I haven’t read any of James’ books before. His TV shows annoyed me, mostly because his slightly-too-clever scripting was delivered in that, flat deadpan style of someone implying “I’m cleverer than you, so I’ll speak slowly so you realise how clever I am.” Or so it felt to me. But when I read an interview about Cultural Amnesia back in March, it triggered so many wonderful thoughts that I was inspired — nay, forced to write Stay alert, ye nameless, toiling animals.
I still think it’s one of my better essays.
So when I finally saw Cultural Amnesia in paperback, I had to grab it. 35 pages in, I’m rapt.
Cultural Amnesia is a meandering tour through the 20th Century, gathering together what James thinks is vital to remember: the threads of Humanism which bind together our liberal democracies. The lessons which, if we forget them, will doom us to repeat the mistakes of history. Hence the title.
The writing style is as rich as an old-fashioned plum pudding. Packed with sweet things of all kinds, you can’t eat it quickly. And you can’t eat much at one sitting. It’s studded with names even a well-educated person will need to look up — though again, perhaps that’s the point.
James wants us to remember that the bright and shining 21st Century was only achieved after the ugliness of the 20th — including two rather nasty World Wars:
Bright, sympathetic young people who now face a time when innocent human beings are killed by the thousand can be excused for thinking that their elders do not care enough, and indeed it is true that complacency tends to creep in as the hair falls out. But their elders grew to maturity in a time when innocent human beings were killed by the million. The full facts about Nazi Germany came out quite quickly, and were more than enough to induce despair. The full facts about the Soviet Union were slower to become generally appreciated, but when they at last were, the despair was compounded. The full facts about Mao’s China left that compounded despair looking like an inadequate response. After Mao, not even Pol Pot came as a surprise. Sadly, he was a cliché.
However James is hopeful about the future:
There was never a time like now to be a lover of the arts. Mozart never heard most of Bach. We can hear everything by both of them. Brahms was so bowled over by Carmen that he saw twenty performances, but he had to buy twenty opera tickets to do so. Manet never saw all his paintings in one place: we can. While Darcey Bussell dances at Covent Garden, the next Darcey Bussell can watch her from Alice Springs… We can be world citizens without leaving our home. If that seems too static, we can travel without leaving home. The world is prepared to receive us, with all its fruits laid out for our consumption, and wrapped in cling film to meet our sanitary standards.
And those two quotes are just from the introduction.
Already I’ve been given the key insight which will allow me to explain exactly why I find John Howard’s Vision of Australia (if I can even use “John Howard” and “vision” in the same sentence without the words “lack of” in between) to be so stifling and, ultimately, so dangerous. I look forward to finding the time to write that essay!
Meanwhile, I shall enjoy my slow, thoughtful journey through Mr James’ plum pudding with relish — and not even care that I’ve just written such a very bad mixed metaphor.