This has been a year of two halves, or parts, rather: the break came when on 9 September I got the result of a series of tests and scans that I had after I went to my GP in July about a small swelling under my chin. The verdict was that I had an aggressive T-cell lymphoma that was already fairly advanced and needed urgent chemotherapy. I was referred from the Homerton hospital to Barts where I had several further tests and quickly started on a course of six three-weekly chemotherapy sessions, of which I had two before treatment was interrupted by a bout of septicaemia that put me in hospital for the better part of a week with outpatient intravenous antibiotics daily for a week after that.
All this of course compromises my immune system and I have followed advice to avoid the risk of infection from crowds and public transport – which has meant stopping going to meetings and the theatre. So I’ve had lots of time at home to get on with overdue things like revising my will, organising a lasting power of attorney, advance direction as to unwanted treatment, an inventory of key possessions, recording for Lois how to access my bank accounts & websites, and other such things as if I had one foot in the grave and the other was about to step down. In fact, however, I feel nothing like on my last legs. The diagnosis should have been a shock to the system: it was unexpected but I found myself taking it rather much as an observer and thinking about it procedurally. The chemotherapy, although involving long hours at Barts (too many of them in the waiting room!), has so far had no overwhelming effects – my hair has almost all come out, I have a tingling in my finger tips and feet and (most noticeable) my energy levels go up and down but mainly down. However, I have been superbly looked after by Lois, have been visited by Lindsay often (he moved in while Lois was away in Australia) and lots of friends (limited to one or two visits a week), and have had lots of time for reading see below!). I’ve also had time to embark on the major task, long intended, of resurrecting many thousands of old photographs by scanning the slides and negatives and ordering the digitised versions by date and subject – fascinating and providing fun for family and friends when they call!
But year started without any of this bother. In mid-February I went to Australia, joining Lois (who had been there since mid-December) and had three weeks’ holiday with her, partly in Perth, staying with Kath and Michael’s son Dave and seeing family and friends but mainly on a trip to the south-west corner of WA. Perth is a very civilised place, wrapped round impressive rivers and wide green spaces, some manicured and some untamed bush enclosed in the city – King’s Park combines both. It has a bit of history (it was founded only in 1829), a good art gallery and some fine streets – but its local museum is an amateur effort in a single room far less ambitious than we saw in many small towns on our trip south. That trip took us down the coast to some places Lois knew in her childhood and then inland to Pemberton where we took a trip on a tram that runs on the tracks through the forests that were used by steam trains until 1971 to carry timber out of the karri forests: the last of these locomotives is gently rotting at the Pemberton station yard along with several old passenger coaches and many flatbed wagons that carried the huge logs.
The forests were marvellous: we drove for miles between immense trunks of various type of eucalyptus, many showing the scorch marks of past wild fires – indeed we found ourselves close to two such fires on our travels. In the Valley of the Giants we saw giant tingle trees saved from logging by a farsighted declaration in 1912 and took a tree-top walk 40 metres above the ground. The trees are huge but usually damaged: their crowns are vulnerable to high winds and fires leaping along at tree-top level and their trunks split at the bottom and often catch fire there, creating huge hollows big enough in the old days to drive in a car: now their shallow roots are protected by board walks even from the pressure of tourists’ feet.
The coast provided other wonders – a rock bridge with the waves pounding in under it, blowholes, the Elephant Rocks – rounded humped rocks that do indeed look like a herd of elephants, aboriginal fish traps in use for maybe 7,000 years until little over 100 years ago. There were fascinating local museums, like the one in Albany in the old gaol, many wineries and wildlife parks and lots of art and craft galleries, plus some good food. We returned to Perth for few days (and I added a couple of lovely small pieces to my collection of glass from the gallery in King’s Park) before I flew back: Lois stayed a few weeks longer.
I had another holiday not much later: a week in Cyprus with Stoke Newington friends. This took in several excellent and quite varied walks in the mountains of the northwest of the island (we were based at Lysos) and trips to Paphos for its archaeological sites with their superb mosaics – both the walks and the sites resplendent with abundant wild flowers. We shivered at the start of the week and got soaked on one walk but then the sun came out and all was well!
