Halfway through this new collection of essays, in a piece about A.D. Hope, Clive James finds himself obliged to deal with an academic who has attempted to make sense of Hope’s notebooks using a high-falutin theoretical concept known as the “rhizome”. Here is part of James’s rejoinder:
As excellent as this sort of thing is, we should always remember that the funny stuff isn’t what Clive James does instead of the serious stuff. It’s what he does on top of the serious stuff. As an anatomist of pseudo-scientific faddism in the humanities he has solid credentials. But there are moments when seriousness isn’t enough. When a target as mouth-wateringly absurd as the rhizome rolls into view, ridicule is the only sane response. At such moments Clive James has always been able to move beyond mere reasoned argument and deliver the clinching joke: the funny stuff as the pure distillation of the serious stuff. Will the rhizome, now that it’s been likened to the rissole, ever recover its dignity? Let’s hope not.
For more than forty years now Clive James has been writing criticism in which this sort of trick is routinely worked. The essays—of which this is the eighth volume, leaving aside a couple of best-of compilations—have always been the spine of his achievement. And the achievement, now that the distracting matter of his television career is out of the way, is at last starting to be appreciated for its heft as well as its dazzle. The 2007 publication of Cultural Amnesia—the book that will stand as his critical masterwork, unless in this indecently fruitful late phase of his he favours us with something still better—has surely put the question of James’s literary status beyond a doubt, at least among people capable of reading that book at the level at which it was written. There are still plenty of critics around who aren’t capable of that, of course. We will get to them. But among critics who matter, there seems to have been a general coming-around to the proposition that James is one of the great essayists of our time: humane, lively, formidably intelligent, and—to use a word that the radical like to think they have a monopoly on—committed.
James has always been a fastidious chooser of epigraphs. But he’ll probably never improve on the one he put at the front of As of This Writing, the American selection of his essential essays published in 2003. (That satisfactorily chunky volume, by the way, offers a far more generous survey of James’s work than Reliable Essays, the miserly best-of published here and in Britain.) The epigraph is borrowed from the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut. “Barbarism,” it reads, “is not the prehistory of humanity but the faithful shadow that accompanies its every step.” You could say that this perception has haunted James’s life from the start: his father was killed in a war in which barbarism was only narrowly defeated. Certainly the barbarisms of the twentieth century have always cast a shadow over his essays. Then came 9/11: a new set of barbarians, and a new breed of Western pundit desperate not to acknowledge the nature of the offence. So now, in the afternoon of his career, the lengthening shadow of barbarism is with him more than ever, stretching its troubling way across his work.
In the current volume James takes on barbarism at a number of levels. Even when he isn’t being explicitly political, he tends to be engaged in some subtler variant of the same fight. His essays are almost always out to protect fragile and hard-won standards against rising tides of incompetence and intellectual vandalism. Reviewing a biography of Kingsley Amis, he defends Amis’s right to be remembered chiefly as a writer of books, not as a serial breacher of the moral codes of the new puritans. Writing about the critic John Bayley, he applauds Bayley’s lifelong refusal to settle for the ready-made pseudo-profundities of literary theory.
And then we have the decline of the English language. In a couple of barnstorming essays on illiteracy in Britain’s newspapers, James resoundingly demonstrates that the linguistic barbarians are already well inside the gates. But unlike many a bore who turns grammatical correctness into a fetish, James has grammar in perspective. He knows why it actually matters. Comparing two similar sentences—“At the age of eight, his father died in an accident” and “At the age of eighteen, his father died in an accident”—he puts his finger on the exact point at which rotten grammar makes meaning start to crumble. We can safely deduce that the first sentence is grammatically incorrect, because an eight-year-old boy can’t father a son. So we can guess what it’s supposed to mean. The second sentence is trickier. We can’t know what it’s saying—we can’t know whether it’s the father or the son who’s snuffed it—unless we know whether its author grasps the basic laws of grammar. And this is a point on which we can no longer have any confidence. Probably its author doesn’t grasp those laws, but we can’t be sure even of that. So we have lost, probably forever, a small building block of our civilisation. We had a widely agreed-on set of laws that made the job of understanding each other a little easier, and we lazily let those laws decay.
