Page last updated at 00:18 GMT, Saturday, 26 December 2009

One lesson to teach the young

A POINT OF VIEW

The young are the future, but they must still be reminded of the lessons of the past, says Clive James in his last weekly column for some time.

Aung San Suu Kyi
For many, Aung San Suu Kyi is a symbol of the struggle for democracy

Another year is coming to an end and once again my granddaughter and her gang of friends and cousins are invading the house, the whole bunch of them with an average age of about four but with the energy of a pod of dolphins and the noise level of a hail-storm on a tin roof.

Owing to my highly trained powers of perception I am able to detect that they are a bit bigger than last year. My granddaughter herself will soon be as tall as our advent rag doll, code-named Tommasina, who once again is in service to provide mystery chocolates.

Actually the mystery of the chocolates is the worst kept secret in the world, because every gang member knows that Tommasina of the many pockets has always got a chocolate on her somewhere. I have already been caught checking her pockets myself, and warned off.

There is a rearrangement this year by which one of the big dinners is at our house but one of the big lunches is at my elder daughter's house or perhaps the other way around. Either way, all the presents must apparently be carried from one house to the other except for the presents that have to be carried in the other direction, and I will be a key factor in the carrying.

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Clive James
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Everyone knows that my mind went long ago but that I can still lift weights and carry them about. Actually if they knew how my arthritic ankles ached they would probably take that job away from me too, but I don't tell them. The most tragic line in all of Shakespeare is: "Othello's occupation's gone."

The Shakespeare of Russia was, or was going to be, Alexander Pushkin, a divinely gifted poet who died young, and mainly from his own folly. But he was one of those foolish young men who have wisdom as a gift to squander, and he said a marvellous thing about children. "They crowd us from the world."

If he had lived long enough, eventually they would have done that to him. It's why children are here - to replace us. If we're lucky, we've grown old enough to need replacement. I like to think that I've got a few more years left in me yet. I like to think that I've got a few more decades left in me yet, but on a more objective scale of assessment I've already started to remind myself of the knife that had four blades and three handles before somebody lost it.

Life's twilight

And yet when the kids are scooting around the house I can't help rejoicing that they can bounce on their heads upside down on the furniture just the way I once did but now can't. I mean I not only rejoice that they can, I rejoice that I can't. What could be worse than eternal youth if it meant denying the next generation room to live?

Only a fool or a churl would not be glad that life will continue when he is gone. If it did not do that, what would be the point of having lived at all? Chesterton once said that a madman is someone who has lost everything except his capacity for reason. But there is a more subtle version of a madman, and much more insidious - the man who sincerely believes that the party is over when he leaves it.

You can still meet theorists today who rail against the alienating effects of industrial society, but it was industrial society that furthered the liberation of women

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, not one of my favourite writers but a terrific coiner of titles, has a phrase for the twilight of a man's life - the autumn of the patriarch.

There should be pride in it, that you behaved no worse. There should be gratitude, that you were allowed to get this far. And above all there should be no bitterness. The opposite, in fact.

The future is no less sweet because you won't be there. The children will be there, taking their turn on earth. In consideration of them, we should refrain from pessimism, no matter how well founded that grim feeling might seem.

When I was the age my granddaughter and her friends are now, the modern world was at its worst. Children my age, their age, were being murdered for no reason at all.

Towering achievements

At the hands of the Nazis, one-and-a-half million children perished horribly. And that figure was just a fraction of all the innocent people who died pointlessly, for the fulfilment of idle political dreams, in the period between my birth and adolescence.

By the time I was a strong young man, and could read, I knew all about it. If I was ever going to despair for the human race, that would have been the time.

Woman makes penicillin
There are triumphs that the young can be taught about

But I wasn't only reading about all that had been destroyed, I was reading about all that had been achieved.

It was one of my countrymen, Howard Florey, who did the crucial work in developing penicillin, and penicillin saved my life when I was ill.

So right there I had an example of what human creativity could do to overcome the pitiless workings of nature.

