Christmas (or New Year, more likely) greetings once more! This year has been significant for Lindsay and Jamila getting married, for Lois and me visiting Utah for the wedding, and for preparations for Lindsay and Jamila’s return from a forced exile in Ireland. Otherwise the year has seen the usual mix of engagements with friends, trips to the theatre and Humanist commitments at home and abroad.
The wedding was in Salt Lake City at the end of February, conducted in front of friends and family in the home of close friends by a lawyer friend of Jamila’s (such is the flexibility of the law in Utah) who delivered a well composed address about mutual assistance, calling on their friends for help and support, and so on: a bit folksy but sensible and moving. Lindsay and Jamila were patently over the moon! Then it was party time!
Lois and I went out for two weeks and got to know Jamila’s parents, Tony and Hazel and her sister Isabelle, who were immensely welcoming and friendly. And of course we had a look at Salt Lake City and learned a lot about the wealth, weird beliefs and scandalous early history of the Mormons (see below). We had two day excursions to the Salt Lake itself, one to the atmospheric relics of Saltair, once a flourishing resort, and another to Antelope Island where herds of bison roam free and the splendid scenery was enhanced by an earlier snowfall. We also had a few days in Moab and visited the Arches National Park (below), an extraordinary geological area of high cliffs and natural rock arches. Lindsay and Jamila joined us later and we explored an abandoned mining settlement, prehistoric petroglyphs and the extraordinary scenery from Dead Horse Point, 2,000 feet above the Colorado river.
Because of restrictive UK immigration rules (thank you, Theresa!) Lindsay was unable to bring Jamila to live and work here and they have accordingly been living in Ireland, with hopes of coming here once she has established EU residence and so cannot be kept out. Jamila came over in January and they conducted a reconnoitre in Galway. In April I drove there (where they are renting a pleasant modern house in the centre of this historic and lively town with its many good restaurants) to take over a carload of Lindsay’s things and enjoy a couple of days with them. Later in the year I joined Lois there for a few days and we made a trip to Clifden and Kylemore Abbey and other places: the coastal landscape is striking.
The plan is that they will return to London at the end of February and move into Lois’s eighth-floor flat at Woodgrange Park while she moves into the top floor here, erstwhile Lindsay’s, where we are installing a kitchen, adapting the box room as a study and so on. In preparation for the builders moving in (in October: they still have a lot to do, though the kitchen is complete) Lois and I had a huge sort-out with furniture and other unwanted items either being collected by the British Heart Foundation shops or taken in carloads to the local recycling centre. Meantime all Lindsay’s possessions are in boxes in the dining room, other rooms are intermittently used to store furniture on its way in or out, and the house is pervaded by dust! But it should soon be over and the new arrangement promises well.
Lois paid two visits to Uganda this year to continue her extraordinary work there, now including basic training in child protection. The Education and Health Trust Uganda (www.ehtuganda.com), the small charity we have formed to frame her work, is paying the fees for several people doing medical, business or basic schooling courses and supporting them in other ways, most recently a talented young boy who like his mother and several siblings has achondroplasia. The family live in a single room but we have provided them with bunk beds and the mother with a wheelchair. Donations very welcome!
Family contacts have been mainly by email this year, but Ken and Diana made a brief visit in September. Ken continues as a Tory councillor in Worcestershire and persists in denying all the science of global warming; their daughter Tavy seems committed to the outdoor life (horses and yachts) in San Francisco, blogging as Country Girl in California and running her own business ‘Gateway to England – Experience the English country-house lifestyle’, while daughter Lucy is now living on a narrow boat at Paddington and seconded to the Cabinet Office. I had hoped to see Malcolm and Regan in New Zealand this year but things went wrong (see below). He is far better organised than me, having written his Christmas letter almost a month ago! He says he is running down his consultancy commitments and has finished one big contract in Brisbane but despite the attractions of his second home at Cook’s Beach I will believe it when I see it. Geoff and Lin are totally ensconced in Crete and after various false starts now also are about to have the builders move in to adapt their village house to their needs, having (they hope) struggled through the obstacles of an alien planning system. Geoff (on a short visit) and I also saw cousin Jean and her husband John this year, though sadly the occasion was the funeral of Sophie, the wife of George, my cousin once removed; I met then for the first time Debbie, a second cousin whom I’d been in touch with previously over family genealogy. Geoff paid another visit in October, this time with Lin, and we made a damp visit to the Chelsea Physic Garden where they identified many Cretan plants.
