Peter Hitchens discusses the decline of Christianity in the West, and his book, The Rage Against God
HH: The first two hours of today’s show, a special conversation with Peter Hitchens. Peter is the author of The Rage Against God. He is a columnist for The Mail on Sunday. Peter Hitchens, thank you for joining me, welcome. It’s good to have you on the Hugh Hewitt Show.
PH: It’s very good to be with you.
HH: The new book is The Rage Against God, but before we talk about that, first, congratulations on the award of the George Orwell prize. That’s really quite something.
PH: I was pretty pleased with that, especially since it annoyed so many left wing people who probably would have preferred someone else to get it.
HH: For the benefit of our American audience, the Orwell prize is regarded as the preeminent British prize for political writing. Three are given a year, one for a book, one for journalism, and one for blogging. It is supposed to honor writing that comes closest to Orwell’s ambition to “make political writing into an art.” Had you thought of yourself as doing that, Peter Hitchens?
PH: I don’t know about an art, but I think the idea that Orwell set out making your prose as like as possible to a window pane through which people could simply see what was behind it, has been in my mind every since I encountered his writing many, many years ago. It was certainly a huge delight for me to have any kind of an association with that, that was endorsed by other people, not my own claim, but endorsed by other people, particularly given that by his nature as a hero of the left, his, the prize in his name tends to be awarded to the left by the left. And on this occasion, it went to me, a conservative. So I have to say that it was one of the more pleasing moments of my life.
HH: Peter Hitchens, before we dive into The Rage Against God, could you walk us backwards through your writing career? As I said, you’re currently a columnist for The Mail on Sunday. But for long have you been doing that, and before that, what were your other posts throughout the world of journalism?
PH: All right, I’ve been doing what I’m doing now for about nine years. Before that, I had been a correspondent for another newspaper which changed so much since I worked for it that I’m slightly embarrassed to mention its name. But it was then called The Daily Express. And it sent me to Moscow as a resident correspondent there in 1990, and then to Washington, D.C. in 1993. And before that, I’d done a number of other tasks, writing about politics and industry and education and defense and diplomacy. And so I had what I call a pretty long education in the University of Fleet Street, which you probably know is the phrase we use here to describe our national newspapers.
HH: You’ve also written a number of books before Rage Against God. Can you tell people what your interests had been in before?
PH: Well, my main interest has been in what I describe as the cultural revolution, which has destroyed so much of my own country. And I use the phrase cultural revolution deliberately. I know it’s perhaps slightly exaggerated compared with the horrors that were unleashed on China by Mao Tse Tung, but it happened in slow motion, and elderly professors were not hauled from roofs, or systematically humiliated by Red Guards. But something of the same nature happened, and unlike in China, where Deng Xiaoping made some efforts to reverse some of the damage, most of the damage here remains unrepaired. In the first book, I wrote about that. It was called The Abolition Of Britain, which was published in Britain in 1999, and in the United States in the year 2000. And it’s still, as far as I know, in print. And since then, I’ve written books, which largely apply to Britain. I wrote one about the very curious problem we have here of crime, and the complete failure of the, of our state and our police force, and our courts to cope with it, which is called A Brief History Of Crime, and was republished as The Abolition Of Liberty, because the issue also got mixed up with the very severe attack on the liberty of the subject that’s been going on here for some time. And then a couple of years ago, I wrote a book called The Broken Compass about the strange thing which has happened to our politics, where the major political parties have become interchangeable, something which they demonstrated in the last election, with…that you actually ended up with a government of two parties which were supposedly bitterly opposed, one on the left, one on the right, but which get on fine in government, and how on, actually, seriously opposed by the other left wing party, which although it officially is different, hasn’t got any major criticism of them. So we now have an odd, three in one, one in three, one-party state.
HH: Now Peter Hitchens, would you have been considered a Thatcherite at the time that that term meant something?
PH: No, I wasn’t. I was still a recovering social democrat then, having gone through a lot of experiences what with having been a fallen member of the British Labour Party, and spent a lot of time with labor union members. I was a labor correspondent. And I still had some sentimental attachment to that, and I had some serious doubts about Mrs. Thatcher, which I still do, though they’re different than from the ones that I have now. So no, not really. But of course, if you’re remotely conservative on one subject, the left in Britain will tend to think of a rude name to call you, and will consider you’re a Thatcherite, even if you’re not. But no, it’s much more complicated than that. I’m what I would call a Burkian conservative, which means that the Thatcherite obsession with money, and also her almost total absence of interest in subjects such as culture, morals and education, simply aren’t enough for me.
