Amid the chaos and shame of political failure that surrounds us let me concentrate on things more personal! This has been a year for me of travel (rather too much but events conspired!); for Lois – and indeed for Christina – of medical drama; and for Lindsay and Jamila of progress. Let me start with them. They decided that they needed a two-bedroom flat so that the second could serve as Lindsay’s studio and so they moved out of the Woodgrange Park flat (which Lois sold) and began renting a place in Wood Green, attractive and more convenient. (Lois and I helped with the move over three days – totally exhausting as the lift had broken down and we had to carry all their stuff down nine flights to load the car – my iPhone told me I’d climbed 8,376 steps and 60 floors!) Jamila meantime has moved to a better job, still administering random controlled trials but now at UCH; and (immense congratulations due!) Lindsay has got a publishing contract for his Vanni graphic novel, which should be out next autumn. He’s now planning new ventures.
Lois decided that she should make an altruistic donation of one of her kidneys. After all manner of tests she had the operation in the Royal Free Hospital on 2 July but something went wrong and she was in intensive care for nine days and back in hospital for another couple of days in the middle of the month. Thankfully she is now thoroughly recovered, but it was a worrying time. Happily the recipient of the kidney is apparently doing well. A bit later in the year – after I had seen her on my travels (below) – Christina had to have a major haemorrhoidectomy which also went wrong and she too had to have a second operation and was left in considerable pain, not yet entirely overcome. Her daughter Paige, a student nurse, has helped magnificently.
Lois and I spent a lot of time on the garden, which we are now looking after ourselves without any help. It was better than ever this year, though we have concluded that electronic fox scarers are a waste of time – the foxes play happily on the grass while five different scarers do their worst! We also had an excellent short trip to Liverpool in June, taking (of course!) the ferry ‘cross the Mersey’, visiting a terracotta warriors exhibition at the World Museum, the quarry graveyard below the Anglican cathedral (with 1870s memorials to long lists of dead children from several different orphan asylums), and the Roman Catholic ‘crown of thorns’ cathedral (jerry-built but later repaired) with its coloured glass and Lutyens crypt. We made trips to the walled city of Chester and to the amazing Port Sunlight. Earlier in the year we went to William Waldorf Astor’s magnificent headquarters office at 2 Temple Place, built with no expense spared in the 1890s, as witness its satinwood panelling, ebony columns, wonderful carving, and painted glass windows. It is open only for an annual exhibition for three months – this year’s was on the age of jazz in Britain. Another trip we made was to Margate to an imaginative exhibition Journeys with ‘The Waste Land’ of responses to the Eliot poem at the Turner Contemporary gallery on the seafront.
Lois made two short trips to Romania during the year to the excellent charity Health Aid Romania (HAR) for which she did some consultancy 10-15 years ago. It was set up to provide family-type homes for some of the numerous orphans with HIV who had been locked up and forgotten under Ceausescu. They are now mostly young men and women, but the UK charity that for 20 years supported them seems to have quite irrationally fallen out with them a few years ago and not only went back at the last minute on a promise to transfer to them one of the houses the children live in (from which it has now actually evicted them) but also made serious complaints about them to the authorities and their funders. At HAR’s request Lois visited them in February to investigate these complaints, for which she – and indeed the Romanian authorities and police – found no basis whatever; and in November she went again to work with the house parents and the young people who were feeling traumatised and betrayed by the woman who runs the small UK charity and who had previously been their benefactor. These visits were the tip of the iceberg of the investigatory work and correspondence with the Charity Commission that took up many hours of work for both of us.
My brother Geoff came with Lin from Crete (where the works on their house have finally been completed) to visit us in January, and in April announced that they were now grandparents: Kate and Michael now have a daughter, Ava Rose. Ken’s daughters Tavy (back for the present at Country Life) and Lucy (now with the National Cyber Security Centre) and Malcolm’s daughter Alice (still with Control Risks) joined Lindsay and Jamila, Lois, her friend Min and me for very pleasant evening at a Lebanese restaurant in South Kensington in June. Two other family items: an email correspondent out of the blue sought my help in tracing Geoff (my second cousin) and wife Shirley. I found they were no longer at the address or phone numbers I had but traced them by Googling the names of their daughters, eventually finding the right one among many. I also discovered that my great aunt Maud who died about 60 years ago and whom I had previously thought a spinster but from whom I inherited a bronze bust of Lord Leighton was in fact the widow of an architect Herbert Fuller-Clark, whose Wikipedia entry is full of errors that I must get round to correcting. The start of this discovery was a number of early-1900s engraved swimming and lifesaving medals of his that were in a box with my father’s Stock Exchange Brighton Walk medals!
