Clive James, A Point of View (Picador, November 2011)
I want to begin by confessing to a shabby trick I once played on Clive James.
It’s a long story, not particularly worth telling, but the essence is that I left an appreciative comment on his website (www.clivejames.com) about his previous collection of essays, Cultural Amnesia. Only, as was my habit at that time, I linked my comment back to a blog I’d been writing in the guise of a minor TV celebrity. I gave it no thought until some months passed and I received an email from Mr James apparently typed whilst he was riding a greased rodeo pig over a cobbled bridge.
You have to believe tht I never saw your wonderful letter unti now. there was a monumental e-mail fuck-up at this end and everything in the VITAL folder shifted tino orbit around Al;pha Centauri, and has only just returned. It pleases me mightily that you liked my book book. And yes, you shall have your wish. A second volume is already taking shape. In something less that five years it will be here. Meanwhile, thanks again, and I’ll push ahead with the merchandising.
The urge is to fix the typos but they are part of the reply’s charm. That is how it email arrived: rushed, bumbling, wonderful, and not a little shocking. I was appalled to think that I’d duped him. Even in the deepest depths of my foolishness, I always tried to make it obvious that I was a hoaxer out to provoke laughs and the occasional hard thought. (‘Like any right-minded man of superior intellect and prolific disposable income,’ I had written, ‘I have the complete Sir Clive James oeuvre in hardback, paperback, and, somewhat decadently, I know, covered with the leather ripped from the back of the rare Patagonian snow gibbon.’) How could he mistake my website for the real thing? Even more worrying to me was the thought that a second volume might appear in five years with an appreciative note to the minor TV celebrity who might then feel obliged to dedicate his own book to Clive. Who knew where is all might end?
I knew I had to reply so I compounded my error by demanding proof that Clive was really Clive and not some internet hoaxer pretending to be Clive. Clive, sensibly, didn’t reply. Clive had taught me a valuable lesson: you only get to fool Clive once.
That shame revisited me this week when reading Clive James’ newest collection of essays, ‘A Point of View’, originally written for the radio series of the same name. For those of you with poor reception on the FM, the series provides invited cultural commentators with ten minute slots in which to opine to the educated Radio 4 listenership, or, in my case, a still half-asleep office menial crammed in the belly of a commuter cattle truck rattling into Manchester before dawn on a cold winter’s morning. That’s how I’d first listened to the original series after downloading them from the web and I thought I’d heard them all until this book showed me my error. It is in one of the earliest episodes that Clive expresses his deep loathing of all form of hoax, practical joke, and fraud.
In Australia during World War II, a couple of established poets invented the supposedly nonsensical works of fictitious poet called Ern Malley and used them to discredit the modernist pretensions of the young editor who printed them. It never occurred to them that as writers of talent they were not in apposition to suppose that they couple deliberately write something perfectly meaningless. It probably did occur to them that they success of their venture would entail the ruination of the young editor’s career. They were talented men, but they were also sadistic, a characteristic inseparable from the hoaxer’s personality. (‘Congratuations!’, p. 58).
So there I had it: condemned by the man I’d looked up to ever since I first watched ITV after the watershed and started to wear fawn polyester suits in hot climates. I have the personality of a sadist and, since it hurts me terribly to admit that, probably a masochist too.
But there is a sense that I shouldn’t really care. As Chaplin once said: ‘Cruelty is a basic element in comedy. What appears to be sane is really insane.’ And this is certainly a truism that James has lived by for decades writing for newspapers, TV, and, more recently, the internet. It’s definately hard to take accusations of sadism seriously from the man who shoved the sharp-clawed Japanese game show ‘Endurance’ down the collective front of Britain’s underpants in the 1980s.
At the same time, it also highlights the perpetual problem (it might even be said to be a virtue) with Clive James. His is a rambling intellect, treading heavily here, lightly elsewhere. His interests are vast and deep and sometimes even shallow. The fact that he draws his inspiration from high and low culture is to be applauded. You needn’t look for consistency in James’ writing. You needn’t always think he’s right. What you do embrace is the rolling advance of this ebullient living mind. For proof, you need look no further than his ‘Talking in the Library’ series available on his website. His interview with Martin Amis is worth the price of your birth certificate. That show alone has saved my sanity on many a dark day.
As a humourist, James has always been at his best when tackling serious subjects in a light way. As a serious poet, he’s best when stretching for the comic, such as when the anti-Modernist James makes a gesture towards Joyce.
The gesture towards Finnegans Wake was deliberate
And so was my gesture with two fingers.
In America it would have been one finger only
But in Italy I might have employed both arms,
The left hand crossing to the tense right bicep
As my clenched fist jerked swiftly upwards—
The most deliberate of all gestures because most futile,
Defiantly conceding the lost battle. (A Gesture towards James Joyce)
Reading through this new collection of sixty essays, I was reminded again why, to certain people of a certain age, his has been a voice to which we felt it wise to listen. That was certainly true when I first became aware of his work back when puberty kicked in and I first developed an Australian accent. James appeared on our screens as the outsider who had cracked the London establishment. Sure, he’d gone to Cambridge, done the Footlights, but he’d also retained his accent. Clive James was the TV intellectual I listened to. Occasionally, Anthony Burgess would land on these shores and do every talk show worth watching but, as much as I enjoyed his performances, Burgess never sounded quite right. He’d lost his northern accent – in fact, he seemed desperate to articulate those tobacco-juiced lips of his in an artificially clipped English manner – and there was always a sense that one had to be cautious of what he was saying. If Burgess’ pretence was that of depth, James’ was one of lightness.
