Paxman Meets Hitchens: A Newsnight Special Newsnight


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Paxman Meets Hitchens: A Newsnight Special

In a wide-ranging special interview, Jeremy Paxman talks to Christopher Hitchens about his cancer diagnosis, his life, his politics and his writing.


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Christopher, can we start by talking about the cancer?

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What is the prognosis?

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Well, the particular form of malignancy

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I have is in my oesophagus but it's metastasised, as they love to say,

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to my lymph nodes.

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You can actually feel one in my clavicle, on bad days anyway.

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And, I'm afraid, to at least a tiny speck in my lungs.

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And the prognosis for that is that if you lump it all together

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and you leave out every other consideration,

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5% of us live another five years. So that's not ideal.

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But I have a strong constitution, for example, which has served me

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quite well, though if I hadn't had such a strong one, I might have led

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a more healthy life, perhaps.

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But in the meantime, in the old cliche, you live day to day?

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Oh, yeah. Yes, one does. But actually who doesn't?

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There is however something specifically terrifying which

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I'm trying to oppose in my writing and my appearances about cancer.

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Are you terrified by it?

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No. I think it's a superstition. One among many.

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And I think I know where it comes from, actually, if you'd like me to say.

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Well, when I was a child we were all frightened still by polio.

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It takes an effort to remember that now,

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but in many countries people still are.

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Previous generations, it would have been smallpox.

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The heart that never gets the right rhythm. Bronchitis. TB.

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All these things. But none of them have the same, I think,

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horror as cancer's been allowed to acquire.

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And I think it's probably because of the idea of there being a live thing inside you.

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A sort of malignant alien.

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That can't outlive you but that does in a sense have a purpose

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to its life which is to kill you and then die.

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It's like an obscene parody of the idea of being pregnant.

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In fact I always feel sorrier for women who have cancer than men.

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For men, the idea of hosting another life of any kind

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is sort of hard to think about,

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but for a woman it must be a grotesque, nasty version

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of the idea of being a host to another life.

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I have a feeling this is why people propitiate it with bogus cures,

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terrible rumours, scare stories and so on.

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And I've set my face to trying to demonstrate that it's

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a malady like any other and it will yield to reason and science

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and that's what I'm trying to spend my time vindicating.

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Reason and science, but yet the word most commonly

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-used about cancer is battling cancer, isn't it?

-Yes.

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And I, again, think that's a version of the pathetic fallacy.

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It's giving a real existence to something

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that's in a sense inanimate.

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Real sense inanimate. It has a sort of life but not a lot.

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I rather think it's battling me, I have to say.

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It's much more what it feels like.

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I have to sit passively every few weeks

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and have a huge dose of kill or cure venom put straight into my veins.

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And then follow that up with other poisons too.

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Doesn't feel like fighting at all.

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Possibly resisting, I suppose, but no,

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you feel as if you're drowning in passivity

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and being assaulted by something that has a horrible persistence

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that's working on you while you're asleep.

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Does it make you angry?

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No, it makes me sober, objective. I think, well, this is a...

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This is the best-known of our disease enemies.

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I'm one of its many, many, many victims.

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I'm probably one of the luckier ones in point of being able to

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have treatment and care.

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I'd like to prove to other people that it's not the end

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of everything to be diagnosed with it.

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In other words, yes, it can be resisted.

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I think I prefer resistance to battling.

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I didn't pick this fight, but now I'm in it I'd like to give

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it my best shot, and as I say, what this means to me is putting

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myself on the side of those men of medicine and science and reason

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who are trying to reduce it to something that is understandable,

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similable to reason and that will be brought under control.

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But the likelihood is that it will kill you?

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Oh well, the certainty is that's what I'll die from.

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Yeah. Some people die with cancer.

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I might die with it. It will be, unless I have a heart attack,

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which I could easily have, by the way.

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I'm much more likely now to have a blood clot than I was before, or a stroke, perhaps.

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But, no, it's the proximate cause of my death, and I'm both lucky

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and unlucky to know it in advance and be able to take its measure.

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And there will be people, and they won't say it to your face, perhaps,

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but, "Well, he smoked a lot, he drank a lot."

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Yes, well, that's exactly what's demystifying about it.

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There are also people who say it's God's curse on me that

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I should have it near my throat because that was

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the organ of blasphemy which I used for so many years.

