Archive for the ‘Pete Atkin’ Category

A Hill of Little Shoes by Coope Boyes and Simpson

July 10, 2010

Recently, the marvellous vocal trio, Coope, Boyes and Simpson, released their latest album As If, on which they have included their version of the Pete Atkin and Clive James song, A Hill of Little Shoes,  a moving account of what it feels like to consider that one has grown up at a time when the children of the holocaust never got a chance to.

This song, which was written in the last decade of the twentieth century and which I first heard on the Pete Atkin album Winter Spring  gives lie to the to those who suggest that a song written in the popular idiom is generally at a loss do full justice to serious subject matter of this kind.

This YouTube ( “with”, I was reminded by an interested party,  “the last verse edited off for some reason”), gives the listener a good idea of what can be achieved when the composers are in the business of being serious about what they write, as James and Atkin are  and have always been.


Clive James for Oxford Professor of Poetry? 3

July 19, 2009

In the latest issue of Standpoint, in an article he wrote while the suggestion that he might be willing to put himself forward for the post of Oxford Professor of Poetry, Clive James seems to be insisting he was not interested in the post.

 The suggestion that he was interested

… started happening a few days before the election, when I was being interviewed, nominally about my latest collection of essays, The Revolt of the Pendulum, a book I mention here because it wasn’t mentioned in the interview even once. My interviewer, Decca Aitkenhead of the Guardian, was charming, so when she asked me a question I did the thing I always do when asked a question by a charming woman. I opened my mouth to its full extent and put my foot in it up to the knee. The question was about the Oxford Poetry Professorship election debacle. “Would I like the job?” (Those might not have been her exact words, but that was the main thrust.) My answer (and these are far fewer than my exact words, but this is the thread) was: “I would love it, but not if I had to run in an election.” She used only the first bit — that I would love to have the job — and the Guardian editors flagged it as “Clive James throws his hat in the ring”. 

In reality, Clive James had already made it clear that he would rather throw himself off a cliff. But the thing had been said, the Australian papers had the story next day, a Spanish paper, bizarrely, had the story the day after that, and within a week my supposed candidature in the postponed election was being discussed, with at least two pundits in the British broadsheet weekend press allowing that I might not be a bad choice, in the absence of William McGonagall, E. J. Thribb or Baldur von von Schirach, the Nazi youth leader who wrote a terza rima encomium to Adolf Hitler.

But a Robert McCrum – a declared supporter of James for the post – shrewdly observes in today’s edition of The Observer, James has not gone so far as to rule himself out categorically.

And I do indeed find the Oxford Poetry Professorship just about the most attractive cup of its kind in existence. I would imagine that any poet who has spent his or her lifetime at the craft can only feel the same. The botched election might have made it a poisoned chalice, but what a chalice it is. You have only to think of the string of poets since the Second World War — Day Lewis, Auden, Graves, Blunden, Roy Fuller, John Wain, Heaney, Fenton, Muldoon — and think of how much you would have liked to hear them speak, summing up their knowledge, opening up whole fields of interest with the merest aside.

Having set out a very persuasive set of reasons for saying why the present system for choosing people for the post no longer works, and never really worked, James suggests that occupant should “agreed on by a panel of people whose chief concern is poetry, and who rank poets by their achievement and vocational wisdom”

How this board of experts should be constituted is beyond me. But before he was ever Oxford Professor, Seamus Heaney was a visiting professor at Harvard, an office to which he was not elected, but appointed, to the vast benefit of both Harvard and himself. So Harvard must know how to make a board system work. For the Oxford post, drafting all the surviving holders might not be a bad start, and then you could add in some critics and literary editors who know what they are talking about. Who those might be would itself be a matter of expert choice, so I can already see that there could be a welter of in-fighting and no clear course to a workable result. But we can be sure that the current system no longer works at all. Another election along the lines of the one we have just had will be a kamikaze convention, and we might as well have Ant and Dec presiding over the phone-in.

