Christmas and the end of the year spark reflection on the state of affairs, personal and external. Personally, as I shall come to, things are fine, but it is difficult to think of a recent year ending with worse prospects for Britain and the world than 2016. Not only do we have the desperate situation in the Middle East, the prospect of President Trump (Time in making him their man of the year said he had reminded us that “demagoguery feeds on despair and that truth is only as powerful as the trust in those who speak it”) and the risk of his fellow spirits gaining power in France and the Netherlands if not elsewhere, but we have the utter failure of the political class here in the UK with the Brexit referendum, the right-wing “austerity for everyone but the rich” government of Theresa May, and the determined trek into the wilderness of the Labour Party.
I wrote to some of you the day after the referendum (for which I had been canvassing and helping at a phone bank):
This referendum result is unexpected, appalling and heart-breaking.
The electorate has been lied to about the EU for 40 years, a convenient whipping boy for politicians keen to shift the blame. The right has played disgracefully on xenophobic feelings about immigration, told a totally negative story about EU workers here though they are essential to agriculture and the National Health Service, and used them as another way of exonerating themselves from the effects on ordinary people of unnecessary austerity. And the result has been that a referendum on an issue of profound significance over many decades ahead has been treated as a completely unjustified way to get back at this government for its unpopular policies.
David Cameron has been hoist on his own petard: in a risky gamble he used the promise of a referendum as a way to keep the Eurosceptic right of his party quiet, not expecting that after last year’s election he would have a majority in Parliament and so be forced to fulfil his promise. He and George Osborne fought a negative campaign limited to warning against catastrophes if the UK left the EU in such exaggerated terms that they lacked credibility; he never mentioned the positive aspects of cooperation, internationalism and collective strength. The Labour Party was pathetic and divided, with weak and ambivalent leadership from Jeremy Corbyn. The UK is now left divided as never before: Scotland voted strongly to remain and will now want a new referendum on independence. Northern Ireland was divided on religious lines and Sinn Fein has now called for a referendum on unification with Ireland; even without that (which is unlikely) there will surely have to be a hard border with the Republic.
The young voted strongly to remain and were betrayed by their elders. London voted strongly to remain and was overwhelmed by the midlands and the north – and by Wales, which has benefited so much from EU funds. Parliament was strongly in favour of remaining and will now have to oversee departure. And Cameron has fallen on his sword so that we shall quite likely soon have a buffoon like Boris Johnson or a devious ideologue like Michael Gove as prime minister. Within a short time the basis of this result – acclaimed by Marine le Pen and Geert Wilders – will become clear: deception of the electorate into voting against their own best interests, so that cynicism about politics will be even more deeply entrenched.
It is difficult to see any light on the horizon.
If anything it is worse than I expected: the Europhobe press rejoice that the economy has not yet nose-dived, ignoring that nothing has yet changed: but the problems of negotiating an exit, let alone finding alternative agreements that begin to approach what we have so gratuitously thrown away, are only beginning to dawn on our lightweight leaders. (For a serious analysis look at the careful studies by the House of Lords.) When the public realise the huge price we have to pay they will want revenge – and yet short-term fears of taking a stand have led almost all our politicians to bleat that the public has spoken. Forget that Parliament should represent the whole people, not be delegates for the majority only; forget that the referendum was advisory, was won by liars uninhibited by any expectation of winning, was lost by a complacent prime minister who refused to call out his cabinet colleagues for those lies and by a barely noticeable Opposition; forget the 48%, now effectively disenfranchised; ignore that the referendum indicated only hostility to the EU, not preference for any articulated alternative, and go out of your way to deny any prospect of a second vote when it is clearer what poor best alternative can be negotiated: just plunge ahead over the cliff like so many lemmings – or rather, not like lemmings, because their suicidal frenzy, unlike ours, is a myth.