Finally as to foreign parts the European and International Humanists held their general assemblies jointly in Reykjavik at the end of May and so I had my first trip to Iceland. I added a couple of days before and after the conferences to do some sightseeing – the still opening rift between the north American and European tectonic plates, geysers and thermal springs, immense waterfalls (I scrambled round behind the huge one in the photo) and a lagoon, fed by hot springs, where we put on swimming things and joined 100 people or so in a beautifully warm pool where the water in places near the rocky side walls of the pool was intolerably hot. On the banks there were warnings that the springs reached 100oC!
Back home Lois and I spent much time on the garden, which has been looking very good, and made a number of trips – to Eltham Palace (with Lindsay and Jamila), and to Audley End, to Norwich, to Standen House and to Kew with a river trip back to Westminster. We have continued to run our little charity the Education and Health Trust Uganda for which I keep the accounts while she keeps close contact with friends and beneficiaries in Uganda, an increasingly authoritarian country where nothing goes to plan and (for example) the students we support find lecturers on strike, field trips disorganised and the army suppressing peaceful protests on campus. Lois and fellow-trustee Min plan to go out there in January to run a course on palliative care at one of the hospitals we visited last year.
There have been two notable developments on the family front. Christina and Stephen have uprooted themselves from Melbourne and moved (back, in her case) to England along with six children (Kyle has stayed behind with his girlfriend). We advised them of the disadvantages – not just the climate but the economic prospects, cost of housing, poor state of the NHS, and risks over schooling (Tiahna and Patrick were both in ‘gifted’ streams) but Stephen had a good job offer here and they arrived in October. Lois drove up with Lindsay to meet them in Manchester and left my much loved old Honda Accord with them, useless soon in London when the daily ULEZ charge comes in. So far all seems well. They will be unable to buy a house until Stephen has established an employment record here and so before they came Lois and Christina spent weeks scouring the web for houses to rent. Then Lois and I made a trip north to look at possible places – a trip much reorganised as houses came and went from the market – eventually we looked only at one house, in a village called Redmarshall near Stockton on Tees, which seemed ideal: happily when they arrived they agreed. Since they arrived Christina and Paige have come down to visit and Lois and I plan, provided they are all in good health, to visit them around Christmas. I’ve also had visits from each of Ken’s daughters, Tavy (sub-editing Country Life and riding horses) and Lucy (living on a narrow boat and working at the National Cybersecurity Centre). And earlier in the year we saw Malcolm’s daughter Alice several times before sadly she upped sticks and moved to Toronto!
The other notable development is that Lindsay’s book has finally been published, not only here but in India (by Penguin) and the USA (by Penn State University), and has got some really good reviews – see https://www.lindsay-pollock.com/reviews. This was a huge effort by him over many years – although Benjamin Dix gets equal billing, his part was the background experience in the UN during the Sri Lankan civil war, the research and story outline plus a lot of promotion: Linds did all the drawing and dialogue and shaped and reshaped the story as the project developed. He is now trying out other graphic art avenues, partly on commission (e.g., illustrations for a series of Norwegian books to be published here) and partly his own ideas. This is not a lucrative career and it seems likely that he and Jamila will move out of London when the lease on their flat expires in the spring, maybe to Sheffield where rents are about half those here.
What else? My friend Henry visited in February and as usual we fell into quasi-philosophical discussion the moment he arrived! We went to the splendid Assyrians exhibition at the BM where we got separated and as he had no mobile phone could not find each other! We met up again back home – a salutary reminder of our dependence on electronic devices! I was part of two of the three gatherings of my group of vaguely NCB-related friends (I had to drop out of the third owing to my illness) – first at Sheila’s in January (when we went to Hampton Court – marvellous paintings including a superlative Rembrandt of an old woman and a self-portrait by Artemisia Gentileschi – and Strawberry Hill House, the fascinating Museum of Brands in Notting Hill, and a double bill of Pinter’s one-act plays) and at Tony & Phyllis’s in June (when we started in York – an exhibition of Turner and Ruskin watercolours, the Minster, the Treasurer’s House – and later went to Chatsworth, confirming me in my opinion of it as overrated, overcrowded, dark and oppressive). I’ve continued to play bridge (including in Cyprus!), went on the first People’s Vote march (one placard read “Dear Dignitas – do you do countries?”), went to two local talks on the history of Hackney and Stoke Newington, a UCL Constitution Unit lunchtime meeting on Brexit and Parliament and a day conference of the VLV (Voice of the Listener and Viewer – to which everyone anxious for the future of public service broadcasting should belong).
