The Queen meets Australian poet Les Murray who was presented with the gold medal for poetry, at Buckingham Palace, London. Photo: PA

Clive James on saving figure skating—and why poet Les Murray should have won the Nobel

When I first read Les Murray's poetry, an unfamiliar feeling of humility overwhelmed me
June 11, 2019

Still recovering from an operation that has left me with what feels like a sofa stuffed into my left cheek while the eye above it, doing double duty, weeps for a world doomed to heat death, I contemplate existence with the poised detachment of the philosopher who has seen everything. He is especially likely to feel like this, I have discovered, when he can in fact see almost nothing.

It’s been several years now since it happened, but the news has just reached me that a vast number of English people elected the robin as Britain’s national bird. The robin strikes me as appropriate for a hopping and tweeting national symbol in view of the upcoming Corbyn government, which is surely close upon us, now that the press, over the course of many months, has run out of different ways to say it will all happen tomorrow. The robin is small, tuneless and very short of convincing muscle power. The robinical attribute that I like best is the ability to hop about in my verdant back garden and still manage to draw attention to itself. How does it manage to be insignificant and conspicuous at the same time?

I’m working on this question as I face my seemingly imminent entrance into the Halls of Dis, the inane regions. The lower left half of my face is returning to a horizontal alignment, but I still look like someone who has been in a punch-up with Joe Louis, who could hit so hard that he decked Jersey Joe Walcott. Names from the past, but then whose name isn’t?

Bright Tiger

BBC2 re-ran its overstuffed documentary on Leonardo. Playing the genius in his early years, Mark Rylance didn’t have much to do except look profound. But in the background the modern-day experts were assembling in droves. Owing to my bad eyesight I had trouble telling one pundit from another, but my favourite was a wildly gesturing female who drew pictures in the air. One of them was an evocation of the distance between the rails of a standard gauge railway line.

Watching, while I was half-blind, the World Figure Skating Championship in Japan, I missed seeing the occasional stunning performance. A hundred years ago when I started watching world-level skating, Peggy Fleming was still the top woman and Toller Cranston the top man. Wonderful as they were, their routines now look dated. But as the level of athleticism goes up, the aesthetic level tends to go down. All the boys are doing -quadruple jumps now, and I can’t tell that they are doing them even when I can see, because I can’t count that fast.

The Japanese have found out how to humanise an increasingly robotic spectacle. After the audience pelts the rink with flowers to mark the ending of routines from the top contenders, the rink sprites appear, harvesting the blooms. It’s fun trying to pick out the future champions among them when they’re only as big as a one-yen coin. Perhaps this is the moment, while I’m quivering with admiration, to throw a bouquet at Robin Cousins, whose commentary throughout the competition was so brilliantly informative. Nattering on screen is not as hard to do as winning gold medals for skating, but if it was easy everyone would do it.

Speaking of world champions, Tiger Woods, after more than a decade in the dog-house, got right back to the top of the podium in Augusta. The more sentimental commentators tended to interpret this rebirth as a sign that his sins of promiscuity were by now expiated. Less sentimental commentators—more correctly, in my view—pointed out that a bad injury had taken ages to heal. Tiger, typically, said almost nothing, except to hint that he didn’t think that black golfers were fully accepted quite yet. We might remember that only Hitler was stupid enough to think Jesse Owens inferior, and that Arthur Ashe was widely acknowledged to be an exemplary gentleman, but in American golf it must still be otherwise, or someone as bright as Tiger wouldn’t be saying so.

Mansplaining muted

The Medici had several hideaway villas outside Florence. They were sanctuaries that the ruling family could duck away to while the ordinary Florentines died of plague. One of the villas was Poggio a Caiano: smallish for a palace but largish for a house. Among the painters who were called in to decorate it was Pontormo, who was still being put down, hundreds of years later, as a mere Mannerist. I can remember the day when my wife and I discovered his Poggio fresco and both of us decided he was a genius. I like to think that I was almost as prompt as she was to spot this fact, but the truth is that she had unbeatably quick antennae for creative greatness.

My own judgment, on the other hand, could be chancy. Back in Cambridge I would ambush people in the -Fitzwilliam Museum and give them unstoppable lectures on the subtleties of its prized Rembrandt self-portrait. I pursued this practice for several years until an expert from Holland went right through the world’s art galleries to say which of the Rembrandt self-portraits were genuine or not, and he picked out for particular contempt the one that I had been lecturing about. The connoisseur pointed out that its painter couldn’t even draw a sleeve with an arm inside it. I looked again and he was right: there was an empty sleeve. Immediately I felt a bit like an empty sleeve myself. And after that humiliation I was always slower to mansplain, as they say now, though I wish they wouldn’t.

In plain sight

Maybe my condition of bunged-up eyesight set in earlier than I thought. One of the frustrations of being unable to read is that books arrive from Amazon and languish around in heaps, like odalisques in an overstocked seraglio. I ordered all of Paul Berman’s books and I can only now read one of them, the one with the biggest print.

Berman’s praising summary of Alain Finkielkraut is exemplary, as far as I can tell. Finkielkraut is a long-time scourge of French anti-Semites. He has always written so well that he has been able to talk them down, but lately the fanatics are on his case, so it’s good to see someone of Berman’s stature springing to the rescue. I’ve also received Graeme Wood’s book on the Islamic State, The Way of the Strangers. Wood can actually read Arabic whereas I am barely able to read English. Curses! I’m working on the prospect of a new magnifying glass which will have to be big enough to aim a death ray from space.

When I was very young, the 78rpm discs featuring Victor Borge’s comic routines were the funniest things in my world. Borge was a classical pianist who made jokes as good as Tom Lehrer’s. One suspected that his mastery of the classical piano was up there with his sense of humour. Now the proof is in plain sight. YouTube has acquired his joke-free account of Debussy’s Clair de Lune. It’s lavishly beautiful, like life.   

Les Murray (1938-2019)

The greatest Australian poet, Les Murray, died in Australia during the English night. I was surprised by the tinge of anger in my grief when I heard that Les was gone. Finally I’ve traced this anger to its source; a general feeling that my old friends are checking out and leaving me alone. How dare they? But then I realise that they have gone beyond caring what I think.

The BBC was the first on the phone to ask me for an interview. Unfortunately, with all my facial injuries, I would have sounded as if I’d drunk myself to sleep, so I regretfully declined. Since it wasn’t the last request, let these paragraphs serve to answer them all. It’s important to say at least something, because Les himself was always the hulking incarnation of professional courtesy. As poetry editor of Quadrant magazine, he was famous among Australian poets for giving his opinion of their manuscripts within a month, instead of, like other poetry editors, after a decade. Apart from making the long flight from Bunyah to Buckingham Palace to receive the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry from the Queen herself, Les turned up on the night for all the other prizes that he won, which is more than you can say for Bob Dylan. Some of us will go to our graves thinking it should have been Les who got the Nobel Prize, but no doubt Dylan will make good use of the extra few million dollars.

Les Murray was a great poet from his first day on the job. Back there at Sydney University a thousand years ago I was literary editor of the student newspaper Honi Soit and thus well placed to print my own contributions. I had no conscience in the matter, and no qualms about appearing to rule the roost, but when that first poem arrived from Les, I saw immediately that he had something none of the rest of us had. An unfamiliar feeling of humility overwhelmed me.

It was a poem about three starlings and a crippled thief. “The starlings wandered / Till three hawks took them / And now my agents / Have caught the cripple.” I never forgot that poem, and afterwards I made a point of reading everything else he wrote. It’s a task that has taken me all his lifetime and nearly all of mine.