The group of friends loosely linked by Coal Board connections had our the usual three visits – to Sheila’s (Ealing, in March, with trips to Bletchley Park and the National Theatre, including a backstage tour), to Tony & Phyllis’s (Derbyshire, July, with a visit en route to the wonderful garden at Felley Priory, their a diamond wedding (garden) party, opera at the Buxton Festival and a country walk), and to Mike & Camilla’s (Sussex, September, with two walks on the Downs and more of Mike’s superb cooking). My other Coal Board-based group had its annual lunch gathering in July and as usual ended in a local pub; and just last night I was at a publication event for a ‘slim volume’ of perceptive and engaging poetry by one of them, Gillian Henchley, marking her winning of the Lumen/Camden poetry competition.
Memorable events with Stoke Newington friends included Amanda’s 70th birthday multi-generational sports day in the local park (I won the over-70s sack race!) and a walking weekend at Eype, near Bridport in Dorset. Bridge evenings (only ten this year) have continued, and we went again to Rules restaurant to spend (rather more than) the penalties accumulated at a penny a point. A few days ago I returned from a wonderful long weekend in Nimes and the Cévennes with my friends Henry and France from Canada: they have bought an elegant apartment in a converted priory in the centre of Nimes and plan to spend half the year there. Henry is in course of retiring from his philosophy professor role at Queen’s University in Kingston – but has a new book on the metaphysics, logic and ontology of stuff almost finished for the OUP.
Much of my time has of course been on Humanist activities. I have completed my eighteenth year on the board of the BHA (not counting ten years from 1966-75) and am in some ways its institutional memory, but the focus of my work is all forward-looking. (I have also been on the Rationalist Association board since 1979! – they publish the New Humanist quarterly.)
Last year ended with a major setback when the Government, having found 90% agreement with legal recognition of humanist marriages in their consultation, defied both public and Parliament by referring the whole law on marriage to the Law Commission, thus effectively postponing it to the Greek Kalends. We had a meeting with the Commission in June but expect no movement when they produce their ‘scoping report’ for Michael Gove in the next week or so. However, we did gain acceptance of humanist pastoral care on the same footing as religious chaplaincy in the new NHS guidelines on the subject and we are now training volunteers for the role in hospitals – and also in prisons. The Church of England put up a strong fight against the new guidelines (and some chaplains are still resisting implementation) but in this they did not repeat the victory they had by backstairs lobbying over marriage.
The Church was also initially successful when the Department for Education produced a new specification for GCSE religious studies which almost totally excludes study of non-religious worldviews such as Humanism. But in a major victory for the BHA at the end of the year the High Court upheld our challenge by judicial review. Because the DfE had said that the new GCSE would meet at Key Stage 4 the statutory requirement for all pupils to receive religious education they opened the way for us to raise the question whether RE should not include Humanism. We cited established European Convention law that any religious education in non-faith schools must be ‘neutral, impartial and pluralistic’ and objected that, while the specification justifiably gave particular attention to Christianity, it ignored non-religious beliefs although 25% (census) of the population have no religion while giving considerable attention to religions such as Buddhism and Sikhism which have tiny numbers of adherents (under 1%) in this country. I spent the day in the High Court for the hearing: the judge was very acute and the DfE counsel floundered. The DfE has since sought leave to appeal so that at the time of writing the matter is not final but their grounds look very thin. Indeed, the way they tried to muddle the press with denials that the judgement amounted to anything show them to be thoroughly rattled. Supposing the appeal request is rejected, the judgement has major implications for all RE at all ages in non-faith schools. The decision was made by the schools minister, Nick Gibb, but probably encouraged by the DfE’s own lawyers who have always been notably conservative.
