Clive James

by | Nov 29, 2019

In the words of Robert Johnson, the great 1930’s blues man, I went ugly early with Clive James. I probably should have started with Unreliable Memoirs, and worked my way through the literary gears but instead I jumped straight into the deep end with Cultural Amnesia, mainly because I thought I was ready for the type of writing about the people he discussed in the book. Described by some as an expose of civilisation, the essence of Cultural Amnesia, sub-titled, Notes in the margin of my time, is a series of exposes of important figures, some well known, others obscure, from not just the 20th Century but down through time.

I was ready for the elegance in the language but not, although I should have been, for the intellectual rigour that he applied to understanding his subject, or the range that he was able to apply to describing each individual and the historical landscape and perspective he was able to set them against. He showed me a literary agility that I regularly use as a sub-conscious benchmark but he also showed me a literary fragility to sit alongside it, in other words, a preparedness to let go of my pretensions and let the idea hang, jettison the rules and let the reader make up their own mind.

It’s still my go to text if I need a guidepost on how to go about writing about a subject, it’s the apogee of linguistic erudition, in connecting information on the lives of important people with a grown up, broad examination of their lives without descending into pastiche or hero worship. But as much as that, or more than that, I just swim in his mix of fact, rumour and legend that he crafts into a majestic, nuanced and user friendly form of literary criticism and historical character examination. It’s the work of a master observationist.

He wrote with just as much erudition, humour and insight about pop culture icons as he did about scientists, philosophers and writers. I still wonder in awe how any one person can sit down and write about these disparate characters across centuries with such clarity and insight. Albert Camus alongside Coco Chanel, Stefan Zweig, Octavio Paz, Duke Ellington and Charlie Chaplin. That he got it wrong about Aung San Suu Kyi doesn’t matter, he’s not the only one, he illuminated the lives and times of people such as Peter Altenburg, Karl Tschuppik and Sophie Scholl, people we quite probably would never know about, and with it, know less about the times they were living in, which I think was his point, to illuminate the times these people lived in more than the people themselves. The real subject was the historical moment.

I methodically worked my way through the hundred odd characters, the lives he had examined and decided that, regardless of their virtue, they were worth having a light shone upon them. Most of the time he’d head off on tangents talking about something, or someone, else as you begin to wonder whether he’s forgotten who he’s supposed to be writing about, until you had to concede that he knew what he was doing, or at least he gave the impression he did, by finishing on point. It was part of his narrative discipline, or talent, or both, giving the impression that he was meandering somewhat aimlessly. Meandering yes, aimless no, his story telling craft remained intact, he always brought you back to the point, which was to enrich you while entertaining you. I’m not suggesting the book is an easy read, some of it is hard work but it’s undeniably worthwhile.

It’s a book that deserves to sit alongside the best of biographical texts, it is worth owning if you read only no more than a half dozen chapters each year, having it on your shelf when you either want to familiarise yourself with a hitherto obscure but important life, or using it as a launch pad for further enquiry. Failing that, it’s worthwhile reading for it’s linguistic majesty alone. I also hold it as my favourite work of his because I recognised pretty quickly, as I dived into it, that this form was Clive’s playground, I had the constant, distinct feeling that he had located his North Star.

Then I discovered what may be his finest work, his rendering of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, turning it on its ear, the literary critic and the poet working side by side inside the one brain. He was already familiar with Dante’s work, he had studied it at Cambridge and he wanted to combine his monumental intellect with his poetic disposition. Unless you can read Dante’s effort in its original Italian it doesn’t make sense as a poetic masterwork however I have had Clive’s exposition, the original Italian and the English translation of Dante’s great poem open at the same Canto (section) and dropped my jaw at how he could take the Italian original and create a completely different, mind changing version. He had the advantage of marrying a Dante scholar but still, it needed someone with Clive’s poetic disposition to reimagine Dante’s prose poem and give it an entirely fresh and modern poetic interpretation.

He stared down death in his writing the same way he looked his final years straight in the eye, feeling privileged and grateful that he got to do it all. In all of this rendering of his monumental intellect and in my doing my best to take it all in, not for one moment, unlike some others I could name, did I think that he was showing off.

