I am reminded by the arrival of a TV docco on the Wellthisiswhatithink household screen that one of my cultural heroes, Clive James, is apparently not all that much longer for this world.
Afflicted with leukaemia and emphysema, he battles on gamely, his body restricted but his mind still luminously alert.
Death comes to us all, and it’s better, I have decided, to get used to the idea, even if we rage, rage against the dying of the light as we go.
However long he is spared, James is and was the perfect fusion of true erudition and pop culture, and when he finally does shuffle off his mortal coil he will leave behind a charmingly rotund and ineffably sad gap for so many people.
He first came to general notice writing pithy and frequently hilarious TV criticism for the Observer newspaper in London some thirty or so years ago. His ability to take ephemeral material and turn it into something guaranteed to make one both think and yet laugh out loud was unmatched – I well remember how in one glorious series of articles he would take the mangled southern US drawl of the characters of “Dallas” and turn his column into something approaching comic genius by spelling their dialogue out phonetically.
Thus, you will see, Sue-Ellen Ewing wasn’t an alcoholic, she had someone with what was hilariously described as a “drinkin’ prarlm”.
As I am reminded (for which I am grateful) by a correspondent), James was also author of what must be one of the finest sentences ever written in the English language. It fell to him to review TV coverage of the royal wedding in 1981. Barbara Cartland was Princess Di’s step-grandmother but was not invited to the wedding ceremony, so one of the broadcasters hired her as a studio pundit. Clive James described her thus: “Twin miracles of mascara, her eyes looked liked the corpses of two crows that had crashed into a chalk cliff.”
Anyhow, I reproduce here from the author’s own website, for which trespass I am sure he will forgive me if I say clivejames.com often enough, one of his finest TV crit columns from 1980 which was headlined, as per his phonetic re-purposing of the English language when commenting on “Dallas”, Someone Shart JR.
I reproduce it in full with no apologies for the patience I require of you in completing this column, Dear Reader, because it is possibly the finest example of a critical essay that I have ever read, and also for the simple reason that I note that the anthology which it is part of is now out of print. (I still have my treasured copy.) This example is notable not only because of the wonderful meandering amuse bouche of his opening views on the BBC and the cast of Dallas, but also because of the wonderfully wise and pointed Shakespearian crit that follows it.
He could hardly have demonstrated his ability to fire with both strings of his considerable intellectual bow more appositely.
SOMEONE SHART JR
In a week which contained a full-scale production of Hamlet, the well-known tragedy by William Shakespeare, there could be no question about what was the most important event — the long-delayed episode of Dallas(BBC1) in which JR got shot.
The BBC overdid the joke, as the humourless are wont to do. After JR had been plugged there was an item on the Nine O’Clock News (BBC1) to tell the world that it had happened, almost as if anyone who hadn’t been watching would be interested in hearing about it. Before the episode rolled there was a great deal of preparatory barking from the link-men. ‘The long-awaited dramatic climax to the present series of Dallas — the shooting of JR!’ In the event, all you saw was JR getting mown down. You didn’t see who was pulling the trigger. Thus was the way left clear for another long tease-play before the next series arrives to put us out of our supposed misery.
The Beeb should realise, poor soft creature, that the Dallas thing is only a gag if you play it straight. After all, that’s what the actors are doing. With the possible exception of JR himself, everybody in the cast is working flat out to convey the full range of his or her, usually her, emotional commitment. Sue Ellen, in particular, was a study in passionate outrage when she realised the extent of her husband’s perfidy. Her mouth practically took off. You will remember that JR swindled all the other big oilmen in Dallas by selling them his oil wells ‘off the coast of South-East Asia’ just before the wells were nationalised, presumably by the South-East Asian Government. This behaviour filled Sue Ellen with disgerst, and she reached for her gern.
Sue Ellen keeps her gern in a bottom drawer. Or perhaps it is JR’s gern and on this occasion she was only borrowing it. Whatever the truth of that, you were left certain of one thing: that you could not be sure it was Sue Ellen who shot JR. Candidates for the honour were queueing up in the corridor. It is even possible that Miss Ellie shot him, since she has been showing increasing signs of madness, singing her dialogue instead of saying it. Don’t be surprised if the sheriff turns up with a wornt for her arrest. There could be a tornt of wornts.
And so to Hamlet (BBC2), starring Derek Jacobi in the title role. As writer/presenter of Shakespeare in Perspective: Hamlet (BBC2), which was transmitted on the previous day, I am duly grateful to the BBC for the opportunity to say my two cents’ worth about the best play in the world. This, however, was only an average production of it. It didn’t matter so much that Elsinore was set in a velodrome, although you kept expecting cyclists to streak past on the banking while the Prince was in mid-soliloquy.