Indeed, the deeply frozen ice in which the laws and conventions over religion in society are set does seem to be slowly breaking up. As to schools, I was at the House of Lords launch in June of a significant report by Charles Clarke (ex-education secretary) and Linda Woodhead (leading researcher on the sociology of religion) proposing reform of the law on religious education; and last month I was at a conference to mark publication of an AHRC-assisted report raising significant worries about collective worship – though neither report follows its own logic through fully. More generally, a report has just come out from a commission under Lady Butler-Sloss on Religion and Belief in British Public Life. The BHA’s chief executive was a member of the commission, though alone among otherwise religious members: the commission was appointed by the very religious Woolf Institute. Even so, it has made some radical recommendations on religion in school, though taking a pro-religion attitude overall. (You will find my own evidence to them at http://www.thinkingabouthumanism.org/religion/religion-and-belief-in-british-public-life/). And the Equality and Human Rights Commission is conducting a thorough review of law and policy on religion in society, part of which has been a series of working lunches chaired by Rowan Williams with high-level representatives of various beliefs, academic lawyers and others. I have attended all of these: an interesting experience, particularly as some of the oft-rehearsed points I had to make seemed new to many of those present.
I have been to numbers of meetings on relevant topics: a Westminster Faith Debate on “the conscience of the nation”; a lecture by Linda Woodhead on the values of religious and non-religious people; a day conference in Nottingham on the face veil; a three-day conference at UCL on Religion in Liberal Political Philosophy; the Inform conference on “Children, Minority Religions, and the Law” and the conference in Leicester on the above-mentioned report on collective worship. Plus, of course, many BHA events, including our own highly successful three-day conference in Bristol, our AGM, the launch of a book co-authored by Mike Rosen on Humanism for older primary pupils; the launch (at the other end of the scale) of a Handbook on Humanism, a hefty tome by and for academics and other enthusiasts, it is edited by Andrew Copson and Anthony Grayling, yours for £120; the annual meeting for our SACRE representatives (which I chaired); our Bentham lecture by Professor Rae Langton on Humanism and Feminism; and notably our Voltaire lecture, given under tight security by the inspiring Rafida Ahmed Bonya, widow of Dr Avijit Roy: both freethinking bloggers, they were attacked by machete-wielding Islamists in Bangla Desh earlier in the year. He was killed, she seriously injured. She analysed the political scene in Bangla Desh, speaking movingly, defiantly – even humourously. Since her husband’s death three more secularist writers and a publisher have been killed.
Events abroad included the conference in Luxembourg (foreseen last year) to launch the publication of the Religare report and various invited reactions, including my own critique; the January and June Council of Europe week-long conferences of International NGOs in Strasbourg; a meeting in Zagreb to discuss the problem of reactionary religious lobbying in Europe, much of it inspired and even financed from the USA; and the European Humanist Federation conference in Athens – a very enjoyable occasion with enough time to visit the Acropolis and its excellent new(ish) museum and to relax in restaurants in the Plaka – enjoyable, at least, until I realised I had lost my passport, which not only delayed my return by a day but totally stymied (too long a story for the details here!) my departure two days later for an International Humanist and Ethical Union meeting in the Philippines with which I had planned to combine visits to Australia and New Zealand.