Is James exaggerating the problem? We might want to remind ourselves of the sort of thing he’s up against. I happened, while reading The Revolt of the Pendulum, to come across a review of it published in the online version of Britain’s Daily Telegraph. Written by a journalist named Lynn Barber, and fuelled by a scarcely believable blend of malice and ineptitude, it culminates in this would-be zinger:
Predictably, [James] claims to be a stickler for correct English and stickles away about other people’s dangling participles and mixed metaphors before, blow me, describing Robert Hughes as “a bit older than I"
What can she mean? Having examined all the alternative possibilities—has she stumbled on evidence that Robert Hughes is in fact younger than Clive James?—one is forced to conclude, gingerly, that she believes she’s caught the great man making a grammatical error. She seems to think he should have written “me” instead of “I”. But he shouldn’t have. He was right, and she is not. The internet has made us familiar enough with this sort of character: the dead-wrong pedant, the blind nitpicker. But here, from a senior journalist in a British broadsheet, is a counterfactual cocksureness that would disgrace a junior blogger.
So James is right. In matters of grammar, the slide into relativism isn’t just a notional threat any more. It’s already happening. Opinion is all. It’s perfectly acceptable to set yourself up as an outspoken authority on grammar without really knowing much about it, because nobody else knows much about it either, including your editors. And it’s also okay, by the way, to become a literary critic while harbouring a deep antipathy to books and writers. The kind of criticism practised by James—the kind where the opinion must yield to the fact—is starting to look a little old hat.
In truth, even a literate person would have to get up pretty early to catch Clive James out on a point of grammar. He has always paid careful attention to his language. Sometimes he pays too much attention to it. If he has a small vice as a writer of prose, that’s it: now and then he overdoes the verbal brio, so that his words end up driving his meaning. When he calls Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians “a meretricious book … in a meritorious tradition”, would he be using either word if the other wasn’t there? Maybe, but you suspect not. Either way, the sentence has us wondering about James instead of about Strachey. Similarly, when he says that Robert Hughes in his university days “wrote mainly as a sideline, but his sideline ran rings around his contemporaries”, does he really think that, or is he just saying it because he wants to put a cliché to startling new use? No doubt he really does think it. But when he indulges his fondness for the hyperextended metaphor, there is always a faint whiff of insincerity about the results.
But all great writers have their moments of weakness, and quite often the weakness is just a strength pushed too far. When James gets his remarkable style in hand, and hitches it to his equally remarkable knack for clear perception, he writes prose that is delectable not just for its richness but for its rightness. Look at this remark on Billy Wilder, made in passing during an essay on saying quotable things: “Judging from his interviews, Wilder noticed everything, but rarely narrowed the focus of his observation to the point where an epigram flared into independent life.” It’s James’s verbal skill—that bracing use of the word flared—that catches the eye. But it’s the quality of the insight that wins the admiration of your gut. Try to imagine a neater way of describing how an epigram gets made.
It’s also a pretty neat summation of James’s own practice as a critic. His essays brim with quotable generalisations, but the generalisations always proceed from a tight focus on a particular thing—a novel, a poem, a biography, a television show. The review is James’s ideal form as an essayist. He reviews a book as if writing a poem: by meditating hard on the particular, he arrives at the universal insight. The text is his nightingale. Orwell did things the other way round. A relatively pedestrian book reviewer, he wrote his best essays when ranging free of any single text. But with James, the close reading is the runway on which he gets up speed before launching into the realm of general observation. Deprived of that tarmac, he’s less good. One of the few limp pieces in this book is a discussion of contemporary crime fiction, based on a survey of about eight novels. James said far more penetrating things about crime fiction, and popular art, and art in general, in his classic essay “Go Back to the Cold!”, written as a review of John le Carré’s The Honourable Schoolboy.