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I've used many other organs to blaspheme as well

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if it comes to that.

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Um, no, it is banal in that precise way.

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If you've led a rather bohemian and rackety life, as I have,

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it's precisely the cancer that you'd expect to get. That's a bit of a yawn.

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You're not an old man.

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And you're living with the prospect of an abbreviated life.

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Yes.

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What does that do to the way you think about life?

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Well, it, um... to borrow slightly from Dr Johnson,

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it does concentrate the mind, of course, to realise that your time

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is even more rationed than you thought it was.

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And though I can be stoic in point of myself about that

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because everyone has to go sometime, and whatever day came

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that the newspapers came out and I wasn't there to read them,

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I've always thought that will be a bad day, at least for me.

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I now have a more pressing idea of what that might be like.

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Anyway, that's being stoic for my own sake.

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But for my family it's not very nice.

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I could wish, perhaps, to have led a more healthy

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and upright life for their sake.

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And that's a very melancholy reflection, of course.

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And then there are things that I would like to live to see.

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I've mentioned some of them in an article I wrote on the subject.

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I would like to see the World Trade Center reopened.

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I'd like to see Osama bin Laden on trial. Or dead.

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There are places that I'd like to go,

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people I'd like to meet, books I'd like to at least re-read if not read for the first time.

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But, in a sense, that would always be true. I'd still, I hope, have these ambitions.

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Has it given you a mellower view of humanity?

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Mellower?

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Yes.

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Something about that word I don't relish. I don't know quite why.

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Well, that's because you're a polemicist. A contrary...

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No, if you like, no, if anything my view was already quite stark,

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which is we're born into a losing struggle.

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I knew that when I was well, or thought myself to be well.

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We're born into a losing struggle.

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We're enjoined by the faithful to consider ourselves to be born sick

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and yet commanded to be well.

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The whole thing is, at best, ironic.

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Something meaningless or random, I don't know if I want to go that far.

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But it's a stark existence, and for many people born

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in less fortunate circumstances than mine it's always stark.

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It was stark every day till they died. This makes it starker.

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Does it make you regret saying or doing things?

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This doesn't, no. I've sometimes had cause to regret saying things

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or wish I'd said them in a different way,

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but that's part of the ongoing revision of being a writer.

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I hope. This hasn't prompted me to that, no.

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Perhaps it should.

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You're famously a person with very strong convictions

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and a very persuasive, forceful form of argument.

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Thank you.

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Well, no, that's what you do.

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You're celebrated worldwide for it.

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Do you have any sense of why you were like that?

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No. I don't.

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Um...

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My parents were both people of principle. It's true.

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Um, but they didn't expect to inflict this on others.

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I mean, it was just something they were and something they did.

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Um, and something they inculcated in me,

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but they didn't want an audience for it. I did.

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Do you regret any of the targets you chose, like...

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Who needs to attack Mother Teresa?

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-Oh, it's very important to attack Mother Teresa.

-Why?

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Well, for the same reason that people admire her.

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You have to care about the millions of people who are stricken by

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millennial poverty.

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I mean poverty of the sort that it's almost impossible to escape from.

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That was her pretended concern. Now, as it happens...

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It wasn't her fault.

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No. Well, you say that, but, um...

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-It wasn't her fault that people were in poverty.

-Not in the first place,

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but as it happens, I could go on at length about this,

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but summarised in one statement

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which I think is pretty hard to refute.

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The best known cure for poverty we've come up with is

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something called the empowerment of women.

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If you give women control over their cycle of reproduction,

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you don't keep them chained to an animal cycle

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of annual pregnancy, and so forth.

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And you give them... If you can add to that by throwing in a handful

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of seeds or some credit you'll have done very well.

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Nowhere where that's tried does it not work.

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You'll see in an instant Mother Teresa spent her entire life campaigning against that.

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She thought contraception and abortion were morally equivalent and that abortion was murder.

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Now, that's not what Calcutta needs,

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and I think her teachings and preachings

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were actually counter to the cause she's supposed to represent.

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It was very important to point that out.

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Are there any of the targets of your polemic or essay in the past

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that you regret choosing?

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No. No. I don't.

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I regret only not doing more about it.

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You fell out with a lot of people over your support

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for the decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein.

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-Yes.

-Do you regret that at all?

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Well...

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100,000 people dead. Maybe more.

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To say one had no regrets would be, I mean, would be abnormally unreflective, I think.