There has been the usual glad round of encounters this year: the three annual gatherings of vaguely NCB-related friends chez Sheila & David in February (with visits to the Queen’s Gallery for Charles II: Art and Power and Tate Britain for Impressionists in London, followed by a river trip to Bankside and All’s Well at the Sam Wanamaker), Tony & Phyllis in July (taking in Hardwick Hall and Verdi’s Alzira at the Buxton Opera House) and Mike & Camilla in August (with a visit to Down House) were supplemented splendidly this year by a fourth in October when Sheila invited us all out to her place on the Gulf coast in Florida. Hurricane Michael was wreaking havoc further north but it had cleared the beaches of the dreaded ‘red tide’ and most of our nine days were hot (over 30o) and sunny – I swam twice. We went to the Ringling circus museum & art gallery; took a swamp buggy eco-tour to see alligators and anhingas; visited Fort Myers to see the summer houses of neighbours Thomas Edison and Henry Ford; and made a trip to the east coast to visit the Kennedy space centre, where we were staggered by the size of the Saturn rocket that would have taken the Apollo 18 mission to the moon if it had not been cancelled. Huge and awe-inspiring, it was laid out horizontally in an immense shed, not just far bigger than one would have expected but with complex circuitry and piping right at the rocket nozzles, and heaven knows what in between. The lunar module was a tiny item enclosed in the head of the rocket. We talked to a docent who had worked for 45 years at the centre as an electrician and who had been involved in the work planning the emergency recovery of Apollo 13.
I have continued playing bridge rather more than once a month, and we spent our pooled winnings/penalties at 1p a point once more at Rules in Maiden Lane – the restaurant that first opened in the 18th century. My friend Henry visited me in January and again briefly in December: he is working on his second book of extraordinarily rigorous but abstruse philosophy. Our group of friends from the former Coal Board headquarters had our customary lunch in November and Lesley, the youngest of us, celebrated her retirement with a party in September. The ‘Wrinklies’ have continued their quarterly get togethers in each other’s houses and I’ve been to some of their monthly lunches at local pubs or cafés. And friends have visited, sometimes for al fresco meals in the garden, as when Andrew and Mark, Pavan and Lindsay and Jamila came to lunch in June. Michael (Lois’s brother) and Kath and their son Dave visited for three weeks in September, though they went off to Paris and elsewhere (and Dave and Michael to the Goodwood Revival festival) for some of the time. We took in some theatre and a trip to the Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill museum.
Which must bring me to my own travels. I had two weeks in Greece in May, three weeks in Singapore, Australia and New Zealand in July/August, nine days in Florida in October as mentioned above, and three weeks in Uganda in October/November. The first week in Greece was at Metochi, a formerly monastic retreat on Lesbos now owned by a Norwegian university. This was by invitation from an American sociologist working in Norway to join a group of sociologists and computer modellers who were intent on modelling the way that a society becomes more secular. I was one of four front-line humanists and secularists whose role was to ensure that the modelling reflected reality as well as academic studies. I went there highly sceptical of the enterprise but came away much less so, and the outline models devised during our stay are now being worked on for publication next year. The week involved work but also some time off – and meals anyway were eaten at tables under the shade of trees with views across a rugged valley.
That week over, I met Lois in Athens and we drove down to the Mani peninsula to stay at holiday studios run by Jane, the daughter of Stoke Newington friends, and her husband Stavros. His family collaborate in running a taverna, cultivating olives and keeping goats. We explored the Mani, going south down the rugged coast with little fishing villages at the end of narrow inlets as far as Porto Kagio on the isthmus at the end of the peninsula and the abandoned village of Vathia and also north to Mystras, the mediaeval city and fortress on a steep hillside near Sparta.
My trip to the antipodes originated from the annual general assembly of the International Humanists being held in Auckland. I took advantage of this to visit family and friends in Australia and to stay with my brother in New Zealand. En route I stopped off for a couple of days in Singapore (leaving the airport it was like walking into a wall of humid heat) to stay with friends Sami and Geetha who generously entertained me, having briefly been lodgers here thirty years ago! Sami took me to the exotic botanic gardens, to the fascinating Indian cultural centre in the old Indian residential area, and to the marina surrounded by amazing modern architecture.
In Melbourne I had a day out with Christina and Stephen and family (bar Kyle, but he was able to join us in the evening with his girlfriend Rhianna) at Gumbuya World, a rather good zoo-come-amusement park with dingos and koalas, kangaroos and wallabies, Tasmanian devils and a great number of birds, including an emu that fixed you with a beady eye, its head reaching just above the fence. I visited Lois’s sister Christine, just settling into her new house, where I met her son Dave with his children Simon and Sophe. Next day I had dinner out with his sister Cath and her husband Mark and children Jack and Anna. And I visited Tommy and Edith, the protagonists of Lindsay’s film The One That Got Away, who took me out to a very fine Chinese restaurant. I also packed in visits to the excellent National Gallery of Victoria (I love the paintings of Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton) and the Melbourne Museum, with its exemplary gallery of local history.
