Let me apologise first for the lack of personalised greetings, but I am now on my last legs, having been in hospital for nearly week with an acute infection and then in a hospice for over two weeks. I was home for a few days but then got an opportunistic attack of shingles across my forehead and left eye which put me into the Royal London for a few days until Thursday. I am now at home again but very unsteady on my legs and far from well; there is a strong chance that a stray infection could carry me off at any time.
Apologies too for being unable to inscribe my book, for those whom I sent a copy. Writing, or indeed holding a book to read, rapidly gives me cramp. For this last letter of mine I have been helped by Lindsay. This series of letters started in 1989, when I went to New York for the first time and struck up with an acquaintance of my youngest brother’s, Jane Couceiro. We went to the theatre two or three times and for the next couple of years exchanged news in our Christmas cards about plays we had seen. When I started using a computer for correspondence, I began sharing the same material with other people and gradually the letter became an institution. Some of you have apparently kept the letters and have referred to them as a useful record: for those obsessives I have put the letters on my website at https://www.david-pollock.me.uk/christmas-letters (you will need to type in the URL).
This year my diagnosis spurred me to put some of my occasional writings into a book. If you have not received a copy and would wish to have one please let me know: I still have a few copies. In it I explore not just the nature of Humanism but also the troubled legal frontier between on the one hand the ardent religious pursuing their undoubted human right not just to believe what they will but also to manifest that belief and on the other the interests of society at large, its norms and the rights of the non- and other-religious.
This is a problem brought home locally here in Stamford Hill by the Charedi community, (though they get little mention in the book) who pursue their lives almost totally separately from the rest of us, ignoring laws (such as planning) when they can, educating their (boy) children in totally religious schools that often leave them unable to speak English, unable to play a role in the wider community, with (as testimony from the occasional defector bears out) elaborate exploits to maximise with little regard to the truth income from the welfare state. The problem of such people could be contained – as it is with some other highly controlling Christian religious groups – if it were not for their vastly expanding population. Until a few decades ago the Charedi population was more or less stable but now they are really fulfilling their religious duty to go forth and multiply: typically now they have 7 or 8 children and so the population is expanding vastly rapidly.
How far should society as a whole interfere? What duty do we owe to the young people whose fly-by-night schools (reopening under new names and ownership as soon as Ofsted manages to close one down) are housed in unsuitable and sometimes dangerous premises and teach only in Yiddish with studies confined to interpretation of religious texts, and who thus get no schooling to fit them for life in the wider community when – as inevitably happens – some of them quit their religion?
Anyhow, apart from getting the book out, what else have I been doing this year? Very little of course, because I have been shielding myself from Covid and so even with the relaxation of the rules I have barely been out. The main exceptions have been a couple of trips with Lois (staying in self-catering accommodation) at the end of May to visit Lindsay and Jamila in Sheffield and then Christina and Stephen in Stockton-on-Tees (Christina and Paige came with us to Fountains Abbey). Christina and Lindsay have made visits to us here in London – one complex visit included Jamila and the whole of Christina’s family (though not all at the same time).
Christina and Stephen have continued settling in to their new house where, being eight (+2 dogs), they may count as somewhat overcrowded. Christina is a wonderful manager and mother; her oldest daughter, Paige, has continued working for NHS-111, while the younger children all show signs of being extremely bright, and despite sessions of ill health (including Covid) they all seem happy.
The big event this year was Lindsay and Jamila buying their flat in Sheffield. The housing market there was aflame and they secured the flat they wanted only by offering £20,000 more than the original asking price. Lois and I were increasingly worried during the long delay in completing the purchase (the solicitors pleaded overwork) that they might be gazumped: already prices have risen sharply again. But now they are in, and they are delighted. It is a two-bedroom flat, allowing the second bedroom to be used as Lindsay’s studio, in a small 1930s two-storey development of eight flats in an Edwardian residential area. Lois and I paid them a visit in October soon after they moved and already they had decorated the main rooms. We had some gentle walks – Sheffield is a very attractive city of hills, streams, parks and trees – and lots of talk. Jamila has a job in the NHS and Lindsay is now getting back to work with his own long-term project and one or two possible external contracts.
