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Clive James' devilish fire an eternal flame

I was 15 when a boy at school lent me Clive James’ great document of mild folly, Unreliable Memoirs.  I never gave it back.  In fact, I still have this near-dead 1981 edition with its insides full of notes — chiefly my exclamation points and the phrases “yes yes” and “SO TRUE” — and a jacket full of better praise pulled from magazines that have long since ceased to publish.

After years of irresponsible use, my always-woeful eyes are beyond ophthalmic hope, and they no longer find use for books. Every word they read is digitised and magnifiable, so it just seemed silly to keep all but those titles useful as decorator items or keepsakes. One day I threw all teen reading that had not moved me to sentiment or rage in the charity bin. There is a St Vincent’s in south-east Melbourne still trying to move a lot of Rosa Luxembourg and Garfield.  I didn’t chuck The Communist ManifestoThe Autobiography of Malcolm X, The Bell JarFear and LoathingThe Second Sex or Clive, though. They all remained, for one reason or another, important.

It didn’t strike me until “this death’s door stuff” re-emerged in the days leading up to the critically ill James’ farewell performance this past weekend in London what odd company he’d kept. The chipper kid from Kogarah surely had no business with revolutionaries, suicides and drug-addicted visionaries from an American hell. But the winking relativism of a man who seemed to want nothing more extraordinary from the world than nice manners and better poetry has survived with me for 30 years.

Of course, I’ve nearly binned him many times. I met him briefly when I was 26 and  blurted “You mutated my adolescence!” He did not, despite his pants-man reputation and my retrofit Lolita turn, try to pork me and I, having had my hair blown for the occasion, took this very personally.

Cultural Amnesia was another trying instant. This Big Book of Clive was a document of the texts he thought should be remembered for the common good. In 2007, a neoliberal world at racist war was in need of a serious reading list, and Clive pushed it in the direction of Evelyn Waugh. I met him again in an interview — yes, I had my hair dressed — and asked him why he hadn’t tried to fix the world with important thoughts on conflict in this essential-readings book. He reminded me that he had always been prone to indulgence and, anyhow, the tradition of careful reading was itself something that could make the world much better. “How but in custom and in ceremony are innocence and beauty born?” he asked, by way of Yeats. Even in person, his allusion-per-minute rate is matchless. It’s easy to forgive such a great aesthete even his unconcern for ending war.

I forgave him until he joined Club Hitchens in 2009 and grossly misread both good Western and Middle Eastern feminisms to produce an essay apparently on Islam but actually an admission of his uncharacteristic failure to read. At the time, my friend Shakira Hussein disposed of him very well in Crikey and I, by then tired of the “Save the Helpless Brown Women” bleating that serves the simultaneous interests of United States foreign policy and anti-feminists so well, nearly disposed of Unreliable Memoirs.

But. Like so much of his work — most particularly the Observer columns on TV but even in his recent writing for The Telegraph — it  survived. And it can survive even the collection of a short-sighted armchair radical.

I’ve considered the possibility that I keep him around for the same reasons I maintain a  relationship with Sylvia Plath. Which is to say, I forgive his conservatism and blandness because an adult encounter with him reminds me of being young and flammable. The young reader can be easily set on fire even, as he told Peter Porter at the Melbourne Festival in 2000, “if only by a cigarette butt tossed casually over the shoulder”.

But Plath’s writing, I have found, is  a bit like the music of U2. If you didn’t love it mesmerically as a kid and you encounter it first as an adult, you’ll only find it purple, bloated and tragically self-involved. James, on the other hand, can ignite and engage you your whole life. And for more or less the same reasons.

In the opening passages of Unreliable Memoirs, he writes on the purpose of recollection. “Rilke used to say that no poet would mind going to gaol, since he would at least have time to explore the treasure house of his memory. In many respects Rilke was a prick.”

I still find this funny. And flattering, too. Along with Hunter Thompson, he was one of those writers given to casually abuse Mittel-European poets of whom I’d never heard, and I loved then, as I love now, that he allows me with this larding the illusion of my own erudition. There was and is no writer more gifted of the late-modern skill to fuse beauty with vulgarity, and when he describes the royal wedding eyes of Barbara Cartland as “the corpses of two small crows that had crashed into a chalk cliff”, I am moved not only to rethink my relationship with language but with mascara.

In his review for a party-approved biography of Brezhnev, he rivalled Dorothy Parker’s famous smackdown: “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”  He writes: “Here is a book so dull that a whirling dervish could read himself to sleep with it. If you were to recite even a single page in the open air, birds would fall out of the sky and dogs drop dead.”

Recently, he has traced the history of twerking to Jimi Hendrix and said in a review of non-twerker Beyonce that she and “pathos are strangers. Winehouse and pathos are flat-mates, and you should see the kitchen.”

Of course, he’s also said some things about climate science that should be crashed for their lack of expertise into a chalk cliff. But Clive has never been much use when it comes to big issues. He’s much better exploring phenomena no bigger than Barbara Cartland’s eyes.

