Artillery Row

Clive James, the Kid from Kogarah

A tribute to the late Clive James, by David Herman

I first met Clive James in the late 1980s. He was at the height of his career. After ten years of writing a TV column for The Observer, which established him as a household name, he became a famous TV presenter. After a successful start at LWT, he was lured by Michael Grade to come to the BBC where he was offered two weekly shows, a number of annual documentaries and Specials and his own well-staffed unit. On his website, he jokingly calls this period, “The Imperial Years”. 

Not only was he now famous as a TV personality and journalist, James had also established himself as a distinguished writer and essayist. Through the late 1970s and Eighties he wrote regularly for the London and New York Review of Books, the TLS and Ian Hamilton’s New Review. By the time I met him he had brought out four books of essays. He had also published several books of poetry, lyrics for six albums of songs with his long-time collaborator Pete Atkin and two volumes of memoirs. The first, Unreliable Memoirs (1980), about his early life in Australia, went on to sell a million copies. His first novel, Brilliant Creatures, also published in the early Eighties, went on to sell more than a quarter of a million copies.  When Auden died, Clive James wrote a poem about him for The New Yorker (it appeared opposite a portrait by Richard Avedon). When Princess Diana died, Tina Brown commissioned him to write a tribute to his close friend.  He seemed everywhere. “I had hit two kinds of jackpot”, he wrote later.

During these years, Clive James was not just a TV presenter and recognised man of letters, he was a celebrity. He was taught to drive by Stirling Moss and in 1989 appeared with the Rolling Stones in Prague. A hugely popular TV presenter, he also moved in high cultural circles. The film director, Jane Campion asked him to play a fast-talking Australian lawyer in her film, Holy Smoke, and the Princeton Institute of Advanced Studies invited him to lecture about Primo Levi. He regularly met up with a Friday lunch group which included the best-known British writers and poets of his generation: Amis, McEwan and Barnes, James Fenton, Christopher Hitchens and Craig Raine. He would come into the office and tell his team about dinners he had attended with Pinter and Roth, Alfred Brendel and Isaiah Berlin. This must sound like the worst name-dropping but he always carried it off with modesty and good humour. Formed in the golden age of British TV he was not one of the monster-presenters who stalked its corridors. He was kind and generous, unspoiled by fame.

Clive James lived two lives. One was the life of media celebrity in all its glitz (he went on to present a series on Fame in the Twentieth Century), filming around the world, dining with the great and the good, interviewing figures like Katherine Hepburn and Roman Polanski. On the other hand, he was never happier than when he would retreat to his tiny office at the BBC, with a little camp bed for his daily siesta, and plough through the collected poems of Montale and Akhmatova, learning Russian, Italian and German to read his favourite writers in the original. In North Face of Soho he describes, 

“a man shambling from desk to couch; pointlessly alternating coffee with tea throughout the morning until the time comes for the choice between the sardines and over-boiled eggs for lunch; having an early afternoon sleep; writing half a sentence in longhand and crossing it out; having a supplementary, later afternoon sleep; and then finally, as dusk fills the study window, deciding that it has been a day of getting ready to write.” 

Juggling these two lives was what he called “my balancing act”, “combining the apparently antagonistic roles of wiseacre and smart alec”. The problem, as he was well aware, was that his critics believed that “nobody getting so famous for being so frivolous could possibly be serious.” It was an issue that he returned to again and again: “a serious man wasting his time can easily find himself regarded as a timewaster trying to be serious.” Was he Hamlet or the clown? Could he pull it off and be both? I think these questions haunted him. Perhaps not on the way to the bank, but on the way back to his book-lined study with the over-boiled eggs and the sardines. 

He was one of the funniest writers of his generation. Delmer Dynamo’s “pear-shaped head, I could now see, was situated on top of a pear-shaped body, which his black gown caused to resemble a piece of fruit going to a funeral.” He describes the poet, Craig Raine, “modeling a hairstyle based on an explosion in an armchair.” Or the BBC executive, Alan Yentob, “looking like the fashionably dressed proprietor of a luxury car showroom in Beirut.” What made him the only TV critic anyone remembers were the one-liners. Richard Burton and Bob Hope at the London Palladium were “working together with the practised ease of two Scottish football supporters in a revolving door.” Watching Liberace’s Valentine Night Special “was like being forcibly fed with warm peppermint creams.” Everyone has their favourite list, usually including Arnold Schwarzenegger as “a brown condom stuffed with walnuts.”  

