“Nothing that is mere wordplay is ever witty,” says Clive James in today’s Grauniad. This statement is so profoundly wrong, one has to wonder if it is meant to be satire. To see how wrong it is, start by reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets, where mere wordplay produces some of the most clever wit in English. Finish by reading or watching pretty much any play by Tom Stoppard, or any episode of Seinfeld. What was James thinking?
Babyboomer friends have told me of James’ TV criticism in the Observer in the 1970s: compelling, literate and funny reading for the chattering classes of the time, apparently. As a member of Generation Jones, I was too young for that, and only saw his later TV shows, which I rarely found funny. The asides there I often found condescending (particularly of Americans or Japanese people) or were the lame jokes that teenagers often say their fathers make (although my own father, who loved the clever, word-play wit of G&S and the Marx Brothers and Damon Runyon and the Goons and Flanders & Swan and Dorothy Parker and Tom Lehrer and Peter Ustinov, never made them). James’ recently-started column in the Saturday Grauniad has continued the TV style, and is a great disappointment: full of railings against modern life and custom, and, IMHO, only rarely – and when so, only mildly – funny. What a pity James should leave us others with a final memory of himself as a grumpy curmudgeon.
And only a week or so ago, that other would-be Australian comic Dame Edna Everage unleashed another of her outlandish comic creations on the world, a rabid right-wing intellectual and commentator named Barry Humphries. With views so ridiculous he could only be fictional, he managed to offend most everyone. I still recall his diatribe in The Spectator a few years ago against the Australian Labor Party adopting the American spelling of “Labor”: apparently the British spelling had been good enough for the party when he were a lad. As the US spelling was adopted in 1912 (at the instigation of the American-born Cabinet minister, King O’Malley), the fictional Humphries must be older than Everage purports him to be.
PS: I have criticized James’ narrow, one-culture, hinterland before. Perhaps his ignorance of and lack of interest in science explains his climate change scepticism. Climate change denial, in my experience, is almost entirely a phenomenon of people over 60, yet another attempt by baby boomers to take from the rest of us.
PPS (added 2021-12-28): And here, to contradict James again, is word-play that is witty, clever, political and very very funny: Irish comedy trio Foil, Arms and Hog on their Jerry Springer version of the question, “Will Northern Ireland get back with Ireland?”. It impresses me immensely that young Irish and British people, like their generation across Europe, can satirize the political structures they have inherited so easily and so cleverly, and with such affable self-confidence. This is the crop which Father Ted has sown, and what a great advertisement it is for contemporary culture!