I have absolutely no doubt that, if you’re British or Australian, you will know the name of Clive James who has been one of our best journalists, critics and general cultural bods since he broke onto the scene in the early seventies. He was originally a newspaper critic at The Observer but his unique blend of cynicism and wit propelled him into TV where his larger-than-shirt neck always looked uncomfortable, unsuited, but always at home.
James has been ill for some years but still writes the occasional piece for The Guardian which are increasingly brief but always worth reading. Less worth reading is the opprobrium of his critics that The Guardian allow ‘below the line’, as the jargon of internet has it. Routinely cruel and mean spirited, the comments are indicative of these glib days when wit has all the subtlety of blowing a deep raspberry into a bowl of jaundice-coloured jelly. They were so bad this week that I’m afraid my temper boiled and I found myself posting some of what you’re now reading except with some additional ‘effs’ and a few conspicuous ‘jeffs’.
I’m afraid I couldn’t help it. There is something so predictable about the drivel written by grey-cardigan types who greet every article that James writes with another bland affirmation of their own doltish mediocrity. If it takes a giant of moral and intellectual bravery to insult a seriously ill man, it only takes a profoundly stupid one to highlight how James achieves more on quarter power than they do in the full flight of their bile-charged spite. It makes you wonder what festering resentments makes these people so cowardly. What intellectually dead miasma do they inhabit all day long? What pile-squeezing job in local government do they have that forces the juices of their long-stewed stupidity back up their brain stems until it turns into comments of such rare cruelty but commonplace ignorance.
It is, no doubt, the urchin-like confidence of the undiscovered literary genius who typically spends his evening writing the great American novel from a desk in Kettering, whose last collection of poems was ‘widely’ compared to Larkin by the Dunstable poetry circle, or who once got £5 for a witty letter published in the East Grinstead Bugle.
I ask in all seriousness: what right do these cynics have to not only insult James but also insult those of us who have cherished him for nearly our entire lives?
And cherish him I certainly have. Clive James has done more to influence the course of my life than any other writer. And, yes, I know that makes me a ‘sad case’, as I’ve been called, but in these ‘enlightened’ times, it’s hard to describe how being ‘cultured’ in my small working class northern town was ridiculed and how English Literature at school wasn’t a subject that lads ever chose. Growing up I had few role models but James was always a symbol of articulate but engaging journalism. He was an ordinary bloke with bad shirts and who sweated visibly in hot climates. That doesn’t seem important yet he knew literature and even wrote poetry. What was most impressive to me was that he understood that high culture could overlap with low culture and there was no shame attached to writing about one or the other or both. He could talk effortless about T.S. Eliot as easily as he discussed bad Japanese game shows.
There were certainly more difficult writers out there and there were others that were more intelligent. Yet none have James’ ability to treat intelligent subjects with that distinctive lightness of touch. His greatest crime as a writer is writing for his readers and that is still the rarest quality in these days of tedious political posturing and academically insipid prose. Few writers in Britain have it or have had it for as long as he has had it.
Writing intelligently about anything is hard but writing ‘funny’ is even harder. Writing intelligently with humour is possibly the hardest of all and I humbly offer the opinion that this has always been Clive James’s almost unique gift and absolutely worth defending.