Book review of A Point of View by Clive James
On YouTube there’s a clip of Clive James and Robert Hughes being interviewed for Australian television in 1959. The programme is about Beat culture and James reads from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. When he’s finished the presenter asks him: “Well, what do you think of it? What do you think of the formless prose?” James taps a pen on the page and replies: “It’s overrated.” That was half a century ago, and half a world away. And while I suspect James’s criticism of Kerouac’s prose hasn’t changed — time has proven it to be pretty solid — the man who once practised lighting cigarettes with his head tilted to look like Albert Camus certainly has.
James has always been brilliant. Back when he was starting out on Fleet Street he admired the best writers on the Sunday papers and in the literary magazines for their ability to craft resonant sentences which shot straight into memory. James’s enduring talent for making prose sound like ordinary speech makes him one of the few writers left to teach younger writers what a resonant sentence sounds like. But his brilliance was a gift; what he’s earned is the wisdom to match it. Nowadays he’s a man with a serious worldview backed by a lifetime of learning. James’s voice on the page — and on radio and television — carries the force of a first-rate mind, a mind blessedly unharmed by a talent for slamming his head into the open door of a refrigerator.
James is occasionally found “braining” himself on things — the refrigerator door, the sloping roof of his study, the roof of a shed — in the 60 broadcasts he did for the BBC Radio 4 programme A Point of View. Part of this is humility, a way of inviting listeners (and readers) in by sending up his clumsiness. But James is also working one of his favourite tricks. By getting expectations down low early on, James is able to play to one of his strengths — his ability to speak plain sense about complex subjects. He’s also able to say things that should be obvious to experts who waste a lot of time raising expectations very high indeed, about as high as our troublesome ozone layer. Alarmist climate scientists get the full treatment of a critical intellect in these broadcasts, and it’s a treatment made doubly powerful because it’s spoken in ordinary language even an expert can understand.
The format of A Point of View suits James’s style. Each broadcast runs about ten minutes long, which meant James wrote a script of about 1,600 words each week. The scripts — which were broadcast over six series between February 2007 and December 2009 — are about the same length as a long newspaper column or a short magazine essay, two forms James excels at. They are printed here with postscripts in the same manner used for James’s essay collections. Really this book is a collection of mini-essays. The topics vary widely, but the book is held together by several recurring ideas and the vibrancy of James’s style.
Many of the ideas which drove James to write his excellent book Cultural Amnesia (2007) recur in these broadcasts: the importance of liberal democracy, the liberation of women, the corruption of language, and the assault by pseudo-intellectuals on the achievements of Western civilisation. The broadcasts deal with events that were topical at the time they were aired, but because James brings in a sense of history they hold up remarkably well. In March 2008, James made a case for the right to privacy. The broadcast shows that long before the phone-hacking scandal, James already had the wisdom to make the wider point about the tabloid press’s use of private conversations intercepted via email or mobile phones:
Until recently, the concept of private life was basic to civilisation. Its value could be measured by the thoroughness with which totalitarian states and religions always did their best to stamp it out. But now we have to face the possibility that the latest stage of civilization, this era of perpetual alteration that we are living in now, might also be trying to stamp it out.
What’s striking about this is that it’s not an opinion: it is wisdom, which is more valuable than noisy commentary because it’s built on real learning.
An unexpected pleasure of this book is the way James’s family often serves as a touchstone for his thinking. James rarely writes about his loved ones. He has long held the reasonable conviction that they have a right to privacy, like everybody else does. But at some point in recent years he found the right tone to use to let readers in on another part of his experience. As the Australian novelist and critic David Free has argued, James’s decision to write more intimately about his family — and in particular about his marriage — has brought an unfettered feel to his late poetry. In these broadcasts James brings his family into the process of composition. We see him working out his ideas at the lunch table while his granddaughter works out how to manipulate a blue plastic-handled spoon. This is a rare and touching glimpse of James as husband, father and grandfather.
Yeats asked, “Why should not old men be mad?” In his final broadcast for A Point of View James gives an answer. His granddaughter and her friends are bouncing on the furniture, and James looks back on his own childhood to a time when the modern world was at its worst and countless millions “died pointlessly for the fulfilment of idle political dreams”. Wise enough to know how lucky we are to grow old at all, let alone to do so in peace, James reflects:
There should be pride in it, that you behaved no worse. There should be gratitude, that you were allowed to get this far. And above all there should be no bitterness. The opposite, in fact. The future is no less sweet because you won’t be there. The children will be there, taking their turn on earth. In consideration of them, we should refrain from pessimism, no matter how well founded that grim feeling might seem.
This broadcast is one of the most beautiful things James has written. In the twilight of his career the brilliant young man dangling a Disque Bleu from his mouth to look like Albert Camus is achieving a rare feat: a finish worthy of the start.