Modern ideological maniacs could only kill people. But creative spirits, working in freedom, could make life better, and after World War II you could see it happening in the West even as China and all the lands of the Soviet bloc continued to suffer from compulsory madness.

The industrial revolution continued. It had long ago got past the stage when it ruined the lives of factory workers. It had reached the stage when you had to be a die-hard anti-capitalist to believe that modern technology was not improving lives.

My mother, cruelly deprived of her husband by the war, would have had every reason to warn me that I should place no trust in the human future.

Lives transformed

But the human future had already arrived, in the form of labour-saving devices. First the refrigerator came to our house, and then the vacuum cleaner, and then the washing machine.

Her everyday life was transformed, along with the lives of all the women in Australia, and throughout the West.

You can still meet theorists today who rail against the alienating effects of industrial society, but it was industrial society that furthered the liberation of women.

Hitler and his coterie in Paris
The triumph of liberal democracy in the West looms large

A lot of bad stuff came along with the abundance - crummy advertising, crass materialism, pollution. But none of that was as bad as the slavery that had been rendered obsolete.

Our mothers knew all that, and even as they voted Labor they were careful to warn us against any voices who preached against prosperity. Prosperity didn't guarantee freedom but there could be no widespread freedom without it.

Knowledge like that was handed down, from the generation that had once suffered to the next generation which would not.

Today, several generations along into the continued prosperity of the West - so abundant that it holds together even when the banks collapse - that knowledge becomes even more important.

The question arises of how it can be passed on when those in the next generation have no memory of anything else.

On television they see something else - they see the sufferings of the deprived and oppressed all over the world, and they hear voices saying that all the deprivation and oppression are the fault of the society they themselves live in.

The best of the young will always tend to believe this, because compassion is a powerful motive among the good. And anyway, in the harshest days of colonialism it was true, and partly it is still true now.

But the larger truth is that the poor countries can make little use of our wealth, even when they are handed it free, if they have not embraced liberal democracy first.

Essential democracy

The importance of liberal democracy has been the only real idea I have felt qualified to pass on in these broadcasts.

Qualified because I was born and raised at a time when liberal democracy was under threat, and have lived into a time when it has become obvious that liberal democracy is the first and essential requirement for all the nations of the world.

Whether there is a painless way of learning that lesson, without having to learn it from experience, is a real question, to which I don't yet have the answer. I want to write a book on the subject, which is why this will be not only the last broadcast in my share of the series, but my last for some time.

A few years back I published a book about culture and politics in the 20th Century, and this new book will deal with the further subject of how historical lessons can still be learned if the prospect of political tragedy is eliminated.

But even more misleading than pessimism is optimism, and it's probably optimistic to think that things will ever get that good.

Pushkin
Pushkin knew the role of the young

There will always be a salutary disaster somewhere, even if it's not happening to us. At the moment, very slowly and quietly, just such a disaster is happening to Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma. I want to end my stint by paying tribute to her, for her personal bravery, and for what her life under house arrest symbolically represents.

I am very conscious, when I think of her, that I am an armchair warrior and she is a warrior.

She was a child when her father was assassinated, but she must have learned a lot from his example. Spending his short life in the quest for Burma's independence, he rebelled against British imperial rule and backed the Japanese version of the same thing, until he realised that it was even worse.

After the war, having learned his lesson, he led his country towards democracy, and paid the price for getting too close.

And now his daughter is still paying the price, for her own people, and for us.

And for all the small people in my house except Tommasina, who will never grow up, never have doubts, never know disappointment, but only because she will never live. She doesn't know what she's missing.


A selection of your comments appears below.