My humanist work has of course continued, if not exactly unabated since my illness. We have embarked on a strategic review looking at where we want to get in the next few years – much pulling up of roots to examine them! In the Public Affairs and Policy field where I volunteer we have also had some successes: Greenwich Council backed down when threatened with legal action over their refusal to appoint a humanist to their SACRE (Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education), and more recently the Church of England crumpled in the face of a challenge to their imposition of evangelical worship in a non-faith school that one of their multi-academy trusts had taken over. Work has continued on the history of the organisation from its foundation in 1896, and as a consequence of my illness I decided to move all 38 archive boxes of my own records from the early 1960s onwards out to join the official Humanists UK archives at the Bishopsgate Institute (I already miss not having them to hand but the historians needed ready access to them that I could not guarantee here).
Towards the end of the year, after months of preparatory work, we have finally initiated a judicial review of the law in England (and Wales) that does not recognise humanist marriages as valid – unlike in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Ireland and some of the Channel Islands. Six couples are being backed by Humanists UK in a challenge to the Justice Department – which all the time has in its hands the power to recognise our marriages simply by introducing regulations such as those we have already had professionally drafted for them!
Our public meetings continued to attract large audiences – Richard Dawkins, chaired by our new president Alice Roberts, gave the Darwin Day lecture to a sell-out crowd of over 2,000. This year’s Voltaire lecture was a timely warning from Adam Rutherford on ‘The Return of Scientific Racism’; and in June we had another very successful annual convention at Leicester. Invitation-only events included meetings of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, a reception with Sarah Wollaston and a Parliamentary reception on the terrace of the House of Commons. Third-party meetings I went to included day conferences on legal issues over schools and religion at King’s College London; two days on Beyond Marriage: Philosophy, Politics and Law at Jesus, Cambridge; a one-day meeting on the media and religion and belief; and a fascinating three-day conference of the Ecclesiastical Law Society (no less!) at Cumberland Lodge in Windsor Great Park on Church and State in the 21st Century.
Let me turn to ‘the culture’! The National Gallery’s joint exhibition of Mantegna and Bellini was impressive – especially some of the portraits; and later I was more pleased than I had expected by the Sorolla, which Lois and I visited in June, especially by some marvellous paintings of scenes in brilliant light; his sombre portraits I was less keen on. Two other exhibitions worth a mention: Don McCullin’s photography at Tate Britain started with local scenes near here where he spent his youth and then showed deep humanity in his coverage of wars and conflicts over the decades. Also at Tate Britain the exhibition of Frank Bowling’s work was a revelation. New member of our bridge group Peter Wright plays trumpet in the London Mozart Players and I enjoyed a very fine Mozart concert at St John’s Smith Square back in January. A few days later I took Linds and Jamila to the ENO to see their revival of the late lamented Jonathan Miller’s La Bohème, which was very enjoyable – as was a live relay from Covent Garden of La Traviata that Miranda took me to as a birthday outing. Rossini’s Petite Messe Solonnelle was unknown to me but when Emma Dogliani took a leading role in a local performance I found it very attractive.
That brings me to theatre – a curtailed season but still with some good things. I think one of the best productions was Small Island (adapted from Andrea Levy’s novel) in the NT’s Olivier Theatre. It lasted about 3 hours and 20 minutes but it enthralled all the way and got an immediate standing ovation at the end. It told of West Indian and English families in the 1940s and 1950s – the aspirations of the former, their disillusion on reaching England but determination to win through, the mixed reactions of the English and so on. The set was superbly well designed – impressionistic, quickly adapting from scene to scene as some elements came down from above, others (including actors) came up from below and the stage revolved, with wonderful projections onto a wide diorama screen behind the set. It was altogether magic!
