January 20, 2016


The Best of Clive James
672 pages, Picador

Review by Pat Black

Clive James was just “a man on the telly” to me, as I grew up in the 1980s.

Possessed of a striking Australian accent in the days before they became ubiquitous with Neighbours, he hosted a raucous Saturday night talk show, as well as an off-beat Sunday night clips compendium which sneered at television from other countries. 

The latter was a schoolboy staple if you wanted guaranteed boobs (no internet then; you young whipper-fappers don’t know you’re born), but it also became famous for screening highlights from Endurance, a Japanese game show where contestants were effectively tortured for your amusement. Curiously, it seems more honest, if not more sophisticated, than most of today’s reality TV.

In the 1990s, James introduced the flamboyant, tone-deaf Cuban cabaret singer Margarita Pracatan to an unsuspecting nation, making her a star. She was discussed and adored in schools, universities and workplaces all over the UK. Satellite TV was available by then, but by and large British viewing was still restricted to four terrestrial channels. Whenever Clive James laughed at something, it seemed everyone in the UK laughed along with him.

James cut a jovial figure on the box – paunchy, but not avuncular; something like a CEO on a jolly to the tropics, though a little less carnivorous, with his Speedos kept in a fusty drawer where they belong. He was someone you suspected enjoyed a couple of beers and a good laugh, which made him a natural on the telly.

What I didn’t know until relatively recently was that James cut his teeth in the broadsheets and literary blatts as an essayist and reviewer of some renown, a noted intellectual and part of a 1970s literary set that included Germaine Greer, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Christopher Hitchens and Julian Barnes.

My first taste of this side of James came from The Oxford Book of Essays, which contained an evisceration of Judith Krantz perhaps unparalleled in its blend of brutality and elegance. This whetted my appetite for more.

Although Reliable Essays claims to be the best of Clive James, it doesn’t feature the Krantzing. There is solid work on George Orwell, classic photography, the Holocaust, the poetry of Philip Larkin and modern Australian history. But these were not as interesting as when James dips his toe into shallower water – such as the craze (heightened these days, if anything) for Sherlock Holmes; the frigid ballet of Torvill and Dean; Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels; and the stagecraft of James’ fellow Aussie, Dame Edna Everage herself - Barry Humphries.

Perhaps the best piece in the book is James’ travelogue as part of the British press corps following Margaret Thatcher as she tours China in 1984. It’s an excellent portrait of the late premier’s chilling-to-the-point-of-Bundy personality, as well as a snapshot of Hong Kong as it neared the end of British rule. James is keen to remind us that Chinese civilisation was flourishing while most of the British population was still living in caves. Some journalists, he hints, might have preferred to take residency in those caves after the Chinese junket ended.

I discovered that James made his name through his TV reviews and laconic travel writing, and it was these that led to the Australian transferring to television and national fame. To me, his writing in the more populist pieces is sharper, clearer, and far more entertaining.

James’ intellect looms over his subjects like alien invaders, blotting out the light in some cases. He often betrays an intimidating level of knowledge which hints at more than the reviewer’s standard post-first draft cramming session. There’s always something to learn in his work, and it’s usually something worth learning.

My favourite example of this was his examination of photographer Roland Barthes’ twin concept of studium and punctum. Apologies if this is well-known; I’d never heard of it. Studium is the main subject of a painting or photograph – to take James’ example, an image of a little boy holding a toy pistol to his own head. Punctum is a small, secondary detail which helps bring the whole to life – in the same photo, this would be the grinning boy’s rotten teeth.

So, Clive James might be the columnist Gotham needs, but he’s not always the one Gotham wants. As I’ve just demonstrated, strings of Latin festoon some of his prose, irksome to state-educated laddies like me. For an admirer of the work of George Orwell such as James, this affectation is careless. Still, as one of my old teachers told me, you should never hide your intelligence or your education, whichever comes first.

I feel the same should go for my lack of both. I have an embarrassing blind spot for poetry. I studied it in some detail during my undergraduate days; I appreciate its creativity and beauty and the skill of the artists, and I can analyse it if I need to. But I simply don’t care for it, and rarely pluck it from my shelves. This, I fully accept, makes me a philistine. James loves poetry, and he offers a striking analysis of Larkin’s work at the start of this book. He might as well have been writing in double Dutch. It almost killed my desire to read on.