Late in the year came the annual Intercultural Dialogue meeting of the Council of Europe, held this time in Sarajevo. This was less participatory than in previous years as it was held in a lecture theatre with invited speakers and, given the subject of combatting extremism, it attracted many more national ambassadors to the Council of Europe than usual who all wanted to make self-serving speeches. But it was an occasion for renewing acquaintance across the religious divides and I managed to make two contributions that I think had more content than some of the other speeches. The bullet holes that pockmark many old buildings in Sarajevo have been patched with a reddish plaster and are known as Sarajevo roses. There are many shops and stalls in the market catering for tourists, even in November, with pens and other items made out of recycled bullets a common feature. With the friendly English Buddhist whom I had met in Baku last year I visited the house of the 19th century Despica merchant family, now a small museum illustrating their adaptation to modernity and well explained with English captions, and then a few yards up the river embankment the museum of the 1914 assassination of Archduke Ferdinand – which was really an exhibition of the city in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and equally interesting. We also went to a free concert of Sephardic music from Spain, with two men playing a hurdy gurdy, lutes and other stringed instruments and a powerful woman singing modal laments.
I have had only eight speaking engagements this year. One was a humanist critique of just war theory (see http://www.thinkingabouthumanism.org/humanism/just-war-a-humanist-critique/) for the Irish Humanist Conference at Carlingford, an enjoyable occasion in delightful surroundings jointly organised by humanist bodies from both sides of the border. I also did two three-hour sessions with PGCE RE students, one of which entailed leaving home at 5.30 to go to York and returning to King’s Cross in time to get the 3.30 Eurostar to Luxembourg for the aforementioned Religare conference!
And so to matters cultural! I’ve been to the National Theatre twenty times this year and to other theatres eleven times, usually but not always with Miranda and/or Sheila. The year started with see the ‘physical theatre’ group DV8’s John, a choreographed story of a young man’s violent family background, his time on probation and his visits to gay saunas, told in his actual words and those of some of the other real-life people whose story it was: quite intense, very upfront, very smoothly staged with a revolving, adapting set. In February I went to Tom Stoppard’s new play, The Hard Question, which I saw again when our ex-Coal Board group met in London the next month. I liked it better the second time but at first viewing I recorded that it was “supposedly about the problem of consciousness but actually all over the place with uninteresting, undeveloped characters talking to each other like lecture notes about things such as the concept of goodness”. Not one of his best! Far preferable was Dara, a 2010 play from Pakistan about the conflict between the two sons of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahar. The play cast Dara as an open-minded Muslim interested in the commonalities of all religions and Aurangzeb as a militant Islamist: Dara ends up executed for apostasy. Apart from a wonderful set, the play offered a stark presentation of very contemporary arguments. In April came Shaw’s Man and Superman – my first encounter with it: a huge, sprawling play, a comedy set in real life and in dreams, on earth and in a friendly sort of hell – immensely enjoyable but with too much politico-philosophising.
Then came a revival of the 1970s play by Caryl Churchill, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. The play is about and around the Putney debates and was splendidly presented, with the whole stage at the start a tabletop (with Royalist diners down both sides, almost in the wings) set with huge splendid food in silver dishes on a magnificent table cloth (which was later whipped away downstage past our feet: we were in the front row) and later transformed into common land being cultivated by the Diggers. The play takes place in the background of the Civil War, showing the many sides of the Roundhead coalition, from pragmatists to millennialists: a wonderful achievement. The production had an immense cast with dozens of extras from the Community Company: unusual as apparently it is often done with a cast of six!
An unexpected treat was The Motherfucker with the Hat, a new(ish) American play about a group of young New Yorkers on the edge (on parole, in rehab) by turn helping and betraying each other: lively, funny and moving, with a splendid set in the Lyttelton with the component parts of the three rooms coming together from above and behind against a background of fire escapes. Then there was a fine production of The Beaux’ Stratagem – a superbly acted delight. The set was particularly clever, with the same structure transformed back and forth between the inn and Lady Bountiful’s house as panels turned, candelabra were lowered or raised, pictures flown in and so on. The next day it was the focus for this year’s NT Revealed event where you go in groups from one station to another backstage to see how a production is put together. I went with Lois, and in our final station, which dealt with rehearsal, Jane Booker in costume as Lady Bountiful had us play the part of sick peasants seeking her help as a herbalist for the ailments she handed us on paper slips. Lois capped my gout, which I had been treating with port wine to surprisingly little effect, with a wonderful convincing choking cough and consumption!
