John Gray is a philosopher. His academic career included professorships at Oxford University and the London School of Economics, and visiting professorships at Harvard and Yale in the USA. He retired from academia in 2008, and has dedicated himself to writing full time since then. He is the lead book reviewer of the New Statesman and a regular contributor to the Guardian. Born in 1948 in South Shields, his father was a Tyneside dock worker, his mother a homemaker. A voracious reader as a child, and encouraged by his history teacher at his grammar school, he won a scholarship to read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford. Initially of the political Left, he became an advocate of the policies of the Right before the advent of Thatcherism. He then moved again to the Left. He supported the Leave cause in the Brexit referendum. John contends that history is not progressive, but cyclical, and that any improvements other than certain scientific discoveries can be easily lost or reversed. He cites the use of torture against terror suspects as an example. John has written several influential books, including False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism (1998), which predicted the global financial crisis; Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (2002), which attacked philosophical humanism; and Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (2007), a critique of Utopian thinking in the modern world. Presenter: Kirsty Young Producer: Cathy Drysdale.
This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
This is the bbc hello, I'm kirsty young, welcome to desert on an discs where, every week I asked my guests to choose the eight tracks, the book and the luxury item that they want to take with them if they were cast away on a desert island for rights reasons, the music on these podcast versions is shorter than in the original broadcast. You can find over two thousand more additions to listen to and download on the desert. Island discs website My Lastly, this week is the philosopher, john grey. If you can't yourself is curious, then listen up
His forty is using a glinting. They shot intellect to prove the pulp cavity of western liberal presumptions, penetrating comfy certainties with deft intellectual precision painfully exposing a plethora of widely held pre. Conceptions these days he writes full time and broadcast to, but was ten years. He was professor of european thought at the alessi, having also two stretches, professor of politics at oxford, and time too, as visiting professor, both harvard and yale, the the son of a tiny side docker. He started out on the political left, but his self confessed, recurrent habit of inquiry seems to have resulted in a refreshingly supple approach to political allegiance he's had still. identifying with both the right and left. He says My aim is not to convert any one. I don't care what you believe. I write for those that are curious, who want to question who want to look at their thinking and reflect.
on it and see whether they want to carry on with it. Sir John grey welcome the notion that you dont care is a very interesting thing to me. So your purpose in writing and broadcasting, then, is to encourage a readers, encourage listeners to really think about what they think. How do you know if you're being affair, because it's a sort of one we conversation. Oh it's not one way at all, really my writings do tend to provoke. Strong responses, and I can see when I've touched a nerve in the strong, sometimes virulent reactions of many of my critics. Many of them have said that I, for example, they would say, don't believe in anything I'm kind of nihilist, I'm just critically and negatively in destructively attacking other views.
but I don't think that's true at all. I have a clear and strong and, in its own terms, hopeful view of the world, not optimistic hopeful that different well, yes, explain to me why the different, while an optimist, is someone who thinks they can find strong reasons for a positive view of the human predicament. I think that the human predicament is hopeful, because the very absence of any such reasons evokes the best things in human beings which are though self assertion against fate, resisting aspects of one's environment or even of the human rights situation itself. That's what human fulfilment the value of human life comes more free, the exercise of an age human capacities of imagination which has shown not only in art, but I would think in religion, I'm alive. You religion,
the great work of the human imagination and essential to being human. So, as you would have it, history isn't a process of continuous developments when we are not, sadly, getting better being human. But just because wars or famine in an alarmingly fast period can turn a country or continent back a quarter of a century and lets say six
Surely that doesn't mean that we shouldn't even try to improve the lot of people. We definitely should continue to try. What we shouldn't shouldn't, though, is that the improvements that have been achieved in the past are permanent and cumulative, so we should be acutely aware of that that, but I think improvement occurs regularly in history, but so does the loss of the gains that have been made during the period of improvement, and I mean the time I think for me, which was the most striking was when just before the iraq war, I wrote a satirical peace in which I argued that torture should be among the practices used by defenders of human rights and lo and behold, three months later, we had Abu Ghraib. Now how many people thought that torture I'd never disappeared, of course, but it was
pensively condemned and banned. How many people thought up? It would return as a practice of the pre eminent liberal democracy in the world, and it's not gonna paradox, which happens over and over again in history, is why I was less surprised by Abu Ghraib, I assume that in the life of civilization as a whole, in ethics and politics, you mean like a cyclical, not progressive. If we could be alert to it more than we are, then we might actually thwart some of that reversion. But I fear that impossible tell me about your first piece of music. We need to know about your list. Tell me about this widely chestnut. Well, I suppose from many people of my generation, boy was more than a forward have influence life on mars, one of his most evocative recordings captured to me at the time, something I wouldn't have stood until much later, which was that we were moving into a period in which identities ideas all that it seemed fixed, would cease.
