Thursday, 30 November 2006


"As the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fool", says the Bible [Ecclesiastes,]. This jumps to my mind on the rare occasions when I bother to look at television these days. Almost every "comedy" programme is infested with an invisible studio audience whose raucous shrieks, titters and giggles of mirth distract and irritate the viewer - this one, anyway. The other day I happened to turn on in the middle of a repeat episode of "Keeping Up Appearances" in which that consummate character actress Patricia Routledge, in her persona of Hyacinth Bucket, was endeavouring to mount a horse. Her antics and facial contortions were extremely amusing, but they were ruined by the otiose hoots and bellows of the absent audience. As the sequence was shot on location in the country, I cannot see what possible rhyme or reason there was to dub these repellent sound effects on to it. Can anyone with an insight into the workings of the minds of TV producers - on the charitable assumption that they think coherently - please explain why they consider this practice is an embellishment of their programmes? Studio audiences who can be seen by the viewer, yes by all means. But the invisible ones crackling under the pot, no thank you. Away with them!


Toby Lewis - his blogsite is "Reason's Sword" - has nominated me to do the Ten No-nos quiz. So here goes.

Kill myself
Stop reading as long as I can see and am compos mentis
Leave my partner before the Grim Reaper calls
Cease to be grateful to my family and teachers
Shake Tony Blair's hand
Vote for Ken Livingstone after he embraced the unspeakable homophobic Sheikh Qaradawi
Drink Pernod or eat baked beans [ugh]
Take blogging seriously
Do another silly quiz like this one


“I BELIEVE that God wants me to be president.” George W. Bush

"I would like to thank Providence and the Almighty for choosing me of all people to be allowed to wage this battle for Germany," Hitler - Berlin March, 1936

God is not on the side of any nation, yet we know He is on the side of justice. Our finest moments [as a nation] have come when we faithfully served the cause of justice for our own citizens, and for the people of other lands.: George W. Bush

If we pursue this way, if we are decent, industrious, and honest, if we so loyally and truly fulfill our duty, then it is my conviction that in the future as in the past the Lord God will always help us: Adolf Hitler, at the Harvest Thanksgiving Festival on the Buckeburg held on 3 Oct. 1937

“freedom and fear, justice and cruelty have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.” George W. Bush

"Never in these long years have we offered any other prayer but this: Lord, grant to our people peace at home, and grant and preserve to them peace from the foreign foe!" : Hitler - Nuremberg Sept. 13, 1936.

The above is from Information Clearing House Newsletter - an excellent daily bulletin.

Wednesday, 29 November 2006


Blithely ignoring the irreconcilable contradictions between their beliefs, the Pope has told Muslims that different faiths must work together. It seems to be a case of "my gobbledygook is better than your gobbledygook, but any gobbledygook is better than no gobbledygook". Instead of buckling down to sort out the horrendous messes around the world created or exacerbated by religions, godbotherers should all cosy up together and canter off on a celestial sleigh ride.

Meanwhile, according to the "Telegraph's" Legal Editor, Joshua Rozenberg, Islamic sharia law is gaining an increasing foothold in Britain. Faizul Aqtab Siddiqui, a barrister and principal of Hijaz College Islamic University, near Nuneaton, predicts that there will be a formal network of British Muslim sharia courts within a decade. A police officer had lamented to him that we no longer have the bobby on the beat who will give somebody a slap on the wrist. So is there a case for the community elders to take over the job of reprimanding and punishing erring members of their faith? Do we really want legal pluralism? Views, please.


I am no Scheherezade, but I think that the immortal weaver of magic carpets would have relished this tale as worthy of her famous collection. And, unlike her stories, this one is true [well, maybe a bit embellished].

My mother’s father was a Maronite Christian Arab from the Lebanon. His father was a merchant in Beirut. My grandfather came to England in his late ‘teens or early twenties and settled in Manchester, where he eventually traded as a merchant and shipper of Egyptian cotton.