HH: Now your brother’s been a frequent guest on my program, not long ago, actually, a long conversation…
PH: I know about the most recent visit…
HH: Oh, okay.
PH: …because I…there was a transcript of it, which was widely available on the web, which I read. I haven’t actually heard it, but I have read the exchanges.
HH: Well, then you know, we talked about your father, the taciturn commander of Hitch-22. Do you suppose he would be amazed by his sons’ collective output, if only for the amount of words you two have produced?
PH: No, probably not. I tend to have a slightly sunnier view of him than Christopher, and I remember him as having a very dry sense of humor about us. He needed to, because we gave him so much trouble. And I think he would probably be less surprised by the number of words we produced than by anything else we’ve done, honestly. Verbose, we always were. Silent, we weren’t. He wasn’t that taciturn. It’s just that he was a very, he was a very kind and patient man. I remember the one occasion when he lost his temper with me as a child. I ran to my mother saying daddy’s gone mad, and I was amazed.
PH: And so I don’t, and he was the one who tried to persuade us to sign this treaty. This is why he’d never take Middle East peace efforts seriously. We actually signed the treaty of peace, Christopher and I, and under his stern…
HH: The Treaty of Cedarwood.
PH: Indeed, yeah.
HH: You refer to it at the end of Rage Against God, as well as in the Mail Online article about the gentle ghosts of Cedarwood.
HH: So the Treaty of Cedarwood, tell people about it.
PH: Well, (laughing) he got to exasperated by the way we fought all the time, and this would have been, what, when I was eight or nine, and he would have been, as he still is, two and a half years older. And it was just unending. And he just said well, this has got to stop, so he drew up this document, and we both signed it. And he framed it in the very practical way that he had, and hung it on the wall. And I think within two weeks, I had it down, out of its frame, and erased my signature, and revoked my participation in this Stockholm process. And that was the end of that. And I suppose hostilities have been going on, more or less, ever since.
HH: Do you recall any of the articles of the Treaty of Cedarwood by chance?
PH: It was a very simple declaration of a future intent to wage peace. I can’t remember the words.
HH: All right, we will come back and…
PH: It wasn’t, it wasn’t as long as a modern treaty. It didn’t require translation, and it hung in a pretty small frame.
HH: Now I do want to begin…
PH: I was the one who broke it.
HH: I want to get to the Rage Against God in the first segment here, and continue on. You detail in this, you’re sitting in endless chapels and reading the Book of Common Prayer as a young man, you know, trapped there, and rebelling against the Catechism, but drawn to other parts of the volume, and you greatly lament its banishment from most of the Anglican communion now. Four hundred years overthrown in a couple of decades, I think you write.
HH: But is it necessarily gone forever? You know, the Novus Ordo is retreating in various places now, so might not the bowdlerized Book of Common Prayer give way some day?
PH: Well, and may all the words of Arthur Hugh Clough, Say Not The Struggle Naught Availeth, it may be that victory is around the corner, and that people will discover that something of enormous value has been previously thrown away, and will turn to it. But I see in my own country no serious signs of it. I think what may happen is that in some way, it’s abolition by the official Church could possibly lead to its rediscovery by people who are no longer associating it with the established official Church, simply view it was what it is, which is the most astonishingly beautiful book of devotion and religious thought and poetry, and begin to read it, and it begins to circulate again among educated English people who recognize that alongside the King James Bible and the works of Shakespeare, it is one of the great pinnacles of our literature. And out of that, also, would perhaps come a rediscovery of the things which it tries to convey. And one of the things that’s so terrific about it, is that it’s because Thomas Cromwell was a very bad man, and was under no illusions about that, right to the very end of his life when he shoved his own right hand into the flames when they burned him at the stake, because his right hand had signed the recantation of everything he believed in. But it’s precisely that that makes it so great. It’s full of the prayers and thoughts of somebody who knew how very badly he needed Divine grace, as most of us do.