Totally different but powerful and thought-provoking was a joint Steppenwolf (Chicago) / NT production of a play, Downstate, about a group of ex-prisoners living in a hostel for men on the sex offenders register in Illinois where the restrictions on and local publicity about such people are pervasive. It had a screwed-up former child victim (Tim Hopper) visiting for supposedly therapeutic reasons his old abuser (Francis Guinan), wheelchair-bound since an attack on him in prison, achieving nothing as the latter was avuncular, patronising and totally unable to comprehend the effects of his trivial offence. It had a wonderful woman cop (Cecilia Noble) visiting and supervising, tough but somewhat sympathetic; a fast-talking know-all (K Todd Freeman) and a pathetic father caught trying to contact his victim daughter via (forbidden) Facebook in the local library (Eddie Torres). Quite an evening!
I went with Pavan to the Barbican to see Grief, a play by Enda Walsh based on a recent novel about the devastation of losing a wife: it was almost a virtuoso monologue by Cillian Murphy. His character was obsessed by and became Crow, from the Ted Hughes poems, some of which I re-read in preparation. The staging was spectacular but overall it amounted to an assault on the senses while not engaging my sympathy.
Another visiting production at the NT came from Sydney: The Secret River, which explored the encounter of an ex-convict pioneer farming family with the local Australian aboriginal people (played by aborigines) – a powerful story, well told, with misunderstandings, threatening situations and friendly encounters alternating until the appalling denouement. The aboriginal actress who should have been playing the narrator had died suddenly at the end of their Edinburgh run and was replaced (when the devastated cast decided they had to continue their tour) by another aboriginal actress who had to read a lot of her lines – what I suspect would have been a very powerful role was neutralised but it was still an intense production.
More briefly, The Convert by Zimbabwean writer Danai Gurira was set in Zimbabwe in Victorian times as nationalist revolt was just starting and focussed on a Roman Catholic priest and his convert niece entangled in culture clashes that culminate in violence. The Tell-Tale Heart was a schlock horror play by Anthony Neilson inspired by an Edgar Allan Poe story: a playwright retreats to a seaside lodging to overcome writer’s block and her naive young landlady disappears and is later found drowned: most of the action is the fevered imaginings of the writer about her relationship of sexual fascination but repulsion with the young landlady – lashings of grand guignol! Pinter’s Betrayal at the Harold Pinter Theatre was given a striking minimalist production directed by Jamie Lloyd in which actors shared the stage only with two chairs and briefly a small table, so that your attention focussed on the acting. Tom Hiddleston led as the betrayed husband Robert, with Charlie Cox as his friend Jerry and Zawe Ashton as the wife/lover – all of them powerful. Earlier in the year, as mentioned above, we went to see a double bill of Pinter’s one-act plays, Party Time and Celebration, both full of Pinter’s close observation of patterns of speech, providing continual laughs undermined by a lurking feeling of menace.
Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls was a strange feminist and anti-Thatcherite play from the very early 1980s with in the first scene a most odd dinner party of historic and mythological women with the key modern character as host. Jellyfish, a play about a Downs Syndrome young woman (played by a Downs Syndrome young woman) and her mother’s reaction when she formed a romantic relationship with a young man and got pregnant. It was slow to start but it became dramatic and moving. Hansard was a short play by a new writer, Simon Woods, with Lindsay Duncan and Alex Jennings. Set in 1988 at the time of the ‘section 28’ enactment, he plays a Tory MP and she his wife. They are not on easy speaking terms, but their dialogue is full of sparkling repartee. The core of the play is the revelations that come out about their dead son, whose drowning was (it seems) almost certainly not the accident they pretended. The revelations in the dramatic climax promise the possibility of a new beginning. This was stunningly good. Then there was Tartuffe in a modern setting: fun and enjoyable; another visit to Follies with Lindsay and Jamila; Rutherford & Son with Roger Allam excellent in the lead role. Last but not least Anna, a strange new play in the Dorfman (studio) theatre by Ella Hickson who wrote The Writer (seen at the Almeida last year). The actors were all behind a glass wall that cut off all sound while the audience listened through headphones that carried only what the lead character Anna could hear: so when she went into a side room the general conversation faded to inaudibility while the sound of her cleaning her teeth or opening a bottle was magnified. All this was dramatically justified because of the complex plot: the play was set in East Berlin under the Communists, with manifest paranoia about subversion and the Stasi, and characters turning out not to be at all what they presented as. Anna was holding a party with her husband to mark his promotion under a new boss, the old one having been arrested. The party turns out to be an elaborate sting operation; Anna has been complicit, wearing a mike that has recorded every word (and hence provided us with our soundtrack!) But the operation has been traumatic for her, and her marriage is left in an ambiguous state. It lasted only an hour – they did two performances a night. Effective, but something of a dead end.
