Saturday, 17 May 2014


There's a nice piece by by Clive James in the current TLS.  You can read it here:  Poems of a Lifetime.  His comments on the obfuscating difficulty of "Miltonics" are well made.  As I have written myself in this blog a number of times, the days when we can assume, and play upon, a shared classical and biblical heritage have passed, and will never return.  Footnotes are not the stuff of a living, common culture.  Like the level of carbon monoxide in a room, once the necessary footnotes occupy more space on the page than the text, that text is toxic, only to be entered by professionals with the correct training and equipment.

Control: What can you see in there?
Operative: The riches of Croesus!
Control: Who?
Operative:  Croesus!  He whose riches far outshone the wealth of Ormus and of Ind! As when the Phrygian king...
Control:  OK, get him out of there!  He's gone Miltoxic!

It comes as a surprise to most Brits that Clive James is well-regarded as a player in the culture game.  To anyone over 50, he is indelibly associated with Saturday night TV, and a certain sort of wry meta-commentary on the idiocies of broadcasting and celebrity.  Those extracts from the Japanese game show Endurance probably blew more people's minds than anything else on TV; in retrospect, it was a sort of shock-tactic softening-up operation for the coming of multiculturalism and postmodernism.  Or perhaps not.  Maybe it was just us laughing nervously at the inscrutable Jap. That James' own father had been a prisoner of the Japanese in WW2 and died before returning to Australia was never mentioned, as far as I know.

That incessant shuttling between Highbow and Lowbrow -- now you see him, now you don't -- is very much Clive James territory.  If ever a man has done his best to fall publicly between a dozen stools of wildly different heights it is James.  Eventually, he succeeded: apparently, he kept two houses -- one in Cambridge, one in London -- and ran several simultaneous affairs.  It was the revelation of one these that caused his wife, professor of Italian Prue Shaw, to kick him out.  Sadly, he is now in a prolonged valedictory phase: he's extremely ill, and full of regrets about the breakup of his marriage, and -- like any other dying man -- the dozens of other loose ends that will now remain forever untied, the books that will remain forever unread, and the actions that can never be undone.

Occasionally, poetic bulletins on James' progress appear in the TLS, like this one:
Holding Court

Retreating from the world, all I can do
Is build a new world, one demanding less
Acute assessments. Too deaf to keep pace
With conversation, I don’t try to guess
At meanings, or unpack a stroke of wit,
But just send silent signals with my face
That claim I’ve not succumbed to loneliness
And might be ready to come in on cue.
People still turn towards me where I sit.

I used to notice everything, and spoke
A language full of details that I’d seen,
And people were amused; but now I see
Only a little way. What can they mean,
My phrases? They come drifting like the mist
I look through if someone appears to be
Smiling in my direction. Have they been?
This was the time when I most liked to smoke.
My watch-band feels too loose around my wrist.

My body, sensitive in every way
Save one, can still proceed from chair to chair,
But in my mind the fires are dying fast.
Breathe through a scarf. Steer clear of the cold air.
Think less of love and all that you have lost.
You have no future so forget the past.
Let this be no occasion for despair.
Cherish the prison of your waning day.
Remember liberty, and what it cost.

Be pleased that things are simple now, at least,
As certitude succeeds bewilderment.
The storm blew out and this is the dead calm.
The pain is going where the passion went.
Few things will move you now to lose your head
And you can cause, or be caused, little harm.
Tonight you leave your audience content:
You were the ghost they wanted at the feast,
Though none of them recalls a word you said.

Clive James
(published in the TLS, 28 February 2013)
It seems to me that here is a man who, watching himself watching himself die, has finally found his subject.


Martin Hodges said...

I've always been an admirer of Clive James. 'Unreliable Memoirs' still has a place on my bookshelf. One of a few books to make me laugh out loud.

Yes, he appears to have shuttled between Highbrow and Lowbrow, but it's a cultural commute he's surely felt at ease with.

Read this in New Statesman quite recently. Love the poem, 'Driftwood Houses'.

Mike C. said...


Yes, that's very much in his new late style, and I suspect he may be remembered as one of the first of the Boomer poets of death and decline -- surprisingly, it's not a subject much written about from within, as it were. There is lots of poetry about the inevitability of death (so let's get it on right now, baby! or however Marvell put it) but not many about what it feels like.


Martyn Cornell said...

Lovely line, "My watch-band feels too loose around my wrist" - simultaneously a piece of Prufrockian bathos and (since we know why his watch-band is now too loose, and it ain't good) tragic as well.