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Clive James on the healing power of George Herbert’s poems—and the absurdity of Bodyguard

After an operation, I lounge around with my face in a sling, contemplating eternity

By Clive James   May 2019

Richard Madden in Bodyguard: “nothing beats it for sheer unbelievability." Photo: WORLD PRODUCTIONS

It was the week before last, or something like that, that I checked into the Addenbrooke’s Treatment Centre in Cambridge, for yet another operation, this time to remove a discreetly galloping cancer somewhere in my salivary gland. The estimated time of the operation was four hours, but in the few days since the plan was formed, the tumour had grown. The operation, which now included some cunning reconstructive surgery, would take eight hours; rather longer than the full-length version of Cleopatra. Julius Caesar didn’t survive that one, and if I’d been a spectator of my own epic, I might not have survived either. Luckily no one I knew was plugged into the story except members of my family, and they said that even the strangest bit was not quite as scary as it sounded because the surgeons said such reassuring things about attaching one bit of me to another. One of the bits that got attached came from my thigh. I can’t quite figure out even now what it was doing being grafted into my sinus cavity. It’s not that these things haven’t been explained to me: it’s just that I’m not yet fully equipped to understand them because my mentality is a bit blurred.

Shortly after all this went on, or maybe not so shortly, it’s hard to be certain, I was awake again and seemingly equipped for thinking, although God alone knows what made me think that I was even halfway equipped for that. But unaccountably it became clear to me, even as I hovered between being gaga and blissed out, that it might be a contribution of some kind if I can put my articles and poems on Philip Larkin together into a single book that would help to define his current position, to the extent that it still needs defining.

All I would need to do would be to make sure that my publishers and his would see the desirability of such a project. Thinking about stuff like this seemed like the right-sized task for someone whose means of expression had been reduced to a grunt. The grunt, incidentally, was on sideways, like a Picasso of unusually low value.

Larkin again

I could keep up these metaphors about my clock-stopping appearance but time has since passed and my face has calmed down, with whole areas of it restored to intelligibility. The general effect for a while was of chaos but some degree of order is definitely on its way back. What stuns me, however, is news of the sheer number of stitches that have been put in—apparently I have a head-full of them, inside as well as out. So what speaks to you now is essentially a ball of string. I was contemplating the vast task of unravelment when news came in that the publishers quite liked the idea for the Larkin book. I had been expecting a disappointment. Indeed I’d been expecting to be hit all over again with a 10-tonne truck. So to be granted my wish was more than a surprise. It seemed like a divine reward for having achieved nothing except to lie still for a few hours while some of the most highly trained surgeons in the world were stringing me together like the reconstruction of a piano that had fallen off a cliff.

I don’t even know if I’m contractually allowed to be discussing a book that is still barely in the works, but I am too absurdly proud of having achieved at least something while the lights were out to refrain from crowing. Now, of course, all I have to do is write it. During this first week of recovery, I’ve gradually had to accept that right now I can’t read at all. It has turned out that not only do I have difficulty reading anything that is not magnified by 10, but I have trouble even then, because everything out in the wrong order comes. Expecting that one I wasn’t. Apparently it’s because my two main fields of vision—I think it’s only two, it might be 12—are out of alignment.

Since I couldn’t read a thing, my only way of discussing Larkin was to have him read to me and then argue with the reader, who was sometimes, excitingly, of the opinion that he meant the exact opposite of what I think he meant. My chief amanuensis, the novelist Deborah Meyler, is an excellent, natural, unaffected reciter. Also she makes me laugh, which is very useful because the situation is indeed absurd—helplessness doesn’t suit me. I’ve been bashing around the planet for too long flexing my confidence, and everybody knows that a sad, sorry-for-myself expression is bound to be a put-on. I have to admit, though, that just recently my standard devil-may-care attitude has been hard to sustain.

Herbert’s marvels

Feeling rather sorry for myself, and exactly as though my head has been removed and then expertly sewn back on again, these poetry sessions have been a quiet delight. Conducted between extensive naps, they expanded from the original Larkin-oriented remit, to cover other poets, and to include other participants. Some increasingly competitive reciting from memory took place. My neighbour Deirdre Serjeantson, an expert on Renaissance poetry, introduced me to a George Herbert poem I was unaccountably not familiar with:

        And now in age I bud again,

After so many deaths I live and write;

        I once more smell the dew and rain,

And relish versing.

I hasten to put in the word “unaccountably” because I should have known the poem but back there in the middle of the 20th century I somehow missed it, when I was first reading Herbert in the Albatross Book of Living Verse, which we used to call the “Book of Living Albatrosses.” How I ever missed anything in Herbert’s prolific output is a puzzle. He fascinated me from the jump, almost as much as Marvell. I blame Herbert for not calling himself Marvell every time. A poet called Herbert will occasionally be overlooked; call yourself Wonderful and everything will get into the list of contents.

Feeling lucky to have such friends, I lounge around with my face in a sling, contemplating eternity. What could be more luxurious? Meanwhile, my daughter Claerwen gets on in the next room with a design for the book jacket. It’s the Bloomsbury gang over here: Cambridge division.

Beauty and the Bodyguard

Towards the end of his life, the painter Sidney Nolan became more and more devoted to the great project of making the interior of Australia look fascinating. Unfortunately he could only half succeed at this because basically it isn’t. There is a hell of a lot of nothing happening. Compare even Uluru to the Grand Canyon, and you’re comparing a hockey puck to a giant bowling alley. Apart from the story of Ned Kelly and his gang, Nolan saw his best chance for drama in stripping the white bark of the ghost gums until it hung eerily over thousands of square miles, like a giant wallpaper project gone wrong. In the last phase of his life he was transferring these images into a series of paintings that the BBC did a show about just before I went into hospital. I didn’t believe him when it came to the ghost gums, although I still think he was a great artist.

The great choreographer Kenneth MacMillan would reach into Sidney Nolan’s graphic vocabulary when their common subject was primitive lust, or as Stravinsky put it, The Rite of Spring.

Late in his career I knew MacMillan, who had got it into his head that I knew something about ballet. I really didn’t, but I agreed with him that a spoken ballet about Nijinsky’s life would be an interesting challenge. It certainly would have been, as neither of us had a clue about how Nijinsky’s life might be translated into words; and if you couldn’t do that of course you were doing nothing.

Still, meeting each other to talk about the project was a lot of fun because it gave the great man the chance to plumb my ignorance about the history of his art. The level of gossip was stratospheric, and of course there was always the attraction of going backstage, where the ballerinas were hanging out; a species for whom I had a great fondness in those days. All such thoughts, I might add, have by now fled, and in hospital I hardly thought once about Suzanne Farrell dancing for George Balanchine. She was such a beauty, and he was such a bastard.

Just before I went into hospital, I watched a couple of episodes of Bodyguard again, because nothing beats it for sheer unbelievability. The thing I love best is the Home Secretary’s motivation for sleeping with her nominated protector: her official car has just been shot to pieces by a sniper rifle and her driver has been shredded. The killer has committed suicide. Therefore she gives herself to the bodyguard, as one would in such circumstances: there’s no one else left alive. He maintains his look of puzzlement, as presumably he’s done since the cradle.

Claerwen tells me that there is a Harry Potter character called Nearly Headless Nick who was unsuccessfully decapitated. I know just how he feels, and I fear I look exactly how he looks. Nevertheless—a word I say very slowly out of one side of my mouth—one tries to press on.

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