It's easy to be blinded by the dazzle of Clive James's many talents. Yet his most enduring claim to greatness is not his novels, satire or journalism, but his exquisite essays and poemsby Julian Gough / January 17, 2009 / Leave a comment
The Book of My Enemy: Collected Verse 1958-2003 by Clive James (Picador, £8.99)
Angels Over Elsinore: Collected Verse 2003-2008 by Clive James (Picador, £14.99)
I’ve been reading Clive James since I was in short pants and he was in flares. Back then, it was impossible to predict where he would end up, because he was shooting off in all directions at once like a burning box of fireworks. What couldn’t he do?
From 1972 to 1976, James’s Observer television columns used riveting language to nail down the ephemera of an entire culture as it moved into a democratic age. It was only after the tapes were wiped that people realised it had been these ephemera that showed you what was happening. He twigged it first. In 1979, his Unreliable Memoirs did to its genre what Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint had just done to the novel. James admitted to flaws and inadequacies that nobody who wrote that well had ever owned up to before: the minor ones; the embarrassing ones. Liberating, brave, Unreliable Memoirs was also hugely influential; Russell Brand’s My Booky Wook is its charming but undisciplined bastard child. Then, from 1982, his ITV show Clive James on Television invented the reality TV aesthetic: a celebrity chuckling while ordinary people ate ants to get on television. The ordinary people were Japanese, from imported gameshow clips; but the British, shown it was possible, soon evolved into anteaters.
After the show, he’d go home (reading Tacitus on the tube, in the original), and write a poem about Egon Friedell. James was the barbarian who had travelled to the capital of the old empire and, casually mastering its every art, become more civilised than its natives. He was, and is, an inspiration to younger writers worldwide, whose backwaters lack role models.
In the later volumes of the memoirs, James constantly attacks himself for his selfishness, his ego. But I always used to think that—especially in the novels and poems—he wasn’t selfish enough. In looking up to so many writers and thinkers, he put himself down, and thus risked failing to reach the heights of his true potential. I now realise that what I saw as a flaw was in fact his greatest virtue as a poet and essayist.
All through these early and middle years, the essays and poems quietly punctuated the bigger stuff. Now, though, something unexpected is happening. The small stuff…