A One-Man Writers′ Festival

Because he’s consistently collected his journalism and reviews in book form over a long career, Clive James can boast a large oeuvre. Yet, if it is large, it is also broad, extending into the higher literary genres of memoir, fiction and poetry. Throw in his fame as a TV performer and he is, in effect, a one-man writers’ festival. At the 2003 Mildura Writers’ Festival, he was even awarded the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal for his literary excellence.

What has become clearer in recent years, though, is how much poetry matters to James, and how central it is to his literary identity. In 2007, the Monthly published his essay, ‘The Velvet Shackles of a Reputation’, in which he complained: ‘Speaking as one whose name, for a long time, was all too recognisable from every activity except the one that mattered to me most, I can only wonder, looking back, if my name as a poet might not have made quicker progress had I been less notorious for the other things.’ James has certainly been putting more effort into poetry over the past decade. Seventeen years elapsed between two of his collections, Other Passports in 1986 and The Book of My Enemy in 2003. Since then, however, he’s been busy: 2009 saw not only Angels Over Elsinore: Collected Verse 2003–2008, but also Opal Sunset: Selected Poems 1958–2008. This sudden upsurge has been shadowed by a generous selection of poems on his website CliveJames.com, which he describes as ‘a vanity press the size of a space station’.1

A further sign of just how much poetry matters to James is his description of the Philip Hodgins Medal as ‘the biggest single honour with which an Australian writer can be graced’ and ‘Australia’s premier award for poetry’.2 To suggest that a regional literary award is the nation’s ‘biggest single honour’ is, to say the least, arguable; to claim that it represents the ‘premier award for poetry’, simply wrong. There is no single ‘premier’ poetry prize in this country; in any case, the Hodgins Medal is by no means restricted to poets: in 2010 it went to Don Watson. The award and James’ misapprehension of its significance mark a late transition in his career, from media tart to man of letters.

Despite the upswing in his literary reputation, it’s primarily as a television host that James remains best known in Australia. In 1994, he was described in a coffee-table book on British TV as ‘perhaps the busiest man on television’.3 Many Australians have read his Unreliable Memoirs, but that’s largely a function of his status as a media personality rather than as a critic, let alone a poet. At the 2007 Melbourne Writers’ Festival, where he was the keynote speaker, James agreed with his interviewer Craig Sherborne’s suggestion that he ‘might still be considered by some as primarily an “entertainer”’,4 and went on to infer that this might be why he had never been invited to the Sydney Writers’ Festival. James was in Melbourne to spruik his magnum opus, Cultural Amnesia: a brick-thick collection of meditations on the meaning of liberal humanism, refracted through a series of biographical entries on the author’s favourite heroes and villains from, in the main, twentieth-century politics, art and ideas.

Cultural Amnesia is symptomatic of James’ uneasy position between elite and mass cultures, at once a mark of his ambitions as a thinker and the limitations of his thought. As a book he claims took him forty years to write,5 and with the subtitle of Notes in the Margin of My Time, it clearly aims high. Yet it’s more an exercise in James’ mastery of the clever segue, a digressive set of riffs on the themes of humanism and democracy. James confesses that the book, ‘if it were going to be true to the pattern of my experience, would have no pattern’; and, in fact, there is no clear line of argument but rather a series of asides, or ‘notes in the margin’, as he calls them. ‘This might be the only serious book’, he writes, ‘to explore the relationship between Hitler’s campaign on the eastern front and Richard Burton’s pageboy hairstyle in Where Eagles Dare.’ Such free-wheeling eclecticism permits him to archly primp himself as ‘a premature post-modernist’, while at the same time rejecting postmodernism’s theoretical and institutional bases as a treason of the clerks.

For cultural studies is one of the villains of Cultural Amnesia, with both Walter Benjamin and Edward Said, for example, copping sharp backhanders from James for helping to invent it. Moreover, James risibly conflates academics who ‘preach’ what he calls ‘obscurantist doctrine in our universities’ with those ‘[p]rocrustean enemies of our provokingly multifarious free society … [who] fly our own airliners into towers of commerce’. Christopher Tayler in the London Review of Books recently described James’ political views as ‘roughly speaking, those of a Cold War liberal with a monarchist bent and a marked receptivity to right-wing talking points’.6 Evidently ‘postmodernism’, amorphously construed, offers him one such talking point, and it means that James can ironically claim to be a postmodernist avant la lettre while stepping back from engagement with the more important critical thought about it.

