Influential cultural critic Clive James about his latest book, Cultural Amnesia, a hundred short essays on 20th-century thinkers, villains, and heroes.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the Journal. Thirty years ago when my journalism took me often to London, the first thing I did was buy the observer newspaper for the latest television review by Clive James. He was the talk of the town. Everyone wanted to know what Clive James thought about what they were watching. Pretty soon he was on TV himself, writing and presenting studio series and specials on politics and the arts. Clive James went on to become one of our generation’s most influential cultural critics. And people still want to know what he thinks…they filled the hall at his recent visit to the New York Public Library.
This native of Australia can shame any rival polymath with his creativity. Best selling author of over 20 books…four novels….poetry…essays. ..three memoirs……and now the founder of his own multi-media website…. A virtual who’s who of British cultural life. This is his latest book, Cultural Amnesia…a hundred short essays on twentieth century thinkers, villains and heroes -it’s been called the work of a lifetime – one man’s crash course in civilization. Clive James, welcome to The Journal.
CLIVE JAMES: Bill, I’m honored.
BILL MOYERS: You dedicate this book to four women. Why?
CLIVE JAMES: Well, it’s a feminist book really. It’s because many of my generation who grew up — during World War II — the men were away at the war. Some of them didn’t come back including my father. And the — the women were all around us. And we got the idea it would be a better world if they were running it. And I still think that. And it’s actually dedicated to — women, who in my view, are heroines. Two of them are — Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma, and Sophie Scholl who is the German — she was a kid really. She was 21 years old when she was executed by the — the Nazis.
BILL MOYERS: Roman Catholic.
CLIVE JAMES: Yeah, 1943 — 19 —
BILL MOYERS: Stood up — stood up —
BILL MOYERS: Why — why did you choose her?
CLIVE JAMES: Well, the White Rose resistance group was a fascinating little bunch of kids. There wasn’t much they could do. They could print a few pamphlets. This was late 1942. Stalingrad hadn’t even happened yet. And — all they could do was print up a bunch of pamphlets and spread them around protesting about the Nazi regime and its treatment of the Jews, et cetera. And they knew what would happen if they got caught. And they got caught and did happen. And Sophie actually could have walked away. Because the Nazis realized that while on the whole it would be better PR if she did. But she wouldn’t. And she took the hit along with her brother. And it’s a great, great story. It’s well known in Germany by now. It wasn’t during World War II. The Nazis sat on it.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah right, sure. How —
CLIVE JAMES: Word was spread after World War II. But now she’s a heroine and should be all over the world. I don’t —
BILL MOYERS: Well — because?
CLIVE JAMES: Because she wasn’t Ann Frank. See, Ann Frank, great as she was — Ann Frank was a victim. She was going to die anyway. Sophie didn’t even have to. Sophie did it because of her solidarity with people like Ann Frank. She was saying there’s a basic human bottom line which you can’t cross. But you have to stand up and be counted. The truth is most of us don’t stand up and be counted. It takes heroism to do it. She was just a natural heroine. And — and the story has endless implications which I try to bring out. One of the ways the book works is it starts arguments, you know. And so this is — this is the noble point. This is where you start thinking about would you — would you have done this, for example? Do you know anyone who has this kind of courage? And then wouldn’t you prefer to get on with your life and let those things happen to other people.
BILL MOYERS: I was pleased to see that you had included in your dedication, Hirsi Ali. Because I interviewed her last year. And I found that quiet witness that she gives to her own conscious against these great overwhelming animosity from her —
CLIVE JAMES: I think she —
BILL MOYERS: — own believers.
CLIVE JAMES: — she is tremendous. And of course, she’s right in the focal point of history now. Some people think she’s trying to do too much. She wants to change the whole of Islam. And there are others, and me included, who think there’s some — some way that you should try and influence Islam in order that the moderates can stand up to the extremists. Ion Hersey wants a lot. But she wants is fundamental to her and to women I should imagine. I can’t imagine why the feminists in the West aren’t fully and unequivocally allied with Ion Hersey Ali on this issue. But they are not.
