Last year I started my letter with a cri de coeur about the state of the world – Trump, Brexit, wars in the Middle East and so on. Each of these seems even more disastrous now – Trump set free rather than tamed by office, Brexit plainly a catastrophe waiting to happen (and the USA no friend to come to the rescue – why should they, most of all with Trump’s cut-throat zero-sum attitude to negotiation?) and the Middle East wars inflicting greater and greater damage as they fade from public consciousness.
However, let me instead start with things personal. When I wrote a year ago Lindsay and Jamila had moved in to Lois’s flat at Woodgrange Park and Lois into a virtually self-contained flat on the top floor here. She was in Uganda over Christmas and was there again for a month in September/October, continuing the valuable work she does there in the name of our small charity, the Education and Health Trust Uganda. (The Trust continues to fund the education and professional training of a small number of people and to provide equipment for the clinic run by the doctor whose training Lois financed before we formed the charity. She has also been providing training, among other things, on HIV prevention and treatment and on how to set up and run micro-savings schemes – https://tinyurl.com/ehtuganda gives more details. Many thanks to those of you who have contributed to our appeals for funds!)
Anyhow, she and I began doing things together – going to exhibitions (including Peter Layton’s glassblowing works in Bermondsey Street, where later in the year I bought two of his wonderful pieces), visiting gardens (including Myddelton House, named by his c18th descendants for Sir Hugh Myddelton who created the New River which, before a short cut was created in the mid-19th century, followed its contour through the garden of the house. Its path is now a lawn, though a bridge is preserved at one end where the river went under the road) and doing the garden here, where she is inspiring valuable new developments. The culmination of this was, as most of you will know already, that we decided to get married again, which was accomplished very quietly on 16 November at Hackney Town Hall in the presence of the registrar and her assistant, Lindsay and Lois’s old friend Mike Hauser. Three weeks later, as I write this, I can report that things so far are working out well!! We had a short break in Berlin – cold, wet, windy, with the holocaust museum closed and alleged street markets non-existent – that we managed nevertheless to enjoy! The city has a superb public transport system – save that it is so badly signed and signalled that you sometimes make your connections more by luck than judgement.
Lindsay & Jamila are getting on well. Jamila has managed, after months of promises, to get her part-time job in the NHS upgraded to full-time, taking on the administration of a second range of random controlled trials. She made a three-week trip to New Zealand in May to visit her sister Isabelle, who is there for a year or more, and she is returning to Salt Lake City to see her parents at Christmas as she did last year, but this time Lindsay is not going. Instead he is working flat out almost 24 hours a day to finish his graphic novel on the Sri Lankan civil war by the end of January. His problem is that he keeps raising his standards: thoroughly uncommercial even if some of the pages are works of art! He has cut down on work for Positive Negatives, run by his friend Benjamin Dix, but it is doing well, now housed at SOAS where in April it had an exhibition of its educational work using comics to highlight human rights issues. Baroness (Valerie) Amos, the SOAS director, opened the exhibition and said how excited SOAS was to be hosting PosNeg and its charity wing Why Comics? Linds had two of his full stories displayed in the exhibition and two of his panels blown up to huge dimensions – this one comes from his trilogy of stories about Syrian refugees in Europe “A Perilous Journey” – see the full story at https://www.lindsay-pollock.com/aperilousjourney …
Apart from her two trips to Uganda (with another planned for January) Lois also flew to Australia in March for a prolonged (12-week) visit to family in Perth and Melbourne and to old work colleagues in Sydney with a side-trip to the Northern Territory – ancient rock paintings, crocodiles and 95% humidity! Her nephew Dave Jaques from Perth visited here while she was away, our first meeting since he was a teenager! He was excellent company but his visit overlapped unfortunately with that of my old friends Henry and France from Canada, so that neither got my full attention.
Other family news includes the sad death of George Holt, my mother’s first cousin with whom I had exchanged nuggets of family history, but it was good to meet his niece and her family at the funeral. Nieces have figured in other family occasions: my New Zealand brother Malcolm’s daughter Alice, now living in London and working for Control Risks, visited a few times, and my brother Kenneth’s daughter Lucy, now working for the national cybersecurity centre, entertained us on her narrow boat, normally moored at Little Venice but for one lovely summer day travelling to King’s Cross and back. ‘Us’ included Lois and me, Lindsay, Jamila and Alice, with friends of Lois and Lucy joining us en route. We picnicked under the immensely expensive new apartments constructed within the frames of old gasholders at King’s Cross!