My grandfather had a Lebanese friend called Chamoun. [That isn’t his real name, but I have changed it because he has descendants living in England.] Chamoun was a nomadic adventurer whose travels eventually took him to Ethiopia [Abyssinia], which in those days –the 1890s – was ruled by Emperor Menelik II [1889-1913], an energetic potentate who successfully repelled Italy’s early designs upon his country by a decisive victory at Adowa in 1896. Chamoun got on so well with the Emperor that he became a very important person at Court. He was even more of a crony to Menelik’s successor, his grandson Lij Yasu, who was nominated Emperor in 1909 some years before his grandfather’s death. Yasu was a dissipated young man, and Chamoun’s daughter, May, was even more intimate with him: so much so that he loaded her with jewels and, it is said, palaces. She was, apparently, only one of his numerous mistresses.

For centuries, Ethiopia had been a Christian enclave surrounded by Muslim lands. As Menelik II wrote to Queen Victoria: I have no intention at all of being an indifferent spectator, if the distant Powers hold the idea of dividing up Africa, Ethiopia having been for the past fourteen centuries, an island of Christianity in a sea of pagans...

Lij Yasu, however, flirted with Islam perhaps from personal inclination because he wished to marry four wives [as well as having a dozen or more concubines], and also because he believed that Germany’s ally Turkey was going to be on the winning side in the Great War. Mounting indignation led to his deposition in 1916, and the following year his cousin the Regent Ras Tafari, who wished to side with the allies and modernise the country, deposed Yasu, eventually becoming Emperor Haile Selassie I in his place.

Menelik had allowed the French, who were strengthening their hold on French Somaliland, to build a railway between the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, and the French port of Djibouti which was Ethiopia’s only direct outlet to the coast. Yasu had made Chamoun the Collector of Customs at the border station, and when the revolt against him occurred he instructed Chamoun to decamp to Djibouti with as much money as he could carry from the treasury. Apparently the French didn’t think much of Chamoun, so they promptly abducted him, his wife and daughter to France, where they were interned – so family legend has it; is this bit too good or too bad to be true? - in a disused public lavatory until the end of the war! My grandfather was distressed by their plight, and pulled enough wires to eventually secure their release and settle them in Manchester, where he set up Chamoun in a tobacconist’s business.

May’s main preoccupation during the 1920s and ‘30s was badgering Haile Selassie in a vain attempt to get back some of “her” royal jewellery, and the odd palace! She didn’t have any luck. She was always a larger-than-life size drama queen. She married, had a son of about my age, and when he was four or five years old the marriage broke up. Her husband kidnapped the child, who was recovered by the police. May brought the child to my parents’ south Manchester suburban house, which was besieged by the press, and pictures were taken of the child in our garden sitting astride one of my toys, a lifesize St. Bernard rocking horse dog. When he learned of this, my father went ballistic and rushed hot-foot to the newspaper offices threatening them with legal proceedings if they published anything which would identify us [for fear of my being snatched by mistake]. So next morning the paper came out with a picture of the child sitting astride thin air, the dog and the garden having been completely blacked out!

All of this – or something like it – really happened. Would the tale have earned me a reprieve from the Sultan?

Monday, 27 November 2006


Creationism’s on the march, folks! According to today’s “Guardian”, an obviously well funded outfit calling itself “Truth in Science” [but which might more appropriately be named “Faith in Falsehood”], has circulated all the secondary schools in the country offering a free teaching pack including two DVDs and a manual purporting to present the ‘evidence’ for intelligent design as an alternative to evolution as the most convincing theory of the origins of life on earth [and presumably of the universe]. No fewer than 59 schools have accepted the offer, to the dismay of no less a person than the chairman of the parliamentary science and technology select committee, LibDem MP Phil Willis, who is “flabbergasted” that any head of science would give sufficient credence to creationist theory to be prepared to teach it as an alternative centralist theory alongside Darwinism. A government education minister recently stated that “neither intelligent design nor creationism are recognised scientific theories and they are not included in the science curriculum.” However, a university professor of thermodynamics who is on the board of “Truth in Science” demurely said “we are simply putting together a different case”.