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I mean, no-one can be other than horrified

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at the current state of...of Iraq.

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But I don't take the view, the glib view that is taken by so many,

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that the casualties are all as a result of the intervention.

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I mean, for one thing it's an outrage to the idea of moral responsibility.

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Last month in Iraq the Al-Qaeda forces broke into a Catholic church,

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as it happens, in Baghdad, and massacred about 50 people.

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People say that's Tony Blair's fault or George Bush's fault. Don't be silly.

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How dare you absolve the actual murderers of what they have done?

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Say, "Well, they wouldn't be there if we weren't there."

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Are you so sure?

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Al-Qaeda is operating in innumerable countries and was certainly present

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in the form of Mr Zakawi in Iraq before we got there.

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I'm not going to have it put like that. No.

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I also think that there was a terrible misery and implosion

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coming to Iraq as long as it was left in the control of Saddam Hussein,

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plus UN sanctions that affected mostly the Iraqi people.

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I thought that was an impossible state of affairs.

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And I finally found I couldn't support any policy

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that involved the continuation of Saddam Hussein in power.

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The private ownership of Iraq, in other words, by him and his crime family.

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I thought that you couldn't give your support to any policy that accepted that.

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So to that extent I'm not apologetic.

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But it did a lot of damage to the United Kingdom.

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Waterboarding, for example, which George Bush only a couple of weeks ago

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defended as not being torture and as a legitimate means to...

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I'm one of the few people you're likely to meet who's been waterboarded...

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Everyone applauds you for your guts in that.

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I read with alarm and disgust the former President's...

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What did he say? Damn right, or some awful...

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I mean, trying to live up, it seemed to me,

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to the worst interpretation of himself as a Texan bigmouth.

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I don't sacrifice any of my internationalist or

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humanitarian or democratic principles in saying these

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principles are incompatible with the existence of regimes like

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Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Charles Taylor in Liberia

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and others who Tony Blair deserves credit for helping to get rid of.

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Whatever else may be said, that must be part of the account.

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You didn't ask me... You only said did I regret that targets I did pick?

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There are some I regret not picking. I was much too soft on Mugabe.

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I say it in my memoir.

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I claim to have had good reasons for it.

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I was very keen to see the end of

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white supremacist dictatorship in southern Africa,

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and I was probably soft-peddling what I knew

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about some of Zanu-PF, but having a good motive is not a good enough

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reason for doing something that was a betrayal, really, of principle.

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Anyway, hoping to see the end of these and others

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is a good reason for KBO as um...

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Keep Buggering On.

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If the BBC will allow that to be said.

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It's a bit early in the evening but we can try.

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-Family values.

-Yes, um...

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We're sitting here talking in Washington

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and you have said that you felt you were born in the wrong country.

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-Yes.

-Why did you feel that?

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It's a bit like the question, it was for me a bit like the question,

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why did I want to be a writer? Essentially unanswerable.

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I could only say that it was more that I felt I had to,

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rather than I wanted to.

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And when I was not much older, I was in my mid-teens,

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I began to have a very strong feeling of a sort of pull

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from the American planet, is the best way I can think of phrasing it.

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Didn't know why. None of my family had ever been.

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Didn't know much about it, but a very strong gravitational pull,

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which eventually I succumbed to.

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And now, because as you know, Kierkegaard says life has to be

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lived forward and then reviewed backwards.

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Now, I sort of do know,

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in that they were versions, the two things, of the same.

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In order for me to become an independent, self-starting writer,

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I had to move to the United States, had to leave England.

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"Why?", you may ask.

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I don't know, but it could have something to do with the relative openness of the United States.

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You didn't have to keep on sort of passing

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so many approval tests as you did seem to in London.

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-You're a polemicist in...

-Yes.

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And you look at our country now, with its coalition government.

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-Yes.

-Muddling along.

-Yes.

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As it's muddled along for many long years.

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And how do you feel? I mean, could you exist there?

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In Britain I have half of my life, still, to look back on.

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I was about 30 when I left.

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A lot of that was formative.

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Um... it's where I learnt to love literature,

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and a look at my bookshelves would show what I like, still.

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Um, Anglo-American is what I am.

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I think it's quite a nice synthesis.

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What do I think about the Cameron/Clegg coalition?

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It doesn't make me think all that much, I have to say.

