Once more it is time for an instalment of the annals! I’ve certainly been no less busy than before and indeed have serious doubts whether I shall get this letter out before Christmas, given that I have on my plate at present an overdue article for a book critiquing a report on religion in society, separate BHA and Rationalist Association full-day strategy meetings, six evening engagements (not all of them business!) and three or four separate fairly big campaigning matters, some mentioned below. But where should I be with nothing to do?
The year saw further improvements in the garden, thanks in part to my keen gardener Henrietta who had me buy dozens of bags of mulch and lawn top-dressing and did some substantial replanting. The bad spring meant that my investment in delphiniums and phlox from Blackmore and Langdon did not pay off: they arrived puny and too late; but I bought trolley-loads of plants from the nurseries at Forty Hill which disappeared very happily into the re-thought beds. Henrietta also got in tree surgeons in January to thin out the big pear tree, reduce the height of the huge bay tree and remove the ever-expanding cypress up near the house: this I have replaced with a weeping silver birch. There will be further work for the shredder just after Christmas when I undo my error in choosing old-fashioned rambler roses to go on the then new pergola: over the last 15+ years they have become rampant, going ever upwards, a splendid sight from afar but casting gloom below. The other garden story is about battling the pigeons, herons and foxes. A heron risked entanglement in cord and netting for the sake of breakfast early in the year and I had to top up with colourful new koi, while the young foxes had great fun chewing up the cable to the pond pump, their lives saved by an efficient circuit-breaker. Once they even pulled the cable out of the water, requiring many hours fiddling with underwater connectors. +
Even after I put the cable into a protective hose pipe they hooked it out and left their teeth marks on it. As to the pigeons, I had to stop filling the new bird feeders when they attracted a rapidly growing flock of pigeons that, too big themselves to take from the feeder, learnt to attack it instead so as to shake seed onto the ground. And then there were the squirrels . . .
I have continued to see a lot of Lois, who decided that Rochester was not for her and has moved back to London, to a flat with great views in Woodgrange Park, not too far from here. She stayed here for extended periods while flat-hunting and then when the flat was being refurbished – she has made it very attractive. She has made further trips to Uganda, one early in the year with Lindsay, who returned with stories of pervasive corruption: roads are paved only when they lead to some government high-up’s house, government offices remain closed to the public for weeks, supermarkets for the rich and the ex-pats have armed guards, the Murchison Falls resort has been drowned by a hydroelectric dam generating electricity for export to Kenya for the profit of a private company, and the Americans and Chinese are vying for government favour and so neither will expose the corruption or put on pressure to end it. Meantime UN officials and – especially – American evangelicals (the ones who are behind the idea of the death penalty for gays) swan around in 4x4s and live in luxury behind compound walls. Lois has created a charity to be the channel for her future education and health work in the country and I have been helping her by drafting the trust deed and sorting out registration with HMRC for gift aid recovery. I am a trustee, along with two long-standing colleagues of hers whom I have been pleased to meet. She has also started some sessional work with people with dementia in a south London nursing home, getting quite remarkable results in her art classes.
She and Lindsay joined me when I decided to take advantage of an invitation to speak to the Cork Humanists to have a short break in south-west Ireland: highlights were the English market in Cork (a large covered market with an extraordinary range of cheeses, meat and other fresh food); Bantry House (long neglected but recently restored home of the family of the old Earls of Bantry, situated over the long narrow Bantry Bay with garden terraces climbing the steep hill behind it: while we picnicked in the restored parterre where ancient wisteria circles round a raised pool musicians in the house were rehearsing the Shostakovich piano quintet for a concert that evening); and a boat trip from Ventry on the Dingle peninsula to see minke whales and dolphins. The scenery was magnificent and we had some fine meals.