Later Alice came round to record me reminiscing about her dad for a lovely video she put together for his 70th birthday. She cross-questioned me about family history and as a result later in the year we took a trip to Brompton Regis where her grandparents – my parents – used to live. We looked up the elderly man who used to dig Dad’s garden for him and now looks after their grave, saw that the memorial bench we brothers gave the village was in a poor way, had a pub lunch and came home via Stonehenge. The day before we had visited Kenneth and Diana in Cheltenham – my first visit to their lovely late Georgian house. We four brothers then offered to replace the broken bench and have done so, though without a word of thanks from the parish councillor through whom it was grudgingly arranged! If it weren’t so far away we might go and take the bench for ourselves!
The other big family occasion was the visit of Christina with husband Stephen and their five children in September/October. (Her oldest two, Paige and Kyle, stayed at home, studying and working.) The children are all delightful and it was fun taking them out – with Lois and the oldest three (Tiahna, Patrick and Lucy) to the Science Museum (so totally changed from my day when the height of excitement was turning a handle to make a model locomotive in a glass case move two feet up its track: now they do astronaut training in pods that spin and twist 360o in three dimensions!), to the city farm at Mudchute on the Isle of Dogs and so on. They spent about half their time on Skye with an old schoolfriend of Christina’s.
With Lois being in Australia last Christmas and Lindsay & Jamila in Salt Lake City, I was delighted to accept an invitation from Sheila & David to spend the holiday at her place in Florida: sunrise walks on the beach, trips to nature reserves, and lazing under the palms in 80o sunshine! I’d no sooner got back than I went off with my walks group (‘mine’ in a very attenuated sense, considering how infrequently I turn up!) for a week on Madeira where we saw in 2017 with the extraordinary fireworks at Funchal and did a number of walks along the levadas, which often cling to the side of a cliff with a steep fall on one side and an overhang above and sometimes lead you under waterfalls! The financial crash had put a stop to the island’s road-building: old maps showed projected tunnels to relieve twisty coastal roads, new maps had removed them. I also had two enjoyable weekends away with the walks group – in June on and inland from the Isle of Sheppey and in October on the Isle of Wight.
Later I rejoined Sheila & David along with Tony & Phyllis and Mike & Camilla for the first of our three annual gatherings: in February in Ealing, in July in Sussex and in September in Derbyshire. These are occasions for relaxation, the odd gentle walk, a trip to the theatre or a stately home depending on the venue, and vigorous political discussion! En route to Derbyshire we went to the Wedgood factory and museum at Barlaston and talked to one of the craftsmen who makes the (very expensive) Panther vase and was in a recent TV programme Handmade – by Royal Appointment. We visited Bolsover Castle (highly recommended) and (not recommended at all) the immense house Wentworth Woodhouse, on which see the book Black Diamonds reviewed in my last letter. It is a depressing pile stripped of all its good pictures and furniture to pay three lots of death duties in ten years in the 1940s/50s. It was inexplicably given £7m by the government in the spring budget but will take about £100m to put right.
What else? Among many other pleasurable social engagements, my ex-Coal Board group met twice for lunches that lasted most of the afternoon; the Stoke Newington group of gracefully ageing friends who call ourselves the Wrinklies met once a quarter for talk and food (and are due to meet here in two weeks!), the overlapping group of bridge players continued circulating round each other’s houses for a meal and some very amateur play – I packed in fourteen sessions – and we managed to spend our accumulated penalties at 1p a point and more besides at the grand old St Pancras station hotel, magnificently restored but charging silly money for not such good wine.
In a more serious vein, I continue to make a marginal contribution to the local planning watchdog that is mainly concerned at present with persuading Hackney Council that in the face of the explosion in the population of the local Charedi Jews – their numbers expanded by 125% between 2001 and 2011 and 70% of them are aged under 25 – a policy of abandoning planning guidelines to allow house expansions up, down, back and sideways will ruin the neighbourhood but postpone the critical need for dispersal (some of them are already moving to Canvey Island) by only a very few years.
