North Face of Soho by Clive James / The Blaze of Obscurity by Clive James

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I have been waiting for a long time for Clive James to die. Not that I wish him any ill – rather the reverse – but I was saving these two books until he put his cue in the rack. That time was imminent, according to James himself, some years ago after he was diagnosed with leukaemia and emphysema in 2010. Four years after that, lines from his poem Japanese Maple were on the…let’s say, last legs, side:

A final flood of colours will live on
As my mind dies,
Burned by my vision of a world that shone
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.

PJ O’Rourke told him not to bang on about the death’s door stuff, because people would get impatient, but it is now 2017 James and keeps on living (excellent news, obvs). The fact that he is writing poetry about his death might surprise those who only know him from his TV shows. But he has always written poems, and songs, and very serious literary criticism – although as he makes clear in these books, it was TV that really paid.  It is only years after the event that I realise how fortunate I was to hear him read My Father Before Me at a Spectator magazine event. His dad was flying home from fighting in World War Two when the plane crashed, and he was buried in a military cemetary in Hong Kong. The author stands at his grave and speaks to the man he never met; it’s a lovely poem. James’ mother had recently died, and he writes:

and now she wears/The same robes of forgetfulness you do.

‘Robes of forgetfulness’ is a beautiful image. And it is all a long way from the clips of Japanese game shows and Margarita Pracatan – although of course they had their moments. James is keen on popular culture, and not just because that’s where the money is. North Face of Soho and The Blaze of Obscurity are in effect James’ Unreliable Memoirs volumes IV and V. He moves to Fleet Street (he was The Observer TV critic for a decade) and then on to the box itself. By the end of what we might call The Life of Clive IV, volume I is published: pop will eat itself. In volume V, he has ‘made it’: the struggles are not about how to survive, they are about how to finance TV production companies and outmanoeuvre the suits – a far higher level of suffering than the hand-to-mouth Grub Street scribbling of his earlier books. He has trouble with satellite links and relatively primitive film editing techniques and can’t always get to talk to the right Hollywood stars: this sort of stuff does not cause the readers’ heart to beat faster. In fact, The Blaze of Obscurity is the least interesting volume of James’ memoirs so far. Sometimes James sounds pretentious. He occasionally wears his considerable learning heavily. Sometimes he even is pretentious. But he is rarely boring. In particular, one passage about the passing of friends and colleagues is beautifully done (you see! Death is everywhere). His profile on TV was not consonant with his life as a poet. This is a shame: he has been perhaps the closest thing in my lifetime to a ‘public intellectual’ in the UK, but you perhaps would not have deduced that from his time on the box (I didn’t). France, one is always told, is full of them – but I’ve watched a bit of French TV and I’m not convinced that is true. Fame is a chilling prospect: be careful what you wish for, and all that. If you want to read how it corrodes, just turn to James’ meeting with Peter Sellers. Perhaps Sellers would have been mad anyway. But life in his solipsistic bubble certainly seems, on James’ evidence, to have taken him to the brink. James’ account is both funny and genuinely unsettling. It is hard to believe that self-delusion can be achieved on such a scale. James enjoyed his own kind of fame but is wise enough to have seen the ghastly possibilities. Anyway, watch him read his poem Lenses Shiver: if YouTube had been around in WH Auden’s day, this is what it would have looked like. Historians, scholars – and future human beings in general – will be glad James was around to do it. So should we now.

 

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