Lois’s brother and sister-in-law Michael and Kath came to England as part of their latest trip to Europe and we visited the superb Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition at the BM and the wonderful new Mary Rose exhibition in Southampton. Before they left we had lunch in the restaurant on the 32nd floor of the Shard – only half way up but with magnificent views and no admission charge beyond the cost of lunch – recommended! As they returned to Australia we learnt that Christina and Stephen with their four youngest children (one born only last spring) will be coming to England next spring, so we shall have another family occasion.
Meantime Lindsay and co-director Sam went to Montana in February when their film The One that Got Away was shown in the Big Skies documentary film festival, and in June they took part in a panel discussion at the Sheffield documentary festival. Sadly, however, HBO in Central Europe, who have all the rights, seem uninterested in promoting it, despite the plaudits wherever it is shown – most recently in Israel. However, he has successfully completed a major commission this year from George Soros’s Open Society Foundations (OSF), who wanted to draw attention to the situation of Somali refugees and immigrants in Europe. This was a joint venture with Benjamin (Dixey) Dix with whom he has been working on the Sri Lankan graphic novel (relegated temporarily to the back burner). The result is fourteen four-page stories in graphic novel style set in various European capitals and based on research trips organised by OSF to the cities involved. When one story was put up on the BBC website in November it got over 600,000 hits in 24 hours, and the complete set has been attracting heavy traffic to the OSF website. I urge you to take a look at these affect-ing tales of real life struggles against enormous difficulties – see the introduction at http://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/multimedia/meet-the-somalis or go direct to http://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/sites/default/files/meet-the-somalis.pdf for all the stories. Lindsay has now produced a website of his own to show off his talents at http://lindsay-pollock.com/.
Other family news is that my three brothers and I met up again in November: we had not all met since May 2011 so we had a lot of catching up to do. Malcolm was in Europe on a business trip: his main concern is now with the New Zealand National Institute for Health Innovation which he took over when it was little more than a shell and has made into a significant organisation. Ken is still a (Tory!) councillor for Tenbury in Worcestershire but is in course of moving to Cheltenham where he and Diana have bought a very attractive house near the centre: he has also bought a cottage in Worcestershire so as to preserve his eligibility as a councillor. Geoff, the youngest of us, seems to be the only one who has relaxation in mind! He was on the eve (literally) of driving off to Crete with his final carload of possessions as he (and Lin) complete their permanent move there. We had a Sunday roast at the Rose and Crown where the ambience was great, with lots of young families (have they really relaxed the licensing laws so much?) before returning for talk, musical favourites and dinner here.
The year has seen the usual very pleasurable gatherings of what I still think of as my Coal Board friends, though the connections are now old and/or indirect. We – Sheila and David, Tony and Phyllis, Mike and Camilla and I – met in London in February and went to the (rather mixed) Manet portraits exhibition at the Royal Academy, to both old and new Highgate cemeteries (Karl Marx’s memorial dates only from 1956, when he was dug up and moved to his present better position!), to Keats’ house and to the National Theatre to see Alan Bennett’s new play People which was sadly a serious disappointment. We then met in July in Derbyshire for some walks and for Mozart’s La Finta Giardiniera at the Buxton Festival: this, written when he was 18, was huge fun with lively action and fine singing; and in August in Sussex where Mike provided mouthwatering food and we had a great walk on the Downs and also visited Rottingdean where the parish church has stained glass windows by Burne-Jones and huge churchyard with the gravestones of a music hall artiste described as ‘the original chocolate-coloured coon’ and of one Nimrod Ping whose epitaph reads ‘architect – musician – troublemaker’!
My other Coal Board friends, principally from the old Staff Department – Peter, Phil, Gillian, Dorothy and Lesley – met up in October for our annual lunch which lasted half the afternoon and was followed for Phil, Peter and me by an evening in the pub and then a Greek meal – all thoroughly enjoyable.
My bridge group was expanded early this year when we taught Sharon how to play at least up to our fun standard. We had only about ten regular sessions this year but added a few extras with ‘strangers’ and had our usual excursion to a good restaurant to dispose of the accumulated penalties that go into a pot for the purpose.