Back home the garden has benefited from Lois finding an excellent Polish couple to join her in doing the work – there is little I have the strength to do: even before I went into hospital some gentle deadheading could quickly get me exhausted.
There have been both virtual and occasional real encounters with other friends – Phil Turner in real life and the “Coal Board” lunch group he organises virtually, my brother Malcolm in Auckland and his family (including Alice, who is now back home from Canada) virtually, recently weekly, and my brother Geoffrey on a real visit from Crete. Ken’s wife Diana and daughter Lucy visited, as did my friend Trilby; and I had one or two face-to-face encounters for bridge.
There have also (happily) been the usual short visits with the “Foolow group” – my friends Tony & Phyllis (Foolow in Derbyshire, August), Mike & Camilla (Plumpton, June) and Sheila & David (Ealing, October – including visits to Apsley House and the sole theatre trip of the year to see Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt). These were hugely enjoyable as usual, picking up each time as if uninterrupted our stream of reminiscences and complaints about the world and its government which we come at from a wide range of standpoints but with immense good humour and tolerance. It is stimulating and thoroughly enjoyable and is lubricated by good food and wine!
I continued on the board of Humanists UK until the latest hospital episode (making a total of ten years in the 1960s/1970s plus 24 years since 1997) but our meetings were virtual – functionally efficient for the time being but not good at team building. I’ve given a great deal of time to helping the academics whom we commissioned to write a history of the organisation from its foundation (as the Union of Ethical Societies) in 1896, and I spoke at a virtual event to celebrate our 125th anniversary in April. I was a principal source of information for the historians for the 1960s and early 1970s and then the period from the mid-1990s. The operation was frustrating because, as soon as I got ill, I transferred my archives to the Bishopsgate Institute so that they could be accessible, which was no sooner done than Covid locked down the archives making them totally inaccessible! There have been three complete drafts on which I have made very detailed comments. The book should be published – by Bloomsbury Academic – towards the end of 2022. (Meantime see our excellent new Humanist Heritage website at heritage.humanists.uk, created by the very talented Madeleine Goodall.)
Other humanist-related projects have included numerous online lectures and conferences, making four short personal videos about my beliefs for Hackney SACRE for classroom use (frustratingly most of the other belief representatives on the SACRE have failed to do theirs!) and on behalf of Humanists International winding up their associated charity the International Humanist Trust which had outlived its usefulness as Humanists International is now registered as a charity itself – this was a surprisingly complicated operation involving dealings with two banks, the Charity Commission, an independent examiner of the accounts and the other trustees of the IHT. I also delivered a (virtual) lecture to a conference on charity law put on by a Christian peer-reviewed journal, Law and Justice, which is now publishing the paper. (It is already included in my book and questions the law on charity as relates to the advancement of religion and belief.)
So, to turn to the books I have read this year. I find when totting them up that I have managed more than I expected! In no particular order –
British Gods: Religion in Modern Britain by Steve Bruce. This is an exposition of how deep the decline of religion is, with detailed studies of the Christian presence in selected towns over the second half of the twentieth century. Steve Bruce looks in detail at the way local churches have declined, cooperated and then merged but continued to decline, at how their role has changed from promoting religious belief to social engagement and good works, how immigration has propped up some denominations (and established Islam, although the same process of secularisation is visible there) and how “new” movements such as the revival of folk religion or the charismatic movement have failed to compensate for the collapse. He looks at what he sees as futile attempts to gain influence for religion in politics and concludes that, given today’s general ignorance of religion, the decline is irreversible. An interesting book, marred by too many typos and apparent transcription errors – poor for the OUP. (It is notable that the Archbishop of Canterbury has recently admitted that the Church of England has spent £240 million in an attempt to arrest the decline in worshippers but that this has “not so far” succeeded in turning the situation around.)
