Clive James's Blog
December 12, 2009
The following is the text of an essay by Julian Gough that ran in the January 2009 issue of Prospect, under the unfeasibly flattering title “As Good as Heaney?”, which I presume was the editor’s choice. My thanks to Julian Gough for kindly making the text available after Prospect strangely decided to be coy about granting web access.
As Good as Heaney?
I’ve been reading Clive James since I was in short pants and he was in flares. Back then, it was impossible to predict where he would end up, because he was shooting off in all directions at once like a burning box of fireworks. What couldn’t he do?
From 1972 to 1976, James’s Observer television columns used riveting language to nail down the ephemera of an entire culture as it moved into a democratic age. It was only after the tapes were wiped that people realised it had been these ephemera that showed you what was happening. He twigged it first. In 1979, his Unreliable Memoirs did to its genre what Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint had just done to the novel. James admitted to flaws and inadequacies that nobody who wrote that well had ever owned up to before: the minor ones; the embarrassing ones. Liberating, brave, Unreliable Memoirs was also hugely influential; Russell Brand’s My Booky Wook is its charming but undisciplined bastard child. Then, from 1982, his ITV show Clive James on Television invented the reality TV aesthetic: a celebrity chuckling while ordinary people ate ants to get on television. The ordinary people were Japanese, from imported gameshow clips; but the British, shown it was possible, soon evolved into anteaters.
After the show, he’d go home (reading Tacitus on the tube, in the original), and write a poem about Egon Friedell. James was the barbarian who had travelled to the capital of the old empire and, casually mastering its every art, become more civilised than its natives. He was, and is, an inspiration to younger writers worldwide, whose backwaters lack role models.
In the later volumes of the memoirs, James constantly attacks himself for his selfishness, his ego. But I always used to think that—especially in the novels and poems—he wasn’t selfish enough. In looking up to so many writers and thinkers, he put himself down, and thus risked failing to reach the heights of his true potential. I now realise that what I saw as a flaw was in fact his greatest virtue as a poet and essayist.
All through these early and middle years, the essays and poems quietly punctuated the bigger stuff. Now, though, something unexpected is happening. The small stuff is starting to acquire a shape: it turns out to have been a grand, unified project after all. And it is noble; and it is successful. Here, he has achieved greatness. While our attention has been on the big fish—the novels, memoirs, television—the essays and poems have accumulated, year by year, like polyps making coral; until you realise that the most important thing isn’t the fish, it’s the reef, which makes all else possible.
When we talk on the phone, James says firmly: “I think that for anyone who writes poetry, it [the poetry] is the most important thing.” So—how good is the poetry? Well, things began to come into focus in 2003 with The Book of My Enemy, a collection of James’s verse from 1958 to 2003. It is a mansion of a book, built on classical lines—but also containing slot machines and a pool table. His excellent song lyrics and parodies both get their own wings; the Robert Lowells are savagely good, and will destroy Lowell for you. With this latest volume, Angels Over Elsinore (the collected verse from 2003 to the present), he has added a beautiful conservatory. The new poems again apply faultless technique to subject matter that ranges in weight from helium to promethium.
But let’s step back. These poems are dazzling—and, because of this, the reader may think they’re built to dazzle; and may then go on to wonder, as I did for years, why a poet of such gifts doesn’t loosen that total control of the words and see where they take him. So I ask him.
“I threw away surrealism early on. I thought I’d try and be clear and intelligible, at least on one level. A retreat in order to advance.”
It worked. He needed a base in truth and clarity, because he didn’t yet have a base in self. He would have floated away – as so many young poets do— in a second-hand drunken boat, down an endless, meandering river of bullshit. But it takes a precocious wisdom to realise that. Instead, he mastered the art of writing brilliant poems that contain no ambiguity (much harder work than it looks). There is a clear line of ethical argument running through each of them, superbly expressed. They look playful, but the words are always doing a specific job.
“I expect to be judged on each one. I’m a great believer in the stand-alone poem. And the stand-alone poem—you have to be able to stand by it. If you’re toying with any ethical conundrum then I think your position should be clear. For me, the essay and the poem are very close forms.” And his poems are beautifully, and formally, constructed to carry an idea. First there is the idea: then the poem.
It’s instructive to compare Clive James, poet, to that most famous living example of the type, Seamus Heaney. If the blaze of the television lights has left us squinting to get a clear look at James’s talent, the glint off the gold of Heaney’s Nobel is equally distracting. Clear the mind, though—read both by candlelight—and the talents come into focus as being not only of the same type but of the same order of magnitude.
To make the scales balance, you have to throw in the essays of both men. James is, on his best day, as good a poet, but he’s written fewer poems. Heaney is, on his best day, as good an essayist, but he’s written fewer essays. Both are morally scrupulous—careful not to be intoxicated by the ferment of their feelings. They have given up some of their power in order to be certain they are not doing evil. If, on many days, I prefer the wilder poems of more morally reckless poets (poets with far higher failure rates), I nonetheless always return—a little sulky and hungover—to Heaney and to James. Their murmur and boom are the voices of my conscience.
Many critics would refuse the comparison and call James superficial. They’re wrong. James is an absolute master of surface, and the great critic of surfaces, not because he is superficial but because he believes that the distortions on the surface tell you what’s underneath. Style is character. His simplicity isn’t simple and his clarity has depth. With the essays and the poems—which I think you have to consider as one great project—he’s built an immense, protective barrier reef around western civilisation.
With Cultural Amnesia in particular, he has audited a century of thinkers and writers, praised the heroes, damned the villains, and rescued the forgotten. The dead speak through him, and you should listen. He’s very close to being the least selfish writer we have, and to being the most valuable. James, like Heaney, is holding the pass of western civilization so that less responsible artists like me (and Russell Brand) can frolic in the hills.
“I haven’t really published anything as a poem that I didn’t thoroughly believe in. I try not to finish anything that isn’t coming from a really solid idea. I don’t write poems for the sake of it.” And how. Because (and it took me too long to realise this) his poems are not built to dazzle, they’re built to enlighten. The poems are the special ops troops of his criticism. While the essays advance on a broad front, each of his new poems takes apart a selected target: a bridge (“Grace Cossington Smith’s Harbour Bridge”), a grove of trees (“Under the Jacarandas”). And, again and again, a painting (in “Woman Resting” it’s a Mancini nude, in “Ghost Train to Australia” a landscape by Jeffrey Smart, in “A Gyre from Brother Jack” an enigmatic, joyous painting by Jack Yeats.) And each of these poems is an ethical audit of what is being observed. The Book of My Enemy contains a bunch of them. A poem like “What Happened to Auden” (which states the moral case for refusing to get carried away by words) is a little miracle of intellectual compression; a mind expressing itself about as richly as it can.
“I certainly write poetry in order to keep myself disciplined as a prose writer, I always have. If you pay that kind of attention to a poem it will transfer to your prose; you watch every word, you watch the balance.”
The balance in his prose sentences is extraordinary, even when the sentence is just doing its job. And some of the most poetic writing is, I tell him, in the essays.
“Well, the forms are continuous with each other.”
Sometimes I’d love to see you just let rip.
“Yeah, that might be coming. You don’t know what’s coming next, and neither do I.”
The new poems about your father are very beautiful.
“Well that only became possible after my mother died.”
And the poems about your wife are gorgeous.
“I’ve been married 40 years, and it’s time to write these things. And the poets tend to leave that one out. Yeats was always writing lovesick poems to girl after girl, he’s something like 90 years old and having monkey gland injections… I loved writing ‘Anniversary Serenade.’ Sometimes you get a line and you think, wow, I’ve been waiting for that one for a long time. There’s a line about ‘the curving ribbon of a climbing kite.’ I saw that when I was a kid, and then you wait about 50 years, and you get the words for it. Or, let’s be frank, 60 years….”
Your emotional territory has really opened up in the last few years.
“Yes. Yes. That’s why I need more time. Because you get into what my friend Bruce Beresford calls the Departure Lounge, and two things happen: suddenly time really matters, you can hear the clock, and also you have all these freedoms, because you’ve got more of life to reflect on. There’s no young man’s version of the stuff I’m writing now.”
Clive James's father, as a young man, survived Changi POW camp, then slave labour in Japan. The plane flying him home, after the war, crashed. His body lies in Sai Wan War Cemetery, Hong Kong. He sacrificed his future so that his son could grow up (and think, and write), in freedom. Among the things the son has written is the recent, strong and true poem “My Father Before Me,” which ends “Back at the gate, I turn to face the hill, / Your headstone lost again among the rest. /I have no time to waste, much less to kill. /My life is yours; my curse, to be so blessed.”
I should have told James that to have become the man capable of writing both Cultural Amnesia and “My Father Before Me” is to have repaid that vast debt in full. But guys don’t really say that kind of thing.
