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Not Altogether Fool

Rachel Andrews
The Revolt of the Pendulum: Essays 2005-2008, by Clive James, Picador, 320 pp, £15.99, ISBN: 978-0330457385

For twenty years Clive James worked as a television host, presenting talk shows, travel programmes and documentaries for the BBC and ITV. Then, in 2001, he retired. On his website, clivejames.com, he explains why. “If you interview Geri Halliwell the Spice Girl instead of Deborah Bull the prima ballerina, the viewing figures really do go up by a million people. But I found that my spirits went down correspondingly.”

Since then, save for a series of web interviews taped in his library in London and broadcast in conjunction with television channel Artsworld and the website Slate.com, James has gone back to making his living as a diverse and polymathic writer, publishing, with startling rapidity, books of essays, poetry and memoir, as well as several works of fiction. This latest collection of essays is his fourth since he left the small screen and his seventh in all.

Still, he misses the medium that turned him into a household name. “Yeah, often,” he told the Guardian newspaper earlier this year, “because it’s a lot of fun, and you do get spoilt. You get used to getting on to the aeroplane and turning left.” It is this aspect of James’s personality, the part that likes turning left, the part that readily admits, as he did in one of his essays, that he was born “to be a rock star”, which is forever in disjointed competition with the other Clive James, the thinker and intellectual. James himself would have us believe the two are compatible, interchangeable even, writing, in North Face of Soho, his fourth volume of autobiography, that “a literary career could and should draw sustenance from involvement in show business and popular music”, but in this latest publication, as in many of his others, it is hard for a reader not to perceive them as conflicting.

Take for example the essay “The Velvet Shackles of a Reputation”, written in defence of James the poet: “Speaking as one whose name, for a long time, was recognisable from every activity except for the one that mattered to me most, I can only wonder, looking back, if my name as a poet might not have made quicker progress had I been less notorious for the other things,” he says. For this notoriety, however, he is as ready to blame others as himself, expressing weary resignation at questions on the potential difficulties of balancing television fame with serious writing and – although accepting that it was his choice to take “his poetry into show business” by performing it on stage – nonetheless bemoaning the fact that this decision sealed his fate as someone whose verse writing is now regarded as “would-be entertainment”.

The sentiments – peevishness, irritation, self-justification – are no doubt sincere, and in part justified. Undervalued artists (and yet can we possibly say that James is one of those?) of any creed will relate to James’s desire for “the acknowledgement of one’s existence”, and nearly all will admit to having at times cursed the short-sightedness of the artistic establishment to which they wish to belong. But that is a different matter from writing those curses down and having them published. Reading the essay, it is hard not to wish that James would get down from his soapbox and stop whingeing. This is, after all, a writer whose poetry has been published in the most prestigious of British and American outlets, who has been reviewed as a “wry and pleasingly exacting” poet, and who has had the good fortune – derived, yes, from hard work and initiative and admittedly complemented by other activities – to be able to make a living out of what he loves to do.

James is not unaware of this paradox, noting at the end of the essay that “any poet who complains about his publicity is likely to be reminded, by fellow poets who don’t get enough of it, that he sounds like Jennifer Lopez complaining about the size of her trailer”. But his self-deprecating asides – and there are, to be fair, many of them –do not quite seem to cancel out the avariciousness of his need for confirmation. It is surely this quality that leads him to undermine an essay (one that, granted, was first delivered as a lecture) on modern Australian painting by including a self-mocking, but nonetheless self-indulgent, paragraph on Jeffrey Smart’s Portrait of Clive James, which hangs in the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, or to lessen the value of his two, much superior pieces on motor racing, by casually letting drop the fact that he has had dinner with Niki Lauda and Mika Hakkinen or been driven at top speed by Damon Hill from the Hungarian Grand Prix to catch a private jet to Bulgaria.

Once he has finished blowing his own trumpet, James is quite good at rapping it over his knuckles, pointing out, before we can do it for him, his inconsistencies, his inadequacies and his envies. But despite his inclusion of such hard-learned truths as the admission that in his youth he was a harsh and potentially jealous critic, with a history of sticking the knife into his victims, or that he begrudged (openly and with admiration) the critic Robert Hughes’s easy good looks and success with women, given the weight of the evidence he produces in his favour methinks the gentleman doth protest too much.

