Tuesday, April 20, 2021

For Clive James, a sense of humour was just good manners

Clive James

For Clive James, a sense of humour was just good manners


An exemplary critic, Clive laughed hard at himself and embraced his readers in their common failings

Howard Jacobson
Sat 30 Nov 2019 07.00 GMT

Clive James never failed to get a joke. Or to go on to make a better one. This wasn’t because he was overly competitive: rather, like Dr Johnson, whom he often quoted, he believed that conversation obliged us to keep the ball in the air. People lacking the grace that is a sense of humour also lacked common sense, he once told Martin Amis. “A sense of humour,” he went on, “is nothing but common-sense dancing.” Since he loved the tango – perhaps because it, too, is conversation – it is hard not to put a picture to this. Only his was more than a common sense: it was a most uncommon genius for expressing subtle thought in the language of men speaking to men. The word for this isn’t populism: for him it was, as a matter of principle, intellectual good manners.

Manners mattered to him. His talk was never coarse. Many years ago, at a dinner table, he told the woman sitting opposite him that he wanted to bite her. The woman was my wife. He was exhilarated after a successful television programme. We’d all been drinking. And he was sending himself up. He knew his weakness. Countless times, in his final anguished poems, he punished himself for it, enumerating his wrongs, above all the wrong of inconstancy: “I broke faith when it suited me.”

His practice as a critic, which was to abolish distinctions between high and low (but not between good and bad) was exemplary. The catholicism of his interests made his television columns for the Observer not only the most enjoyable but also the most discussed critical writing of the time, and it diminished his capacity to tackle the tough stuff (as witness the brilliant erudition of Cultural Amnesia) not a jot. He wrote with great acumen and warmth about Barry Humphries, envying his “well-stocked mind” and then reminding himself he should be envying his talent too. But that didn’t stop him taking exception to the character of Sir Les Patterson, the provocation for whose savage invention continued to escape him. On Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch he praised the “fine, continuous flow of its angry power”, while taking issue with her assumption that it was every woman’s job to be politicised. “For most people,” he wrote, “conformity is a blessing” – a remark that goes to the heart of his temper, and explains why he was always too intelligently benign to be a revolutionary.

But with Germaine, as with Barry, he didn’t forget to be funny about envy, admitting to the difficulty of dealing with a contemporary becoming the most famous person in the world. The gleeful candour of his poem The Book of my Enemy Has Been Remaindered won him many friends. Clive’s early memoirs were loved because he laughed so hard at himself, and because he embraced his readers in their common failings. If he suspected other men’s ideologies, it was because he knew that ideologues were icy, divisive and, more often than not, mendacious.

Did he throw a part of himself away on television? In an interview I did with him, he didn’t so much dodge the question as refuse to entertain it. How could television, which more truly held the mirror up to culture than any other medium, be thought of as a waste? But it has to be asked whether Clive’s gifts were adequately appreciated. He was too variously gifted. As well as his work on television he wrote song lyrics, satiric poetry, novels, memoirs, books of essays, reviews. In his last years he translated Dante. So the question can take another form: was his versatility that of someone running to prove that one could be simultaneously popular and serious? And that question raises a further: what would one have had from him that was different?

If anything, he exceeded the brilliance of his early promise and demonstrated, in his own extraordinarily various career, that literature is never truer to itself than when it operates in the messy present, away from all ivory towers, down here among the unweeded passions of humanity.


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