BILL MOYERS: What do you want young people most to remember about the 20th —
CLIVE JAMES: Well, I want —
BILL MOYERS: — century?
CLIVE JAMES: — them to remember what we remember. You and I remember because we were there. We were —
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, you’re five years younger than I am so we —
CLIVE JAMES: Well —
BILL MOYERS: — shared that same World War II, post-war —
CLIVE JAMES: Exactly.
BILL MOYERS: — Cold War —
CLIVE JAMES: See, I can remember — when we were young I can remember a time when freedom was under genuine, ferocious threats from the Nazis, from Imperial Japan and we late — later realized from the Soviet Union as well. And it was — things were in the balance in World War II. In fact, America saved us. That’s why I can never be completely an anti-American. Because as an Australian — we were saved by America.
And there’s a terrible truth about history in the 20th century right through until now which was uncovered by a marvelous American writer, Samantha Power, in her wonderful book, Genocide, A Problem from Hell. And one of the things that makes this book valuable is she reached a conclusion she didn’t want to reach. She reached the conclusion that genocidal regimes — will never be stopped unless there are — there — unless someone intervenes — unless they run out of victims. But if they don’t run out of victims they won’t be stopped unless someone intervenes. And the person who intervenes is usually the U.S.
And she traces from 1915 when Theodore Roosevelt, ex-President Theodore — as he then was — wanted to intervene in Armenia and couldn’t and — and save the Armenians from the Turks and couldn’t do it. She traces from then what seems to be the incontrovertible fact that America is the decisive influence for good or ill — sometimes for ill — in the whole business of — of stopping the maniac from killing everybody he wants to kill. You’ve got it right now in Darfur. Can I give you an example.
CLIVE JAMES: Right now in Darfur, the really British papers who have been opposing the Iraq — what they call the Iraq War although the war only lasted a few days. What they really objected to was the mess that’s been made with the Iraq peace.
CLIVE JAMES: Anyway, the very papers that make most mockery of the U.S. and of Bush’s initiatives and the neo-cons and so on are now writing headlines, The World Stands by as Darfur Suffers. What they mean when they say the world stands by — when they say, “We’re waiting for the world to intervene,” they’re really saying, “We’re waiting for the Americans. What are the Americans going to do?” And you might say, “Well, the Americans can’t do anything because they’re so hopelessly tied up in — in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
But that is really what it comes to. The U.N. has been — it’s taken — it’s taken the U.N. four years to decide there’s something going on in Darfur. And really what America does is really, really decisive. And that’s what we find all so uncomfortable to live with if we’re not American.
BILL MOYERS: The lesson I take from this is that barbarism is a phenomenon that always lies just below the surface —
CLIVE JAMES: Just here.
BILL MOYERS: — just — just there and in the 20th century got institutionalized in the state.
CLIVE JAMES: Yeah, yeah, it’s even worse. It’s not just here. It’s in here. The propensity for barbarism in all other — it’s probably part of our original energy. When you throw a tantrum — when you threw a tantrum when you were a kid, what did you say, “I’ll kill you, right. You disagree with me I’ll kill you.”
That is now fundamental to politics in the world. Do what I say or I’ll kill you. It’s a tantrum. It’s within the human personality.
It’s always there. And it’s held back as Freud saw. He thought that society was civilized to the extent that it had overcome nature. In other words, he thought — he thought this — this kind of tendency to massacre everyone that disagrees with you was natural. And I’m afraid it is. And — civilization is that very thing. It’s the — the steady accumulation of institutions over the course of history which has brought us up to where we are now where we can disagree with each other without — without falling to —
BILL MOYERS: This barbarism that sits there, dorm — organized in the — and powerful in the 21st — in the 20th century hasn’t disappeared. Darfur as you say, 9-11, the radical elements of Islam, I mean, it’s still here. What — what the duce good is humanism against this — this intense barbarism?
CLIVE JAMES: Well, constant message of my book is you must pursue humanism for its own sake. And — utilitarian — a utilitarian view won’t work. You’ve got to know and love these things for its own sake. You hope on the other hand that it will do something to off set the advance — the advance of — of barbarism.
