Books: A Point of View: Talking About Their Generation |
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Talking About Their Generation : the global-warming debate continues

(S06E10, broadcast 25th and 27th December 2009)

"One lesson to teach the young"

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 hailstorm 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. 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.

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.

Gabriel García Márquez, 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. 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. 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. 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. 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, because 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 for free, if they have not embraced liberal democracy first.

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 twentieth 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. 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 realized 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.


And so I bowed out, playing to the gallery even as the curtain fell. Through three years of broadcasting I had made capital out of the mileage I had on the clock, with many a philosophical remark meant to convey my equanimity at the thought of approaching death. But that was just autumn talking, and in truth I had relished the opportunity to sum up: reflecting on experience is, after all, the one thing that an older guy can do more of. I walked away congratulating myself that I had played the fogey role to some effect. Hubris had its due reward. A few days later, over the New Year weekend, my waterworks packed up and I almost bought the farm. After they saved my life in Addenbrooke’s Hospital I found myself being a lot less philosophical about death, and equanimity was in short supply. From the radio studio I had been trying to convey that the prosperous Western world, with its democratic institutions, was a decisive improvement on nature; and here, in the collective technical miracle of the clinics and the wards, was the proof. Technology saved my neck, and the machines needed bags of cheap electricity. From my angle at least, those unarguable facts put paid to any idea of ‘de-developing’ industrial society: a potentially lethal fantasy which I had already poured cold water on several times in my broadcasts.

But I like to think that I would have gone on promoting the same conclusion even if my health had stayed sound: on behalf of the next two generations in my family, I had always been suspicious of doomsayers who claimed that anyone holding my opinions must be harbouring a callous indifference to the fate of ‘our children and grandchildren’. Anyone who wants to make the lives of children in Africa dependent on windmills and solar panels doesn’t really care if they live or die, and we only have his word for it that he cares more than we do about the children here at home. Frequently, at the lunch table, I had been watching one of my children attempting to bring the blue plastic-handled spoon of my grandchild under control, and although it was true that the generation after next could be a terrific pest, I couldn’t help wishing that, in the life she would lead after her grandfather’s departure, the world would continue in its modern tradition of being a more benevolent place than the cave or the savannah.

Really, indifference is the last thing I felt, and even as death’s door loomed I cursed all those propagandists who wanted the West to expiate its blame for the world’s poverty by making itself as poor as possible. The wish was not only callous, it was historically illiterate. In the twentieth century many millions of lives had been wasted in a hideous practical demonstration that the growth of an economy could not be fully planned by governments. In the glaring light of that fact, the assumption that the shrinkage of an economy — a Great Leap Backward — could be fully planned by governments seemed worse than Quixotic, it seemed wilfully murderous. But that was only one of the issues that had marked the period without being thoroughly discussed, and at least the heavy curtain of silence had now been at least partly lifted. Though most of the mainstream media outlets went on peddling their standard line about imminent destruction, its credibility had been steadily eroded by the obviously limitless flexibility as to just how imminent the imminent was, and a true discussion now seemed possible.

The same was not true for an issue that had always been more important. The savage ill-treatment of women by backward cultures and religions was another salient issue that had barely been debated, least of all by Western feminists, who had surely missed an opportunity while shirking their duty. In the following year, while I lay in hospital, Aung San Suu Kyi sent the world a message that she was in despair. Here was the time to spring from my bed, change into my Superman costume, and fly to her aid. Oh, and on the way back I could descend from the sky in Iran and take care of that little matter about the woman scheduled for death by stoning. I could pick up a couple of the designated stoners and bang their heads together until they saw the point. But I wasn’t strong enough to make the leap, and wouldn’t have been even if I had been well. Eventually, later in that same year, Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed out, but probably on the understanding that if she got too active in the cause of freedom she would be locked up again. As usual, the men with the guns called the shots.

We have no super powers. If my three seasons of broadcasting were united by a single theme, that was the one: for most of us, our only magic weapon against fate is our power of speech, and all it can do is state the case reasonably. Truth, justice, equal rights, fair play: if radio is the modern pulpit, then a broadcast stating such elementary principles is the modern sermon. Preaching it, one should not scant the duty to be entertaining — even in a mere ten minutes, people will go to sleep in their pews if you aren’t — but nor is it wise to underestimate the forces of confusion against which one fights. As Eve found to her cost, the Devil is his own best advocate: that forked tongue of his drips a smooth liquid. Nobody who shapes a speech should ever forget that he is following in the sinuous trail of an expert. The difference between you and the Devil, though, is that one of you can trust the intelligent public to tell good plain water from snake oil — always provided, of course, that you know the difference yourself.

About the intelligent public, there is a book to be written. Where do they come from, these marvellous people? They must have been there before the BBC was created, but undoubtedly the BBC helped to create another generation of them, and has gone on doing so. The interplay between civilized institutions and the people they serve is a complex subject, but there is one conspicuous and unsettling thing that we know about it for certain. Though ideally it should be scarcely visible and operate with a light hand, a strong and confident democratic state is crucial. Without that, to rely on the continuance and efficacy of an intelligent public is the merest sentimentality. For proof, we need only think of those millions of cultivated German citizens in 1933 who suddenly found that their good will was of no effect, and put them in danger.