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The Great Barrier Reef, bird-spotting and an opera about Boris Johnson

Clive James' Late Reading

Clive James in the BBC TV series Postcard from Miami, 1989. Photo: PA

A few weeks from now, when my homeland is covered by the rising ocean, it will be discovered that the chief reason why the Australian universities were unable to co-ordinate any effective solution to the flooding was the presence within their command structures of too many co-ordinators, conveners and similar types of persons short on solid qualifications but long on salary. They are also, characteristically, long on time: they’ve got all day, and when they communicate with you they assume that you have too.

I’m still gibbering from the receipt of a note signed by a woman named Liz, billed as the Communications and Awards Co-ordinator at the Australian Academy of the Humanities. She “warmly invites” me to “contribute to a unique communication initiative.” Apparently the Academy’s upcoming 50th anniversary will be “a unique opportunity to acknowledge the contribution of the humanities disciplines to understanding our past and making sense of the present, and [to] consider their role in humanising the future.” Cutting slowly to the chase, she proffers a stack of questions she would like answered, for example: “How have the humanities disciplines (culture, the arts, music, history, languages, linguistics, philosophy, religion, archaeology and heritage) deepened our understanding and appreciation?” It’s only at this late stage of her letter that its author reveals what one would have thought might have struck her early on as a terminally inhibiting requirement. She wants all this done in “50-100 words.”

She also wants me to send a recent photograph. Since I now look, after several recent surgical procedures, like someone who has put his face through a brick wall, a photograph might well communicate how I feel about her request more effectively than any number of words. But anyway, here’s my 50-100:

Dear Liz,

Only if Toscanini had conducted Traviata in the Parthenon with the scenery painted by Rembrandt and Maria Callas singing the title role could the humanities disciplines, as you call them, have been summed up in 100 words. I therefore must invite you to take a running jump at yourself. But please feel free to publish, before you do so, the attached photograph of myself after I did the same.

At that moment, however, with my finger trembling above the send button, I remembered I might actually be a member of the Academy. I went through a weird patch when I signed every document put in front of me just so I could have a less crowded bedside. That was how I became a member of CRC-BCF, the Committee to Replace Capitalism with the Brain of Christiana Figueres. This, too, though nominally an organisation based in the UN buildings in New York, is mainly an Australian outfit financed by a tax levy indexed to go up with rising sea levels.


Bleaching the reef

Attentive readers in recent years may have noticed in my work a recurring theme of doubt that the world is coming to an end. After what has, unexpectedly from my angle, turned into a long life of watching people running around crying out that the sky is falling, I have to confess that my attention dials itself down at almost exactly the same rate as the hysteria dials itself up. I preserve a keen interest in at least listening to people who are remaining calm. Conveners and co-ordinators did not spell doom for marine scientist Peter Ridd, who has won the case against his dismissal from James Cook University; but the university’s top dog, vice-chancellor Sandra Harding, is not giving up yet. She is clearly determined to pursue him until he runs out of money or else drowns in the rising ocean. Perhaps, when underwater, he will die spread-eagled against an outcrop of bleached coral. Ridd’s particular sin was to contradict JCU’s standard stance on coral bleaching. He said that coral does that anyway. JCU’s vice-chancellor says that we do it to the coral.

No doubt the squads of climate scientists who study the reef have a good idea of what they are doing. They certainly have a good billet. I was there once and I thought it was heaven. President Obama voiced dire warnings about the Barrier Reef’s fate without even having seen the place, but now that he’s got more time he might go, and take the wife and kids. It’s madly lovely out there and might last a few weeks yet before the allegedly inexorable dynamics of climate change reduce the whole thing to ruins.


Among the weirdo greenery

One recent evening, I was invited to take tea in my elder daughter’s back garden, and to help maintain a look-out for Robin Roundfellow, who lives with his family in a bird-box up in the vine thing above the back door. Even while the new generation of trainee robins are still engaged in the crash-bang comedy of learning to fly, they are safe from my granddaughter’s dog, a gentle and pacific soul; but there are cats in the neighbourhood, and cats are deadly.

