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27 November 2014

Religion vs medicine, trouble at Fifa and Clive James’s final performance

There is a tendency among the devoutly religious to venerate what to them seems “natural” – or God-given. But the story of religion is one of retreat in the face of science’s relentless advance.

By Jason Cowley

For nature, heartless, witless nature,
Will neither care nor know . . .

A E Housman, from “Tell Me Not Here, It Needs Not Saying”

There is so much to admire about Pope Francis, the Argentine Jesuit who has become a talisman for many on the left. He lives modestly and has great humility. He scourges inequality and global poverty. He has courageously intervened in the Israel-Palestine conflict, which becomes ever more hopeless with each new atrocity committed. Yet his reported remarks condemning in vitro fertilisation – or “the scientific production of a child” – and embryonic stem-cell research were dismaying, if not altogether surprising. He is, after all, the Pope and not some kind of Latin American bandit-revolutionary, as some would have it.

There is a tendency among the devoutly religious to venerate what to them seems “natural” – or God-given. But the story of religion is one of retreat in the face of science’s relentless advance. Just as the Catholic Church was humiliated into accepting the Copernican revolution, so in time it will be forced to accommodate further advances in medicine, from gene therapy to embryonic stem-cell research. We live on a hostile planet and the human journey has been about making it incrementally less inhospitable.

Meanwhile, Doug Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, and his team are edging closer to finding a cure for Type 1 diabetes after discovering how to produce from embryonic stem cells huge quantities of the insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells required in transplantation. Professor Melton’s two children were diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as infants and it became his life’s mission to find a cure.

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My elder sister’s son was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as a young boy and he has borne his illness with fortitude and grace. No one would wish anyone to suffer as he and others have from such an illness, least of all young children. Christian fundamentalists value above all the sanctity of human life, hence the opposition to contraception, abortion and assisted dying. But life is not an end in itself: how a life is lived is what matters, its quality and dignity. Why be in thrall to what neither knows nor cares?

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David Bernstein, a former chairman of the Football Association, has called on England and other European nations to boycott the 2018 World Cup in Russia in protest at the machinations of Sepp Blatter, the Swiss megalomaniac who seems, in effect, to run Fifa like a personal fiefdom. Fifa’s report into the World Cup bidding process has hilariously exonerated Russia and Qatar of any duplicity but condemned England for breaking the rules. Fortunately, Michael Garcia, the American lawyer hired by Fifa to investigate corruption, has condemned the way his report has been misrepresented.

Football is a fabulously simple game debased by those who control and seek to profit from it. Blatter, who is 78, is seeking election for yet another term as Fifa president. Does the beautiful game have the leader it deserves?

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To the Cambridge Union Chamber, to see Clive James perform in the winter leg of the literary festival of which the New Statesman is media partner. James was there to talk about his latest book but what we were treated to was a virtuoso one-man show. “Here I am making another final performance!” he joked.

This was a reference to his chronic illnesses. James has emphysema, “reward for a lifetime’s smoking”, and leukaemia, which is in remission. Modern medicine (“the meds”) and the dedication of Addenbrooke’s Hospital have prolonged his life beyond what even he imagined was possible. When you are living under a death sentence, one course of action, he said, was “inaction”. The other was “to go on working, as if you have all the time in the world”, which is what he says he has been doing. In truth, the poems he has published recently, several of them in the NS, are mostly about the period of his long, drawn-out dying. These late works offer a kind of extended leave-taking. They are about memory and forgetting and about what will soon be lost for ever: yet the tone is resigned, not bitter. And, because this is James, there is sardonic humour.

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Clive James is unusual in having had a dual career as a prime-time TV presenter and as a serious man of letters: poet, novelist, memoirist. “Television looks as if it dissipates energy,” he said, “and it does. It takes five days to get one hour of television. But I enjoyed those days and I won’t knock them.”

Yet his first and greatest love was poetry, as a reader and writer. James is a wonderful raconteur, moving between different registers, high and low – from Philip Larkin to Game of Thrones in one smooth, easy movement. Dressed in a brown corduroy jacket, a beat poet’s black turtleneck sweater and black trousers, he moved at the “pace of a racing snail”, as he put it. He is thin now and very frail and his voice is weak and wheezy but still unmistakable. He recited from memory some of his favourite poems – Auden’s “Lullaby”, Andrew Marvell’s “The Definition of Love”, something by e e cummings (“a rebel poet who had the distinct advantage of having a trust fund; he could afford to be a communist”) – as well as one of his own. He said the art of poetry was “to capture [experiences] with the excitement of things well said”.

Clive James said many things that night and all of them well – and it was exciting for those of us who were there to see him perform one more time, for one last time.