I myself have a a gut feeling that James himself would like to think he had a chance of being chosen by the kind of board he proposes, if not for his “achievement”, which he’s always had the good gracke to be modest about, the certainly for his “vocational wisdom” which I suspect he sees no good reason to be modest about.

Clive James’s big ego.

July 4, 2009

An anonymous writer for the Irish Independent, concluding his or her review, Clive James’ The Revolt of the Pendulum: Essays 2005-2008 (Picador, Stg£15.99) says that “we’ll forgive the ego and celebrate instead the insights and the elegance of one of the great prose writers of the age”.

It’s more or less what many of us have been doing for the last three or four decades.

Clive James for Oxford Professor of Poetry? 2a

July 2, 2009

In a recent posting, in which I discussed Clive James’s qualifications for the Oxford professor of poetry, I remarked that “if anybody has any doubt about  just how well James talks about poetry, then they should be  be on the lookout for the July issue of Poetry in which he discusses,  among other  topics, James Merrill,  free versus formal verse,  some of the things make poems last, and the work of the late Michael Donaghy, …”

This July issue of Poetry is now available from all good bookshops, and, if you can’t wait for the print version of James’s essay, The Necessary Minimum, the online version can be accessed from here.

Clive James for Oxford Professor of Poetry? 3

June 26, 2009

In a posting yesterday, I suggested a good reason for Clive James’s being elected vacant post of professor of poetry at Oxford. An article by Boyd Tonkin in today’s edition of The Independent reminds me that there are things which may well – and possibly rightly –work against his candidacy.  His coming from the cosiness of a ‘literary London’ that now appears to be as smug and self-satisfied as any part of the establishment it once pitted itself against

Tonkin quite rightly takes a swipe at this  ‘Literary London’,  this “idea of a quasi-masonic cabal of metropolitan taste-makers”, that James – against his better instincts, I think – helped to foster.

Fresh from Sydney and Cambridge, he began to contribute to The Review and The New Review. Those magazines, stringently edited by Ian Hamilton for 15 years after 1962, wrote a stylish valedictory chapter to the story of a cohesive “literary London”. Hamilton’s own hawk-eyed, hard-muscled poetry – which Craig Raine sketched as “the laconic lifting into lyric. Tight-lipped. Vulnerable. Irresistible” – has now been gathered by editor Alan Jenkins into an exemplary complete edition, with an incisive preface (Collected Poems; Faber, £14.99).

In scores of essays, as well as via the comic sidelights of his memoir North Face of Soho, James has kept faith with Hamilton’s model of the exacting editor-writer as incorruptible gate-keeper. This stern custodian of values would turn the key only for a few rigorously chosen newcomers (Amis, Barnes, Paulin, Raine and James among them).

One can hear that fond longing for a time when a tiny handful of tough-minded selectors laid down the law echo through James’s lastest entertaining harvest of articles and reviews, The Revolt of the Pendulum: essays 2005-2008 (Picador, £15.99). Near the end comes a tribute to the late agent Pat Kavanagh – very much Hamilton’s no-nonsense counterpart in her neck of the woods.

Revealingly, James comments that “the literary world in London is quite small and everyone knows everyone”. Sorry, Clive: it isn’t any longer, and they don’t. Shorn of fulcrum figures such as Hamilton, today’s messier map has multiple addresses, with some doors open wider than before. However noble the old arbiters, we should not mourn the change. “Literary London” is dead. Long live literature in London.

This brings up the question of whether or not one of the great apologists for the “old arbiters” is necessarily the right man for the Oxford professorship. Personally, I think he still is, but I’m very sure that I meet who’ll disagree.

Clive James for Oxford Professor of Poetry? 2

June 25, 2009

Nearly a month ago, while noting that The Observer’s literary editor said that his paper was supporting Clive James for Oxford Professor of Poetry, I remarked that, while James would not have been “among my choices of candidate the first time around”, I could “see that this time around he’s a very good one.”

It is rumoured that my near-contemporary and fellow-countryman, the Irish poet and scholar, Bernard O’Donoghue, now favours James for the post

“I’d like Clive James” the poet is reported as saying. “He’s a big name and he lectures very well. This post now needs a big name.” I’d be none too certain that I’d want to see James get the post because he’s a “big name”, but I do think that the fact that “he lectures very well” is something that is taken into account as a qualification.

