Every Sunday morning during two memorably awful years for me in the mid-’70s, I found relief by riding the top deck of a London bus for as long as it took to memorize Clive James’ weekly television column in The Observer. Back home I’d howl on the phone with friends as we repeated James’ funniest lines over and over in what we fondly imagined to be dead-on imitations of his Australian twang.
By the early ’80s, when James’ greatest hits had been collected in the wonderful The Crystal Bucket and, along with some choice literary criticism, in First Reactions, I had moved to this country and begun writing television criticism myself at the Boston Phoenix — largely as a way of not writing my doctoral dissertation. As best I could, I plundered the elegant, unmannered prose in which James affectionately goosed American pop and British trash, skewered BBC bombast, and admired the best in all three. Here he is, watching a prenuptial interview with Princess Anne and her amiable dim bulb of a first fiancé, Captain Mark Phillips: “Much more inhibiting was the problem of impersonal speech: second nature to Anne, it was as yet an obstacle to Mark, who still had to grasp the principle that the whole art of making oneself understood when one is confining oneself to the one pronoun is just to bash on regardless even when one’s ones threaten to overwhelm one.”
Moving on to American aristocracy, James, a devoted fan of Dallas, bows low before Charlene Tilton’s Lucy (“a neckless blonde sex grenade”) but socks it to Alexander Haig for wanton crucifixion of the English language. “General Haig squared his jaw and talked of the restructured multi-capable inter-parity situation of the SALT ceiling. Robin [the interviewer] adjusted his glasses and rephrased his question. General Haig squared his jaw even further and rephrased his answer, talking of how the shortfall in assessment of the balanced triad necessitated that he participate in the evolution of viable agreement postures. Apart from hitting General Haig in the face with a custard pie, there wasn’t a lot Robin could do except plough on.” James is a master of the art of strategic quoting in order to let subjects hang themselves. But it is entirely characteristic of him that, having gleefully taken the piss out of Henry Kissinger’s accent (“‘With all due respecd, I think your whole line of questioning is maging a moggery of whad wend on in Indo-China’”), he went on to give serious consideration to Kissinger’s defense of U.S. policy in Cambodia.
At once erudite and accessible, James’ television column was widely read across the British age and class structure. Still, I think it’s fair to say that his sensibility — literate and democratic, laced with an irreverent bullshit detector — spoke most eloquently to those of my English generation who came from working- or middle-class families, who had grown up on movies and television and pop music, but who, thanks to post–World War II Labourite educational reforms, had penetrated elite universities hitherto reserved for the rich or blue of blood. James himself, a lower-middle-class boy who, having decamped in the early ’60s to England along with fellow Aussies Germaine Greer and Dame Edna (Robert Hughes opted for New York), went to Cambridge, then joined the glittering ranks of the London literary mafia that, then and now, includes his friends Martin Amis and Julian Barnes, and, until his recent defection to Manhattan, Salman Rushdie.
By his own account, James is a dedicated hobnobber among the glitterati. Yet even — perhaps especially — among this etherized crew, James stands out for his staggering versatility. At 63, he’s barely slowing down in a career as a literary critic (The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement are his favorite venues), a poet, novelist, endlessly reprinted memoirist, and, lately, Web-site operator and, with his Cambridge buddy Pete Atkin, songwriter and performer. He’s also enjoyed a thriving, if wildly uneven, career as a television personality in his own right. With his bald pate, feral grin and corpulent build, James is enchantingly untelegenic — no amount of fancy tailoring will make him look less like a cross between Oliver Cromwell and a cannonball — but the Brits have never required their media stars to be good-looking, so long as they’re dependably funny and smart. James is both, and also almost unbearably well-read. One wonders when he sleeps.
In As of This Writing, a new essay collection spanning more than three decades of writing about poetry, fiction and literature, culture and the visual arts (no television criticism, alas — he chucked it in when he became a TV star in his own right), James unveils a few of his intellectual heroes, who include several Americans: Edmund Wilson, for his “sheer range of critical occupation”; James Agee, for “the referential lushness of his intelligence, when he allowed it to run wild” and his “versatility in an age that doesn’t understand versatility”; Mark Twain, “whose colloquial verve gave me support for writing about serious art in a conversational manner, and about unserious art as if it counted.” When he writes with equal verve about Judith Krantz, Primo Levi, John le Carré, George Orwell and Peter Bogdanovich, when he is unpersuaded by Robert Lowell and admiring of the Australian poet Les Murray, when he is hard on Gore Vidal, Susan Sontag and Lillian Hellman while lauding Greer, James is not trying to level the cultural field. He’s taking the measure of the cultural and political terrain of the 20th century, and parsing it as a skeptical, tough-minded humanist who’s alternately amused and saddened by the hash it has made of civilization, an idea he loves.
For as long as he’s been writing, James has maintained a steady tone of moral outrage about totalitarianism in general and the Holocaust in particular (this collection has three related pieces, including a spirited vivisection of Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners), which is unusual for a non-Jew writing in a country whose hatred for “Gerry” was predicated less on what the Germans did to the Jews than on the German threat to England’s view of itself as top nation. James is resolutely un-trendy, heaping scorn on dogma of the right and the left, and excoriating the complacency of the “free society” even as he defends Western democracy to the hilt. As of This Writing is prefaced by a quote from the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut: “Barbarism is not the prehistory of humanity but the faithful shadow that accompanies its every step.”
James is one of the last truly independent intellectuals who operate, as he puts it with becoming immodesty, “in the vital space between the hack reviewers of the periodicals and the dust contractors of the universities.” If he was cutting-edge in the 1970s, he remains today a brilliant antidote to both the high-culture crowd who look down their nostrils at all popular culture, and the humorless cultural-studies hordes (I toiled among them, as the five people who have read my Ph.D. thesis on television families will attest) who dismiss high culture on pseudo-democratic principle, elevate pop to a standard it can hardly bear, and mutilate the English language with argot that no one but they can understand. Among journalists, James’ imitators are legion, but reading the seemingly effortless grace of his prose, his generosity toward colleagues, and his enjoyment at being, as he puts it, “a beeg theenker,” only underscores the shrill opportunism and backbiting that disfigures so much English journalism today. James pokes fun with egalitarian brio, but he never condescends to his subject or his reader, and he’s rarely nasty. The closest he comes to real malice in this volume is “N.V. Rampant Meets Martin Amis,” a delicious parody of the “mini-consensus of the minimally gifted” writers who take down his old friend for the sin of being talented and successful.
One doesn’t have to agree to admire James’s loyalty. Not to mention his sense of fun about his own mortality. “When it comes to the last word,” he writes in the introduction to his new book, “I will multi-punch the laptop with my face, my fingers only halfway through the sequence that activates the most sadly beautiful of all modern rubrics, Windows is Shutting Down. And English grammar are checking out.” Not on his watch.
AS OF THIS WRITING: The Essential Essays, 1968–2002 By CLIVE JAMES | W.W. Norton | 619 pages | $35 hardcover