Clive James a role model?

I often speculated on why it is that many of the greatest admirers of Clive James’s manifold talents often come not from Australia or from England, but from Ireland – like me – amd from  America.  In the country in which he lives and writes, he seems to be either ignored or indulged by the so-called serious intellectuals.

It has occurred to me that may be that the British-born but Irish-educated Julian Gough is on to something when, in his essay for the January 2009 issue of Prospect, when he says says that James “was, and is, an inspiration to younger writers worldwide, whose backwaters lack role models”

I would suggest that maybe those writers were, and are, looking for a specific kind or role model, a role model who would  show them how to cope with a range of intellectual stimuli to which  they found them selves exposed themselves to once they left the “backwaters” and moved into the bigger world in which the high and low arts seem demand attention. James, it seems to me, is, and was, an ideal role model in that respect. He’d come to England with a large appetite for the full and active appreciation of everything European culture gad to offer, and he’d come with a a natural ability evaluate everything that he took in, whether it was music, theatre, painting, television, and to report on his findings in a way that made those who heard him sit up,  pay attention and, yes, emulate.

My own introduction to James came through listening the the songs he wrote with Pete Atkin, reading reqularly the TV column he wrote for The Observer and fineing every so often  essays that turned up in various prestigious (but  sometimes not widely available)limagazines. When some of his essays were collected and published as The Metropolitan Critic, they were there to be  read and enjoyed  over and over  again,

You did not have be a follow James into every nook and cranny to know that you were in the presence of a man whose judgement was sound and who could, without making  one feel inadequate in any way, presume that the person he was writing for shared his wide range of interests that he had.

He is the kind of writer who makes the reader feel that he wants to keep up, makes him or her that there is a great deal of fun to be had from keeping up. He can be, and quite often is, accused of name dropping for the sake of it. But more often than not, the name dropping itself can have an effect on his reader. I got around to listening to Charlie Parker a lot earlier earlier that I might otherwise have because Clive, in a song lyric, Perfect Moments, cites Charlie Parker playing My Old Flame as a “perfect moment”. The challenge to this listener was to listen for himself to see whether this was indeed a perfect moment. It turns out that it’s probably not – comes close enough to being one for one to be convinced that probably is for someone.

That’s the way James works. He points you to something you may not have noticed before, says something interesting, arresting or challenging about and then gives the reader enough slack to find out for himself.

Extract from Julian Gough‘s  essay for the January 2009 issue of Prospect,

As Good as Heaney


Julian Gough

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….[link to full text]


Julian Gough is the author of Jude: Level One (Old Street Publishing). His blog is at http:// http://

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