James played to his strengths when he wrote his capstone book Cultural Amnesia as a series of discrete essays. Keeping his head down at every point, he let his general theme rise up from those separate engagements like a smoke signal. Several pieces in the present collection are offcuts from that larger work, or things he couldn’t find a home for in it. But this is by no means a book of B-sides. One of the things in it, a review of Edward Timms’s biography of Karl Kraus, ranks with the best essays James has ever written. In this senior phase of his career, he seems to be able to say searingly quotable things more or less at will. Addressing himself to the case of Kraus, he sends the great observations flying back over his shoulder as if rummaging through a toybox full of gems:
The First World War had confirmed Kraus in his pacifism, but by the time he died he knew that peace, in the face of Hitler, had ceased to be credible as a principle, and could be espoused merely as a desirable state of affairs.
And how about this, on the subject of Kraus’s dilemma as an Austrian after the Nazis had come to power in Germany:
His Social Democrat admirers were horrified when he failed to condemn the authoritarianism of Dollfuss, but Kraus was choosing the lesser of two evils: a choice that evil always demands we make, revealing itself in the demand.
Wisdom is an old-fashioned word, but what other word is there for stuff like that? And here James is just a page later, on Kraus’s discovery that the Nazis were satire-proof: “He had discovered the limited effectiveness of telling people they are fanatics when they think fanaticism to be a virtue.” The man might be in the autumn of his career: but it’s that early part of autumn when the leaves turn a hyper-concentrated red, and look richer than they ever have before.
It’s true, of course, that James does not always operate at this rarefied level. Elsewhere in this book there are essays on racing drivers, and handbills for James’s stage performances, and brief notes on pop songs. (Apparently “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” is his fifth-favourite tune.) Each of these pieces is fine in its own right: James is always able to clear the bar. But the bar isn’t always set to the same height. This fact is not really difficult to grasp. In a reasonable world, we wouldn’t let our opinion of what James does on the lower rungs alter our view that he is, when at the top of his game, an uncannily good writer. And we might go on, in that reasonable world, to reflect that his ability to do other things too can’t possibly make him a less interesting figure, and might just conceivably make him a more interesting one, than the first-rate writer who is content to draw the line at being that and nothing else.
Unfortunately, one of the other things Clive James did was television. That made him a celebrity, and celebrity culture is no place for sober, unfrenzied discrimination. Thus we have had a bizarre scenario in which his reputation as a writer has been at least partly decided by people who either haven’t read his books, or have no real business reading them, or have read them with an animus stoked by what he got up to on television. Too often his most serious books have been reviewed by the kind of critic who can’t get over the fact that he once hosted shows in which shirtless Japanese men had their nipples roasted with magnifying glasses. To a sad degree this is still the case, especially in Britain. Would a person like Ms Barber be reading a book of essays, let alone reviewing it, if its author wasn’t some kind of celebrity? I trust this is just a rhetorical question.
Reluctant to cede any ground to such people, James has always been careful to stress that he lavished as much attention on writing his television shows as on writing his formal prose. Maybe he did. But in an essay on the racing driver Damon Hill, James says something revealing: “Though I pretended, on the soundtrack of the documentary, that I thought of nothing but imminent death, the truth was more complicated.”
That lets the cat out of the bag. Writing for television, James was not on oath. He had licence to gloss over complicated truths. But in his essays, there is no pretending. He writes to reveal the truth rather than conceal it, and that rule applies even more firmly to the jokes than it does to the straight observations.
This is not to say that the essays are in some way opposed to the television work. In a deep sense, at the level of James’s inspiration, the two things are continuous. Patently, James is a born show-off. Even in his most serious essays, there is always an element of performance, an effort to entertain you with the texture of the prose. If you took that showmanship out of it, his stuff would be like everyone else’s. Anyone can write an essay about Karl Kraus that’s unreadable. The ability to write one that makes you laugh out loud is a rarer gift. In an age when the average academic writes prose that makes the general reader feel unwelcome, if not repulsed, James has applied himself to the infinitely more taxing task of getting the general reader in. It would take a pretty rancorous critic to condemn him for that.