I’m less interested in James’ recent bid to establish himself as a major cultural critic than I am in his equally recent ambition to establish himself as a major poet, notably via his website CliveJames.com. But it strikes me that the two career moves are not unrelated – not least because they postdate James’ retirement from television, when he’s had time to hone the intellectual and artistic aspects of his CV. The forty years of wisdom supposedly distilled into Cultural Amnesia is echoed in James’ lifelong calling as a poet. And it is poetry, James asserts, that is the raison d’être for his website. A man who is unusually fond of prefaces, he introduces the poetry portal of CliveJames.com by stating: ‘the individual poem, whether by me or someone else, is the driving force of this section and indeed of the entire site. The site is a saturated solution. The poem is the speck that makes the whole thing crystallise.’

CliveJames.com began in 2005 when James was able to buy back the domain name from a web pirate who had registered it, and he says that it has ‘become the focus of [his] later life’, allowing all his various writings to ‘[happen] in the one place’.8 It’s become, therefore, not only a repository for his essays and poetry, but also for some more recent TV and audio work – notably videos of his Talking in the Library interviews. As well, CliveJames.com offers samples from the work of other writers and artists, past and present. Among the ‘guest poets’ are Australians Stephen Edgar, Judith Beveridge, Peter Goldsworthy, Les Murray and Peter Porter. James’ own poetry page contains over eighty of his poems, more than enough for a book.

CliveJames.com is simultaneously an archive for James’ past work and a launching pad for his late-blooming career as a poet. The preface to his own poetry portal refers to it as a ‘new, post-Gutenberg, post-everything, system of publication’. Yet James doesn’t write digital poetry, or experiment with the multimedia possibilities of the internet. Besides being largely traditional in form, his verse remains steadfastly page-based.

In another preface, to Opal Sunset, James says, ‘Nearing old age now, I have put in enough unpaid time at this activity to prove that the title of poet is one that I might claim, if it is permissible to do other things and still claim it’. This false modesty takes for granted the looming bulk of those ‘other things’, notably what he later calls ‘the poisonously long half-life of television celebrity’.9 It’s as if James can’t talk about his poetry without reminding us that he was once a TV star.

James’ two degrees, from the Universities of Sydney and Cambridge, along with his poetic ambitions credentialled him as a literary journalist for the Times Literary Supplement and Ian Hamilton’s New Review; but the journals that mainly supported him, like the Listener and the Observer, were refocusing their review sections to take more account of television. Enter James, fresh from tossing off comic sketches for the Cambridge Footlights troupe. ‘He was employed to be funny and in a sense it just happened that his chosen peg was television,’ wrote Mark Poole in 1984: ‘James wrote about television as if he were indeed writing about something else. And the something else was, of course, our old friend literary culture.’10

For all his high cultural allegiances, James has long been fascinated by celebrity – his own as much as anyone else’s. His first book of serious verse was called Fan-mail (1977), a series of verse letters, the first of which, to broadcaster Russell Davies, skites about James’ appearance in the 1974 film Barry McKenzie Holds His Own, directed by another friend, Bruce Beresford. Poems published in later years name-drop famous actors and sportspeople – ‘Last Night the Sea Dreamed It Was Greta Scacchi’, ‘Bring Me the Sweat of Gabriela Sabatini’ – and he likes to elegise better-known poets: WH Auden, Philip Larkin, Ian Hamilton, Peter Porter.

Those who can remember Clive James on Television or Saturday Night Clive, with their highlights from the extreme Japanese game show Endurance, have possibly forgotten – as I did – that in 1993 James also presented a starstruck documentary series called Fame in the 20th Century. It’s not surprising that James should have chosen fame as his focus; what is surprising is how little he has to say about it. There have always been famous people, he argues, only the rise of the mass media has made more people famous more often. And that’s about it. There’s no sustained analysis of media history to describe how new technologies, evolving power blocs and changing audiences combined to generate a burgeoning celebrity culture. Instead, James offers a series of biographical remarks and anecdotes, where once again witty segues craftily substitute for an argument. The following extract from the end of chapter five of the book tie-in is typical:

On screen, politics and show business were merging. Behind the scenes they had merged. Men with career management as a career, men who dreamed dreams beyond the ken of Colonel Tom Parker, were already working on a fascinating proposition. If Nixon was Presidential material, what could be done by, what could be done with, a man with the right war record, the right wife, the right voice – the right face?11

By what means did this ‘merging’ occur? Who, precisely, were these ‘men who dreamed dreams’? The seemingly bold link between Elvis Presley and JFK would be interesting if James had more to say about it, but he doesn’t.