I rarely join the walking group for its regular monthly excursions but I did join them in January for a magical local walk by the river Lea, with snow sticking to every tiny twig, tree trunks and the occasional leaf providing a splash of colour, ducks foraging and geese flying by honking. And I did join them for two weekends – one in Deal and one back at Little Quebb near Hay-on-Wye where we went last year. The first, in August, included an excellent walk with superb views from Brockhill country park through Pedlinge, to Lympne Castle and down past the ruins of Stutfall Castle to the Military Canal and on to Hythe. The second, at the end of October, included a walk to but not up Hay Bluff – the strong wind, late hour and darkening sky decided us against trying to climb its steep sides – and another up Hengist Ridge in dramatic weather: strong winds, dark clouds, rainbows and rain – and to the trees and shrubs, rocks, trickling water and ponds of Hengist Croft garden, owned by the current president of the RHS: rather wonderful but very soggy.
Earlier in the year I had a day out at another garden, the magic Great Dixter, with Lois, where I bought a carload of plants. Afterwards we went on to Hastings which somehow I had never previously visited – I cannot think why: it is an old fishing village with about 18-20 fairly big boats hauled up onto the high shingle beach, tall black wooden sheds for hanging the nets to dry, a miniature railway along the front, funicular railways up the cliff at each end of town, fine Georgian properties, a derelict pier that is to be rebuilt, and a good pub where we had superior fish and chips.
I resumed my amateur archaeology in August, joining old friends who are regular diggers for a week at a site just outside Faversham in a rough field beside two listed and ancient barns (now used as a joinery shop). There was one big trench about 25 feet wide and 100 feet long. The site was puzzling but connects with earlier adjacent digs and seemed to be a big bathhouse, demolished probably for its stone (for building work at the nearby abbey?) – there were remnants of walls and robbed out walls, a furnace and hypocaust tiles, chalk, opus signinum and tile floors and demolition rubble including lots of broken roof tiles.
The year also included a recent trip with Amanda and Justin to Houghton Hall to see (just before it closed) the exhibition of the paintings collected by Robert Walpole and sold after his death to Catherine the Great by his extravagant gambling grandson to pay off his debts. They were on loan from the Hermitage and elsewhere and hung much as they were in Walpole’s day in the house that was designed by William Kent specifically for them. The house is magnificent and some of the paintings very fine indeed – several Rembrandts, a Rubens and so on – and a Kneller portrait of John Locke that I particularly liked.
Locally I have helped a popular campaign (it raised about £13,000 in a couple of weeks!) against a planning application by Sainsbury’s for an unwanted supermarket in an unsuitable position in Stoke Newington (the council were supine and acted like the supermarket’s puppets) and a proposal for a neighbourhood (planning) forum under the Localism Act that has been put forward by a group of Tory and LibDem veterans of a previous devolved Stamford Hill planning committee that was intensely corrupt. The new forum has as its secretary a man who did six months for large-scale electoral fraud. Their motive is to relax planning controls to benefit the local rapidly expanding Hasidic community whose case is ‘we have exceptionally large families and need to be able to walk to our synagogues and so we should be allowed to extend our houses upwards, sideways, backwards and forwards whatever it looks like’. We seem to have blocked this for now but it is not yet formally decided.