I went on to New Zealand and stayed with Malcolm and Regan in their spacious Auckland house. We went to a strange sculpture park, to the Pah historic homestead (where we met Regan’s sister Jan), and to the Auckland museum, and met some local politician friends of Malcolm’s. After the IHEU weekend (a good conference complete with a Maori powhiri greeting) we went to their beach house on the Coromandel peninsula – actually the house, built to Malcolm’s own excellent design, is back from and above the beach so that it has splendid views of the rugged coastline. This was a relaxing few days, walking and visiting friends, with a trip to Coromandel town and the extraordinary Driving Creek narrow gauge railway, built by a potter originally to bring clay down the hillside to his studio, but the railway bug bit him and before he died he had created a zig-zag route through the kauri forest that rises 100 metres and crosses numerous bridges, goes through several tunnels, and involves several reverses of direction. We finished with a couple of days back in Auckland.
Finally, and hard on the heels of the trip to Florida, I joined Lois for three weeks in Uganda where she had already been for a week. This was my first visit to any part of sub-Saharan Africa, but she has been going there for 25 years, originally to know better where her Ugandan clients in Newham social services who were dying of AIDS came from. She did training sessions on AIDS, moved on to training in basic hygiene and other skills, to micro-savings schemes and starting small businesses. A few years ago we created the Education and Health Trust Uganda (EHTU) as a frame for her work and for supporting by payment of fees the primary, secondary and tertiary education of a few people who could not otherwise afford it. The trip was for me to understand her work better and meet some of the people she has got to know very well, and I took advantage of it to visit two of the very successful Ugandan humanist schools, started by local benefactors but supported by grants from the UK, other humanist organisations and a humanist-run vocational college.
Our trip (driven in his eight-seater by David Opkwoga, who is EHTU’s agent in Uganda and regarded by Lois as her Ugandan son) took us from Entebbe (and monkeys in the botanic gardens) to Kampala, where we stayed a few days and met members of Hope for Women, a very successful micro-savings group Lois helped set up some years ago. The women all live in Naguro Godown, a slum on the steep side of a hill, but they have managed to save extraordinary sums from their meagre incomes which they mainly intend to use to relocate when the slum is bulldozed (with no compensation for tenants) in the next few years. One of their leaders, who is better off and runs a small tailoring business, is devoting her savings to building a vocational college near her family home at Oyam, which we visited later to see the construction site of the college and for Lois to do a day’s refresher training for a group she helped create a couple of years ago.
After Kampala we headed east and north to Kamuli (where we visited Mustard Seed humanist school), north to Serere and the hospital run by Denis (the doctor whose medical training Lois paid for); his wife Catherine has just graduated with a medical imaging degree with support from EHTU. Denis plans to open his own clinic in his home village nearby; and we visited a large clinic/hospital similarly owned, run and paid for by a doctor in private practice in Kampala in his own village some miles further on. This devotion to one’s own home territory is common in Uganda and goes with the tribalism that governs social relations. We went then to Oyam (above) and then on to Masindi where we stayed at a resort hotel that was considerably more comfortable than most of our lodgings. From there we made a day trip into the Murchison Falls national park where we saw baboons, giraffes, elephants, buffalos, hyenas. warthogs, many deer and antelopes, and so on. However, we also saw (and were delayed by) massive road construction projects run by the Chinese that are preparing the way for exploitation of the oil under the park. If this goes ahead it will soon be unrecognisable, and the rangers are already moving giraffes to another location to save them.
We returned to Kampala, from which I made two day trips, one to the Isaac Newton humanist school (where I was asked to speak to a rapidly convened meeting of the school humanist society and was impressed by the level of their questions) and to the Pearl vocational training college run by another Ugandan humanist organisation, HALEA – both again founded and supported by local people who had at least for a while moved away. We ended the trip with a few restful days at Fish Eagle Cottage in the grounds of a British ex-pat (who had just obtained a Ugandan passport) on a peninsula opposite Entebbe across an arm of Lake Victoria.
Overall impressions: Uganda is an oppressive elective dictatorship, with an elite (mainly of army officers) having immense wealth and owning (along with the Chinese) the majority of the modern developments. The bureaucracy is unbelievable: when we wanted to buy a simcard we had to complete a form, have our passports and visas photographed and photocopied, and our thumbprints scanned! It is corrupt through and through (why otherwise would they be building a four-lane highway to nowhere onto the peninsula where Fish Eagle Cottage stands?) but some of the petty corruption is induced by the intermittent failure to pay doctors, teachers and other public servants their wages. There is a devotion to education, with poor people making school fees their highest priority; and there is an energetic and flourishing commitment to tiny enterprises, housed in shacks along the main roads, making wooden bedsteads and iron gates, selling simcards or fruit and vegetables, but no obvious mid-size companies.