James is a clever prose stylist, but his vast knowledge of his subject – indeed, of most subjects – sometimes hobbles the reader. Obscure references pile up, and unfamiliar names are scattered like breadcrumbs on the path to a gingerbread house. If you’re going into some of these essays in a state of ignorance, they can be extremely difficult to digest. Fortunately, while I may need footnotes or net searches to understand what James is talking about, the way he talks about it is pleasure enough.

James’ erudition can be especially grating when he betrays his lust for linguistics, examining in minute detail where prose goes wrong. An inappropriate word placed here, a tautology there, honest malapropisms, careless repetitions, shonky grammar, redundant phrasings and tarty clichés all cause James to purse his lips like a convent school English master. He goes into far too much detail at too great a length. He enjoys it. He is a pedant.

If our choice of pornography is one area in life where we truly, honestly reveal ourselves, then perhaps picking up on others’ mistakes is what turns Clive James on. I imagine he’d uncap his red pen with a flourish to match Zorro’s were he ever to read this. Here, the critic comes across as less of the free-wheeling philosopher than a priggish, uptight sub-editor of too many years’ standing, with a big belly, a rancid pullover and an insufferably arch tone. It’s almost a tragedy James’ heyday came around 15 years too early for a guest slot (and perhaps even the presenting gig) on QI – an enjoyable show, but, alongside Only Connect, a facilitator for some of the most annoying arseholes in Britain.

During one of the post-scripts of his own reviews, James admits that his mind can run away with itself. Sub-clauses are fecund things, springing up in the flowerbeds exactly when they’re least wanted. As I struggle to contain my own addiction to parentheses, semi-colons, brackets and simply blowing hard, I loved this withering self-analysis. Note to self: don’t fall out of love with full stops.

James can be cynical, but he is not above getting a bit floral over objects of admiration. He accepts that his appraisal of Barry Humphries’ career skirts close to panegyric, and in obliterating the oeuvre of Sherlockologists, James betrays a childhood crush on Conan Doyle which places him closer to his quarry than he might care to admit.

In his appraisal of Torvill and Dean, who held the whole world spellbound with their figure skating displays throughout the 1980s, James opens with a brilliant comic figure to illustrate his lack of learning on the subject – the author himself, “ankles at 90 degrees, knees at the level of the eyebrows”, trying to ice skate with his daughter. Still, his admiration for his subjects is apparent. In revealing Torvill and Dean’s universal appeal, he encapsulated the times perfectly and triggered a wave of nostalgia in me. I recalled my father – as natural a fit for the world of ice dance as a bull elephant - being spellbound by the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo where Torvill and Dean swept the board to Bolero. This was class-free mass appeal, a factor which James clocked almost immediately.

One or two beatings are delivered. He gets medieval on some Australian historians, and can barely contain his disdain for the writing style of one in particular. He also takes on Norman Mailer’s Marilyn Monroe biography, more or less accusing that sour old grizzly of losing the plot in trying to attach mystical significance to an all-too-human Norma Jean. There’s a cracking footnote to this, when James reveals that not too long after the piece was published, he ended up in the same limousine as the famously pugnacious Mailer. He realised that he might have to look lively, or perhaps hail a cab.

That Mailer not only didn’t punch him, but didn’t even mention the article, despite almost certainly having read it, perhaps speaks volumes about James’ skill and the esteem other writers hold him in. This is heavy praise, not faint.

James has been in the news rather a lot in the past few years, as he has spectacularly failed at dying. Although still very ill and professing to be “near the end”, he has confounded a bleak cancer diagnosis in 2012 which had given him a matter of months to live. While he may not quite have gone down the Wilko Johnson “Lazarus” pathway, I pray that modern medicine continues to sustain him and that he stays with us for a long time yet. With the Reaper held in abeyance for a little longer than anticipated, and with Clive James still writing and entertaining us, I thought I’d pen this essay while the going is good. He is the master at what he does, and we should celebrate him.

James explains that the work of the critic and artist are intimately tied. Without appraisal of art, the art itself would struggle to make itself known. And art helps make life worthwhile. To borrow Frank Zappa’s phrasing about music and time, without art to decorate it, life would be very dull indeed. While Clive James has too much humility to make any claims of creating art himself, this explanation of why criticism exists and why it might matter reminded me of why I bother my backside writing these bloody things. 

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