While we’re on the subject of not showing off, I found myself in a book store, a few years ago, standing next to a woman shopping for books for her son. She was eyeing a copy of Ulysses, wanting to introduce him, as she was putting it to the bookshop owner, to great literature. Of course we all know someone who claims to have read Ulysses but hasn’t, there is no virtue in reading, or in having read, this book. Most writers have a go at it because they think they should. I’ve read it, with a proportion of my time, smaller than I would have liked, spent rejoicing in its linguistic grandiloquence and the rest of the time wondering when James Joyce was going to get to the point, if indeed he ever had one. Who is going to out you if you claim you’ve waded through all 700 odd pages. The same bookshop owner later told me that she read every ten pages just so she can get a feel for the book, to which my response was “why did you bother?”

Read Animal Farm, 1984, The Grapes of Wrath, The Tree of Man, or Crime & Punishment instead, books that have something to say. Save yourself the time and bother. If it’s stratospheric prose you’re after try Moby Dick, although Melville takes a God-awful time getting to the point. The key difference between Melville and Joyce being that Melville at least had a point to make.

The mother was about to hear some sobering news. She said “I suppose I should get him a copy of Ulysses.” “No you shouldn’t” I declared, chiming in without permission. I needed to step in and save this young man some unnecessary anguish. Both ladies shot sideways glares straight at me, locked and loaded in their viewfinder. I was in their sights. If bookshops aren’t places to have conversations about books where do you have them? I continued, “You should only read Ulysses if you don’t mind 700 odd pages of word play and are prepared to dwell indefinitely in non stop self-indulgent stream of consciousness word-spill, with occasional moments of stunning linguistic gymnastics. There is however, no point reading it for the story, there is none, no allegory, no message, just a clever man showing off. I can recommend a hundred others before you get to Ulysses.”

The mother took my advice, I enquired as to her son’s age and suggested Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria, which I had just finished, Orwell’s 1984, Kafka’s The Trial, Patrick White’s Voss and Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. I’d probably add Kerouac’s On the Road to that.  I walked away asking myself “is this how Clive James might have approached it?,” kidding myself that I might have been as witty or as sharp. If you want some sharp end stream of consciousness writing try Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway or William Faulkner’s The Sound & the Fury.

Then there is Dr. Seuss, no one is ever too old or too clever to read Dr Seuss. I could imagine Clive writing “I had trouble in getting to Solla Sollew – on the beautiful banks of the river Wah Hoo – where they never have troubles – at least very few” just as easily as “To parch me worse than all the ills that waste – My features. The unbending justice which – Examines me and makes me breathe in haste.”  (Canto 30). 

Clive suggested that we all should, at some stage in our lives, read War and Peace, I imagine for him he’d describe it as a 19th Century mini-series, before television and Netflix, when what Tolstoy was doing was doing exactly what Spielberg might have done today, create a panoramic saga of a moment in history except with a video camera rather than words. I’m not suggesting we should weigh ourselves down with the tome, it’s very readable, just immensely long, but perhaps what he was trying to do is make staring down something like War and Peace just a little less intimidating by placing it in a more digestible 21st Century context. But he was also, at the same time, refusing to become an apologist for the 21st Century, he was putting the case for being prepared to turn off the television and to kick back with a good book, to fight the gods of convenience for just one season and see where it takes us. If you want to read the Russians, start with Pushkin.

Unreliable Memoirs is a good place to kick back with when I want to laugh and admire the ability of someone to communicate the honesty and innocent vulgarity of growing up in working class Australia, identifying with the trading of cigarette cards and failing to steer a runaway billy cart down a hill clear of Mrs Braithwaite’s award winning poppies in her front garden at the bottom of that same hill. He inadvertently outed himself as the boy from the ‘burbs’ with a correspondingly juxtaposed intellect, at least to the English establishment, the same cabal who’d have assumed to that point, that only an education at Eton or Harrow would have afforded such linguistic dexterity.

He showed the English that not going to Eton had a lot going for it, he brought Antipodean wit, just as John Clarke did, that the English couldn’t match. Only a handful I’ve read have his seemingly effortless use of language, his ability to play with it and use the range the language offers to invent something fresh and new –  I could name names but I might start an argument not worth having but in a convenient break from that undertaking, the next great poet I will no doubt write a tribute to, although he seems to have a few good years left in him yet, would be counted among them. Clive was to illuminating culture as Usain Bolt was to sprinting, by taking it to a new level and a new audience.

His grasp of where literature sits within any history, how it influences history, how history influenced it, and what we should learn from those writers who stuck their heads above the parapet only to find their offerings rejected as not much more than idealisms muttered from naive yet well meaning whistlers, or alternatively, threats to society and the established order of things, is something to behold, like the breaking of a drought and dancing naked in the rain. The powers that be, the despots, the dictators, are invariably proved wrong, as the literature is the prized find in any long surpassed civilisation, Clive knew it, he showed it and he proved it in the telling.