I’m clearly not the only person who felt this way. James himself recounts, in the essay that forms the first episode of the second series, an interview he’d done with a young boy many years earlier.
No doubt dragging his school satchel, he turned up at my place expecting to meet the sun-soaked spirit behind the merry columns, programmes and articles that he claimed to have been enjoying ever since he was a child, several minutes previously.
Only James is shocked at the version of himself he discovers on the page.
I read on past the second paragraph of this interview and I was suddenly appalled. The encounter had taken place about five years ago and obviously it had depressed him deeply, perhaps permanently. The picture he painted of me was a desperately unhappy and self-questioning paranoid sad-sack. After that it got less funny. (p. 64)
James reflects glumly on that interview, noting that the schoolboy had been disturbed to find James ‘disappointed’ by his ‘mumbling pessimism’ and jokes that ‘drip acid’. James’ horrified response to the interview makes the original article work reading. Brutally titled ‘Tea And Tears With An Unfunny Man’ it was originally printed in Varsity but republished on the New Statement’s website here. http://www.newstatesman.com/200104090025
The interview’s byline belongs to an aspiring young journalist who would grow up to wear the same long trousers as Johann Hari, the precociously-gifted journalist who won the Orwell Prize in 2008 when barely in his thirties. The same committee awarded James a special prize for writing and broadcasting that same year. Unlike Hari, Clive James still has his Orwell award since Hari is also the precociously gifted shyster who was forced to return the prize before the prize was withdrawn due to unethical journalistic practices including copious plagiarism and doctoring the Wikipedia entries of those with whom he disagreed including Cristina Odone, Francis Wheen, Andrew Roberts and Niall Ferguson.
Perhaps I’m specifically attuned to accusations of fraud given the guilt I still carry for inflicting my dumb jape on Clive James but I find it somewhat surprising that James himself makes no reference to the Hari controversy when reflecting on the young man who interviewed him that day. Yet whilst it is a surprising omission, it’s not without precedent.
Few people who lay claim to the title of ‘national institution’ are quite as reclusive as Clive James. Fans might wince when our hero is besmirched by tabloid tales of infidelity but even the most loyal of us might acknowledge that this is one of the main failings with our hero, a writer of copious volumes of autobiography, whose life is an open book except with a few of the more interesting page glued together. It is hardly a new realisation. Whatever the truth about James, one hardly approached his autobiographies expecting to find it there. It was George Orwell himself who wrote that ‘autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats’.
Whilst admirably reluctant to discuss his family, James’ reticence denies us access to other areas of the writer we all feel that we know so well. Not that I wish to make an argument for more confession or wishing to know details – god knows, there’s already too much being blabbed by celebrity types – but Clive James the entertainer and Clive James the man are two different beasts and, I suspect, the former is less interesting than the latter. And it’s the latter I think we glimpse in Hari’s interview and I see only vaguely in this book.
For instance, it would be fascinating to know what this Clive James thinks about Hari’s situation, especially in light of the most ironic passage of the interview which begins with James talking about journalism.
“If I had time, I’d write a little guidebook about what not to do, when handling the press. The press can’t be managed. The only way you can manage the press is to not turn up. You don’t have to answer their questions. This is my first interview in years, and I know you’ll treat me well. But with most people, you should just not answer the question. ‘Are you married, do you have children?’ No, no comment. ‘What do you think of Diana?’ No comment. It’s all you can do. But, even then, your silences will be taken as answers. There’s no way out of it.”
I must admit that, as a journalist, I felt pretty crap by this point. James had spent ten minutes eloquently explaining why the profession was full of bastards.
One might score a cheap point by noting that the profession has one fewer bastard but that, as I said, would be cheap. And it’s perhaps also with a degree of hindsight that I suggest that Hari cuts the man to the material, not material to the man.
In more deft hands, James’ comments might have provided an insightful look at one of the most popular commentators of our times. Jonathan Lynn speaking on the BBC recently said that all comic writers, in his experience, are deeply angry people. This is no surprise. I don’t particularly want my satirists to be warm and cuddly much as I don’t want my poets to be chirpy mothers of three who write constantly about finger-painted smiles.
James makes, then, a difficult subject for the interviewer and this perhaps is why the young Hari editorialises his own time with the man. He makes a story rather than telling the story. Under the pretence of admiration, there is also a self-serving desire to dramatise the banal. He makes much of the fact that James’ had a scab on his head which began to bleed (a common enough thing for anybody lacking a full head of hair but, nevertheless, an uncharitable thing to point out).