So that brings me to a selection of the year’s books! On Christmas day last year I finished reading Dramatic Exchanges – the Lives and Letters of the National Theatre – a fascinating selection, mainly from the National Theatre’s own archives, of correspondence between directors, playwrights, actors, agents and others arranged year by year and production by production. There are some tender egos on view but mainly the frustrations of disagreements, struggles to complete promised plays (Stoppard had trouble with The Invention of Love – and Howard Brenton never finished a planned ‘utopian’ play), scheduling, casting (and how true are the reasons eminent actors give for declining a part?) Playwrights give insights in to their work – Henry Miller on Broken Glass, for example. Experts doubt the viability of plays that become huge hits – for example, Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen. Disasters happen – with the stage flooded for the motor cruiser in Ayckbourn’s Way Upstream (which I missed) the machinery for moving the boat breaks down, radio cues fail, water leaks, and the curtain has to be brought down several times in a single performance. But there are also the triumphs, sometimes unexpected – Angels in America, The History Boys, Closer – and letters that give insightful support to writers or directors as they struggle with problems or workload.
Jane Glover’s Handel in London – The Making of a Genius is an absorbing biography of Handel’s career in London. His output was extraordinary, with operas turned out in a few weeks and constantly adapted to suit the singers at his disposal – indeed, he wrote parts specifically to suit the strengths (and to avoid the weaknesses) of his singers. The singers were mostly ‘imported’ from Italy and the most prized were often castratos. The background was a running contest between the Italian opera in Haymarket, favoured by the King (George II – whose daughters Handel taught music), and works in English at Drury Lane (Gay and Rich!) and later with a second opera company. The audiences fell away and Handel went to Dublin with his Messiah – not the first oratorio he had written but of course the most successful, though not in London when it was first performed here. Generally Handel was highly respected and financially successful. His output was huge. Sadly his eyesight failed him in his last years but he died peacefully at home in his mid-70s in 1759. Jane Glover tells the story well, with detailed attention to the music, often number by number in the major operas.
John Barton has written a fascinating if detailed and scholarly History of the Bible, though one that makes only passing mention of the Orthodox churches while giving thorough attention to the Jewish tradition. An underlying theme is the lengths to which churchmen and scholars went to overcome the discrepancies between the text of the Bible and the facts of the Christian religion as it rapidly took shape and is today in all its divergent forms. For example, the Bible alone gives little sanction for Jesus as the second person of the Trinity – or indeed for the doctrine of the Trinity itself (save one late interpolation). Attempts to find sanction for forms of church organisation (traditional bishops, priests and deacons or some Presbyterian arrangement) cannot be rooted to the Bible where the meaning of the words so translated is ambiguous and obscure. There are serious problems arising over claimed authorship – several books of the New Testament are agreed not to be by their claimed authors and the traditional claim that the Pentateuch was written by Moses is universally agreed to be wrong except within orthodox Judaism. Another theme is how the Church and its scholars get round the obvious inconsistencies between the different books of the NT – the gospels being a notable case: those who claim that the Bible is never wrong resort to denial of discrepancy, which leads them into imposing metaphorical interpretations plainly not intended by the author, while others admit discrepancies with the inevitable consequence of admitting errors exist in the Holy Book. Jewish scholars treated – and still treat – their scriptures as if they were a single work, not a collection written over centuries. Every word links to the same (or even a similar) word wherever it appears elsewhere in scripture and texts that were written hundreds of years later can be used to interpret or explain the older ones. Christian interpretation of the Old Testament was (and to an extent remains) likewise