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-That speaks volumes in itself, doesn't it?

-It might, yes.

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Also, I suppose for historical reasons,

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I joined the Labour Party as soon as I was eligible to do so.

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I watch more the future and character of the Labour Party.

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I still feel involved in that.

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-Do you still consider yourself a leftist?

-Yes.

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-Really?

-Yeah, I do. It's...

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Because as you know, many of your critics would say,

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what's happened to you is that, as your waistband expanded,

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your politics moved further to the right.

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Well, they should see my waistband now. I've just lost 30lbs.

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Not in the nicest possible way.

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-But the accusation against you is...

-Of course.

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Well, it's such a well-known script that it is deserving of the name cliche,

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and I pin that accusation on my accusers. That's what they're resorting to.

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So do any of these labels apply to you - leftist or whatever?

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I mean, you're more of an iconoclast, aren't you?

0:17:070:17:10

There isn't a global, international working class movement anymore.

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There used to be.

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Um, some of us miss it, but it's gone.

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Is it likely to be replaced? I don't think so.

0:17:180:17:21

Is there a socialist theory of an alternative world economy

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that, just in theory, could stand up against the idea

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of a market system, however defined? Not conspicuously, no.

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The anti-globalising movement seems to me to be nostalgic

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for a pre-industrial society, in many ways.

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Thus to be rather conservative.

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From this, you could probably tell that I still think like a Marxist, which I do.

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Yes. You believe in the dialectic?

0:17:490:17:52

Yes. And then the materialist conception of history.

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The end of the Cold War really buggered everything up, didn't it?

0:17:550:17:59

Um, yes, it did, but it was a huge release of human energy.

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Huge release of human energy, and emancipation.

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It was a great day, er, November 9th 1989.

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I have on my... Just behind me, you can see it,

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a chunk of the Berlin Wall on my mantelpiece.

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And I was in Romania to see the end of the Ceausescu regime, the worst of them all.

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And it materialises my view that human nature

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is incompatible with dictatorship and slavery.

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-Conflict is intrinsic to human history.

-Yes.

0:18:280:18:32

And there will be some further conflict.

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Many people say it has already begun,

0:18:370:18:39

and it's the conflict between the West and sort of Islamo-fascism.

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Do you think that is a conflict which can be lost by the West?

0:18:450:18:48

Well, first on conflict, you're completely right.

0:18:480:18:51

It's unavoidable and I'm glad because I think it's desirable - especially in the United States.

0:18:510:18:56

There's a huge privilege given to the word "unity" or "unification".

0:18:560:19:01

Partly because it's a various and multifarious society.

0:19:010:19:05

There's a big need for good manners, but if you say, "I'm a unifier,

0:19:050:19:08

"not a divider", you expect, and you usually get, applause. I'm a divider.

0:19:080:19:13

I think only division can cause progress.

0:19:130:19:15

People say the politics of division. Politics is division by definition.

0:19:150:19:19

If there was no disagreement, there'd be no politics.

0:19:190:19:22

So the illusion of unity isn't worth having.

0:19:220:19:25

And anyway, it's unattainable.

0:19:250:19:28

What I do think of as the greatest conflict

0:19:280:19:32

at present is a version of the old conflict, which is between

0:19:320:19:35

totalitarianism and free thought,

0:19:350:19:39

which is, in other words,

0:19:390:19:41

between theocracy and the enlightenment,

0:19:410:19:43

and the form in which this is currently being played out,

0:19:430:19:46

you could define as the West versus Islam.

0:19:460:19:48

But it's not quite so.

0:19:480:19:50

Within many Islamic countries, there are people who have a greater

0:19:500:19:53

respect for pluralism, and there are people in Britain

0:19:530:19:56

who would like to censor me for criticising Islam, for example.

0:19:560:19:59

But roughly, you describe the outlines correctly.

0:19:590:20:02

Yes, I refuse to be told what to think or how,

0:20:020:20:07

let alone what to say or write, by anybody, but most certainly,

0:20:070:20:12

not by people who claim the authority of fabricated works of primeval myth and fiction,

0:20:120:20:20

and want me to believe that these are divine.

0:20:200:20:22

That I won't have. That's the original repudiation.

0:20:220:20:26

The first rebellion against mental slavery comes from saying,

0:20:260:20:29

"This is man-made, it's not divine."

0:20:290:20:31

And to be clear about what you're talking about here -

0:20:310:20:34

the Bible and the Koran?