Time to turn to my humanist activities, I have indulged myself with a new website (in addition to the Oxford University Humanist Group one I made last year). This is one for my humanist writings. I continue as a trustee of the British Humanist Association which moved into new offices in February – in what was originally the crypt of a Baptist church! – a semi-basement with iron columns, professionally designed for us with about 20 desk stations and four glassed-off rooms, one a board room. I’ve been involved in various different things this year: I drafted our response to a BBC ‘impartiality review’ of its treatment of religion and belief whose terms of reference (extraordinarily) excluded Thought for the Day. I contributed to our work supporting the assisted dying appeal by Tony Nicklinson which was lost in the high court but later this month is being taken by his widow to the Supreme Court for a four-day hearing in front of nine judges: the BHA is the only national body supporting reform to allow those who are not terminally ill but are physically unable to take the necessary drugs. I’ve also helped with our campaigns on faith schools and on RE in community schools (and I continue on Hackney’s SACRE) and have represented the BHA at two EHRC dialogues on religion in the workplace, gone to conferences on religion and the law at UCL and at the Cardiff Law School, on the future of religious education at Worcester University, on the broader topic of ‘Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective’ at the Open University; on the religious aspects of the 2011 census at a meeting of the British Sociological Association Sociology of Religion study group, and to numerous other relevant meetings. I have also given talks to nine or ten humanist and other meetings and done four half-day sessions on Humanism for student teachers on PGCE courses in York, Sheffield, Liverpool and London. Now I am also chair of the Programme Committee for next year’s triennial World Humanist Congress which the BHA is organising in Oxford for the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) – take a look at www.whc2014.org.uk!
Then there were the BHA lectures – this year I went to the Darwin Day lecture by Sir Tom Blundell on evolution and the emergence of drug resistance and to the Voltaire Lecture by Steven Pinker which was based on his recent book The Better Angels of Our Nature on the long-term decline in violence over all recorded time, for which his evidence seemed to be solid. I was one of those who went to dinner with him afterwards.
I’ve had two weeks in Strasbourg to represent IHEU at the Council of Europe – there are twice-yearly meetings of INGOs which coincide with meetings of PACE (the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe) to which much of my attention is directed, building up a list of secularist members and briefing them on debates coming up. Working with other liberal organisations we had a major success this spring, radically amending a reactionary resolution from a committee led by very religious Italian member.
I was also in Strasbourg in February for a planning meeting for this year’s ‘Intercultural Dialogue’ which took place in September in Yerevan, Armenia. I was one of the key speakers and got warm plaudits afterwards from some unlikely people – a retired archbishop and an ambassador from Bulgaria, for example. For two days we exchanged views on education and religion and other topics, and I met again various friends from previous years. We also had visits to a museum of ancient manuscripts, to the patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and to an ancient church – allegedly 4th century but altered and added to – where we saw a glittering display of chasubles, censers, mitres, staffs, old books, icons and relics! We also had a trip out of Yerevan up into the dry rocky hills to a ‘monastery’(actually a collection of churches without any resident monks) at the end of the road at Geghard. The coach parked next to stalls where women were selling strings of colourful dried fruit – apricots, plums and so on – and fruit leathers or alternatively heavily decorated round thin loaves with a sweet almond filling. On the way out I bought one of these and managed to get it home! Before that we went into an underground church dimly lit from above where a group of five singers sang for us – both ecclesiastical and folk melodies. The chamber had wonderful acoustics and this was an enchanting performance. Later we went to an open air restaurant where we saw two women making sheets of unleavened bread by stretching the dough over an ovoid block of wood and then slapping it against the wall of a cylindrical pit oven (fired earlier) for a few minutes. After the conference I hired a car for a day and went with Belgian friends and a guide south towards Mount Ararat – symbol of Armenia but located in Turkey across a border closed for 100 years – to visit Khor Virap, another ancient monastery, and over a pass in the bare limestone mountains, up a deep gorge to the end of the road at yet another monastery, Norovank, mainly XIII century, but with earlier churches – one in ruins – alongside. With stops at restaurants and cafés this was a very enjoyable day.