HH: I’ll be right back with Peter Hitchens. His book, The Rage Against God, is linked at Hughhewitt.com and in bookstores everywhere.
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HH: Peter Hitchens, in The Rage Against God, you write that Great Expectations, Dickens’ Great Expectations, had near Biblical force for you. Why?
PH: Well, partly because of the awful treatment which the period metes out to Joe Gargery, the blacksmith, and the dreadful snobbery of the overeducated, over-pampered young man towards the person who’s effectively his parent, because Joe isn’t actually his parent, because his parent’s dead. And it always seemed to me, when I read that scene, when Joe goes to visit Pip, when he’s set himself up in style in London, and also, David Lean’s wonderful film of the book, where the same scene is terrifically portrayed by, I think, Alec Guinness and Vernon [John] Mills, it’s, it makes my flesh crawl in embarrassment because of the arrogance which at one stage in my life I felt towards not only my own parents, but also to the family from which I sprang. And it’s something which I ceaselessly regret, and can’t, of course, make up for now. And that’s part of it, and it is, as a book, I think, Dickens is not, and will never be an academically fashionable writer. But as a book, it remains to me one of the most powerful things ever written.
HH: Is it fair to say because it…
PH: But that is the center of it. It’s very, very important. And this youth who deludes himself through most of his life about what is really valuable, and then discovers at the end what, where his great expectations truly came from, rather than where he fancied they came from, and also discovers what is really valuable is to me, will always remain, one of the greatest things ever written.
HH: So to a certain extent at least, it’s because it convicted you of your own sin?
PH: Oh, yes, very much so. I think you could sum it up like that, and you don’t, there was a Don McLean song, wasn’t there, I heard about people like me, but I’d never made the connection. And when reading that as an adult, I made the connection, and it reverberates.
HH: Now you also reference very early on in Rage Against God, C.S. Lewis. When did you begin to read him?
PH: Late, and in fact, not as much as I should have done. And a lot of the reading of Lewis that I did was actually as an adult reading his supposed children’s books to my children. Now of course, if you read the Narnia books to children, you’re reading them on two different levels, as beautifully crafted adventure stories, which to English children growing up in Oxford, as ours were, were particularly accessible. But also, if you read them as an adult, you see in this the very strong and enormously learned understanding of the nature of such things as atonement. The other thing that I read, in fact, it was the reason for my calling my first book The Abolition Of Britain, was the shorts book, almost a long essay, called The Abolition Of Man, at which I found quite tough going, but which still seems to me also to be a devastating criticism of the way in which most of us think now. And then I found, when I read the Perelandra Trilogy, what’s sometimes called the science fiction trilogy, I found the ideas of The Abolition Of Man more accessibly set out in fiction. And much…when it comes to powerful ideas, I much prefer them in fictional form. I’m not really a particularly serious person when it comes to philosophy. I can’t take it in large chunks. And if I have to read something serious, it had better be history. But that’s really my acquaintance with Lewis. I’ve found, people have said to me, well, what about Mere Christianity? I sort of struggled most of the way through it, but I would much rather read Surprised By Joy, because in that snatch of autobiography, I find the ideas that he’s trying to set forth much more accessible. I live a surprisingly short distance from where Lewis lived…
PH: …and his old, his house, and the woods where he used to walk, and the places which he knew, are very close to me. So he’s often in my mind.
HH: Yeah, the last book of the science fiction trilogy, That Hideous Strength, is to me…
HH: …really an essay on what besieges so many of the anti-God people. Not your brother, by the way, because I think he’s much more open to the idea of the inner circle, and all the dangers. But Dawkins, for example, I mean, he’s a walk-on character in That Hideous Strength.
PH: I think you may well be right, yes. I think the awful institute, NICE…
PH: the National Institute of Clinical Experiments, is people with folk of that kind.
HH: Do you read Tolkien as well?
PH: Oh, yes. He also lived quite near where I live, so again, you’re constantly reminded of the presence. And I can see, sometimes, in bit of the Oxfordshire landscape, what he must have been thinking of when he described part of the great journey that begins in the shire.
HH: Your opponents in The Rage Against God, do you think they much go in harm’s way when it comes to the reading that might make more obvious to them God’s grace or God’s hand in things?
PH: I don’t know. I think that this is actually not a discussion about what people believe, but a discussion about what people want.
