Time to update the annals! I find I’ve been doing these letters now for 22 years at least – my computer files go back only that far but the 1993 letter reads as if that was the first time I sent the same letter to a number of people. I started that letter with the question: “How did people find time in the days they had to use quills and ink to write such lengthy and personal letters?” – I still don’t know the answer! Anyhow, apologies that you have to share this missive, but the alternative would be a few words in a card. And as they say, you can always unsubscribe!
This year has been notable for Lindsay deciding to get married! His partner is Jamila Roehrig, a lovely girl from Salt Lake City (no … !) whom he met on the Internet. She has spent two separate weeks over here – the most she could get off her work in a hospital trials unit – and he has had two separate months over there, but they Skype pretty well every day and seem very happy together. They are getting married in SLC in February – Lois and I are flying over for nearly two weeks (could be pretty cold but we still plan to have a few days in the Arches national park). Then they plan to try living in Galway in Ireland – cheaper, and also avoids the UK’s immigration barriers. It will be very odd not having Linds around after most of the last 34 years but I’ll have to go over to Galway from time to time! He reckons he can as well pursue his work from there as here – he’s concentrating now on the Sri Lankan story and also developing other ‘comic’ lines for Positive Negatives as well as pursuing other openings. This year he produced another moving graphic story, about an Ethiopian girl working as a domestic slave in Saudi Arabia – see http://www.positivenegatives.org/almaz.
No other news of such significance, but the year has been very busy. Christina and husband Stephen plus Tiahna, Patrick, Lucy and Abigail came over from Australia for five weeks in the spring and Lois, Lindsay and I saw quite a bit of them with occasional outings – I had an enjoyable grandfatherly day showing young Tiahna some of the historical sights of London. Lois’s brother and sister-in-law Michael and Kath came for six weeks in the summer and Lois lent them her flat and moved in here. We had a week in Malta with them followed by three days in the Isle of Wight and did some day excursions – Whitstable and the Shuttleworth collection at Old Warden which includes a Bleriot plane that is the oldest aircraft in the world that still flies. On Malta we stayed in an old house in Birgu (across the harbour from Valletta) with a steep spiral stone staircase from the first floor to the roof. Highlights were a visit to Mdina, a mediaeval town almost untouched by any disasters since an earthquake in 1693 where they make wonderful glass – I bought two pieces which were shipped back to me and are now on display in the lounge, and the Hypogeum and the Tarxien temples, the remains of an almost unknown civilisation of the 4th millennium BCE. The Hypogeum is an extraordinary excavation dating back to 3600 BC, dug with antler horn and stone tools to provide a series of underground chambers for the burial of the dead. Some of the chambers are sculpted to look like surface buildings with architraves and pediments. It was discovered by accident in 1899 and after a delay was excavated in the early 20th century. Today only 10 people are allowed in at a time in an attempt at atmospheric control to preserve the red ochre patterns painted on some of the walls and ceilings. But there are remains of numerous surface temples of the same age, built by a people who disappeared without trace before 2000 BCE. The photo shows the feet, ballooning trousers and skirt of a massive statue from one of the temples at Tarxien. The Isle of Wight had nothing so old but St Boniface church did have a notice outside saying “Rebuilt in 1080″!
Sibling-wise, I’ve not seen any of my brothers this year unless memory and records are misleading me – that’s bad! However, we keep in touch by bursts of informative emails several times a year. I’ve not yet found time to visit Ken and Diana in their new house in central Cheltenham but from photos it looks enviable. Ken continues with his Tory politicking on Worcestershire county council and with an increasingly radical rejection of what he calls ‘warmism’. Malcolm is about to retire from the New Zealand National Institute for Health Innovation which he has successfully built up from a very low state over the last few years (see http://nihi.auckland.ac.nz/page/business-group/malcolm) but he looks to continue with high level international consultancy on IT and health. Geoff by contrast has sold up in England and is lotus-eating in Crete with Lin – he told me that he tries to do at least one job of work a day but it might be only mending something in their old village house near Charnia which they plan to extend and improve.
I’ve continued to see a lot of Lois: being back in London she is able to drop in to see Linds or to consult with me about her charity Education and Health Trust Uganda (www.ehtuganda.com) of which I am the treasurer – she made another visit there this year – and we’ve also been to the theatre and cinema a few times. She’s also been a great help researching potential solutions to the problems with the pond fish – one of this year’s problems as some of them developed nasty lesions, several dying. Result: trips to fish vets and a visit from a pond company who emptied the whole system (main pond, deep stream, shallow upper pond ) and cleaned it, blasting the liner to remove all the blanket weed, already re-emerging. Oddly the water checked out as healthy in a dozen tests and the specialist could find no nasties on any of the fish he tested.