I continue to go to events run by the Voice of the Listener and Viewer at the Geological Society in Burlington House. This is an excellent and expert pressure group for public service broadcasting. In March David Puttnam gave a lecture on the state of PSB in the age of fake news. The spring conference focussed on fake news again and on Ofcom as the new BBC regulator; the autumn one on PSB in the digital age. At the first Damian Collins, the Tory chair of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, and at the second Peter Bazalgette, chair of ITV, both gave splendid and practical defences of PSB.
I had a short break at Krakow in Poland in May before going on to Wroclaw for the European Humanist Federation’s annual conference. Krakow is a place full of interest, its mediaeval buildings almost undamaged in the war: it has Copernicus’s university (with the register showing his enrolment), the foundations of very early streets excavated and on display in situ underground under the main square, plus churches and galleries aplenty – and a company that takes you on a guided tour of Stalin’s new town Nova Huta (New Mills) in a Trabant! Less pleasurably I had an individual guided tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Much one knew already: odd facts were new, such as that the quality of drinking water at Birkenau was so bad that even some of the camp ‘doctors’ died of typhoid.
The EHF conference was well organised by the Polish Rationalists with interesting sessions on populism and on political correctness. I took part in a panel on what it means to be a European today! There was a full social programme that included an unusual concert in the city’s splendid modern concert hall: when we arrived at 6.30 there was music in the atrium with brass players stationed up the staircase and it continued from loudspeakers as we went into the hall where the orchestra was already assembled and playing. The music continued through the advertised start time for the concert: as the hall lights went down the piece developed from ambient sounds into an exciting and often very loud symphony in several movements with a full orchestra and striking electronic sounds from speakers all around. It turned out to be a site-specific work by a key modern Polish composer, Elzbieta Sikora, marking the end of her tenure as director of the city’s contemporary music festival. I went also to the opera – Lutoslawski’s King Roger – interesting music and excellent singing combined with a weird plot given an ultramodern setting rather than one in mediaeval Sicily!
Mention of the EHF conference brings me to my humanist activities. This year the British Humanist Association renamed itself Humanists UK: I was dubious about the new branding but it was very thoroughly researched and developed and has worked well. And we continue to thrive under our new chair Tamar Ghosh and of course chief exec Andrew Copson despite the ridiculous new curbs on fundraising imposed by our appalling government – for example, even if someone gives you £100 you cannot go back and ask for another donation without explicit permission! This year saw the launch of a new section for Humanists in Business with a big turnout at PwC’s headquarters; a Darwin Day lecture that cosmologist Lawrence Kraus had to give twice as it sold out weeks in advance: the eventual total audience was nearly 2,000; a sold-out Voltaire Lecture by Nick Cohen; and our second Rosalind Franks lecture, given by the Sarah-Jayne Blakemore whose work on the way the human brain matures in adolescence inspired Brainstorm which I saw at the National Theatre last year. We had a President’s Reception for patrons and donors in the Marble Hall at the Royal Society’s Carlton House Terrace premises. It was interrupted when the fire alarm went off and we had to wait outside while the fire brigade gave the place the all clear! We were back at Carlton House Terrace for part of an international conference we organised at short notice when a planned World Humanist Congress in Brazil was cancelled: we had many high-level speakers among whom Karima Bennoune, the UN special rapporteur on cultural rights, made a big impact: she has interpreted her remit not as defending traditional values over women’s rights or the like but in a way entirely friendly to secularism and human rights.
We held our annual conference, rebranded as a convention, in Cambridge with a record attendance of 600 and parallel streams of meetings. Among many excellent speakers Sara Khan deplored the way progressive Muslims like herself were ignored or patronised by the Left who instead adopted Islamists as the true representatives of the religion; Alf Dubs talked about his successful campaign for an amendment to the immigration bill to admit unaccompanied child refugees, disgracefully ignored by the Government after a few dozen had been allowed in; and Paul Lamb, almost entirely paralysed for 27 years after a car accident, who was party to the Nicklinson Supreme Court case on assisted dying and is now initiating a new case with Humanists UK cooperation, gave powerful testimony and is plainly is relishing the legal battles ahead, wanting the reassurance of legal assisted dying without any early intention to use it. Meantime I attended part of the Noel Conway High Court hearing, in which Humanists UK had intervened.