I did not care for Carol Ann Duffy’s modern adaptation of Everyman – a noisy production heavily dependent on kaleidoscopic projected patterns, starting with the inevitable cocaine-snorting City yuppies and not putting enough emphasis on the words. Rules for Living was fun, with a family Christmas reunion disintegrating into chaos – but it could with advantage have been less gross and more subtle, though Deborah Findlay was excellent as the matriarch. Three Days in the Country, Patrick Marber’s adaptation of Turgenev, was extremely enjoyable (despite a mean review by Michael Billington in the Guardian). John Simm, Amanda Drew and Mark Gatiss led a strong cast, the set was cleverly non- or semi-representational (with no walls and painted backdrop based on a real painting). Billington thought the melancholy was sacrificed: maybe, but there was much drama as well as fun. Patrick Marber’s own new play The Red Lion was an excellent three-hander set in the changing room of a non-league football club as the old former manager who now looks after the kit, the current ambitious but unscrupulous manager and a new and highly promising player manoeuvre round each other and eventually reveal their feet of clay.
In September I went to a revival of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good which portrayed the first convicts to be transported to Australia emerge as actors as (a real life fact) they put on a performance of Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer. The obstructive army officers, mocking the attempt by a junior officer to raise the sights of the convicts, were all too credible. Jane Eyre, an import from the Bristol Old Vic, got well reviewed but I found it slow, dull and pedestrian. It went through the story in unnecessary detail and the set – an arrangement of wooden platforms, vertical ladders and a sloping ramp – made no sense but was used for endless choreographed movement by a cast that included a large number of actors switching from playing thoughts in Jane’s head to bit parts and animals!
By contrast People, Places and Things by Duncan Macmillan was a superb play about an actress checking herself in to an addiction clinic. The lead was taken by Denise Gough, who gave a powerful portrayal of addiction. The set – on a stage with seats both sides of the acting space – was by Bunny Christie: it was highly flexible (with bed, desk, bathroom etc rising from below and her bedroom at home descending from above). Projections onto the tiled walls portrayed her delusions of dancing disintegration, and eight lookalike actresses produced her vision of eight other selves rising from her bed one after another. The sound design by Tom Gibbons was insistent and effective. (Extraordinarily, as I sat down at the start I was hailed by Sharon, one of our bridge group, there as her daughter Holly was the staff director for the production!) Most recently I saw Husbands and Sons, Ben Power’s adaptation of three early plays by DH Lawrence, directed by Marianne Elliott – a powerful piece, more about wives and mothers, with powerful resilient women, weak or brutal husbands and emotional clashes of will.
Before moving away from the National, let me mention an afternoon session on theatre censorship in the first half of the twentieth century. It was both laughable and horrific: until July 1939 the Lord Chamberlain, in the interests of good international relations, was consulting the German Embassy about playscripts that might offend the Nazis – and banning plays as a consequence!
There were two standout plays that I saw elsewhere: the first was the transfer to Wyndham’s Theatre of Ivo van Hove’s Young Vic production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge. This was a minimal production, played without an interval, with some of the audience seated on each side of the stage and a square acting area demarcated on three sides by a glass bench and at the back by a plain wall with a door opening. So the whole focus was on the actors, on the characters and their fateful moves further into the trap. Mark Strong was magnetic as the strong but brittle, fatally flawed Eddie Carbone; Phoebe Fox excellent as his over-protected young niece unable to break away from his domination; and Michael Gould cinematic as the lawyer narrator. The audience was gripped from beginning to end. By chance I went the next day to Ivo van Hove’s production at the Barbican of Antigone with Juliet Binoche. This showed considerable similarities to A View from the Bridge with minimal set and imaginative sound, but Binoche was too old for Antigone and her words were not always clear, and there was a silly ending with sudden modern (typewriter-age) office cameos.