But I wouldn’t say that — if you get enough humanism fast enough you’ll stave off barbarism. For one thing, fate or God or whatever it is that eventually rules us all may not care if we survive. There’s no guarantee that civilization will continue. It’s sending — it’s always sent fairly robust signs of being over — over — overcome any kind of totalitarian organization. The interesting thing about World War II, was the Nazis were quite well organized. The Japanese were quite well organized — compared with, say, the U.S. and Britain at the start of the war which weren’t organized at all. And the U.S. had a smaller armed forces than Czechoslovakia in the late ’30s.
But within a very short time the democ — democracies organized themselves better. There’s something about the creative force of liberal democracy which gives you hope that it can overcome any challenge including terrorism. I’m sure terrorism can punch very large holes in western civilization and probably will — let’s be fatalistic, yeah. It’s very, very hard to stop a bomber who’s ready to kill himself. But there’s — also every reason to think that civilization is simply too strong to be brought down by terrorist activity. But I don’t want to make any false hopes. And it would be a false hope to say if you learn enough, if you love Botticelli enough, if you listen to Beethoven enough then — then the enemy will retreat. It’s not going to happen.
BILL MOYERS: You say in here that the best time to see into a society is at that moment of disillusion or when these forces converge. Do you see that now —
BILL MOYERS: — by western civilization?
CLIVE JAMES: It’s like if you have the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia, when you’re standing along it it’s only when there’s a gap in the reef that you can see the way that the reef is constructed. There — these breakdowns of — of — of societies, of cultures which happened in Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1933, in Austria, 1938 and so on, they give you a hint of how a culture works. Because when the pieces break up you see how it all hangs together.
Everybody — their life disintegrates, not just the writers. We — we know all about the writers but the printers, the — the — the publishers, the illustrators, everybody concerned with the whole business of culture are scattered to the wind. And you see — and the school teachers. You see how the society fits together. It’s extremely complex and impossible to reproduce through one person’s will. This was why by Burke was a great thinker.
BILL MOYERS: Edmund Burke?
CLIVE JAMES: Yeah, Burke always emphasized the importance of continuity. But you’re not going to think of it all by yourself. You inherit a civilization. What you do is you try to protect it and improve it. But get rid of the idea that it can all start again because a few men think it can. That was exactly what was wrong with the Russian intelligentsia at the end of the 20th — 19th century. And that’s why the Russian revolution happened the way it did.
BILL MOYERS: That’s what the — that’s what I admire what you just said about continuity, that’s what I admire about principle conservatism — classical conservatism. And then the breakdown of conservatism in this country — we’ve seen it in the last few years — is a matter of deep concern now.
CLIVE JAMES: Well, it — it — all intellectual tendencies — are corrupted when they consort with power. What happened was that a lot of people who should be listened to started to become active. And that — that modified the whole message. That’s what you’re living with now. We’ll see what the next administration does. But I must say — and I’m going to put my hand right in the fire here and say, you know, it — if you don’t intervene against someone like Saddam Hussein who will — see, I thought the — the reason for intervening against Saddam Hussein were quite good especially if you happened to be an Iraqi.
CLIVE JAMES: On the other hand, you would hope that whoever intervened and I — in some ways, I think it’s really just the Australians.
BILL MOYERS: The Australians, why?
CLIVE JAMES: Well, 100 guys could have done the whole job and got away again. It was — wasn’t the war which was over in a few days. It’s what happened next could not have been worse managed.
BILL MOYERS: We’re just not good at empire.
CLIVE JAMES: Well, I have my own personal opinions. And I wouldn’t —
BILL MOYERS: What is it?
CLIVE JAMES: Well, I wouldn’t put Bush and Rumsfeld in charge of anything. And I have a particular beef against Rumsfeld which I won’t go into now. It lasts about an hour. I could do a — a piece about this guy. When — when Bush —
BILL MOYERS: Put him in your next book.
CLIVE JAMES: Well, what — there — there may be a companion volume about five years from now. And that would be one of the things.
BILL MOYERS: What would you say about that?