And within that, he understood that regardless of the literary and intellectual heights that you are able or wanting to climb to, regardless of the literary merit of any of it, it’s pointless making your point without being able to inculcate your words with humour. All great literary works embrace humour, it gives us a chance to have a break from ourselves. He could spot the opportunity for irony a mile off and make it sing like a bird.

Clive had an innately acute understanding of how irony works and how to link it to humour and thereby nail a subject into our consciousness, a realisation that we all need to reach out for something to make us laugh, even if just a bit, a wry smile or smirk even, to understand something a little better, not by inventing something humorous but merely by pointing to it, or at it, even if it’s something or someone absurd. The funniest book I have ever read, Waiting for Godot, is at once profound and profoundly funny, as you place yourself momentarily in the middle of the absurd, knowing that we’ve all been there at one time or another, or are in it now. Clive knew how to tap into the sometimes absurdity of life that we subject ourselves to, giving us relief while we find a way to explain it. Clive would take the absurd and turn it on a dime into something meaningful and worth giving further thought to.

His essays, some of the best of them are in The Revolt of the Pendulum, can be compared to that other great essayist, George Orwell, where he talks about the English language – Insult to the Language or The Perfectly Bad Sentence are good points of comparison to Orwell’s Politics and the English Language. Clive approaches the subject with perhaps a greater linguistic flourish than does George but with no less effect. George knew that he was on solid ground, secure in the knowledge that he knew what he was talking about, with the runs on the board to back it up. Linguistic grandiloquence was something George was never interested in, self evident in his novels.

Clive may have had an advantage in that he knew, from his days in television, how to deliver the message to maximum effect. In this respect I will predict that these essays, just as Orwell’s have, will stand the test of time and be referred to in future times, when we want to look back and review what we’ve done to this language.

He was, and always will be, informative and at the same time entertaining. His depth of literary, cultural and historical knowledge, what he had in his brain and the way he was able to communicate that knowledge, with an unparalleled wit and language, with his ability to incorporate that knowledge into the modern lexicon, is without peer. He challenged the notion that good literature, or even just ridiculously good writing is not accessible or relevant and provided a doorway for all of us into the world of it. He could write about W.C.Fields, as he did in Cultural Amnesia, just as effortlessly and elegantly as he could about Thomas Mann or Albert Camus.

In terms of our respective poetry, stylistically and in terms of subject matter we’re fourth cousins twice removed but I can only read and wonder at the apparent ease with which he could imbue something profound, or mundane, or simple, such as seeing his grand-daughter perform a flip on the beach, with such beauty, to make you, momentarily, stop breathing. Japanese Maple from Sentenced to Life or Front Flip, Half Twist from Injury Time does that to me. Poems that take both a few minutes and fifty years of living to pen. Reading the beauty in these lines reminds me that for whatever state of life we find ourselves in, if and when we can experience this beauty, if only for that moment, our lives are just a little bit more wonderful.

Clive arrived at a point in his life where he was able to say, with confidence, that first and foremost, he was a poet. Where we might be very closely related is in the realisation that our writing has become more nuanced and refined since our respective life threatening conditions, making perspective appreciate its currency. A perspective he has defined for so many of us as he approached his final days. He also knew that what he was leaving behind was not renovations and wet cement but a legacy of intellectual depth and meaning, enduring gratitude for his lot, insight into the lives that we were making hard work of, wit to make you laugh and cry in the same minute, beauty in what came from his pen, in short, something for us to aspire to.

Ultimately, Clive knew the power of words, that good words, wise words, kind words, funny words, even better all of those word types mixed in well together, can bring any repressive regime to its knees.

Many times, having written something, I will ask myself, “how would Clive James go reading this?” I imagine him reading some of my poems, with his deep, mellifluous voice of granite, single malt in hand, providing it the heft only he can.

I am indebted to him for expanding the possibilities of the written word. He was never afraid to take risks. Never afraid. When I’m stuck I remember this from him – “I get up in the morning, make myself a cup of coffee, walk up the stairs to my office, stare out the window and do what all great writers must do, absolutely nothing.” He is Don Bradman, Betty Cuthbert and Dame Joan Sutherland. He is one of the greats. Thanks Clive, I’ll see you in the library.