The garden has been a pleasure this year but I have a strong tendency to look on it as an assembly of jobs still to be done! The pencil pine on the rockery, which started at about 18 inches, is now as many feet high and still growing: I see more death-dealing work for the tree surgeon not too far ahead! At the very end of last year I steeled myself to the inevitable and had all the roses removed from my pergola. I had chosen rampant ramblers and they had grown into a lumpen mass six feet above the pergola, shading it but providing little bloom below. With gardener Henrietta’s help they have now been replaced with better behaved varieties which we are training properly.
I’ve continued playing bridge – 15 sessions so far and another to come before Christmas – with friends in a now expanded group of seven, but the (overlapping) walking group has seen almost nothing of me this year, though I did join them for a weekend near Matlock in October. On the other hand, I’ve missed no sessions of the (also overlapping) Wrinklies group which is always jolly even if we sometimes have talks about things like Alzheimers – it must be the excellent food everyone brings!
I met with my old Coal Board friends (at least, that was the original connection) Sheila and David, Mike and Camilla, Tony and Phyllis three times as usual. In February we went to gaol: that is, we had an excellent lunch at the Clink restaurant in High Down prison in Sutton. The Clink Charity has set up several high class restaurants in prisons to provide training for prisoners and has been getting good results, placing prisoners in jobs on release and recording very low levels of recidivism. We had to be ‘processed’ through security and surrender contraband (phones, cash, hats etc) before being admitted through security doors, crossing a yard with razor wire fences and steel gates in gusty wind and lashing rain and finally through a locked door to find ourselves in a sophisticated interior with soft music and a fine and extensive menu! Two prisoners served us, one about to leave for a job in a restaurant. There was no wine but the food was really good. The charity was started by Edwina Grosvenor, heiress to the Grosvenor estate and married to Dan Snow who, when not on tv, is helping the British Humanist Association in various ways, not least in our campaign for inclusion in the Cenotaph ceremony alongside all the religions (Lloyd George insisted from the start that it be a secular memorial but the Church of England rapidly muscled in!).
Anyhow, having left prison we went next day to Kenwood House, magnificently restored, and later to the National Theatre to see Simon Russell-Beale in the best Lear I have seen. We met again in July in Derbyshire and, apart from some walking and many good meals, we went to the Buxton Opera to see Gluck’s Orfeo e Euridice in a production that turned Orpheus into a rock star: we were worried about this in advance but it actually worked well. In October we were in Sussex where the weather limited our walking but we went to the excellent small Ditchling Museum devoted to Eric Gill and the Catholic arts and crafts community he gathered round him there in the first half of the 20th century and to Monk’s House where Virginia and Leonard Woolf used to live: we arrived by chance just in time for a reading in the garden of a short story of hers that was set in that very garden spot!
These were our usual three meetings but we were also all in Cambridge in June for a splendid celebration of Mike’s 70th at his old college (Peterhouse) – a candlelit, black tie gathering that was much larger than Mike had expected: well done, Camilla! Next day we went punting in the sunshine down the Backs. My other Coal Board gathering – six of us mainly from the old Staff department – had its usual long and fairly liquid lunch in October, and I was also at Phil Turner’s 75th birthday party in June meeting more old acquaintance! I also had two days with Tony & Phyllis in October, bridging between a speaking engagement in Sheffield and the aforementioned Matlock walks gathering. We went to the excellent Hepworth gallery at Wakefield – highly recommended!
Of course, most of my time has been devoted to my humanist pursuits, this year focussed on the triennial World Humanist Congress that the BHA hosted and organised in Oxford in August. The theme was Freedom of Thought and Expression – Forging a Twenty-First Century Enlightenment and I was in charge (under BHA boss Andrew Copson’s surehanded guidance) of putting together the programme – about ninety speakers and chairs providing half a dozen plenary sessions in Christopher Wren’s magnificent Sheldonian Theatre (left, with queue to get in!) and twenty-five parallel sessions in five streams in the Examination Schools and a 300-seat marquee in the quadrangle. The previous Congress – in Oslo in 2011 – attracted under 500 people; we planned for up to 650 and sold out by February! The pinchpoint was the Examination Schools so we put together a Congress-lite package for another 300+ people with events only in the Sheldonian.
We had big names – Philip Pullman, Taslima Nasreen, A C Grayling, Richard Dawkins, plus Wole Soyinka who sent a recorded lecture when he fell ill – and interviews by Joan Bakewell, Nick Ross, Samira Ahmed and Zoe Williams – but the most inspiring sessions were with lesser known people who are pioneering freedom of expression, sometimes in the face of serious danger. Asif Mohiuddin was knifed, arrested and jailed in Bangla Desh for his religiously sceptical blogging and now lives in exile. Gululai Ismail (right centre, with Andrew Copson and Taslima Nasreen) was only 16 when, living in the tribal Khyber Pakhtunkhwa area of Pakistan, she founded Aware Girls to challenge patriarchy and religious extremism. One of the girls she helped influence was Malala Yousafzai. Still only 26 she has been internationally recognised but faces constant physical attacks and threats. Here most religious extremists are less trigger happy but Tom Holland and Francesca Stavrakopoulou both faced unpleasant reaction to books and tv programmes that looked objectively at the origins of Islam and aspects of the Old Testament respectively. Some of the Congress sessions are now on the BHA’s YouTube channel.