All this has, unsurprisingly, got Darwinism’s stalwart advocate Richard Dawkins hopping mad. He has established a foundation to keep God out of the class room and to prevent “pseudo-science” taking over in schools. “Truth in Science”, however, maintains that they are not attacking the teaching of Darwinian theory – they just want alternative hypotheses to be taught. Needless to say, both “Truth in Science” and Professor Dawkins’ “Foundation for Science and Reason” are applying for charitable status. The latter, at least, is not favoured by the Church of England, which senses a whiff of campaigning rather than charity about the atheist pot, while remaining silent about his opponents’ Godly kettle.

This leads me to reflect on what the distinction is – if any – between education and indoctrination. Young children, and even teenagers [like all too many adults], do not have sufficient knowledge or experience to distinguish between sound reasoning and fallacies, and alas, logic is not usually taught in schools. So children tend to believe what their grown-up relatives and their teachers tell them, and are often discouraged for questioning or criticising. I well remember the rebukes I sometimes suffered from my well-meaning and loving parents for questioning things which grown-ups had told me but which I found hard to believe. When it came to religion, my family were conventionally C of E – not atheists or sceptics, but not expecting God to reveal himself to them personally through miracles or speaking in tongues either. I was confirmed in my ‘teens, but – like most people, I suspect – experienced no holy revelation or blissful ecstasy on making my first communion. I continued to be a conventional deist into my twenties, despite the somewhat repellent attentions of over-enthusiastic evangelical types at university. [Such people have, then and ever since, put me in hearty agreement with Katharine Whitehorn’s immortal quip that the trouble with so many born-again people is that you wish they hadn’t been born the first time.]

I finally became a sceptic when, through my reforming work in the 1960s, I had contact with many religious people of all denominations. Some were truly holy people, such as the great Archbishop Michael Ramsey, whom I was privileged to talk with several times, and Archbishop Anthony Bloom of the Orthodox Church. I admired and respected them, even though I didn’t accept the premises of their faith. But there was another breed of Christians who were pharisaically self-righteous, punitive and patronising. They were right and everyone else was wrong. And some of them – such as the strident “moral majority” campaigner Mary Whitehouse - were hardened fibbers while proclaiming their devotion to righteousness and truth.

These experiences convinced me that, whether devout believers are aware of it or not, all religion is a basically political activity concerned with controlling others, conducted in a rhetoric which they find useful because being spoken to in God’s name is intimidating to many who don’t really believe in him but feel impelled to touch their forelocks to the Deity, just in case [á la Pascal].

Articulate reasoning is important to humanity, because it is what distinguishes our species from others. There are limits to reason, and to scientific knowledge. But if yet more new generations continue to be taught that it is a mistake, or even “sinful”, to stretch their logical reasoning capacities to the limit, and more virtuous to believe six impossible things before breakfast, the human race will go on being in ever bigger trouble.


There is a persistent story that when all male homosexual practices were made illegal by the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, lesbianism was not criminalised because Queen Victoria refused to believe that ladies were capable of such disgusting behaviour. To the best of my knowledge and belief, there are no grounds for this story but it is so ben trovato that it is unlikely ever to die. Like the Bible myths, too many people want to believe it.

I think it is improbable because Queen Victoria herself was quite a lot less “Victorian” in her attitudes to sex than many of her subjects and contemporaries. Quirky and autocratic as she was, she had a strong vein of human sympathy which came out with unexpected force on some occasions. I remember reading [I think in Lady Longford’s biography] of her very vocal indignation at what she considered to be the unjust ostracism inflicted on a young German relative by her family when this unfortunate princess had gone a step or two too far with her footman.

I find Queen Victoria – as I also do Karl Marx – a fascinating personality because of the many layers and complexities of her character. Regally self-assured and politically prejudiced as she was, she had an underlying kindness and at times, even during her long and bleak [for her courtiers as well as for her] widowhood, a surprisingly robust humour and sense of the ridiculous. There were occasions when the Queen was amused and laughed heartily.

