Last lines: Clive James

Fans of Clive James cherished his poetry as much as his other accomplishments. This is an excerpt from Ian Shircore’s new biography, “So Brightly at the Last”, the first full-length study of the man and his muse

Books Poetry
Clive James (Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images)

Fans of Clive James cherished his poetry as much as his other accomplishments. This is an excerpt from Ian Shircore’s new biography, “So Brightly at the Last” (Red Door, £18.99) the first full-length study of the man and his muse, published shortly before his death in November.

 

For half a lifetime, Clive James has lived with fear. It’s not the fear of death. That’s a done deal, so there’s no point fretting about it. “Stop worrying. No-one gets out of here alive,” he says. What does worry him is the dread suspicion that the obituaries, when they eventually come, will fail to give him credit for any of his achievements in the fields of literature, music and cultural criticism, including 40 books, 200 song lyrics and 50 years of dedicated devotion to the poetic muse.

Instead, they will focus, he fears, on the other side of his public role. He has seen the headlines in his dreams: “Japanese game show man dies.”

For millions, Clive will always be the amiable Aussie with the hooded, piercing eyes and the wry Cheshire Cat grin who entertained them for 20 years with shows like Saturday Night Clive, the Postcard From . . . travel documentaries and Clive James on Television. When this last series unearthed the spectacularly brutal Japanese “torture TV” game show Za Gaman —otherwise known as Endurance—British television crossed a watershed.

Alongside this television stardom, Clive was still producing thoughtful, incisive essays and literary criticism, still adding volumes to his Unreliable Memoirs and still writing poetry. Clive has always wanted to be taken seriously, to be judged on the quality of his work, rather than on his jokey public persona. When we were talking, at his home in Cambridge, after the publication of Loose Canon, my book about his songwriting career, I suddenly realised that no-one had attempted a proper critical assessment of his poetry. Given the slightest encouragement—which he generously provided—I felt that I should take on the task, if only to ensure that something of the sort had been done before his failing health took him away from us.

In 1983, the august London Review of Books featured a new poem, “The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered”, which is still a major landmark in Clive’s career. Over the years, it has found a place in many anthologies, and has also attracted some unexpected fans, including Australia’s Liberal Party Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull. “I have seen it reported that he quotes “The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered” at dinner parties,” Clive told a startled interviewer from The Australian newspaper. “I therefore judge him to be the greatest democratic politician since Pericles.”

 

The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered

The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am pleased.
In vast quantities it has been remaindered,
Like a van-load of counterfeit that has been seized
And sits in piles in a police warehouse,
My enemy’s much-praised effort sits in piles
In the kind of bookshop where remaindering occurs.
Great, square stacks of rejected books and, between them, aisles
One passes down reflecting on life’s vanities,
Pausing to remember all those thoughtful reviews
Lavished to no avail upon one’s enemy’s book—
For behold, here is that book
Among these ranks and banks of duds,
These ponderous and seemingly irreducible cairns
Of complete stiffs.

The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I rejoice.
It has gone with bowed head like a defeated legion
Beneath the yoke.
What avail him now his awards and prizes,
The praise expended upon his meticulous technique,
His individual new voice?
Knocked into the middle of next week.
His brainchild now consorts with the bad buys,
The sinkers, clinkers, dogs and dregs,
The Edsels of the world of movable type,
The bummers that no amount of hype could shift,
The unbudgeable turkeys.

Yea, his slim volume with its understated wrapper
Bathes in the glare of the brightly jacketed Hitler’s War Machine.
His unmistakably individual new voice
Shares the same scrapyard with a forlorn skyscraper
Of The Kung-Fu Cookbook .
His honesty, proclaimed by himself and believed in by others,
His renowned abhorrence of all posturing and pretence,
Is there with Pertwee’s Promenades and Pierrots
One Hundred Years of Seaside Entertainment.
And (oh, this above all) his sensibility,
His sensibility and its hair-like filaments,
His delicate, quivering sensibility is now as one
With Barbara Windsor’s Book of Boobs,
A volume graced by the descriptive rubric
“My boobs will give everyone hours of fun.”

Soon now a book of mine could be remaindered also,
Though not to the monumental extent
In which the chastisement of remaindering has been meted out
To the book of my enemy,
Since in the case of my own book it will be due
To a miscalculated print run, a marketing error—
Nothing to do with merit.
But just supposing that such an event should hold
Some slight element of sadness, it will be offset
By the memory of this sweet moment.
Chill the champagne and polish the crystal goblets!
The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am glad.

 

The poem is a masterpiece of well-honed schadenfreude, a hilarious, malicious, crowing, vindictive and irresistibly sadistic hymn to the sheer joy of witnessing a literary rival’s humiliation. Its enduring appeal stems partly from its subject matter, partly from its vibrant energy and gusto, and partly from an attention to detail in its execution that is easily underestimated by the casual reader.