All the arrangements went almost perfectly – the organisation and admin were near perfect, mainly thanks to Andrew Copson, with lots of little extras (readings from seminal freedom of expression texts at the start of sessions, cards with other such quotes as part of the place settings at lunches and the Congress dinner, well chosen entertainments, a social venue (‘Humanist House’) every night with a pay bar, a reception at the Ashmolean Museum, a buffet dinner for the speakers and organisers at Blackwells bookshop (in the extraordinary underground Norrington Room, which has four miles of shelving!), and so on. As organisers we held our breath until the end and were then able to agree with what everyone had been saying throughout, that it had been the best such Congress anyone could remember. It was also pleasing that at the IHEU General Assembly that was wrapped round the Congress the consolidated statement of policy (based on 50 years of resolutions and statements) that I had prepared at the request of the IHEU Executive Committee – a pretty substantial job! – was extremely well received.
Apart from the Congress, I have continued with speaking engagements, have made some slow progress in the Hackney SACRE, have gone to numerous public or invitation meetings and conferences, and spoke for the BHA at the Hackney Remembrance Day ceremony. Just before last Christmas I sat through four days of complex legal argument in the Supreme Court and helped brief our lawyers when the BHA joined in theTony Nicklinson appeal on assisted dying. The case was eventually lost but in terms that suggested that if Parliament does not act soon the courts may be willing to do so. The year saw the sad death of Harry Stopes-Roe, who coined the word ‘lifestance’ to cover non-religious as well as religious beliefs and pioneered the development of the ‘objective, fair and balanced’ approach to RE in schools that has now become standard (and on which I worked with him in the 1970s). I spoke about him in BBC Radio 4’s Last Word programme.
I have also carried on as head of the International Humanist and Ethical Union’s delegation at the Council of Europe (working with allies to monitor and brief friendly MPs in the Parliamentary Assembly on reactionary draft resolutions and attending the INGO conference for a week in January and another in June). The Council of Europe also took me to Baku in Azerbaijan for its latest annual exchange of so-called intercultural (read inter-belief) dialogue. (Why Azerbaijan is a member of the Council of Europe I don’t know – it is pretty well into Asia – but the meetings are held in the country currently chairing the Council, and that proceeds alphabetically with a change each six months: hence the last three have been in Albania, Armenia and Azerbaijan, and next year’s is in Bosnia.) I was again one of the ‘paper’ speakers and I think we must be doing well as this year they doubled the size of the humanist group from 2 to 4: one of the others was Pavan Dhaliwal, the BHA’s head of public affairs. Azerbaijan has one of the worst human rights records in the Council, a body whose whole raison d’être is human rights – a point I was the only paper speaker to make (though Pavan echoed it next day from the floor), leading one prominent Christian to say to me afterwards ‘that was a brave thing to say – worthy of Jesus’, as if they were going to drag us off to some prison cell! So far from that, our hosts laid on visits to the National Art Gallery with attractive Azerbaijani work and remarkable prehistoric pottery and to a concert hall of striking design where we were entertained by three musicians and three singers of ‘Mugham’ folk music – strange and beautiful with many semitones and strange modulations (see/hear it on YouTube).
Pavan and I together with a friendly British Buddhist extended our stay with a couple of days’ sightseeing. Baku is an ancient city on the Caspian which has some elegant c19th streets and is now packed with designer brand shops, each with a couple of languid youths waiting inside for anyone who looks like a customer. The country has enormous oil wealth and there are huge showpiece modern developments – from the revolving bar at the top of our 25-floor Hilton hotel we could see the Flame Towers, a trio of office/hotel/residential developments on the hill above the old city that are shaped like flames and have LEDs embedded so that at night they can display pictures – of flames, or of men waving flags!
The old town is surrounded by ancient high walls and within is the Maiden’s Tower (right) the origins and purpose of which noone can agree though the fact that its walls are 5m thick at the base and that there used to be no staircase from the ground to the first floor until it was restored in the 1960s indicate that it was at some stage certainly a defensive structure. Indeed there used to be no floors until the 1960s – just the staircase within the thickness of the wall. It is now beautifully presented with excellent and imaginative displays and projections on each floor until you get to the roof from which in the high wind that is omnipresent (Baku apparently means Windy City) you can nevertheless get a grand view of the city, including the equally ancient Palace of the Shirvanshahs which among its excellent displays included stone carvings from a castle that was washed away some time in the past when the Caspian Sea rose to its present level – it fell by 3m between 1922 and 1977, enabling the old castle to be excavated (they had 1946 film of the work) but rose again until 1993 since when it has been roughly stable.