April 14, 2009
Dates of show: Mar. 27 and Mar. 29, 2009
In a case which has deep resonance for Britain and the entire civilized world, the whole of Australia has been glued to the media in recent weeks, following the story of an eminent judge who has ruined his reputation because he tried to lie his way out of a speeding fine that would have cost him about 36 pounds sterling . At the age of 70, he is about to go to jail for a minimum of two years because he failed to cough up 36 quid at the right moment. On the face of it, you can’t call his disaster a tragedy. A tragedy, according to classical principles, is a fall from high degree because of some great flaw. Marcus Einfeld, the judge in question, was certainly of high enough degree: none higher. Queens Counsel since 1977, Australian Living Treasure 1997, United Nations Peace Award 2002, the list goes on. He retired a few years ago but he has continually been brought back to judge important cases about refugees because the Australian legal system can’t do without his experience and prestige.
Or anyway it couldn’t. In 2006 a speed camera in Sydney caught his silver Lexus doing 6mph over the limit. At this point we have to forget about the dizzy speed of the car and try to slow down the thought processes going on in his head. There he is, at the top of his profession, with a national, indeed international, reputation for wisdom. This is the man who was the founding president of Australia’s Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission. In 1987 he headed the Commission’s enquiry into the living conditions of aborigines in the border area of New South Wales and Queensland and he wept openly at evidence that a young aboriginal boy who had been denied a proper rugby ball had played instead with an old shoe.
Those were famous tears, and there is every reason to think that they were sincerely felt. As a judge of great matters of justice, Marcus Einfeld had deservedly been revered for many years. He had a right to think of himself as the very incarnation of the law. Now here he was, with a speeding ticket in his hand, facing a fine of a paltry £36 for having exceeded the speed limit by a lousy 6mph. And right there the fatal error begins to take form. It wasn’t so much the £36 fine. He could afford that. It was that the penalty points would bring him closer to losing his licence. Somehow the top judge and national treasure didn’t see himself in a position where he was not allowed to drive.
Unusual, that. Many 70 year old men of his exalted rank are very content to be driven, rather than having to do the driving. They have a man with a cap to drive them, so they can say, from the back seat: watch out for the speed cameras, Bruce. Perhaps Marcus Einfeld is one of those strange men – there are thousands of them in every country and they are nearly always men – who need to have a driving licence just so that they can get points on it, who think that the whole purpose of driving is to drive as far over the limit as they can and still get away with it, and still keep going for as long as the licence lasts even if they don’t get away with it.
But the judge was only 6mph over the limit, which scarcely made him a boy racer. He must have thought the prospect of getting yet more points on an already point-scarred licence was an awful lot of inconvenience for practically nothing, and he must also have thought – and here the other half of the fateful mental pattern comes into play – he must also have thought of how easy it would be to get out of it. All he had to do was say that someone else was driving the silver Lexus that day. So he said he had lent the car to an American friend, Professor Theresa Brennan. Satisfied, the magistrate dismissed the case, and the judge walked free. In just such a way, King Oedipus believed himself to be in the clear when he left Corinth.
If he – I mean the judge, not King Oedipus --had said that he had lent the car to an Australian government secret agent whom he could not name without rendering him vulnerable to attack by terrorists, Marcus Einfeld might still be enjoying his place at the top of the heap, admired by all. But Professor Theresa Brennan was an actual figure, who could be traced. When a newspaper did trace her, it turned out that she was no longer in existence. At the time of the speeding incident she had already been dead for three years.
It was probably already too late for Marcus Einfeld to save his career. Yet he might conceivably have climbed relatively unbesmirched out of the hole he was occupying, and even drawn some sympathy for the depth to which he had dug himself in by telling one of those little fibs that almost everyone tells over small matters. But like president Nixon in the Watergate scandal, the judge, although trying to cover up an infinitely smaller crime – dodging a £36 fine instead of okaying acts of black-bag espionage against a rival party in clear defiance of the Constitution of the United States – the judge chose to go on digging himself further towards the centre of the earth.
He said he didn’t mean that Theresa Brennan. He meant another Theresa Brennan. A Greek chorus at this point might have said that the Judge was anything but a natural liar, because he lied so very badly, just like most of us. Further proofs of his amateur status followed in quick succession. Finally, in a skein of inventions that we needn’t bother to unravel, he managed to implicate his own mother, aged 94, when he claimed to have been using her Toyota Corolla that day, so he couldn’t have been at the wheel of his silver Lexus.
Alas, there was security camera footage to prove that his mother’s Toyota Corolla had not emerged from the garage of her apartment block between daylight and dusk. We were left with the thought picture of a team of trained investigators examining a whole day’s worth of CCTV footage to establish that a Toyota Corolla had remained stationary throughout. With that thought picture, and with the thought picture of a man of true stature with his life in ruins.
Did any of this really matter? Well, obviously the original offence didn’t matter much. At 6 mph over the limit, the judge wasn’t going to hurt anyone. And the first lie shouldn’t have mattered much either. People really do lie all the time. Often they lie to protect themselves, sometimes they lie to protect their loved ones, and there is even such a thing as a saving lie, a lie that wards off the dreadful consequences of the truth. Ibsen wrote a play about that, called The Wild Duck. None of this means that lying is a virtue. Almost always, it’s a vice, to be avoided. But it’s a universal vice, and its prevalence is the very reason why any properly functioning legal system has a harsh law against perjury, because a court is where the lies have to stop, or there can be no justice.
And what the judge did was knowingly to put himself on the road to perjury. He was on the road at only 6mph over the limit and he could have stopped himself by coughing up 36 quid, but there was an inner momentum. Just why that should have been so is a question he’ll be occupying himself with for the next two years at least. Everyone else will be thinking about it too, but his will be easily the finest mind concerned with the subject. He doesn’t need me or anyone else to tell him that a judge who commits perjury, over no matter how trivial a matter, has sinned against the spirit of his profession.
That’s why his case really is a tragedy, and not just a farce. It’s a tragedy because he not only fell from high degree, there really was a tragic flaw: a capacity to forget, at the critical moment, the central ethical precept of the calling to which he had given his life. Suddenly, belatedly, and for almost no reason, he put himself in the position of a doctor who is arraigned for selling body parts, and, because he was selling only fingernails, defends himself by saying it hadn’t been him that sold the fingernails, it was Professor Theresa Brennan, or another Theresa Brennan, or his mother at the wheel of a Toyota Corolla. The doctor wasn’t supposed to be selling anything, so he should have owned up.
But the Judge doesn’t need to hear that from me, or from any other of the thousands of Australian experts – editorial writers, television commentators and philosophers of all descriptions – who are now picking this matter over. The Judge is already hearing about it from himself. He’s hearing about the fatal road that led from the speed camera to the truly tragic climax, which wasn’t the moment when one of his fellow judges had to send him down for three years, two of them without parole. The tragic climax came when the distinguished Judge Marcus Einfeld found himself on the telephone to his mother saying: “Mum, remember how you lent me your Toyota that day?” and she said “Marcus, what have you got yourself into?” And suddenly he was a little boy again, as all men are when the truth they must face is about a mess of their own making.
March 31, 2009
‘If parents are anxious to have their children well educated, they must not be afraid of a little castigation on the place which nature has ordained for the purpose.’ – Editorial in the Family Herald, January 1846
‘Referring to Gary Paul he said: “In my view I did my best to strike him on the buttocks where it would hurt but not cause any physical damage. I did not consider I gave him any excess caning.” Judge Bertrand Richards commented: “Buttocks were ordained by nature for the purpose.”’ – Court report in Daily Telegraph, August 1975
TAKE A BABY INTO a trattoria in Florence or Rome, and you will be greeted by squeals of delight from the staff and customers. Repeat the experiment in a London restaurant – or, worse still, a pub – and the maître d’ or landlord will fix you with a poisonous glare of disapproval. When Evelyn Waugh grumpily described children as ‘defective adults’, he was articulating a common national prejudice. We are a nation of child-haters; and, as the size of the prison population demonstrates, we are a nation of punishment freaks. Put the two together and you have a society where physical violence against tiny tots is not only acceptable but a bounden duty. Hence the undisguised glee of Tory backbenchers when Gillian Shephard indulged her flogging fantasies on the Today programme this week. 'I think there is so much value in proper corporal punishment,' Harry Greenway MP raved. ‘I don't mean beating boys until they bleed...' Of course not; merely scarring and bruising will be quite adequate. It was entirely predictable that Britain should have been the last country in Europe to ban corporal punishment in state schools, in 1987 - and then only because the European Court of Human Rights gave us no choice. I don't doubt that we shall be the last country in Europe to outlaw the beating of children by parents, too.