Our outstanding Director of Public Affairs Pavan Dhaliwal sadly left us in the spring but her place has been well filled by her deputy Richy Thompson. I have started attending a weekly meeting of the Public Affairs team as a key volunteer. With Parliament preoccupied by Brexit we have instead been using strategic litigation – or the threat of it, which has often been enough. In one case we challenged a local authority’s refusal to appoint a humanist to its statutory advisory committee on religious education, forcing a rethink. Pastoral care posts in hospitals are still often advertised as limited to Anglican priests or otherwise not open to the non-religious but our legal letters have seen adverts withdrawn and recast and we now have members of the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network in post in 28% of acute hospitals. We are making progress also in prisons – but the law still specifically requires a Church of England chaplain in every prison! Plans for amending this law died with the general election which also set back our work to get the Government to introduce legal recognition of humanist marriage: all it needs is adoption of an Order in both Houses of Parliament. Meanwhile after a tortuous path we hope to win humanist marriage in Northern Ireland when the Court of Appeal in Belfast hears our judicial review in January: we won on all points in our human-rights-based case in the High Court but the NI attorney general appealed and we have had two appeal court hearings since to dispose of side arguments.
My humanist activity this year also included: giving talks to local humanist groups; doing a radio interview on the huge fake news story over the Archbishop of York’s and the Prime Minister’s protests over the National Trust’s alleged (but invented) dropping of the word ‘Easter’ from their Cadbury’s Egg Hunt; taking part in a panel on law and religion at Westminster University; submitting evidence to the Commission on Religious Education (you can read what I submitted at http://www.thinkingabouthumanism.org/religion-in-schools /the-future-of-religious-education/); speaking at a memorial meeting for 1960s’ BHA chair Peter Draper who went on to an inspiring career in public health medicine; lecturing three times to trainee RE teachers; attending a moving Defence Humanists Remembrance Day event in the beautiful unconsecrated Fitzrovia Chapel (formerly the chapel of the old Middlesex Hospital) and earlier in the year, after a Defence Humanists meeting at the Ministry of Defence, having the treat of a private visit to Henry VIII’s wine cellar in the basement: it was originally part of Cardinal Wolseley’s York House but in 1949 was encased in concrete, moved sideways and lowered 20 feet when the huge MoD building was put up); helping prepare a secularist response to last year’s report from the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life and taking part in a follow-up initiative to the report by the Middle Temple and King’s College London entitled “21st Century Britain: Moral Sources of the Civic Good”; taking part in the week-long meetings of the Council of Europe International NGOs in Strasbourg in January and June (this for the last time as I am handing over to another IHEU representative); participating in a one-day conference on conscientious objection at the Cambridge University Institute for Criminology and a two-day one on the 50th anniversary of the Abortion Act at the RCOG (meeting there many old acquaintances as I was active in supporting the Bill in 1967 on behalf of the Humanists); going to a well attended joint dialogue event with two very moderate Muslims and to meetings of the Blackham Society (for our patrons and major donors) with special guests Robin Ince and Dan Snow, and of the Humanist Parliamentary Group, co-chaired now by Joan Bakewell to whom at a recent gathering we gave the 2017 Humanist of the Year award; and so on.
What then of theatre? I’ve been less than last year: 30 times, 19 at the National Theatre. Some things were outstandingly good: let me pick out five from elsewhere and seven at the National. The revival of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties at the Apollo was a delight from start to finish: Tom Hollander led a strong cast as a (historically real) former junior member of the British consulate in Zurich in 1917, now an old man muddling his memories of an amateur staging of The Importance of Being Ernest with delusions of imagined encounters with Lenin, James Joyce and Dada-founder Tristan Tzara (all of whom were in Zurich at the time but as far as we know unaware of each other). Jez Butterworth’s new play The Ferryman at the Gielgud wrapped you up in the small dramas of a large and lively farming family in Northern Ireland before tearing that world apart in the huge conflicts of the conflicted loyalties of the Troubles in a very satisfying arc. At the Almeida Mike Bartlett’s Albion provided a moving reflection on the state of Britain through a series of strong characters led by Victoria Hamilton. I also saw the Almeida’s excellent production of Hamlet on transfer to the Harold Pinter Theatre. It was directed by Robert Icke in modern dress, with tv security screens and news broadcasts for the ghost’s appearance. The great strength of the production was its Hamlet, played by Andrew Scott with (like Gertrude) a slight Irish accent. More importantly, he played him as a hesitant, thoughtful and sensitive man who seemed genuinely to be thinking things out on the stage in front of you: well known lines no longer came as familiar but as new-coined. And his Hamlet was indeed a ‘sweet prince’, thoughtful and emotional, flipping moods in a convincing way. (What a contrast with the contrived and unconvincing RSC production with Benedict Cumberbatch which I saw later in a repeat live relay.) The atmospheric ambient sound was by Tom Gibbons and the set by Hildegard Bechtler, both of whom have done previous notable work.