Radicals, Secularists and Republicans – Popular Freethought in Britain, 1866-1915 by Edward Royle is a detailed study of its subject, revisiting people and events from different angles (national, regional, international; leaders, members and activities; and numerous specific topics, political and social, and the attitude secularists took and contribution they made, notably their superb educational record especially in London). It shows the divisions in secularism between radicals and moderates, the impossibility of dealing with Charles Bradlaugh when he was set on a course. Royle sees the secularists as declining to extinction before the first world war, not realising that Holyoake, who invented the word secularism, had started a “Humanist” strain of the movement which, as Callum Brown has pointed out, was to take over in the 20th century. The secularists, overlapping with radicals and Republicans, nevertheless achieved great things.
The War against the BBC by Patrick Barwise and Peter York is a comprehensive, well informed and fully referenced defence of the BBC against what the book’s subtitle calls “an unprecedented combination of forces [set on] destroying Britain’s greatest cultural institution” – as witness the entirely hostile consultation on decriminalising non-payment of the licence fee (try that with income tax!). It starts with the extraordinary contribution the BBC makes to the economy, to the entertainment industry and to civic life, providing so many tv and radio channels, websites and promotion of the UK abroad through exports of programmes and formats and the highly trusted World Service. It catalogues the ways the licence fee has been raided to pay for things way outside the BBC’s remit – the digital switchover, the World Service, the Welsh S4C channel, BBC Monitoring (largely for the Foreign Office), local news partnerships, and a contestable fund for children’s tv, and now for free tv licences for over-75s on universal credit. It demolishes sample vituperous press onslaughts from the Mail, Express, Telegraph and others that allege waste and inefficiency and parallel political attacks from (for example) the dubious Grant Shapps and the obsessed John Whittingdale. It analyses and reduces to nothing James Murdoch’s 2009 McTaggart Lecture. It reveals the network of right-wing ‘think-tanks’ that share not only an address at 55 Tufton Street in Westminster but also common lines of attack on the BBC, often manufacturing astroturf (fake grassroots) campaigns. It examines the various allegations of left-wing and anti-Brexit bias in BBC reporting and shows them to be groundless, the best academic studies showing a slight but growing bias in the opposite direction, partly led by the BBC’s following an agenda set by the predominantly right-wing press. The BBC’s public income has been cut since 2010 by 30% in real terms by licence fee settlements imposed by George Osborne without consultation, and these, only partly offset by increased efficiency and commercial income, have already forced significant cuts in services. More such surreptitious cuts or ill-considered impositions risk radical, even terminal, damage to the institution – yet the BBC remains under constant unprincipled and self-interested attack from ideological politicians (like Nadine “the BBC may not be around in ten years’ time” Dorries who is now the Secretary of State responsible for broadcasting) and self-interested rivals and needs to be vigorously defended by those who appreciate its contribution to British life.
Some fiction: Serpentine by Philip Pullman. The third in the tiny pocket-book follow-ups to His Dark Materials sees Lyra in an encounter with the Witch Consul Dr Lanselius following her appalling separation from her daemon in The Amber Spyglass which has left them able to separate at will. She and Pantaleimon gradually manage to speak about their separation and how they inseparably interact, re-establishing trust between them. The Mirror and the Light – Hilary Mantel brings to a conclusion her magnificent trilogy based on the life of Thomas Cromwell, all seen through his own eyes albeit in the third person, closing with his execution. She fills in a lot more of his back story, and the word pictures are again enthralling, but the book as a whole is I think less satisfactory than the first two: it is immensely long at 875 pages and the cast of characters is bigger, many of them going under several different names, which can be confusing. The way the rapprochement between the Emperor and the King of France determines his fate is apparent, and his loss of control after the king’s disastrous marriage to Anne of Cleves is set in its political context. Mantel is clever in showing even in a narrative seen through his eyes his growing dictatorial tendencies and the corresponding increasing resistance to his rule, so that when his arrest arrives it is both expected and out of the blue. And
Agent Running In the Field by John le Carré is vintage le Carré if sadly rather short and even more sadly his last but one (the posthumous Silverdale is so far disappointing). The characters are all plausible and well sketched, the disillusion with the Service as marked as usual, the plot as involved and deceptive as always, the tension maintained to the end.