Meantime hate crime against immigrants soars, licensed by the irresponsible fantasies of the Brexiters of a UK fenced off from foreign labour, and the populist and often neo-fascist right takes heart across Europe, unleashing a dangerous nationalism that risks destroying the peace of the post-War settlement. As Yeats famously put it: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
Enough! Let me turn to matters personal (those who wish can skip a page!). 2016 has seen the completion of our domestic ‘new order’. On the last weekend of February Lois and I drove over in two cars to Ireland to pick up Lindsay and Jamila from their Galway exile, Jamila having by that time achieved the EU residency that allowed her to come and live in England, getting round the Government’s futile attempts to strangle the immigration that keeps our economy working. Linds and Jam are now living in Lois’s flat at Woodgrange Park while Lois has moved in to the top floor here, which is now effectively self-contained with its own kitchen and shower room/loo. (The builders finally left the house today: it felt as if we had not had undisputed possession since last autumn! First there was the fitting out of Lois’s floor, then new windows for two of her rooms, and new french windows for my kitchen and lounge, and redecoration front and back, and so on and on. The original builders walked off the job, having bitten off more than they could chew, and in the end I went back to my tried and tested Poles!)
Anyhow, we had a major logistics exercise boxing up all Lindsay’s things to allow the builders in upstairs – they filled the dining room (left) for months and some are still in my basement – and then moving Lois’s things from her flat to here, Lindsay’s and Jamila’s from Galway and from here to the flat, and so on. The arrangement is working well: I see Lois briefly most days and we do some things together – especially the garden (where at her suggestion we have made a major improvement by doubling the depth of the beds round the lawn) – but otherwise we live independently. Jamila started applying for jobs and was immediately offered the first she went for, a part-time post administering random controlled trials in the NHS (something she had done in Salt Lake City) – only to find that the Home Office were going to take months to process the paperwork that would allow her to work here. Amazingly the hospital were able to keep the post open for her through four months of frustration and alternating hope and despair, and she started work in early October. Lindsay meanwhile is determined, having put so much work into it, to complete his graphic novel on the Sri Lankan civil war, for which his agent is confident of finding a publisher, and so, despite the implications for cash flow, he has been concentrating on that rather than take on short-term smaller projects.
Lindsay & Jamila, Lois (below, in Epping Forest) & I had an enjoyable short break in an AirBnB cottage at South Creake in north Norfolk in April. The weather was not ideal but we went to several markets, visited Felbrigg House and a Shire Horse Sanctuary and had some good food. Lois’s brother Michael and wife Kath from Australia visited us in August and we had an excursion to Sissinghurst, the lovely mediaeval village of Smarden and a flying display at Headcorn. Jamila’s sister Isabelle visited in August and she came here on a sunny day during Kath & Michael’s stay for lunch in the garden. Kath & Michael’s visit was an appendage to a long holiday in Paris where Lois and I later visited them for five days along with their daughter Christine and granddaughter Rosie. They were in a top-floor flat close to the Pompidou Centre. We visited the Petit Palais, had some delightful off-beat walks (including along the Coulée Verte René Dumont – the park and path along an old railway embankment that was created in the 1990s and featured in Before Sunset. We also had a day trip to the mediaeval city of Provins, with its walls still rising from the surrounding fields.
In September Jamila’s parents Tony and Hazel came to London and we had excursions with them to Kew and elsewhere. My brother Malcolm and wife Regan from New Zealand also visited us (below) in the course of a multi-point round-the-world trip and were joined by their daughter Alice whose life consists alternately in travel all over the world and residing in places where she can find temporary work to finance the travel – she is currently in London and she has visited here a couple of times. I saw brother Ken and wife Diana at the end of May when we both went to my cousin Jean & husband John’s golden wedding party up in Warrington – it was good to meet my other Holt cousins at the same time. (No direct contact with brother Geoff this year but he and Lin are finally getting the work on their house in Crete done and are meanwhile perching with friends.)
I went on from the golden wedding to stay a couple of nights with Tony & Phyllis in Derbyshire (fine walks round Monsal Head and along Cressbrookedale), and of course I have seen them and the other members of the old Coal Board group for our usual encounters, in Derbyshire in July (we saw Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi at the Buxton Opera and visited the Harley Gallery at Welbeck to see the fine collection of the Dukes of Portland, ownership of which is now separated from the title, which rests with the actor who plays David Archer in The Archers!), in Sussex in September (we went to the old observatory at Herstmonceux), and notably in Florida in February: Sheila has a house on the Gulf coast with palm trees and sand outside the door, making a notable change from winter in Ealing. I had two days at the start with Sheila’s son Tom, his wife Luciana and daughter Ella at their home in Tampa and tried to catch up with his research on cell biology. When the others arrived we did a trip to the Everglades (alligators and exotic birds), hired a boat to see dozens of ospreys nesting on harbour posts, and had a great time all round.
