agreed, as humanists were in the same position) whether he agreed that when we entered the public arena we should not pursue specifically Christian or humanist objectives but only those justifiable on general grounds. He faffed in his answer, talking of the quality of debate, but Rowan Williams pretty explicitly agreed with me.
I also get involved in interviewing for some staff vacancies – notably for a new Public Affairs director to replace the wonderful Naomi Phillips who left for a much bigger job in January. We are fortunate to have recruited the equally wonderful Pavan Dhaliwal with whom I went soon after she started to a meeting with the Ministry of Justice to talk about the UK plans for reform of the Strasbourg court. In March I talked to a meeting (right) of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group about reforming the law to accommodate humanist weddings and Lord Harrison has introduced the Bill I drafted: it will be debated in January. In the course of the year I’ve given a dozen talks, including to conferences in Strasbourg and Brussels, to an academic workshop on non-religious identities, to several schools including St Albans, founded in 948, to a teacher training course in York, to the North East Humanists on the history and continuing influence of the churches in education and so on; plus a debate on God at Brentwood School and a number of radio interviews.
In October I went for the BHA to a meeting in Guildhall about plans for celebrating the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta – a very establishment gathering of people from local authorities, museums, and so on, chaired by Robert Worcester, with the vicar of the Temple Church, someone from Canterbury Cathedral, someone from Buckingham Palace, and so on. This was interesting but not of any great relevance to the BHA. Anyway, the Magna Carta of 1215 was valid for only two months before the Pope (to whom John had surrendered England) annulled it – and the supposedly heroic barons were in league with Louis, the French prince who had invaded England (he took Rochester, leading to its long siege)! Confusingly 2015 is also the anniversary of Agincourt, of Waterloo and of Simon de Montfort’s first parliament in 1265.
Other BHA events, both in November, included Onora O’Neill’s Bentham Lecture (about trust – “a response to others under conditions of uncertainty” – and the lack of it: she said that it was less trust that needed to be restored than true discernment of trustworthiness: there was a cost in not trusting the trustworthy as well as in trusting the untrustworthy) and the hearing at the High Court over two days of the BHA’s judicial review of Richmond Council’s decision to go ahead with a new Roman Catholic voluntary aided school despite the enactment of a new law that when a council decides it needs a new school it must invite competitive bids for an academy. (A VA school can have 100% RC places, an academy only 50%; almost no religious schools go through the competitive route, almost no non-religious through any other route.) We had an agreed costs limit of £30,000 and David Wolfe of Matrix Chambers represented us pro bono. But we got a dreadful judge – Mr Justice Sales was until recently a government lawyer and is said to be strongly opposed on principle to judicial review. From early on he was plainly trying to formulate a way to reject us and in the end he did, though he has not yet published his reasons. The sad result may well be to confirm the privileged path to approval for religious schools.
The Rationalist Association, of whose board I remain a member, held a couple of interesting meetings including one in October with Jonathan Miller in conversation with Laurie Taylor. He spoke of the difference between homologous (e.g., a horse’s leg and a bird’s wing) and analogous (e.g., a bird’s wing and a bee’s wing). He talked of his directorial work in the theatre as “making the negligible considerable”. He refused to describe himself as an atheist for the same reason he would not describe himself as an ahexist albeit he did not believe in witches. At the end over wine I questioned his claim that Beyond the Fringe grew naturally from developments at the end of the war – had not the first decade been one of strict conformism? He defended his position but said that the most daring item in BtF was the line ‘we need a futile gesture’ in the wartime sketch.
A recent preoccupation has been creating a website for the archives of the Oxford University Humanist Group – www.ouhg.org.uk. In the early 1960s the Oxford University Humanist Group was one of the most flourishing societies in the University. Often with well over 1,000 members, we had meetings with eminent speakers, organised weekly discussion meetings, publicised Humanism and opposed Christian missions to the University. At a time when deference was the default attitude to authority and explicit denial of belief in God was still a daring act, the OUHG was at the cutting edge of public debate on the basis and nature of morality and over reform of the law on abortion, homosexuality, divorce, censorship and the like. As a result we routinely got reported in the national press. We also had a lot of fun. It’s all on the website.
And so to the theatre! I continued to go often, usually with Sheila or Miranda or sometimes both. After my last letter but before last Christmas I saw Ian Rickson’s production of Hamlet at the Young Vic with Michael Sheen in the lead role. In this odd production – not totally successful but quite absorbing – everything happened inside the head of a Hamlet incarcerated in a mental hospital: the other characters were doctors and nurses seen by him in roles of his imagining.