A Little History of Archaeology by Brian Fagan moves in 40 short chapters from 18th century treasure hunting at Herculaneum to LIDAR scans of the jungle around Angkor Wat, moving rapidly from one pioneer of archaeology to another as gold fever gives way to the search for knowledge, not least about human origins. There is a strong emphasis on the Middle East (for obvious reasons) and New World (less expected) but Africa and Asia are included and there is far less on sites in Europe than one might have expected – but I suspect the balance is correct and anyway European archaeologists are dominant. Several of the civilisations featured were new to me, such as the pre-Columbian mound builders of north America and the Moche in Peru, but the role of the individual excavations in the book is to illustrate the development of archaeology as a science.
Jane Austen – Writing, Society, Politics by Tom Keymer is a delightful small book full of insights and information that set the literary, social and political background to Jane Austen’s books – a chapter for the juvenile pieces (which show a remarkable breadth of reading to inform their satire) and then one each for the six novels. Keymer shows how the politics of the day is subtly present – naval affairs and slavery in Mansfield Park being only the most blatant example; how Sense and Sensibility followed in the wake of numerous other novels with Sensibility in the title – and how Austen is equally critical of Sense as of its opposite; how her last work, Persuasion, shows signs of not having received the final polish she would have given it if she had lived but also provides a much more intense depiction of its heroine’s psychology than elsewhere. He points out how intricately she portrays the niceties of social rank in Emma and speculates on the possibility that the version of Pride and Prejudice that she first wrote and then put aside for many years was in epistolary form. This is a book to return to!
Another book with a literary background is Shakespeare’s London by Stephen Porter – who worked for years on the Survey of London and has produced a meticulously researched and informed description of the kaleidoscope of London at and about the turn of the 17th century, from the ban on new building (and demolition of new built houses) to prevent the depopulation of the countryside and overloading of food supplies for the city to the range of entertainments – playhouses and fairs and animal baiting and music. Life was shorter then, and tougher: bad harvests resulted immediately in high prices, and a penny loaf was in 1596 a quarter the size it had been in 1560. He describes the stress on the narrow streets as commerce grew; the way the Crown could requisition horses and wagons for royal progresses, foreign trade prospered much of the time, with the East India Company a johnny-come-lately after the success of the Muscovy, Eastland and Venice companies among others over the previous 45 years. The book quotes prolifically from contemporary sources and includes multiple illustrations.
The Secret History is an extraordinary book is by Procopius, a chronicler of the time of the Byzantine emperor Justinian whose works honour the military campaigns of Belisarius and then the reign of Justinian and his empress Theodora. But alongside these works Procopius wrote this vicious debunking of all three, denouncing them for corruption, cruelty, collaboration with Rome’s enemies and (in the case of Theodora) being a libertine of huge appetite. She was dead by the time he wrote it but the two men were alive (as was Procopius) for another 15 years, so its composition was a huge risk. Unfortunately the writing is monotonous and hugely repetitive with its accusations most often in general if extreme terms with too few juicy anecdotes. Even so, it casts a new light on the great reformer of Roman law whose Corpus Juris Civilis remained highly influential down to Napoleonic times.
Corruption and decadence of a modern kind are sadly to be found in many books about contemporary affairs. My offering this year is Twilight of Democracy by Anne Applebaum, one in the wave of books warning of the undermining of our political systems, but this time (as reflected in its subtitle: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends) told from the personal viewpoint of someone immersed in international affairs for decades. She traces how old friends and allies in liberal democratic politics of twenty years ago have drifted to an ‘apocalyptic pessimism’ on the Alt-right, become conspiracy theorists or supporters of autocrats in Poland (where she has lived much of the time) or Hungary. The phenomenon, she says, is widespread across the world in democracies of different economics and demographics. The UK, with Brexit, is not exempt. Dangerously, the parameters of debate are no longer agreed: ‘People have always had different opinions. Now they have different facts.’ Anger is fostered and misdirected by deliberate manipulation. After side-glances at Italy, India and Spain, among others, she ends with the USA, where Trump promoted an ethnic nationalism similar to Orban’s and professed a moral equivalence of western democracy with Putin’s autocracy (“At least he’s a leader… I think our country does plenty of killing also”) and compares the current deep divisions in the USA to the long-lasting rift in France caused by the Dreyfuss affair.
