Sam Leith

Intimations of mortality

Pendulum, eh? Well, there’s certainly something swing- ing back and forth here.

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The Revolt of the Pendulum: Essays 2005-2008

Clive James

Picador, pp. 324, £

Pendulum, eh? Well, there’s certainly something swing- ing back and forth here.

Pendulum, eh? Well, there’s certainly something swing- ing back and forth here. Two years ago, lest we forget, Cultural Amnesia came out — all 900-odd pages of it. Now here’s Clive with another fat wedge of ‘essays’, some of which are essays, and some of which are more recognisable as old book reviews and feature pieces for newspapers. In the section marked ‘Handbills’ he reproduces pieces he’s written to promote his stage shows; in ‘Absent Friends’, addenda to obituaries.

It seems rather a monumental way of presenting ephemera, but it emerges piecemeal in this book that James is starting to hear the guy with the scythe and the persistent cough. He’s thinking about how he’ll be remembered. He’s building monuments to himself.

He says of his website (‘the first personal fully fractal multi-media archival-critical instrument on the Web’):

I would never have started building the site in the first place if I hadn’t thought that the day had arrived for getting things together. How to keep running it after I conk out is the big question now.

I think he’ll be remembered as a pompous, brilliant old thing with a big, prickly ego. You can still see in the temperament of the man that gauche, ambitious child so laceratingly evoked in his first volume of memoirs. Throughout it there are sentences working that little bit too hard; learning worn that little bit too heavily. 

Why do you need to line up Baudelaire, Gaudi and Field Marshal von Manstein, for example, to see off a clumsy sentence written by a Sunday Telegraph sports reporter eight years ago? The essay — ‘The Perfectly Bad Sentence’ — is funny, because the sentence is funny: ‘Now, the onus is on Henman to come out firing at Ivanisevic, the wild card who has torn through this event on a wave of emotion.’ (This equals my previous favourite, from a biography of Phil Collins: ‘The explosive pivot that was to seal the fate of their relationship came on July 18th…’) But there’s a bit of sledgehammer-on-nut about the piece.

The main enemy in this book of journalism is journalists. On page 30, he swipes at the

desperate commentators, omnipresent now in our multiple media outlets, who must always advance an outlandish opinion because they don’t write well enough to make a reasonable opinion interesting.

Four pages later it’s ‘a London literary world enfeebled by its provincialism’. A page on, he sees ‘dunces of restricted growth … hopping in a circle around [Kingsley Amis’s] tomb, singing their tiny songs’, and alludes with contrived scorn to ‘one lesser critic — he had initials instead of a Christian name, and I have forgotten his surname’.

Later he lights on ‘second-rank literary editors’, ‘journalists [who] secretly rather fancy the idea of armed philistinism’, a dud phrase that ‘any journalist thinks a subtle stroke’, and ‘newspaper preview writers [who] flex their tiny wits’. Journalists are, in metaphor, variously ‘sucker-fish’ swimming with sharks and worms burrowing through a dung-hill. This qualifies as ‘mentionitis’. Why bother to work up such a fury against the mediocre?

In an essay about his own poetry, foxily titled ‘The Velvet Shackles of a Reputation’, James complains:

Even today, when I have been absent from the screen for more than five years, interviewers take it as self-evident that I have a question to answer: didn’t television fame rule out any possible reputation as a serious writer?

Hard to see why that’s an unreasonable question: it’s clearly something that bugs the hell out of Clive James. As he records in his essay on Robert Hughes: ‘I warned him about how doing television would erode his reputation for seriousness.’

James is a good hop and a skip ahead of most literary hacks in terms of stylistic verve and scholarship alike. If only he’d stop worrying about it and let other people say so. Just to get him started, I’ll say so.

He has a fantastic range and depth of know- ledge. He is, at times, miraculously funny. He writes knowledgeably and with passion about literature, and especially poetry. His opinions are his own — and he has cogent praise for Camille Paglia, John Bayley and Dennis Healey. His take-downs are decisive too. John Ashbery produces ‘an avalanche of verbal hamburger’. Elias Canetti is ‘a posturing snob’. Of Carl Sandburg: ‘His prose was bad poetry, like his poetry.’   

He knows about classical music, show-tunes and pop. He knows about politics and history. He’s fierce in the defence of, and humble in his identification with, what he calls ‘the liberal democratic mentality’: ‘the ideas constituting that mentality were hard won by people who paid a higher price to hold them than I ever did’.

He loves actresses, and very much sees the point of Rosamund Pike, Nicole Kidman, Grace Kelly, Monica Bellucci and Cherry Ripe (who sounds like a stripper but turns out to be a chocolate bar).

He knows about telly and film from the inside. A midget gem is his piece explaining — which I’d seen done nowhere before — why Peter Mandelson’s ‘I’m a fighter, not a quitter’ speech sounded so weird: it’s because the audience wasn’t miked. He was raising his voice to be heard over them, but sounded like he was just shouting madly.

James understands people, too — his piece defending Kingsley Amis against the charge of misogyny is wise, morally generous and critically acute. He even knows about motor cars. One of the best essays in this collection is, oddly enough, an extraordinarily well-informed and enlightening discussion of why Nikki Lauda was such a good driver.

And he makes good jokes. It was 2005, James tells us, before he managed to purchase the domain name from a cybersquatter.

Before the pirate got hold of it, my domain name belonged to another Clive James, a jet-ski instructor in Miami. I waited a long time for him to have his accident, but when I lunged forward to grab the vacant domain name it turned out the pirate had already bought it…

You’re already a clause past the joke before you catch it and yelp with laughter. That’s very, very slick. As that sentence indicates: there’s only one Clive James.

Written bySam Leith

Sam Leith is an English author, journalist and literary editor of The Spectator.

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