James’ attitude to his own celebrity can best be measured by his ever-unfolding autobiography, especially the first volume, Unreliable Memoirs (1980), which established his wider literary reputation. In Unreliable Memoirs, the narrative voice sits at an ironic remove from the narrated earlier self, which is depicted in less than flattering terms, making the book more like a comic novel than a Künstlerroman. So that James, already a metropolitan critic writing for the best British journals, humorously describes the career of a gormless young Clive growing up in the Australian suburbs and eventually departing for Europe where, as the subsequent volumes show, it will be some time before his gormlessness wears off.

Here comparison with another James – James Joyce – may be appropriate. In his book Modernism and the Culture of Celebrity, Aaron Jaffe describes two standard readings of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: as either a more-or-less celebratory account of the green yet talented novelist-to-be – a classic Künstlerroman – or as a satire on the pretensions of an artist-manqué. Both versions of the novel’s protagonist, ‘the genuine Stephen’ and ‘the ironic Stephen’, have an implicit awareness of the imprimatur of Joyce as authoritative modernist genius, who stands outside the text in a relationship of celebrity to it, as a guarantor of meaning. In other words, the fact of the author’s fame predictably influences how one reads Portrait. Referring to the ironic interpretation, Jaffe writes that ‘the certitude that Joyce is an exemplary artistic consciousness rests on the likely possibility that artistic consciousness as manifest in Stephen may be half-baked’.12

Though Joyce may be Hyperion to James’ satyr, something like this is at work in Unreliable Memoirs. Here, too, the author, already by 1980 a minor celebrity in the UK, sits at a suitably ironic distance half a world away from that half-baked suburban neophyte, the kid from Kogarah. And that distance also paradoxically guarantees the ultimate reliability of Unreliable Memoirs. It’s as though James’ autobiography is written under an extended form of litotes that insists I’m not as stupid as I look – or, more precisely, I’m not as stupid as I look as an Australian.

The value of the James Joyce brand is its exclusivity, marketed through a small collection of fictional masterworks that circulate predominantly through the academy. The value of the Clive James trademark, on the other hand, is its witty garrulousness across virtually every genre, in virtually every medium, over forty years, from the hot metal press, to the TV screen, to the internet. Compared to Joyce’s narrow modernist career, well might James style himself ‘a premature post-modernist’. But the oscillations between popular culture and high art mostly settle in an old-fashioned bandwidth more accurately described as ‘middlebrow’ than postmodern. His verse is no exception.

James’ muse was initially handmaiden to his fame. Early on he was able to attract wider attention as a poet with satirical mock-epics like Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage Through the London Literary World (1976) and Charles Charming’s Challenges on the Pathway to the Throne (1981): works which confirmed his ease of movement within the British literary establishment, but which he says ‘typecast’ him ‘as a kind of performance poet’.13 Because he was humorous, James was doomed to be treated as a light versifier, his status compounded by such crowd pleasers as ‘The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered’. One American reviewer even used James’ poetry to describe his criticism: the Australian was ‘a light verse critic, if “light” may suggest agility and deftness rather than shallowness’.14 More recently, the New York Times called James ‘a comic public intellectual’.15

I’m well aware of how humour and apparent lightness can be a problem for a poet’s reputation. Two decades ago I edited the work of Ronald McCuaig, who had been the last of the Bulletin’s court bards throughout the 1950s, each week producing witty and often technically complex topical verse. McCuaig’s serious poetry combines humour with pathos, and an exquisite sense of form; but he’d been deeply wounded by the reception of his collected poems, The Ballad of Bloodthirsty Bessie (1961), which, because it contained a fair selection of his best light verse (including the title poem), some reviewers treated as slight and of no account. If, as a poet, Ron McCuaig had become a captive of the medium he served, the same is true with bells on for Clive James who, in Dylan Thomas’ phrase, has been singing in his chains like the sea ever since his first encounter with a British teleprompter.

James’ determination to push so much of his writing in the direction of a quip leads Guy Rundle to complain about the ‘awfulness’ of his poetry: ‘he’s a gag writer and whatever lightning-strike gave him that skill simultaneously foreclosed the capacity to do something else. The more he strains to take the world seriously … the more awful the result.’16 Yet it’s not the earnestness of so many of James’ poems that disables them – the humorous ones are just as likely to fall down – rather, it’s a problem of balance, of tone: a quality the poet says he values highly, at least in his prose. Speaking of his early journalism in North Face of Soho, his fourth volume of memoirs, James writes: ‘As any Grand Prix driver will tell you, the car’s straight-line speed is only part of what matters: everything else depends on control. For a writer, the control is tone control. Without that, your force of expression will pull your prose to bits, leaving it wrecked by its own impetus.’17 It’s a lesson that James too often forgets in his verse.