HH: Yes, it is. Well put.
PH: And that, at the moment, as I once did, they want there not to be a God. And I think that we would get so much further with them if we insisted in every discussion where they actually deign to talk to us, and treat us as so surfeit that is not to be worth talking to, that we concentrate it upon this question, which I notice the very interesting atheist philosopher, Thomas Nagel admits as crucial. Why do they so much want there not to be a God? And if we can talk to them about that, then maybe the thing can actually be discussed in a way which gets somewhere, and which might conceivably bring them closer to where obviously you and I think they ought to be.
HH: Now you do not mention him in your book, Rage Against God, but as an English believer in the time that you are living, Cardinal Newman will be canonized by Benedict in a couple of months here. Do you read Newman? Are you closer to the Catholic Church than you much once thought it was possible?
PH: No, I mean, friends of mine do, and press it upon me, and I feel, I made a resolve many years ago never to pretend to have read things I haven’t. No, I haven’t, but I know that I ought to, and friends of mine say that I ought to. One of the things I slightly have against Newman is that he decided that he would leave the Church, I mean, go to the Church in Rome. And I regret that. I think it was a loss. I think he should have stayed where he was. I think the Church of England is, and remains an important tradition in its own right, and it doesn’t need to fall into the embrace of Rome to maintain its tradition. And I think he could have done better to have added to it. And I’ll stick by that if pushed. I am an Anglican, like it or not, and I…which means that I can be Catholic in the morning, and Protestant in the evening, and that’s all right.
HH: Doesn’t it feel, though, as though the temple’s falling down around your ears in a way that Christianity is not, generally?
PH: No, I’m afraid I don’t think any, there’s any abiding city in the matter of human institutions. I actually fear that after Benedict, the Roman Catholic Church is going to go through the most terrific convulsions itself, which are already being prepared. I just don’t, the Roman Catholic Church is so full of what I would call liberal dissent waiting to be released from restraint.
HH: Fascinating. Peter Hitchens, stay with me. I’ll be right back, America. The book is The Rage Against God.
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HH: But Peter Hitchens, I’ve got to tell you, it was sort of sad for me to read, and like many Anglophiles in America, I’m sure you’ll run into them, who are just astonished that you don’t much care for the cult of Churchill, which we are all bred on here, and upset that the bust has been sent back, and all that. And it’s just sad that you seem to have no hope for the country’s sort of return from the ditch. Is that fair?
CH: No, I wouldn’t say I had no hope. I’m not allowed to despair. I would say I have very little, and if I concentrate entirely on, relied on my own reason and my own perception on what was going on, I think things do look pretty black. We are a country in very severe decline of all kinds, and there is, at the moment, no sign whatever of any serious attempt to recover from that decline. On the contrary, it’s embraced by a large part of the population, and it, one of the thing about Anglophiles abroad is that even when they come here, they tend to see a country which is actually not the one that I live in, because the tourist visitor inevitably sees the nicer parts, and isn’t going to go to the sort of place where you discover that the feral youths loping through the streets, where they will kick your head in at the drop of a hat. But we see them, and we see the un-policed cities, and we see vast areas from which the economy has withdrawn, and where people live entirely on welfare. And we see the colossal baleful effects of uncontrolled mass immigration. And we see the effects of an education system in which people can spend eleven years in full-time education and come out unable to read, write or count. And these things are all there. They’re present. And even someone like me, who’s fantastically fortunate and lives a very good and comfortable life by comparison with most, I can’t actually avoid the effects of these things in my daily life as I travel about. And I feel it’s absolutely incumbent on me to say this is what is happening. And unless something is done about it very soon, then as a society, we will cease to function. We are becoming an uncivilized anarchy, and a very, very uneducated and immoral one as well. The other thing, the institution of marriage is in an advanced state of collapse here. Marriage simply doesn’t enter into the lives of many young people who set up home without even considering getting married. It doesn’t happen. It’s gone. The number of children being born outside wedlock is colossal. I think it’s now the majority.
HH: The grim but powerful movie, Harry Brown with Michael Caine, is sort of a visual of what you just said.
HH: But how widespread is this decline, Peter Hitchens?