My other Coal Board group had their annual lunch in July and I visited Dorothy in Ditchling on a wet day in October for a party for her partner David’s 65th – Richard and Gillian were there and I saw them twice more at events to mark the publication of a book of her poetry, which I much like – Grazes on the Skin. Back in March there was another gathering of old NCB colleagues but this was for a memorial meeting for Colin Nathan, who had died far too young. He worked for me for a while and was always cheerful and always able to fix anything! I suppose we shall have to be ready for more such events as we all get older.
Lois went to Australia in May to visit family and friends and to Uganda in July to continue with some of her projects there, mainly in the name of the small charity we started, the Education and Health Trust Uganda (http://www.ehtuganda.org/) (which has been filling a few of my hours recently after the Co-op Bank threatened to close our account unless we registered with the Charity Commission – otherwise quite unnecessary as we are already registered with HMRC). She has now gone off to Uganda again and will be there for Christmas, while Sheila has invited me back to Florida for the holiday (after which I am going for ten days with the local walking group to Madeira – it’s a hard life!) Jamila meantime is spending Christmas with her family in Salt Lake City where Lindsay will be joining her just after the 25th.
Otherwise life has continued much as before: playing bridge at least monthly, Beethoven string quartets in old St Mary’s in Stoke Newington, an evening at the Stoke Newington Opera Cabaret where my friend Emma Dogliani sang wonderfully – and then there was the launch event for her trio’s CD (they are Three4 – recommended!) while back in June I went to the Brent Opera for which she sang the title role in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda. On a broader front, I went to two day conferences of the Voice of the Listener and Viewer (if you value public service broadcasting, join immediately!), to a protest meeting against the appalling Garden Bridge scandal and joined a picket about it as well as writing many emails to Sadiq Khan and others; went to several consultative meetings about a possible area plan for the Stamford Hill neighbourhood (no harm in it but it is basically a way for the local council to postpone deciding what to do about the wish of the local Hasidic community to be free of planning constraints on extending their houses upwards and outwards to cope with their immense families: their population is expanding exponentially).
I have of course been as busy as usual with the Humanists. The Rationalist Association (who publish the splendid New Humanist quarterly, which now marks each issue with a launch meeting at Waterstones in Piccadilly) has had internal problems this year which have taken a great deal of time, but my main work has been with the British Humanist Association and in representing the International Humanist and Ethical Union at the Council of Europe. There with allies from ILGA and others we have successfully won amendments to a Parliamentary Assembly report that would otherwise have made unbalanced recommendations on parental rights of minority religious groups, but we were less successful with a report on transsexual rights which the religious extreme right organised against with vicious lies and abuse of its sponsor, herself trans. During the January meeting of international NGOs I was invited, along with several religious representatives, to a meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly Committee on Culture, Science, Education and Media for a ‘round table’ inserted into their meeting on the possibility of a high-level dialogue of religious and non-confessional organisations. This idea has been around since 2011, gradually gathering support (from the Council deputy secretary-general for one) and came up again in the annual intercultural dialogue meeting in November, this year held in Strasbourg. It is up to the Committee of Ministers to decide whether to give it the go-ahead: sadly, if they do, it will almost certainly be on the grounds of combatting extremism.
IHEU and the European Humanist Federation held back-to-back annual meetings in Malta in May. The weather was great and I was among those who tacked on a couple of days’ holiday, spent in amenable company and revisiting the Hypogeum and Mdina (buying more marvellous glass!) and visiting for the first time the extraordinary complex of well preserved ancient temples at Hagar Qim and Mnajdra. Next year the IHEU meeting is in Brazil, the EHF in Wroclaw.
The BHA continues to do well and is becoming ever more professional. We had an excellent conference in the Birmingham convention centre in June and our multiple series of public lectures continue to attract large crowds: for next year the Darwin lecture in February by Professor Lawrence Krauss quickly sold out its 1,000 placces weeks ago and the repeat event arranged for the next day has sold out too! On a much more intimate scale were two events for patrons and major donors, one when Jim Al Khalili (then BHA president) talked to Joan Bakewell, the other with Ian McEwan in conversation with Natalie Haynes at the Athenaeum. We have hugely increased our pastoral care work in hospitals and prisons and are now officially welcomed by the NHS and NOMS (albeit with some local resistance). Our campaigns this year have included mounting a strong resistance to the Government’s unthinking sop to the Catholics of scrapping the 50% cap on faith admissions to religious free schools. This is designed to combat ethnic segregation and it works: if you compare schools with 100% religious selection and those subject to the cap, the latter have a far better mix of pupils. But the Government denies the facts and has fallen for a Catholic con trick, in that they claim that it is against canon law for them not to admit every last Catholic to any school they run. There is no such canon, private Catholic schools do not have 100% selection, and the European body for Catholic schools boasts that they are non-discriminatory and open to all. It remains to be seen if the Government will persist, but a single Catholic diocese has just announced plans for eight new schools if the cap is lifted. It would accelerate the retreat into religious and ethnic silos.