He is very useful here. And that’s why he stays in my collection. Obviously, the guy is not nearly as useful as Malcolm X. Clawing your way from Kogarah to Cambridge is an impressive biographical trajectory, but it’s nothing compared to that which takes you from orphaned Milwaukee burglar to cultural leader. James will never change my ideas about race, gender or power. But he can sure crash crows into a cliff.

At his London performance last Saturday, James, who made some very good gags, read from the work of  Hone Tuwhare. Of the poet, he said: “He was great and he’s gone, but if you can write like that you will have been always there.”

Clive’s not going anywhere. He’s always there. From my flammable adolescence to tepid, mascara-free middle-age, his devilish fire ignites never in the big picture but always in the details.


22 responses to “Clive James' devilish fire an eternal flame

  1. You write witty well Ms. Helen. Out here in the west of west Australia we only see ravens mistaken for crows.

  2. Hi Helen,
    I too, still have my treasured copy of Unreliable Memoirs and you are spot on at his ability to fuse beauty with vulagrity. I still remember the passage where as a kid he said he’d “build blanket tents in the lounge where he’d fart discreetly”.
    In his defense tho, not all great intellects must fall into line for a greater cause? Some fight the good fight whilst others choose to write about what we are fighting for.
    I think his absence at the climate-change/islam/feminism table shouldn’t be what he is remembered for (and I understand your sincere tribute was not focussing on this) as it reminds me of the old joke-‘Do they say there goes Helios the great architect, No! You shag one sheep and they say…etc’
    The exception to this rule is matters concerning Rolf ‘Eww ‘Harris.

    1. But the shagging of the sheep was not effected as part of the architect’s oeuvre, right?
      Clive wrote those things. They are not incidental to his work but part of it. And I am certainly not reducing him to those errors but they are errors made within the artform for which he was known. But any honest account of this great writer needs to acknowledge them. Although Margaret Whatsit above there doesn’t seem to think that I have.
      Anyhow. I am sorry that you read this piece as a critique without warmth. And that Margaret Whatsit read it as warmth without critique. It seems as though one is doomed to fail.

      1. I reckon you wrote the piece with great warmth and yep I agree that one can’t just relate the good bits when talking about the whole of a person. Did you see the Kerry O Brian interview with him last year? So good to listen to

  3. Helen it must be strange to find yourself in the mainstream with everyone agreeing with you. Everyone loves the brilliant, witty charming Clive James. I find him trivial, apolitical( if not right-wing), and his poetry self-indulgent, and I will never forget those dreadful, racist Japanese TV shows he did. But even my friends love him.

    1. I wish I was evolved and unafraid like you and had mentioned my ambivalence about James’ world view in this piece; specifically to climate change, feminism and Islam. Oh wait I did.

  4. Yes, quite, Helen – lax phrasing, I meant the only quibble I had with Clive, not your piece.

    (Well, apart from the poetry, which for the life of me I can’t hear as anything but excruciatingly try-hard and clunking. But here probably IS where respectful discretion in the twilight years should prevail. And anyway I know shit about poetry – there’s that, too.)

    Thank you for taking the time to respond. Very gracious.

  5. I loved reading the book too . He had that Groucho Marx thing too where the jokes are read in the head with the voice . The little story with the punch line . Thanx for the endearing write up . Loved his tv shows . Postcards I think was one .

  6. I read Unreliable Memoirs at about that age too. I think that my parents gave it to me for Xmas and that we all only knew him from his Formula 1 comedy reviews.

    It was a lot more literary than I expected, and had a similar affect on me as it did you.

  7. Like others, I love his early books, fun poetry, quotes (“The book of my enemy is remaindered, and I am glad…” but I am so, so glad that he has crowned his achievements with his amazing translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. An extraordinary feat. Thank you Clive. Thank you HR.

  8. Thanks Helen. I have such fond memories of Unreliable Memoirs as the first book I bought that was just a little bit wicked. Subsequently went on to buy a whole lot more, but that was the first. My (now) adult children have subsequently devoured it as well.

  9. I love you yet again for this. Especially for “a man who seemed to want nothing more extraordinary from the world than nice manners and better poetry”.

  10. You lent a book and you never gave it back? No ethics? Why am I reading this now I know who you are. I’m not, but the lead in line said it all. I know many people like you and have dumped them…

    1. I have offered the book back to Michael, who grew up to be a nuero-scientist, on two occasions. Once at university (where obviously, I wasn’t enrolled in medicine) and once at a school reunion. He said that he’d bought another copy and that it was a gift which he did not regret giving as it had obviously been more important to me than to him.

  11. No! I agree! And this is why I mentioned this misfortune along with his rather poor reading of feminism vis-a-vis Islam. He is a man of detail. And a beautiful writer. It is his least serious work we must take the most seriously.

  12. A terrific tribute, warm and generous and tender without succumbing to funereal acquiescence. The only quibble I have is that I think that history may well come to regard Clive’s wilful failure to apply his famous autodidacticism to the relatively straightforward science of climate change as, ultimately, unforgivable, and dwarfing of all his other work.

    He won’t be alone there I imagine. Lots of clever writers and thinkers of his generation have contrived to make wondrous music as the Titanic goes down.

    Really enjoyed this, HR.


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