There was only ever going to be one candidate for my first piece on “Must-Read Writers.”
Not Dickens or Orwell or a contemporary favorite like a Hornby or Fry, much as I love them all.
No, there could only be one. It had to be Clive James.
Clive James has been reminding me of how a well-honed argument must necessarily read on a page and play in the mind since I first made his acquaintance more than thirty years ago.
Rightly acclaimed in the UK and his native Australia as a cultural gem, he is, for some unfathomable reason, all but unknown in the United States – a situation I hope to rectify in some small way over the forthcoming paragraphs.
But how best to capture a man who’s variously a critic, novelist, essayist, and poet? Well, as luck would have it, the beginning will more than suffice.
James rose to recognition in the late 70s on the back an autobiography of his formative years growing up in Australia. Blessed with a belly laugh on every page, and unashamedly playing fast and loose with the truth, Unreliable Memoirs is a hoot of the first order.
Here’s the first line.
I was born in 1939. The other big event of that year was the outbreak of the Second World War, but for the moment that did not affect me.
It’s like that the whole way through. There’s gold wherever you dig. When he goes to live with his Aunt Dot in Jannali, it is set down thus:
Prior to that James had cut his teeth writing a weekly column of TV criticism for the UK’s Observer, reinventing the genre in the process. Clocking in at around a thousand words apiece, each one is a bite-sized master class of vacuum packed insight laced with snot-snorting humor.
Here he is nailed re-runs of Star Trek:
I must have read that a hundred times. It never fails to draw a guffaw. Collections have been compiled into various volumes, Visions Before Midnight being the best of them, an aspiring copywriter could do worse than read every single one.
By the 1990s, James was in front of the camera himself, either as a guest, or more likely, hosting popular shows like Clive James on Television and becoming a much-loved television personality in the process.
But he was still writing prolifically, contributing essays and critical pieces to the likes of the New Yorker and the Times Literary Supplement. These were many and varied – a mark of the man and the mind – and it’s here that a deeper dive into his work pays the most dividends.
While it’s near impossible to excise a fragment without doing an injustice to the whole, I’m confident that the opening paragraphs to this essay on George Orwell will have enquiring minds seeking out Even As We Speak for the entire thing. Once you’ve got one collection of criticism the games up. You have to have them all.
There’s an old advertising adage that says make the usual unusual and the unusual usual. James pulls the same trick with his criticism. He’ll unearth an artist buried deep into obscurity and render them instantly relevant and unforgettable. Bruno Schulz would be one, J. B. Morton another. He’ll then pull the reverse trick and throw tangential light on someone you thought you knew all too well but actually didn’t have the first idea on. A piece on the actor Tony Curtis, from Cultural Amnesia, springs to mind.
The result of all this good stuff is inevitably an expanded horizon and an insatiable desire to chase down a new found interest in the nearest second-hand book store. In this way, James has been a gateway drug to such heady talents as Philip Larkin, Eric Roth, Alan Coren, Robert Hughes, and Peter Porter.
Latterly, he’s devoted more and more of his time to poetry, age and poor health almost certainly providing the impetus for this piece.
Such writing endures. Poetry or prose, wisdom or wisecrack, it reminds you of how far you fall short while affording you a clear view of the heights to attain. It’s a tough climb but, with luck, some small part of the greatness will rub off on you.
And that’s why I made Clive James the first in this series.
We often wait until our heroes are gone before we shower them with praise due to them while they’re with us.
Clive James has more than earned mine, and I don’t doubt, in good time, yours, too.
If this post manages to garner just one extra reader, I hope it’s him.