He does so, one imagines, because he has still not quite decided who he is. Even if this book of essays – spanning subject matter from literature to politics to motor racing – wasn’t evidence enough, any cursory reading of James’s biography offers proof of a restless and insatiable mind. As a writer, he has topped up his fiction, poetry, prose and autobiography with travel writing and cultural criticism: for ten years, from 1972, he was the Observer’s television critic and in 2007 he produced the book Cultural Amnesia, a mammoth piece of work, four years in the making, that examines his literary, cultural, and political heroes of the twentieth century. After his years in television, he is now a radio broadcaster, for BBC Radio 4’s A Point of View, a lecturer and speechmaker and an internet entrepreneur – his website, a vast entity containing new and archived material from his years as a writer, an audio and video stream of his columns and interviews and a gallery showcasing the work of writers, poets and artists he admires, has been favourably reviewed as “a generous and wonderful delight … that ought to be a spur to an artistic renaissance on the internet”. Add to this the fact that he is a polyglot – he reads in eight languages – a rock lyricist – frequently touring with musical collaborator Pete Atkin – and a tango enthusiast – he has converted the upstairs of his London flat into a ballroom so he can feed his passion – and one can see why Julian Barnes, in an introduction to a Best Of volume of James’s essays, observed that he was “a brilliant bunch of guys”.

At his best, James is without doubt a brilliant stylist, writing essays of originality and insight that show off his wit and intelligence to favourable effect. In the case of the collection under review, most of those congregate under the Literature heading – the work also has sections on Culture, Homeland, Racing Drivers, Back to the Beginning, Absent Friends and Handbills – where James’s reviews of biographies (the Austrian satirist Karl Kraus), poetry (an anthology edited by Camille Paglia) and analyses of writers themselves (Elias Canetti) for the most part lack the profligacies that pepper many of the writings in the other areas.

The essay on Kraus, for example, succeeds both because James refers to himself only fleetingly in the entire, lengthy piece (and once only to let us know that it took him some time to read the book in question) and because this omission frees him up to explore the opinions of Kraus rather than his own. Most tellingly, the article demonstrates his ability to root the critique within a contemporary political and social context, and to draw analogies between Kraus’s conclusions or non-conclusions about Nazi language and what James terms the “pure language” of today’s terrorists. It is a wonderful piece, which a reader would wish to cherish and a writer learn from. Fluent, expertly structured and expansive, drawing – without conceit – on James’s knowledge of everyone from Rilke to Orwell to Samantha Power, it confirms that he can be, when he wants to, a cultural commentator par excellence.

“The Guidebook Detectives”, an essay on crime novels, and my favourite of the collection, also confirms his supreme gifts as a humorist. Here again the ego is kept at bay and what shines through instead are James’s tightly-worded turns of phrase and cracking punchlines. At the outset he returns to a favourite theme, the inflated prose of Henry James. Given that he has characterised the Jamesian style elsewhere as resembling “an invitation to suck up a sand dune through a straw”, we have a good idea where he is taking us when he writes that “quite a few literary masterpieces spend much of their turgid wordage being almost as contrived as any crime novel you’ve ever raced through”, before suggesting that James might have done better had he moved into detective stories:

On page thirteen of my edition of The Wings of the Dove, Kate Croy is waiting for her father to appear. ‘He had not at present come down from his room, which she knew to be above the one they were in …’ But of course she knew that; knew it so well that she wouldn’t have to think about it; she is only thinking about it so she can tell us. If a narrative is going to be as clumsy as that, can’t it have some guns?

Perhaps it is because the essay was first published in the incomparable New Yorker, which brooks no exceptions to its calm, clean manner, that any fat in the writing has been sliced away and what we are left with are such dry, witty lines as the description of Ian Rankin’s famous Inspector Rebus, “a maverick (of course) cop who drinks so hard that he gets another hangover from inhaling his current hangover”, who is played, for British television, by an actor [Ken Stott] with “a magnificently burred accent and a rack of luggage beneath each eye”. James is having fun here, and it is reflected in the tone of the piece, which is positively featherlight compared to the ponderous nature of some of the less well-achieved writing elsewhere in the collection.

