14 April, 2010

Of cultural history - the James version

I’m still reading and re-reading Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia. It’s a scintillating A-Z of his own takes on characters who, for good or ill, have helped to shape the world we live in.
I now know something about many people I knew only by name, or not at all - and much more about those I thought I knew.
James’s references to their life and work are opinionated, illuminating and provide a mini history lesson of their times. And everywhere, even when dealing with the darkest events, his humour is peerless.

Those in the know may have been unsurprised that he has written such a scholarly tome, but I was. I enjoyed his biographical books and miss him as a TV interviewer (unlike some hosts, he didn't think the chat show was as much about him as the guest). 

Until recently, I didn’t even know he was a poet, let alone a heavyweight intellectual. Shame on me. It’s a bit like discovering that the man who sold ice cream from the Tonibell van was really Raymond Blanc.

Among the many ‘unheard-ofs’ in the book is Egon Friedell, a brilliant Austrian polymath who jumped to his death when expecting arrest at the time of the Anschluss in 1938. I defy anyone not to want to read Friedell’s Cultural History of the Modern Age after hearing what Clive James has to say. At one point he refers to it as, ‘that kind of book: it makes you feel civilized'. Cultural Amnesia has the same effect.

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