I started the new year with a mistake: I took Lois and Lindsay to the much-praised RSC musical Matilda which we left at the interval: it was shallow, clichéd and boring. Michael Grandage’s farewell production at the Donmar was Richard II with Eddie Redmayne in the lead: an absolutely rivetting performance and production with a Richard obsessive about his magic regal status but playing at it, living in an unreal world, slightly autistic and with a tiny speech impediment. The Comedy of Errors at the National had Lenny Henry in the lead in a noisy, busy production: I preferred the simpler production I saw at the Crucible some years ago. Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, again at the NT, had a splendid set and excellent ensemble acting. Edward Bond’s Bingo (Young Vic) saw Shakespeare in retirement, happy to take his profits from the enclosures that were causing distress to the locals. In March the NT hosted the DV8 ‘Physical Theatre’ company in Can We Talk About This? which, though the stylised dancing distracted rather than enhanced, delivered an immensely strong warning against appeasement of Islamist violence and intolerance. In their non-stop 80 minutes they included a history of murders of anti-Islamist writers and politicians, an appalling statement of regrets by Shirley Williams about the knighting of Salman Rushdie, and a long quote from an unnamed IHEU delegate – actually Roy Brown – at the UN Human Rights Council. The performance was sold out and was strongly applauded at the end.
Miranda and I completed the live relay from the Metropolitan Opera of the magnificent Robert Lepage Ring cycle, with superb singing from Deborah Voigt and Jay Hunter Morris, good acting and the extraordinary, versatile hi-tech but unobtrusive set. I was impressed enough to go to a repeat showing of the whole cycle in the summer. (In October I was also happy to take tickets for the Royal Opera’s Siegfried and Gotterdammerung from a BHA trustee unable to use them: the performances were musically wonderful with Bryn Terfel as the Wanderer and Susan Bullock as Brunnhilde, but the production – by Keith Warner – was immensely annoying and distracting.) Miranda and I also saw a relay of La Traviata and in May we went to the ENO to see Madam Butterfly in the ravishing production by Anthony Minghella – the singing was wonderful enough but the staging, sets and lighting were enrapturing.
Misterman at the NT had a great set but all the wrong ingredients for me: Ireland, folk religion, village idiot madness; but later in April came Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, a superb play written in 1957 or thereabouts by Errol Shaw, a Trinidadian actor/playwright, which won an Observer competition for new plays and as its prize was staged for a short run at the still unfashionable Royal Court by a disgracefully disdainful and neglectful H.M. Tennant company. Well worth reviving – humane, sad, with well drawn characters and excellent acting. Then at the Almeida came the enjoyable Filomena by Eduardo De Filippo with a wonderful realistic set of the courtyard of a fine Naples house and very good acting, notably by Samantha Spiro as Filumena. It was a nice story though – as became evident in a half-hour Q&A session at the end with the assistant director and half the cast – I was not alone in expecting a reversal of fortune instead of the happy ending.
In May I saw Collaborators again on its transfer to the Olivier with the same cast but a splendid expressionist flying version of the Cottesloe set. It was even better this time – still thoroughly enjoyable with vigorous and excellent acting but the idea of complicity became more acceptable in that it seemed to suggest a more general setting rather than specifically Stalin’s Russia.
I went twice to see Sophocles’ Antigone in the Olivier. The (modern-dress) production, set in a war room bunker, was intelligent and powerful with fine leads from Christopher Ecclestone as Creon and Jodie Whittaker as Antigone. It was directed by the young Polly Findlay, who showed herself to be articulate and thoughtful, both at a Platform the first time I went and at an “NT Revealed” event for about 100 NT Supporting Cast members before my second visit. This included another Q&A session with the director and then a series of short sessions that we circulated round in groups. One was on ‘actioning’ – deciding what the speaker in each ‘beat’ (‘bit’ mispronounced by Stanislawski in origin, it seems) is trying to do to the person addressed and stating it before saying the line (“I flatter you. ‘Oh king, you are the greatest…’”) – a technique they apparently used in this production of the Antigone. Other sessions were on props, set construction, stage management, movement, make-up and speech – we had a double session with two groups, standing on the Olivier stage, doing breathing exercises and then reading (en masse) one of the speeches from Antigone. It was a fascinating morning.