If anybody has any doubt about  just how well James talks about poetry, then they should be  be on the lookout for the July issue of Poetry in which he discusses,  among other  topics, James Merrill,  free versus formal verse,  some of the things make poems last, and the work of the late Michael Donaghy, to whose simultaneously published The Shape of the Dance: Essays, Interviews and Digressions  and  Collected Poems, (Picador) he recently contributed a seven-page introduction which did for Donaghy what The Guardian called the “useful job of writing him back into the story of recent American poetry”.

Clive James – The Revolt of the Pendulum 5

June 12, 2009

In her review of The Revolt of the Pendulum for today’s Telegraph Lynn Barberwonders “why the distinguished polyglot Clive James blows his own trumpet so incessantly”

 Non altogether unexpectedly, this is just another version of a question that has been raising it’s head since the book was published.

 Why isn’t he more famous? Why isn’t he more adored? Why isn’t he still on television? Why doesn’t his website make any money? Why is he so neglected as a poet? (Why isn’t he Oxford Professor of Poetry?) Why aren’t his books displayed in the window of Sonia Rykiel’s shop in Paris the way Bernard-Henri Lévy’s are? These are just a few of the burning questions Clive James addresses in his latest book of essays. You would think, to hear him tell it, he was starving in a garret somewhere, still struggling to get his first slim volume published – the fact that this is his 30th book is testimony, if nothing else, to the rich rewards of logorrhoea.

Barber notices something about James’ craving for attention which, because I have been reading him so long, had escaped my attention.

He needs you to know that he is a polymath and a polyglot, because “we ought to expect from any critic a reading knowledge of the standard European languages”. And James can speak Japanese as well. He is truly a citizen of the world. When in Paris, he heads for a café in the rue de l’université to read Witold Gombrowicz. When in Buenos Aires to practise his tango, he likes to sit in a café in the Avenida Corrientes reading Sabato, Bioy Casares and Cortázar. (Me neither.) What he gets from these authors remains a mystery because he never tells us: it is enough that we should know that he has read them, and shake our pretty little heads. But what is the point of criticism that neither explains nor illuminates? It is name-dropping tout court.

It may look like “name-dropping tout court” now, but in the early days, when both James and his audience were a lot younger and had more time left to look forward to, it stood a challenge. The point then of “criticism that neither explains nor illuminates” was simply to get readers to imitate. To some extent, the reader who saw James’s reasons for liking the poetry of Yeats, Larkin, Auden, Heaney and all those poets James wrote well about in early essays did not have to be given reasons for his liking for Verlaine  or any of the many tout court names he dropped then. The reader took it on trust that if James, with his track record, found someone interesting enough to read, then that someone had written something worth reading.

What rankles with Barber nowadays – and it rankles with a lot of us of a certain age – is that we simply have not got the time left to read everything James has read and therefore, like Barber need to see on the page  ” what he gets from” reading Sabato,  Bioy Casares or Cortázar.  Otherwise mentioning them can indeed seem like name-dropping tout court.

What James needs is a firm editor who will tell him he is not allowed to write more than 2,000 words a week and even then he should think twice before publishing.

Stuff no longer posted to the Pete Atkin Web Form

Clive James – The Revolt of the Pendulum 4

June 9, 2009

In an review of Clive James’s Revolt of the Pendulum for a recent issue of The Spectator the literary editor of The Telegraph and omnipresent columnist, Sam Leith, agues that James, “starting to hear the guy with the scythe and the persistent cough”, has become overly concerned with just how he’ll be remembered

Leith offers the suggestion that he’ll “be remembered as a pompous, brilliant old thing with a big, prickly ego” which the reader could “see in the temperament of the man that gauche, ambitious child so lacerating evoked in his first volume of memoirs.”