She probably didn’t know much, if anything at all, about lesbianism but I wonder whether her instinctive response to it would have been punitive. Sexual sophistication [though not a wide range of sexual activity] is fairly rare in her family. George V thought that “men like that” [i.e. homosexuals] shot themselves. Or ought to. It’s interesting that in 1921, when a parliamentary attempt was made to include female “gross indecency” in a new Criminal Law Amendment Bill, the move was defeated in the House of Lords on the ground that to do so would merely draw the public’s attention to vicious practices of which most people were blissfully unaware. [With the implication that many more of them would be tempted to experiment!] Maybe this is the origin of the “Queen Victoria said No” story. Totally illogical, of course, but ‘twas ever thus.


So the Prime Minister is “deeply sorry” for British participation in slavery and the slave trade, is he? Whatever next will this pathetic past-master of pointless spin find to apologise for next? Not, you can bet your bottom dollar, the invasion of Iraq and all the dire consequences that are flowing from it for those still living [not to mention the over half a million dead].

This is empty gesture politics gone mad. The mind boggles at the time which has apparently been spent by the cabinet in discussing exactly how far Blair should go. “Deeply sorry, but not apologising” seems to be the meaningless formula arrived at. And we PAY these people?

Since the PM is in the business of rewriting history, here are a few other things he might consider saying “sorry” for:

The Norman conquest [to the Anglo-Saxons].

The Wars of the Roses [to non-combatants].

The battle of Flodden [to the Scots].

The framing and execution of Mary Queen of Scots by Elizabeth I.

[More sense in this, surely, than in lecturing the Scots about the follies of independence.]

The Tudor and Cromwellian “pacification” of Ireland.

The Darien Venture [to the English who had to bail the Scots out].

The Raj – especially the suppression of Suttee and the way Warren Hastings treated the Begums of Oudh.

The battle of Waterloo [to the French].

The Crimean War [to the Russians].

The battle of Omdurman [to the Sudanese and the Muslims].

The Great War [to practically everyone].

The Scuttle from India by a previous Labour government, resulting in the deaths of a million or so people in the ensuing religious and communal strife.

The Suez invasion [because of the lies told by the then British government].

And so on, and so forth.

But never, oh never, for anything done by the governments presided over by Tony Blair since 1997.

Blair is the Archie Rice of politics. His increasingly feeble hamming impresses no-one, amuses no-one and deceives no-one. It’s high time he abandoned the spin and picked up the fat juicy book and lecture contracts that are doubtless awaiting him from Murdoch and others. He can then embark on his real apologia. If anyone is still listening.

There is a family rumour that one of my great-great grandfathers may have been involved in the slave trade. Since he is no longer here to do it for himself, I’m not apologising on his behalf.


[I wrote the following tribute immediately after William’s death. He only lived ten months (August 1996 – June 1997). Tiger – our beloved Tiggy – is still with us, thank goodness, healthy and seemingly contented. I will post more about him with photos, when I get around to mastering the technology for that.]

It was sheer impulse. The advert leaped out of the page. “Absolutely gorgeous two twelve week old kittens, lovely temperament, both boys, must go together as are brothers, lots of fun, free to a loving home.“

Our very dear old cat, Pico, had been put to sleep on Good Friday, 1992. He had a long life, the last half of it happily with us His last few months, when he was getting more and more poorly, had been sad and stressful. We said we wouldn't ever want to go through that again - especially as we are getting older.

But after more than four years, it seemed like now or never. I was the first to phone, and was offered first refusal. When I saw them, how could I refuse? Tiger is a beautiful tabby, with symmetrical markings and a satin-smooth coat. William was a black-and-white with a bright, intelligent face, white throat and tummy and paws. They were high-spirited. playful, and cuddly. They travelled the 30 miles home without a murmur, and took to us and their new surroundings immediately.

Like all kittens, their early lives were a mixture of lively romps, grooming one another, and deep sleep. They were curious about everything - especially William, who had an ever-alert intelligence and an engaging impulse to subject whatever was going on to close inspection – and, once initial boundaries were established, beautifully well behaved. In fact, I don't think either of them has ever shown bad temper, been willfully naughty, or deliberately displeased us.

Starting them going outside was a worry. not least because, while we have a large and friendly back garden, the road in front of the house is a danger area and it was not possible to keep them from exploring it. Fortunately, Tiger soon lost interest in this, though William was reported as being seen in gardens across the road. He also was more into climbing trees. And because of the cold, late spring we did not let them outside very much until early March.