By chance fellow bridge player Sharon’s daughter was about to start a directorial training assignment with Polly Findlay while she produced The Country Wife in Manchester, and I went with Sharon to the Rosemary Branch (pub theatre) to see a play her daughter was directing. Called Believers Anonymous it was really well done but was an unsatisfactory play, featuring a group for recidivists in a state where religious belief is criminal: the model was Alcoholics Anonymous but the cast was such a bizarre group that it lacked credibility and any real feel of oppression.
Back at the NT, Stephen Beresford’s The Last of the Haussmans was about three generations of a family marked by the matriarch’s never having grown out of her hippy 1960s youth. Julie Walters lacked nuance in this part, but Rory Kinnear and Helen McCrory were both excellent as son and daughter, and Isabella Laughland as the granddaughter. They and the set (Vicki Mortimer) redeemed a play that ultimately did not say a lot. Durrenmatt’s The Physicists at the Donmar was a splendid farce with political points emerging from plot twists at the end, very well staged. Detroit, in the Cottesloe was an American play about two failing couples in the suburbs – quite effective, especially the coup de théatre when the house burns down! Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma was a funny and provocative serious comedy. Aden Gillett, David Calder and Malcolm Sinclair were three of the wonderful pompous doctors, the sets were excellent and the morality highly relevant even today: the whole evening was highly enjoyable. Then came the NT’s triumphant Timon of Athens with Simon Russell-Beale as Timon, who finds human contact as a wealthy man only through giving: when he loses everything he is shunned by those he had helped and he falls apart. The company evoked exactly the artificiality of a wealthy fawning society: you almost felt you knew some of the characters! I saw this again in a live relay in Malvern with Kenneth and Diana and friends when I visited them in November.
Another NT success was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time – a wonderful adaptation of what must have seemed an unstageable novel with Luke Treadaway outstanding as the Asperger-affected boy and a set in the Cottesloe that represented the inside of his head, with the floor covered in a graph paper design and projections to produce the effect of his travels from house to house and then chaotically on the train and the London tube.
The RSC’s all black Julius Caesar worked very well in its African setting; Robert Fearon was excellent as Caesar. At the end of September I went to a pub theatre in Highgate to see an adaptation of Trollope’s The Warden by David Witherow, who was a fellow ‘angel’ (volunteer) in the NT development department. It was a workmanlike adaptation, well produced and pretty well acted in a space upstairs at the Gatehouse pub – more enjoyable, indeed, than my next NT excursion, to see a revival of Howard Brenton’s early play Scenes from an Execution with Fiona Shaw: she was good (and interesting at a Platform in the afternoon before the performance) but the play was turgid.
Between the Platform and pre-performance dinner Miranda, Sheila and I did a backstage tour which for the first time for me included going under the Lyttelton stage. This was good preparation for a presentation for Supporting Cast members of the NT’s planned developments: apart from new workshops and studios in the new building that is going up where the car park ramps used to be (and which will include a public viewing platform/walkway), the headline features are aimed at opening up the theatre to the Embankment – moving the bookshop away from the riverside, extending the foyer, putting the Lyttelton café on the north-east corner and so on. It all seemed well planned and promising. They’ve already raised £60mn of the £70mn it will all cost.
Then in November came two more NT successes: The Effect by Lucy (“Enron”) Prebble (we went to a Platform with her beforehand) was explored in the setting of a clinical trial with volunteer healthy patients (wonderful Billie Piper and Jonjo O’Neill): the problem was differentiating ‘genuine’ and medication-induced feelings as they fell in love but then wondered whether it was the effect of the trial anti-depressant; and This House, about the Labour government of 1974-79 as viewed by the whips in both parties. There was a large cast, many playing multiple roles, and it was by turns funny, nostalgic, dramatic and moving as the sick and dying were nodded through the lobbies in knife-edge political warfare. Gerald Kaufman and John Bercow were both in the audience. At the end I saw Kaufman in the foyer and asked if it was true, as shown in the play, that Audrey Wise and Jeff Rooker had met the Tory whips before moving their (successful) rebel amendment on index-linking tax reliefs. He said yes and vigorously denounced her – what an awful woman she was and how he could not stand her. (She was close to the International Marxist Group, I recall.) Bercow came by and said to Kaufman “You were a minister through that time!” and he said “I was the minister who got the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Bill through”. I said to Bercow as we left the foyer “Not so exciting now” and he replied “we have our moments”. I said “Before you became Speaker you were briefly a member of the Humanist parliamentary group” – “You’re very well informed!!” so I said I was a BHA trustee. We got on to other things and I told him of my disquiet at the Labour opportunistic attitude on things like prisoners’ voting rights. He agreed and said he had always seen prison as deprivation of liberty, not deprivation of citizenship and he doubted whether most Labour politicians really agreed with the government on the matter.