PH: Well, the picture conjured up there is confined to certain areas, I suppose, in London. It would be extreme to say that it was generally like that. It’s much more a position where for instance, you can go down to what would twenty years ago been a respectable but not particularly prosperous suburban area, and you’ll now see some twelve year old drug dealers wheeling about on their little bicycles. And you’ll see boarded up houses or burnt out houses. And also, if you venture into certain areas after dark, then you might well run into the sort of people you don’t want to run into.
HH: And how much of this is because…
PH: And it’s a lot of, there’s a lot of potential violence as well. There’s this terrible thing people will find that their street, which was previously peaceful, will attract, for some reason, groups of youths hanging around outside their houses. You go out and challenge those people at your peril. And as you get older and weaker, or if you have the misfortune to be female, this becomes very oppressive. And people begin to hide in their own homes. It’s very hard to measure. It doesn’t, you can’t measure it in crime statistics. How do you put it in crime statistics if you’re a pensioner couple in their 70s, living in a small house, against the walls of whose house youths kick footballs hard all day? You live with that, you go mad with fear and misery, because you don’t challenge them. There won’t be any crime statistics. No one will make a film about it. But it happens all the time.
HH: Now there is a theme in Rage Against God that part of this decline, if not most of it, is because of the collapse of Christianity. Is that a theory that you’ll stand by for this general malaise?
PH: Oh, well it’s obviously, Christianity penetrated this country so deeply that several things happened, particularly in the 19th Century, where the results largely the remoralization encompassed by the Wesleys, and their disciples, and Methodism, but other sources as well. Throughout the 19th Century, huge things happened. The working class, the poor of this country, gave up alcohol in large numbers, a huge temperance movement. And they supported the values of family and marriage and thrift. The Bible was universally known, as was that great companion volume to the Bible in the English tradition, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.
HH: Hold that thought, Peter, I’ve got to go to break.
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HH: You were saying, Peter, at the break that Methodism in its turn of the century rise around the 1800s powered a great age in Great Britain, and then the draining away of Christianity has powered the collapse of the edifice of that great age?
PH: Oh, very much so. We had this extraordinary combination, which very few nations and civilizations achieve of order and liberty. And people were free. There was no oppressive state. We were very lightly policed. The law did not weigh heavily on our shoulders. We weren’t told to do much. But we actually behaved ourselves, because as a people, we knew that there would be reasons to do so. And our language is full of Biblical allusion. And our music, certainly at that stage, also full of the great hymns of the English Church. Everybody’s minds were full of the injunctions of Christianity, and it was believed. I…there are many arguments about how its end came. I tend to think that the 1914-1918 war was probably the great blow to it, and a number of other institutions in our country. But since then, it has been in decline. And once people stopped believing in it, and become practical atheists, they’re not Dawkins, I’d say. They don’t go on and on about being atheists. They just are, and they are atheists in their everyday life. They believe that might is right, and they either act on it by being strong and frightening other people, or they act on it by being frightened, and having no recourse. There is absolutely nothing but force in the lives of many people in our country now.
HH: A couple of beautiful lines from The Rage Against God. You write that a cheap and second-rate modernity was to replace the decrepit magnificence of empire, and that the astonishing swiftness of the change was like the crumbling of an Egyptian mummy exposed to air. That is partially because of the acceleration of history that’s all around us. But couldn’t the reverse also be true? Couldn’t the acceleration of a renewed faith in God, and in particular, Christianity, occur because of the technology and the way in which we live these days, Peter Hitchens?
PH: Well again, I see no signs of it. And what worries me is that the new atheists who campaign now so vigorously, for instance, for Christianity to be excluded from schools, and who equate the teaching of Christianity to children as truth with child abuse, and who are therefore making sure that many, many more people grow up without any access to Christian belief or thought or the Scriptures, we have children who don’t know what Easter is about. And we will soon have children who don’t know what Christmas is about in very large numbers, for instance. What I think they’re doing is if there is a, really, this revival in this country, I’ll tell you who’ll benefit from it, and it’ll be the Muslims, because they make no compromises. They have absolutely no intention of giving up what they believe. They believe it sternly and strictly, and they’re very present in Britain. You can’t go into any major British city now without seeing the dome and minaret of at least one mosque, and often many more than that. They’re there. Their beliefs are simple, straightforward, easily explained. And I think if a religious revival comes, it may well be that thanks to Professor Dawkins and his friends, Britain becomes an Islamic country. I think they should think very carefully about that.