I wrote last year of our High Court victory over the Department for Education in which the judge found that their claim that a narrow new religious studies GCSE would meet the requirement for statutory RE was wrong in law: under the Human Rights Act RE has to be ‘neutral, critical and pluralistic’ and cannot therefore exclude non-religious beliefs. Extraordinarily the Department (then in the hands of Nicky ‘As-a-Christian-Secretary-of-State-for-Education-I-will-oppose-secular-politically-correct-dogma’ Morgan) chose merely to withdraw their claim and ignore the basis on which it was judged unlawful. They put out misleading press releases and when we circulated to schools professional legal advice on what the law required they damned us for confusing schools and said our version was erroneous (but failed to substantiate that when challenged). Their revised guidance is full of statements that is legally inaccurate – but as they have cleverly couched them as Government policy, not legal advice, we cannot get them back in court. The BHA intends instead to challenge a local authority that produces a narrow RE agreed syllabus and so force the issue. I presented a paper on the affair to the Cardiff Law and Religion Scholars Network conference in May (see http://www.thinkingabouthumanism. org/miscellany/objective-critical-and-pluralistic/). Meantime there has been no progress with legal recognition of the increasingly popular humanist weddings: the Government has yet to decide what to do with the scoping report from the Law Commission that proposed no action without a full-scale (years-long) review of the whole of marriage law.
I have continued to go to conferences on law and religion – half a day today at UCL, the last of a four-year series, a full day yesterday at Nottingham, where I gave a paper on the exemptions religious schools enjoy from the Equality Act ban on religious discrimination in employment even for teachers who have no religious duties at all: a maths teacher, for example, can be promoted or sacked on the basis of his private life if it offends the religion. This is patently contrary to the EU employment directive (which requires exemptions to be limited to ‘genuine and determining occupational requirements’) but the BHA’s complaint to the European Commission was dismissed after five years of to and fro in the run-up to the referendum! The Government had assured the Commission that no court or tribunal would attach any weight to the exemption in UK law but would instead go back to the Directive – some chance! (Coincidentally the Equality & Human Rights Commission have just produced a report that picks on these exemptions as unjustified and damaging to the careers of many teachers.) (See my paper at http://www.thinkingabouthumanism. org/miscellany/religious-discrimination-in-teaching-the-governments-anomalous-position/).
I was invited to give a paper (previous page) at a large international conference in Oxford in September. This was the International Consortium on Law and Religion Studies, attended by 2-300 people at St Hugh’s College with its delightful gardens all round us. I was asked to talk on whether there was a human right to freedom from religion and answered no (that would be analogous to a freedom from insult, the dangerous idea advocated for years by the Islamist countries at the UN): but that the rights of non-religious people to freedom of [religion or] belief were often overlooked and that, not being organised, they sometimes suffered disproportionate discrimination. The paper is at http://www.thinkingabouthumanism.org/religion/a-right-to-freedom-from-religion/. It was well received, and (as shown by subsequent comments) my putdown in a Q&A panel afterwards of the objectionable and eccentric barrister for the Christian Legal Centre, Paul Diamond, was much enjoyed.