Rivalling A View from the Bridge was the Almeida production of the Oresteia – not Aeschylus’s, but a version by Robert Icke that took in also the sacrifice of Iphigenia at Aulis, which we know from Euripides’ later play of that title. The production was free, chorusless and brilliant: ruthlessly modern but close in spirit to the original, opening out the arguments in a moving, relentless way, not least by starting with the happy family and then bringing in the sacrifice of Iphigenia, with arguments between Agamemnon and first Menelaus and then Clytemnestra, and showing her peaceful death by lethal drugs. The trial at the Areopagiticus left you with a modern unresolved guilty but free Orestes. I went with Andrew and Pavan from the BHA and Mark, Andrew’s partner, and we went together later to see the Almeida’s other two Greek plays, Medea and The Bakkhai, which were equally strong and quite different in approach. We also went to the Shakespeare’s Globe Oresteia which did not compare. The Greeks got another airing when the Actors of Dionysus – a small enterprise that Andrew helps run – put on a one-off performance of a reconstruction by their expert David Stuttard of a lost play of Euripides, the Paris Alexandros, first of the trilogy that ended with The Trojan Women. He worked from only about 200 lines of fragments and an ancient synopsis but produced something very dramatic and plausible. Lizzie Buckingham as Cassandra delivered a coup de théatre when she screamed her horror on recognising her long lost brother Paris, supposedly exposed at birth but now the omen of inevitable destruction for Troy. The play was put on in the House of Barnabas, a very old house in Greek Street with fine interiors that belongs to a religious charity now working with the homeless but was on the night mostly being used by a record company for some celebration and so was crowded with fashionable young people. The Park Theatre (at Finsbury Park) continues strongly, and I saw with Lois an excellent new play, The Gathered Leaves by Andrew Keatley, about a family of misfits falling apart on the high-profile occasion of the grandfather’s 75th birthday. Clive Francis was excellent as this irascible and inflexible patriarch, Nick Sampson as the autistic son, and the strong cast included Jane Asher.
With so much theatre other things did not get much of a look-in. I went to the Covent Garden production at the Sam Wanamaker theatre of Cavalli’s opera L’Ormindo performed in this reconstruction of a Jacobean theatre by candlelight, which was magical. Our Derbyshire group went to the Buxton Festival production of Lucia di Lammermoor which was well sung but not wonderfully acted: the costumes were 1940s and the mode sub-mafia: in the first act, Lucia (Elin Pritchard, not in the bloom of youth and slightly rotund) looked ridiculous in a close-fitting tweed suit. She had no acting skill and the director did not help by getting her to roll on the floor! Things got a lot better in the later acts and the ensembles were exciting. Last of the operas I saw this year was a performance of Don Giovanni by the Hampstead Garden Opera with my friend Emma Dogliani excellent as Donna Anna. This was set an Oxford college (Don – gettit?) in the present with the Leporello’s book of the Don’s conquests on an iPad and projections from it on the back wall. It worked surprisingly well and the singing and small orchestra were thoroughly professional. I also went with Lois to a very enjoyable recital at the Barbican by Murray Perahia.
I have failed time and again to get to unmissable exhibitions, but I did go to the National Gallery’s Rembrandt which was wonderful: his acute and humane observation is phenomenal – it is appalling to think he went out of fashion and went bankrupt, had to sell his art collection and was buried in an unmarked grave. The self-portraits are the most magnificent works. There were many etchings also, and pen and wash sketches, some of them with a great economy of line. He figured also in the only other exhibition of note that I saw: the current little show of drawings in silverpoint at the British Museum which also features Durer and Filippo Lippi.