More impressions: boda-boda motorbike taxis with passengers of all ages clinging to the driver and weaving in and out with no apparent regard for safety; minibus taxis painted with unfathomable slogans (“Respect a Fool 2 Avoid Noise”?) diving into every gap inside or outside the traffic stream – more than once there were vehicles travelling against us on both sides of ours. Outside the towns, Ankole cattle with horns so long they can scarcely support them. Children, goats and hens everywhere in villages. Women with loads on their heads walking between villages. Subsistence farming and lack of irrigation even where water was available nearby. Traditional round mudbrick huts with thatched roofs. Termite mounds everywhere. Basic mobile phones in constant use. Papyrus in the swampy places, harvested and carried in bundles across the back of bikes, woven to make sleeping mats. Large US Aid posters about family planning but probably beyond the understanding of the average girl they are aimed at. Pylons under construction for exporting power to Rwanda. Road authority boundary markers all along the roads. Potholes in intensive patches on otherwise good roads. Some marram (beaten earth) roads quite fast; others requiring careful lowering of each wheel into successive potholes. Little shop buildings with sub-art deco pediments.
Frequent police checkpoints on main roads – wooden boards in middle of road saying “Stop: police check” but usually without police present; when they were, spiked strips laid across half the road – but they seem interested only in lorries. Charcoal for sale in huge sacks. Produce for sale along the roadside. In town, you get mobbed by young people with fruit, vegetables, skewers of meat the moment you stop. Meat at meals invariably tough to the point of indigestibility. Simcard and paint adverts painted everywhere on shop fascias and on hoardings beside the road. Occasional good looking houses with neatly painted walls, decorative low privet hedges, garden walls, iron gates.
However, though travel took up many weeks, I was also still much engaged in humanist activities. This year in fact saw me leaving the board of the Rationalist Association after 39 years, forced out by a change some years ago in the Articles to bring in term limits. I see the point of such limits but when the board is weak and no member has been around for more than a few years they are questionable. As it happened only one board member continued after this year’s AGM. The Association’s only activity is publishing the quarterly New Humanist magazine, excellent on a wide range of literary and cultural topics but in my view drifting too far from its roots in the humanist movement. Too bad!
My principal commitment is of course to Humanists UK. Our main success this year was in winning legal recognition of humanist marriages in Northern Ireland, which came when the Court of Appeal agreed that the human rights case for equal treatment of the non-religious belief of Humanism with that of every religion you care to name was unanswerable. We now need to win the same case – by litigation or lobbying – in England and Wales (in Scotland humanist marriages now outnumber Church of Scotland ones). Our All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group produced an excellent report on the topic this year – see www.humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/APPHG-report-on-humanist-marriage.pdf.
Less successful was our intervention in the litigation on assisted dying, where the Supreme Court has just decided not to hear an appeal from Noel Conway, but we are hopeful that our participation in the growing movement for decriminalisation of abortion (leaving it to medical regulation) will succeed: I have been involved in drafting some versions of the necessary legislation. In religious education we continue to win support for equal treatment of Humanism alongside the religions, with the report of the Commission on Religious Education only the latest to state the case, though the DfE remains deaf to argument. In that connection I gave four 3-hour lectures on Humanism to PGCE trainee RE teachers during the year. We also (by threatening litigation) won round the Welsh education department to issue guidance that humanists had to be treated equally with religious representatives when making appointments to local Standing Advisory Councils on RE – but the English DfE still refuses to see sense. We continue to argue against religious schools (almost totally paid for by public funds) but make less progress despite majority public support.
I am the board member with responsibility for our new project of an approachable academic history of Humanists UK – we started as the Union of Ethical Societies in 1896. We have commissioned two university professors and are employing a research assistant who is starting with ‘oral history’ interviews of our oldest members. Meantime my own paper on freedom from religion was published in the Routledge volume Religious Freedom and the Law, a snip at £92 from any good bookseller! (See http://www.thinkingabouthumanism.org/religion/a-right-to-freedom-from-religion/.)
Humanists UK continues to organise many public lectures – this year’s speakers included Stephen Pinker and also Henry Marsh, the retired brain surgeon: amusing, informative, humane and remarkably open – and we get audiences of many hundreds and sometimes over a thousand. We had our annual convention in Newcastle-upon-Tyne with more excellent speakers and a large attendance. We also have other smaller events for our patrons and major donors when ex-president Jim Al Khalili as president of our Blackham Society has conversations with selected guests.
Otherwise I have kept myself occupied by going (among other things) to the annual Cardiff Law & Religion Scholars Network conference, a one-day conference on humanist history in Brussels, a conference on charity law organised in London by Liverpool University, a seminar at UCL, a conference on marriage law at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies and two conferences of the Voice of the Listener and Viewer pressure group in support of public service broadcasting.