Life Support – Diary of an ICU Doctor on the frontline of the Covid Crisis is by Jim Down, a senior consultant ICU anaesthetist at UCH who here tells how the unit adapted and expanded to take over a large part of the hospital during the first wave of Covid-19, ending with little reference to future risks when things were getting back to normal in the summer and before they got far worse over the winter. His book is a mixture of conversations with colleagues about how to cope with one unprecedented emergency after another, stories of a few particular patients who either lived or died, praise for his colleagues in various specialities and the way everyone worked as a team, descriptions of how they were treating people blind to some extent as Covid was so unpredictable, and short tales of how he was with his family under such strain. His colleague, Sheila’s son Sam Clark gets a couple of very brief references. It is a sobering account revealing how close to collapse this major hospital came – leaving one hoping that the experience equipped them adequately for the worse second wave still to come.
More fiction: Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man by Siegfried Sassoon, whhich I re-read after at least 60 years, finding it a very odd book, however highly regarded. Sherston (Sassoon) chronicles a narrow and profligate life with no hint of interest in anything outside hunting and horses; the book is virtually without plot, a succession of brief pen portraits of (mainly) hunt members who make fleeting appearances and then drop out; and the army chapters at the end necessarily leave his fate unresolved (needing the following books to round it out) but even there he treats his experiences in a way that is, if not solipsistic, at least confined to his immediate circle. It is notable (a) that he expresses occasional sympathy for the fox; and (b) that it is explicit that the landowners are expected to ensure a supply of foxes – not a mention of the damage they do to farmers, only objections to farmers who complain about damage to their hedges.
Somebody at the Door by Raymond Postgate has been re-published in the British Library Crime Classics series. It is an odd story – really a series of novellas about a cast of characters most of whom never meet the others except in a commuter railway compartment with the victim. The unifying element of police conversations about the inquiry is minimal and the whole is therefore rather unsatisfactory. Postgate went on to start the Good Food Guide and gave up crime writing. Winter Garden by Beryl Bainbridge is an even more Bainbridge-flavoured novella than most: it traps you inside the head of the key character (albeit with occasional authorial reports about the others) as he goes through a hallucinogenic, nightmarish surreptitious visit to Moscow as companion to his mistress who is part of an invited small delegation of artists. But his luggage disappears, his mistress disappears, he gets drunk and (in the background) there is a satirical look at Soviet officialdom. Bainbridge finishes with him in even more trouble than before.
Anthony Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right is a rich tangle of stories and characters, with everything set off by the jealous rage of a weak husband that his spirited wife would not follow his unreasonable demands that she stop seeing her father’s oldest friend, a slightly roué colonel whose company was fun: she obeyed his every explicit command but that was not enough. This leads in turn to their separation, his setting a retired policeman to spy on her, his loss of all his friends, his flight abroad and eventual self-neglect, madness and death. Meantime the numerous subplots take centre stage and over 830+ pages play themselves out most satisfactorily. Roman Blood by Stephen Saylor is a complex murder mystery based on our (skimpy) knowledge of Cicero’s first court triumph, pro Roscio. It is well researched, reasonably convincing on life in late Republican Rome, intriguing but not totally absorbing. Similarly well researched is Rebels and Traitors by Lindsey Davis. In fact it amounts more to a history of the Civil War than a novel: Davis creates a huge (and confusing) cast of characters whom she contrives to position at all the key events of the Civil War – indeed from 1634 to 1658. This artificiality becomes irritating, especially in the last chapter or two when the narrative becomes very implausible for the sake of a neat ending. That said, the history is clearly well researched, the sixteenth century vocabulary lends verisimilitude and the explanation of now disappeared food and tools etc is of interest. But the book is immensely long – almost 750 pages.