Clive says that “The Book of My Enemy” was prompted by an actual experience of seeing a rival’s work stacked waist-high among the remaindered dross, though he has always refused to name names. “It was almost a religious experience,” he says. “It’s a sin to rejoice so much in someone else’s misfortune, to write out of vengefulness. But I did see these huge piles of deservedly unsold books. And I did enjoy it. It wasn’t my most worthy moment, but I probably had more fun writing this poem than anything else I ever wrote.”

“Injury Time” is less optimistic; there is no implication here that the plates can be kept spinning for ever as long as the dying man can keep on writing. Death has been deferred, but the final whistle will go at any minute. The tone of Clive’s poem is resigned and calm, tempered with a sense of bemused curiosity at the fact of his continued existence. The poem is tight, spare and underplayed. The sonnet form uses a strict, if unusual, rhyme scheme and the five-stress iambic pentameter lends a sense of quiet poise and authority.

 

Injury Time

This is a pretty trick the fates have played
On me, to make me think that I might die
Tomorrow, and then grant me extra time.
By now I feel that I have overstayed
My welcome. Every night I face the climb
Which might as well be straight into the sky:
The Himalayan slog upstairs to bed,
Placing my feet so carefully I seem
To tread on rolling logs, and there I dread
I come back down next morning, still not dead.
This nightly dream can turn out to be true
Only so long, and one day this notebook
Will lie untouched, to show how long it took
Silence to do what it was bound to do.


The striking central image of the poem—the “Himalayan slog upstairs to bed”, which “might as well be straight into the sky”—brings with it biblical echoes of the ascension, as well as emphasising how laboured and precarious this everyday business of climbing the stairs is for a man in Clive’s condition. And the detail of having to place each foot so tentatively, as if treading “on rolling logs”, has its own nightmare quality. We can’t easily imagine how someone as weakened and ill as Clive feels inside, but these few lines give us a momentary glimpse of how it must be when your strength and co-ordination have been drained away.

There is something neat, complete and classical about this sonnet, with its emotional and structural discipline and its elegant, measured execution. There is no sentimentality or polemicising. There are no extravagant lunges into dazzling wordplay, obscure cultural or  historical references or grungy street talk—none of the extremes that habitually delight some of Clive’s readers and enrage others. It is just a thoroughly well-made poem, taking us, vicariously, into aspects of living and dying that few of us will ever encounter for ourselves.

For Clive, John Donne is as great as an English poet can be without being Shakespeare. He talks of him as “my touchstone poet” and regards him as a vital, practical influence—not just appreciated as a historical giant, but drawn on directly as a source of energy and inspiration.

“Dream Me Some Happiness” pivots on the idea of “bad faith” (“Each kiss a Judas kiss, a double game”), gaily intertwining Donne’s adaptable religious convictions with his ambivalent attitudes towards more earthly relationships. No-one has ever doubted Donne’s ability to enchant both readers and potential lovers with his honeyed words, startling conceits and ingenious arguments. But it is impossible to ignore the fact that he—or at least the “I” in his songs and sonnets—is prepared to cheat outrageously to get his own way and quite happy to blame his own promiscuity on his mistresses’ loose morals.

Dream Me Some Happiness

John Donne, uneasiest of apostates,
Renouncing Rome that he might get ahead
In life, or anyway not wind up dead,
Minus his guts or pressed beneath great weights,

Ascribed his bad faith to his latest flame
As if the fact she could be bent to do
His bidding proved that she would not stay true:
Each kiss a Judas kiss, a double game.

Compared with him, the mental muscle-man,
Successors who declared his numbers rough
Revealed by theirs they found the pace too tough:
The knotty strength that made him hard to scan

Left him renowned for his conceits alone,
Figments unfading as the forms of death
Prescribed for Catholics by Elizabeth—
Tangles of gristle, relics of hair and bone.

Brought back to favour in an anxious time
Attuned to his tormented intellect,
By now he charms us, save in one respect:
Framing his women still looks like a crime.

We foist our fault on her we claim to love
A different way. Pleased to the point of tears,
She tells us that the real world disappears.
Not quite the Donne thing, when push comes to shove:

He wrote betrayal into her delight.
We have a better reason to deceive
Ourselves as we help her help us believe
Life isn’t like that: at least, not tonight.

 

However much we tell ourselves that the poem is not the poet, this is the John Donne we feel we know, the one voice of his era, other than Shakespeare’s, that speaks to us across the centuries with such an abundance of energy, wit, humour and human fallibility. Like the enigmatic, comically anxious and paradoxically modern-seeming faces of the 12th-century Lewis chessmen, Donne’s poems jolt us into the realisation that our distant ancestors were real flesh-and-blood people, much more like us than we generally assume. We want to think of the poems as autobiographical, because we want to know this man, with all his flaws and inconsistencies. In talking about the persona as if it were the man, Clive is only doing what every reader of Donne gets drawn into doing, including the many feminist critics for whom the songs and sonnets are a red rag to a bull.