By far my biggest humanist commitment for the first half of the year was the BHA’s campaign to get humanist marriages legally recognised by way of an amendment to the Government’s bill on same sex marriage. Although in Scotland humanist marriages have overtaken RC ones in popularity since their law was changed, and although Ireland also changed its law this year, the Government opposed us to the end. We fought through every stage in both houses of Parliament and despite having majority support in both chambers time and again we thought we’d lost. We had a string of meetings with officials and ministers, with the party spokespersons (the Labour front bench backed us except when temporarily frightened when the Government said adoption of our amendment would kill the whole Bill! – and the reform was LibDem party policy anyway). I drafted successive versions of our amendment, got counsel’s opinion, helped draft briefs, refutations of counter-arguments and speeches for our supporters. Our head of public affairs worked almost full-time on lobbying anyone with links to ministers or Tory MPs; and our members sent about 6,000 email letters to MPs. Finally at report stage in the Lords the Government agreed to conduct a consultation and took powers to change the law by statutory regulation – so we have probably won despite the further delay: watch this space. (For those who want to know the difference between a humanist wedding and a civil one, the latter may be conducted by an intensely religious registrar and is not allowed to include specifically humanist content: our wedding clients are eloquent about how marvellous our weddings are and resentful that they do not count legally.)
Not all humanist work was so stressful: the European Humanist Federation’s conference this year was in Bucharest – actually in the grotesque palace Ceaucescu built for himself, flattening one-third of the old city, when he saw on a visit what the North Koreans could do. We did a tour of the building, which now houses the Parliament but is mainly empty ceremonial rooms. We saw massive hall after massive hall, heavily decorated everywhere with gold and mouldings and wooden carvings and fine white marble columns and marble floors in different colours. The overall effect was monstrous: it was boring in its sameness, empty in its grandeur, grotesque in its excess. A better visit in Bucharest was to the historical museum’s complete casts of Trajan’s column in Rome: it offers vivid images of building camps and crossing bridges, battles and ceremonies.
When EHF business was over (and incidentally, for those with a good memory, the EHF’s complaint about the EU Commission’s dealing with us that I mentioned last year was totally upheld by the European Ombudsman) some of us went sightseeing after the meetings: monasteries and churches, of course, one of the latter with a pillar pockmarked by bullets that Ceaucescu’s forces fired through the door at revolutionaries taking refuge there in the 1989 revolution. We also went to the castle of King Carol I, the German minor nobleman with a good army record whom the Romanians chose as their king in about 1870. It was a German schloss on the side of a wooded mountain valley – the most modern house in Romania when it was built, with electricity, running water, central heating, central vacuum cleaning, an electrically operated huge ceiling window, and by the 1900s a cinema. The interior had finely carved wooden furniture and panelling, displays of armour, huge mirrors, luxurious reception rooms, the exterior a riot of turrets and painted walls.
Then we visited Bran Castle, the seat of Vlad the Impaler, known as Drak – hence Dracula (it was chosen by Bram Stoker for his story but he never went there). Between the wars it was ‘modernised’ by the queen as a home, but it could never have been cosy! It is high on a ridge below wooded mountains, reached up a steep path across the side of the hill (though the queen had an elevator fitted in an old well shaft!) and arranged (as estate agents would say) on many levels with steep stairs and external balconies around a small courtyard.
So at last to exhibitions, music, theatre and books! I’ve missed a lot but got to the Hayward Gallery for an hour to see their exhibition of light sculptures – some silly, some remarkable. In one darkened room I liked a ‘garden’ of water features frozen to a wobble by strobe lighting! The British Museum’s Ice Age Art exhibition had amazing objects, mainly small but recognisable as works of art, often with strong resemblances to 20th century pieces. And the BM’s exhibition on Pompeii and Herculaneum was packed with everyday objects – a large warming oven on legs, a delicate colander and amazing (carbonised) wooden furniture – plus superb frescos and mosaics.
Music has included the Hackney Singers (who include two friends) in Tippett’s A Child for Our Time, the Roskell Trio at Sutton House playing piano trios by Shostakovich, Schumann and Beethoven, and The Magic Flute at the ENO in a strange but quite effective production. Then there were the live relays from the Metropolitan Opera of Handel’s Giulio Cesare (Natalie Dessay wonderful as Cleopatra), of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, with Anna Netrobka and Mariusz Kwiencien excellent as the ill-fated couple; and Verdi’s Falstaff.