0:20:340:20:35

Yeah, well, and the Torah, yes, yeah.

0:20:350:20:38

-All of these are works of fiction?

-All of these are depraved works of man-made fiction, yeah.

0:20:380:20:43

And in what way does saying that you find the Koran laughable,

0:20:430:20:48

laughable in places, in what way does that help the spread of reason?

0:20:480:20:53

Oh, well, I think mockery of religion is one of the most essential things.

0:20:530:20:58

Because to demystify

0:20:580:21:00

supposedly holy texts that are dictated by God and show

0:21:000:21:05

that they are man-made, and the internal inconsistencies

0:21:050:21:08

and the absurdities, and one of the beginnings of human emancipation

0:21:080:21:12

is the ability to laugh at authority.

0:21:120:21:14

It's an indispensable thing.

0:21:140:21:17

People can call it blasphemy if they like, but if they call it that,

0:21:170:21:21

they have to assume there's something to be blasphemed, some divine word.

0:21:210:21:24

I don't accept the premise.

0:21:240:21:27

A lot of people in your position might take Pascal's Wager.

0:21:270:21:31

They might say, "I don't know whether I'm right or wrong."

0:21:310:21:36

Yes.

0:21:360:21:38

"But if I accept the possibility of there being a purpose and a god,

0:21:380:21:42

"I can't lose either way cos if there isn't,

0:21:420:21:45

-"I've lost nothing, and if there is, I gain."

-Yes.

0:21:450:21:47

Why haven't you done that?

0:21:470:21:49

Well, I've thought about Pascal's Wager and wrote

0:21:490:21:51

about it in my book, long before I became possibly mortally sick.

0:21:510:21:56

And what I said was this. Shall we state what it says?

0:21:570:22:02

-Yes, please.

-Pascal was a great mathematician

0:22:020:22:05

and one of the founders of probability theory.

0:22:050:22:07

I think it's his lowest point, called his wager or his gambit,

0:22:070:22:11

where he says, rather like a huckster,

0:22:110:22:13

"What have you got to lose?

0:22:130:22:15

"You win everything if you bet on God and you've everything to lose if you're wrong".

0:22:150:22:20

Well, what does this involve if it's correct?

0:22:200:22:23

It involves a very cynical god, and a rather stupid one, who will say,

0:22:230:22:27

"I noticed you make a profession of faith and also, because I'm God,

0:22:270:22:31

"I know why you did, cos it was in the hope of winning favour with me."

0:22:310:22:35

Well, that's fine, you will therefore get it.

0:22:350:22:38

That seems to me a rather contemptible thing

0:22:380:22:40

and necessarily, therefore, to entail a rather contemptible

0:22:400:22:43

human being who says, "I don't really believe this.

0:22:430:22:46

"I have no faith, but what can I lose by pretending to God that I do? I might get a break."

0:22:460:22:51

I mean, this is pretty low, isn't it?

0:22:510:22:54

If I'm surprised to find, when I pass on from this veil of tears,

0:22:540:23:00

that I'm facing a tribunal,

0:23:000:23:03

which, you notice, by the way, you're not allowed to bring

0:23:030:23:06

a lawyer, there's no jury or appeal.

0:23:060:23:08

I mean, this is all altogether unattractive.

0:23:080:23:10

Why people want it to be believed their God is this way, I don't know.

0:23:100:23:14

But suppose that I'm there, and there may be one person

0:23:140:23:17

in the tribunal, depending on your view of the Trinity, I would say,

0:23:170:23:21

"I hope you noticed that I didn't try and curry favour, that I was

0:23:210:23:27

"honestly unable to believe in the claims made by your human spokespersons.

0:23:270:23:34

"Now do I get any understanding?"

0:23:340:23:37

And if that doesn't work, well, then, I don't know what will.

0:23:370:23:41

But I'm not going to try anything servile.

0:23:410:23:45

I'm resolved on that point.

0:23:450:23:48

-It would be more comforting, wouldn't it, and more comfortable?

-Which, the servile? No.

0:23:480:23:52

To make an accommodation to have some belief

0:23:520:23:56

in a possibility of this not being the end?

0:23:560:23:59

Well, as long as I don't have to take the word of other humans

0:24:020:24:07

on what are the necessary propitiations and gestures

0:24:070:24:11

and subjections I have to submit myself to in order to qualify.