CLIVE JAMES: Well, I’ve got to — I — I’ve got this idea for the patterns of fantasy where things keep returning . And this — one other thing, when Bush came to power — coming to power’s a wrong word for a — for — for a democratic — leader in a democratic country. When he was elected there was suddenly — the whole of the Nixon Administration minus Nixon seemed to come out of the past, become real again. And these ghostly figures suddenly took on flesh like Cheney, yeah, and Rumsfeld. And the world started to tremble.
BILL MOYERS: So, what is the consequence of being able to have a second and third chance?
CLIVE JAMES: Well, you mean with — with —
BILL MOYERS: With Cheney and Rumsfeld and that whole group.
CLIVE JAMES: Well, it tells you they learned nothing.
BILL MOYERS: They should — they should read Cultural Amnesia, right.
CLIVE JAMES: How to learn — one of the things that the book told you is how to learn from mistakes. Intellectuals on — as a whole in the 20th century on the left made a huge mistake in putting — making an emotional investment interest Soviet Union and then in Communist China. It was a tremendous error — error. How much did it teach them? Not a lot.
BILL MOYERS: Is total — is totalitarianism behind us? Is it an artifact of the 20th century?
CLIVE JAMES: It’s behind us in that I think the — liberal democracies in all their forms have no reason to fear it. Where there’s a system that votes it probably won’t come back in again. But it — it — it continues. Because I think it’s — it’s a virus. It’s a spirit. And it’s in fanaticism. It’s in extremism.
The biggest problem we face on the international scale is that — is to protect the majority of Muslims, the vast majority of Islam, to convince them somehow that their extremists are their enemies and not just ours. And if we can’t do that then we don’t deserve to survive. And there’s a reason why the majority is silent. And there’s a very simple one. And that’s fear. The extremists are very dangerous.
BILL MOYERS: Are you made uncomfortable by the large influx of Muslims into Britain?
CLIVE JAMES: No, I’m not. I’m made uncomfortable only by the fact that the imams are allowed to preach hatred in the mosques.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, no — I don’t know understand that.
CLIVE JAMES: Well —
BILL MOYERS: I mean, you don’t have a written Bill of Rights.
CLIVE JAMES: If you were paying —
BILL MOYERS: We do.
CLIVE JAMES: — no we don’t but if you were paying my taxes you’d realize you’d be subject — you — you would spend years subsidizing guys —
BILL MOYERS: Well, I recognize that —
CLIVE JAMES: — that are — that are standing up and preaching murder. And some of the young kids are foolish enough to listen. And how they can be reached is always the biggest problem facing Britain. Australia’s doing a lot better job —
BILL MOYERS: But how does a liberal democracy deal with the frustration you — where you allow these imams to get up and preach violence against the country that — that protects them.
CLIVE JAMES: Make them do it in English. But that’s what Australia — Australia is actually doing a better job — first of all, America does a fine job. Because it’s easier in America. Because all the Muslims that are living in the area of Detroit — that’s the biggest Muslim community outside the Muslim countries — they sing the Star Spangled Banner every morning. You know, it — American patriotism is much easier to induce.
Australia does a pretty good job, better than Britain. Because in Australia, a government spokesman — he’s actually the deputy prime minister — had the strength to get up there on television and say to all Muslims, “You’re welcome. Of course, you are. You’re citizens. But you must — your young people must give up a dream that this will ever be an Islamic republic. Australia will never have sharia law. Forget about it. What you’ve got here is law. And you must obey the law.”
He actually got up and said it. This made it easier for moderate imams to shift the top guy. We won’t go into detail here. But the top guy was bad news. And he’d been preaching all kinds of racial hatred for — for years. And he really dissed himself when he said that women-deserved everything the got if they took their clothes off. Australian women take their clothes off very easily. It’s a hot country. And he said — he said every woman — in a bikini was a message from the devil. And he wanted them all treated as if they were enemies.
And his own fellow imams managed to shift him. He was — he was obliged to step down. In fact, he was fired.
BILL MOYERS: Yes, I remember that.
CLIVE JAMES: And — what it gave them courage to do is they realized the state was unequivocally on their side. You’ve got — you’re dealing with a lot of people here. And only a few want to kill the rest. But only — it only takes a few.
