On a book tour to promote Outgrowing God, travelling from London’s Festival Hall to Birmingham and then Manchester, I have plenty of time to listen to audio books, my new enthusiasm. This week it’s Douglas Murray’s The Madness of Crowds. The title is a well-chosen echo from Charles Mackay’s 1852 classic. Well chosen because our present epidemic of bullying ‘wokeness’ is disturbingly reminiscent of the witch-hunts of past centuries. I’ve had mixed feelings about Murray since he traduced me as a cowardly Islamophile (I’m accustomed to the opposite, equally unjust accusation). But his latest book is beyond brilliant and should be read, must be read, by everyone. He mercilessly exposes the hypocrisy and embarrassingly blatant contradictions that run rife through the current ‘woke’ vogue: compulsory surrender to yelling, screaming students who betray the whole purpose of a university by shutting down free speech; or sanctimoniously applauding doctors who instantly accept the unsupported claim of a child to be in the wrong body, and provide sex-changing hormones without consulting the parents; or attacking and ‘de-platforming’ distinguished feminist writers who choose not to use the word ‘woman’ for someone with a penis and a Y-chromosome. Murray researches thoroughly and his book is convincingly referenced. His balanced and sympathetic tone belies his hard reputation, and belies his sardonic voice, for he reads the audio book himself and does it well.
I’ve become quite a connoisseur of audio books. They are usually best read by the author. Actors can be good too, but only if they understand the book. Samuel West reading Brian Cox is excellent because he takes the trouble to study the subject. Lalla Ward has read most of my audio books with me, and she’s another actor whose full grasp of the science shines through her reading. Not surprisingly, my own most challenging narration experience has been The Origin of Species. Pretty obviously you won’t get the emphasis right in a sentence unless you’ve understood the previous one. One of my heroes, the philosopher Daniel Dennett, has his books read by others, and their palpable failure to grasp the author’s meaning can make the book almost unlistenable. When the author is also an actor we have a sporting chance of the best of both worlds. John Cleese’s and Stephen Fry’s memoirs had me chortling with delight. I moved on to Fry’s reading of the whole Sherlock Holmes canon, marvelling at his changes of voice, from gruff Watson to forensic Holmes, then pitch-perfect regional accents for other characters. He even achieved the feat of getting me to listen to Harry Potter. Last week we went to the New Theatre in Oxford to hear his performance of Mythos. Standing ovations are almost obligatory in America (presidents squirmingly get one after every sentence of their State of the Union speech), but in Britain they really mean something and Stephen Fry more than deserved his.
I would normally not mention Brexit in a diary such as this. But the humiliation of our sick-joke Prime Minister has dominated the week and cannot be avoided. I expected a good verdict from the Supreme Court, but its unanimity and decisiveness had me whooping and thumping the table with joy. It really deserved a standing ovation and I sensed one rising up from decent people all over the country. Whether you voted Leave or Remain, you are surely revolted by the unashamed manipulation of the Queen for partisan political ends. Ends, moreover, that have no sensible connection to ‘the will of the people’. For when ‘the people’ expressed their will in 2016, ‘Leave’ most certainly did not mean ‘Leave with no deal’. It meant, as were repeatedly assured, an orderly and amicable separation.
I hate the very idea of a referendum. Referendums are capable of naming a ship ‘Boaty McBoatface’. We are a parliamentary democracy. We vote for representatives who have the time (and salary) to examine complicated economic and political issues thoroughly and give an informed vote. Nevertheless, having got into this mess through David Cameron’s cowardly folly, the only way out is another referendum. If Leave wins again, we should accept it with good grace and make the best of it. But it’s hard to imagine that Leave could possibly win again, now that we know — as we did not in 2016 — what Leave really means. A connoisseur, too, of religious faith, I detect it in the fanatical zeal of Brexiteers: those for whom the 2016 vote has become unchangeable holy writ; those who are prepared to force Brexit through at any price, even if the price is the obvious and undeniable disaster of no deal. Boris Johnson’s bullying, threatening bluster, when he should be apologising if not resigning, may betoken cynical ambition, but the ill-mannered cheering-on by his barmy supporters surely stems from blind faith.
Looking forward to the rest of my book tour: Sheffield, York and Cheltenham. My signature has evolved towards illegibility after being scribbled in more than 5,000 books. But I still enjoy the signing queues. Since I field a good share of hard brickbats elsewhere, perhaps I can be allowed an immodest confession. As I sign the books, I never tire of hearing, over and over: ‘The Selfish Gene is the reason I went to university to study science.’ ‘You cured me of religion.’ ‘Because of you I am now an ex-Muslim.’ ‘You changed my life.’ Next month, America. Bring it on.
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