And that leaves books. I’ve recorded notes on twenty, several of which are worth a mention here. In particular The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt is a marvellous book. The subtitle ‘How the Renaissance Began’ is not strictly accurate since it concerns events decades after Petrarch revived interest in and imitation of the poetry of the classical world. Instead it tells the story of the rediscovery of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, the splendid poem that set forth for Rome the philosophy and science of Epicurus and his followers. This exposition of how the world might be operating on naturalistic principles without divine intervention was a radical and highly dangerous idea, intolerable in a way that a revival of interest in ancient mythology could never be – and indeed when the work was disseminated it influenced and found echoes in Bruno, Galileo and others who paid a high price for it. The book tells the story of Poggio Bracciolini, a superb Latinist obsessed with style and famed for his legible and beautiful script. He was employed as one of his secretaries by Pope John XXIII – not the 20th century John XXIII but the disowned 15th century one who stood out for his corruption in a papal system notorious for its self-confessed vice and venality, a subject of literary self-mockery by those involved. When John was deposed, fled, was captured and thrown into a dungeon in Constance in 1415, Poggio found himself out of a job and set off on a risky journey to visit distant monasteries famed for their libraries in search of parchments of classical texts, not then valued and often scraped clean for re-use for psalters or bible commentaries. In one such he came across the Lucretius, known at the time only as a title, and paid for it to be copied and sent to a colleague in Rome. Poggio did not see it for another ten or more years, but then it began slowly to circulate in a samizdat manner and to work its subversive influence on the theocentric mindset of the times. The book not only tells this story, with colourful descriptions of 15th century life in Rome and in the benighted lands of northern Europe, but also takes in Epicurus and his time, Lucretius and the Epicureans of Herculaneum, a summary over several pages of the revolutionary ideas set out in the six books of Lucretius’s poem and the continuing influence of its naturalistic philosophy up to modern times, where we see it as an eminent precursor of Humanism. All this is delivered in the most readable manner, so that after finishing it I was strongly inclined to return to the start and read it again.
I cannot give so much space to other works! God’s Bankers: A History of Money and Power at the Vatican by Gerald Posner is a page-turner – a jaw-dropping history of the last 150 years of the Vatican’s mismanagement of its finances, of boundless incompetence and corruption so deeply engrained that it was scarcely recognised as such. Vast amounts of Nazi gold – much from the dental fillings of holocaust victims – were sheltered and smuggled to South America along with the Nazis who escaped using the Vatican’s rat run. After the war power play in the Curia ensured that anyone seeking the least reform was stabbed in the back before he did any damage. Multi-million pound sums were routinely laundered through the Vatican bank (the IOR) with no questions asked – accounts were opened in the names of non-existent religious charities and suitcases full of cash were brought from Sicily to Rome and (with a percentage deducted for the Vatican) credited to numbered Swiss bank accounts which were immediately emptied in untraceable transfers elsewhere. Business investments were made in enterprises (like the Banco Ambrosiano) that turned out to be criminal conspiracies, so that for the last fifty years or more the Vatican, pleading sovereign immunity, figured as an unindicted co-conspirator in successive prosecutions in Italy, the USA and elsewhere. The American Monsignor (later Cardinal) Paul Marcinkus was saved only by pulling strings, pleading naivety or taking refuge for four months in the Vatican to avoid arrest by the Italian authorities until he won a ruling in Italy’s highest court that it had no power over Vatican officials. In the end Italy’s central bank ordered Italian banks to cease any dealings with the IOR and the EU put pressure on what was in effect a criminal tax haven in the heart of Rome to conform with money-laundering standards. First the dithering Benedict and then the resolute Francis initiated genuine reforms. The book is based on meticulous research – there are 180 pages of notes and a nine-page bibliography – but reads like a thriller.
Blood Year by David Kilcullen comes in an issue of the Australian Quarterly Essay that Lois brought back from a visit there and is devoted to a book-length penetrating analysis of the errors in western policy in the Middle East that led to the rise of ISIS. Kilcullen, though Australian, worked at the highest levels in the USA, including planning the Iraq ‘surge’. He betrays liberal instincts and offers four final thoughts: (a) that we are living in an era of persistent conflict, with no return possible to a pre-9/11 ‘normal’; (b) that this requires a more intense conventional war against ISIS to buy time to create new approaches to this persistent conflict that are minimally intrusive and affordable; (c) that global terrorism is not the only security issue we face and (d) that success will require political will that has recently been weak or absent. He was writing before Russia’s intervention made the situation even more complex.