Now to the theatre! This year I find I went to the National Theatre seventeen times and to other venues eleven times plus five opera performances. The latter included a hilarious Iolanthe with its absurd plot and well known lyrics (the dreadful sleepless night, the Lords doing nothing in particular and doing it very well, and so on) and a well sung but appallingly designed La Traviata, both at the ENO. Friend Emma Dogliani sang the title role gloriously in a concert performance of Luisa Miller, and Martin and I had stalls seats at the ROH for a concert performance of a long forgotten and never before performed opera by Donizetti – L’Ange de Nisida: magnificent singing, great music, inevitably ludicrous plot!
When Nick Hytner left the National Theatre he founded the new Bridge Theatre near Tower Bridge. I went there twice – for Alan Bennett’s disappointing Alleluja! but earlier for a superb modern-dress performance of Julius Caesar. I had a promenade ticket and was right in the centre of the action as ushers vigorously pushed us out of the way as props were wheeled on, sections of the floor rose to provide stages, and actors pushed through the crowd. It was very effective: it started with a noisy rock band supporting Caesar, and the ushers also acted as members of the mob, fickle in their support for whoever had the upper hand, waving Caesar! banners and wearing Caesar baseball hats or else scattering Freedom, Liberty! leaflets – and we in the genuine audience obviously joined in! David Morrisey as Antony did the Friends, Romans speech very effectively, gradually turning the crowd against Brutus and the conspirators. Ben Wishaw was an academic, studious and obstinate Brutus, unwilling to listen to reason about the danger Antony would pose. David Calder was Caesar, self-confident and complacent. Some of the conspirators were played by women, notably Michelle Fairley, powerful as Cassia. I’m sure the later parts of the play were severely cut: they usually drag but this performance never lost its momentum and the battle at Philippi was dramatically put together with barbed wire and barricades.
Another fine production was a revival at Wyndhams of Long Day’s Journey into Night with Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville, both magnificent. The RSC brought their excellent Hamlet with a largely black cast and an African theme (loud drums, vibrant colour and designs) to the Hackney Empire. The RSC also came to the Gielgud with their fast moving and cleverly staged two-part adaptation of Robert Harris’s trilogy about Cicero – Imperium. At the Harold Pinter Theatre his first full-length play The Birthday Party was vintage Pinter: inconsequential conversation, vulnerability and menace lightened by humour; the excellent cast was led by Toby Jones, Zoe Wanamaker and Stephen Mangan. And at the Almeida The Writer was a provocative and imaginatively staged new play by Ella Hickson about relations between men and women which played with constantly shifting perceptions (are the actors playing people or playing actors playing people or what?).
There were disappointments too: the Almeida’s revival of Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal was not to be compared with the 1993 production with Fiona Shaw at the National, and the candle-lit Sam Wanamaker failed badly with a muddled All’s Well that Ends Well. At the National too there were surprising failures: David Hare’s I’m Not Running had shouty acting, wooden characters, an unfocussed plot, and was far too long; and Peter Brook’s The Prisoner was extremely thin, with gem-like moments adding up to nothing. Their updated version of [Miss] Julie started with almost ten minutes (out of a total of 75) of a wild party without dialogue but with deafening music, and the set itself badly blocked the audience’s view from the front stalls. Nor was their new production (admittedly seen at the first preview) of Absolute Hell anything like as good as the 1995 production with Judi Dench – it was sprawling, over-long, noisy, confusing and played in an exaggerated, non-naturalistic mode that I found off-putting.
But the National came up trumps with many other productions. Network was adapted from the early 1980s film, extraordinarily prophetic of the state of the media today – Fox and Breitbart and fake news and the commodification of news for profit. It worked well and had an extraordinary huge set – basically a tv news studio (steadicam cameras, make-up artists, studio managers in glass control boxes, endless screens) but there was a restaurant on the right with a kitchen (servery) behind it where real members of the audience who could afford it were served a meal during the performance! The action occasionally moved into the restaurant and on one occasion outside, with tv cameras following two characters as they walked on the Embankment, into the theatre and onto the set!
The Great Wave was a powerful fictional exploration of the real-life scandal of North Korea’s kidnapping of Japanese people who were forced to teach Japanese language and ways to prospective North Korean spies. . It features a Japanese mother seeking the truth and her kidnapped daughter whose promise of release is of course broken. It was dramatically presented with a versatile set of screens and projections on a moving and revolving platform. The Asian cast were compelling, and the ending properly enigmatic. Rufus Norris’s Macbeth was given poor reviews but, trimmed by 30 minutes by the time we saw it, was actually very good with excellent leads in Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff. Brian Friel’s Translations cast light on cultural clashes as the 19th century British tried to map rural Ireland, with a strong cast and a splendid set. At the end Miranda and I accidentally gatecrashed a reception in the Ashcroft Room where three of the cast, including Ciaran Hinds, answered questions about the highly collaborative process they had with director Ian Rickson and the new insights they continued to have into their characters as the run continued. An Octoroon was a weird play loosely based on a supposed production of a 19th century melodrama by Dion Boucicault about slaves in the Deep South, one an octoroon (one-eighth black) girl who had not realised she was a slave: I was doubtful about it but won over by its energy, versatility and sheer nonsense (which included lifting the floor of the Dorfman to create a stage island in a pool of water on which they poured petrol and set light to it!)