The problem of tone is evident when James parades his Australianness; for instance, in the title he chose for his recent selected poems, Opal Sunset, which sounds like the sort of colour someone in Noosa would choose for their feature wall. It might work for James’ main audiences in the UK and America, but context is everything, and in Australia it sounds touristy and twee, the work of a thinking person’s Bazza McKenzie. Making it even more twee is its source in a poem called ‘Go Back to the Opal Sunset’, which eroticises hometown Sydney:

Your tender nose anointed with zinc cream,
A sight for sore eyes will be brought to you.
Bottoms bisected by a piece of string
Will wobble through the heat-haze like a dream
That summer afternoon you go back to
The opal sunset, and it’s all as true
As sandfly bite or jelly-blubber sting.18

Framed by comic images of a zincked nose and beach nasties, James’ bikinied backsides lose whatever erotic charge they might have had through that faintly surgical verb ‘bisected’, becoming meat-like, so many lumps of rolled silverside.

As this extract implies, James is not good with women, or with sex. If the reader cares to look, there are many examples among the poems on his website – from ‘The Buzz’ (‘A girl bright as an egret’s wing/Will cleave unto an oaf and see perfection’) to ‘The Australian Suicide Bomber’s Heavenly Reward’ (read it and repent) – but for a specimen of profound tone-deafness, seek no further than ‘Message from the Moon’:

Ming fruit dish, swirling Jackson Pollock tondo
From Wedgwood, just because you’re so much bigger
Than I am, don’t you lord it over me,
The frail outrigger for your fat canoe.
My seas are dead but I control your tides
And stir your women on a monthly basis
To their blood sacrifice. It isn’t you
That liquefies them for their absent lovers,
Churns their insides, puts highlights in their faces
On hot nights where the sun no longer lingers.
With my lost air to breathe they lie bereft,
Touching themselves for hours beneath thin covers
As I lean down to them and pull them open
Like little oceans I can close at will.19

The opening images of the earth are self-consciously clever rather than instrumental to any pattern of imagery. In particular, ‘tondo’ is sufficiently obscure as to represent a kind of trophy word: it’s there purely for display. But the main business of the poem is to celebrate the traditional association of femaleness with the moon. James goes on to imagine women variously ‘[liquefied] … for their absent lovers’ or ‘touching themselves for hours beneath thin covers’. And because they’re completely at the mercy of a monthly, ‘lunar’ cycle, it appears that women are never sexually satisfied, ‘little oceans’ that the moon can open and close at will.

We might expect this light-hearted, dead-handed tosh from the smirking public man who used to be on TV, yet James also aspires to the grand style: call it his ‘AD Hope mode’. Here, consistent failures of tonal balance are aggravated by prolixity. In ‘Statement from the Secretary of Defense’ he expatiates on Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous newspeak about ‘known unknowns’ (itself a kind of ghastly poem) across nine clumsy stanzas until the satire loses shape, ending lamely:

So leave no room for doubt: now that we know
We might have known we didn’t know, let’s keep
Our heads. Give history time, and time will show
How flags wash clean, and eagles cease to weep.

‘How flags wash clean’ is pretty good, but spoiled by the addition of those sentimental eagles.

One of James’ elegies, ‘State Funeral’, in memory of the athlete Shirley Strickland, confuses its registers by falling for topicality while aiming for tribute. The poem begins by celebrating Strickland’s intellectual as well as her physical achievements, but bizarrely builds from these to sermonise on the evils of drugs in sport:

Her seven medals in three separate Games
Should have been eight, but she retired content.
In time she sold the lot to feed the flames
Of her concern for the Environment.

Civic responsibility: but one
Kind of pollution lay outside her scope
To counteract. The races she had run
Were won now by sad cyborgs fuelled with dope.

And so on, about how ‘The bad bottle was uncorked’, for another six verses until James belatedly returns to his subject in the third last stanza. He then concludes:

She did it unassisted, win or lose.
The world she did it in died by degrees

While she looked on. Now she is spared the sight
At last. The bobby-dazzler won’t be back,
Who ran for love and jumped for sheer delight
In a better life and on a different track –

We have too much if she is what we lack.

That last line might itself qualify as a known unknown.