For James himself, the interview colours the essays that form 2007’s second series. After witnessing the effect of his melancholy on the young interviewer, he insists that he will be more positive. It affords the book the few moments of real self-analysis. In the essay, ‘Clams Are Happy’, James makes a case for choosing happiness over melancholy. Like the other essays in this collection, it is followed by a brief postscript. The postscripts are in many ways the most compelling parts of the book. In one essay, James boasts about abandoning smoking, only to confess in a postscript that he started against shortly after the boast was broadcast. In another, he admits to having been too peevish about bad language in everyday life (cf. the email above). Most of the time, the postscript allows him space to reflect on his argument and judge things anew. The effect soon becomes a familiar pleasure. Polemics can move quite easily into iconoclasm or the overly bombastic rant and though James’ rarely strays that way, these postscripts provide the antidote to any that made too strong a case. Specifically, in the case of ‘Clams Are Happy’, James uses the postscript to obliquely directly refute Hari’s interview piece.
‘But quite often melancholy is a medical condition that can be treated with drugs. […] To treat it with admiration is almost always a mistake. An extreme case of that mistake is provided by the case of Sylvia Plath. […] Such misplaced enthusiasm is really a form of triviality, another way of not caring very much about the stricken. (p. 112)
I’m not sure that it strikes the right note, though the sentiment is very clear and right: melancholy is no virtue. However, I’m not sure that the same can be said of that type of negativity and distrust which is elevated just above cynicism and which James has made almost his own. Clive James’ very gift to television was that he was no gift to television. His TV career seemed to end when TV started to value polish over the gnarly and objectionable. Professionalism is now so absolute that editors dislike difficult arguments that disrupt their schedule. Experts are silenced when they try to explain a concept which doesn’t fit into the two minute slot allotted to them. News is no news unless it involves a celebrity name. In such a world, the sins of Johan Hari will become all too frequent. Journalism becomes a business about gloss, superficiality, moral absolutes, brevity, and the snappy headline. ‘Tea and Tears With an Unhappy Man’: it’s a horribly cheap title.
In his defence, Hari has claimed that the mistakes he made leading up to the Orwell controversy were attributable to the fact that ‘I rose very fast in journalism straight from university’. Can there be any surprise that the undergraduate at Cambridge who manages to get a rare interview with a relatively reclusive writer should later fall foul of what Toby Young would describe as ‘galloping careerism’?
As he now retrains himself to become a journalist, Hari should look again at James. The reason that James is still cherished by those of us that cherish such things is that he admits doubts, has doubts about his doubts, and even doubts about his certainties. There are undoubted degrees to which the whole thing is a performance (can anybody be really so shambolic) but even taken as performance it’s one of the best out there. On TV, James talked into the camera looking as though his neck couldn’t fit inside his shirt. Sometimes his neck looked like it couldn’t fit inside his neck. Only in words does he move effortlessly.
James himself puts it best, as he often does, when writing in verse. Here he might well be talking about himself.
The falcon wears its erudition lightly
As it angles down towards its master’s glove.
Student of thermals written by the desert,
It scarcely moves a muscle as it rides
A silent avalanche back to the wrist
Where it will stand in wait like a hooded hostage.
(The Falcon Growing Old)
Perhaps Hari’s ear was still too young to be attuned to this ‘student of thermals written by the desert’. Erudition, thought, doubt, contradiction, cynicism, and even melancholy have not suddenly become part of James’ writing (or, I suspect, his psyche). It was ever-present in his TV work. This new collection is very much a product of that writer and should be welcomed for that. The angry James is here. So too is that James who can’t work his iPhone, doesn’t understand his computer, stands at odds with so much of the modern world. It’s the same man who wrote a hoaxer pretending to be a minor TV celebrity a stumbling email with his elbows. He also seems almost obsessively preoccupied with wheelie bins and it’s a rare essay that passes without his recourse to mentioning them. His is a precise form of insanity that works through wit, learning, but, most of all, the sheer force of his personality.
And in this respect, after sixty essays with postscripts and some three hundred and fifty pages, I began to realise that James personifies the very spirit of the hoaxer. This is not to say that he is anything like Hari but when James was scathing of celebrity culture in that interview, he phrased it in an interesting way.
Celebrity gossip is so out of hand that, if I could possibly do it all again, I’d do it under an assumed name or wearing a mask. The costs are too high.
In the end, the degree to which we know or identify with a writer, celebrity, or artist is governed by how skilfully that person works their art, how casually they wear their mask. Lewis Hyde in his book, Trickster Makes This World, talks about a certain class of being.
Trickster belongs to polytheism or, lacking that, he needs at least a relationship to other powers, to people and institution and traditions that can manage the odd double attitude of both insisting that their boundaries be respected and recognising that, in the long run their liveliness depends on having those boundaries regularly disturbed. (P. 13)
Clive James is wrong about hoaxers, though he’s right about fraud. Hari is paying for his actions. James himself, though, remains before us, tricking us, misleading us, and playing us. His mask has become very familiar but, thankfully, he is no longer a celebrity and that mask does slip occasionally. And because it does, Clive James is now a much more interesting creature whilst remaining the best kind of hoaxer there is: a trickster who makes us laugh before fooling us into thinking seriously.