How the play is staged certainly matters, but not as much as how the lines are spoken, and in this production it soon became clear that there was a mania on the loose to speak them in the most pointed manner possible, so that the Bard’s meaning would be fully brought out. We have the Royal Shakespeare Company to thank for many virtues and this one vice — a way of speaking Shakespeare’s blank verse that is almost guaranteed to deprive it of its binding energy, which is not meaning but rhythm. To a large extent the meaning will take care of itself if the rhythm is well attended to, but if the rhythm is broken then no amount of searching emphasis will make up for the loss, and you are left with the spectacle of an actor trying to exhaust the semantic content of William Shakespeare, with about the same chance as a thirsty man trying to drain Lake Windermere through a straw.
Derek Jacobi was an excellent Richard II, but as Hamlet he went out of his way, presumably with the director’s encouragement, to give every line an explanatory reading. Enterprises of great pitch and moment, we were informed, with this regard their currents turn awry. The implication, presumably, was that enterprises of great pitch and moment don’t usually do this, and that it usually happens only to enterprises of lesser pitch and moment. Many a time and oft I was reminded of Robert Stephens’s classically, over-explanatory first line as Oberon. ‘Ill-met (as opposed to well-met) by moonlight (as opposed to daylight), proud (not humble, like other Titanias Oberon had had the good fortune to meet in his time)Titani (not some other well-met fairy of equivalent high rank walking proudly in the moonlight in that particular forest).’
Hamlet’s mother and uncle were more inclined to play it straight and thus drew most of my attention, although Claire Bloom could not help but remind you that she was better handled in an earlier production, Henry VIII, a well-thought-out occasion to which she rose brilliantly. Ophelia was encouraged to participate in the by now hallowed directorial tradition of fiddling about with Ophelia: she looked as if she were just about to sit her Danish O-levels with small hope of passing. Eric Porter rattled on lovably as Polonius, but that’s a hard one to get wrong, since the reactions of all the other principal characters are carefully specified.
Clad in complete steel plus a flying panel of what looked like tulle, Patrick Allen, voice-over in a thousand commercials, was a good ghost, although you would not have been stunned to hear him recommend Danish bacon. One should be grateful, of course, that the ghost was allowed to appear at all. In the latest London stage production, I am told, the ghost is a figment of Hamlet’s diseased fancy, an interpretation which involves re-arranging the text so that Horatio and the sentries never see the spook. How drama
critics stay sane is beyond me.
As the Japanese Like It (BBC2) engagingly showed the aforesaid Derek Jacobi on tour with the Old Vic Hamlet in Japan. The stage version of his performance sounded twice as good as the television version. Presumably some of the Japanese theatre companies learned a lot about how to underplay a scene. Their leading actors, even when engaged in contemplation, show a tendency to stamp around like Toshiro Mifune with piles. The Haiyuza company, however, looked wonderfully accomplished. Their transvestite Rosalind was lyricism incarnate and the whole production around him/her bubbled with inventive life. The same director will be stagingHamlet next January. Doubtless he will include plenty of tumbling, juggling and magic sword-fights.
On the South Bank Show (LWT) Melvyn Bragg interviewed Roman Polanski, who was fascinating about his craft. It was refreshing to hear someone of his unchallenged technical skill declaring outright that Laurence Olivier is a film director of genius. Polanski has seen Olivier’s Hamlettwenty-five times. Bragg screened an excerpt from
it and there you had it, if you had ever forgotten: the way Shakespeare should look and the way he should sound, with Olivier’s voice moving as quickly and accurately as his body, so that the meaning of the verse rippled outward in your mind as the stress skipped rhythmically forward like a stone flung across the water.”
James was and is also an accomplished poet. As a young man, he fitted neatly for me into the great tradition established by populist 1960s poets such as Roger McGough, and he was unquestionably one of the luminaries whose work encouraged me to take up writing my own poetry, and eventually to make my career as a professional writer. He made it look so much fun, and so easy. And so a lifelong war of attrition with blank pages began.
In one early poem “Bring Me the Sweat of Gabriela Sabatini”, he reached such heights of delightful comic talent as to surely cement his place in writing history. Certainly in my view of writing history.
Never one to hide his affection for beautiful women, James, in the words of one commentator on NPR in America, “aims for warm glow and clear flow, and a delightfully shocking number of his poems achieve that lucid state. An ace critic of the printed word and moving image, James brings that eye for the ideas of art and the soul of pop to his lustrous moonlighting.
The speaker of “Bring Me the Sweat of Gabriela Sabatini” — a bloke, one surely senses, with tastes none too distant from the poet’s own — is a tennis fan no longer able to stifle his “croak of need” for the beauties of the women’s tour.
James unleashes this “parched howl” for eight stanzas, pining for intimacy with the Argentinean brunette and her supple backhand.
In classical fashion, he catalogues and incants. He’s not unreasonable (“Out of deference to Billie Jean I did my best / To control my male chauvinist urges”), but his reason loses its battle to the pull of the poem’s pleading meter.
Recurring themes (in James’s work) include the vanities of literary life (as in the schadenfreude masterpiece “The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered”), the tick-tock of mortality (“The breath of life is what finally kills you”) and the destructive power of religion (and, not quite paradoxically, the plump grace of angels).