No wonder spanking is known throughout the world as the English vice. Exactly a century ago, a book about virtue by the French author Josephin Aimé Peladan included a whole chapter on ‘le vice anglais'. It concluded: ‘The Anglo-Saxon will always represent human deprivation - the race which stains pleasure with blood, which conceals an assassin's knife in the bed of love.' One hundred years on, we are still spanking away like billy-o - and still pretending that we do so in the name of love. ‘You say “Don't do this'', ''You mustn't do that” and you gently slap them if they transgress,' the Archbishop of Canterbury advised his flock last weekend, ‘and there is nothing wrong with that as long as it is done with love and firm discipline within the family set-up.' Many a stern Victorian paterfamilias must have thought that he too was exercising 'love and firm discipline within the family set-up' when he walloped his wife or housemaid. If he tried it today, however, he might well find himself up on a charge. It is bizarre but true that the only British citizens who have no legal redress against domestic violence are those who are most vulnerable.
As children grow up, accorded to Archbishop Carey, 'they learn and understand those rules and of course it has to be lived out. We older people must practice what we preach. So I don't think we pontificate from on high. We actually live the kind of discipline we are wanting a future generation of people to grow up with.’ Oh really? I find it inconceivable that George Carey would take a swipe at an archdeacon who had been ‘misbehaving’; the disciplinary code observed by grown-ups doesn’t allow recourse to physical assault. Why, then, do we believe we are setting children an example, and preparing them for adult life, by whacking them every time they stray from the path of righteousness? The answer is depressingly simple: because we know we can get away with it. If George Carey saw a pet poodle piddling on his carpet at Lambeth Palace, perhaps he would administer one of his ‘loving slaps’; if the miscreant mutt was a saber-toothed rottweiler, he might think twice. It is nothing to do with ‘discipline’ and everything to do with the balance of power. As Penelope Leach comments in her recent book Children First, ‘When a big child hits a small child in the playground, we call him a bully; five years later he punches a woman for her handbag and is called a mugger; later still, when he slugs a workmate who insults him, he is called a troublemaker; but when he becomes a father and hits his tiresome, disobedient or disrespectful child, we call him a disciplinarian. Why is this rung on the ladder of interpersonal violence regarded so differently from the rest?' I can already hear George Carey pointing out one difference: when he spanks, he does so for the child’s own good. But good intentions are no justification, merely paving stones on the road to hell. Does a police officer’s desire to convict criminals justify violence to an obviously guilty suspect? The other distinction, Carey must say, is that the smacking of children is administered in a ‘private, loving family context’. Following that logic, we might as well legalize wife-beating and granny-bashing as well.
‘If the whole concept of punishment is foreign to the self-discipline parents want children to acquire,’ Penelope Leach concludes, ‘then physical punishment cuts at its very foundations, highlighting people’s reluctance to regard children as fully human – as people just like themselves except for youth and inexperience – and their ultimate readiness to abandon cooperation for the naked assertion of painful power.’ Listening to the beguiling understatement of George Carey, Gillian Shephard and their supporters, who murmur about ‘loving slaps’ and ‘gentle taps’, one could easily forget that the point of smacking is to inflict pain. ‘We are not talking about beating [children] up,’ says David Clark, the shadow defence secretary, ‘but a little slap doesn’t do them any harm.’ But it hurts them, doesn’t it? His colleague David Blunkett, who was so scathing about the Education Secretary’s yearning for the cane, has nevertheless endorsed the Archbishop’s ‘perfectly reasonable’ remarks, adding that it is ‘important to distinguish between smacking and physical violence’. Has this supposedly intelligent fellow never twigged that smacking, however mild, is indeed physical and violent? And where are all these calm, caring, cool-headed spankers anyway? Almost every time I visit the supermarket I witness some harassed and frustrated parent yelling at an errant child ‘You stop that right now or I’ll belt you.’ I have never heard a shopper say ‘Now look darling, I think it is important to impress on you that you mustn’t pull the bottles of Virgin Cola off the shelves, and so I intend to deliver a light slap – in a loving context, of course.’ This isn’t a wallop; it’s codswallop.
The Tory MP Sir Ivan Lawrence, who applauds the Archbishop’s’ common sense’, has seen fit to inform us that ‘I got a good hiding at home and at school if I was bad. It didn’t do me any harm; in fact, I like to think it probably did me some good.’ Students of Sir Ivan’s parliamentary career may wonder how beneficial it really was; but at least he was honest enough not to take refuge in euphemisms. One other politician, who has spoken bluntly on this subject, though he probably won’t wish to be reminded of it, is Michael Meacher. I have a friend who was a pupil at Berkamsted School when Meacher was a cane-wielding prefect. ‘Now, boy,’ the future Labour frontbencher warned, as he ordered my friend to bend over, ‘you are going to understand the meaning of pain.’ It may not have done Meacher any harm; but the recipient has never quite forgotten the ordeal.
There is one final point about corporal punishment, which is seldom mentioned in these discussions: spanking is sexy. Go into any telephone box in central London and you’ll find dozens of calling cards from prostitutes advertising ‘strict discipline’ in one form or another. When George Ryley Scott wrote his pioneering History of Corporal Punishment in 1938, the publishers restricted its sale to ‘members of the medical and legal professions, scientists, anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, criminologists and social workers’, precisely because they feared his treatise might otherwise be used as S&M pornography. ‘It would have been easy to ignore the sexual side and all its implications,’ he admitted in the preface. ‘But this ostrich-like attitude would have been not only to evade one of the main issues, but to permit a distortion of the truth. One of the most pernicious features of corporal punishment lies in the possibility, on the one hand, of pandering to the sadistic element in mankind, and, on the other, of awakening or developing sexual libido.’ Nothing has changed since then: how could it, human nature being what it is? On the paperback edition of Ian Gibson’s The English Vice, the most exhaustive study of flagellomania ever written, there are admiring reviews from the Times Educational Supplement, The Sunday Times, the Scotsman – and Janus, the magazine for spanking fetishists, which notes that ‘it should command the attention of every close student of corporal punishment’. Alas, there are few ‘close students’ whose interest isn’t wholly lubricious. Perhaps it is too much to expect a busy Archbishop of Canterbury or Secretary of State to read Ian Gibson’s book before sounding off about the harmlessness of slapping and slippering; but as educated people they must surely be aware of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, published posthumously in 1782.
If not, then let me enlighten them. Rousseau, whose mother dies in childbirth, spent much of his boyhood being brought up by a Protestant priest, M. Lambercier, and his unmarried sister. ‘Since Mlle Lambercier treated us with a mother’s love, she had also a mother’s authority,’ he recalled, ‘which she exercised by inflicting on us such childish chastisements as we had earned.’ After his first beating, he was startled to find the experience ‘less dreadful’ than he had anticipated; in fact, he discovered in the shame and pain ‘an admixture of sensuality’ which left him eager for more.
Who could have supposed that this childish punishment, received at the age of eight at the hands of a woman of thirty, would determine my tastes and desires, my passions, my very self for the rest of my life, and that in a sense diametrically opposed to the one in which they should have developed? At the moment when my senses were aroused my desires took a false turn and, confining themselves to this early experience, never set about seeking a different one… How differently people would treat children if only they saw the eventual results of the indiscriminate, and often culpable, methods of punishment they employ!
More than two centuries later, George ‘Spanker’ Carey and Gillian ‘Thrasher’ Shephard still can’t see it. Perhaps someone should slap them about a bit, firmly but lovingly, until they come to their senses. After all, as they have so confidently reassured us, it can’t do any harm.
Guardian, 31 October 1996
March 25, 2009
THE END OF Tony Blair’s honeymoon, so long predicted, can now be officially confirmed. His beloved mentor and dining companion Paul Johnson is threatening to file for divorce 'In his faultless handling of events after Diana’s death, Tony Blair seemed to be aligning himself with the decent majority,' he writes. ‘But sometimes he is less clear about where he stands.' According to Johnson, who has long boasted of his friendship with the Prime Minister, we are witnessing a millennial struggle between two ‘images of Britain’. One is the ‘tender and beautiful' country which wept for Princess Diana. But there is also 'the nightmare Britain' of pop groups, Booker Prize authors and sensation-seeking artists - 'perverted, brutal, horribly modish and clever-cunning, degenerate, exhibitionist, high-voiced and limp wristed…’
A suggestive selection of epithets, wouldn't you say? What he is trying to tell us, with untypical coyness, is that he can't stand poofters. Hence his rage at Blair's recent message of support for the Gay Pride march - 'an affront to ordinary Londoners'. Hence, too, his reminder of what happened to the artists and writers of the last fin de siècle: ‘These precious creatures were riding high until, in 1885, the conviction and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde, the paedophile, brought the edifice of fashionable degeneracy down in shameful ruin.’ Actually, Wilde was convicted m 1895; but this is the least important of Johnson's clod-hopping errors and idiocies. 'In Oscar Wilde's nineties,’ he claims, 'the decadents had to operate with limited resorts and spoke to a restricted audience. Wilde's West End plays were tailored to the moral tastes of the Victorian middle class - he kept his vices private until they were exposed by his own folly.' Today's degenerates, by contrast, receive 'huge publicity. More publicity than Oscar Wilde? I think not. Gilbert and Sullivan wrote an entire opera satirising his flamboyant aestheticism. W.H. Smith refused to sell The Picture of Dorian Gray - described by Richard Ellmann as ‘one of the first attempts to bring homosexuality into the English novel' - because it was deemed too ‘filthy’. One might add that a man who wished to ingratiate himself with the Victorian bourgeoisie would not have written a book called The Soul of Man Under Socialism.