I have continued to give talks – four times on teaching Humanism in the classroom to PGCE students specialising in RE (once in Sheffield in the afternoon after returning from Strasbourg in the morning!), twice to local humanist groups, plus two debates on the existence of god (not my usual line of subject) at UCL and at Brentwood School; and a couple of unusual ones: a brief address on at the Hackney Remembrance Day ceremony, and a short talk at a celebration evening to mark the 120th anniversary of the British Humanist Association: I reminisced about the 1960s! I’ve been to about ten other short conferences on religion and the law. I’ve also got involved again for the BHA in meetings with the Office of National Statistics on the 2021 census to pursue a change to the question on religion, currently a leading “What is your religion?” to which at least we want to add the words “if any”. And there were many other meetings, of course: not least a conference in Wroclaw at the end of October on secularity and plurality. This was organised by the Polish Rationalists (one of whom entertained us with a recital: he had taught himself the ancient practice of playing two recorders simultaneously, as seen on some classical Greek vases). Wroclaw was a delight, its mediaeval centre largely unspoilt. I had a couple of extra days there to look round: it was odd to see that the ancient (900-year-old) churches were built in brick – not something you see in England with its plentiful stone. I went up the tower of one ancient church – 300 steep steps almost non-stop but worth it for the view! Wroclaw was previously Breslau when part of Germany and the German free-religious (proto-humanist) movement started there in the 1840s and thrived for nearly 100 years until shut down by the Nazis. We visited their assembly room, now used by the Seventh Day Adventists!
What about the culture? Well, I’ve been to the theatre 34 times since my last letter, 20 of them to the National, where the standard is usually high (though I was singularly unimpressed by their Christmas shows wonder.land a year ago and Peter Pan currently) and ticket prices are substantially below those in the West End – especially when you go in the front rows in the Olivier and Lyttelton, where tickets are as low as £15 or £18. Highlights included As You Like It in the Olivier – a ‘marmite’ production: I liked it but others even left at the interval! It was the design that was controversial: it started with a modern office set presumably showing the officials of the usurping duke at work – which was an odd setting for the wrestling match! When they decamped to the forest, all these tables, chairs and lamps were hoisted aloft to become the canopy of the forest, pervaded by mist and with extras perching in the ‘branches’ to make animal and wind noises. A flock of sheep – actors in white woolly jumpers on all fours grazing and chewing – appeared through the ‘trees’. I felt this worked well. Patsy Ferran was delightful as Celia.
No doubt, however, about the success of Harley Granville-Barker’s Waste in the Lyttelton: an excellent play, full of dialogue that you wanted to linger over and analyse, good acting (especially by Charles Edwards as Trebell), and a splendid set by Hildegard Bechtler – a few key pieces of period furniture on a glossy black floor against a plain backdrop with a couple of sliding walls. The unctuous Church party representative (Cantilupe) was memorable and deadly accurate.
In strong contrast was a one-woman play in the National’s temporary theatre (now demolished: it outlasted the closure of the Cottesloe while it was transformed into the Dorfman): Iphigenia in Splott by Gary Owen, superbly acted by Sophie Melville, portrayed a working class girl from dead-end Cardiff (Splott is an area in the city near where the writer lives) – “seeing me in the street you’d call me a slag” – and her nightlife and affairs, pregnancy and anguish at the loss of her baby owing to NHS cuts. It started slow and her Welsh accent, rapid speech and street vocabulary had me worried, but it became very moving and powerful. Melville got a standing ovation at the end – and then there was a post-show Q&A session with the writer, director and a critic. The title comes from the girl’s decision to sacrifice her own interests for the common good when she drops her sure-fire damages claim against the NHS rather than make its finances even worse.
Still early in the year was Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a powerful play about casual discrimination against black musicians in th USA in the 1920s: in the play their frustration at their treatment got diverted into violence between them. (The production was featured in this year’s “NT Revealed” event for Supporting Cast members that takes you behind the scenes for mini-presentations by various experts involved in putting the play on, including this year stage management, music and fight directors, the construction and automation teams and the voice coach.) Les Blancs was an impressive play by a black American woman who died young in 1965 leaving it unfinished. It was set in an African colony in a clinic run on Schweitzer lines (‘care for the child-like natives but do nothing to disturb the colonial order’), and illustrated a variety of both African and European and American attitudes (a key character is an American journalist).
Another play in the temporary space was Brainstorm, a theatrical piece devised by teenagers from Islington Community Theatre alongside a neuroscience researcher about how teenagers’ behaviour is affected by the immature state of their brains (apparently the limbic system is more advanced than the pre-frontal cortex). This was lively, interactive and enjoyable, with the ten teenagers (aged 14-18), who had worked on the project for the last three years, basing it on their own lives, seen in chaotic bedrooms, absorbed in text-chat on their mobiles (some projected onto the set), and imitating their parents rebukes to them. Finally it showed them in reflective mood wishing for good communication with their parents. At the end there was a discussion with two of the Community Theatre’s directors, one of the teenagers and the neuroscientist, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore – she is Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL and will be giving the BHA’s Rosalind Franklin Lecture next March.