But almost all of the poems touch on desire — parting glances, nostalgic gazes, inquiries into the charms of both Don Juan and Cleopatra. One proof that James, the poet, deserves greater recognition on these shores is his ability to make even the sin of lust ring with the sound of fun.”
Bring me the sweat of Gabriela Sabatini by Clive James
Bring me the sweat of Gabriela Sabatini
For I know it tastes as pure as Malvern water,
Though laced with bright bubbles like the aqua minerale
That melted the kidney stones of Michelangelo
As sunlight the snow in spring.
Bring me the sweat of Gabriela Sabatini
In a green Lycergus cup with a sprig of mint,
But add no sugar –
The bitterness is what I want.
If I craved sweetness I would be asking you to bring me
The tears of Annabel Croft.
I never asked for the wristbands of Maria Bueno,
Though their periodic transit of her glowing forehead
Was like watching a bear’s tongue lap nectar.
I never asked for the blouse of Françoise Durr,
Who refused point-blank to improve her soufflé serve
For fear of overdeveloping her upper arm –
Which indeed remained delicate as a fawn’s femur,
As a fern’s frond under which cool shadows gather
So that the dew lingers.
Bring me the sweat of Gabriela Sabatini
And give me credit for having never before now
Cried out with longing.
Though for all the years since TV acquired colour
To watch Wimbledon for even a single day
Has left me shaking with grief like an ex-smoker
Locked overnight in a cigar factory,
Not once have I let loose as now I do
The parched howl of deprivation,
The croak of need.
Did I ever demand, as I might well have done,
The socks of Tracy Austin?
Did you ever hear me call for the cast-off Pumas
Of Hana Mandlikova?
Think what might have been distilled from these things,
And what a small request it would have seemed –
It would not, after all, have been like asking
For something so intimate as to arouse suspicion
Of mental derangement.
I would not have been calling for Carling Bassett’s knickers
Or the tingling, Teddy Tinling B-cup brassière
Of Andrea Temesvari.
Yet I denied myself.
I have denied myself too long.
If I had been Pat Cash at that great moment
Of triumph, I would have handed back the trophy
Saying take that thing away
And don’t let me see it again until
It spills what makes this lawn burst into flower:
Bring me the sweat of Gabriela Sabatini.
In the beginning there was Gorgeous Gussie Moran
And even when there was just her it was tough enough,
But by now the top hundred boasts at least a dozen knockouts
Who make it difficult to keep one’s tongue
From lolling like a broken roller blind.
Out of deference to Billie-Jean I did my best
To control my male chauvinist urges –
An objectivity made easier to achieve
When Betty Stove came clumping out to play
On a pair of what appeared to be bionic legs
Borrowed from Six Million Dollar Man.
I won’t go so far as to say I harbour
Similar reservations about Steffi Graf –
I merely note that her thigh muscles when tense
Look interchangeable with those of Boris Becker –
Yet all are agreed that there can be no doubt
About Martina Navratilova:
Since she lent her body to Charles Atlas
The definition of the veins on her right forearm
Looks like the Mississippi river system
Photographed from a satellite,
And though she may unleash a charming smile
When crouching to dance at the ball with Ivan Lendl,
I have always found to admire her yet remain detached
Has been no problem.
But when the rain stops long enough for the true beauties
To come out swinging under the outshone sun,
The spectacle is hard for a man to take,
And in the case of this supernally graceful dish –
Likened to a panther by slavering sports reporters
Who pitiably fail to realise that any panther
With a topspin forehand line drive like hers
Would be managed personally by Mark McCormack –
I’m obliged to admit defeat.
So let me drink deep from the bitter cup.
Take it to her between any two points of a tie-break
That she may shake above it her thick black hair,
A nocturne from which the droplets as they fall
Flash like shooting stars –
And as their lustre becomes liqueur
Let the full calyx be repeatedly carried to me.
Until I tell you to stop,
Bring me the sweat of Gabriela Sabatini.
Brilliant stuff. Whether in his hilarious and oh-so-human volumes of autobiographical memories, his TV criticism, his poetry, or his forays into really serious intellectual examination of people and things, (which I have struggled manfully to keep up with, frequently failing but always inspired), James has enriched and enlivened our lives and shone a torchlight on our culture – and not just British culture, but that of the world – for a generation which has been blessed to know him.
As he faces uncertainty and ultimately his final curtain, I hope he comes back for one more, and then one more, bow. However much he feels well enough to do, it is guaranteed that he will leave behind him a body of work so rich and varied that he can finally stop worrying about what has clearly plagued him all his life, to wit, whether or not we really take him seriously. Because the answer is clear.
Yes, we do. And we will seriously miss you, too.
You have been a stone flung across the water of our collective consciousness, and the ripples still bounce and cross one another and will do for a very long time indeed.
Thank you very much. Safe paths, Clive.
- Clive James interview makes top 10 (news.com.au)
- Clive James: The Kid from Kogarah – TV review (theguardian.com)