Terror has the advantage. For example, terrorism wants to destabilize your justice system. The minute you get people proposing new laws where people can be detained — detained forever, it means terrorism is winning. That’s exactly what terrorism wants. That will recruit more terrorists. It will turn the jails into Al Qaeda universities which is what is going to happen in Britain unless we’re very careful.
That’s why I don’t want new laws. You should be able to get the evidence you need on the — on the — on the detention periods that are already established. If you — you don’t get it by torture. You get it by luxury. And-
BILL MOYERS: By?
CLIVE JAMES: By luxury, make sure that they eat better in jail than they do at home. (LAUGHTER)
BILL MOYERS: Is there a danger in your mind that — that the young people you’re trying to reach will — will assume that liberty, democracy, prosperity, plenty are just natural states?
CLIVE JAMES: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: They won’t realize the long fight, the long struggle to arrive at this —
CLIVE JAMES: Liberal democracy encourages that — that lack of awareness. Because it produces contentment, prosperity happiness and all of these things which are the enemies of knowledge. And the incentive to study history is removed. And it has to be replaced.
I think the only — I can only think of one way of replacing it is to make it fashionable. If you want — if you want the kids to study history, to learn Latin, to do all these things, you don’t encourage them. Forbid them.
BILL MOYERS: Which reminds — you know, you make a very good point in here that I did not realize about the Jews in — in Vienna in a — around the turn of the 20th — 19th, 20th century. That — that Einstein and Freud and — and people like that could not get positions in the university. So, the vital talk — the learning took place in conversations in cafes —
CLIVE JAMES: That was true in — in Germany and in — and especially in Austria. There were quotas and so on. The tendency in the universities was that the Jews were either forced into secondary academic lines — for example, nuclear physics was regarded a rather down-market thing. The reason so many Jews were in nuclear physics is it wasn’t the — the thing that the top scientists did in universities.
And — in Vienna especially — there was — because the universities weren’t fully open, the Jewish intellectuals were forced into the cafes and tended to develop a language which we are still speaking now which is the language of — of — of normal conversational rhythm about profound things. I took it — it took the initiative away from the academy and I — in my view it should always be taken away from the academy. I’ve got a lot of respect for academics. My wife’s an academic. I’m part of an academic meilleur.
But I — I — academic language should not drive the conversation. The conversation should be driven from journalism. I think what we’re doing now and what we write in journalism is not incidental to culture basic to it. And it was demonstrated by the — by the Jewish intellectuals in the Vienna cafés, they learned to write the article, the — what they called the feuilleton, the little leaf, the entertaining thousand word piece which is the — the basis of the whole of modern culture, the — that I find fascinating.
BILL MOYERS: Fascinating that from the margins came —
CLIVE JAMES: Oh yeah, yeah, but you mustn’t deduce from that that there’s something good about repression.
BILL MOYERS: Oh no, no, no.
CLIVE JAMES: — But it did come from the margins.
BILL MOYERS: I wanted to see if there’s an analogy be — between the cafes of Vienna and the internet today?
CLIVE JAMES: Oh sure, and — and of course, the cafes were crawling with maniacs. One of the mai — one of the maniacs in the Vienna cafes was Adolph Hitler. I mean, one of the people who — who’s ideas were flourishing in the cafes was the man who was going to bring it all down with — with Hitler.
And I’m afraid the — the web is the same. The web is a jungle. I know because I’m in it, you know.
BILL MOYERS: Yes, I know.
CLIVE JAMES: And I’m trying to build a clearing there.
BILL MOYERS: Www.CliveJames —
CLIVE JAMES: Com.
BILL MOYERS: — com, right.
CLIVE JAMES: My — it’s under my own my name. You know I had to buy my own name back. Some — some pirate registered every name in England before broadband came in. You have to buy your name back from him. And he charges just a little less than it would cost to sue the guy.
BILL MOYERS: How do you learn to trust what’s on the net?
CLIVE JAMES: You don’t. You don’t. You’ve got to learn and teach critical awareness. It’s just words. One of the — one of the many things this book says is watch out for the beautiful style. The beautiful style may be enshrining a — an untruth.