The Suicide, a free adaptation by Suhayla El-Bushra of an early Soviet satire by Nikolai Erdman about a man driven nearly to suicide by the bureaucratic oppression of the system, was never performed at the time and this version was a satire on neo-liberalism and modern anti-humanist attitudes (the ‘vultures’ variously shouting ‘jump!’ to a potential suicide, personal trauma as instant on-line entertainment, latching onto crises to make political capital and so on). It was very funny, very lively, had a superb set and an excellent cast. Flicks in the Dorfman was an American import, with two of the three main parts taken by the original NY cast. It was set in a cinema – we sat looking as from the screen at the stalls with the projection box flickering at us – and the characters were the three employees – the projectionist (a woman) and two guys whom we saw mainly cleaning up after performances. A slow burn, with no blazing climax, but very satisfying – a long play with an infinity of silence as the characters sized each other up and acted their reactions superbly.
The Threepenny Opera was excellent: I had my doubts on the basis of not having particularly enjoyed at least one previous production at the NT a long time ago but this was lively, slick and up-to-date. Sunset at the Villa Thalia, a new play by Alexi Kay Campbell, explored (explicitly) US responsibility for the colonels’ coup in Greece and (implicitly) everyone’s complicity in the outrages we all deplore. Some of the characters were a bit thin but the set was splendid (an old peasant house on a Greek island).
The year at the National ended strongly with a revival of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus with a live orchestra on stage, whose players almost became characters, sometimes sinking with the stage into an orchestra pit but often on the move among the actors. Lucian Msamati was superb as Salieri; Adam Gillen as Mozart maybe overdid the grotesque behaviour – but that is of course required by the play. The flexible set, the music and the acting combined to make something memorable. (Coincidentally I had been to the Royal Albert Hall with Lois a few weeks earlier for a showing of the film of Amadeus with a live orchestra: an odd idea that nevertheless worked well.) Then came The Red Barn, a David Hare adaptation of a very early Georges Simenon novel, which was extremely enjoyable: the acting was impeccable (Mark Strong, Elizabeth (The Night Manager) Debicki – extraordinarily tall and thin – and Hope Davis), the set (by Bunny Christie) extraordinary: rectangular openings of different geometries appeared in the front-of-stage blackness, revealing different swiftly changing sets in a near cinematic way, especially with the scene of the four principals in a blizzard. The play explores the psychology of the weak Donald Dodd (Mark Strong – an odd role for him that he did very well) through compliance, temptation, rejection to breaking point. It was directed by Robert Icke, who directed the Almeida’s Oresteia trilogy last year.
The Sam Wanamaker Theatre is the candle-lit Jacobean theatre at Shakespeare’s Globe and it is a wonderful space. They put on plays and also recitals: this year I saw Aidan Gillen read James Joyce’s The Dead (from Dubliners), accompanied by a pianist, both of them in white tie and tails – very effective, the ending painful in its disparate expectations. Later came a recital by the countertenor Andreas Scholl and Tamar Halperin on harpsichord of 16th and 17th century songs by Dowland, Campion, Byrd and Purcell, which was lovely, and Eileen Atkins in the persona of Ellen Terry delivering a lecture on Shakespeare’s women: only 80 minutes but memorable! She acted key sections of several plays to bring out the strong characters of the women. By contrast The Tempest was disappointing: Phoebe Pryce as Miranda was too old and strapping; Tim McMullan as Prospero carried no conviction and Ariel was a woman (Pippa Nixon) in tight-fitting bolero – no nature spirit she! More recently The Little Match Girl was on balance a success but with weaknesses.
Elsewhere there was The Kreutzer Sonata at our local Arcola Theatre with Greg Hicks providing a quite extraordinary portrayal of a misogynist upper-class husband sinking into psychopathic jealousy but never ceasing his self-justification; a revival of Tom Stoppard’s Hapgood at the Hampstead Theatre had a mind-bendingly complex plot (spies and double agents) and an excellent set and good acting from the whole cast, especially Lisa Dillon in the lead role. At the Savoy, the Chichester Festival production of Guys and Dolls (is it not the very best American musical?) was a delight, while at the Tricycle theatre Florian Zeller’s The Mother had Gina McKee as the eponymous mother unable to get over her son leaving home with his partner. In a series of overlapping and alternative scenes she is portrayed first as a possibly betrayed wife (why is her husband late from work and going away for four days to a seminar?) and then increasingly pathological until she is finally seen in hospital asking herself or her husband what all her caring for their son was for. The set was a white box with minimum necessary furniture.