In a segue towards live theatre, I also saw both a live relay of the RSC’s Richard II from Stratford and a live performance at the Barbican. David Tennant gave an immense performance evoking a self-regarding, silly king convinced of his omnipotence and riding for a pathetic fall.
The best things at the National this year were Othello and The Amen Corner. The former was preceded by a very informative Platform in which Neil MacGregor of the BM introduced in a slide show objects illustrative of the original audience’s background knowledge relevant to the play. It seems that the Venetians never entrusted command of their navy to a Venetian, wanting the freedom to sack a mercenary commander without consequences – hence Othello the Moor. The women of Venice were renowned – like Parisians in the belle époque – for their loose morals, hence the naturalness of Othello’s suspicions of Desdemona. In the play Rory Kinnear was outstanding as Iago, eclipsing a still marvellous Adrian Lester as the Moor. Nicholas Hytner set it in a modern military encampment, which worked very well. A memorable production!
James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner was directed by Rufus Norris who is to take over from Hytner as director of the NT in 2015. It was excellent – and had attracted a large number of black Londoners in the audience. Set in a Harlem shopfront church, it features a controlling woman pastor as her 18-year-old son breaks away to lead his own life, as her long estranged and now dying husband reappears from his life of jazz, women and booze, and as her subservient congregation rebels on discovering that shockingly she had deserted her husband, not he her. The cast were uniformly strong, the set (on two levels) detailed and effective, the gospel singing lively and exciting, and the play both funny and moving.
Of the rest, Simon Russell-Beale put on a superb act in drag in Michael Grandage’s revival of Peter Nicholls’ Privates on Parade, Simon Stephens’ Port was a fine portrayal of the early life of a girl in Stockport: actress Kate O’Flynn aged over eight scenes from 11 to 24 in a wonderful and much praised performance; The Captain of Kopenick was unfunny, tedious and far too long; Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude had characters constantly speaking their thoughts to the audience while the action paused; it was surprisingly amusing for O’Neill and had a wonderful set and splendid acting from Charles Edwards and Anne Marie Duff. This House, transferred from the Cottesloe (where I saw it last year), worked well in the far larger Olivier. Pirandello’s Liola, played with Irish accents, was almost a musical – an amusing tale of the village gigolo and the childless rich farmer, with a largely female cast of Sicilian peasant women (apart from the band of elderly musicians – all the young men were away in town working). The new musical The Light Princess had excellent effects (of the princess floating, not just on wires but also carried by almost invisible black-clad acrobats climbing the set’s huge bookcases!) and good story-book style fantasy scenery but it divided the audience and I was among those not enchanted by it. And Marlowe’s Edward II was an unsatisfactory mixture of styles and periods, with big tv screens showing close-ups of the faces of characters under stress, being dragged off to their deaths or the like, and a set made up almost of improvised bits and pieces.
Gorky’s Children of the Sun was a somewhat flawed play well directed and acted, with a splendid set and a huge explosion at the end! It was the focus for this year’s NT Revealed event for their Supporting Cast members, to which I went with old Chelsfield friend Alison. We went in small groups round a series of ‘stations’ where different aspects of the production were demonstrated – the paintshop, the stage hydraulics, the ASM and so on. We learnt what a disaster it is to get egg yolk on costumes – and in this play there is some throwing of eggs! It all ended with a demonstration of how they make the huge explosion at the end of the play by creating separately and safely the noise, the flash, the heat, the breaking glass and so on.
Away from the National, I have been twice to the Park, a new small theatre close by at Finsbury Park, once to see Yellow Face by David Henry Hwang, an Asian American playwright, based on his own experience of leading protests against a white man (Jonathan Pryce) ‘yellowing up’ to take the lead in Miss Saigon on Broadway – and then a couple of years later casting a white man in an Asian role in one of his own plays! The second visit was to see friend Sally Llewellyn’s play The Barrier about Hasidic and gentile neighbours who clash over a security light that comes on when the Hasids go up their front path – even on the sabbath! This was based squarely on her and Mike’s experience before they down-sized. I had taken part in readings of early versions and she had made it into a very fine play, with the Hasids actually more sympathetic than their neighbours!
