Friday 29 November 2019

Hats Off for Clive James - Nick Garlick

The news of Clive James’ death made me dig out the book of notable quotes I’ve been compiling for the last twenty-eight years, a collection in which CJ features prominently. If this blog is about writers and writing, then I’d like to take my turn at the wheel this month to tip my hat to a writer I’ve been reading, and admiring, since the early 1980s.

At first I read him for the jokes that peppered his television columns in The Observer. In almost every one he could be relied upon to come up with an observation that would leave me laughing for minutes. Here are just two of my favourites

Hurricane Higgins smokes the way he plays – as if there were not only no tomorrow, but hardly anything left of today.

Like any winner’s dressing room after the big fight, the champagne flowed,’ said News at Ten, its grammar limp with admiration.

As the years passed, I continued to enjoy the humour, but I also started to admire and appreciate the elegance with which he wrote. I began to read what he wrote for the way he wrote it. Whether or not I agreed with what he said – although I almost always did – began to be beside the point. I was just carried away by his ability to express himself in carefully constructed sentences you only needed to read once to understand. You could go back and read them again for pleasure, but his message always came through the first time. As in:

The highest common factor uniting Ken Russell’s films about great artists is the way you can never get any idea of the artist sitting down to work. In Ken Russell’s view, a great artist’s art is always just his personality magnified.

A liberal society can be partly described as one that goes on finding the imaginative option without lapsing into the common delusion that cruelty is the only answer.

I could go on to talk about his more ‘serious’ works: his collections of essays, his literary criticism, and his magnum opus – and one of my favourite books – Cultural Amnesia. But doing that might steer this short piece into an analysis of his political views, views not everyone may share. And that’s not the point here.

I just wanted to mark the passing of one of my favourite writers, and to give a small indication of why I that is. And since it was his jokes that I first noticed, I’ll end with another one, written after an evening spent watching the WWII adventure, Where Eagles Dare.

Fighting their way back through several divisions of the German army, our two heroes had the advantage of being equipped with real ammunition, whereas the Germans, apparently, had made the mistake of issuing their men with blanks.


Pippa Goodhart said...

A very long time ago, when I was sixteen instead of sixty-one, I was a Saturday girl in Heffers Bookshop in Cambridge. A gentleman wanted to buy a book but had forgotten his account card, so I had to phone the accounts dept to get his account number. 'What's your name, please?' 'Clive James.' Well, being incompetent, and the accounts dept taking a long time to answer and then find somebody to pass me to, I forgot his name and asked for it again a couple of times. I could see him beginning to simmer with fury. Anyway, deal done, and off he went, and my co-Saturday girl hissed, 'That was THE Clive James.' I'd never heard of him. But from that day onward I saw his name everywhere, loved his work, but always with a twinge of guilt that I'd annoyed.
Roll forward to about three years ago, and I saw him in Heffers as I was buying books. I was going to go and apologise, but somebody else nabbed him, and the moment passed. But I emailed him, telling him my guilt of decades, and apologising. This was his reply -Dear Pippa,

Far from leaving me in peace, you should have fronted up and told that merry tale, which makes me smile to my depths. Make sure you are less shy next time. I'll be there to sign my Collected Poems in spring.

Onward, Clive
I now enjoy his writing sans guilt!

Andrew Preston said...

I remember watching, or listening to, Clive James long ago. At the time, yes,
I was impressed. Re-reading some of the quotes now, they don't do anything for me.
It's like reading emptiness. A little like a brief acquaintance with P J O'Rourke.
Satire....., observation of life, long phrases that suck the life out of life.


Nick Garlick said...

What a great story. And what a lovely reply from CJ himself. Thanks for posting that.

Nick Garlick said...

Andrew Preston,
Had he only produced his TV criticism, I could begin to see your point. And his Saturday night TV shows were often no advert for his intelligence. But I would strongly argue for Cultural Amnesia (not to mention his several collections of essays - notably, for me at least, his analysis of Daniel Goldhagens's book Hitler's Willing Executioners). His wit made him famous; his fame made him seem empty. I think he was better than that.

Andrew Preston said...


his description of the naked Arnold Schwarzenegger as “... a brown condom full of walnuts...” ..., was pretty good.