We fixed and would be put together in new and striking forms, and I find that deeply resonant at the time and so do. Vague. is there there was David Billy and listen to agree in September twenty. Sixteen. It was a few weeks before trump elected, you did an essay on radio. For the time I remember hearing as a you, pretty
much called the result on the nice that donald trump was actually elected. Personally, what will your thoughts? Did you think arms right now? I didn't think that then I was. I wasn't certain, of course, that he would be elected and when he was elected it was by very small margin, but I thought it was a very good chance that it would happen. A lot of the commentary at the time was saying: kitten hurricanes bound to win because she's up against following the fraud. In other words, see the analysis was trump. Is the ideal candidate clint nice or lose the other way round that britain was the ideal candidate for trump, because what I believed was tens of millions of people were fed up with commission politics and that they do anything other than vote for a candidate Clinton who embody conventional politics had been there all the time I think many of the people who voted for four trump didn't like him thought he was a liar evil then, but he wasn't her not any. Was he not her? He wasn't anything made seen before in american politics.
What did I feel in the night? Yes, a certain degree of trepidation, because I thought he would move very quickly to betraying the supporters that had voted for him. Nice have just said many of those supporters didn't trust them so they might not have been terribly surprised if he turned out to be not so different. In certain of its policies from the right wing republicans of the past- and I suppose I'm confirming my reputation as a pessimist, when is it, I fear posts trump version of trump. whose more skilful more disciplined and more dangerous even than he is my music John grey. Tell me about the second one. Well, when the boat comes in was a wonderful television series in the town where I grew up or a version of that it confirmed to me how extraordinarily lucky I been in being born into and brought up in, that part of the well after the second world war, the form of life, the way of life which is captured in the series in the working class north east. It was the same
form of life that I grew up in, and it only started to change ready in the nineteen sixties, For various reasons, one was a decline. The traditionally industries and other even more paradoxical is not the housing policies of labour mean the local authorities in the area, I think, although they were beneficial in many ways, people lived in better housing they have destroyed. The green is actually were there because the street communities which are rubbing them were simply demolished and people are put in new housing, whether one or communities come here me little Jackie knew what smoke me bucky ever bitter cracky to load comes in and do the daddy thing do them balmy dense there, the daddy did mommy thing, though, should ever fishy odin little ocean ever fishing when the boot comes
he has been in the late. You can't even beyond the comedy junkie can stand stance. Do the dirty seeing dude mammy dunce do the daddy, alex Glasgow and when the boot comes in january, I am very interested in you talking about your origins, because I have read. You say that you are either your determinedly uninterested in yourself and I want to know a bit about you and the life you lead, so it william entertained me and well. Yes, I am on interested myself, because when there are much more interesting things in the world in me, well, here's the thing when I'm reading the introduction today- and I am saying all the extraordinary thing- you ve done. You know yale and harvard not certain illnesses, and then I say son of a darker. There aren't many of those to the pint. Well, I was part of a generation. I went to a grammar school, not now a popular institution may I enjoyed it, took the class. No! No, because I follow
what kind of pattern which I followed throughout my entire life reading what I wanted, I haunted the local libraries. What did you start with edwardian fiction? I liked the science fiction of h g wells. I liked the sea stories of Joseph Conrad. I read a lot and I'm more proud of what I've read than of what I've written I wasn't ever top of the class quite a country. What's your most vivid childhood memory, when you think back fish, in the sea with my father in a small boat, but would you be catching could be lobster in those days and I enjoyed that enormously. My father worked in the docks, but he was actually by trade join up uncut. and he was still man during the second world war, my father, she died of a council that he attributed to the asbestos that was very common in the.