I’ve left little space for books and so must be selective, but I will start where I left off last year with Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s Mao: the Unknown Story – the most extraordinary, detailed and convincing narrative of Mao Tse-tung’s heartless and unscrupulous rise to power and exercise of it. The authors trawled all the relevant archives, finding for example damning reports on Mao from Party inspectors in the 1920s and ’30s, and contacted everyone who had any insight, including drivers and interpreters who saw him close-up. He started with no political commitment to communism but used it as a ladder; he betrayed colleagues and, even before Stalin’s purges began, slaughtered tens of thousands of ‘comrades’ for the sake of his own career – not least on the Long March, which he led through appalling conditions at the cost of huge suffering and loss of life rather than take an easy direct route to link up with another Red army which was more powerful than his own and where he would therefore lose his independence. He conned and manipulated Stalin, Chiang Kai-shek and the Americans, who rescued him in the late 1940s when the Nationalists were on the brink of eliminating the Reds but he convinced George Marshall, Truman’s emissary, that he was not a real communist and that he would make a better ally than Chiang. He married frequently but showed no commitment to his wives, leaving one in a city he was bombarding when he could have got her out. In power his decisions were disastrous, often perverse, and resulted in multiple millions of deaths, which he embraced as affordable and desirable. He lived in luxury while starving and terrorising his people and destroying their cultural inheritance. It is a well written page-turner of a book, 750+ pages of devastating revelations. When will it be published in China??
I followed that with another excellent volume: A Line in the Sand by James Barr, a masterful history of the bitter rivalry between Britain and France in the Middle East from the First World War to the establishment of Israel. As the Turkish empire collapsed, Britain grabbed Cyprus (1878) and Egypt (1882). The French, alarmed, attempted to seize the Nile headwaters in 1898 but were ignominiously forced into retreat and forever after this Fashoda incident rankled. The 1904 entente cordiale patched things up but as the war started Britain was determined to protect its control of the Suez canal and its interests in Egypt by taking control at least of Palestine, TransJordan and Iraq (oil was replacing coal for bunkering). France wanted its share of the spoils and alleged a centuries old (‘since the Crusades’) sphere of influence in Syria and Lebanon. France vetoed a British attack on the Turks through Alexandretta in Syria simultaneously with Gallipoli which would have had a good chance of success and might have improved the chances in the Dardanelles if it had gone ahead. In 1915 Sir Mark Sykes, a self-proclaimed expert on the area but in fact prejudiced and ignorant, and Francois Georges-Picot, a self-important diplomat who hated the British, drew a line in the sand prospectively dividing the territory between Britain and France without regard to the interests of the local people (and to the outrage of T E Lawrence). Palestine was contested, and to bolster their claim the British took up the fledgling cause of a Jewish homeland, endorsed in Balfour’s famous declaration. From then on they had a tiger by the tail. As oil pipelines from Iraq to the Mediterranean became a key consideration, each colonial state manipulated its unruly ‘puppet’ governments with more than half an eye on frustrating the other’s ambitions, subverting loyalties and supporting and arming rebel movements. In the second World War, de Gaulle found that few of the French in Lebanon and Syria would join him, but national pride forced him to prefer the supporters of Vichy to collaboration with the British, so he joined with them even as they put French pride ahead of the war effort. Distrust and mutual subversion ensued, and as the war ended, the French armed the Stern Gang to force Britain out of Palestine. It is a sorry tale of death and misery resulting from a mixture of misplaced idealism and sheer powermongering. The book is revelatory, immensely readable and superbly researched using recently available archives.