“The Guidebook Detectives” is an essay put together by James the writer rather than James the persona, which is why one takes him seriously when he notes that “as a form for real writers, the detective novel is bound to be a dry well in the end, because a detective novel, no matter how memorable in the detail, is written to be forgotten”. At other times one would rather throw the book at him, as in the irritatingly self-righteous “The Perfectly Bad Sentence”, where he tells readers that “almost five years have gone by since I cut out from a British newspaper the article containing the following passage, and I think I am finally ready to examine the subtleties of its perfection”. But just before you take aim you remember that he is also capable of the insight that while crime writing can provide us with a good-time adventure holiday, the real adventure lies elsewhere, and may, in fact, be waiting for us on page fourteen of the Henry James we had cast aside after giving up on the struggle. Put that together with his assertion that “real literature is written in the light of the inexorable fact that the mysterious dead body that really matters will one day be ours”, and you can see why James’s publishers keep churning out those collected books of essays: some of the pieces really are for keeps.

So why, when he can write essays to rival the best of the best, does James feel the constant need to either set out on the defensive or to puff up his chest to such an extent that we can’t see anything past it? He is clever enough to know that he does it, using the postscript to “The Velvet Shackles” to acknowledge the piece as a “clear case of blowing my own trumpet”, and to know why he does it, writing, in the introduction to North Face of Soho that “an onlooker might say that I have Done Something. But I’m still not entirely sure about the ‘something’ and not at all sure about the ‘I’. If I were, I might be less thrilled about seeing my name in print. Ten letters in two groups of five, it still rings a bell of reassurance for its owner. But why does he need the reassurance?”

For an answer one needs to return to television, and to James’s love/hate relationship with the medium: after all it is he who writes, in an essay on Robert Hughes, that he had warned his friend that doing television “would erode his reputation for seriousness”; but it is also he that I remember presenting a kind of early Lost in Translation travel show, featuring himself as a bumbling Australian trying to make his way through the strange land of Japan. I knew Clive James from television, and not in the way that I knew Robert Hughes. Hughes’s television series The Shock of the New changed the way people thought about modern art. Anything I had ever seen involving Clive James was, essentially, a vehicle for Clive James, for his humour, his wry observations, his shambolic personality, his interviewing style.

The fact of the matter is that James is, and likes to be, an entertainer. He is the kid in the schoolyard trying to make the other children laugh. This is why he misses television and why he has replaced it with the stage – aside from his work with Atkin, he performs solo shows, during which he effectively talks for an hour, at events like the Edinburgh Fringe. In a postscript, he indicates that much of this work is motivated by the need to make money – fear of financial insecurity is a sub-theme to more than a few of the pieces in the collection. It is also clear however that he enjoys, and is gratified by, the instant response he gets to his live material.

There is nothing wrong with this, but, equally, there is nothing wrong with finding it paradoxical that James can do, and wishes to do, so many different things at once, and in being surprised that the person who once happily made a fool of himself by stumbling in confusion through the Japanese television adventure show Takeshi’s Castle is the same one who pompously writes that “one of the wonders of the modern world is how the British universities continue to turn out whole generations of ambitious literary critics who seem to have given up on learning to read French”.

The only person who properly needs to come to terms with these discrepancies, however, is James himself, and if he would do so, no doubt the rest of us would follow suit. One would have wished, therefore, that the defining theme of this collection really was, as James implies in his introduction, frustration with what he terms the “blind obduracy” of all those “negligent vigilantes”, or the left-leaning, idealistic intellectuals of Western democracies who blame the behaviour of those same democracies for many of the evils, injustices and terrors that haunt our contemporary world – rather than the monument to Clive James that it actually becomes.

This is all the more disappointing because here is a writer who, if he or a good editor would only hold himself back from himself, has enough powers of thought and expression to provide him with important things to say: I cannot but warm to him for his respect and admiration for women in general, evidenced in his pieces on Kraus, Canetti, Kingsley Amis, and most openly, in his essay on the stalker who pursued Nicole Kidman, in which he observes that “most men spend a good part of their lives learning that other people are alive too”.

It is unfortunate that the witty, pithy Clive of primetime television does not merge better, or more often, with the elegant, graceful James of the book’s best-written pieces to produce more work that rivals “The Guidebook Detectives” or “Movie Criticism in America”, another collector’s item. But to adapt what Katherine Hepburn once said of Howard Hughes (or at least she did in Martin Scorsese’s 2004 biopic), there’s just too much “Clive James” in this book of essays by Clive James.


Rachel Andrews is a writer and critic based in Cork city. She writes about arts
and culture for publications including The Sunday Business Post and Irish Theatre Magazine, and is a regular contributor to RTE Radio 1's Arts Show. She lectures in Literature and Journalism at University College Cork and Griffith College Cork.

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