Iraq's another time? Did you have mesothelioma, or he just thought that he just thought that so a feature of the life at that time was that males had relatively short, fairly hard life? Yes, although I have positive memories, I don't reminder size the period where you a self contained chill, because I have ado with this- is accurate, but have this idea that you know if you lost your mother, she would settle johns at the library again anybody she d been right replies. I am. She was hoarse workshop. She was a housewife and brought us up according to her own ethical code, which was a version of the ethical code which she, my grandparents and others accepted, which was why now, which is a kind of mixture of stoicism. You couldn't expect life to be all happiness holding films, but you had to assert yourself against that, and this is in which I think is not understood, not why I myself said the improvements we now take for granted will be lost because it I'm not getting up to our morning. I can't accept that now. That's very much goes against migraine, because my response would be yes
the public, will be lost these improvements, but that's another reason to dig in and make sure that they last as long as they can, let's fit into music. John gray lists their desk. Why have you chosen it or the third disc? Is the theme music from get carter, and I myself, although I came to self awareness in the late sixties, I preferred the seventies because they had a harder edge. The art and the film were closer to the truth of the matter then, before or after an get carter, the film didn't pull any punches. It doesnt end with any redemptive significance, and yet it's a beautiful it's a family which is great poetry and a certain kind of lyricism, even which is in the music, but certainly not an optimistic phil
The roy by the same from film get car. Sir John grey, you worked, as I said, in the introduction in higher education for many years at some of the world's most elites. Instead, she's, yale and oxford and harvard and the london school of economics the grammar school. So I am clearly worked for you, ass, a philosophical level. What's your view of the grammar school system, the promise
Walls enabled an unusual degree of social mobility in society, and they also then able to talent, which was spread out in a variety of communities in part of society to achieve more of its potential. But, of course, the cat to shadow on anyone who didn't succeed in getting through the eleven plus it wasn't selected, and I suppose my view of the level of philosophy so to speak- is that the ill straight, a very uncomfortable truth, which is that there are practically no good aspects of human institutions that don't come with a shudder. Another which part of the faith and improvement that people have now a days. Is that you we have the good without the bad. You can have the light without the shadow you can't, I think they did have benefit, but I dont think history can be rolled back and they can be revived in a simple way too many things moved on did any of your brothers and sisters which grammar school. No, I mean an eye.
Myself. I must say when I took the eleven plus. I wasn't really aware of its importance. I was one of those who was lucky but your history teacher charles constantly adding he was called. Why was he saw and well because, as I mentioned earlier, I was so way would in my reading. I didn't really pay all that much attention, but then, after three or four years I came under the influence of a single human being charged, constable who was a great and inspired history teacher? But he also had his reading, not just me personally, but people in the six hundred and forty six like thomas hobbes leviathan. He come from a most background himself. He sold as his role to enable at least some of his pupils to go on and realise their intellectual capabilities. So he was a profound influence on me as well as reading reading reading reading What else we doing as a schoolboy? Were you kicking a football
install the run, I never played collective sports. I used to run into the high jump, which I suppose in other ways I should have continued doing. I liked doing that long, distance or both, but I never got anywhere in either of those sports, but I enjoyed them and I did them. I probably should do more of it. Now what was your earliest ambition to carry on reading, and that was the way I approached my initial life in oxford in october, nineteen sixty eight, which is not exactly a time of quietness that the period of the began to vietnam demonstrations, which I attended along with you here pretty long at that time. It tell me about this next piece of music. We're gonna, hear your force. Well, an ex piece of music is from just a college. It's called romance and one of the many things that was opened up to me in oxford, was the world of russian art and culture, which was mainly come back to me at that time.
by someone I got to know almost immediately after the end of an undergraduate work which was I believe the philosopher who was russian and he talked nervous around about russian ought in russian culture and ever since then, I've read russian writers and, like russia, music, intuitive it's, the the the
the positive romance composed by shostakovich from the nineteen, fifty five from the gadfly performed, thereby clearly hands lip and the london symphony orchestra, conducted by poor man, John grey, going into that. We heard you talk about us as I have berlin, your ninety ninety five book on it was a very important book when you had first met him. Why did he capture you? He captured me and my imagination, as well as my scholarly interests, partly by his well known capacity for conversation. You couldn't talk to him for more than five minutes without him saying something which was arresting and
would stay in the mind for long term, but there was another reason which was that he had actually lived through some great historical conflicts and played a part in them. For example, he had worked in the british embassy in washington during the second world war and talked to me about witnessing the to russian revolutions, the one that he liked was the first revolution, dementia vic revolution. He said I have only very happy then, six months later there was the bolshevik revolution and at that time he witnessed some scenes that filled him with horror of violence. I mean he was only little boy, but he witnessed them, and did you feel that your great intellectual flowering distanced you from your background and if it did, did you care about that? While you know it did, but it was a pattern which was not really about intellectual prowess, because the good side of that way of life I was born into was that it was
they close it was very cohesive. It was right, call me old, but if you didn't fit in or if you are ambitious, lose all your goals about you wanted to do with your life went feasible in not really tight community. You left, and that would be true regardless of power. Ranger. Truly interested will haunt you know you were so, for example, some people join d merchant marine if there were men, If there were women, they left took university degrees elsewhere. It was very common. Have some music, John grey, we're going to listen to your fists choice as well. In the nineteen eighties, I'd become captivated by america I used to spend some weeks a year in new york, and I was enchanted by that city I saw from the time when it was still quite dangerous through the period in which it became safer and much easier to live in, in some ways, more beautiful, but also less exciting.