No doubts about The Lehman Trilogy with Simon Russell-Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles – three superb actors evoking in mainly third person narrative the family saga of the Lehmans from the mid-19th century. Moving round a revolving glass box set of the 2008 offices they were dressed throughout in frock coats and played all the parts, from bawling babies to business partners and rivals – often evoking a character in just a split second. Godley played within two minutes a succession of women being weighed up by Philip Lehman as prospective brides and later as Bobbie Lehman was an aged man defying the calendar by dancing the twist as he became more and more bent and gradually crumpled into a twitching and then still corpse. The whole story hung together with drive and clear narrative of vigorous enterprise leading to corporate hubris and nemesis. Quite different was a most joyous evening in the Olivier when the National collaborated with an outfit called Public Acts to produce a community theatre version of Pericles. There was a cast of over two hundred and dancers, a kazoo band, a Bulgarian choir, a gospel choir, three African drummers, a ska band, and a group of girl gymnasts who built human towers three levels high and somersaulted gracefully off a platform of hands. There were five or six professional actors but everyone else was drawn from London community groups. They ranged in age from six to eighty-six, including several in wheelchairs, others on crutches, and several plainly learning-impaired. But the performances were uninhibited and unselfconscious – professional except for the evident enjoyment they were all having. The music and dancing were wonderful – one six-year-old boy pushed his way into a performance to do a splendid break-dance! At the end (it was played without an interval and lasted only 105 minutes) the audience rose instantly to its feet.
No room to do more than mention the creepy John by Annie Baker, the American playwright whose The Flick (set in a cinema) was so good two years ago; Home, I’m Darling! by Laura Wade about the perils of trying to live today as if in the 1950s; Ionescu’s Exit the King in a version by Patrick Marber – an absurdist fantasy about a 400-year-old king of a collapsing kingdom consisting of two queens, a doctor, a nurse/dogsbody and a guard and nothing more, bar a trumpeter, reluctantly confronting death with denial, rage, self-pity and so on until, disintegrating, he reaches acceptance and dies; or Hadestown, an overlong American musical based on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth that had strengths but also weaknesses.
The year ended on a high note, however, with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo, both superb, in a very fine production by Simon Godwin of Antony and Cleopatra. The design made good use of the revolve to produce a clear contrast between the Egypt and Rome; the setting was timeless/modern, which worked. Tim McMullan (Enobarbus) and Nicholas Le Prevost (Lepidus) were backed by a cast of actors unknown to me, the Egyptians mainly BAME. The end of the play often drags but this production sustained interest to the last and it was in my recollection even better than the Judi Dench/Anthony Hopkins production by Peter Hall back in 1987.
Little room for exhibitions: the Cézanne portraits at the NPG (his early works done solely with a palette knife were extraordinary); Charles II: Art and Power at the Queen’s Gallery included Holbein ink portraits and many full length portraits of court personalities – including one of the king’s ‘necessary woman’ at the age of 96! The Royal Academy’s Charles I had wonderful Van Dycks and Titians and Rubens. Tate Britain’s Impressionists in London in fact covered all the painters and sculptors who left Paris for London at the time of the Franco-Prussian war and the Paris commune. Tate Modern’s exhibition of Russian propaganda posters brought out the ruthless way so many of the artists were executed for non-crimes; and later its Modigliani exhibition had some wonderful portraits and included a virtual reality reconstruction of his final Paris studio (you sit with a headset by his easel and look all round you as the smoke rises from his pipe and the breeze blows the curtains at the open windows looking on to Paris rooftops). Again at Tate Modern, I found Picasso 1932 interesting without it rousing my enthusiasm.
Lois and I went with Lindsay and Jamila to the Ashmolean at Oxford for an excellent exhibition of American painting between the wars – American Cool – with O’Keeffe and Hopper and others previously unknown to me but very worthwhile: Arthur Dove, George Ault and Charles Sheeler. (On the way home we spent a happy hour at Bekonscot!) Charmed Lives in Greece at the BM was about the three close friends Patrick Leigh Fermor and two painters, John Craxton and Niko Ghika, and the houses they lived and visited each other in on Poros, in the Mani, on Corfu and in Chania in Crete. It was a 1950s/60s time capsule of unhurried friendship, wide-ranging conversation, and affluent socialising. Also at the BM Rodin and the Parthenon sculptures – the latter were much preferable but Rodin’s use and imitation of them was interesting – was enlivened by an audible but sotto voce commentary by a very erudite older woman to a younger companion who was going round at the same time as me! Ian Hislop’s I Object! – again at the BM – featured objects illustrating protest and subversion across the world and across time: a strange miscellany from satirical cartoons to slogans stamped on coins, from hidden messages in engravings to ancient Egyptian take-offs of tomb paintings. Lastly, during a flying visit by my old Oxford friend Henry this week we saw the searing drawings of Klimt and Schiele at the Royal Academy and impressionists from the Courtauld collections at the National Gallery – many well known, some new to me, all marvellous.