What of the plays? Wilde's first West End success, Lady Windermere's Fan, deliberately inverts middle-class morals by giving the devil all the best lines. 'As a wicked man I am a complete failure,’ Lord Darlington comments. 'Why, there are lots of people who say I have never really done anything wrong in the whole course of my life. Of course they only say it behind my back.’ A dunder-headed alderman who praised the playwright for ‘lashing vice' was swiftly and publicly corrected. ‘I can assure you that nothing was further from my intentions,’ Wilde declared. 'Those who have seen Lady Windermere’s Fan will say that if there is one particular doctrine contained in it, it is that of sheer individualism. It is not for anyone to censure what anyone else does, and everyone should go his own way, to whatever place he chooses, in exactly the way that he chooses.’ At the first night, Wilde took his curtain-call wearing a green carnation and mauve gloves. His next play, Salome, was banned by the Lord Chamberlain. This scarcely suggests that he tried very hard to appease the Paul Johnsons of his day.
A century later, depravity stalks the land once more and our own Paul Johnson is in an apocalyptic frenzy. ‘Will the Decadent Nineties end with an evil elite taking charge of our culture?' he wonders. 'The phenomenon I call the Diana Revolution - the birth of Diana Power this month - makes me suspect that the decadents are not going to have it all their own way. There is a stirring of decency at the grassroots.’ By decency, of course, he means heterosexuality.
The idea that the Princess's admirers are all decent, wholesome queer- bashers is certainly original. It is also quite barmy. The most obvious manifestation of 'Diana Power' is the huge popularity of 'Candle in the Wind' - performed by one of the most famous homosexuals in the world. Though Johnson assures us that all but ‘A few thousand' Britons share his foaming homophobia, he then explodes his own premise by grumbling that ‘scarcely a day goes by without an MP or even a government minister “coming out'' as a sodomite or a lesbian, introducing his or her partner to the world and receiving not public obloquy but approval and praise for his or her ''courage'' “honesty''.' Er, quite.
'It is,’ Johnson concludes, 'high time for Tony Blair…to make up his mind where he stands.' Indeed it is. On the one hand there are the millions of people who have bought Elton John's record and are sublimely untroubled by Angela Eagle's lesbianism; on the other, alone and ridiculous, is Paul Johnson, gibbering like the ghost of the 9th Marquess of Queensberry. If forced to choose between his country and his friend, the PM may well decide - however reluctantly - that a certain red-haired, red-faced adviser has outlived his usefulness.
(Guardian, 24th of September 1997)
WHO WAS THE ONLY woman ever to sit in Mrs. Thatcher's Cabinet, apart from the PM herself? Baroness Young (for it was she) might have expected that this unique achievement would guarantee her lasting fame, but it didn't.
Now she is making another bid for political immortality. In the House of Lords today she will invite the assembled backwoodsmen, bishops and bigots to throw out amendments to the Crime and Disorder Bill, passed by a huge majority in the Commons last month, which would lower the age of consent for homosexuals to sixteen. 'I think there will be a lot of support on the Conservative benches.’ she says. Since most of the long-suffering benches in the Upper House are occupied by Tory bottoms, she may well succeed.
Baroness Young justifies her attempted sabotage by grumbling that ‘there was no chance for a proper debate’ when the amendments came before the Commons. On the contrary: there was a long debate on the evening of 22 June. Not a very good debate, I agree, but that's because politicians who oppose an equal age of consent are the same people who usually thunder against the 'nanny state' and insist on the sacred importance of ‘equality before the law'. To get round this inconsistency, they were therefore obliged to talk in non- sequiteurs throughout. Nevertheless, the opinions of those who belong to the Baroness Young school of thought - more of a borstal, really - were thoroughly aired. Sir Patrick Cormack MP warned Honourable Members to remember ‘the old description of the Navy, ''rum, sodomy and the lash'''. To Sir Patrick's annoyance, this provoked sniggers. ‘There is nothing funny about it,' he snapped. 'lt is a perfectly reasonable point to make in support of my argument'. Another perfectly reasonable point came from Nicholas Winterton. 'Am I not correct,’ he asked, ‘in saying that a homosexual act is unnatural and if the Lord Almighty had meant men to commit sodomy with other men, their bodies would have been built differently? ‘
‘I hope I shall be acquitted of the charge of being antagonistic to the homo- sexual community,' Sir Norman Fowler told the House. To prove his lack of antagonism, he then went on to confuse gays with paedophiles, citing 'the case of Roger Gleaves, the self-styled “Bishop of Medway''', as an argument against changing the law. Rather absent-mindedly, Fowler forgot to add that an age of consent set at twenty-one did nothing to stop Gleaves's sexual abuse of boys. Crispin Blunt MP was also worried about vulnerable teenagers, since much homosexuality ‘depends for its gratification on the exploitation of youth'. Although girls need no legal protection from older men, 'the everyday experience of adolescents, combined with scientific observations, make it clear that boys of this age are self-evidently less mature, sexually and in judgment, than their female counterparts... My conclusion is that we have a duty to protect boys of sixteen and seventeen.’ Girls of sixteen and seventeen, by contrast, would presumably still be free to go to bed with Bill Wyman or the Tory politician Peers Merchant.
I expect that today's discussion in the House of Lords will reach the same high standard of unprejudiced ratiocination. But there will be one element missing. The Commons debate included a deeply pious speech against the new age of consent by the Labour MP Stuart Bell, who pointed out that he was expressing both his own views and those of the Church of England, whose interests he represents in the House as a Second Church Estates Commissioner. It was not ‘morally right or socially desirable' to give homosexuals the same rights as heterosexuals, he said. Instead, we need 'a broader agenda of moral vision'.
Bell set out his own sexual agenda some years ago when he wrote a novel called Paris 69. Though it is now sadly unavailable, here's a sample: 'And she keeps on sucking, sucking and nibbling and filling me with yearning, with desire to thrust her back on the bed now, strap her to it the way the schoolteacher had shown me… I wanted that she be tied to the bed and I dominate her, rape her, burst inside her and be cleansed.’ The narrator, I need hardly add, is a man; there's nowt queer about our Stuart. Perhaps, during today's debate, someone from the Bench of Bishops will tell us whether the ‘moral vision' of their parliamentary spokesman is also the Church of England's official policy.
(Guardian, 22nd July1998)
THE LONDON BOROUGH OF BROMLEY has emerged from suburban obscurity to play a strategic role in Brutish foreign policy. This startling news was hidden away on an inside page of the Guardian the other day. After seven years of trilateral negotiations between the Foreign Office, the Treasury and the civil service trade unions, the government has decided that overseas allowances for British diplomats are to be based on the cost of living in the south London suburb. Once a year, a team of ‘special investigators' will descend on the town, armed with clipboards and calculators, to check on the price of haircuts, dry-cleaning and baked beans.
So it’s official: the borough where I was born, and where I spent much of my childhood, is the most typical, the most representative, the most utterly average place in the land. Now that the secret is out, there may be visitors from further afield than Whitehall, curious to see for themselves the quintessence of modern Britain. Is Bromley ready for the coach parties and the camera crews? Last week 1 set soon my own fact finding expedition.
I asked a woman at the reception desk in the Civic Centre lf she could direct me to the tourist office. ‘Er, we don't have one’ she confessed. Well could she point out a few of Bromley's more noteworthy landmarks and attractions? ‘We don't actually have very many. We're not really a tourist area.' Any interesting buildings, perhaps? 'No, not really.’ But then as a native son, I knew that. What Bromley does have is shops; and shops; and more shops. ‘People here shop like maniacs,’ a woman in the High Street told me. There's a new Habitat store built on the scale of the QE2; there are two huge malls, one of them implausibly named The Glades. Thanks to the Foreign Office, the din of Bromley's cash registers can now be heard from Toronto to Tirana.