We also visited the Carpet Museum, a wonderful modern building in the shape of a roll of carpet! It has three floors of wonderful carpets really well displayed. At the end I enquired at the gift shop the price of a small souvenir booklet, alarming the woman behind the counter who hurried off to the admissions desk, came back and went into a huddle with two other women, peering at a list of items! I wandered off for a while and eventually they came up with a price: 20 manats (approx £15!) which was plainly wrong, so we left it. The whole place is plainly a prestige project with no commercial logic at all. There were large numbers of museum attendants and very few visitors.
The (elected) dictator’s family is omnipresent – there is a wonderful curvy building by Zaha Hadid but it is the Heydar Aliyev Centre, and his portrait is omnipresent in the city. We were warned before going that we needed to be meticulous about filling in a very detailed questionnaire that would be required at immigration where we would need two passport photos – but in fact we were met immediately off the plane by representatives of the State Council for Relations with Religions and whisked away to a VIP lounge, given coffee, and needed neither form nor photos! Similarly on the way out, which was irritating as we had some cash left, useless outside the country, but were again taken to the VIP lounge where the cheapest thing to buy was a £12,000 watch from the luxury goods shop.
As the year comes to an end we are awaiting with some apprehension the Government’s decision – due before January – on whether to give legal recognition to humanist marriages. When the same sex marriage bill was in Parliament our amendments on humanist marriage elicited strong support and no discernible opposition in both Houses but all the Government would concede was a consultation coupled with power for them to change the law by regulation. We know that the consultation produced a flood of positive responses and there was again strong support in the Lords a couple of days ago. Moreover, the reform would fit well with the Government’s so-called ‘family test’ for all new legislation. Even so, there are hints of trouble from our inside contacts and we fear the Church of England, publicly silent, may be pulling strings in Downing Street.
More general aspects of the interface between religion and the law make up a major and increasing part of my activity. I have submitted a 30-page memorandum of evidence – see http://david-pollock.org.uk/religion/religion-and-belief-in-british-public-life/ to a commission on religion and belief in British public life set up by the Woolf Institute at Cambridge University (Andrew Copson is a member). The Equality and Human Rights Commission, after neglecting religion or belief for years, has also started some serious study of the problems it creates in human rights and equality law in the workplace, and I have not only sent it my own evidence but am participating in a series of lunches chaired by Rowan Williams organised to discuss aspects of the matter and was last week at a small consultation at Oxford Brookes university on the subject. Moreover, in January I shall be at a private conference in Luxembourg arising out of the EU-funded Religare project (its report has come out in a book called Belief, Law and Politics (Ashgate) that contains also two dozen papers responding to it, including a highly critical one from me) where we are told there will be not just academics but also judges from the [Council of Europe] European Court of Human Rights and the [EU] European Court of Justice: should be interesting!
The issues involved are complex, including the definition of religion or belief and whether (as Religare proposes but I and many others oppose) the law on indirect discrimination should be replaced by one on reasonable accommodation. The former says that if an apparently neutral workplace rule bears more heavily on one group defined by religion or belief than on others, then the employer needs to change it unless it is designed to achieve a legitimate object by proportionate means. So, for example, a teacher lost a case where she claimed that she should be allowed to cover her face entirely with a veil because a ban was a proportionate way of achieving the legitimate objective of efficient communication between her and her young pupils. Reasonable accommodation is a proposed borrowing from disability discrimination law, where disabled employees are seen as a separate group who should be accommodated by functional changes in the workplace (ramps etc) unless the cost is unreasonable. Imported into legislation on religion or belief it would carry over the same presumption in favour of concessions subject to cost, bypassing the tests of legitimacy and proportionality in favour of what might turn out as a crude bargaining process. That’s very oversimplified but I hope it helps!