Finally I went to two performances by the Actors of Dionysus company, whose main focus is on bringing ancient Greek theatre to schools. I saw their modern version of Lysistrata – bawdy, fast and fun – and then in a large private garden a special fundraising performance of The Bacchae – a magic evening.
Enough of theatre: a brief mention of exhibitions. The Goya portraits at the National Gallery were stunning, with his style changing over time and according to his subject, flattering the nobility, fiercely honest with his friends and his self-portraits. M C Escher at the Dulwich Picture Gallery was his first exhibition in England for decades, if not ever. He was an extraordinary draughtsman and his appeal is wide, from mathematicians to hippies. The Courtauld had an exhibition of interesting colourful paintings by Peter Lanyon, a St Ives painter I’d not previously heard of who died after a gliding accident in 1964. The Queen’s Gallery had simultaneous exhibitions of Thomas Rowlandson caricatures (which I loved – though I prefer Gillray and have four originals on my hall walls) and the other of Dutch painting of the time of Vermeer, with two or three Rembrandts, one Vermeer, and so on. At the Royal Academy I liked, without being over-impressed, the David Hockney portraits of his family, friends and acquaintance, all sitting in the same chair and against the same background, each done in three days only. At the British Museum I enjoyed Egypt after the Pharaohs – falcon-headed gods dressed as Roman emperors, and then the Codex Sinaiaticus and the arrival of Christianity and Islam – but was critical of The Celts: badly and dimly lit, with captions at waist height so as to be maximally obscured by the crowd, and so on. More recently their exhibition of Romano-Egyptian relics recovered from cities submerged by the sea was fascinating.
Finally to a selection of the 22 books I’ve read (I ignore numbers of articles and book chapters on religion and the law). The year saw publication of the Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Humanism which has 21 essays including interesting articles on the quasi-humanisms of ancient India, China, Greece and Rome, and Islam. It is edited by Andrew Copson whose own essay on What is Humanism? is very good. Kenan Malik’s The Quest for a Moral Compass is a masterly critical review of moral philosophy across the world and centuries that I must read again.
With the BHA planning to commission a history of the organisation I have caught up with some relevant old publications: The British Ethical Societies by Ian MacKillop (1986), Susan Budd’s Varieties of Unbelief (1977) and Gustav Spiller’s The Ethical Movement in Great Britain (1934). Between them they tell the story of the emergence of the humanist movement variously from Owenites, Chartists, Secularists and Socialists in the Labour Churches and the ILP, via the ethical societies and the pre-war Ethical Church – interesting for someone like me!
Charlotte Higgins’ This New Noise is subtitled “The extraordinary birth and troubled life of the BBC”. Produced during negotiations for renewal of the BBC’s charter, this is a perceptive account combining history and topic by topic reviews of the BBC and its place in British society, broadly supportive but not uncritical. Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories recounts his key cases in the 1960s-1980s, including the Lady Chatterley, George Blake, John Vassall, the ABC and Romans in Britain trials. Hutchinson was the go-to barrister for the defence in cases involving liberties and establishment oppression. Now over 100, he says he is still too busy living to write his own autobiography but he cooperated with the book. He was closely involved with the Bloomsbury group, was married to Peggy Ashcroft, became chairman of the Tate Gallery and was active in the House of Lords.
Jonathan Schneer’s Ministers at War is an immensely readable and insightful account of the politics of Churchill’s wartime coalition cabinet, starting with the loss of confidence in Chamberlain and the negotiation of Halifax out of contention (Schneer suggests Halifax did not want the premiership anyway), the creation of Churchill’s cabinet and his handling of it during the months of crisis; the masterful way he dealt with Stafford Cripps’ challenge from the left, outside the Labour Party, and Beaverbrook’s own flirting with a coup against him; and then his failure to understand the importance, as the tide of war turned, of reconstruction and misjudgement of how to handle the Beveridge report and its advocacy in particular by Herbert Morrison. He ends with an account of the 1945 election which, against all the signs, everyone, not least the Labour Party, expected Churchill to win. There is a coda in which Schneer covers Morrison’s attempt to take over as party leader after the 1945 election was won (Attlee, of whom Schneer has a high opinion, aware of the plot, simply went off quietly to the palace and then reported the King’s commission to a party meeting in Central Hall!) and with brief notes on the later years of all the key characters. An excellent book that I could scarcely put down.