0:24:110:24:17

In other words, there are many, many discrepant religions,

0:24:170:24:19

all of whom say, only if I support them, or endorse them, will I qualify.

0:24:190:24:24

Well, now, I don't know that there is no such thing as consciousness without the brain, for example.

0:24:240:24:29

There's no such survival. I very much doubt it.

0:24:290:24:32

But let's say, we don't know enough to say it's impossible.

0:24:320:24:35

I would say what is impossible is that other humans can know

0:24:350:24:38

what the conditions are whereby you qualify for survival.

0:24:380:24:41

That I do know is false.

0:24:410:24:43

Do you fear death?

0:24:430:24:45

No. I'm not afraid of being dead, that's to say.

0:24:450:24:48

Er, there's nothing to be afraid of. I won't know I'm dead.

0:24:480:24:51

In my strong conviction, I won't.

0:24:510:24:55

And if I find that I'm alive in any way at all,

0:24:550:24:59

well, that'll be a pleasant surprise. I quite like surprises!

0:24:590:25:03

But I strongly take leave to doubt it.

0:25:030:25:06

Um...

0:25:060:25:07

I'm...

0:25:070:25:09

I can't be... I mean, one can't live without fear,

0:25:090:25:12

it's a question of what is your attitude towards fear?

0:25:120:25:15

I'm afraid of a sordid death.

0:25:150:25:17

I'm afraid that, that I would die in an ugly or squalid way,

0:25:170:25:22

and cancer can be very pitiless in that respect.

0:25:220:25:25

-That's a fear of dying.

-Yes.

-It's not a fear of death, though.

0:25:250:25:28

I forget which you asked.

0:25:280:25:30

It's a good distinction. Of death, no. Of dying, yes.

0:25:300:25:34

I feel a sense of waste about it because I'm not ready.

0:25:340:25:39

Um, I feel a sense of betrayal to my family

0:25:390:25:44

and even to some of my friends who would miss me.

0:25:440:25:48

Undone things, unattained objectives.

0:25:480:25:50

But as I said before, I hope I'd always have that

0:25:500:25:53

if I was 100 when I was checking out.

0:25:530:25:56

But no, I think my main fear is of being incapacitated

0:25:560:26:01

or imbecilic at the end.

0:26:010:26:03

That, that, of course, is not something to be afraid of,

0:26:030:26:07

it's something to be terrified of.

0:26:070:26:09

Bertrand Russell said, "I believe that when I die, my body will rot." Full stop.

0:26:090:26:14

-Well, who doesn't? I mean, the...

-That's it.

0:26:140:26:18

Well, he does go on to say a bit more than that, but that's uncontroversial.

0:26:180:26:24

I mean, nobody expects to get their old body back.

0:26:240:26:27

I certainly don't want the body back that I'll die with.

0:26:270:26:30

Nobody would. It'd be no doing nobody any favours.

0:26:300:26:34

So some reassembly of atoms would have to occur.

0:26:340:26:37

But that'd have to occur anyway.

0:26:370:26:40

If only for us to be reunified with those who died

0:26:400:26:43

er, so that we could live, and got blown to pieces for doing so.

0:26:430:26:48

Do you think it's been a life well lived?

0:26:480:26:50

Oh, I really have to leave that to others, Jeremy, I have to.

0:26:500:26:54

I'm encouraged, I'll say this much, I've been encouraged in the last few months by some

0:26:540:26:59

extraordinarily generous letters, including, these are the ones I take most to heart,

0:26:590:27:04

from people I've never met or don't know.

0:27:040:27:07

If they say that what I've written or done or said means anything

0:27:070:27:10

to them, then I'm happy to take it at face value, for once.

0:27:100:27:15

I'll say, "I'll take that." Um, and yes, it cheers me up.

0:27:150:27:19

And I hope it isn't written with the intention of doing so.

0:27:190:27:23

Though I must allow for it possibly being for that reason.

0:27:230:27:28

But in case you are watching this, um, anybody,

0:27:280:27:33

and you ever wonder whether to write to anyone, always do,

0:27:330:27:36

because you'd be surprised by how much a difference it can make.

0:27:360:27:39

I regret, here's a regret,

0:27:390:27:41

I regret not doing it more often myself.

0:27:410:27:43

-Thank you very much.

-My pleasure.

0:27:450:27:49

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