The only sanctuary from this consumerist frenzy is the Churchill Theatre halfway up the street, currently staging a revival of Noel Coward's This Happy Breed. The title and indeed the plot of the play might well have been chosen by the nonexistent Bromley Tourist Board to market the town. To quote from the synopsis provided by the drama critic of the Bromley and Beckenham Times: 'Frank and Ethel Gibbons are the worthy parents at the head of a hardworking, God fearing, working-class suburban London family…’ Alarmingly, however, even the local paper can hardly stifle a yawn: ‘In 1994 a contemporary audience is more likely to sympathise with the rebellious daughter Queenie, who runs away from the suffocating atmosphere of the home to find more excitement on the Continent.’ The contemporary audience will find itself in good company. H.G. Wells, who was born at 47 High Street (now the site of an Alders department store), left town at the age of thirteen. Hanif Kureshi, also grew up in Bromley during the 1960’s, also scarpered as soon as he could - later taking his revenge in The Buddha of Suburbia, where he describes Bromley as 'a dreary suburb of London of which it was said that when people drowned they saw not their lives but their double-glazing flashing before them.’
Suburbia has been enduring similar insults for as long as it has existed. 'A suburb,’ the Builder magazine remarked in 1848, 'is the most melancholy thing in existence.’ ‘I must confess honestly,’ Dorothy Peel wrote in The New Home, a book of domestic advice published in 1898, 'that the suburbs of any large town appear to me detestable.' Nastier still was Le Corbusier, who in 1933 persuaded the International Congress on Modern Architecture to approve the following declaration. ‘The suburb...is a kind of scum churning against the walls of the city… lt constitutes one of the greatest evils of the century.’ (This at a time when Hitler had already come to power, and when the more obvious evils of the First World War were stall fresh in the memory.)
Urban tower blocks were the preferred alternative of Le Corbusier and his modernist disciples. After the war, many of them were duly built - and equally duly demolished. But even though Mon Repos and Dunroamin had proved rather more successful as ‘machines for living' than any of Le Corbusier 's schemes, the sneering at suburbia continued regardless. Remember Manfred Mann's ‘Semi-Detached Suburban Mr James', which reached number two in the hit parade in 1966? Or, come to that, the Pet Shop Boys' ‘Suburbia’ ('Lost in the high street, where the dogs run/Roaming suburban boys/Stood by the bus stop with a felt pen in this suburban hell’)? Only last month, on Channel 4, the architectural writer Jonathan Glancey unleashed a torrent of abuse against Bromley's neighbouring suburb, Chislehurst. 'Here, in not-quite-London, not-quite-Kent' he complained, 'it is as if the neutron bomb has dropped: the people have been vaporized, but the houses and their coordinated fabrics and furniture remain standing.’ A couple of days later, one Elizabeth Brooke (described as a 'white witch') told a newspaper: '1 grew up in the suburbs and had a long-standing fantasy of detonating Bromley High Street '
It is easy to mock suburbia, and even easier to be bored there. But why should it provoke such violent rage? The answer, I suspect, is political. To quote one of the few sympathetic studies of this subject, Dunroamin: The Suburban Semi and its Enemies (1981): 'At the root of the attack on suburban living there is the strong pre-supposition that a collective expression of housing (for example a Georgian terrace, or apartments by Le Corbusier) is somehow preferable to the individualistic expression of a single house.' For although critics often accuse suburbia of being monotonous, what they really object to is that it is just the opposite - a cacophony of discordant individuality. Suburbanites are forever embellishing their houses with little differentiating touches: carriage lamps, new porches, wrought-iron gates, leaded lights - something, anything, to prove that their home is indeed their castle, and that within the privet-hedged boundaries they can do with it whatever they jolly well like. It is a Thatcherite dream, the living proof of Lady T's claim that ‘there is no such thing as society; there are individual men and women and there are families'. No wonder it irritates metropolitan leftists, who are convinced that anyone moving to the suburbs will immediately fall into a trance of atomized, self-contained, Pooterish contentment. And, of course, they aren't entirely wrong. Here is 'Our Suburb', a turn-of-the-century poem by Ernest Radford:
He leaned upon the narrow wall
That set the limit to his ground,
And marvelled, thinking of it all,
That he such happiness had found.
He had no word for it but bliss,
He smoked his pipe, he thanked his stars...
But there is more to suburbia than that. Look again at those garden gnomes or those ridiculous suburban house names, or those hedges topiarized into the shape of battleships. Are they merely expressions of terminal tastelessness
- or might they be gestures of subversive nonconformity? After all, the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin lived at 6 Crescent Road, Bromley, for some years, and suburban submersion certainly didn't turn him into a complacent Tory, he returned to Moscow in 1917 bursting with revolutionary ardour. True, he later became disillusioned; but that was the fault of Bolshevism, not Bromley.
Suburbia has outlived Soviet communism, just as it outlived the modern movement. Jeer and scoff as we may, the garden gnomes will always have the last laugh.
(Observer, 21 May 1994)
Francis Wheen, born in 1957, was educated at Harrow, where he was a contemporary of Mark Thatcher. Wheen’s Marxist inclinations thus had plenty of material to work on from an early date, and it can be said that his leftist critique of society has always been at least as well grounded in observation as in theory. Based variously at the Guardian, at the Evening Standard and at Private Eye, he has kept up a constant barrage of outgoing artillery fire in the best traditions of polemical journalism – i.e. the polemics take account of the real world. His gift for invective can be uncomfortable for those who find themselves on the other end of it, as I know to my cost, but there is no denying the continuing relevance of his fine anger. His book Hoo-hahs and Passing Frenzies: Collected Journalism 1991-2001, which came out in 2002, remains a model of the genre: it deservedly won the 2003 George Orwell prize. To hindsight, the book, from which the pieces featured here are taken, proves that Wheen, while blazing away at all the expected targets, was already preparing himself for a new impatience: the Left, to which he nominally belonged, was starting to worry him with its incurable yearning for something more decisive than democracy. This new impatience broke into the clear when he gamely pilloried his own newspaper, the Guardian, for apologising –cravenly, in Wheen’s view – to Noam Chomsky over its supposed misrepresentation of his views on the massacre in Srebrenica. Wheen was a valuable addition to the list of signatories on the Euston Manifesto in 2006. The manifesto marked the point when a left-within-the-left lost patience with the host body’s sympathy for any force, no matter how extreme, that might embarrass the Western democracies. Along with Nick Cohen and Christopher Hitchens, Wheen became a target for unreconstructed radical journalists who found their breakaway colleagues guilty of Liberal Universalism. It was an accusation that Wheen, in particular, was well equipped to counter with learned scorn. As a Marxist who had actually read Marx (his biography of Marx was another prize-winner), he has the advantage of being able to provide his own theoretical back-up. But finally what makes him stand out is his inclusive style, sensitive to everything that is happening, and sometimes, remarkably, to what will happen next.
March 17, 2009
But the approach was different—a leather-lunged engine pushed the passengers round and round in a corkscrew, mounting, rising; they chugged through low-level clouds and for a moment Dick lost Nicole’s face in the spray of the slanting donkey-engine
(Tender is the Night, Book II, chapter xii)
Dorothy Perkins roses dragged patiently through each compartment slowly waggling with the motion of the funicular, letting go at the last to swing back to their rosy cluster. Again and again these branches went through the car.
(Tender is the Night, Book II, chapter viii)
After my interview with Clive James on F. Scott Fitzgerald was published, I sat down at the computer with my father George and we read through it together, until we had climbed as high as the moment where James and I discuss the ‘leather-lunged engine,’ and gloss over the phrase in puzzlement. I could tell by the expression on my father’s face that the ‘leather-lunged engine’ wasn’t something he was about to gloss over. A design engineer, not just by profession but vocation (he retired years ago but all the machines he designed still whirr and chime in his imagination) George looks at a steam engine the way I might look at a painting by Rembrandt: as a thing of beauty and a miracle of rare device, of which he always asks the question ‘How does it work?’ He told me exactly how the hydraulic engine on Fitzgerald’s mountain train would work, and I summarise his comments below.
He also told me another little wonder. I was delighted to discover that in the garden of the house where I write this, the house where our family has lived since 1933, is a vigorous, seemingly unkillable Dorothy Perkins rose bush. Until George told me this, I hadn’t known the name of the variety—only that the rose at the bottom of the garden, the one that guarded us from the world beyond, was an exuberant, small, pink climber with a delicate scent. My grandfather Eric planted it sometime in the mid 30s, and we have been attempting to control it ever since.