Let me turn to theatre. With three plays still to see before Christmas I shall by the end of the year have been to the National 17 times and other theatres eight times, plus three live cinema relays. Then there were two operas, three live opera relays, two recitals, a concert and a ballet! Plus four films. Plus three exhibitions. Not all were good, but some were superb. At the National I particularly enjoyed, as I have mentioned, Simon Russell-Beale’s Lear. I usually find the mad playacting of Edgar and the Fool and the genuine ravings of Lear tedious and offputting, but this superlative production by Sam Mendes made a lot more sense than any I had seen previously. Beale made Lear’s incipient dementia evident from the start; Edmund (Sam Troughton – suit, spectacles, an evil ‘efficient Baxter’) and Edgar (Tom Brooke – tall, lanky, casually dressed, first seen with bottle and cigarette) were strongly differentiated from the start; the semi-modern setting worked well (with a huge cast of extras), and all the parts were well played. The staging was dramatic and effective with efficient rapid set-changing covered by incidental action. Later came the revival of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey – what an extraordinary play for an untutored 19-year-old from 1950s’ Salford to write! Again at the National there was their magnificent Medea with Helen McCrory outstanding in the lead role. The set was great, the music and chorus atmospheric and moving, the tension at the end palpable. Then came the acclaimed trilogy of plays by Rona Munro on which the NT provided backing to the National Theatre of Scotland. They were – especially James I, which swept you up from the first moment and never let go – very fine indeed: in an elevated but recognisably present-day demotic speech, they were a vigorous marriage of mediaeval history and humour, exciting choreography for battles and touching moments of intimacy along with intense drama (there was a true coup de théatre when at the off-stage execution of rebels blood gushed down from the hilt of the immense sword stuck in the stage and dominating it in all three plays).
Also from the National something, as they say, completely different: Here Lies Love which opened the much improved Dorfman (previously Cottesloe) theatre: a musical about the life of Imelda Marcos with all the love affairs, betrayals, politics and brutality. It was done as a promenade performance with the audience milling round mobile chest-high platforms at each end, centre and sides – very flexible – and with a presiding DJ, disco lights, projections, live cctv of the characters being interviewed, brilliant quick-change costumes, dancing that the audience joined in and lively music by Fatboy Slim. Altogether marvellous! And lastly I have just seen 3 Winters, a new play by an establlished Croatian woman playwright: it is a moving family and political saga over three generations set in a house in Zagreb (very fine sets) with a slow build to an intense dramatic ending – really strong female characters, flawlessly acted – very highly recommended!
Elsewhere I took Lois and Lindsay to see the hilarious Jeeves and Wooster, an adaptation of Wodehouse’s wonderful cow-creamer story with a cast of three playing all the parts – or rather, one (Stephen Mangan) playing Bertie Wooster and two others (Matthew Macfadyen and Mark Hadfield) playing Jeeves, Aunt Dahlia, her butler, Sir Watkyn Bassett, Madeleine Bassett, Stiffy Bing, Roderick Spode and many others! It was uproariously funny and (as we learnt at the final curtain) had that afternoon been shortlisted for the Olivier Award for best comedy, which it went on to win.
Brief mentions only of Juliet Stevenson’s powerful Happy Days at the Young Vic, of the semi-documentary A Human Being Died that Night at the Hampstead in which a post-apartheid black woman psychologist confronts the imprisoned “Prime Evil” apartheid security man, assassin and torturer Eugene de Kock (to which Lois took me), and also at the Hampstead Wonderland about the miners’ strike – spot on about the politics but portraying the industry as primitive, not the highly mechanised and automated operation it was by then. And I must not forget the RSC’s effective and fast-moving adaptations of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies with Ben Miles superb as Thomas Cromwell, the ruthless arch manipulator made sympathetic by his clear competence and pragmatic good intentions.
How wonderful it is increasingly to have live relays from sold-out performances you would otherwise have missed! I saw three such this year – Coriolanus from the Donmar with Tom Hiddleston in a searing performance directed by Josie Rourke, the revival of David Hare’s Skylight in which in a series of moving and sometimes coruscating speeches he sets capitalist, acquisitive values against public service as the two former lovers (Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy both on top form) play with the possibility of resuming their passionate relationship after the death of his wife; and finally the Young Vic’s A Streetcar Named Desire with Gillian Anderson clinging to her smouldering pretensions on the revolving set.
Such relays of course started with opera, and I went with Miranda to see three very fine productions from the Metropolitan Opera – Renée Fleming wonderful as usual in Rusalka (the woodland pool set was particularly striking: it looked like the real thing on a misty evening or alternatively like a an old mezzotint), Jonas Kaufman and Sophie Koch singing superbly in Werther, and an exciting La Bohème – the sumptuous Zeffirelli production with a last minute substitute as Mimi – Kristine Opolais who had premièred as Butterfly to huge acclaim the night before, had not got to bed before 5.0 and was woken at 7.30 with the request to take over Mimi from a sick soprano! Not only did she sing it superbly but she acted the part really well and fitted into a production she did not know without any sign of trouble. The other live opera (I’ve mentioned Orfeo) was Julian Anderson’s Thebans at the ENO which I went to see with Andrew and Mark and Pavan. We found it disappointing, with minimal characterisation and little dramatic effect, but it got good reviews. Space just for a mention of a scintillating piano recital at the Wigmore Hall by an extremely talented 24-year-old Uzbekh pianist, Behzod Abduraimov, who played Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert and Ravel (Lois invited me to join her and two friends), and of the latest delightful informal recital by my friend soprano Emma Dogliani and friends at the Rich Mix venue in Bethnal Green.