 There is something in what Leith says. James has shown, over and over again, especially since he stepped away from television stardom, that he now is just as worried as some early admirers used to be that his entry into the world of televisionhis damaged his reputation as a serious man of letters. Much of what he has done in the last decade is designed to prove that he was still capable of work as good as, if not better than, that which he did in the early 70s when in the guise the “cosmopolitan critic” , and attempting to don the mantle great American critic, Edmund Wilson,  he was offering something that was as good as – and certainly altogether more entertaining than – that which was being produced by the establishment or the men and women of letters who worked ii academia.

I’d argue that while the years devoted to a television career did not do irreparable his damage, it in the end probably did mean that as a critic he achievement will fall sorth Wilson’s.

At this stage, one feels that Leith is right saying that James is spending too much time – his own, and, more annoyingly, ours,  worrying about all this. Readers must feel that the most appropriate response to all this obsessing about posterity, and its judgements, is so distracting as to be off-putting, especially to someone coming to James for the first time. Leith is rather good on where James’s strengths lie, where they have always lain.

James is a good hop and a skip ahead of most literary hacks in terms of stylistic verve and scholarship alike. If only he’d stop worrying about it and let other people say so……

He has a fantastic range and depth of know- ledge. He is, at times, miraculously funny. He writes knowledgeably and with passion about literature, and especially poetry. His opinions are his own — and he has cogent praise for Camille Paglia, John Bayley and Dennis Healey. His take-downs are decisive too. John Ashbery produces ‘an avalanche of verbal hamburger’. Elias Canetti is ‘a posturing snob’. Of Carl Sandburg: ‘His prose was bad poetry, like his poetry.’

He knows about classical music, show-tunes and pop. He knows about politics and history. He’s fierce in the defence of, and humble in his identification with, what he calls ‘the liberal democratic mentality’: ‘the ideas constituting that mentality were hard won by people who paid a higher price to hold them than I ever did’

What Leith does not say is that James has always had one damaging weakness, and that is a craving to be recognized as a star in whatever field he enters. His early literary efforts were, as Karl Miller once observed cabaret turns, as were his TV columns for The Observer, as again were most of his appearances on television, and what he he now wants is that his life work to be remembered as one big star turn. For him, in the end, it not just enough to be taken seriously, as he is; he has to be recognised as a star turns of seriousness.

Stuff no longer posted to the Pete Atkin Web Form

Clive James – The Revolt of the Pendulum 3

June 7, 2009

Writing in today’ edition of The Observer about finds that at the heart of Clive James’s newly published collection of essays The Revolt of the Pendulum there is a  “civil war between cultivation and blokeishness inside Clive James, the inner aesthete and the inner mocker.”

High and low are deployed ……in a piece about genre fiction called “The Guidebook Detectives”. It starts from the notion that, if you’ve spent a couple of years being unable to get past the opening chapter of a Henry James novel, say The Wings of the Dove, then the sheer enjoyability of crime thrillers is a powerful draw. Yes, they’re contrived, but so is The Wings of the Dove and genre novelists have to deliver in a way James doesn’t. (Clive) James surveys a dozen or so past and current practitioners of the detective novel, awarding points, noticing as he goes that a touristic location gives the writer a head start. He recommends a particular book by Andrea Camilleri, singles out Gene Kerrigan as possessing real literary talent and seems to have been converted by another writer – “There will be another Donna Leon out imminently, but meanwhile, in our house, everyone is lining up to read the last one.” Then he pulls the rug from under the reader by announcing that such books are “written to be forgotten”. It turns out that The Wings of the Dove wins the contest after all, since the real adventure (“less gripping but far more memorable”) is waiting to resume on page 14 and “the mysterious dead body that really matters will one day be ours”.

My own response to this observation is that if that civil war were not there – and had not been there from the outset – then James’s writing would probably never be as interesting as it is. It has occurred to me that James’s writing appears to readers who may be just inwardly conflicted as he is, people who, for example, enjoy reading crime fiction, while knowing full well that it is not as good for the soul are reading Henry James. But they, like James,  may also know that reading crime fiction that is good is of the best is, when it comes down to it, better than reading tosh or not reading at all.