William broke his leg on Easter Sunday. How and where he did it is a complete mystery - I found him lying at the foot of the stairs, and realised he could not walk up them. He had an expensive operation to set the leg, and for ten weeks we nursed him, carrying him everywhere and letting him sit near the window safely looking out into the garden. He was a model patient, never complaining at whatever we did to and for him. But as time went on and he was still unable to have unrestricted movement he seemed to lose interest, which worried me. The last day or two before he died, he was quite lethargic.

His death has left a huge hole in my heart, because he was the most friendly and loving, as well as [before the accident] the most sprightly, cat of any I have shared a home with. What I shall always remember most - and with such a sense of loss - is his alert, delicately profiled face with the almond-yellow eyes, coming through my bedroom door after breakfast followed by his perpendicular tail, the eager jump onto my bed, the proprietary pause while I put away what I was reading so that he could advance up my chest and settle into my arms with his head under my chin, turning round to look into my eyes while I stroked his tummy and he licked my hand [or, rather, rubbed it with his teeth]. He didn't purr as loudly as Tiger does, but he made his contentment very clear. Then, after a few minutes, he would jump up and go about his business.

What was so lovely about both of them - especially William - was their total openness to touch [by us. anyway]. There were no forbidden zones, no flinching away or baring of teeth or claws. We simply belonged to each other. with total freedom of access either way at any time.

I had so much hoped for many years of happiness with them both. Now Sweet William has gone, we are left with our beautiful Tiger, and bitter-sweet memories of what might have been if we still had William too….

Some people have already said ‘Are you going to get another, as a companion for Tiger?' The answer is 'No'. Because another wouldn't be William, or a brother. In George MacDonald's At the Back of the North Wind, the little boy Diamond says of 'Little Bo-Peep’ - "I never just quite liked that rhyme, because it seems to say one's as good as another, or two new ones are better than one that's lost. I've been thinking about it a great deal, and it seems to me that although any one sixpence is as good as any other sixpence, not twenty lambs would do instead of one sheep whose face you knew. Somehow, when once you've looked into anybody's eyes, right deep down into them, I mean, nobody will do for that one any more. Nobody, ever so beautiful or so good, will make up for that one going out of sight".

William and I had looked deep down into each other's eyes, and now he has gone out of sight. No other cat. however dear, will ever fill his unique place in my heart, and the garden will never be as sunny again without him there, where he was meant to be.

Joyce Grenfell wrote: "If I should go before the rest of you

Break not a flower nor inscribe a stone.

Nor when I'm gone speak in a Sunday voice

But be the usual selves that I have known.

Weep if you must,

Parting is hell.

But life goes on.

So sing as well."

We shall do our best, but it isn't going to be easy,


Having spent the weekend digging out anticant’s burrow, and putting up the first few pieces of wallpaper, anticant immodestly e-mailed some of his friends and even relations inviting them to look in for a housewarming. One of them responded: “I don’t see the point of being anonymous”. He probably wouldn’t. ‘Mr Upfront’, as I’ll call him, is a man of high intelligence and solid achievement. He has had a distinguished career and has published solid legal tomes and much else of which he is rightly proud. His own blogsite is a celebration of himself. He is pugnacious and forthright in argument.

Sadly, anticant has concluded that we are no longer living in the cosier world which he and Mr Upfront used to take for granted, and so anonymity is essential if he is to be half-way honest. His reason is, quite simply, fear. This is a lamentable and ugly fact, but it must be clearly stated. We no longer live in a world where free speech does not carry a heavy price. Terrorism is not merely a matter of occasional atrocities – it is much more about the creation of a pervasive climate where debate is muffled by a stifling blanket of possible nasty consequences if one honestly says what one really thinks. It is not only private enterprise terrorism, such as the murders in Holland – hitherto a very liberal and tolerant country - of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh. There is also ever-increasing state intolerance of free speech as evidenced by all the ludicrous laws pushed through by this government gagging expressions of opinion which might “offend” some individuals or groups or hurt their “feelings”.