But what a recognition scene! As George recounted that story, I knew how it felt to be in the funicular even more clearly than I had before. Yes, the stems of the roses are long and wild, and Fitzgerald is spot on in describing the way they invade the carriage. As kids, we had to push through those long stems as we exited the garden gate and walked into the field below the house in the same way that the funicular had to push through the roses as it climbed the mountain. One summer morning years ago, I shouldered my way through those roses after rain, and then tried to write a poem about the way rain water collected on each leaf and flower and deposited icy tear-streaks down my bare back as I walked under the roses. I had forgotten that abandoned poem until this conversation. So thanks to my father, I know the engine and I know the small but tenacious Jazz-Age roses. Thanks to him, the long stretch of distance between Fitzgerald and myself evaporates and the perfumed funicular and the chugging mountain train rise up before me out of the mist.
F. Scott Fitzgerald is even more accurate than Clive James or I imagined in our interview. In Tender is the Night, when he talks about a ‘leather-lunged engine’ in the scene where Dick Diver sees Nicole in the train carriage, it appears that he is talking about a particular part of the mechanism. Leather was used in hydraulic and steam engines to seal cylinders and valves. Leather was the material of choice in such engines because it was tough, but also because it flexed and bridged the gap between the piston and the cylinder. Until I knew this, I had thought of the image as being purely metaphorical, a way of describing the engine’s sound. I did not realise that the metaphorical element might reside chiefly in the ‘lung’ part of the image, and this is where you get to the heart of Fitzgerald: accurate observation becoming a strange, beautiful and sonorous metaphor.
It is a metaphor that Fitzgerald does not invent but reinvents. The Merriam Webster Dictionary tells us that the phrase ‘leather-lunged’ dates back to an earlier part of the Industrial Age. The phrase ‘leather-lunged singers’ is recorded as far back as 1846, ‘leather-lunged’ suggesting the loudness of voice required by singers and other performers to project their voices in an auditorium in the days before electronic amplification. In the dictionary example, the metaphor is used to describe a human sound in terms of machinery. Fitzgerald turns the metaphor upside down and uses it to give the machine an operatic human voice.
Yet, whether we want to praise the lyricism of the image or its technical accuracy, there can be no more perfect emblem of Fitzgerald’s achievement than the ‘leather-lunged engine’— except perhaps the Dorothy Perkins roses. Either the engine or the roses could stand as ideal metaphors for Fitzgerald’s prose. The struggle of the engine and the way it arrives ‘on top of the sunshine’ puts us in mind of the way he joins beauty and energy. On the other hand, we must not forget the tough little roses pushing their way into our sensory experience, overwhelming us again and again with their delicate scent and their thorny, joyous resilience.
February 17, 2009
On this website, as of December 2008:
Clive James BBC Radio 4 A Point of View
Transcripts and recordings of this month's broadcasts:
"How rich is rich?": on wealth and power
"Changing the government": on the American Presidential election
"Robin the Hood": on a new concept of action movies
"Bad language": on standards in broadcasting
"Glamourising terror": on The Baader-Meinhof Complex
Postcard from Bombay Talking in the Library, Series 6 (produced by TimesOnline): Clive James in conversation with Melvyn Bragg (click here for the presentation page by Arts Reporter Ben Hoyle)
Music Finds: Les Paul and Mary Ford ("How High the Moon")
New poem by Clive James: "Signing Ceremony" (The New Yorker, Dec. 1, 2008)
Prose Finds: The Wall Street Journal, on the current financial crisis; Joan Bakewell, on the BBC standards; Jeffrey Rosen, on privacy and security laws, and Germany's star literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki
New Guest Writer Nichola Deane
As of November 2008:
By Clive James:
TV criticism: articles from Glued to the Box: "Hrry Crpntr"; "Big-time Sue"; "There is no death"; "You tested the Gyroscope?"; "A horse called Sanyo Music Centre";"This false peace"
As of October 2008:
Postcard from Paris
Talking in the Library: Clive James in conversation with Salman Rushdie and with Germaine Greer
(Due to a recent technical glitch, these interviews are currently available only as extracts. TimesOnline are working towards resolving the problem as fast as is technically possible. — Dec. 1, 2008)
Clive James and Pete Atkin, in a podcast interview by David Hepworth for The Word (podcast), about forty years of songwriting
Clive James interview with Richard Dawkins at the Edinburgh Book Festival
Poetry (Chicago) Editor Christian Wiman, interview with Clive James
By Clive James:
Obituary for Pat Kavanagh
Poem 'We Being Ghosts'
On the new Talking in the Library series, an article for The Times
Review of Joseph Horowitz's book Artists in Exile: How Refugees from Twentieth Century War and Revolution Transformed the American Performing Arts (TLS, Sept 9, 2008)
As guest editor of Time Out Sydney: on Sydney vagrant Bea Miles and on Crime Movie Music
Television criticism: 6 new pieces from Glued to the Box: 'Oodnatta Fats', 'Borg's little bit extra', 'How do you feel?', 'Idi in exile', 'Master stroke', and 'Someone shart JR'.
An addition to the Sarah Raphael pavilion: a Sarah Raphael profile by Geordie Greig, on the artist's surprising foray into abstraction (Modern Painters, winter 1998)
As of September 2008:
Talking in the Library: Clive James in conversation with Tom Stoppard (Due to a recent technical glitch, this interview is currently available only as an extract. TimesOnline are working towards resolving the problem as fast as is technically possible. — Dec. 1, 2008)
Clive James on YouTube with Kate Winslet, and with Alice Cooper
Video Finds: Tito Gobbi and Marlon Brando
Clive James's Talking in the Library 5th video series, including conversations with: actors and authors Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry, actor Jeremy Irons, novelist Nick Hornby, literary biographer Claire Tomalin, literary critic Professor John Carey, and television and film actors and authors Victoria Wood, Catherine Tate and Alexei Sayle. (Recorded and produced by SkyArts in May 2007, the programmes have all been broadcast on digital television but due to administrative complications the online launch has been delayed. We're working on it.)
As of August 2008:
Video Finds: Actor John Gielgud in Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books and in the 1978 BBC Richard II.
As of July 2008:
The Great Wrasse, by Clive James (from The Book of My Enemy), for Les Murray.
Guest Writer Marina Hyde digs deep on the crucial subjects of Paris Hilton, Trudie and Sting, Pete Doherty, and reflects on virtual illusion and the Internet.
Guest Poet Peter Porter. Introduction by Clive James, and 10 poems chosen by the author.
Sarah Raphael pavilion: with articles by William Boyd, Daniel Day-Lewis, Clive James, Andrew Motion, and Frederic Raphael
New works by painter Laura Smith, including paintings from her forthcoming exhibition (9 - 13 July 2008 at 54 The Gallery, Shepherd Market, Mayfair, London W1)
Bande dessinée (new section): Posy Simmonds
As of June 2008:
Frederic Raphael's foreword to In Love, by Alfred Hayes, and book extracts.
New guest writer Vicki Woods
Mark Steyn on Frank Sinatra's anthem "It Was A Very Good Year"
P.J. O'Rourke's travelogue on China
As of May 2008:
Guest writer: art critic Laura Cumming
Prose Finds: Paul Berman on Islamism
Clive James: new poem Ghost Train to Australia; on writing lyrics: "My life in lyrics" (Guardian, April 1, 2008) and Cream articles
As of April 2008:
Posted on March 18, 2008:
Prose Finds: David Hepworth on the high-octane, trail-blazing, revolutionary American TV series about the drug war in Baltimore, The Wire.
As of February 2008:
Guest writer Jonathan Meades
Prose Finds: Binyavanga Wainaina writing about Africa; P.J. O'Rourke on the confessions of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr; Noel Pearson on white guilt, victimhood and the radical centre; Patrick Smith on not loving the Airbus A380; Pascal Bruckner defending Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Star Australian poets Judith Beveridge, Stephen Edgar, and Les Murray reading their poems.
January 27, 2009
‘All were skies falling silent.’ In this way, Don Paterson, poet, guitarist, aphorist and editor, distils the nature of his ‘revelations’ in the opening salvo of The Blind Eye, one of his three collections of aphorisms. To paraphrase Octavio Paz, it is the job of the poet to show the silence, and indeed to become a ‘master of silence.’ Paz made these comments with reference to Elizabeth Bishop, but that title, ‘master of silence,’ is one that in just over fifteen years Don Paterson can surely be said to have earned. Prizes and praises have greeted every collection to date, but the accolade ‘master of silence,’ whilst it cannot be awarded, can and should be suggested. Paterson’s poetry is the real thing: it resonates out of silence and returns the reader to silence. In his poetry collections, Nil Nil (1993), God’s Gift to Women (1997), The Eyes (1999), Landing Light (2003), and Orpheus (2006), his unique poetic voice refines and purifies itself. It is a voice that has such a fiercely independent existence that critical commentary hardly seems needed. For this reason, I have merely tried to point, in three different ways, to the resonant silence of the poems, the river of absence that flows through them.
