“And so,” Charlie Brooker, “I think it is a good idea to speak about the good writers and good people who are left, as quickly as we can, while they are still among us.”
And it is a good idea – so good, indeed, that we should lose no time in in doing something constructive about it -like, for instance taking Charlie Brooker on Clive James in today’s Graun, as our text. I can offer nothing better, so simply reproduce it here (below). Brooker (in an uncharacteristically straight piece), speaks for all us smart-arses who think we can turn a witty or apposite turn of phrase, but who are, in practice, not in the same league as the antipodian master wordsmith and thinker:
Thank God for Clive James
Reports of the writer’s failing health were greatly exaggerated. Tributes flowed nevertheless. By Charlie Brooker:
Last week I got a bit of a shock when I saw a series of tweets full of praise and admiration for Clive James. Usually when a famous name trends on Twitter, it means the famous body attached to it has either died or done something scandalous, and the tone of the messages makes it easy to tell which is which: it’s a world of goodies and baddies, of bouquets and bollockings. One day someone’s going to die in the middle of a scandal and really catch everyone on the hop. It’s something I used to live in fear of when writing TV reviews: even though my articles appeared on a Saturday, my deadline was the previous Tuesday, which meant as soon as I filed my copy there was a four day window of uncertainty during which the people I was merrily slagging off that week might have been busy killing themselves or getting run over by trucks, thereby transforming themselves into tragic saints. And then, just as the wave of public sympathy crests, I pop up to say they’ve got a face like a butcher’s perineum and the mental agility of a cork in a milk bowl. I don’t even know what that last simile means, but it’s the sort of thing I say.
But Clive James wasn’t dead or mired in scandal: he was ill. He is ill. And he’d given an interview to Radio 4 in which, among other things, he spoke about his illness in moving and characteristically erudite terms. “I’m getting near the end,” he said. “I’m a man who is approaching his terminus.”
The interview hadn’t been broadcast at the time: these lines were included in a couple of brief news stories about it (I say “news stories”, I mean “press releases”). Written down, it seems like a starkly bleak and morose thing to say; spoken aloud in the actual recording, it comes across as a reflective part of a warm, flowing, conversational whole. But the print version was the one many people encountered first, and, assuming he was near death, took to Twitter to speak of their admiration of Clive James, and to wish him well.
I was one of them. There can’t be many writers of my generation who haven’t been heavily influenced by Clive James. In fact, as a former TV critic turned TV presenter myself, you could argue I’ve engaged in the sincerest (or most shameless) form of flattery by apeing his career, or at least part of it. Sadly for the poor bastards who have to scrape their eyeballs across my output – which right now means you – I am no Clive James. He has a way of gliding through sentences, effortlessly ironing a series of complex points into a single easily-navigable line, illuminating here and cogitating there, before leading you face-first into an unexpected punchline that makes your brain yelp with delight. He can swallow images whole and regurgitate them later as hallucinogenic caricatures that somehow make more sense than the real thing. He famously described Arnold Schwarzenegger as looking like “a brown condom full of walnuts”. That’s just brilliant. Every TV column I ever wrote consists of me trying and failing to write anything as explosively funny as that, for 650 words.
That Schwarzenegger gag seems to have slightly haunted him, actually. In 2007 he told an Australian TV station it made him “nervous” because he had no idea how he thought of it.
“I know all about the mechanical aspects of writing and what order to put phrases in and the rhythm of a sentence and how to construct it,” he said. “I know all that; I could practically do diagrams – but I don’t know where the phrases come from. That ability to make a phrase is probably the essence of what I do, and I don’t know where it comes from, and there’s no guarantee it will be there in the morning.”
Which possibly explains why his stuff reads so effortlessly. The best bits simply fly into his mind without his face ever seeing them coming.
So. Anyway. The media-centric wing of Twitter was filling to the brim with this kind of sentiment when happily, after about 30 minutes, a spokeswoman arrived to point out that Clive James is still very much alive, is “in fact in reasonable shape”, and is “looking forward to years of working”. At which point the tributes died down a little, not because they weren’t heartfelt, but because they suddenly looked a tad presumptuous.
But it’s nice to think Clive James got to read a series of warm tributes while he’s still very much with us. Too often we speak warmly of people who influenced us when it’s too late for them to hear us. These days the custom for social-media addicts is to issue a sad 140-character epitaph accompanied by a link to a YouTube clip of one of their finest moments. Much more fruitful, if not very British, to gush at them while they’re still in the room. Not every day, that would be nauseating. But now and then. Hence the uncharacteristic and frankly mortifying level of gush I’m displaying right now. Thank you, Clive James; thank you.
Jim Denham adds: James remains a true and honourable child of the sixties and the enlightenment. One of his finest hours in recent years has been the taking apart of the anti-enlightenment shyster, liar and bullshitter, Pankaj Mishra, here.
As usual: game, set and match to James.
Some of James’ recent poetry can be found at Standpoint.