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'Clive James is right, our memories really are made of this'

By Jane Graham

Published 10/04/2015

New passion: Clive James treasures thoughts of childhood
New passion: Clive James treasures thoughts of childhood

A wonderful BBC interview with Clive James this week provoked some serious soul searching, I'm sure not just for me. James is probably still best known for his brilliant dissection of global TV on his 80s ITV show Clive James on Television. But the man who famously introduced, appalled and enthralled Brits to the glorious gross-out of Japanese stress-test show Endurance has also long been one of our greatest journalists and poets.

The announcement of his terminal leukaemia diagnosis in 2012 caused a wave of grief among his many devotees; we're all aware that to have him around three years later is a privilege.

He continues to work and give interviews, but I feel particularly grateful for this latest one, because years of meditating on the nature of life, memory, family and the passing of time have resulted in some especially profound thoughts.

What struck me most about James, alongside his continued lust for enlightenment through art and history, was his rediscovery of his own past. While his short-term memory is weaker, recollections of his younger days, particularly his childhood, have become more clear. He saw this is a great, inexplicable gift. The return of his memories rekindled his relationship with his own younger self, as well as with his native Australia.

He felt he had a better understanding of his whole life, rather than just his present and recent past.

This evidently deepened his connection with his adored grandchildren (how his voice danced when he spoke about them).

And, in words which echoed those of the great dramatist Dennis Potter in an interview he gave after his own terminal diagnosis, it also seems to have sparked his increased passion for nature, where the passing of the seasons is most overt.

It's a cliche, of course, the idea of stopping to smell the roses, but when a man known for cramming every day with work, reading and music, concludes at the end of his life that it's a non-negotiable priority, the rest of us really need to listen.

The James interview came in a week when the nature of memory in the modern age was being scrutinised in the media.

When heartbroken mother Louise Palmer told how Facebook had closed access to her deceased daughter's account, a number of sources attempted to find out who legally owned what in the digital world, in the event of the account holder's death. The consensus was that no one really knew.

As fewer and fewer of us make hard copies of photographs and emails, thousands of personal pictures, videos and pieces of correspondences are lost every day due to technological upgradings which leave the old online or phone storage spaces inaccessible. Ironically, historians of the 21st century might find evidence far harder to track down than those piecing together life a hundred years earlier.

Then add to that our new enthusiasm for restyling our digital photos - deepening the colours of a sunset, heightening our cheekbones, erasing regretted ex-partners out of shots - and the result can only be a generation of unreliable witnesses. Our collective social memory will be full of gaping holes, our personal memories confused and frustrated.

Clive James is lucky. It's unlikely he's muddled his memory bank by creating a fake version of himself on Facebook.

And his photographs are probably safer, in boxes, than his children's in the online cloud.

Bearing in mind his conclusion that, in the end, our memories make us who we are, it's probably time we all re-thought how carefully we guard the truth of our own lives. Or there might come a day when we're not sure who we ever were at all.

Belfast Telegraph

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