Trying to flow with the poems, I have not stopped to analyse themes; rather, the themes emerge if you read the lists of words I have gathered from each of the collections, starting with Nil Nil. Each ‘word-hoard’ is comprised of words in the poems that have reacted on me and which, when placed together, tell a story from, if not the story of, each book. Hell; The Road; the search for a ‘you;’ trains; spent desire; God; and, of course, silence are all themes to look out for.
Difficult as these poems often are in terms of their argument and their subject-matter, they are easy to trust. Their brilliance stems from their syntax, the thread on which each ‘word-hoard’ is strung, and therefore I make some brief comments that point towards Paterson’s gifts in this area. But more than this, his poems claim us through their cadence, and so from syntax the natural progression is to a capsule essay on metre and its music. If the poems convince because of their syntax, they seduce because of the way they sing; for no matter how dazzling or intricate Paterson’s ideas, the music in his poems is never wayward, and carries all pain and delight in it. Watch the water move.
Before you read or re-read Don Paterson’s poems, try this miniature compendium of words garnered from his various collections, not for size but for sound. Roll around a few of these gems on your tongue, against your palate, between your teeth: ‘gurry, winterbourne, rancour, Hilltown, futterin, shadows, lyre, ticktock, woodsmoke, whitewing, blackedged, gracile.’ How does that feel? Now try it at half the speed of your first attempt, making sure you say each word aloud and that there’s a slight pause between each one. For each comma read in a heartbeat. Keep track of your pulse, your breath. Let the words resolve into morphemes and almost lose their meaning: let them simply vibrate.
These poems are sounds that walk ahead of you. Their fabric is stitched with an array of threads. In Nil Nil, Paterson’s word-hoard reveals a hunger for every texture you can think of, from ‘lino’ to ‘gurry,’ and every kind of register from the obscene (‘cunt’) to the divine (‘irenicon’).
Tongue, pish, Murphy’s, black, guck, gurry, winterbourne, jism, tenement, Fomalhaut, ictus, bodhran, scything, cloaca, epicene, cunt, resonance, blind, lino, hare-lip, sick, gibbered, tenement.
Nil Nil begins with a solitary game of pool in The Ferryman’s Arms and the words you see here are little oil lamps in the gloom. Music, violence, poverty, religious mania, sickness and desire are some of the subjects explored, and the poetry feels like a sick pleasure, perhaps a spilt self.
lacuna, concatenation, Leucotomy, Origamian, pollen, junkie, golden, lifetime, sweetpea, loop-tape, weight, pricktease, hieratica, heart.
In every book of Paterson’s, the word ‘heart’ appears, and the heart of this book thuds like a bodhran played at battle speed:
glare, monochrome, half-lotus, balletic, kickabouts, Clatto, shanty-town, Tayport, Carnoustie, irenicon, wind, cloud, Venus, haar, nirvana, goodbye.
Even out of the element of their poems and forced into a morganatic union with other bedfellows, these words, in roughly the order they appear in the book, have a shuddering, debased grandeur, as though Paterson can gut a word like ‘pish’ and turn it inside out, revealing its acoustic swim-bladder, its sound-skeleton. How does he do that? Well, he both tells you and doesn’t tell you:
Thrown out in a glittering arc
As clear as the winterbourne,
The jug of Murphy’s I threw back
Goes hissing off the stone.
Whatever I do with all the black
Is my business alone.
Alchemy is Paterson’s business, and he delights in any and all materials. As with the ‘pish’, so with with ‘cloaca’, ‘kickabout’, ‘tenement’: black to gold is always the trajectory. It is a matter of physiological process—and a mystery. The process involves fortuitous meetings of two or more words gathered together, words finding each other as lovers, disciples and congregations might, the words breaking their boundaries to belong, to sink into each line. What assurance: to begin this way, with all these dark sounds igniting and blazing! ‘Tongue’ is one of Nil Nil’s opening words and ‘Goodbye’ is its last, as if by the end of his first collection, Paterson is already doing a disappearing act. But then he starts Nil Nil at ‘The Ferryman’s Arms’ with a coin already on his tongue.
Where do you go from there, if Charon is already waiting and the meter is ticking? If you are Paterson, you go AWOL looking for what was lost before you reached the crossing-place: a brother, mother, sisters, the Horseman’s word and a Scheherezade or two. Yet, rifling through the word-hoard of God’s Gift to Women the book begins to look like a strange affirmation of faith.
Church, butterscotch, rancour, heartburn, pray, Caird, lochan, Kemback, kiosk, saint, stalled, thorn, mother, carcass, Fetherlite, harem, sea, weight, vortex.
We begin in the ‘little church’ of poetry, a base camp for journeys backwards in time: to lost and perfect days in childhood out by the lochan; to days that a lost brother never lived; to stalled nights; and to what is lost at sea and in the storm, and then
Messiaen, Hilltown, florins, charred, Macalpine, mothers, Cocteau, kiss, black, Ladyburn, chlairsach, North British, whisky, Scheherezade, beggar, fuck, futterin, Hameseek, furrow,
Coins again, drinking, sex and music take us on a long and squalid but beautiful binge until we see
Venus, morganatic, sleekit, bleeding, death-camp, mother, cock, Cerberus, singer, engines, angels, SPONG, phthistical, spanking, breeks, wank, innocence, Wolflaw, tallow, shadows, faith.
By the close, it is morning; morning brought coughing into life with a couple of Nurofen and a pint of coffee. The same Anglo-Saxon dirt is here (‘cock,’ and ‘fuck,’), the Dundee sorrow (‘kiosk,’ ‘Hilltown,’ ‘Macalpine’) and the nightmare (‘death-camp,’ ‘Cerberus,’ ‘Wolflaw’) but there are grace-notes too. Uplift comes from ‘saint’ and ‘singer,’ ‘kiss’ and ‘angels.’ No more comforting or comfortable than the Nil Nil doctrine, God’s Gift nonetheless makes notable adjustments of texture, giving us, in a number of poems, a world to aery thinness beat. A deity is invoked, and the poet gazes up, breaking his focus on the abyss.
What he sees when his gaze shifts falls on us like a sunshower in The Eyes where everything and nothing is his. The Spanish poet Antonio Machado is his master here, his giver of breath and bread. For the first time, Paterson makes versions—not translations. In his versions of Machado’s poems, the fabric of the words is gossamer, or lighter. Words begin their return to breath.
Wait, drink, Buddha, Cain, lyre, breath, rainbow, eyes, sea, heartless, Lord, Guadarrama, obol, desire, forget, desire, knots, heart, shoreline, silence, salt-grains, honeycomb, hour, beloved, dust.
Where are we now? Although the location is the Spain inhabited by Machado, the words gathered here do not belong to any one country. Rootless, they sound like a heart or a river rising:
Andalusia, hosannas, ticktock, bells, no, anchor, work, Bergson, salto inmortal, sea, weep, quiver, nothing, woodsmoke, dream, Name, ashless, ripe, parched, you, you, lover, starless, Christ.
Clocks and bells whirr and chime, but time slips past (there is no anchor in these Machado poems) and even the sense of ‘I’ loosens. The poems hunt out an ever-receding ‘you,’ travelling far into
NIHIL, silver, black, black, heart, hinge, lilies, sing, water, rock, river, pulse, orange-trees, shore, desperate, she, evening, Heraclitean, gathering, zero, oblivion, Machado, absence.
So we ‘wait’ and our reward is ‘absence,’ and this book seems to rest in that absence. Not only rare fauna like ‘obol’ sing (note: a word for Charon’s currency inhabits every book in our journey so far) but words like ‘rock’ and ‘river.’ And not only rock and river cantillate. Even an abstract imperative like ‘wait’ is rendered weightless and airborne: ‘wait as the beached boat waits, without a thought /for either its own waiting or departure’ (‘Advice’). ‘No’ and ‘not’ arrive in you with the force of their heterographs ‘know’ and ‘knot.’ A great ‘no’ is all we know here, and what is ‘not’ is always before us as we read, a slip-knot of longing. Indeed, longing for the beautiful is all that seems to hold some of these poems on the page: the salt-grain’s ache for ‘honeycomb’ and the heart opening like a hinge for more of the lilies, orange-trees, and bells.
In the gathering, scented dusk of The Eyes, it is easy to forget the bleating ‘Mooncalf’ of Nil Nil or the female ‘drunken carcasses’ littering God’s Gift. But Paterson does not, and the shadow-river pulsing below the river returns in his next work, Landing Light, like a bradycardiac bad dream. If The Eyes felt like a Paradiso of sorts, Landing Light loops back to hell—but with moments of blissful surfacing to draw breath.