Four films in a year is by my standards quite a lot but they were well worthwhile: Richard Linklater’s Boyhood filmed over 12 years as the main character grew up, Pride about the London LGBT collective supporting South Wales miners during the 1984 strike, Mr Turner from Mike Leigh with Timothy Spall and Marion Bailey – she and Leigh were in the cinema to answer questions afterwards – and CitizenFour, Laura Poitras’s documentary about Edward Snowden, filmed largely while he was holed up in the hotel room in Hong Kong being questioned by the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald (see also below). The film was followed by a relay from the Chelsea cinema where it was being shown in the London Film Festival of a Q&A session with Poitras – by unreliable Skype from New York as she had been advised not to attend in person for fear of arrest if she set foot in the UK. What is this country coming to?
Exhibition-going has really lost out this year: apart from Hepworth (above) I went with Sheila and David to the Vikings at the BM – obviously interesting but crowded and badly displayed; to the Matisse cut-outs at Tate Modern which was wonderful, with vibrant colours and superbly judged (or instinctively right?) cut-out shapes; and with Lois to the new Imperial War Museum World War I galleries – a great achievement with unobtrusive but extensive use of interactive media, coverage of the war in all theatres and covering the social impact, the politics and the military strategy and showing the perspectives of multiple participants.
Finally to books. Lots of my reading this year has been of books and journal articles on religion and the law, and also books on the nineteenth century history of education – especially the very questionable contribution of the churches, on which I am writing something, but I shall not bother you with these! I started the year with a historical novel that was so accurate it was almost a documentary: Robert Harris’s gripping and totally unputdownable An Officer and a Spy about the Dreyfus scandal. Later I read a few more novels for light entertainment: CP Snow’s Corridors of Power and Homecomings (one of the best of the Strangers and Brothers sequence); Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies (plot less complex than Wolf Hall but the scheming and life of the sixteenth century court equally well captured); Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (compulsive); The Secret Vanguard by Michel Innes, a favourite author in my youth, and The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey – neither outstanding; Augustus by John Williams (a splendid epistolary novel about the career of the Emperor Augustus from the assassination of Julius Caesar to his death) and finally The Amber Fury, a powerful story with a background in Greek tragedy by Natalie Haynes, now a member of the BHA board and a formidable classicist.
An excellent and original book, full of perceptive insights and jaw-dropping revelations, was The Blunders of our Governments by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe, who bring together an astonishing collection of scarcely credible blunders committed by governments from 1979 on. The list includes the poll tax, the rush into personal pensions with no safeguards against mis-selling, the Child Support Agency débacle, the exit from the ERM, the Millennium Dome; individual learning accounts (subject to such widespread fraud that the scheme was peremptorily shut down when the problems belatedly surfaced), the initial fiasco of tax credits, the attempt to recover assets from criminals (with a process that could never work), the grossly overambitious farm payment scheme that left many without any income; the disastrous NHS IT scheme, set up by a starry-eyed but totally IT-ignorant Tony Blair without any consultation; the PPP for the London underground with the major, ill-conceived and library-sized contract going to Metronet, an unstable consortium of intensely competing companies; and the identity cards scheme, for which there was never an agreed purpose. There is no difference between governments of different parties: the authors could see the Coalition already making similar mistakes. They analyse causes into human errors and system failures – often overlapping. The former included cultural disconnect (with the poll tax, noone concerned realised the impossibility of collecting it from stroppy individual citizens); group think (the poll tax again, where it became unthinkable for any of the ministers concerned to consider any alternative); intellectual prejudice (private is better than public, hence the Metronet shambles); operational disconnect (the decisions are made by people with no concept of how they will be implemented – like the original Child Support Agency legislation); and “Panic, Symbols and Spin” (panic reactions to press scares, as with the Dangerous Dogs Act). System failures are grouped as “The Centre cannot hold” (weakness of the PM’s office – in contrast to other countries – making it unable to spot errors early on and to ensure coordination of departments with their own agendas – as with child support, subverted by the Treasury from a better system for deserted mothers into a revenue-saving scheme); “musical chairs” (ministers never staying long enough to care about the long term – poll tax again); “ministers as activists” (David Blunkett and individual learning accounts, Gordon Brown and tax credits, only slowly rescued from chaos over a number of years, both driven forward by ministerial enthusiasm verging on obsession); lack of accountability (as with the mis-selling of personal pensions, the poll tax and many others); a peripheral Parliament (exercising very little control over legislation – as with the Metronet fiasco); asymmetries of experience (with so much contracting out, the civil service no longer has the expertise to negotiate or control outside contractors, such as IT firms or City consultants) and a lack of deliberation (ministers are under pressure to be decisive and Parliament and the press force them into premature decisions).