Black Diamonds by Catherine Bailey is the story from the mid-19th century of the immensely rich but dysfunctional Wentworth-Fitzwilliam family of the Earls of Wentworth whose magnificent and immense house at Wentworth Woodhouse was once the scene of royal visits and huge entertainments but was until 1902 lit only by oil-lamps that were the sole care of two staff all seven days a week. Now it stands forlorn, its parkland and gardens ruined by opencast mining in the 1940s driven through by Emanuel Shinwell in the face of protests even from the NUM in a misplaced act of vengeance against the coal-owners – misplaced as the family had been exemplary in their concern for the safety and welfare of their employees who reciprocated with a semi-feudal devotion: they had to be told by the Earl to follow their union and strike in 1926 when called out in the general strike. The writer has pieced together the story despite the massive destruction of family records by the last Earl as the male line died out – motivated by an internal feud that led to the disinheritance of one son for marrying beneath him contrived by his mother who herself had been a chorus girl before her marriage! (The Chancellor has just announced a surprising £7m grant to help restore the house.)
Bill Browder’s Red Notice is the graphic story of the author’s career in big finance (embarked on as a rebellion against his American Communist parents) that first made him a fortune in post-communist Russia as his Hermitage Capital business bought large shareholdings in newly privatised Russian companies and then fell foul of too many friends of President Putin with disastrous results. He won a court case against manoeuvres by one company to dilute his shareholding by selective new issues of shares but, emboldened and naive about the lengths to which the oligarchs would go, he continued on similar paths until he was refused re-entry to Russia and everything fell apart. He got most of his colleagues out but his young Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was arrested and murdered in police custody. Browder then devoted himself to publicising what had happened and persuading the US Congress to adopt a law imposing targeted sanctions on everyone concerned – which he eventually succeeded in doing, to the evident pain and anger of the Russians. The book is eminently readable, constantly astonishing and deeply alarming about the ruthless nature of Putin’s regime.
Mary Beard’s SPQR is a magnificent and perceptive history of Rome down to the start of the third century. Beard analyses what we know – little – about the mythologised early centuries of Rome and then deals with the republic and the empire partly by broad periods and then by relevant themes. She takes a clear-sighted view of the standard heroes – Cicero, Pliny and so on. Cicero reappears in the third in Robert Harris’s trilogy tracing his life which deals with the time of Julius Caesar, Cicero’s exile, the civil war with Pompey, the assassination and the treachery of Octavian when, in forming the triumvirate with Lepidus and Antony, he traded Cicero’s life for their alliance. Inevitably for a book based on the untidiness of real life facts the story is wayward, but there is a sort of arc as Cicero’s frequent bad judgement leads to his downfall. In the background the disintegration of republican institutions is vividly demonstrated, as Clodius’s and Milo’s mobs of gladiators, recruited to make it safe for one or the other party to enter the forum, go wild and destroy the Senate and each other. The device of using Cicero’s secretary, slave and then freedman, as narrator is useful but his presence at one after another key meeting of the big beasts becomes increasingly implausible. Never mind: a good read – as is Harris’s Conclave, a suspense story set in the conclave of cardinals choosing a new pope after a thinly veiled Pope Francis has died, with the presiding cardinal uncovering scandals concerning a succession of front-runner contenders.
Two other novels to finish with: Iain Pears’ Arcadia fails to come up to the standard of The Dream of Scipio in this odd mixture of science fiction, bucolic Tolkien-like fantasy and thriller based on the notion of a time machine allowing its inventor to flee from a distant and subtopian future to a 1950s Oxford: it lacks well-rounded characters and the plot is confusing but the complexities are intriguing enough to engage you until the end. And finally Evelyn Waugh’s Black Mischief is an absolutely hilarious but politically totally incorrect story about an independent African kingdom and the diplomats and other ex-pats manoeuvring for their own advantage – all except the British who are too concerned with playing parlour games to bother!