Heisenberg – The Uncertainty Principle by Simon Stephens was a slight piece about an uninhibited woman in her 40s (Anne Marie Duff) striking up an unlikely relationship with a 75-year-old stolid and solitary butcher (Kenneth Cranham). It had moments of tenderness and humour and was directed by Marianne Elliot with beautifully lit minimalist designs by Bunny Christie. It contrasted utterly with another two-hander of about the start of a relationship: Beginning at the NT’s Dorfman had a set cluttered with the debris of a party and depicted the awkward tentative moves of two out-of-practice 40-or-so-year-olds, Justine Mitchell as the hostess and Sam Troughton as the last guest.
The National’s best stuff is often in the studio Dorfman theatre. For example, Consent by Nina Raine, with Anna Maxwell Martin and Ben Chaplin in a strong cast, started with two lawyer/actor couples making light of cases dealing with rape and non-consensual sex but then falling into the same behaviour and ripping each other apart. Extremely powerful, it managed also to be funny – and featured in the first scene a real live baby in arms! It got five star reviews and was absolutely worth them. Lucy Kirkwood’s Mosquitoes was also excellent with Olivia Coleman as the incompetent but warm sister of Olivia Williams as a brilliant CERN scientist with a troubled teenage son (Joseph Quinn) and an ageing mother (Amanda Boxer), formerly an eminent scientist but now showing signs of dementia. The family tensions and misunderstandings made a superb drama directed by NT director Rufus Norris.
Twelfth Night was in the Olivier, with Malvolio triumphantly played as Malvolia by Tamsin Greig: she became the centre of the play. The other servants were played female too and the set was clever and effective, with a large number of ‘leaves’ folding out from a revolving centre axis so that numerous different settings could be conjured up in moments.
The National’s revival of the double-bill Angels in America directed by Marianne Elliott was as powerful as I remembered it. The original 1992/3 Cottesloe production was a very spartan production whereas this time the set was part of the joy: versatile and constantly surprising. I saw both parts on the same day and when it finished the whole audience rose simultaneously in a standing acclamation! Also in the Olivier was something very different: Stephen Sondheim’s Follies with Imelda Staunton leading a cast that included Josephine Barstow (who was an opera star back in the 1960s!). The story is of elderly chorus girls from the 1920s to the 1950s returning for a farewell party to the theatre, soon to be demolished, where they used to perform and where the ghosts of their young selves bring to life their memories. Everything about this production, directed by Dominic Cooke, was superb: the set was spectacular, the dancing and singing a joy – and I am looking forward to seeing an NT Live Encore of it later this month.
The production was also the focus of this year’s NT Revealed backstage event for Supporting Cast members, to which I went with Pavan Dhaliwal. The extraordinary detail of the preparation and execution of the production was what came out most to me – the meticulous sourcing of props to fit the many periods, for example. The choreographer knew exactly how dancers stood on stage in each decade and the ‘ghosts’ from each period acted accordingly; and the 1970s older characters did a simplified half-remembered version of their tap routine. The music director told us of the problems of communication between him conducting and what was going on on the stage, invisible and inaudible for the most part from his position way backstage, solved by speakers behind his head and a camera showing him to the actors on five big screens in the auditorium. The designer talked about how the stage design emerged over nearly 18 months, based partly on deep research into theatres of the period, especially when they were in ruins like the theatre in the production, and about the meticulous modelling that saved much trouble later. We had short sessions on wigs (all made in-house); costume (including the hugely elaborate headdresses for the showgirls with a total of 60,000 ‘crystals’), and on other aspects of this ambitious production which, I learned from a question when all the specialists did a closing Q&A session on stage, needed over 40 people at work behind the scenes during the performance.