I have rather indulged myself with S J Parris this year with her series of detective stories set in Elizabethan England with Stephanie Merritt’s (Humanists UK patron and real name of S J Parris) central character Giordano Bruno, first in Treachery solving a mysterious death on Francis Drake’s flagship at Plymouth, with the plot squarely based in an accurate historical background. I then read Conspiracy – this time set in Paris where the inept King Henri IV is beset by the Duc de Guise and the Catholic League while the English Catholics in exile cluster around the English ambassador. The plot gets too complicated at times and a list of characters would be useful; otherwise what is odd about this novel is that Bruno so often acts impetuously and gets into situations he is very lucky to escape from: this can be irritating. Overall, however, another good read! I then read Execution, another excellent thriller with Bruno in the midst of Elizabethan attempts to thwart plots by supporters of Mary Queen of Scots. And finally Dead of Winter, comprising two engaging novellas set in Giordano Bruno’s early days in Italy.
More serious matter: Rough Crossings: Britain, The Slaves and the American Revolution by Simon Schama is a fascinating deeply researched study of a hitherto obscure area of history – the story of the slaves who during the American revolution were enticed to join the British army and navy to fight against the American rebels. Many gave their lives and overall they gave valuable service but at times their numbers became an embarrassment, especially as the rebels neared victory and the ex-slaves (after weeding out those who had no claim) had to be carried to safety, most of them to Nova Scotia and many of them later to Sierra Leone in a fleet of 23 small ships caught in mid-Atlantic in an appalling storm that amazingly every ship (but not every passenger) survived. In both places they found they were at the bottom of the pile, often cheated out of promised land, but on the whole making good. Schama has managed to trace some individuals (one adopted the name British Freedom) and families all the way from slavery to Sierra Leone. The story is interweaved with that of the anti-slavery movement in England, where good intentions were sometimes frustrated by ignorance of the facts on the ground (and an inclination to believe in tropical paradises) at a time of such slow communications. The site in Sierra Leone was not ideal, on an estuary shared with a slaving enterprise, but under the guidance in particular of the principled but practical Thomas Clarkson the settlers for a few months set up a model co-operative society only to see the Sierra Leone Company, set up on the commercial model of the East India Company, replace Clarkson, undermine the promises he had given, and demolish their self-government constitution.
On the Cusp – Days of ’62 sees David Kynaston, in the middle of his ‘Tales of a New Jerusalem’ series of massive books, breaking the pattern to produce a small book on just three months in the middle of 1962 that he identifies as a turning point: the Beatles are about to burst onto the scene, as is Jaqueline du Pré; the first James Bond film is released; blurry television pictures by Telstar satellite from the USA are causing excitement; contrary to Macmillan’s preference the BBC is granted the third tv channel; the Macmillan government is edging us into the ‘Common Market’ but the Tories lose the Orpington by-election and soon follows the Night of the Long Knives; the last ‘Gentlemen v. Players’ cricket match takes place; ‘Steptoe & Son’ is beginning on tv and the pilots for ‘That Was The Week That Was’ get off to a shaky start; the first generation educated entirely under the Butler Act reaches university; the Bishop of Woolwich is about to publish Honest to God; New Society is being launched; town centres are being ripped down in favour of redevelopment, sometimes high-rise apartment blocks made with factory-built units already being recognised as brutal and inhuman.
As with the other books in the New Jerusalem series, Kynaston draws from an extraordinary range of sources – press cuttings, diaries, advertisements, private letters, speeches, official reports and statistics and much more – and mainly lets his material speak for itself. He adds in a couple of more extensive examinations of aspects of Britain undergoing longer-term but profound change – agriculture and South Wales – and ends up with a brilliant portrayal of the nation not quite recognising the changes that are inevitably descending on it.
Life’s Edge – the search for what it means to be alive by Carl Zimmer. This is a fascinating book exploring – first historically and then in the present day – the borderline between life and non-life. He reports on experiments in which (one of very many examples) skin cells are induced to become neurons, groups of which then self-organise into something resembling bits of the cerebral cortex. These ‘organoids’ were useful in showing how the Zika virus (which led to babies being born without a cerebral cortex) worked and how it could be combatted. He shows how there is no bright-line distinction between life and non-life: cells are alive and some single-cell bacteria thrive but other cells from (say) our bodies cannot survive alone. Other animalculae (such as rotifers and tardigrades) can dry out like dust and yet resume their ‘lives’ years later if given a drop of water. This much was discovered by the 18th century: thoughts that something similar might apply to humans led to the 19th century craze for bell-pulls inside coffins. Later scientists explored various states of coma and worked out the definition of brain death. Others examined viruses, which ‘live’ only inside cells. The book is immensely readable but packed with information – failed theories like protoplasm; slime moulds and their ability to solve mazes – that it really requires reading at least twice – especially the final section where he gets into theories based on computer modelling about RNA-based ‘autocatalytic sets’.