You’ve got — simply have got to see through the way its said to what’s said. You must always do that. That mental alertness must be — it’s there. But you’ve got to cultivate it. And — no, you don’t trust anything and especially not on the web. I mean, a blogger can be in business in two minutes, you know.
CLIVE JAMES: There are terrible things on the web. It’s not just that it’s 70 percent pornography. It’s a very large percentage of sheer murder. You can watch somebody having their head sliced off on the web, if you know where to look.
And — I — I think this is gonna be counteracted. And — it — it’ll be terrible pity to leave that whole area — free to the vandals. Creative forces have to get there in there somehow. And if I’ve got an altruistic principle left in my body, it’s that one. I’ll do that.
BILL MOYERS: In Cultural Amnesia, in so many of your books and on your website, you are trying to make information available beyond cultural elites. Is that a hopeless cause —
CLIVE JAMES: No, I don’t think so.
BILL MOYERS: — in the popular media?
CLIVE JAMES: I’ve always done it. My only originality when I started off as a journalist is that I didn’t believe in these elites. I thought that — intelligence was enough and if people were intelligent they’d hear what — they’d hear what you had to say.
I don’t believe that knowledge and understanding and wisdom are a property of a class — at all. I believe they’re generally democratic things. That doesn’t mean everyone will understand, but anyone can, you know.
And — so that — it’s still my mission in life is to write in a way that anyone who can read will realize that I’m talking about something. But my enemy is elevated language. They — when — when I used the word academic in a pejorative sense, I mean that the language that puts a distance between the fact being talking about — being talked about and any possible comprehension. That’s the enemy. I really try to write as if I was just saying it. I — I like to think I can write better than I’m talking now. But — but it is a connection between writing and talking which I’d like to maintain. For that very reason it’s a political stance.
BILL MOYERS: A political stance?
CLIVE JAMES: My political stance is that — is that learning and humanism should not be shut off from the people. That unless you can present these things in a way that can — that — that can be understood then you’re losing. The — the idea that you can retreat into some sort of enclave where only you and the — your fellow qualified people — this was — incidentally, this idea was rife in the early 20th century among right wing intellectuals.
TS Eliot, for example, and all his friends believed that only a few people were qualified for culture. I do not believe that. I believe, even though it might be a minority, anybody is — can be qualified.
BILL MOYERS: Are you still a man of the left?
CLIVE JAMES: Yes. I’m on the fundamental, old fashioned left that believes in worker’s rights. My mother and father were both proletarians. They both worked on the production lines in the ’30s if they could get work. The Depression hit Australia very hard. My father went off to the war and never came back. My mother was always poor, brought me on a war widow’s pension.
You bet I was on the left. In Australia we had a concept called the “fair go” which is a built into the system. It’s linked to the basic wage and so on. If you treasure these things as I do you’re on the left. You’re on the left forever.
BILL MOYERS: I — I’m there because my father made the most money in his life, $100 a week — when he joined the union. That was the last six jobs. And you know, you and I both came of age when it seemed that nothing was too good for the working man.
CLIVE JAMES: Oh true and I — and I’m still in two minds about unions. I still think workers need protection. I’m still left on that — in that sense. It’s the fashionable left that bothers me.
BILL MOYERS: By that you mean —
I would call it the pseudo left which is automatically thinks that the root of all evil is in western civilization. It’s not necessarily true. In fact, it’s not even half true.
BILL MOYERS: But on the right they criticize you if you are critical of western civilization —
CLIVE JAMES: Oh sure.
BILL MOYERS: — and America and democracy. Because they think you hate America. But the fact of the matter is that critical faculty of criticism that is the genius of our society, right?
CLIVE JAMES: Yes, it is. And ev — and you’ve got to be looking two ways with — if you give any opinion, you know. Because you’ve got to be careful of who’s agreeing with you for one thing.
BILL MOYERS: What kind of God would you have reinvent western civilization?
CLIVE JAMES: Well, I wouldn’t. Because God didn’t invent it in the first place. And this does — doesn’t make me an atheist. I don’t want to be — defined as an atheist anymore as I want to be defined as someone who drinks water.