perverse: the early and mediaeval Church saw the Old Testament entirely as a precursor to Christianity, and so ignored the plain meaning of an OT text in order to impose allegorical interpretations and find prophecies of Jesus Christ. Further difficulties arise from the frequent failure (less so with the Jews) to recognise the different genres of the various books, from history to prophesy to poetry and so on. BTW, the books were divided into chapters only in the 12th/13th centuries; and verses did not appear till the 16th century. It is only in quite recent times that the same approach has been adopted to the Bible as to other ancient texts that exhibit serious textual discrepancies between different manuscripts and anyway need to be interpreted against a knowledge of the culture of their time (which is sometimes very different from the time they claim themselves to have been written – as with Daniel, agreed to have been written in the 2nd century BCE but claiming to come from the 6th century BCE) and of the accidents consequent on centuries of copying and sometimes tendentious editing. And that is before taking account of the effects of translation, on which Barton has an interesting chapter. In one respect and against popular modern notions he has reassurance for the orthodox: the selection of books regarded as canonical was made very early, and by and large those left out are late and/or perceptibly different in style from those included. Even so, some ideas popular in Christianity today and especially found in carols and other informal literature come from apocryphal texts that were rejected very early in the life of the church.
More briefly, Bob Morris’s excellent and level-headed Church & State in 21st Century Britain surveys the history and law of establishment (with a couple of chapters by Frank Cranmer and others) ending with a detailed review of possible reforms, suggesting that much could be achieved if the Church decided itself to put forward Measures rather than rely on Parliament (and Government) to initiate reform when they have no incentive to do so short of some unlikely crisis. Robert Blackburn’s King and Country – Monarchy and the future King Charles III is recommended in Bob Morris’s book but it is more discursive and popular and less analytical, and has been overtaken by various events (such as the reform of the law on succession to remove the discrimination against women). In If Only They Didn’t Speak English – Notes from Trump’s America Jon Sopel, the BBC’s North America correspondent, surveys the ways in which America is so different form the UK, combining acute observation with some excellent reportage on Trump’s upending of so many conventions. He has chapters on subjects like God and Guns and Patriotism, where American sensibilities are so entirely different from ours and verge sometimes on the incomprehensible. Next – an indulgence for me as an admirer of Arthur Ransome – in Swallows and Armenians Karen Babayan, herself an Anglo-Armenian, writes a number of semi-fictionalised stories of the real progenitors of the Swallows in Arthur Ransome’s stories – the Anglo-Armenian Taqui, Susan, Mavis and Roger Altounyan who became John, Susan, Titty and Roger – and of their parents and Ransome himself, who became alienated from them and removed the epigraph ‘in return for a pair of slippers’ from later editions after a falling out imagined in invented form here during one of Ransome’s visits to Iran where the Altounyans lived in exile. She includes a good deal of genuine history along with some delightful stories.
Isabel Hardman’s Why We Get the Wrong Politicians analyses how people become MPs, from the unexpectedly high financial cost of being a candidate, even in a hopeless seat, through the lack of training or induction and of opportunities, given the whipping system, for making a mark. Hardman is particularly critical of the uselessness of standing committees ritually examining Government Bills without giving them any genuine scrutiny but otherwise fair in assessing the work done by the average MP. She examines the whole career cycle and the ‘terms and conditions of employment’ for MPs and concludes that they are very far from attractive. She makes some suggestions (select – i.e. specialist – committees to examine Bills, post-legislative scrutiny as a matter of routine in an attempt to exercise accountability and deter unconsidered legislation, party bursaries for less-well-off candidates etc) but nothing commensurate to the problems she highlights.