A brief mention of two films: I took Miranda to see the excellent new print (not, I guess, a print at all in these digital days) of Les Enfants du Paradis and thoroughly enjoyed it for the nth time; and on a cold evening in Strasbourg I enjoyed the silent The Artist.
I’ve seen few exhibitions this year: apart from those mentioned above (the Hockney was impressive though I was left wondering whether that was partly the result of the sheer repetitive effect; and the Lucien Freud overwhelmed you with flesh!) I went to the BM’s exhibition on Shakespeare and his world – a really good display of the environment he lived in, taking off from references in the plays to cover the material world of coins, rapiers, bear-baiting, the imaginative world of romance, contemporary ideas of history, religious conflict, witchcraft, international rivalries and the exploration of new worlds. And I liked very much the RA’s Bronze exhibition where they mixed works from across the world and the ages in rooms that focussed on particular subjects – animals, figures, heads, groups, objects and so on. Although the origin of some works was plain, surprisingly often before you looked at the label things seemed as likely to be (say) modern European or ancient African. There was a staggering if incomplete larger-than-life figure of a dancing satyr from the 4th century BCE that was retrieved from the sea only in 1998 and an extraordinary 14th-century BCE Danish wheeled horse pulling a (flattened) sun and moon.
Finally to books. I have just finished an old Pelican I got from a bookshop in Hay-on-Wye: Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The European Witch-Craze of the 16th and 17th Centuries. This masterful study does not concentrate on the horrific torture and death of thousands upon thousands of (mainly but not exclusively) women – there were also men and children – but on the origins and persistence of the demonology that justified such persecution and on the patterns of its flaring up and dying back. When the Dominicans had successfully destroyed the Albigenses and Vaudois as heretics they transferred their zeal to witches, at first on a small scale, but the use of torture and forced false confessions became self-reinforcing and self-elaborating. Despite the church’s clear teaching from the eighth to the twelfth centuries that witches did not exist and were not to be pursued, by the end of the fifteenth century the Dominicans had elaborated their demonology to the full in the Malleus Maleficarum – the Hammer of the Witches. Thereafter the craze spread, passing to the Jesuits and even to the Lutherans who indeed adopted the whole doctrine and vied with the Catholics in their ardour to find, torture and burn witches. It was concentrated on mountain districts – places of dangerous non-conformity and ignorance – and in times of disturbance as (in particular) the wars of religion changed the faith of areas from Catholic to Lutheran or vice versa. Few voices were raised to protest – and those never denied the existence of witches and their pacts with the devil, their witches’ sabbaths, incubi and succubi, only the accuracy of some of the prosecutions – but for that timid protest many were labelled witches themselves and – magistrate or chancellor as they might be – were condemned and burned. And then as the 17th century came towards its end the craze simply faded away: noone ever went on record to deny the demonology. Trevor-Roper says that it died when – and could not have died before – the whole European intellectual understanding of the world changed with the advance of the Enlightenment. Without that shift, it was a small but inseparable part of people’s world pictures. Somewhat shamefacedly the persecutors silently stopped their persecution. Happily, few witches died in England and Wales (and none by burning) – our peak of activity came when James I brought his demonic beliefs down from Catholic Scotland where the persecution was on a European scale – for we did not use torture, which had become unlawful at an early stage in the development of common law.
I also read a very fine biography of Henry VII: Winter King by Thomas Penn. This showed him as not only a competent imposer of peace after the Wars of the Roses and a moderniser of government administration but also as ruthless and extortionate, politically opportunist and essentially unprincipled. His defiance of papal edicts intended to protect the Holy See’s monopoly of alum (essential in the dying of wool) brought in huge wealth – but so did his invention of the court of wardship of minors who inherited large estates (the wardships were auctioned to the highest bidders who then plundered the estates). He not only betrothed his son Henry to Catherine of Aragon after the death of her just-married husband Arthur but then had Henry denounce the betrothal the day before his 14th birthday (when it would have become indissoluble) – but kept the denunciation secret so as to maintain the option of switching sides to the Habsburgs!