While pondering these profundities, I had my attention directed upwards to a nearby quince tree. Suddenly there was a robin sitting in it, about 10 feet from the ground and fatter than Fats Domino. He sat there for a while doing nothing, but it seemed to me that he was fulfilling his destiny admirably. Brilliantly, if briefly, the robin sang. Then it vanished into the summer night.

It’s raining outside. Only a weekend or two ago the sun was shining with a golden warmth that invited a trip to Cambridge’s magnificent Botanic Garden, which I haven’t seen for years. I thought I’d better hurry up if I wanted to see it again. So with my elder daughter pushing the wheelchair we sped through the streets to the garden, and were soon in the Australian pavilion, thus to keep tryst with the Aussie themes of this month’s column. When you get in there among the weirdo greenery you don’t notice the temperature going up, but when you come wheeling out again you sure notice it going down. The differential must be of high global warming standard: ie about five degrees plus.

At that point we adjourned for tea in the enticing new tea pavilion, where, from our seats in the mild English sunlight, we observed that our fellow attendees could be split into two main groups: one of small children, too young for school; the other of crocks like myself. Apparently with this second group specifically in mind, the whole layout has been provided with gentle ramps on which no wheelchair will accelerate to terminal velocity and pitch its occupant into the maw of a carnivorous plant. Next time I visit, I plan to take advantage of the nifty free mobility scooters. Well done, mobility conveners and co-ordinators! As the late Tony Armstrong-Jones used to point out, there might seem to be not very many people who need ramps and special facilities, but if you provide them, those people will appear. Where have they been? Stuck at home, that’s where.


Shute the writer

Still on the Australia beat, I have formed a pact with my aforesaid elder daughter to re-read the whole line-up of Nevil Shute novels that she’s been collecting for years. (Though a patriotic Englishman, Shute thought that the future of the Empire lay in Australia, and that the Royal Family would eventually be obliged to move there.) My daughter is re-reading No Highway, the book whose movie version once held me gripped while Marlene Dietrich honked guttural passion at James Stewart. He plays Mr Honey, a boffin battling to convince the responsible authorities that the Reindeer airliner would be subject to catastrophic metal fatigue after a certain number of operational hours. I, on the other hand, am face-deep in Round the Bend, the book that revealed how Shute had a bump for mysticism as well as for engineering. Sixty years after I first read it, there is none of it that I don’t recognise, yet it still all surprises me.

Next on my list is A Town Like Alice, always my favourite among his novels. Once again, there’s a great movie version, this time starring Virginia McKenna, my ideal example of the English ice princess with the heart of fire.

And assaulting that fiery heart was, of course, Peter Finch, the ideal Aussie bloke. Transferring his early career from Australia to Britain, Finch spent years killing his accent, and then, when he got the lead in A Town like Alice, he had to dig up the accent from wherever he had buried it. Somewhere out there in the darkness of the flea-pits, we laughed and laughed.



At which point it might be time to say goodbye. A few days ago, I finished the manuscript of a book called The Fire of Joy. The book is a display case for those poems which, in the course of my longish life, have got under my skin. The emphasis is on poems that you can say aloud: can’t help saying aloud, indeed. When I started the book I couldn’t see anything, a handicap brilliantly qualifying me to write about Milton. Now that the book is done, I can get on with my money-making plan to write an opera about Boris Johnson. Called simply Boris Badenough, it will be anchored by a bass-baritone of Chaliapin-like authority whose chief challenge will be to deliver his share of the Altercation Duet, a passionate vocal exchange between himself and Anna Netrebko. There’s that to do; there’s my last book of memoirs to write; there’s 15 excellent volumes of Nevil Shute to read again; and I’m not getting any younger.

All of Clive James’s columns can be found here

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