While in Cyprus I came across The Cyprus Conspiracy – America, Espionage and the Turkish Invasion by Brendan O’Malley and Ian Craig: shortlisted for the Orwell prize, this book charts how the best interests of the people of Cyprus from independence on were subordinated to American Cold War interests. The Cyprus EOKA emergency led to a phony independence with an unworkable constitution superficially seeking to accommodate the Greeks and the Turks (Makarios ruled singlehanded and ignored the Turkish minority) but based mainly under strong USA influence on giving Britain sovereignty over its two huge bases and absolute rights to use many other sites on the island that were of new importance to the Western alliance following Egypt’s expulsion of our bases there. America became worried that Makarios might align Cyprus with Russia and eventually encouraged the Colonels in Greece to invade and expel him (they just failed to kill him) and then encouraged Turkey to invade and divide the island into two separate territories, which Kissinger cynically reckoned would be more amenable to the protection of western interests. Britain was manipulated and not kept in the loop at crucial times. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced, thousands killed, but Kissinger got his way.
Amelia Gentleman’s The Windrush Betrayal is a searing exposure of the depth of iniquity of the Government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy on immigration and how they ignored multiple warnings about exactly how it would affect the children who came here with complete legitimacy before 1972 but were then 50 years later deported or threatened with deportation to (especially) the West Indies which they had left as young children. Even when the truth came out as Gentleman began to report in The Guardian on individual cases the Government pretended there was no problem. It was only when they refused to meet the Caribbean High Commissioners that the scandal broke. Even now, the Government dishonestly presents it as a good policy that was badly interpreted by officials. The policy originated in Cameron’s unconsidered remark in an interview about reducing net immigration to under 100,000 which any examination showed was patently impossible yet he doubled down on it and was at least as responsible for the policy as Theresa May. Amber Rudd, who finally had to resign as Home Secretary after being badly briefed for a select committee hearing, was the least responsible. Amelia Gentleman combines acute political analysis with distressing individual stories of those affected, including those who went to family celebrations in Jamaica and were refused re-entry to Britain, those who died in exile, and the many legally settled for decades in Britain who lost their jobs, their homes, their free NHS treatment and all right to benefits as part of the hostile environment that made employers, landlords, doctors and the welfare state into untrained immigration officers on pain of fines or imprisonment. And it continues.
Enemies and Neighbours – Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017 is by Ian Black who was for decades the Guardian’s Middle East correspondent and he brings to this history of the 100 years since the ill-judged Balfour declaration the wealth of knowledge and insight that he has garnered during that time. It is a work that has been well received on both sides of the conflict – a considerable achievement. It is of course a depressing story, starting with an unforgivable injustice to the Palestinians, whose land was treated as terra nullius, and continuing with irreconcilable religious zealots facing up to unforgiving extremists. The Palestinians’ initial lack of wariness about what was happening was compounded by incompetence, corruption and division within their and their Arab allies’ ranks. On the Israeli side ruthless and sometimes deceitful pursuit of their cause was and is combined with occasional striking insight by some commentators and even politicians of the way their progress is experienced by the Palestinians. The book could have been improved with a timeline, more maps and fuller explanations of some of the background: Black assumes a considerable familiarity with the starting situation that makes parts of the narrative confusing. Overall, however, this is a valuable and informative work that ends by providing the starting point, one has to fear, for another hundred years of conflict.
Patricia Churchland is a philosopher turned amateur neuroscientist. In her very readable Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition she explores the natural origins of conscience and hence morality, starting by showing how sociality depends on the neural ‘wiring’ for attachment and bonding: different animals have this to greater or lesser degrees and display accordingly more or less nurturing and other-caring behaviour, with corresponding ability to recognise the feelings of others – habits acquired during development and based on the brain’s reward system ‘internalis[ing] social norms by using imitation along with the pleasure of social approval and the pain of social disapproval’. Oversummarising, just as we learn motor skills, so we learn cognitive skills for dealing with social interactions; and the basis of learning social and moral norms, of conscience, is the vastly complex interplay of the prefrontal cortex with subcortical (more primitive) structures.