Finally a marvellous book: God: An Anatomy by Francesca Stavrakopoulou – who is an Old Testament scholar of no mean proportions, but equally is a Humanist. and who here looks at the family trees of ancient South West Asian deities. Yahweh, the Old Testament’s Jehovah, had a father and grandfather and even a wife, before being refined down to a single god by the later Judahites and Israelites. But their family of gods was only one of many interrelated families whose own stories similarly reflected and changed with secular life – empires, invasions and cultures. The book amply proves its thesis that contemporaries believed that their gods had solidly physical bodies and moves by chapters from feet to head demonstrating the point with ancient inscriptions and carvings.
Now I have moved on to C V Wedgwood’s classic The Thirty Years War which will keep me going for a few days more!
So, as I reach the end of my natural lifespan – an extra decade on my three score years and 10 – what thoughts do I have? Well personally I’ve had a good life albeit with ups and downs. For most of it I was able to believe that things were getting better and that in some small way I was contributing to the improvement. Sadly over the last decade or two this is no longer possible to believe. Plenty of people have analysed the environmental and climate problems and the huge damage being done to our political institutions by populist leaders intent on protecting themselves from accountability and the Rule of Law. The last is vital – governments are subject to rule of law no less than anyone else, but are in the privileged position of being able to alter those same rules. Our present government seems intent of weakening all the regulatory bodies that might hold it account. On this, do please read Tom Bingham’s The Rule of Law which shows how deep rooted in our history are some of the human rights now under populist attack.
What remedies can I suggest? Only education of a broad kind entirely different from the narrow fact- and examination-obsessed variety now dominant here. Children need to be taught how to make sense of the world (what an exciting topic!) and how people have tried to do so over the centuries – and alongside this, how to think (the huge success when too rarely tried of philosophy for schools is notable). We have to overcome the narrow and distorting perceptions we are offered that suggest that what we are used to now is the only way of looking at things: we need to grasp that our understanding of the world emerged out of guesses and superstition into a (self-correcting) scientific and generally rational way of thinking. Children need also to understand the disposition of power in society and the importance of collective lawmaking and the rule of law in controlling those who control us. (“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” as the satirist Juvenal said of the guards set over the harem – still a good question!)
This sort of education could be approached by reforming what is now the sterile religious education enforced in all our schools. We need a new subject covering the history of how mankind made sense of the world, including historical, cultural, social, political and philosophical approaches. A recommended book that can contribute to this is The Shortest History of Europe by John Hirst, Lois’s late brother-in-law and a distinguished professor at Latrobe University.
In my chapter on Humanism on the website and in the book, I say that Humanists believe this is the only life we have, and that there is no externally imposed purpose or meaning to it. However, we can adopt purposes and meanings for ourselves depending on our interests, talents and circumstances. And at the end of our lives we can look back and assess whether we have made good use of our time. On the whole, I think I have done so. I wasted some academic opportunities at Oxford but substituted what became far more important to me, work for the Oxford University Humanist Group [www.ouhg.org.uk].
But the philosophy section of Greats was important in training my logical thinking – as was answering endless questions from my friend Henry, a professional philosopher, trying to help him sort out what exactly we mean when we say this or that. This helped when it came to my own writings about Humanism, which in the ’60s and ’70s was often seen as a bundle of not-necessarily connected beliefs and attitudes. I am convinced that the approach through evolution that I set out in my writing is the means of bringing the whole concept together as a unity.