There were many other good visits to the theatre during the year – All the Angels about the origins of Handel’s Messiah by candlelight in the Sam Wanamaker theatre; Ruth Wilson in Hedda Gabler at the NT directed by Ivo van Hove; the RSC’s Much Ado About Nothing; the underwhelming revival of Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead; Yael Farber’s Salome at the NT which I saw twice, the first time at the start of its run when I agreed wholeheartedly with its one-star reviews, the second almost at the end when it had been transformed into something rather memorable; the NT’s exuberant Barbershop Chronicles; The Book of Mormon at the Prince of Wales Theatre – hilarious, bawdy, perceptive and huge fun for an excursion by most of the board members of Humanists UK, and so on, but I have no space for them here, or for cinema relays of The Tempest from the RSC or of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette from the Metropolitan Opera, or for my three films this year (the grossly overrated Dunkirk, queasy but hilarious and horrifying Death of Stalin and Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), seen courtesy of Miranda at a London Film Festival premiere with Dustin Hoffman on the red carpet.
Briefly, exhibitions: I enjoyed the National Gallery’s Beyond Caravaggio and also its small exhibition of Australian Impressionists – principally Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts, whose work I had admired when in Melbourne; Paul Nash at Tate Britain; the Royal Academy’s Russian revolutionary art, as interesting as history as for the art – the dreadful thing about Stalin was that he was not a philistine but genuinely interested in the arts and convinced of their social importance – hence his obsessive and cruel control of them, with the result that many of the featured artists ended up dead or in the gulag. Later the Royal Academy had America after the Fall – i.e., in the 1930s – which included the iconic painting American Gothic – splendid! At the British Museum’s Hokusai exhibition I loved some of the landscapes and everyday depictions but was less keen on the mythological beasts.
Very different was Leighton House’s Flaming June and most of the other paintings Frederick (Lord) Leighton submitted in his final year of life for the RA summer exhibition, together with the working drawings and materials that led to that final but soon disregarded masterpiece – it was lost to sight from the early 1930s until the early 1960s when it was discovered hidden behind a wall but did not find buyer even at £50! It was back home on loan from Puerto Rico. I returned to Leighton House with Lois to see their Alma Tadema exhibition, also most enjoyable – I had not realised how meticulously accurate he was in his romantic depictions of ancient Roman life.
The National Portrait Gallery had an exhibition of Howard Hodgkin’s “portraits” of friends: semi- or entirely abstract evocations of his recollections of encounters: I was not keen on the earlier work but liked many of the later ones. The Dulwich Picture Gallery had an interesting exhibition of paintings and fabrics by Vanessa Bell and later one that Lois and I visited of watercolours by John Singer Sargent – I liked very much the paintings of Venice and other scenes of harbours, boats and buildings with people, a silhouette of the Istanbul skyline and some of the more desolate landscapes but did not care so much for the pure landscapes of streams and foliage.
Lois, Lindsay, Jamila and I went up to Oxford for an exhibition of superb Raphael drawings at the Ashmolean. On the way back I drove through Little Missenden so that I could show them my old cottage at no 1 The Green and there was Cynthia Hopkins, my landlady from 1966-72, sitting in her doorway! It was nostalgic to have a short chat with her. And I went with Ken’s wife Diana to the Royal Academy to see Matisse in the Studio – interesting for his use of ‘props’ though nothing gave me a great buzz – and afterwards a small exhibition of very pleasant watercolours and engravings of birds and countryside scenes by Charles Tunnicliffe (some for the newly famous Ladybird books).
Different again was the V&A’s Pink Floyd exhibition – so absorbing with its displays of posters, photos, letters, guitars, amplifiers, cuttings, and screens showing interviews and archive footage, with sound automatically picked up on your headsets, that I ended up having to hurry through as closing time approached! The final room, with lasers flashing across the ceiling, had a projection on four walls of the band playing Comfortably Numb at what I think was the reunion Live 8 gig in Hyde Park.