HH: Are you acquainted with the novels…
PH: They’re very intent on driving Christianity out, and what they’re not aware of is once they’ve swept and garnished the space, what may move in instead.
HH: Have you read the novels of Robert Ferrigno, which is the rise of an Islamicized America?
PH: No, I haven’t.
HH: All right, just something. Let me go back to science for a moment. The faith of a faithless age, you wrote, but what’s so funny about that, Peter Hitchens, is that Bill Bryson, an American who makes his home over there now, wrote in his book, The Brief History Of Nearly Everything, that almost everything in the science books that you grew up with, and me, too, I’m just a few years younger than you, was wrong. They were wrong about everything.
PH: Absolutely, yes. I know. And I mean, not just wrong, but incredibly rigid and dogmatic about its wrongness. If science had been taught to me the way I now understand it, as a search for truth in which everything was only probably five minutes way from disproof, then I would have been much more interested in it than I was. But I will say it was often taught as a series of things simply being assumed to be the case, without there being any necessitude to explain them. And I must say I think that we’re very weakened by this. It was largely, of course, a Victorian and Edwardian thing, the idea that science would one day explain everything. You go into the novels of C. P. Snow, in fact, that are quite interesting, the assumptions among the young scientists of the 1920s that you ran to the laboratory with their enthusiasm for science, because it was such a great thing. They thought that it was only a matter of time before they explained everything. And of course, it’s not clear, that they’re never going to explain everything, that it’s beyond them.
HH: Don’t you think that that certainty, the certainty of Dawkins and others, is about questions they cannot possibly ever answer, is going to…
PH: Oh, it’s very old-fashioned, isn’t it? It’s like somebody who thinks that a paddle steamer is modern.
PH: And they have an attitude towards science which is, and most of them don’t know that much about science, in my view, anyway. They have an attitude towards science which is tremendously Victorian, and contains almost no understanding of the revolutions that are taking place, most particularly in physics in recent years. They just don’t seem to have a clue about it. and I’m not a scientist, but I am aware, and I know people who are, and I’m aware of the fact that things are going on which would undermine, or certainly cast a lot of doubt, on a crude materialist explanation of the universe.
HH: And aren’t you encouraged by…
PH: And anybody who knows about it surely should acknowledge this.
HH: Aren’t you encouraged by the success of The Rage Against God, and sort of the counterattack against the new atheists?
PH: Well, I’m encouraged by any success. And as I say, I don’t, I am a pessimist…
PH: …because it always seemed to me to be a sensible view to take. You don’t get disappointed, and you sometimes get pleasantly surprised. But I’m encouraged by every step forward that happens. But I do think that, perhaps you looking across the Atlantic from a country which is still actually substantially Christian, don’t realize just how very severely Christianity has been undermined and destroyed in Britain, and just how weak a force it now is.
HH: Well, I have sat with the head of Young Life in your country, one of my favorite Christian ministries, and heard that it is, it’s just gone. It doesn’t exist, really, Christianity. I mean, just…
PH: Well, I wouldn’t go that far, and what we will have is that one of the crucial parts of our constitution is the coronation service, in which the monarchy is crowned in a way which is specifically and unquestionably Christian, and makes it plain in the basis of our laws and justice, is the Christian religion, and the Protestant Christian at that. Well, I have a feeling that the next coronation, which I hope will be a long way off, but by the nature of things, can’t be indefinitely postponed, will not be a fully Christian ceremony, and that will be the first time that’s ever happened in our country. That gives you an indication of how far it’s gone.
HH: We’ll be right back with Peter Hitchens.
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HH: Peter, some surprises in the book. I expected that you would spend a lot of time on the pulverizing nature of television, and you didn’t. And I didn’t expect to even come into the Suez crisis, and yet you hang on that much of the disaster that was post-war Great Britain. We only have two and a half minutes in this segment. Would you tell people that choice there? Not much scuffling about, about television, but a lot of focus on the collapse of empire?
PH: Well, I’ve said a lot about television in one of my previous books, The Abolition Of Britain. And I feel that all the books that I write should make a unity. And I hope that people who read this might read the others. But I felt that it had been said, and I didn’t want to repeat it.