In his long career James has successfully ridden the waves of media change. When he entered British journalism in the 1970s, it was during a period of upheaval that climaxed in 1986 when Rupert Murdoch moved his News International papers to Wapping, breaking the power of the print unions and signalling the end of old Fleet Street. By then James was a TV regular in The Late Clive James, and appearing in specials such as Clive James Meets Katharine Hepburn and Clive James at the Playboy Mansion. By then, too, he’d begun to establish his more solid reputation as memoirist, novelist and poet but, because he so shamelessly courted popularity, this bid for literary fame has continually lagged behind James’ media celebrity. So that, apart from his memoirs, where the narrative of that celebrity provides the key source of interest, his reputation as a serious littérateur remains patchy. Still, his poetry sells – he’s boasted that The Book of My Enemy ‘ran through five printings in its first year’20 – and when it doesn’t, there’s now CliveJames.com to memorialise it.

At the end of an insightful piece on Hollywood actor Tony Curtis in Cultural Amnesia, James writes that, ‘Like the eloquent man who gets no points for the poetry he writes because he talks well anyway, Curtis was always downrated for his accomplishment because of his screen presence’.21 In terms of screen presence and sheer charisma, James was never a match for Tony Curtis, but in his choice of simile one detects a sympathetic wound. James is himself the eloquent man who gets no points for the poetry he writes because he talks well anyway. It’s just that in James’ case one sometimes wishes he would talk a little less often – particularly about himself.

  1. Clive James, ‘The Velvet Shackles of a Reputation’, Monthly, no. 26, August 2007, pp. 60–61.
  2. Clive James, ‘The Meaning of Recognition’, The Meaning of Recognition: New Essays 2001–2005, Picador, London, 2005, p. 1; ‘Brief Biography’, Clive James.com, www.clivejames.com/author/bio, accessed 21 December 2010.
  3. Tise Vahimagi, British Television: An Illustrated Guide, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1994, p. 275.
  4. Matt Buchanan, ‘James at a Loss Over Sydney’s Lack of Love’, Sydney Morning Herald, 27 August 2007, www.smh.com.au/news/books/james-at-a-loss-over-sydneys-lack-of-love/2007/08/26/1188066937939.html#, accessed 21 December 2010.
  5. Clive James, Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of My Time, Picador, London, 2008.
  6. Christopher Tayler, ‘Roth, Pinter, Berlin and Me’, London Review of Books, 11 March 2010, p. 24.
  7. Clive James, ‘Poetry’, Clive James.com, www.clivejames.com/poetry/, accessed 21 December 2010.
  8. Clive James, ‘Clive James: My Gateway to Infinity’, Sunday Times, 16 May 2008, www.technology.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/tech_and_web/article3939484.ece, accessed 21 December 2010.
  9. Clive James, Introduction, Opal Sunset: Selected Poems 1958–2008, Picador, London, 2008, p. xxii.
  10. Mike Poole, ‘The Cult of the Generalist: British Television Criticism 1936–83’, Screen, vol. 25, no. 2, 1984, p. 55.
  11. Clive James, Fame in the 20th Century, BBC Books, London, 1993, p. 162.
  12. Aaron Jaffe, Modernism and the Culture of Celebrity, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005, pp. 34, 36.
  13. Clive James, ‘Velvet Shackles’, p. 60.
  14. William H Pritchard, ‘Criticism as Literature’, Hudson Review, vol. 34, no.1, 1981, p. 117.
  15. Liesl Schillinger, ‘What Kind of Car Is a Ford Madox Ford?’, New York Times: Sunday Book Review, 8 April 2007, www.nytimes.com/2007/04/08/books/review/Schillinger.t.html, accessed 21 December 2010.
  16. Guy Rundle, ‘On the Awfulness of Clive James’, Crikey, 5 August 2009, www.crikey.com.au/2009/08/05/rundle-on-the-awfulness-of-clive-james/, accessed 21 December 2010.
  17. Clive James, North Face of Soho, Picador, London, 2006, p. 169.
  18. Clive James, Opal Sunset, p. 47.
  19. This and all further poems available at ‘Poems by Clive James’, CliveJames.com, www.clivejames.com/poems.
  20. Clive James, ‘Velvet Shackles’, p. 61.
  21. Clive James, Cultural Amnesia, p. 153.

Peter Kirkpatrick teaches Australian Literature in the English Department of the University of Sydney. He is the author of The Sea Coast of Bohemia: Literary Life in Sydney’s Roaring Twenties and co-editor, with Fran de Groen, of Serious Frolic: Essays on Australian Humour.
© Peter Kirkpatrick
Overland 204-spring 2011, pp. 55–62

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