Stuff no longer posted to the Pete Atkin Web Form

Julie Kavanagh’s & Martin’s Friends.

June 4, 2009

The most tedious read of this week, or of any other week, is Julie Kavanagh’s “consensual kiss-and-tell” account, in an article for quarterly magazine Intelligent Life, of the years she spent with the novelist Martin Amis during the 1970s.

 Kavanagh may be a fine biographer – Simon Callow, that multi-fcated man of the theatre, thought her 2007 biography of  Rudolph Nureyev magnificent – and she may be an equally fine magazine editor –she has in her time been London Editor of Women’s Wear Daily and W., Arts Editor of Harpers & Queen, and London Editor for Vanity Fair – but a autobiographer she is not. If one can judge from this shownin, she’s just about up there with those many poor souls who bear their souls  to the Agony columns newspapers on a daily basis.

Kavanagh visited Amis this April in Primrose Hill,  just a week before he finished his new novel, The Pregnant Widow, to discuss her article. Her description runs thus:

It could have been so awkward, the experience of revisiting our past for what I suppose is basically a consensual kiss-and-tell. It certainly felt strange to be applying biographical techniques to my own life, questioning my ex-lover about events and chronology, and it was disorientating—yet also reassuring—to see glimpses of the young man I’d loved in the manners and expressions of a near-sexagenarian. But we swiftly fell into an easy, jokey rapport; there seemed no limit to what I could ask him or what he could reveal to me. We could even laugh now about the histrionic full-stop in the note I wrote after we’d broken up: “I’ll never forgive you. Ever.” It was indelible to him, completely forgotten by me. This proved an extraordinary couple of hours in which I learnt things I’d never known, or simply not retained.  He even remembered the book I was reading that first summer in Spain. It was his father’s novel “Girl 20”, which has one of the most heart-rending last lines in fiction: “We’re all free now.” “You were about ten pages from the end, and I looked up and saw that your face was a mask of tears.”

 A this stage, if not before, the reader has begun to ask himself  why he reading this stuff reading this stuff?  The answer has to be that her affair with Amis brought into contact with a group of man who were making a big splash on the London literary scene of the time. The reader expects that Kavanagh , as one of the few women who had an insiders view of how this group worked, might offer the reader some new insights into the group dynamic, if there was such a thing.  The reader might expect that, but the reader does not get it. What the reader gets is a lot less illuminaging.

 What regularly gathered the so-called literary mafia together were the lunches which took place most Fridays at a Turkish-Cypriot joint on Theobalds Road. These were almost exclusively male occasions, but I was tolerated from time to time either because I was Martin’s moll, or because of my flattering sponging-up of every word.


“The glue of those Friday lunches was everyone’s adoration of Martin,” says James Fenton, the poet, theatre critic and foreign correspondent, who was another participant. Hitch agrees. “He was the conversation, he was the charisma.” But Clive James was always a stellar performer, and so was Kingsley, an occasional guest of honour. Julian Barnes, later to be my brother-in-law, was noticeably more reticent, though he added a note of gravitas, as did the other, less extrovert regulars Dai [Russell] Davies, the critic and jazz musician, and Terry Kilmartin, the Observer’s literary editor. “We needed them there,” says Hitch. “We couldn’t just have shown off to each other.”

 What we have in the end is  a cut and paste job put together by a profile writer who has little more to offer than a few thousand words that will be forgotten almost as soon as they are read.  Clive James the “stellar performer”, Julian Barnes adding the “note of gravitas”. James Fenton’s “adoration of Martin”  may qualify with readers of Harpers & Queen as insights, but they do nothing for the reader who is seriously trying to study these men and their work. In the end, what we have is namedropping, that is in atself rather sloppy. Can the general reader be really expected to know that Dai [Russell] Davies is now a respected broadcaster for Radio 2. Kavanagh, presumably in her anxiety to get as many names in as possible, presumes that he can.  Should the reader be bothered that he does not know? The answere has to be a resounding no. Kavanagh tell him so little that is new about the people he knows – or thinks he knows – that it’s unlikely she would tell him anything worth knowing about the ones he does not know.