Well, anticant is absolutely outraged by the no longer creeping but now briskly trotting advance of Big Brotherism. The latest tit-bit – have you seen it ? – is that the police propose to use high-powered microphones to eavesdrop from up to 100 yards away on crowds at the London 2012 Olympics, “taking public surveillance to an entirely new level”. You can say that again! This ghoulish suggestion has even got up the nose of David Blunkett, who understandably wishes to keep his chats with his guide dog private. Wouldn’t you?

Whatever happened to privacy and free speech?

Sunday, 26 November 2006


I am the grateful possessor of a Parking Card for people with disabilities. Nowadays I don’t go much further afield than short local shopping trips, and even these would be impossible without this card. It is a badly designed affair, with a serial number and date of expiry on one side, and my name, photograph and signature on the other. The card has to be displayed with the expiry date visible.

Recently I parked in the disabled bay directly outside my dentist’s surgery, displaying the card [I thought] as usual. The next morning I was astonished to find a penalty notice had been fixed to the window of my car standing outside my house, demanding a £50 penalty for improper display and £100 if I delayed payment beyond 14 days. I immediately telephoned the borough in question, and was told that my card had been displayed on the wrong side, so that the expiry date was not visible. The lady I spoke to was very courteous, and suggested that if I sent them a photocopy of the correct side of the card they might waive the penalty, which they eventually did. The whole thing seemed to me rather stupid and a waste of everyone’s time, because if they were able to trace my address from my name on the back of the card they could have accessed proof that the card was valid. It is silly that these cards are not designed with all the necessary information displayed on each side.

Imagine my surprise – and indeed disgust – when I saw last week a BBC news item to the effect that according to the Local Government Association up to half of disabled parking badges in London are being used illegally, and that these badges are now changing hands in the black market for up to £500. A recent crackdown by the Audit Commission led to nearly 5,500 badges being cancelled in Manchester, Merseyside and London because they were being used after the registered holder had died. One such badge had been used 347 times to avoid paying the London congestion charge.

This really makes me wonder – not for the first time – what sort of a nation have we become? Misuse of disabled persons’ badges is not merely a petty criminal offence – it is an action of the meanest sort, amounting to theft from ill and handicapped people. When I was younger, most people would have been ashamed to behave in this sordid way.

But not now, apparently. Swathes of people don’t think it matters to be honest or law-abiding [not always the same thing, I grant] any more. They evidently feel that they are under no obligation to treat their fellow-citizens justly, even when they themselves are often whining about how ill-treated and over-taxed they are.

This is where we have come to with the Nanny State. The Left has always been under the delusion that the way to improve society is to pile on more and more laws, rules and restrictions until people are surfeited with them and take as little notice as possible even of the ones that really do matter. “NuLabour” has taken this fallacy to previously unheard of lengths. I have said for many years that if I became prime minister [too late now, alas] I would immediately scrap half the laws on the statute book and nobody would be any worse off – quite the contrary. The more you sap the individual’s personal responsibility for their own behaviour, the more feckless and uncaring they will become.

There are only two things which it is absolutely essential for every child to be taught in a decent society. The first is that other people are as real as you are [“If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”]. The second is not to do to anyone else what you would not want done to yourself. [This is the negative version of the Golden Rule, commended by Bernard Shaw who said “DON’T do to others what you want done to you – they may not like it!]

I used to assume that most people I dealt with were reasonably honest and trustworthy. I no longer do so. I ask myself “are we a half-way honest nation any more? Are we even quarter honest?”


I’ve been a book collector from a very early age. I was lucky to have an aunt who was an avid reader, and I caught the habit from her. I shall always be grateful. The season’s new Arthur Ransome was my most eagerly awaited Christmas present.

History, biography, literature, poetry, politics and current affairs form the bulk of the collection of more than 10,000 volumes which I and my partner have assembled over half a century. Not only do they line the walls, they are piled up on the floor in every room of our quite large house. Assembling this library has been one of the chief and most constant pleasures of our lives. Holidays spent exploring old-fashioned bookshops in the side streets of country towns remain a pleasant memory. Sometimes they yielded rare and unexpected treasures. Book fairs, catalogues, and latterly the internet have spurred us on. Constantly arriving parcels arouse anticipation. We sometimes think that books breed in the night in our house.