Claire Tomalin, who has written literary biographies of so many distinguished authors, turns her attention to herself with an autobiography of absorbing interest – A Life of My Own. She starts with her ill-matched but talented parents whose instant love turned to hate (they did not meet for her mother’s last 40 years) and the fractured schooling she received in so many places, from each of which she recalls inspiring or dreadful teachers and poignant incidents involving fellow pupils. She ended at Dartington and went on to Cambridge and then started her affair and marriage with Nicholas Tomalin, a brilliant journalist but an irascible husband who beat her regularly. They had five children – two daughters prospered but a son died in infancy, another sparkling daughter was suddenly plunged into intense clinical depression and killed herself in her 20s, while a second son struggles courageously with spina bifida. Claire and Nicholas separated but reunited and were living in Gloucester Terrace with so many eminent figures from literature and the arts – George Melly was a neighbour – when Tomalin was killed on a final stint as a war correspondent in Israel. Claire worked as a publisher’s reader and then became literary editor at the Sunday Times, but clashed with Andrew Neil as editor (he wanted to popularise the books pages) and quit over the peremptory move to Wapping. She drifted with some hesitation into writing, starting with a biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, and gradually found herself closer and closer to Michael Frayn, with whom she now has a happy marriage. The book reads flowingly and movingly, alternately evoking wonder at the talents of herself and her circle and moving one to pity for her misfortunes.
Humanists UK has commissioned two academic historians to write a history of the organisation from its founding in 1896 as the Union of Ethical Societies. One of them, Callum Brown, has meantime published The Battle for Christian Britain – Sex, Humanists and Secularisation, 1945-1980 in which he focusses on three areas: (a) the work of Public Morality Council as a vigilante organisation and the way it collapsed in the mid-1960s and was (extraordinarily) taken over from the inside by Edward Oliver, a suave (and somewhat rotund) Roman Catholic who then invited the Humanists in and outmanoeuvred Michael Ramsey as Archbishop of Canterbury to make the RC church the true sponsor of what had been an Anglican preserve; (b) the operation of local vigilantism through local authority licensing of cinemas, dancing, singing and so on and its variation across the country and changes over time; and (c) the battle against the Christian monopoly of the BBC, which despite so many of its most prominent contributors being humanists maintained that Humanism had nothing to say. (In 1958 their head of religious broadcasting wrote: “The Corporation has never conceived of religious broadcasting in terms of a debate in which believers and unbelievers have equal rights. The BBC would therefore be involved in serious and obvious moral contradiction if, in parallel with its evangelistic and missionary effort on behalf of the Christian faith, it were, in response to a mistaken duty to impartiality, to institute some equivalent opportunity to those who oppose Christianity.”) Behind these developments Callum Brown sees the formative influence of humanists – both public figures with connections to the BHA (often through Harold Blackham) and less known people beavering away in ALRA and other reform organisations. The book is immensely readable, excellently researched (despite a few errors that I have drawn to his attention!) and completely convincing – I was involved on the fringes of these changes and recognise and remember much of them. He mentions the Nationwide Festival of Light – and I was able to tell him that I was at their launch meeting in Central Hall, Westminster on 9 September 1971. The girlfriend of Felix Dennis of Oz was working at the BHA and through her we received a request to provide an NCCL-like observer for the meeting, for which I volunteered, having done duty several times for the NCCL. I was provided with a (forged) ticket and went along for a most entertaining evening as the fledging Gay Liberation Front staged a series of interruptions, starting with some disruptive and overemphatic ‘Amens’ and ‘Allelulias’ from the back of one of the side galleries. Later interruptions included a complete row in the stalls unfurling a huge banner saying ‘Jesus was a Queer’ and a group of demure nuns sitting at the side suddenly charging the platform and turning out to be men in drag! Each group, dispersed round the hall, behaved itself until the cue provided by the expulsion of the previous lot. Malcolm Muggeridge was reduced to spluttering incoherence when challenged that the real obscenity of the day was not pornography but the Vietnam War. The next day they held a rally on Clapham Common and I and a colleague went along in sober suits to hand out hundreds of specially litho’d leaflets headed something like Daily Bread – Readings for those New to the Faith followed by a list of Bible references – all to the most off-putting or disgusting verses we could find. Eventually they had to make a PA announcement that the leaflets were not reliable or something! Those were the days!
Well, that’s your annual dose of culture for another year! I wish you all the best possible for 2020, politics notwithstanding, and apologise for fewer manuscript tops and tails to these letters this year.