How about some books? I’ve made notes on 25 this year so I shall have to be selective! The Black Door by Richard Aldrich & Rory Cormack is a history of prime ministerial dealings with the secret services, casting fascinating sidelights on PMs from Asquith to Cameron – some blundering, some reluctant to engage and others (over-) enthusiastic. Ken Clarke’s political autobiography Kind of Blue recounts his career without ever revealing any secrets, all the time exuding a feeling of self-satisfaction that is justified by his sound judgement and right analysis of politics. Shirley Williams’ Climbing the Bookshelves is the fascinating autobiography of someone I have always found admirably sensible and liberal. She has a clear recollection of people and events from her childhood in Chelsea, when she enjoyed considerable freedom. When war came she was evacuated with her brother to the USA to otherwise unknown admirers of her mother and was impressed by its classlessness. She observed first-hand the overnight change of attitude to the war after Pearl Harbour. As the fortunes of war changed she followed her brother back to England but had to go via Portugal where, when a passage home was not soon available, she and a friend escaped from their protective custody and went to Lisbon to present themselves to a newspaper editor whose address her mother had provided. Still only 12, she was struck by the formality and lack of freedom in England after her American experiences. Margaret Hodge’s Called to Account reports on her five years as chair of the Public Accounts Committee: an absorbing read, it tells how she took a committee that had previously confined itself to routine checking of departmental accounts with the permanent secretary and instead began questioning not just the officials actually directly responsible but also their outside contractors and the consultants and the firms they return to with the next turn of the revolving door. The book is full of shocking details of scams by big business but also of badly drafted and inadequately monitored contracts with outsourcing companies.
Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and Bob Woodward’s Fear both take the lid off the appallingly dysfunctional Trump White House. Trump changes his mind within hours of agreeing a policy and announces it without telling anyone. Ivanka intrudes as ‘first daughter’ into meetings she has no right to be in – but so does everyone else in this chaotic establishment. Trump refused to finance a (legally required) transition team and when someone else did so objected furiously that the money should have gone to his campaign. When he won, he ignored the team’s detailed preparations, sacked them all and sent completely unqualified ideological hangers-on to take on highly technical and responsible roles at the top of the civil service. John Carreyrou, a Wall Street Journal investigative journalist, uncovered and tells in Bad Blood the utterly incredible story of Theranos, a silicon valley start-up in the mid-Noughties that gained a market value of $9 billion on the back of almost totally unjustified claims that it had developed a technology – a black box – to conduct multiple complex tests on a single drop of blood, disrupting all the existing laboratories and procedures. The founder of the company was a charismatic young woman, Elizabeth Holmes, still a teenager when she started it as a college drop-out but able over a few years to recruit a board of directors (none of them medically or scientifically qualified) that included Henry Kissinger and George Schultz. They defended her vigorously even as critical articles began to appear in the press. The flaws in her technology were covered up by running tests covertly by traditional methods, the deception was covered up by restricting staff to their own narrow fields and by non-disclosure agreements with everyone who left backed by heavy threats of litigation – and was helped by a lingering trust that surely everything could not be as bad as it seemed. Holmes is now awaiting trial for fraud. Unputdownable!
Equally a must-read is The Unravelling by Emma Sky. She had worked for the British Council and others in the Middle East for ten or more years when she responded to a call for volunteers to help the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq in the wake of the 2003 invasion. She discovered that the CPA barely existed and, posted to Kirkuk, found herself making it up as she went along. Over three or four tours of duty she worked closely with the American army, liaising between them and the various civilian factions – Sunni, Shia, Kurdish, tribal and political – and educating the Americans in how to seek reconciliation between the groups. She was moved to Baghdad and was sought out by General Odierno to be his personal political advisor (POLAD), gaining not only his complete confidence but also that of most of the Iraqi groups, becoming close friends with many of them while recognising the mixed motives and untrustworthiness of some. She worked later with General Petraeus and found herself contributing to his daily briefings, his strategic thinking and meetings at the highest level up to and including President Obama. She saw the success of the Surge that resulted in broadly fair elections in 2010 that gave a narrow victory to the moderate Iraqiya party led by Ayad Allawi who wanted reconciliation and cooperation. But the Americans then threw it all away: Maliki, the incumbent and defeated prime minister, refused to accept the results; the new US ambassador Chris Hill refused to intervene; Obama ignored the strong advice of his military to back Iraqiya and eventually settled for continuity, going along with a rigged recount and confirming Maliki in office, so that the promising situation achieved at huge cost by the Surge unravelled into renewed violence and the arrival of Isis. Emma Sky, now an academic at Yale, comes across as a remarkably capable, extraordinarily brave and immensely likeable woman. You need to pinch yourself to realise that she, merely a volunteer from the UK, was playing a deeply significant and constructive part in the way the US conducted itself in Iraq, on the basis of character and abilities that made her deeply valued by successive army generals at the highest levels.
