Poet who wrote for all of us

Daniel Johnson says that Clive James’s enduring legacy is his verse


Clive james was a good writer who lived long enough to become a great one. His prose was sometimes divine, his poetry often angelic, but he was also capable of diabolical bad taste. How could a man who was one of the finest critics of our time be so uneven in the quality of his own creations? Conversely, how could a man who had sacrificed everything to raise a laugh turn into the author of some of the best verses of our time?

When he finally died, seven years after announcing in June 2012 that he was terminally ill with leukaemia, as well as emphysema and kidney failure, Clive James was treated as a celebrity, indeed a national treasure. He was celebrated as a television personality, as the creator of television criticism, as a satirist, a memoirist and a professional Australian — as almost anything, indeed, except what he had most aspired to be: a poet. His death had been so long anticipated that when it came, the fact that he had left some of the best till last was almost overlooked.

James was the latest, though assuredly not the last, in a long Anglophone tradition of poet-critics that began in the sixteenth century with Philip Sidney, continued in the seventeenth with Dryden, flourished in the eighteenth with Pope and Johnson, finally reaching its golden age in the nineteenth and early twentieth with Matthew Arnold, T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden.

We are coming to the end of the silver age that began in the postwar era. Britain has been blessed with numerous poet-critics: Michael Hamburger, John Fuller, James Fenton, Anthony Thwaite. Some were academics, others journalists or publishers; D.J. Enright was at different times all three. Some emigrated to America: Thom Gunn, Geoffrey Hill, Robert Conquest, among others.

Only the household names of this generation, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, managed to make a good living in Britain as poets, but others too, such as James’s fellow Australian Peter Porter, somehow got by. What almost all had in common was that they were poet-critics. Philip Larkin, whose day job was as a librarian, was unusual in that he wrote little literary criticism, but was an authority on jazz.

Clive James was unusual, though not unique, in writing poetry and criticism for a general rather than an elite readership. Unlike any of his literary contemporaries, however, he was that rare phenomenon: an intellectual in television. This most ephemeral medium was a strange place for a man whose greatest wish was to leave something permanent behind him.

The trouble with the gatekeepers of high culture, he thought, was that they were incapable of deploying the English language in its defence

Poetry and ideas mattered more to James than anything else, except possibly women. His poems were to his prose what a string quartet is to grand opera. His poetry deals with the prosaic, but his prose is rarely lacking in poetry. His monumental volume of essays, Cultural Amnesia, is a testament to the Western civilisation that he loved, but feared was dying of wanton neglect. It took him 40 years to write, and though the medium is prose, the message is delivered on an epic scale, in a style that verges on the lyrical.

A fellow Australian émigré, Peter Conrad, dismissed Cultural Amnesia on the grounds that it wasn’t a systematic work of the kind that Oxford dons, such as himself, prefer to write. “A few hundred columns do not add up to a cathedral,” Conrad sneered. He conceded that James had worked hard on this extended undergraduate essay, but his “folly” was “incoherent, garbled and ultimately pointless, meandering through a series of endless circuits inside his crowded, voluminous head”. (Aren’t circuits by definition endless? And if he means electrical circuits, wouldn’t their cessation mean that one was brain-dead?)

Conrad’s condescension was intended to be crushing and might indeed have crushed a lesser man. The lesser man here, though, was not James, but Conrad. The giveaway was his rhetorical question: “Has any Australian ever read so much, in so many languages, about the arts, politics and philosophy?” This is followed by a parenthesis: “Not quite having outgrown the competitiveness of youth, I ask the question specifically of Australians born on the mainland.” Conrad himself, you see, was born in Tasmania. And he too had once tried to write a big book about everything, Modern Times, Modern Places: Life and Art in the Twentieth Century.
Hence Conrad’s review of Cultural Amnesia was a petty revenge for the fact that there was more originality in almost any sentence that Clive James wrote than in the entire Conrad oeuvre. Even the title Modern Times was borrowed from Charlie Chaplin — Paul Johnson (my father) had long since used it for his history of the twentieth century — whereas Cultural Amnesia was a brilliant title, summing up a big book in two words.

The soul of Clive’s brevity was his Jamesian wit. He said all that needed to be said about literary vendettas of the kind that Conrad tried to provoke in the poem that began: “The book of my enemy has been remaindered. And I am pleased.” Unlike his slightly younger English drinking companions, such as Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis, James was never much of a leftist. In later life he attacked climate alarmism and other fashionable causes. Oxford dons were never going to forgive him for that.

I have dwelt on this footling feud partly because it illustrates the vacuity of one cliché about Clive James — namely, that he owed his success to being part of an Aussie mafia who infiltrated the London intelligentsia in the late 1960s. “Australian literary life is a barn-yard,” he once wrote to me. But the one-sided spat with Conrad reminds us just how feeble is another cliché, endlessly trotted out by academics, that so and so may be safely ignored because their writing is “journalistic”.