Lost Christianities by Bart Ehrman was an interesting survey of some of the many gospels, epistles and other books from those branches of Christianity that lost out in the battle with what became the orthodox Roman Catholic Church. They were mainly rediscovered only in relatively recent times in middle eastern monasteries and in hidden caches in the desert. The Gospel of Peter, the Acts of Thecla (Paul’s companion), the Secret Gospel of Mark and many other such works, often very early in origin, are examined and the reasons why the beliefs and doctrines they proposed were rejected in favour of those we know are examined and explained. For example, the Ebionites held views probably close to those of the original disciples, seeing Christianity as a sort of reformed Judaism – and like Peter required male circumcision, distinctly unattractive to non-Jews; while the Marcionites rejected Judaism entirely and saw Jesus as the totally divine founder of a new religion, thereby losing the valuable inheritance and antiquity of Judaism.
I also read the two volumes of Chris Mullin’s diaries I had not previously read. In A Walk-On Part he covers the earlier years from 1994-1999, showing his gradual alienation from the gesture politics of the Campaign Group in favour of a more realistic but still leftist approach. Peter Mandelson is seen as the devil incarnate from the moment he appears and Blair as untrustworthy but a superb performer. He observes George Galloway’s enthralment to Stalinism from an early date – he went with him on a delegation to Vietnam in 1995 when Galloway also displayed vanity and insensitivity of a high order, repeatedly trying to match stories of appalling suffering in the Vietnam war with his own tale of “my first injury in the struggle” when he was kicked by a police horse in a 1968 Grosvenor Square demo! Mullin tells of his constant campaign to resist Rupert Murdoch’s domination of the media in the face of Blair’s electoral reliance on support from the Sun. He campaigns also to force freemasons in the police and judiciary to declare themselves, convinced that masonic solidarity lay behind the prolonged resistance to his campaigns to free the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four. In Decline and Fall, having been kicked out of Blair’s government and having no select committee chair, he decides to quit Parliament, but then begins to regret it – too late, or he might well have become Speaker instead of John Bercow. As the Labour government declines and falls out, as politicians are dragged (often unfairly) through the expenses mire, as no adequate or timely rival to Gordon Brown emerges and as the election drags out to disaster, the volume is not as amusing as the two dealing with earlier periods, but it provides a balanced and enlightening insight into the reality of Westminster politics. Mullin comes across as a principled, likeable, modest, honest man. We could do with more like him.
By contrast, Tony Benn’s diaries from 1940 to 1990 are more plainly written for publication as he moves to the left and into political impossibilism, valuing the gesture over the practical. The abbreviated edition I read lacks contextual notes, challenging one’s memory of events. It is perhaps most interesting for his years as a minister under Wilson and Callaghan with stories (for example) of his tussle with the Palace to be allowed to put other people’s heads on stamps, relegating the Queen to a small silhouette (he wanted to remove her altogether but that was a step too far) and how he discovered the dangers of nuclear re-processing at Sellafield (“exceptional vulnerability. . . tremendously risky”). His politics come out in his disdain for Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock, both seen as selling out.
Unusually for me, I read a number of novels, among them the complete sequence of C J Sansom’s unputdownable Shardlake stories, Hilary Mantel’s Vacant Possession (a short novel seen through the eyes of a cast mainly of delusional and often nasty eccentrics released by “care in the community” from a mental hospital – by turns hilarious and macabre), and David Lodge’s Author! Author! based on the life of Henry James and in particular his ill-fated attempt to become a playwright. With all its characters and events compatible with everything that is known, the fiction lies in Lodge’s perception of what went on inside James’s head, and the wide cast of vivid characters that populate a story of mixed comedy and tragedy. I also read three of C P Snow’s Strangers and Brothers sequence, perceptive accounts of the exercise of power in the institutions of academe (The Light and the Dark and The Masters) and government (The New Men).
I am halfway through a book which really therefore belongs to next year’s letter but which I must mention: it is the superb biography of MaoTse-tung by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: the Unknown Story – certainly unknown to me, as they have put together a devastating indictment from original records going back to the 1920s and from hundreds of interviews that show Mao to have been ready from the start (even before Stalin’s purges) to sacrifice endless thousands of his own followers in manoeuvres in a ruthless pursuit of personal power. It is a long book but a gripping read – highly recommended.
Well, that was 2012 – don’t the years come round fast? – so I wish you all the best for 2013 in defiance of all the porte
nts of economic misery and extreme weather, political misrule and progressive handover of the NHS and education to private profit. Let’s hope we survive!