Then there was Return of a King by William Dalrymple – a gripping history of the appalling first Afghan war (1839-42) with its preceding history (but strangely nothing of the political fall-out – maybe there was none?). Dalrymple went to Afghanistan to research the Afghan sources, never before examined or published, and therefore produces a much more rounded, far more complete study than Kabul Catastrophe (which I read and reported on some years ago), not least because the new materials allow him to distinguish the different motives and policies of the various Afghans, who were divided and could fairly easily have been defeated, at least in the short term, with a more intelligent and courageous approach by the British. It would surely be impossible to find an policy more ill-conceived and incompetently executed in the annals of British history. It was motivated by fear of Russian influence and fantasised invasion of India, yet the Russians only began thinking about Afghanistan when the British undercover agent Alexander Burnes wrote of worries about Russian intentions in his memoir of a journey to Bokhara, and it was pursued even when the Russians had pulled out from negotiations with the Afghan amir Dost Mohammad, cutting the ground from under the feet of their own highly talented agent Ivan Vitkevitch. The idea was to replace the amir – established, competent and pro-British – with Shah Shuja, whom he had long ago deposed and who for 20 years had been living in exile at British expense. The incompetent and effete governor general of India, Lord Auckland (a distant ancestor of Anthony Eden), was deceived by his officials, notably Sir William Macnaghten – scholarly, ignorant of the territory but convinced he was right – into believing Dost Mohammad to be Britain’s enemy – a belief Macnaghten held at least partly out of jealousy of Burnes, sitting despairingly in Kabul. Everything that could go wrong with the invasion did go wrong, but when eventually Kabul was taken and Shah Shuja reinstated the British became utterly complacent, installing themselves in an indefensible overlooked cantonment and leaving all their ammunition and supplies scattered elsewhere. Shuja was sidelined and soon perceived as a British puppet. Part of the army was withdrawn to start the Opium wars in China, and budgetary overreach led to demeaning cuts on the agreed subsidies in return for which various local chiefs kept the peace. Burnes provided the immediate spark by seducing an Afghan wife and behaving disdainfully to the offended husband but even after his murder and the sacking of British houses in Kabul the complacent Macnaghten sent optimistic letters back to India. British inaction bred growing unrest and yet still there was no action – even as outposts were overrun and supplies seized. The army commander was elderly and gout-ridden, barely able to get out of bed at times but mentally equally paralysed. When Macnaghten sought to negotiate a withdrawal he remained arrogant enough to go without escort to meet the highly competent son of Dost Mohammad (himself now stuck in Indian exile) where, out of sight of the British camp, he was in turn murdered. Finally, as the worst winter for years came on, the British began an incompetently managed forced withdrawal with their demoralised army and thousands of camp-followers and half-starved pack animals. Barring a few who were captured and held as hostages they all died – killed by the Afghans attacking as they went through the narrow defiles and passes (they even chose the worst possible route) or dying of hunger and exposure – all bar one, the celebrated Dr Bryden, who reached Jalalabad despite his wounds and exhaustion on his dying horse.
A punitive expedition was led by my great great great grand uncle General (later Field Marshall) Sir George Pollock who was not just a fine soldier, meticulously planning his operations and refusing to be rushed, but also a ruthless and pretty heartless man responsible for enormous slaughter, on his taking Kabul in 1842, not of the enemy (who had fled) but of Britain’s erstwhile collaborators, the Hindu merchants and campfollowers, and destruction not just of the ancient and marvellous Kabul covered market but of everything that would burn in the city, and of Istalif, an idyllic resort thirty miles north, of other towns and of all the old and valued trees in every village on his route. Not a pleasant ancestor – far more competent than almost all the other British but equally mistaken in what he did even on a pragmatic basis. When he retreated back to India, he left behind large numbers of Indians who had previously been in the East India Company army but had been captured on the original retreat. And the net result was the reinstallation – with British support – of Dost Mohammad, the very man whose deposition was the whole misconceived purpose of the war. Dalrymple points up the extensive parallels with the current disaster in Afghanistan – very sobering.