James had two great passions. The first was poetry. The TV work subsidised the poetry

His memoirs and his books of TV criticism are full of jokes. Of smart insights too. “The British Constitution is a Princess going down an aisle.” Writing about Pierre Salinger, JFK’s one time PR man, James wrote “that the language of Watergate began at Camelot.” He was funny about Nixon. My favourite ever moment of Clive James on TV was when he played Nixon on Mastermind on a little-known BBC satirical show in the early Seventies. His answer to every question was “Pass”. But it was the eyes that were pure genius. The way they moved from side to side, capturing Tricky Dicky’s evasiveness. But he also got the point about Nixon. In a book review in The New Statesman, a few years later, he wrote that “Kennedy pretended to admire Casals. Nixon honestly thought that Richard Rodgers’s score for Victory At Sea was great music. Nixon was the one who could actually play the piano.” “Kennedy,” he wrote, “was a high-flying cynic. Nixon was low-rent sincere.” James may have been a TV funny man, but he understood Kennedy (and Nixon) better than Isaiah Berlin or Arthur Schlesinger ever did.  

James was a master of the one-liner, whether funny or serious. But the one liners were built on a solid foundation, not just of critical intelligence, but also of moral and political seriousness. Few cultural critics writing in Britain during the 1970s and ‘80s took the Cold War as seriously as James did. He knew that the dark mid-century of Soviet Communism and Nazism were at the centre of our time. This might be a passing swipe at Brecht in his TV column or a thoughtful set of reflections on Isaiah Berlin for The TLS, wondering why Berlin hardly ever wrote about the Holocaust and what this absence meant for his liberalism. 

The jokes and smart insights glitter but perhaps what will endure from the best-selling memoirs are the moments of dark self-knowledge. “She knows all about me now,” he writes about his wife at the end of May Week Was in June, “and knows above all that the real blank in this book is not where she should be, but where I should be.” The Introduction to North Face of Soho is one of the best things he wrote. “I still don’t feel that I have Made it,” he writes. Then he looks along the shelves of his books and videos. “I can see that I have been quite busy: whatever the quality or lack of it, there is certainly quantity.” He goes on, “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’.”

James had two great passions. The first was poetry. The TV work subsidised the poetry, “the centre of my life.” “It was television that made it possible for me to go on writing poetry,” he wrote, “ever and always at the heart of my desire.” Perhaps his proudest achievement was his translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, published in 2013. One of the most moving pieces he ever wrote was “Loves in a Life”, an essay on poetry for the TLS. It ends, “Better to think back on all the poems you have ever loved, and to realize what they have in common: the life you soon must lose.”

The other passion surfaces only briefly, at the end of one of his books of memoirs. “One day,” he writes, “if I am granted life, I will write a book about what happened in the Pacific when two nations, Australia and Japan, strange to each other in every conceivable way, met and fought.” It was at the end of the war in the Pacific that his father died. Taken prisoner by the Japanese, he survived the POW camp but died when the plane returning home to Australia crashed in Manila Bay. James, an only child, never knew him. This has something to do with what James calls “my perennial melancholy”. He kept it at bay with various addictions and appetites: drink, cigarettes, women, dope briefly, and above all, his voracious appetite for books and ideas.  

His book on the war in the Pacific was never written. Perhaps the subject was too dark to go near. Perhaps, also, it had something to do with his relationship with Australia. People divided between two homes always have a complicated relationship with belonging. At the end of his life James regretted that he could no longer fly to Australia. He needed too much oxygen for an  inter-continental flight. Doubtless true, but it didn’t really answer what drove him – and a whole generation of writers and TV personalities — from Australia. Even in England, he had two homes: London, where he worked, and Cambridge, where his family was based and where he first really found himself in England and where, eventually, he died. 

All those volumes of memoirs, the TV column, written over ten years, and gathered together in several anthologies, the TV pieces to camera and the numerous literary essays, were all about creating a particular kind of voice. It was thoughtful, it was funny, it drew on prodigious amounts of reading, but it was always about creating an “I”, that was complicated and uncertain even at its most confident. Perhaps this was why he never wrote the scholarly book he yearned for. “Already the evidence was accumulating that whatever I eventually wrote,” he wrote in his second book of memoirs, “I wouldn’t be writing it in an ivory tower. A circus tent would be more my pitch.” This jokey juxtaposition between ivory tower and circus tent was also deadly serious. But it perhaps missed a larger point: in the best possible kind of sense, his real subject was always himself. But not himself as confident, assured, famous, but as in process, not yet fully formed, and never likely to be.

What, then, from those shelves of videos and more than forty books will endure? The jokes, certainly. The flashes of critical insight into politics, literature and history. And, above all, the literary essays. Clive James was one of the best essayists of his time. From Barry Humphries and Jewish refugee art historians to society hostesses in fin de siecle Paris and Dick Cavett, these were his greatest achievement. Then there is his best creation of all, the Kid from Kogarah, “off and running in six different directions”, getting it wrong from Sydney to the bed-sits of Earl’s Court and, above all, Cambridge, “the one place where I could be everything I wanted to be all at once.” “Mentally,” he wrote, “I am still in statu pupillari, still pursuing extracurricular activities, still torn between all the attractions of the stalls at the Societies’ Fair.”         

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