So let’s not run away with the idea that James’s television career was some kind of startling departure from his serious work. A man with his array of gifts and urges couldn’t not have gone on television. He was driven to it by the same impulse—the impulse to get people in—that makes his literary work so interesting. One can see the same impulse at work today in his lavish enthusiasm for the internet. He might have been forgiven, as an ageing man of letters, for just getting on with the writing, and allowing the next generation to worry about the technology. Instead he has charged into the online bazaar head-first, and built one of its premier highbrow sites.
A couple of asides in this new book suggest that James remains a little ticked off about the effect of his television career on his reputation as a writer. But reputation isn’t everything, especially when it’s partly determined by clowns. Measured by the less fickle yardstick of its influence, James’s television career looks like less of a mistake. How many people came to read James’s serious work because they liked what he did on television? I was one of them, and there must be thousands more. And how many of those people, having read James’s books, then went on to read the writers he reveres: Primo Levi, Philip Larkin, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Jean-François Revel? Outrageously, there are still critics around who are ready to allege that James, whenever he so much as mentions such a figure, confirms himself as a pretentious dropper of exotic names. But really he is engaged in one of the critic’s highest duties: drawing our attention to writers we mightn’t otherwise read. Thank God he gets on with that civilised task, while the Brit-crit hacks take their nihilistic little pot-shots, firing away with a sort of shameless ignorance that recalls Oscar Wilde’s definition of the cynic: they know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Perhaps such people are starting to get to him, or perhaps he’s just feeling old. But lately a sense of urgency has started to creep into James’s work. Somewhere in Cultural Amnesia he worries that he might be starting to sound like the Ancient Mariner, grabbing the elbows of the young and peppering them with gratuitous advice. Well, he needn’t worry about that. The advice isn’t gratuitous. There are still plenty of people around who don’t get his basic political message, which runs something like this: liberal democracy is about the best political system we can hope for; it’s fragile, and mustn’t be taken for granted; and it must be understood, valued, and defended.
James spent a long time honing this view against the twentieth century’s two most lethal forms of totalitarianism. Introducing the current volume, he usefully suggests that we stop regarding Nazism and Soviet communism as radically opposed things—two ends of a spectrum whose mid-point is occupied by liberal democracy. Instead he calls liberal democracy “the breathable atmosphere of a planet”, above which “there is an unbreathable stratosphere called extremism, trying to get in”. And now, in the twenty-first century, we have a new strain of toxic extremism to add to the mix.
James is the first to concede that this position isn’t complicated. But that doesn’t make it simplistic. Simplistic is the word for the bien-pensant notion that the terrorists of 9/11 had some kind of point, and that America could have averted the whole thing by being a lot nicer to the world’s poor people. That idea, which masquerades as a refined political insight, is actually the intellectual equivalent of a Happy Meal: it costs you nothing in the way of time or effort or thought; and the closer you look at it, the harder it is to swallow. Really it’s every bit as crass as the opposite belief, the school-of-Fox-News notion that America is the world’s lone beacon of decency.
James, on the other hand, brings to the question of Islamic terrorism a genuine worldview, and a deep—as opposed to a cartoonish—understanding of history. He knows exactly what to say to those daring masters of paradox who allow themselves to hint that it might be America and her allies, rather than our medieval enemies, who are the true barbarians of the current scene.
