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A new poem by Clive James: “My Latest Fever”

 

My latest fever clad me in cold sweat
And there I was, in hospital again,
Drenched, and expecting an attack of bugs
As devastating as the first few hours
Of Barbarossa, with the Russian air force
Caught on the ground and soldiers by the thousand
Herded away to starve, while Stalin still
Believed it couldn’t happen. But instead
The assault tuned out to be as deadly dull
As a bunch of ancient members of the Garrick
Emerging from their hutch below the stairs
To bore me from all angles as I prayed
For sleep, which only came in fits and starts.
Night after night was like that. Every day
Was like the night before, a hit parade
Of jazzed-up sequences from action movies.
While liquid drugs were pumped into my arm,
My temperature stayed sky high. On the screen
Deep in my head, heroes repaired themselves.
In Rambo: First Blood, Sly Stallone sewed up
His own arm. Then Mark Wahlberg, star of Shooter,
Assisted by Kate Mara, operated
To dig the bullets from his body. Teeth
Were gritted in both cases. No one grits
Like Sly: it looks like a piano sneering.

Better, however, to be proof against
All damage, as in Salt, where Angelina
Jumps from a bridge on to a speeding truck
And then from that truck to another truck.
In North Korea, tortured for years on end,
She comes out with a split lip. All this mayhem
Raged in my brain with not a cliché scamped.
I saw the heroes march in line towards me
In slow-mo, with a wall of flame behind them,
And thought, as I have often thought, “This is
“The pits. How can I make it stop?” It stopped.
On the eleventh day, my temperature
Dived off the bridge like Catherine Zeta-Jones
From the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur.
I had no vision of the final battle.
The drugs, in pill form now, drove back the bugs
Into the holes from which they had attacked.
It might have been a scene from Starship Troopers:
But no, I had returned to the real world.
They sent me home to sleep in a dry bed
Where I felt better than I had for months.
No need to make a drama of my rescue:
Having been saved was like a lease of life,
The thing itself, undimmed by images –
A thrill a minute simply for being so.

Clive James is a poet, critic and broadcaster. A collection of his essays, Poetry Notebook (2006-2014), is newly published by Picador (£14.99).

Clive James is an Australian author, critic, broadcaster and poet, best known for his autobiographical series Unreliable Memoirs, his chat shows on British television and his prolific journalism. He has submitted several original poems for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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