Not my toaster walking came That was sting and englishman in new york, John grey. We tend to think of politicians who urge in their minds is being rather weak. Characters You were in the late seventies and only to misery sees you have very influential right wings, encourage you. Do you? U advocated small government free markets overtime rather
Lastly, you you became a very strong words. Critic of tourism. When you were a supporter of that tourism, what do the people back home make of that because it it's fair to say that she she wasn't the most popular poster girl for them. I took the picture I mean I certainly had friends who strongly disagreed with me, but these were times which were less eg logic. divided than they are now? I mean I'm seventy this year and in, all my life. I've never lived in britain at a time when there is so deep polarization of appeal. for example, on breaks it you ve, said politics or a bit like dreams He said that one of what did you mean by that that they don't bet too much thinking about, but whenever necessary that to say politics is a difficult business. What politics is is this each for partial remedies to recurring human evils and others
each of those evil changes over time, so the nature of the evils that britain faced in nineteen thirty nine was different from the evils it started to face in the nineteen seventies and eighties and they are different from the wants it faces now the responsibility of someone who takes politics. seriously, is to look at the evils that are predominant at any one time and trying at least point to some possible partial remedies. That means shifting your stand radically as the evils change. Where do you sit politically? No. Nowhere because there's no, where appropriately for you or is that, because you are uninterested, imply, not uninterested in policies because, as you know, I took a very strong breaks, it stands and I still would, although I think the project is semi derailed now, because it's the way awaiting politically handled anne and manage, but it still gonna happen in one way or another. Many of the arguments about breaks at have been and will be,
stan rehashed and played out. I want to ask you about how you were treated among your own fault. Can I'm thinking now about the intellectual elite for being in favour of breaks? It yes, appropriated view is not only disagreed with in many academic circles h regarded as retrogressive implicitly nationalist implicit even racist, although not everyone in academia thinks this. Quite recently there was a list of academic, some of them quite senior very senior who expressed their support for it, but. Being in terms of how it affects me by the way. A very important point is that I think the whole issue of racism remain is so deep and so difficult that there are very reasonable arguments on both sides. They, if I
don't condemn people who take a different view. What I just like about the present to debate is not those who take the view that I took having so often caricatures and so often viewed as not having thought deeply about the issues or as being ignorant or as wanting to go back to an imperial parts. For me, the past
Is the european project? Let's take a break from politics and let's have some one. Is it tell me about your six choice? Wisest in your list was Graeuben is one of those russian composes I admire robins music is full of contradictions. It's full of emotions that are to describe, particularly in this famous black mass. The
the. We got a circle of planes, evans, canada scenario, number nine black mass january, one book can in the pipeline, I understand this is entitled the feline philosophy, cats and the meaning of life, I worry that this might easily be your biggest seller a well. I don't worry about that prospect, but it happens I'll be July. Why do you like tat so much well, they're beautiful and there a kind of mixture of tranquillity and sudden energy, which I had my very much, but also I had my them and enjoy being with them, partly for the difference. As from human beings, cats enjoy their lives without needing to turn them into stories. Human beings, very often because they see their lives is stories. They want to create the story that is to come, but we know that very difficult. Unless you really want your book. I'm very interested in this apparent district
you have for humans. Spinning their own stories about their own lives, because surely in telling ourselves stories and listening to the stories of the april born before us, we understand human expedients should is an incredibly use any part of nature essential, but earnings can get hung up on their own stories, and is that why you don't like talking about yours? Yes, it's one of the region I don't make much of my own story. People can get hung up on this story and even worse, I think- and you can see this in politics- they can include other people in there story without those other people giving their permission write. Another would you be sick, or of the world in which I play a part. Is this its world communism, thatcherite, neo, liberalism What you are doing is not only telling a story which gives your life, meaning, which may be of benefit to your, including other people, is big players. I believe in you supported like this. One didn't like about big philosophies of human destiny is