One such provocateur, apparently, is Edward Timms, biographer of Karl Kraus. When Timms tries to draft Kraus, posthumously, into the ranks of today’s soft-on-terror Left, James gives him a richly merited drubbing:
Kraus, whom Timms tacitly invites to join in the widespread practice of putting jokey quotation marks around the phrase “war on terror”, might have pointed out that the quotation marks are a cliché in themselves, helping as they do to disguise a brute reality: terrorists are at war with us, and don’t care who they kill. The reason terrorists don’t use those risible cosmetic terms of ours such as “collateral damage” is that they not only have no intention of sparing the innocent, they have no more desirable target in mind.
To Timms’s suggestion that America’s recent interventions in the Middle East were lubricated by “propaganda for war”, James offers a briefer response. “The phrase is of Timms’s coinage, and rings like pewter.” Note the placement of the comma: it marks, like a musical rest, that quivering moment when the master’s cane, at the apex of its swing, is just held there, cruelly suspended, before making its brisk descent.
“The terrorist can talk a pure language,” says James. “It’s purely violent, but still pure. His opponent is bound to equivocate, and sound silly doing so.” Analysis as cool and right as this—and it keeps on coming—reconfirms the point that James’s wit, as much as we enjoy it, is not his central asset as a critic. The wit is just the most visible offshoot of his core virtue, which is his ability to talk pure sense on subjects about which most people seem to feel compelled to talk pure nonsense. In an increasingly perverse intellectual world, we go to him for the same quality we go to any great critic for. We go to him for his sanity.
And it is a perverse world. It’s a world in which Clive James is still widely regarded as some sort of roly-poly television gagster, while a man like Noam Chomksy is spoken of, in tones of awe, as a major political thinker. Recently, and absurdly, Chomsky was voted the world’s greatest public intellectual. What do people think an intellectual is? When the planes took down the Twin Towers, Chomsky’s response was to take his pet thesis—the one about the USA being solely responsible for all the world’s ills—for a perfunctory walk around the block. Gore Vidal engaged in murky talk about the complicity of the “Bush junta”. The late Norman Mailer didn’t acquit himself much better. Christopher Hitchens, horrified by the Left’s unseemly scramble to bury its collective head in the sand, had the integrity to defect, spectacularly, from its ranks.
But the position he moved towards was occupied by Clive James already. He had been there all along. A seasoned analyst of totalitarianism and its Western apologists, he was well positioned to recognise a slavering resurgence of barbarism when he saw it, and to provide analysis of it as piercing as the stuff above.
People who like their intellectuals all dark and complicated might complain that James has never really, over the course of his writing career, altered his political views. But reality hasn’t yet obliged him to. His empirical belief in the supreme value of liberal democracy has been standing there for years, exposed to the weather of history, waiting to be disproved; but the evidence for its rightness just keeps rolling in. You could scarcely say—could you?—that 9/11 made liberal democracy look suddenly less attractive than the woman-loathing, gay-lynching, death-worshipping terror state dreamed of by the hijackers. Well, quite a few of our public intellectuals, if they did not say precisely that, were at any rate ready to suggest that both kinds of society were basically as bad as each other, or that the difference between them was purely a matter of cultural taste.
At such sages James aims a douche of truth. He doesn’t overstate the threat of terrorism; but he doesn’t understate it either. He makes the elementary point that the terrorists don’t just murder Westerners—they murder moderate Muslims too. And he stresses that moderate Muslims outnumber immoderate ones by a huge margin. In other words, he submits himself to reality and tries to understand the nature of it, then offers conclusions about it that accord with the evidence of an intelligent reader’s senses. That is what an intellectual does. But people seem to want something more dramatic from their intellectuals than that. They seem to think that an intellectual should be some kind of white-knuckled rider at the gates of dawn, daringly giving the US government what for, extending a fist of solidarity to the little man with the rocket-propelled grenade, tirelessly seeking out ever more elaborate ways of telling you, in utterly humourless prose, that black is white.
Watching Chomsky refuse to submit himself to a glaringly obvious fact is like watching a teenaged girl going to insane lengths to get out of doing a simple household chore. Can facing up to the blatantly ineluctable really be so bad? Is getting out of it really worth such a shameless and rococo display of bad faith? It can be, if you have an ideology to protect. James doesn’t. He has always been temperamentally averse to the Big Idea. There is nothing between him and the evidence except his small but penetrating eyes.