Very different was Under Another Sky by Charlotte Higgins. Subtitled Journeys in Roman Britain it combines her travels round Roman remains throughout Britain with stories of the Roman occupation and (most interestingly) of the way the Romans and their relics have been perceived over the centuries since their departure – the legends about Boudicca, the claims and counterclaims about early excavations and discoveries (at Silchester William Stukeley’s identification of an oval pond as a Roman amphitheatre was dismissed others as pure fantasy), modern archaeologists and their work and theories (with interesting sidelights on the career of Mortimer Wheeler) and so on. Higgins includes literary insights into Roman Britain (as in The Eagle of the Ninth) and fanciful ‘histories’ such as that of the younger John Wood, developer of Bath, who relied on Geoffrey of Monmouth for his mythical story of Bath being founded by the father of King Lear, a descendant of the Trojan exile Brutus. He and others developed fanciful accounts of the Druids, of whom there are minimal contemporary accounts in Roman sources. Higgins brings in wonderful stories of (for example) the Bodleian librarian Edward Nicholson in 1904 managing to interpret scratched markings on a lead tablet not just as a Christian inscription but one that referred to the Arian heresy. Sadly for him, a later scholar has realised that Nicholson had read the tablet upside down, and the actual inscription is a conventional curse on a thief! The little known self-declared emperor Carausius, intent on reform, issued coins with mysterious inscriptions RSR and INPCDA – apparently initial letters but for what? After decades of obscure guesses Guy de la Bédoyere saw in a flash of inspiration that they were quotations from Virgil’s fourth Eclogue – but only because he had studied the 17th century correspondence of John Evelyn, which was peppered with such abbreviated quotations, and so turned immediately to a dictionary of quotations and found both at once: redeunt saturnia regna (the golden age returns) and iam nova progenies caelo demittitur alto (now a new progeny is sent from heaven). Sadly Carausius overreached himself and was assassinated. With the early history of interest in Hadrian’s wall (when the Military Road was built, the wall was seen only as a solid foundation for it and a source of stone) and stories of the Antonine Wall mixed with stories of the Jacobite invasion, the book is a delight from end to end – and includes notes on visiting the places she describes.
I cannot give much space to all the other books I’ve read: Tom Holland’s atmospheric histories In The Shadow of the Sword (with his plausible but heretical account of the origins of Islam not in Mecca but in the more fertile lands near the Golden Triangle – the descriptions of agriculture in the Koran do not fit the desert round Mecca in the least and much of the early history is in fact set further north near Palestine) and Millennium (a history of the 200-300 years around the year 1000 that is full of vivid pictures of life and politics in the ‘dark ages’); Joan Bakewell’s autobiography The Centre of the Bed (working class childhood, Cambridge, Late Night Line-Up, Pinter, delayed ‘liberation’ from patriarchal attitudes, the sidelining of creative talent in tv); Secularization by Steve Bruce (a powerful and convincing case for the theory that secularisation tends strongly to follow from modernisation); Francis Wheen’s Tom Driberg (strictly and eccentrically brought up, unhappy at school, High Anglican but designated as his possible successor by Aleister Crowley, extravagant bon viveur with an expensive historic house in Essex but constantly close to bankruptcy, promiscuously and uninhibitedly homosexual but marrying in middle age a sparky Labour activist whom he cruelly used merely as his country house hostess, diverting from an incipient literary career (friend of Evelyn Waugh, John Betjeman and Edith Sitwell) into journalism (initiator of the William Hickey column), socialist but savage in his treatment of incompetent waiters); Ban this Filth! by Ben Thompson (a wonderful time capsule recording Mary Whitehouse’s campaigns in MRA, Clean Up TV, the National Viewers and Listeners Association and elsewhere – by turns hilarious and sympathetic); On Offence – The Politics of Indignation by Richard King (he analyses how political correctness generated deplorable claims to a so-called right not to be offended and illustrates the failure to resist unconscionable demands from their enemies’ enemies by too many who ought to have been defenders of liberal values); and An Appetite for Wonder (Richard Dawkins’ autobiography of his early life).
Room for just one more: No Place to Hide, Glenn Greenwald’s shocking story of Edward Snowden’s revelations, falls into three parts – the narrative of his encounters with Snowden, a summary of the key matters disclosed by the whistleblower, and his reflections on the implications and politics of the intense and all-pervasive surveillance that the NSA and GCHQ are routinely conducting. He insists on the bona fides of Snowden who, despite all the abuse and the orchestrated suggestions of malign motives, comes across as an honest and serious young man who threw away family, girlfriend, career and everything on a matter of overwhelming principle. The summary of what the agencies are routinely doing is staggering, even after the detailed revelations in the press – and it is notable how carefully the revelations avoid implicating any individual, with slides redacted to avoid risky material. There is nothing reticent in the NSA papers and slides (for training purposes) – rather they boast of their reach and the billions of records they collect daily – 20+ terabytes a day, according to one document, while a chart shows that almost 42 billion records were collected for a single unit over a 30-day period. The data comes in all forms – not just metadata but contacts, messages, emails, photographs, videos, location and travel information, etc. Greenwald’s analysis of the lawlessness of the whole operation, the corrosive effect it has on freedom of thought and political action, and the near-total lack of evidence that the huge investment brings in any returns except to magnify the power and profits of its operators and their contractors is compelling. Meantime resources are so lacking elsewhere in the system that they cannot afford to keep watch on known extremists such as those who went on to kill Lee Rigby. What is perhaps most shocking is that the reaction in the UK has been complacent in the extreme – a vivid contrast to almost everywhere else.
Anyhow, happy Christmas!