Luing, motherland, catholicon, whitewing, work, wingspan, minuscule, boked, Strophades, she, silent, worm, shite, sons, roses, wet, knuckled, pearl, ochre-pink, hawk, cave, Leda, wolfing, wives,
We begin in a heavenly Scottish landscape—in poems like ‘Luing,’ a remote island becomes as weightless and heavenly as Machado’s Spain— but we quickly rebound from heaven into hell. The middle of the book is largely a place of the skull:
Hindemith, Gromit, rose, worm, Scheherezade, Sodom, pisshole, bricht, luthier, skull, Padmasambhava, delete, heart, blood, lover, triste, arse, feedback-loop, oxter, ochone, malebolge,
And yet, no matter how deeply into the abyss we travel, our guide will lead us back into the upper air, after a spot of purgation:
No No, Babel, ayebydan, loins, thigh, ear, Sika, ecstatic, damn, facsimile, begging-bowl, lyre, alibi, ken, sternless, birk, alane, Mother, girl, wonder, blackedged, love.
Hell is in the ‘malebolge,’ the ‘pisshole’ stare of the poetaster, the ‘feedback-loop’ of torture. But the bliss! The bliss is animal and sexual (‘wet’ and the mildly sadistic-sounding ‘knuckled;’ ‘pearl,’ and the light, delicious consonantal kick of ‘ochre-pink’). The bliss is also linguistic: Scots rises in Landing Light like a spring in three poems: ‘Form,’ ‘Twinflooer,’ ‘Zen Sang at Dayligaun.’ Not the invented Scots of MacDiarmid, this is something that feels both pentecostal and truly spoken: a currency that is exchanged in a place (a living, breathing Scotland) but escapes out of time, into the unbound realm of Dasein und Engeln, being and angels.
An’ there’s nae burn or birk at aw
But jist the sang alane
(‘Zen Sang at Dayligaun.’)
Pure Rilke in its dissolve, this is also a pure-sounding Scots, not walking softly on the land but flowing and singing across its surface like a caress. ‘Burn’ and ‘birk’ are not Scots exotica, but the plainest and arguably the loveliest metonyms you could use to stand for the Scottish landscape. But these are also literary metonyms. The burn’s fiery water fluting home brushes past Hopkins; birch trees flexing swing forever in the direction of Robert Frost: two words alliterating gently out of the soil and into song.
Ah, song. The word takes us straight to Orpheus, Paterson’s versions of Rilke’s über-poems. Rilke’s sonnets, once read, can enter the reader as if there were no other real poems in existence, so powerful and seductive is their music. After Rilke, even the word ‘tree’ becomes a song in itself (had you really known what a tree was until Rilke set the word ringing for you?); words like ‘mirror’, ‘mouth’ and ‘sigh’ go forth and fructify in entirely new ways; these hungry little words, so pure and unexpectedly vast. Or, at least, this new way of seeing and hearing occurs if you have read Rilke as Paterson evidently has:
Tree, lyre, girl, death, arose, crossroads, sigh, heavy, heavier, spaces, true, song, belong, willow, pitcher, wine, herald, lament, lyre, mouths, hesitance, spurring, reining, praise, O, reach, bestows,
Each word is rootless, as in the Machado poems, but here the tone is weightier, the nouns earthy; the Orpheus keynote of ‘lyre’ returns and returns to set every other word echoing:
apple, leaf, fugitive, juice, curse, pelt, ascent, lyre, perfected, drumbeat, blue, baptised, gracile, maenads, rocks, seas, eyes, losses, mirrors, kiss, beast, negate, invoke, torture, departure, glass,
Hints of fecundity, of ‘fruit’ and ‘juice,’ follow Rilke into sensual celebration, brief though this is, as the lyre continues its song of departure:
shatters, meadow-brother, wind, heals, spent, balance, dancer, blur, gold, heart, grief, , axe, bough, danger, star, lone, choir, one, lyre, impermanence, lyre, true, dark, crossing, I, flow, am.
Smooth as wave-worn pebbles, the Orpheus word-hoard is full of rounded sensual treasures: the tiger’s eye of ‘pelt,’ the tourmaline of ‘pitcher.’ They fall into two groups, words that spur us on like ‘shatters,’ ‘baptised,’ and ‘juice;’ and words that rein us in like ‘sigh,’ ‘grief’ and ‘willow.’ And yet, how little difference there seems to be between spurring on and reining in: in either case, the energy of the word, be it noun or verb, pulsates, a newborn image.
Only listening is necessary to catch the image and watch it melt, to say the sound and watch it run. But as Rilke takes pains to point out in the Duino Elegies, listening is no easy matter: the purest listening is a kind of emptying out in which the listener does not remain. No one hears; no one is left to hear; there is only hearing. Whatever the arguments about the nature of translation and the creation of versions, the poems Paterson resolves onto the page in Orpheus are made of that luminous hearing: never once in this collection do the individual words sound less than notes coaxed from the lyre.
But words are never individual. If Paterson’s words sound as though they come from the lyre, in Orpheus, Landing Light and elsewhere, it is because they flow and move in a particular way: it is because of their syntax. Paterson, the lover of words, is easy to find: name ‘pish’ or ‘grief’ or ‘juice’ and you feel you have him there before you. Evoke Paterson’s relationship with syntax, however, and he starts to run through your fingers.
Paterson is not a ‘lover of syntax’ or a ‘master of syntax.’ Syntax is something that our minds are in, the slipstream of our thought. Paterson is mastered by syntax, as every true poet should be. Think of that line from Hopkins, ‘Thou mastering-me-God,’ where God and poet are part of the same noun phrase; fighting, embracing, and indistinguishable, the ‘me’ subdued by a greater force.
Nil Nil’s murk is marked by attack of phrasing: ‘I’d swing for him, and every other cunt/happy to let my father know his station.’ Aggressive, ‘blunt’ and passionate but speaking, with the swing and punch of verbal combat, as he picks up tired figures of speech (‘swing for him’ ‘know his station’) and puts his lips to them. There is no violent conjunction of phrase here, and therefore no knowing wink directed at the reader. Instead, the old phrases slide into the new, and the fit is perfect.
All that happens to the syntax as Paterson progresses towards Orpheus is a process of tiny, critical refinements. Sentences flex and embrace more and more, as Paterson’s work attains ever lovelier syntactic complexity. Letting you carry idea upon idea at the same moment, his sentences nonetheless do not make you suffer under their weight. Like a gifted ballerina, these phrases know how to hold themselves so that they become light enough to lift:
I carefully arrange a chain of nips
in a big fairy ring; in each square glass
the tincture of a failed geography,
its dwindled burns and woodlands, whin fires, heather,
the sklent of its wind and salty rain,
the love-worn habits of its working-folk,
the waveform of their speech, and by extension
how they sing, make love, or take a joke.
(‘A Private Bottling’)
One sentence, this contains a bouquet of clauses resolving in a soft bass-note rhyme in which the reader carries a place, a people and all the intangible waveforms of their existence—and doesn’t stagger. Quite the opposite: the clauses leap but you hardly hear them land, you just feel the way they earth as a kind of rightness. Dance terms such as ‘ballon’ and ‘line’ spring to mind here for the way the sentence articulates (‘ballon’ being the illusion of weightlessness given when a dancer jumps; ‘line’ being the way a dancer has of making the curve of limbs symmetrical and beguiling to look at). But in fact we are running out of metaphors that get us anywhere close to understanding the enchantment of Paterson’s syntax. There is only one place to go beyond syntax: music.
iii) Metre and music
Syntax, the language-world we inhabit, is full of patterned noise. The patterns we find ourselves in and being used by jar and loop, clank and squeal—for the most part. Perhaps because of the weight of this noise, the music of a poem can strike us so forcefully that the unintelligible world seems momentarily suspended. I could list, now, instance on instance of Paterson’s music. But list them is all I can do. The music of a line is a complex experience, the marriage of more than acoustic pattern, syntactic grace and verbal acuity. It is also what happens when that complex of ideas and harmonies rains into the waveform of the reader’s life—transforming it. The note is struck that sounds an echo. So, receive these samples and let them resonate, as Paterson has.
‘So take my hand and tell me, flesh or tallow.
Which man I am tonight I leave to you.’
‘then swallowed its shout
in the cave of my breast’
‘the vanished trail of your own wake’
‘Silent comrade of the distances.’
Receiving goes many steps beyond reading; words that resonate overstep their borders. So often, these poems step off into ‘the distances’ and reading them means go with the music, chase the echo. If you leave for the distances, you won’t find Paterson, who disappeared from his own poems long ago, but you might find yourself better able to listen –listen completely, as Paterson’s mentor Rilke recommended.
Nichola Deane, 2009