Christy Campbell’s Target London is the story of the development and deployment of Hitler’s V-weapons, the British intelligence operation to discover what was going on and the political and military consequences – a very detailed narrative, switching from the German research and testing, which went far from smoothly, to the struggles in Britain to make sense of the Bletchley Park decrypts, the photographic surveillance and the reports smuggled out of occupied Europe. This was complicated as many of the most senior people involved – including Duncan Sandys, Churchill’s son-in-law, who chaired the key committee – were not cleared to see or even know of the existence of the Ultra decrypts, which had to be disguised as coming from elsewhere. The air intelligence expert R V Jones is the nearest thing to a hero in the story and plainly the one whose assessment was (we can see in retrospect) closest to the mark, but he had feet of clay in his prickly inflated opinion of his own merits. Others made gross overestimates of the threat facing London, saying the Germans had huge rockets carrying massive loads of explosive that could render the city uninhabitable. Churchill and others got to the brink of using gas weapons on a massive scale as pre-emptive retaliation (the weapons were deployed in huge quantities and ready to go) but held back, satisfied instead with carpet bombing of German towns and cities of little or no strategic importance, chosen for their old wooden buildings and the possibility of firestorms – Dresden was only the worst. It is a complex tale and in stressing the detail and the confusion Campbell sometimes obscures the main line of the narrative, but the book is compelling even so.
Caroline Shenton gives in The Day Parliament Burned Down an hour by hour narration of what happened in 1834 when burning the Exchequer’s redundant wooden tallies in the House of Lords’ central heating furnace set the building on fire with disastrous consequences – both Houses of Parliament, the Commons library, immense quantities of public records and many historic items, including the Armada tapestries, were totally destroyed, Westminster Hall was preserved only by gargantuan efforts, and of course in the end virtually the entire remaining fabric was demolished to make way for Barry and Pugin’s new Houses of Parliament – not completed for 20 years. Into the narrative the author weaves a fascinating and well researched mix of history and information about everyday life (and fire-fighting practice), public administration and the state of Parliament at a time when it was on the cusp of modernity after the Great Reform Act.
I read two books by Callum Brown – first The Death of Christian Britain in which he demonstrates that the story of a steady decline of Christianity as the cultural default position in Britain starting with the urbanisation of the 19th century and continuing to the mid- and end-20th century is false. Instead there was a catastrophic collapse in the 1960s – starting with young women’s sexual liberation – which came before the ‘pill’. He quotes from popular fiction and social studies and autobiographies to demonstrate how the traditional pre-1800 story of heroic men as Christian pilgrims resisting the temptations offered by the female sex switched after 1800 to a story of pious Christian women coping with the problems caused by their menfolk who were susceptible to the temptations of drink, gambling and illicit sex. He also debunks, with statistical and other evidence, the idea of the working classes falling away from religion, and shows how the idea came about from inadequate research. He has since developed his thesis on an international level – as presented in his session at the NRSN conference at Goldsmith’s last year. Then in Religion and Society in Twentieth-Century Britain he shows how (to pick just a few points) moderate ‘mellow’ religion fails to pass on knowledge, belief and commitment, while by contrast the charismatics and wilder, sometimes fundamentalist, fringes have grown in importance, albeit in terms of proportions rather than absolute support – a trend boosted when Anglican West Indians arriving in the UK were shunned by their church and found a home in the (hitherto marginal) Pentecostals.
I also read C P Snow’s A Time of Hope, Wilkie Collins’ No Name (a page-turner of a story with a plot of byzantine complexity founded on two daughters’ loss of an inheritance owing to the failure of their father’s will and the stop-at-nothing attempts by one of them to recover the fortune) and David Lodge’s A Man of Parts – a biographical novel about H G Wells and his failed attempts to change the direction of the Fabian Society, his tangled and numerous marriages and love affairs, and of course his novels – into which he put with remarkable speed and lack of compunction his own barely disguised life and loves! And there were other books of lesser note. . .
Time then as the bottom of the page approaches to draw this to a close and wish you all the best for the holiday season and the coming year.