Leaving university I joined the British Humanist Association board from 1965 to 1975. Coming down of course meant starting a career. It was a culture shock joining the National Coal Board and going within a few short weeks from the ‘dreaming spires’ of Oxford to the 6am shift on a 3ft high face at Betteshanger Colliery! But I was generally very happy at the NCB and the administrative work was up my street, especially in the Central Secretariat where I came under the influence of two obsessive followers of Fowler and Partridge, not to speak of Latin-derived syntax!
The happy times were compromised when Mrs Thatcher appointed Ian MacGregor as chair – it was as if a cancer had entered the organisation and taken control of its thinking, ignoring all internal expert advice. However, recovery from the strike presented an enjoyable challenge, contributing as head of staff planning to the reorganisation of the management structure of the much diminished industry.
But then came redundancy (the alternative was transfer to Eastwood, which as a Londoner born and bred I found quite impossible). Outplacement consultants tried for 9 months to find a job for me but in vain. But then I was lucky to answer an advert for the directorship of Action on Smoking & Health [ASH], where I learned a lot about the sheer ingenuity of the tobacco industry and enjoyed going on television to denounce their representatives to their faces. I did a great deal of research on the effects of cigarette advertising and produced successive, expanding editions of our brief on the subject. I also learnt about running a small NGO, lobbying government and trying to run a Private Member’s Bill through parliament. But not about handling a deputy who was determined by hook or crook to oust me (he succeeded) and take over (he failed). However, that gave me a year on full salary to research the tobacco files in the Public Records Office (now the National Archives) and to start writing Denial & Delay, my book about the politics of tobacco from the 1930s to the mid-60s, the latest date for which the files were then open. When the book got delayed by my new job, I was spurred to action by strong encouragement from Sir Richard Doll (not only our most eminent epidemiologist but also a Humanist benefactor).
My new job as director of the Continence Foundation involved continuing its helpline, expanding its information services, but more interestingly researching the case for and then lobbying for a higher priority in the NHS for incontinence services (with some success).
I had a very successful year in 2000 and retired in 2001 to (as I have said elsewhere) almost full-time Humanism. There were other things too in the first decade of retirement. For about eight years I spent an afternoon every week in the Museum of London helping catalogue their 20,000 prints and drawings. I also did a day each month in the National Theatre Development Office, helping raise money. But from 2006-2012, I had one of the most intense periods of work in my life, having been inveigled into becoming President of the European Humanist Federation – and finding myself not just President but secretary, lobbyist, PR head and bottlewasher! The work involved conferences, meetings and lobbying – at the European Union, European Parliament, the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe – and some of these speeches and submissions led to some of the writing on my website. The distinguished Roman Catholic academic in charge of the EU-backed Religare project on the place of religion in society found herself encountering robust criticism (for the first time, I think) of the social role of religion. To her credit, she gave me a chapter in the book reporting on the project (my piece was called “An Ill-Disguised Defence of Religious Privilege”) in which I did not hold back my criticism.
Six years was enough as EHF President, but then I added four more as chief representative for Humanists International at the Council of Europe – which apart from the usual round of INGO meetings in Strasbourg and lobbying of members of the Parliamentary Assembly, incidentally brought the welcome bonus of Intercultural Dialogue Conferences in Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan and other, less exotic places. I had the pleasure of telling our Azerbaijani hosts to their faces of their appalling human rights record, something none of the religious representatives chose to do.
So Humanism kept me busy, not least in serving as a Humanists UK board member again since 1997. And I look back on my life as on the whole useful and enjoyable (and that’s without the gardening, theatre, music and books!). What has amazed me since people heard of my terminal condition has been a flood of appreciative comments from humanists, family and others about how I have provided some inspiration and example for them. My view has always been that I’ve had many valuable colleagues in my various campaigns and enterprises in which we have worked as a team. My interest has always been primarily in the task in hand, with the warm friendships that came with the work as a wonderful bonus.
On top of all this, of course, has been the pleasures and rewards of family life – both my extended family and the close companionship of Lois, Christina and Lindsay. Lois has been so loving and caring since I fell ill I scarcely know how to thank her.
So at the end I thank you all for your companionship, support and often deep friendships over the years – and here endeth the final Christmas letter!!