Clive James (1939-2019) has just died. He was a poet, novelist, writer, TV critic and TV showman famous as a wit and a humorist, although I never found him to be very funny. Strangely, not actually being funny is apparently not a barrier to acquiring a reputation as a comic writer, as the careers of Howard Jacobson and Saul Bellow demonstrate. Jacobson, an Honorary Life Member of the UK branch of the Expatriate Australian Mutual Admiration Society, praises his fellow Society member in today’s Grauniad.
Rather than being funny, I always found James’ writing and spoken words insufferably smug and condescending. His TV specials and celebrity interview shows were invariably based on ridiculing people from different cultures or with beliefs he considered inferior to his own, such as Japanese consumers or American religious believers. Even his writerly ratting on his friends included ridicule, as in his account of his friendship with Princess Diana, published after her death. I wonder if he realized that this traitorous account marked him out as someone whom it would be unwise to trust with friendship.
True, James was well-read, but not nearly as well-read as he thought he was. His book of short intellectual profiles, Cultural Amnesia, contained 126 brief and erudite snapshots of influential thinkers, of whom 124 were writers, 1 was a musician and 1 a film-maker. Not a scientist, a mathematician, an engineer, or a visual artist (apart from that film-maker) anywhere to be seen. Evidently, he could only think in words and not by any other means, something which is rather odd for a person whose fame was made with TV. The cognitive provincialism of this book echoes the cultural provincialism of his compilations of Japanese advertisements. Indeed, James’ most famous poem, “Japanese Maple”, talks about the visual beauty of the tree with barely any description of it; only the future colour of the tree is anticipated, with the one word “flame”. This is not a poetry strong in images.
James could string two words together, but numbers were something else. His last act was to become, like many people of his age-group have done, a strident climate-change denier. There is an Australian slang expression that catches his smugness and selfishness well: “I’m alright, Jack.” This smug child of the Sydney Push, when push came to shove, showed he was willing to shove all of us younger than himself into the bush fires of global warming.