four of the human species as a kind of orchestra? We ve all got our part, I said, supposing mine, is just a ping- the triangle for a time it's what I do want to do. It I dont want to be part of the melody, but here have a different melody and kind, but the composer or the people, the loudest instruments they determine what is played so that for I dislike, given that you are disarmingly short on introspection and how comfortable are you in this world? There is no overtaken by disco. Since a bows. While these are my feelings- and this is what I ate today- and this is my timeline- and I'm going here tomorrow and I'll- take a photograph of it and I'll. Tell everybody what one thing I've noticed, especially in the last couple of years when politics has become too many people. Unintelligible is that many writers who used to write and politics have started to write about lifestyle issues, even more about themselves now. If you have an excuse, Someone, for example, is lived through something either very terrible, like syria or very wonderful like,
heroic phase of civil rights in america dom interested in what they experience, I want to know about it, but if what they're doing is sitting at a computer, conflicting feelings, animal- about issues they haven't experienced- I'm not interested but doesn't help us connect if you think will where's that person seeing that their mental health, for them is an issue or a struggle or they've sought help for it. Then maybe I am not alone, though, and maybe in doing that, I feel more connected to the world rather than speak up about these problems in there. Now speaking up more about them- and I think that's good, but I dont think the most interesting thing about being human. Is your introspective feelings? It's what you have the feelings about this house Music, John reed, we're going to your seventh, tell me about this wealth saudis, whom nobody, I ll, for its combination of playfulness and a kind of oblique pointing to again this kind of stillness, one can listen to it forever.
and accessories she monopoly number one perform their by pascal lucy John garee you're you're married. When did you meet your wife me come what brought you together as a couple? Well, what brought together. Partly was my interest in oriental philosophy and send buddhism per family? Are workers and buddhists, but we met in london. She was pursuing a course and What I love about that philosophy is that this very little belief in it? People associate religion with belief, even philosophy with belief, but to me it's more about how you live and how you conduct your life in its even more about ceremony, some of the ceremonies, extraordinarily beautiful. We have talked to law. but will you yourself talked about say either you said you not optimistic, but you are hopeful. You drew
very interesting seems like slightly fine like maybe two to somehow. I don't think it is a fine. I because optimism is a kind of an attitude of mind according to which that some process of the growth of knowledge, the advance of technology, the advance of science, I'm sometimes asked- are there any exam will solve human advances, where there's no shadow of a cost of the kind I mentioned earlier, the one I normally mention is on a static dentistry. A second which could be mentioned is maybe contraception, so there are some, but on the whole, human knowledge is ethically ambiguous. This is a question that has preoccupied philosophers for thousands of years. How do we live in life. Simply you follow your best impulses and you reason about them as the consequences and for the people you care about in the things you care about, that you follow the impulses other best in and that's all there can really, in the end, be said about tell me about it piece of music, John grey. What we're going to hear well! This is federico mobutu who
new saturday he was a catalan composure and he and away developed some of saudis work and the peace will here now is part of it. Series of medical, silent, music, it music and we. The silences are as important as what is heard, and I find that very compelling when the role of language is not to say something. But the pointed things that can be said
The the the the.
Fifty km imbues angelica from Musica louder, performs thereby harbours hank. It's time then John. For me to give you some books, I give the castaways, the bible and the complete works. shakespeare. You smiling slightly there that, and what will your book be? Nine would want to have the bible and complete with shakespeare. Great works of The english language, but my book would be a collection of poetry called the palm. At the end of the mind, which is one of the last poems written by the poetry. To my mind was the greatest english speaking twentieth century poet, the american, while stevens one could read it forever. I suppose Just in case I wasn't picked up on the island, I need deforested forever. I shall give you that then you're allowed a luxury, what used to be a limitless supply of marmite and perhaps find some leave I could spread it all: yeah, ok, a lifetime supply of marmite, which of these eight discs that, with her today, would you safe, probably the sun
t because it's the most playful and I'm gonna be stuck on this island for decades. I'd want something which wasn't too turbulent, but also wasn't in a way to come, but it's a choice to make. It was hard to make a choice of eight even harder to make a choice of what will you ve made it now? It's you to say engine great. Thank you very much for letting his hearing a desert island discs. Thank you very much the hope you enjoy this addition of desert island discs you'll find over two thousand interviews with our musician scientists, sports stars comedians and more at bbc dot, co uk, Slash desert island discs and have a favour to ask if you could rate and review the desert island discs podcast? Whenever download your podcast. It really help other people find us thanks again for listening,
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Transcript generated on 2022-06-12.