Finally, though it was early in the year, Lois took me to the White Cube in Bermondsey Street (where we first went to a small exhibition of Samuel Palmer engravings and then Peter Layton’s glassworks) for an exhibition of works by Anselm Kiefer, of whom I have to admit I knew nothing. Lois had been there before and rightly wanted to revisit it. The exhibition mixed paintings and sculptures (many in large glass cases) with installations, the main one of which, called Walhalla, was a wide corridor lit dimly by a few bare bulbs like a battlefield hospital ward, with walls of lead sheet and twenty or so rusted iron bedsteads with bedclothes sculpted from crumpled lead sheets. At the end was a huge photograph printed on lead of a figure, maybe military, walking away from this dim building into a wet and anonymous landscape. Some of the beds had the names of patients on lead labels, names apparently from Nibelung mythology. There were three side rooms off to one side of the corridor, one of which, called Arsenal, was a stockroom with shelves and cupboards either side crammed with an extraordinary mixture of real and made objects, spilling out onto the floor you walked on – racks of cardboard portfolios, a pile of huge albums made of lead, old rusty machines, strips of lead with images stuck to them like bits of film, boxes of real dried seed heads and a safe, door open, with the remains of burnt books. The paintings in galleries on the other side of the central corridor were huge, with thick encrustations of paint and added materials – earth, lead, and so on. Many were images of an imagined Valhalla, sometimes glimpsed behind huge mountains; others showed more open landscapes, but all post-apocalyptic. It was all quite amazingly powerful and theatrical. One of the gallery attendants told us that most of the work had been sold – presumably to galleries – with the installations fetching over £2 million each.
Now to books, but with too little room to deal adequately with more than half of them. Tracy Borman’s Thomas Cromwell brings Cromwell to life and along with him the whole glamorous but treacherous court of Henry VIII. With immense scholarship she shows Cromwell to have been an extraordinarily talented man of unlimited ambition, driving his way from childhood as the son of a Putney blacksmith to maturity as the most powerful man in the land second only to the King. He is admired for his ability even by his opponents, notably the ambassador from the Holy Roman Emperor, Eustace Chapuys, whose extensive reports to his master often provide a day by day report on the manoeuvrings at court. And then he overreaches himself, pursuing Protestant religious reform when the King is backing away from it and is already alienated by Cromwell’s part in his third marriage, to the ‘Flanders mare’. His aristocratic rivals, notably the duke of Norfolk, whom Cromwell has humiliated too often, seize their chance and suddenly Cromwell finds himself under arrest, jailed in the Tower and grovelling, ineffectively, to the King. Within months of his execution the King is regretting his loss, but too late for one of the most talented public servants England has ever seen.
Jump 100 years and Jerry Brotton’s The Sale of the Late King’s Goods tells how Charles I accumulated his fabulous art collection through commissions to Van Dyck and Rubens and hard bargaining by agents in Venice and how it was dispersed after his execution in a huge public fire sale. When this failed to shift much (portraits of the deposed royals and of Catholic religious scenes were not top of the pops at the time!) paintings were used to pay off the King’s creditors. Charles II recovered much but a lot went also to foreign royal families so that you can now see more of Charles’s paintings in public galleries in Europe than in England where they are mainly behind locked doors in royal palaces.
Then two political biographies: Jeremy Thorpe by Michael Bloch is an immensely readable account of the life of the disgraced Liberal Party leader. He is shown as a hugely talented but flawed man: he came to notice as a remarkable mimic and used this ability throughout his career. He was ambitious from the start and saw himself as a future prime minister but was intellectually lazy, morally flawed and addicted to risk-taking, especially in his clandestine life as a promiscuous homosexual – and of course it was this that laid the foundations for his downfall when he met for a casual few minutes the insecure, parasitical Norman Josiffe, later Scott, who battened on to him, probably had a homosexual encounter but certainly exploited the appearance of it for a decade – during which Thorpe became more and more obsessed with the risk of exposure. Paradoxically, he brought disaster upon himself because though Scott never ceased telling his convoluted mix of lies and truth, implication and exaggeration to anyone he could get to listen, he was written off as a fantastist by press and constituents alike. Thorpe engaged a series of incompetents to deal with Scott, starting with his Liberal colleague Peter Bessell, who sent signed notes with the weekly remittances he paid Scott and ending with the amateur hitman Andrew Newton, who drove to his encounter in his own car and used a gun that jammed after he had notoriously shot the Great Dane, Rinka, so that Scott escaped. Thorpe was at one remove from these absurdities but fully engaged in diverting donations to the Liberal Party to be used to buy back Bessell’s notes and pay off the gunman. After his acquittal (along with his co-defendants) at the Old Bailey trial for conspiracy to murder (helped by the weakness of the prosecution case, with evidence all circumstantial and key witnesses standing to gain financially from a conviction, as well as by a degree of establishment solidarity) he soon showed signs of the Parkinson’s disease that afterwards rapidly set in, so that the last 25 years of his life were lived in obscurity and retirement.