Not long ago I took a walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I did it to clear my head. It didn’t work. Instead I found myself assailed by images from Unreliable Memoirs—as if James, with all his vivid remembrances of Sydney’s past, had made swathes of the city his for all time. Looking over at the road, I could almost see the wreck of a car—was it Bruce Beresford’s?—into which James and his winkle-pickered mates used to cram on a Saturday night before driving over to crash parties on the North Shore. It takes a major writer to get into your head like that. When Clive James evokes something, it stays evoked. In that marvellous first volume of memoirs—what self-respecting Australian household doesn’t own a copy?—he took literary ownership of a whole glittering chunk of our history.
But we can’t praise James’s ability to evoke Australia as it was then without raising a ticklish question. How good is he on Australia as it is now? The answer, I fear, is that he’s not as good on it as he is on other things. I hope I can say this without reviving the boring and tiny-minded idea that expatriates have no right to talk about Australian affairs. Of course they have a right to. Some of them, including James, are among our greatest elders. We’d be foolish not to listen to their views. For one thing, they have a perspective on Australia that we don’t have. But it’s a long perspective; and some of the place’s finer details are bound, when viewed from that distance, to go a bit blurry. The expatriate commentator who doesn’t remember this runs the risk of stubbing his toes—or her toes—on pesky little outcrops of reality. There are things about a country you can only see by being on the ground.
There are certain facts, for example, that Clive James may no longer know about the rissole. As an object, the rissole has made great strides since he left these shores. Moroccan-inspired elements have infused it at the deepest conceptual level. Not long ago, in Woolworths, I saw a six-pack of rissoles composed of lamb, cheese and honey.
Perhaps as a result of such developments, it has now been a long time—bordering on forever—since rissole has been in common use as a verb. Likewise, James is wrong to suggest that quids in is something that Australians say. We may have said it once, but we don’t any more. We don’t say dollars in either.
On the subject of contemporary Australia, James the empirical critic isn’t always in full possession of the facts. Maybe it’s a case of the empiricist getting elbowed aside by the expatriate. The expatriate sees the country’s past with extra sharpness, because he’s left it behind in two ways. Does the vividness of those memories give him an inflated sense of his ability to see the country as it is now? Whatever the reason, James does tend to sound, when talking about Australian politics, uncharacteristically shaky, uncharacteristically glib. To call Kevin Rudd’s hairdo a comb-over—twice—would be trivial even if it was true. Can’t a man opt for simple side part any more?
And then we have the book’s title, which hails—as James explains in his introduction—from the aftermath of the 2007 election, the one in which Rudd defeated Howard: “A Liberal Party politician said that the change had not been a landslide victory for the incoming party. He said that it was just ‘the revolt of the pendulum’.”
No doubt James was right to seize on this phrase as a potent symbol for democratic politics. But what Liberal politician said it? Was he really a Liberal at all? The blogger Tim Blair, in a real-time post written on election night, ascribed the same remark to Wayne Swan, and I doubt Blair was in error. I suppose it’s always possible that a Liberal Party figure used the phrase later, quoting Swan. But considering that James doesn’t name the Liberal author of the remark, one gets the sinking feeling that he just might, owing to some trick of memory or slip of note-taking, have misidentified Wayne Swan as a Liberal. I may well be wrong about that. And even if I’m right, it’s a comparatively trivial point. But there’s a larger point lurking behind it. No domestic journalist, however abject a hack, would ever mistake Wayne Swan for a Liberal. But an expatriate commentator, even a very insightful one, just might. The domestic commentator is soaked in the day-to-day political happenings of the country. The expatriate commentator isn’t. This doesn’t disqualify the expatriate from expressing a view. But it does mean he has to be doubly careful about getting his facts straight. Playing on an away pitch, he would be wise to treat the crowd to a cagier, less attacking brand of his game than normal.