More briefly: Johan Hari in Chasing the Scream conclusively demonstrates the total failure of the ‘war on drugs’, its murky origins and dire effects. Henry Marsh (above) in Do No Harm reminisces about his career as a brain surgeon, telling with painful honesty of the dilemmas of when and when not to operate, of his mistakes, and of the frustrations of NHS bureaucracy. David Hare’s The Blue Touch Paper is his autobiography to 1979: he is searingly honest about his own failures but also revelatory about theatre in the Seventies. William Miller in Gloucester Crescent tells of growing up as the son of Jonathan Miller in Gloucester Crescent, surrounded by the families of other cultural figureheads who were in and out of each other’s houses – notably Alan Bennett and A J Ayer. The Secret Barrister tells anonymously from the inside of the collapse of the criminal legal system: the decimation of legal aid, based on the myth that lawyers were ripping off the public, which in fact increased costs as more and more defendants were reduced to defending themselves, the disaster of privatisation of the probation service, the systemic failure to disclose evidence to the defence, resulting often in provenly wrong guilty verdicts, the waywardness of amateur magistrates and the struggles of their clerks to keep up with ever-changing laws, the extensive closure of courts, meaning long-distance travel for witnesses and lawyers alike to courts that are unable to cope with their workload, so that cases are constantly deferred, sometimes for months, the failure of the Crown Prosecution Service to brief barristers until the last minute or at all, leaving them floundering and criminals acquitted – there is no end to the sorry story. Tim Whitmarsh’s Battling the Gods – Atheism in the Ancient World is a ground-breaking study of ancient religion – where the gods were demanding and jealous and never seen as moral examplars – and the evidence (extensive when looked for) that scepticism and outright disbelief were in fact widespread. Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone who Ever Lived explains in simple terms the way that human genetics works – and how it doesn’t, with some sharp exposés of commercial firms promising far too much from DNA analyses and of scientists overclaiming. But the true story is amazing enough, ranging from Richard III’s bones to Darwin and the brilliant but wrong Francis Galton and his racial stereotypes, now thoroughly debunked. Richard III himself is re-examined in an excellent book by David Horspool: Richard III – A Ruler and his Reputation based on original and largely contemporary sources (pleasingly quoted in their original spelling and vocabulary) – Richard comes across as a competent, pragmatic chancer whose villainy is proved by the arrest and execution of Rivers and a few days later of Hastings, making his responsibility for the deaths of the princes in the Tower impossible to doubt. Gillian Wagner’s Miss Palmer’s Diary tells the story of the author’s great grandmother, a young woman, Ellen Palmer, in the mid-19th century caught between the ambitions of her heartless family pushing her towards an advantageous social-climbing marriage and her own strong-willed and extraordinarily intelligent and articulate character that leads her even to the front line in the Crimean War and a happy marriage distressingly cut short by early death.
In Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England Roy and Lesley Adkins bring to life what life was really like at the turn of the nineteenth century in an always entertaining and often shocking kaleidoscope of insights into a sophisticated age that still had little protection from dirt, disease and deep frosts that left people dead at the roadside. I read it with What Matters in Jane Austen where John Mullen examines particular aspects of her narrative technique and literary innovations, and explains how people behaved in her time: for example, even slight illness could rapidly become fatal, affecting attitudes to the merest cough, while wives address their husbands as Mr So-and-so rather than by Christian names – and when rarely they do use their names it reveals something about their characters.
Lastly, a splendid book by Alan Rushbridger, Breaking News, in which he tells of his time as editor of The Guardian, delivering a penetrating analysis of the state of the press and journalism in the world of rampant social media raking in almost all the advertising revenue, not to speak of the readers. He shows how the paper explored different business models and rejected the idea of a paywall (as if they were selling a product or a service) on the principle that news should be freely available, instead developing – with some success so far – the model of a collaboration with their readers and ‘membership’ that engages their loyalty and money. This reader support was heavily enhanced by the Guardian’s exceptional record of investigative journalism – he tells of the problems of working with Julian Assange, the international collaboration to cover Edward Snowden’s revelations, and the Cambridge Analytica scandals. The Guardian has developed a 24-hour operation, controversially subordinating the print paper to the web version and opening offices in the USA and Australia where they now have substantial readerships. But he also examines the problem of defending the press against the social media giants when they question what the journalism is that he tries to defend, given that it includes, for example, the deplorable excesses of the Daily Mail under Paul Dacre and the indefensible intrusions of phone hacking. Highly recommended!