Clement Attlee was a very different character, and John Bew’s Citizen Clem is a superb biography that brings out not just his skill at quietly managing his quarrelsome Cabinet in 1945-51 but the deep ethical socialist principles on which he always acted, focussed on the welfare of citizens and not on revolutionary political principles. Each chapter is headed by a quotation from some favourite book – novel, hymn or poem – that bears on his thoroughly humanist approach to politics. His judgement was (usually) excellent both of people (using for their talents people like Bevan and Cripps who were highly critical of him or Morrison who sought repeatedly to take his place as leader) and of situations, as for example when as deputy PM he refused to dissolve the wartime coalition for party advantage as the war turned in the Allies’ favour. Time and again people discounted him as lightweight only to come to admire him on closer acquaintance for his competence and judgement. His early life when he forsook the advantages of his birth and public school education for social work in the East End and then (unlike his pacifist brother Tom) fought and was twice seriously wounded in the First World War were formative but also conformed exactly to his consistent character in both life and politics.
Coming to the present, Sara Khan (already mentioned) wrote The Battle for British Islam to show how the contending wings of extreme Islam, the Salafis and the Islamists, came together after 9/11 to cooperate in seeking with some success to radicalise ordinary British Muslims and – shockingly – how they have been helped in this endeavour by the Left and by feminists on the principle of ‘my enemy’s enemy’ with the result that moderate Muslim organisations have been marginalised as betraying the true cause of Islam and women seeking liberation from traditional constraints have been condemned as collaborating in the imposition of ‘western liberalism’ on their proper culture. She strongly (but critically) defends the government’s Prevent strategy and exposes the way the Islamists and in particular their unwitting dupes on the Left have misrepresented and exaggerated any failure or mis-step.
And to the future? Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists – a book on kindred lines to The Spirit Level – starts with the strong evidence in favour of a universal basic wage and proceeds through various manifestations of the dysfunctionality of our present barely questioned economic system, such as the notion that a rising GDP is necessarily good, that unmeasured goods are unimportant, and that we should all work as long as we do.
As to the more remote past, Catherine Nixey’s The Darkening Age is a splendid denunciation of the deliberate campaign of destruction of classical culture and learning by the newly dominant Christian church in the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries – a campaign now largely forgotten, smothered by self-serving claims that we owe to monastic copyists the survival of what we have of classical literature – true, but this was the ten per cent that escaped their censorship and sermons and the sackings of libraries, private and public, by gangs of barely educated fanatical Christian hoodlums. Nor was it only literature that incited their ire: temples were vandalised and destroyed, statues of the Olympian gods smashed, defaced and carved with crosses on their foreheads. And people were persecuted and murdered if they did not conform: the scholar Hypatia, torn limb from limb, was far from alone. There were indeed Christian martyrs but far fewer in number and in much shorter periods of persecution than the afflicted followers of the traditional religions – ‘pagans’ and ‘devil-worshippers’ as they were called – at the hands of the church. Today Isis shows the same mentality when it blows up ancient Palmyra but has nothing on the early Christians when it comes to the volume of murder and destruction.
On a lighter note, I read two more of C P Snow’s ‘Strangers and Brothers’ sequence – The Affair (a penetrating examination of the way men – only men – in closed institutions work and compete together, and their ethical rationalisations of their motives and actions) and The Sleep of Reason (more acute observation of people interacting in institutions and of the strengths and weaknesses of family relationships). And I read three Anthony Trollopes: Cousin Henry and Kept in the Dark (both with plots dependent on characters dominated by a not altogether credible fault) and The Claverings, one of his best, with wonderful insight into human weakness and the trouble that can be created by a seemingly harmless omission not acknowledged in time.
Finally, Nick Hytner’s Balancing Acts is an entertaining, insightful and sometimes revelatory series of reminiscences about his time at the National Theatre. He is particularly good on Shakespeare – his analyses of Othello and Much Ado, for example, are fascinating. One feels that he ought to have written a much longer book, but as he says he did not keep a diary and has written this from recollection and conversations with others involved. Still, his all-too-brief descriptions of some of the plays one saw bring them to life and remind one of their pleasures.