Clive James turned that prejudice on its head: the trouble with the gatekeepers of high culture, he thought, was that they were incapable of deploying the English language in its defence. They were glad enough to write for the newspapers and magazines, or to be fêted on TV; but the vast majority just weren’t good enough. Only writers of the highest calibre could do the heavy civilisational lifting. These warriors of ideas were more likely to be found among those who wrote for a living than anywhere else. Only journalists were sufficiently tested by market forces and toughened by the exigencies of their profession. The calling of the journalist, if one took it as seriously as James did, was actually the highest imaginable — and certainly a nobler vocation than that of their academic critics.

And yet however inexhaustible his productivity, however versatile his repertoire and however fecund his fantasy, Clive James always craved more. More life, as though he had not already lived intensely enough for several men, besides drinking and smoking enough to have killed them too. Most of all, more monuments to his unceasing mental strife. In his translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy — achievement enough for many poets — he calls in aid his muse, “my schooled and proven gift”, to “fortify my mind with the vivifying skills of poetry”. In the end, during that last decade of decline, it was his muse, as much as any treatment, that kept the moribund maestro alive.

It was in those years that, as editor of Standpoint, I enjoyed a professional acquaintance with Clive James, who was on our editorial advisory board. He was touchingly grateful for my faith in his poetry, of which he was curiously unsure; unlike Dante, he never felt that his gift was “proven”. Our email correspondence is peppered with self-deprecating remarks: “Throw it away if it will never fit.” “I would like you to have first look even if you cry out in horror.” “It might be a bit Aussie for you.” “I’ll understand if you reach for a bargepole.”

That last comment pertained to Iliad!, his “mini-epic” on the theme of Hollywood. It had indeed a touch not just of Homer but of Homer Simpson; still, in its own terms, it worked. We may now smile wryly rather than laugh at “Dennis of the psychopathic hilarity” and “Orlando of the less pronounced masculinity”, or even frown at “well-stacked, fabulously bottomed Angelina … the goddess Angelina of the exaggerated curvature and the extensive self-harm” and “Kevin of the long thighs and shyly retiring lower jaw”.

Yet who could resist the self-mockery of the closing passage: “So the water retreated, and there, lying in the mud, ready to be gathered up and burned, were the corpses of all the poets who had ever been under contract to write epics. A vulture tasted one of them and turned away.”

The more debilitating his condition, the more ambitious his writing became

This “festive season bonbon”, like several other poems that first appeared in Standpoint, were collected in the 2012 volume Nefertiti in the Flak Tower. One of them, the title poem, is one of the late James’s most characteristic, drawing as it does on the themes of Cultural Amnesia but in a sublimated poetic form. He was captivated by the fact that the eponymous bust of the ancient Egyptian queen had been stored by the Nazis in one of Berlin’s massive flak towers, which survived the onslaught of Allied bombing intact, unlike the rest of the German capital. James turns the image of Nefertiti in the flak tower built by slave labour into a metaphor at once sublime and ridiculous:

If there was one thing Egyptian Queens were used to
It was getting walled up inside a million tons
Of solid rock…

James adores “the Louise Brooks of the Upper and Lower Kingdoms”, visiting Berlin’s Museum Island just to see Nefertiti:

And dote on her while she gives me that look,
The look that says: “You’ve seen one tomb, you’ve seen
Them all.” For five long years the flak towers stood
Fighting the enemy armies in the sky
Whose flying chariots were as the locusts:
An age, but less than no time to Nefertiti,
Who looks as if she never heard a thing.

“Nefertiti”, like almost every poem James wrote towards the end, is about mortality and love. It was some consolation to hear from him in 2012 when this slim volume, the very appearance of which against such odds seemed miraculous, was published: “Your generous appreciativeness has meant a lot to me in my travails, which luckily are now somewhat eased.”

What was even more miraculous was the fact that he still had seven more years to live. Four years later, in 2016, Clive wrote to offer us “a seven-part poem about one of the late Beethoven quartets; opus 131, which just happens to have seven parts. Though as spare as I can make it, the poem has a perhaps impossibly greedy need for space, but perhaps you can find room for it. . . . ”

The more debilitating his condition, the more ambitious his writing became. “I seem to be over the urge to dot little poems about, but on the other hand I seem to be regaining the oomph to write big ones. A strange form for illness to take.”

The approximation of the poetic, the erotic and the necrotic becomes a Grosse Fuge, a great fugue, in this seven-part sequence. The title is in dubious but authentically Jamesian taste: “The Rest is Silence or Stroking Her Feet to Opus 131”. Never shy of hanging out with the big boys, James here identifies with Beethoven, just as he had with Dante. “To die/Was really all the man had left to do/And yet he did this.”

It is a love letter to his wife Prue, the Dante scholar, from whom he had been separated by his infidelity but with whom he was ultimately reconciled. “I know you think I cite the bastardry/Of artists to excuse myself because/My conscience would ache otherwise. It’s true . . . ” Yet the pain and the guilt are not his final word.

It’s sixty years since I first heard the Seventh
And knew I would write poetry for life,
And we, for all that time, have known each other,
And for most of it been man and wife,
And, now it has been proved not even I
Could quite destroy all that,
We are still here, together for as long
As life permits. Next stop, eternity . . .

Clive James did die in the end, as we all must, but his proximity to perpetuity lent gravitas to his graveyard humour. The duty to versify his adversity, to leave behind words that would endure, was a life sentence, gladly served. Even unto death.

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