Completely agree with you, Clive, that technology has liberated women. Only around 100 years ago women would spend three days of the week washing clothes. Cleaning and cooking would occupy the rest of the time.
John Airey, Peterborough, UK

As always, I find Clive James comments often echo my own thoughts, and I thank my cousin for forwarding this article to me. Children are a wonderful leveller, sadly one cannot always shield them from life's hurts and disappointments. As an elderly lady now, I find that the more pain one has to bear in life, often leads us to develop into much kinder and compassionate human beings.
Anita Allchin, Bicton, Perth, Western Australia

My thirteen year old daughter Olivia recently held an "Amnestea" fundraiser to raise awareness of the situation of Aung San Suu Kyi, driven by a sense that injustice must be rectified - youthful idealism. This idealism is such a great characteristic in the young and we must always encourage it. A need to fight peacefully for the rights of their fellow planet dwellers and a love of democracy are among the gifts our children REALLY need from us.
F S, Canterbury

I heard this item on my way to the gym. It was such a well written, though provoking piece that I sat in the car whilst the broadcast finished and made a note to re-visit it when I came home. I've only just got to the computer. Over the weekend, I have been in conversation with many friends, all lamenting how our young people are ALL dragging down the world, the world being totally different from the one in which we grew up. I would judge that we are Clive James' contemporaries. I tried to inject into these conversations some of the wisdom of this piece, but only managed a much reduced version of it. I will now e-mail the link to everyone I can, so that they can enjoy it as much as I did. Thanks Clive
Carole Jefferson, Loughborough England

I played this to my son this evening and I will pass the transcript on to my nephews and nieces around the world. We should never lose sight of what democracy and economic progress has done for us, particularly as both are always threatened by political ambition and the bringers of doom. Today's youth must remember that the relative comforts and good fortune of their lives have not been the experience of most who have walked this earth. We are indeed lucky to have been given the gift of life in a liberal capitalist society.
Tony Penman, Clavering, Essex

What's your point? Do you think the youth of today will be able to relive the horrors of two world wars, the corruption of communism and despotism? Have you told your grandchildren of your experiences? I doubt it, because our generation do not like to talk about it. Oh! We talk about "when I was a kid we didnt have this or that" and make a big joke about it. But the schools today are removing these "horror stories" from the curriculum, not allowing our children's children to understand the hardships that were suffered by their forefathers. I know that if I were to start to tell my grandchildren of my experiences they would turn away. But, if the schools were to give an introductory talk on it they would rush home to ASK their grandparents for more information. We are losing it because of political correctness.
Varangkol, Bangkok Thailand

I was so sad to hear Clive James say it was his last point of view - although pleased we will have another book from him. I have emailed Sunday's repeat to a friend, something I've never done before. I am 74 and am tired of people of my own age saying they want to live forever. We have to 'move over' and in this talk Clive put the reasons for moving over so very well - as he always does. Please tell him thank you very much from one who is about his age. We've grown up together so to speak - I went to London for adventure at about the time that he was arriving from Australia. I regret never having met him!
Dorothy Fielding, Silverdale, Carnforth, Lancs, England

So Clive has tumbled to the fact that life has this immutable conundrum, that life is in turn a fantastic and a possibly pointless existence. Fantastic because of the intricacies of birth and the way everything works in a hugely intricate way and pointless because we are prepared to waste so much of it. May I point out that I take issue with his concept of people being either fools or churls if they do not want life to continue after them. It may be quite natural to want to procreate but the argument goes to the heart of our wanting to leave something for posterity. If you realise that Posterity may not be kind to you then the reality may be that the issue of leaving another generation behind you is nothing more than a pointless pipe dream. In fact I know people who have decided to not have children for that very reason. I am of course a fool (mainly because I live in hope; because that is life's driving force). As to his question about how can experience be passed on- believe it or not there is much that is innate. People have always known how to make money-if they are interested in making it. Much to ponder on.
LeoRoverman, Welling Kent

Since the 70s Observer TV reviews I've been a great fan of Clive's writing and have forgiven him Clive James on television (we all have to put food on the table). As illustrated above, his ability to pan back from the minutiae of day-to-day life to view them in the context of world issues and give these wider issues a human face makes him the natural successor to Alistair Cooke. I can think of no greater compliment
Frank Gillone, Kilmacolm



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