The Poet and the Murderer by Simon Worrall is what I read in Salt Lake City: it is the extraordinary story of Mark Hofmann and his forgeries. Totally alienated from the Mormon religion in which he had been rigidly brought up, he cultivated a pretence of commitment and used it to submit his embarrassing but very plausible forgeries of early Mormon documents to the church hierarchy, who hastened to buy them in order to suppress them – suppression usually frustrated by Hofmann’s own quiet leaking of their existence. His skill in forging the papers was beyond compare, and he moved on to make other forgeries – literary and historical – including one of the lost first printed document in north America, the Oath of a Freeman, which took in experts retained by the Library of Congress. Disastrously, however, Hofmann took money in advance for documents he had not yet forged and this led him in an attempted cover-up to commit two murders and to blow himself up with a third bomb. He survived but his cover story was blown and he was tried and convicted: he is now in jail for life.
The book also includes the scandalous story of Sotheby’s complicity in selling documents it knew to be forgeries, focussing on a Hofmann forgery of an ‘unknown’ Emily Dickinson poem that was sold by them some years after Hofmann’s downfall despite their knowledge of its dubious provenance and links to Hofmann, which they concealed. It was bought by the Emily Dickinson library whose librarian soon heard of doubts about its credentials. When with no cooperation from Sotheby’s he established almost beyond doubt that it was a forgery, they merely offered him his money back without any apology.
The book also covers the early history of the weird religion of Mormonism. It was founded by Joseph Smith, a poor farmer born in 1805 into a highly superstitious family. At the age of 17 he claimed that an angel, Moroni, had revealed to him some golden plates buried in a stone box near his farm. Almost illiterate, he nevertheless realised that these were inscribed in a language he called ‘reformed Egyptian’ and he managed to read the plates with the help of a pair of goggles supplied helpfully by Moroni in which seer stones – known as Urim and Thummim – were set and which were strapped onto his chest in a cumbersome breastplate. He set about the business of transcription by burying his face in his hat, which enabled him to see visions of the hieroglyphs on the gold plates, still buried in the woods nearby (where they remain). Unable himself to write, he dictated the text to his wife, who sat the other side of a curtain.
The Book of Mormon (described by Mark Twain as ‘chloroform in print’, it contains the phrase ‘and it came to pass’ over 2,000 times) reveals that there were two Hebrew colonisations of north America – in 2250 BC and 600 BC – but this advanced civilisation was wiped out in wars with the local ‘savages’ – the religion was and remains intensely racist and allowed non-white pastors only under intense government pressure in the 1970s. During these wars, around 400 AD, Moroni managed to hide the golden plates. Christianity had been hijacked and led astray as early as 100 AD and was restored only by Joseph Smith’s revelations and his restitution of the priesthood of Aaron. But Smith was a sex addict and had to move several times to escape accusations of rape and seduction: he used religious threats to get his way and soon became patriarch to a sizeable community. His megalomania led him to declare a candidacy for the US Presidency but before the election local hostility led to a riot in which he was killed (‘martyred’). This was when Brigham Young took over (ousting a Smith brother who went off with his own splinter group) and led the Mormons westward, settling beside the Great Salt Lake in Utah, presumably on the basis that it was such an inhospitable land that noone would try to drive them from it. But this farrago of nonsense has become a powerful religion, with over 12 million followers, assets worth over $30 bn (in 2002), annual income of $6 bn, largely from tithing, and a lobby operation in Washington of formidable proportions. What a mad world!
Mentions only for novels: Lady Anna by Anthony Trollope (whose heroine outraged his readers by her preference for a poor tailor she loved over a earl she did not); The Children Act by Ian McEwan (a powerful story of a sympathetic judge and a teenage Jehovah’s Witness refusing a blood transfusion); Strangers and Brothers and The Conscience of the Rich, two more of the sequence by C P Snow; Lamentation, C J Sansom’s latest Shardlake novel which happily seems to set the scene for another with him working for (Princess) Elizabeth. And no room to mention any more!