The silly people who have hardly ever read a book in their lives and gape at our collection asking incredulously “have you really READ all these?” get metaphorically shot. They do not realise that books may be synonymous with knowledge, and even wisdom – though many, of course, contain the opposite.

Our books are a friendly and reassuring presence. Not only their contents, but also their physical appearance, colourful bindings, feel, and sometimes smell, are comfortably familiar. But now that we are growing older, and less robust, the effort of moving around so many heavy tomes while searching for the one you want – which is inevitably nearly always at the bottom of the pile – is causing us problems. Sadly, we recognise that the time has come when a sizeable part of our collection must find a new home. This is going to be a complex business, as some of our books are rare and quite valuable. And it is going to be a big emotional wrench to part with them.

I sometimes have the fantasy of all the hundreds of authors down the ages who have written our books materialising and having a great big party. There would be several hundred of them, so we would have to hire the Albert Hall. We would also have to have a contingent of riot police standing by, as there would be bound to be a good many warm disputes, and perhaps fisticuffs – for instance, between Charles I [if he really did write “Eikon Basilike”] and Oliver Cromwell, or Edmund Burke and Tom Paine.

I suppose I got this idea from Hendrik Van Loon’s charming “Lives”, in which he and his wife, assisted by Erasmus, entertain assorted historical characters at a series of dinner parties. But although it will never happen, I do sense the company of the living authors, as well as their writings, amongst us. So we are never alone.


Freda Levson, who died in October 2004 aged nearly 93, was a remarkable person. It was my privilege to be one of her closer friends during the last decade of her life.

Freda was the great-niece of George MacDonald, friend of Lewis Carroll and author of many books, best remembered for his children’s novel “The Princess and the Goblin” and other fairy tales. I hope to post more about him another time. I met Freda because she had been a moving spirit in forming the George MacDonald Society, which sometimes met at her flat near Paddington.

Freda was born in South Africa, where her Scottish parents had settled and her father had a busy medical practice. She was educated in England and had a deep love of Scotland. Always very liberal minded, she assisted the Rev. Michael Scott in launching his international campaign against the apartheid regime, and drafted his manifesto “In Face of Fear – Michael Scott’s Challenge to South Africa” [1950].

In 1952 Freda was involved in the launch of the African National Congress’s disobedience campaign in defiance of apartheid, and with her close friend Patric Duncan – son of South Africa’s first governor general and leader of the South African Liberal Party – joined the protesters who entered the African location of Germiston without a permit. She was arrested and jailed for four weeks.

Freda’s account of her stay in prison was very amusing. Although it must have been a very frightening experience, she maintained that it was equally uncomfortable for the tough Afrikaner wardresses who had never had a white woman prisoner in their custody before, and were uncertain how to behave. Fortunately they treated her quite well.

When in 1956 the government arrested 156 anti-apartheid campaigners and charged them with high treason, Freda became secretary of the South African Treason Trial Defence Fund set up by Bishop Ambrose Reeves and others. She became a close friend and helper of Nelson Mandela, and when he was on the run Freda and her husband Leo Levson, a Russian photographer, provided a safe house for him at their home in Johannesburg. In 1962 Mandela, who had left his homeland illegally, visited Freda in London, where she had returned to live. In 1975 she published “South Africa: An Historical Introduction”.

It will be clear from the above that Freda was a woman of great courage and strength of character. In person, however, she was unassuming, gentle, graceful and charming. I greatly enjoyed the many lunches I had with her at her flat. I would bring a bottle of wine, and Freda would telephone her local pizza shop and say “we’ll have an extravaGANza!” Her conversation was always interesting and sometimes unusual – it isn’t everyone who can casually say “oh, I gave all my Gilbert and Sullivan records to Winnie Mandela”. On her 90th birthday, her family and friends gave her a lovely party, at which I was a guest. Nelson Mandela, with that human touch which makes him so outstanding, sent a personal letter of congratulations, recalling the campaigns which he and Freda had waged together.

She was indeed unique, and I and many others still miss her.