To me — to me the — the fact there is no heavenly power that intervenes has been obvious since I was a kid. If there had been it would have brought my father home. If there had been a — a heavenly power that could intervene that power would have — would have saved the children from the death camps. 1 1/2 million children were being exterminated for no reason at all when I was their age. I never got over it. I still haven’t got over it.
Of course, there’s no — of course, there’s no heavenly force that intervenes. But on the other hand, there is a religious sense. I think that all the arts and everything to do with them — are heavenly order. I experience them as a heavenly order. And — what would that — what would — if — if there was a heavenly power what would he or they do to fix western civilization? I don’t know.
CLIVE JAMES: Never — never allow the possibility that there could be any limitation on the — on the — on the right to vote.
BILL MOYERS: Your father was an Australian soldier, captured by the Japanese, spent several years in the prisoner of war camp. And then on the way home was killed in a plane crash. You never saw him again.
CLIVE JAMES: I never saw him again. It was one — it was one of those things. It was an accident. And many people were dying worse deaths and more futile ones. And he went — he went away of his own free will to defend his country — and to defend me. And that’s what he did.
And it was — a misfortune that he was captured and sent to Japan. It was — he was in Kobe. He was a slave laborer on the docks in Kobe. It was — it was a tough spot, got right through the war, survived. And then this thing happened. And it was the Americans with typical — typical generosity and, I’m afraid, with typical impetuosity they laid on a flight of B-24’s to fly our prisoners straight back to Australia so they wouldn’t have to wait for a ship.
It was a very — a very large harder thing to do. Unfortunately, one of the B-24’s got caught by a typhoon over Taiwan and down he went. And — it’s one of those things. It’s haunt — it — it formed my life.
BILL MOYERS: How?
CLIVE JAMES: Because I saw my mother take the shock. I was there when my mother got the telegram. And not being able to help formed my view of the world, I suppose. And it taught me something about the law of chance, the rule of chance. It’s — it’s chance that rules the universe, not the heavenly power. If the heavenly power was there he’d be doing a better job.
It taught — it taught me a lot. But I’m — I — my mother taught me not to be bitter. She was never bitter against the Japanese. She was never bet — bitter — bitter against the Americans which she could well have been. She taught me a lot.
BILL MOYERS: I suspect the death of your father took — robbed magic from the world, right?
CLIVE JAMES: There might be more to that, yeah. I — I — I did — I lost faith or interest in the idea of the supernatural? It’s so obvious it didn’t apply. You know, where — where — were here. We’ve gotta make do with what we’ve got.
BILL MOYERS: Well, that reminds me of a — in — in your book as of this writing, I remember coming across this quote of yours. You — you quote Edmond Wilson . Wilson’s — Wilson writes, “The knowledge that death is not so far away, that my mind and motions and vitality will soon disappear like a puff of smoke has the effect of making earthly affairs seem unimportant, and human beings more and more ignoble. It is harder to take human life seriously, including one’s own efforts and achievements and passions.”
CLIVE JAMES: Do you know, I think — I thought he was a great man. But, you know, I think exactly the opposite.
CLIVE JAMES: As de — death approaches, I think it’s — I think more and more of the next generation and their importance. And I just — I do not think in a way that he thought. But I thought he was a very great man.
But that was his limitation. He was a bit of a misogynist. And I’m — I’m not. I’m continually astonished by the creativity of human beings and — and their bravery, especially women. I’ve always been impressed by women’s bravery. They’re on the whole, tougher than men.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
CLIVE JAMES: Well, they see more of reality. They see blood every month. They’re — they’re anchored in a way that — men are quite often fantacists and idealists. I know I am. It’s my bad tendency, which I have to try and control.
BILL MOYERS: The book is Cultural Amnesia. I highly recommend it, necessary memories from history and the arts. Clive James, thank you and come back.
CLIVE JAMES: Bill, I will. It was a pleasure, more than a pleasure.
BILL MOYERS: Thank you.
CLIVE JAMES: It was an honor. Thank you.
This transcript was entered on May 21, 2015.