But that isn’t James’s style—a point that becomes annoyingly salient when he bangs on about the result of the republic referendum. An avowed monarchist, he just can’t leave the matter alone. He’s a sore winner. Writing about the staunch republican Robert Hughes, he suggests that Hughes “doesn’t necessarily sense the Australian electorate’s reluctance to countenance any measure that might divert power towards an oligarchy”. Then he takes an almost identical jab at another republican, the late Jim McClelland.
I don’t know how much of the referendum campaign James was physically present for, but I was present for all of it, and I don’t recall the word oligarchy getting bandied around that much. As I remember it, people objected to the republicans’ proposed model for a number of different reasons, not all of which can be held up as evidence of the polity’s bluff good sense. Some people thought the model was too republican, and others thought it wasn’t republican enough. Some people seemed to think both things at the same time. Some people deemed politicians, as a class, far too shifty and contemptible to be trusted with the job of selecting a president—and therefore clamoured for the right to vote directly for presidential candidates who would be, by definition, politicians. Some people thought that a president of any stripe might creep up behind the prime minister, knock him out with a spanner, throw him in a tank full of sharks, and take over the country with a manic cackle. Put together, such people outvoted the large minority of the electorate that approved of the model.
No, the whole thing is too fresh in the memory to be disposed of with a few isolated one-liners. In any case, what does James’s crack about oligarchy mean? Does he think that a republic per se would open the door to oligarchy; or is he just talking about the particular republican model we voted on? If he means the first thing, why? If he means the second thing, why isn’t he in favour of a directly elected president? If he respects the verdict of the Australian people so solemnly, you’d think he’d trust us to elect the right person. Either he should write a long essay in which these questions get properly answered, or he should let the matter drop. I’d prefer the latter. He may not sense it from over there, but over here the issue is dead in the water. Prodding the corpse does nothing except release a foul build-up of gas.
Some overzealous republican, you suspect, must have got under his skin by questioning his patriotism. It’s hard to think of another topic on which he is so intemperate. Usually he does a lot more than just judge; he also registers and preserves the texture of what’s in front of him. When he’s on song he’s a kind of real-time historian, writing a richly textured history on the fly. If you want to time-travel to Britain in the 1970s, get hold of one of his books of television criticism. They teem with the stiff-haired, polo-necked figures of the era: Barbara Woodhouse, Uri Geller, Maggie Thatcher, David Frost. There’s an essay in the current book that proves he’s still capable of that sort of chronicling. A British politician gets himself into trouble by making a hectoring speech on television. James, the television veteran, guesses that the guy was probably shouting to make himself heard over a jabbering crowd. When the speech went to air the crowd noise was filtered out, so that he ended up just sounding shrill.
This has an authoritative ring that James’s pronouncements on Australian politics tend to lack. To write something like that, you don’t just need experience and sharp perception. You need to be immersed in a country’s politics. And probably you can be immersed in the politics of just one country at a time: the country you live in, read the papers in, watch television in, catch trains in. For the moment, in James’s case, that country is Britain, not Australia.
Somewhere in Cultural Amnesia, James makes a rare and touching slip. He advises the reader to type a particular writer’s name into Google and consult an entry on the fifth page of the results. Probably James knows by now what he didn’t know then: that Google results are a moveable feast, an ever-changing organism. To expect an item to stay put on the fifth page of a search result is like expecting a Coke can to stay floating at precisely the same spot in a river. Vast as his learning is, there is still the odd thing that Clive James doesn’t know. But in the moment of vulnerability the real man stands exposed, and our affection for him can only grow. Watching him play in the huge schoolyard of the internet, we get a sense of what he must have been like as a boy. Here he is at seventy, still the Kid from Kogarah, still launching himself after new things, still Googling, still fighting, still ready to learn, still ready to teach those who are still ready to listen.
Subscribe to Quadrant magazine here…