Saturday, 25 November 2006


I was a child in the 1930s, and grew up during WW2. I remember Munich in the autumn of 1938. Even though the crowds cheered Neville Chamberlain waving his piece of paper and announcing “peace in our time”, most people realised that war was unavoidably looming. For too long, many adhered to the ostrich position and maintained, with the “Daily Express”, that there would be no war in Europe. But my family were not among them.

Not all the appeasers were fools or cowards. The older generation had been exhausted by WW1, and the younger – my parents and their contemporaries – had lost many relatives and friends in the senseless carnage of the Western Front. Nobody in Britain WANTED a war. But well-intentioned gestures like the pacifist Peace Pledge were futile – as my wise grandmother said, you don’t leave your front door unlocked when you know there are burglars prowling around.

What I remember most vividly was the growing sense of storm clouds gathering which would very soon make it impossible for anyone to go on living their lives as they wanted to. It was very disturbing for a little boy whose family had quite enough troubles already without a war. The right-wing blimps who thought that Hitler wasn’t such a bad chap really – he was just instilling some badly-needed discipline, but sometimes went a bit too far – and the deluded lefties who toed the Comintern line and continued to vociferously oppose the “imperialist capitalist war” right up until Hitler invaded Russia in 1941 were all hopelessly muddle-headed. Whatever one’s retrospective view of Winston Churchill, it was he and his small band of supporters who got the truer picture.

So, having lived through that, is it surprising that I have a dreary sense of déja vu in these post-9/11 years? In some respects, the mistakes of the West’s leaders have been even worse and more crass. Instead of bending every effort to swiftly capture Al Quaeda’s leadership and put them on trial before an international court, the Bush Administration, with Tony Blair trotting poodle-like behind, fell right into the elephant pit which had been dug for them, and launched the absurd “war on terror” which looks like going on for ever and getting nowhere fast. With their extraordinary doctrine of “pre-emptive intervention” in failed states where they perceive a democratic deficit, they remind me uncomfortably of that other unsavoury duo, Hitler and Mussolini, rampaging around Europe and Africa in the 1930s and ‘40s.

The Pandora’s Box of Muslim hostility which they have opened by their crass invasion of Iraq will take many years to close, if it ever does. The curbs on our traditional civil liberties since 2001 are the worst since the Tory repression after the Napoleonic Wars. And while in no way wishing to “demonise” Islam, I find it very hard to see how it is going to be possible to lessen the current active hostility of Islamic extremists, and the passive resentment of even more peaceably inclined Muslims, towards our traditional way of life and adherence to a degree of free speech and behaviour which is antipathetic to them.

What I am seeking – I hope not in vain – are constructive ideas as to how we are going to get ourselves out of this mess. No “Yah, Boo, it’s all the other lot’s fault”, please!


That’s for you to say, of course. If you like my burrow, please add your nugget and come again. If you don’t, that’s not my problem. As the founding father of Gestalt therapy, Fritz Perls, put it:

“I do my thing, and you do your thing.

I am not in this world to live up to your expectations

And you are not in this world to live up to mine.

You are you, and I am I,

And if by chance, we find each other, it’s beautiful.

If not, it can’t be helped.”

If only lots more people in the world felt that way……

As a lifelong writer with some national newspaper experience, I can see both sides of the currently rather tetchy relationship between national staffers and us bloggers out there in the blue. They feel threatened, and some of us – not me – feel jealous. I’m sure it will all settle down in time, as interactive journalism is obviously the up-and-coming thing. Much more fun, too, if it’s handled with good humour and common sense.

Which are two of the qualities I hope that I – and you – will bring to my blog. Not easy, I know, in these fraught days since 9/11; all of us feel anxious, indeed rattled, a lot of the time, and cultivating one’s own garden isn’t easy. That’s what I hope to do here, though. I’m elderly now, with growing health problems, so conserving as much peace of mind as possible in whatever time I have left is important to me. I increasingly think back to my earlier life and the experiences I’ve had, and although I haven’t got the energy or the concentration to embark upon a full-blown autobiography, I would like to share some of my memories, tastes and interests with you.

It’s likely to be a bit of a rag-bag, so be warned. And welcome to my burrow.