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Clive James recalls Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra

It's more fun than worrying about Brexit

By Clive James   June 2019
Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra

Elizabeth Taylor in the 1963 epic Cleopatra

Caesar’s dead, Cleopatra’s dead, Joan of Arc is dead, and I’m not feeling too well myself. So, or a bit like that, goes Mark Twain’s most famous joke, and I’m bound to say it’s looking slightly less funny now that I have to dictate this article through a straw. My recent operation was successful in the sense that my head is still on my shoulders, but the way my head and shoulders join up is subject to review. Should there be nuts and bolts à la Frankenstein’s monster, or would it be easier to just reshuffle the pieces at random each morning, like one of those multi-unit Henry Moore statues where the head lies around looking at the body from a distance?

I wish I could say that I cared a lot either way about Brexit, but the truth is that by this stage the things I care about seem mostly to be in the past. I’m more concerned with the apparent permanence of a single line of poetry. Perhaps I would be more interested if Brexit itself were a lovely word, but it sounds like a bad breakfast food. Lovely words count more and more. More and more a few words or a phrase are all that I remember. Sometimes the phrases of poetry occur as prose. General de Gaulle’s phrasing, often grandiloquent, became beautifully simple at the funeral of his beloved daughter, who had a particularly severe case of Down’s Syndrome. He said: “now she is like the others.” In Louis MacNeice’s poem “The Sunlight on the Garden,” MacNeice borrows Mark Antony’s goodbye line to Cleopatra: “We are dying, Egypt, dying.”

City vistas

Cleopatra, the movie whose cost overruns broke the studio, is on my mind a lot lately. Perhaps it’s because Caesar, as you will recall, left Cleo’s arms only to go back to Rome and get himself murdered.

I saw the movie in 1963, the year it came out; at the cinema, there being no alternative in those days. When everyone returns to Rome, there’s a parade featuring Egyptian motifs which was very confusing to certain members of the audience, including myself, who thought they might be back in Alexandria. For filmmakers, the only reliable way to identify the setting is an appropriate screen title. If your movie is set in Sydney, for example, it’s no longer quite enough to have the Harbour Bridge dominating the skyline. There are other big arched bridges in the world, and at least one of them, confusingly, is in New York. You can just have a shot of the Sydney Opera House, but it’s quite likely that Kuwait or somewhere similar will copy that one as well.

Canberra, still the most boring capital city in the world, presents a bigger problem. When I was young, Canberra’s federal parliament building was an unimposing but elegant number, whereas its replacement, built into a hillside, is not even unimposing. In fact it’s got all the characteristics of the hill into which it is built. TV series after TV series, especially if it’s about the government or the Australian secret service, is set in Canberra, and every time you switch to a full-screen shot of the new parliament house, you wonder where we are.

You can generally tell it’s New York because the Chrysler building is featured, but there has to be a subtitle to tell you that you’re looking at Mexico City, which can be called a thousand square miles of nothing, except it is a thousand square miles of everything. Mexico City goes on forever ­without having any notable features apart from the occasional cathedral sinking into the earth. I was in a traffic jam one day near the centre of town, and along the grass verge came dancing a group of children painted up as clowns, including the red noses. They did a little dance and a little song and after several minutes of enchantment I asked our driver where they came from. He said they were from the edge of town. I asked him how far that was, and his answer was the first indication I had of a great political truth: Mexico City keeps on going until it reaches you. “Oh, about 50 miles.”

Moscow is always Moscow. Not even Stalin could ruin that vista, although Moscow University was a bravely hideous try. And, of course, it has to be Paris unless someone has copied the Eiffel tower. The Chinese might already be doing it.

Vigorous invincibility

My news of the week is that I got a new computer screen that is big enough for me to be able to see roughly what is going on. It has to be the size of St Paul’s Cathedral, but nevertheless I can now see an outline that is probably Simon Schama standing in front of the Taj Mahal, unless it’s the Taj Mahal standing in front of Simon Schama.

One of the many great things about the great Schama is the mobility of his body. He expresses emotion in the way that a 1940s jive contestant would have expressed the Lindy Hop. If the Dutch troops are advancing on Augsburg, or Battenburg, or whatever -burg, Schama is the man you want expressing their vigorous invincibility. I knew him when we were both at Cambridge, and I thought then that he had more vigour than anyone I’d ever seen, but now I put him as being more vigorous than that. On my new big screen he looms, he charges like a raging bull. You may say that Simon Schama is as unlike a raging bull as any man you’ve ever seen, but have you seen Robert de Niro lately? Some of the women of my acquaintance think it’s time for De Niro to retire but I can remember a time when women dreamed of retiring with him and a bottle of whisky in a paper bag.

Not dark yet

It’s said that Julius Caesar’s body lay on the ground for three hours before anyone had the courage to remove it. Stalin had the same problem. How could they check that he was really dead without disturbing him and thereby risking death for themselves? My own instructions to my staff officers are clear—disturb me as much as you like. You think after ruling the world I’m going to be put off by an importunate minion? Importune away, varlet!

Folie de grandeur might be part of my current syndrome. Stand by for publication of my works in quarto and folio. My short spell of almost total blindness was a reminder that Milton wrote his greatest works when he couldn’t see a thing. It can be done. Yet it is not often enough emphasised, in my view, that he had a houseful of people to help him. At this point I should admit that so have I. And, as with blind Milton and the daughters he relied on, the women around me probably want to hit me with something heavy.

When not here changing bandages and helping me to work my coffee machine, my troops have been in London at the Pierre Bonnard exhibition on multiple independent expeditions. I have seen the catalogue—they seem to have brought a copy each. Was the show great or merely pretty good? The question lingers. I myself think he couldn’t draw a horse, and I’ve yet to find a horse to disagree with me, but he could certainly draw a woman in a bath.

Missing the madness

Speaking of beautiful women in the bath, we’re back to Cleopatra. Caesar leaving Cleopatra’s arms was a risky business, because someone else was always ready to step up, as it were. Cut to Mark Antony and Cleo, in the bath together as usual. She’s probably just sunk one of his boats with a playful gesture—the boat carrying the perfumed soapcake from the Ritz in Paris. I realise the Cleopatra movie is an obscure reference to make nowadays, as hardly anyone remembers it. You may wonder how such a terrible movie is lodged so firmly in the tatters of my brain. The answer is simple: it was full of non-terrible things, eg Rex Harrison, absolutely my favourite male speaker on screen ever. He could speak prose as though it were music, the fact best proved, of course, by the way he turned every song in My Fair Lady into a speech and still thrilled you to bits.

Cleopatra was the real last blast of the trumpet for the blockbusters. There was never such extravagance again, mainly because no star can any longer charge the earth as Elizabeth Taylor did. Sometimes one misses the madness.

But nostalgia for this glittering dreck has not obscured my judgment. A rewatch can wait. I have made myself the promise that when I can see properly again, the first thing I read will be Hamlet. When I recover from something, I always read Hamlet again. I like the way he gets all the attention focused on himself even at the moment of conking out.

Only a few days ago I thought people looked like clouds, and now some of the clouds look like people. Seeing something instead of nothing is where it all starts again: if you’re lucky. You have to be very lucky, and the first stroke of luck is living at some time after modern surgery became possible. And when was that? It was yesterday.

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