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The style and substance of Clive James

With his phrase-making brilliance and omnivorous cultural appetite, the late Clive James taught me how to be a critic.

Charlie Brooker once claimed that virtually every writer of his generation had been “heavily influenced” by the work of Clive James. I am young enough to have resisted the near-ubiquitous influence of Charlie Brooker. But when I was starting out as a student critic, in the days of Screen Wipe, the writer I wanted to learn from was Clive James.

It was on 27 November 2018, a year to the day before news emerged of his death in Cambridge at the age of 80, that I decided that I probably know James's work – or parts of it – a little too well. An article on the TLS website printed a list of quotations assembled over the years by Dwight Garner, the New York Times book critic; one of them, attributed to James, described Arnold Schwarzenegger as looking like "a condom full of walnuts”. Right away I not only recalled that this quotation was wrong (it should have been a “brown” condom), where the complete phrase had originally appeared (in a reflection on Schwarzenegger’s memoir Arnold: Education of a Bodybuilder, from a 1979 piece on LA) but also where the article was collected (Flying Visits) and the book’s dedicatee (Martin Amis). I knew that James was familiar with this particular error, complaining in his fourth “unreliable” memoir North Face of Soho that omitting the condom’s colour fatally depleted “the visual information”. 

I also knew that James was proud that the phrase was so often invoked, and had treated its quotability as the spur for a manifesto-like reflection on the elusive origins of what he called “phrase-making”, the ability on which he most often relied during his extraordinary half-century career as a poet (lyrics, mock epics, parodies, verse letters), travel writer, novelist, memoirist, TV reviewer, TV presenter, personal essayist, radio broadcaster, songwriter, stand-up comedian, interviewer, and literary critic. The passage from North Face of Soho is typically brash and bragging, but typical also in its delicate wordplay, its wielding of conceptual distinctions, its delightful cadences, its polish, and its simplicity (count the polysyllabic words in the final sentence):

The idea must have been a registration of his bulges and skin texture, but I still don't know how the visual perception translated itself into a verbal creation. As far as I can tell, looking inwards from within, the gift of phrase is the semantic equivalent of something mathematical, but I don't know whether the mechanism is clever, like the chess master's ability to see the whole board with all its possible combinations, or stupid, like the idiot savant's capacity for following the line of prime numbers all the way to eternity. All I know for sure is that the knack is in my life's blood, and that if it ever failed me it would be time to turn my face to the wall.

There’s no doubt a lot of truth in Charlie Brooker’s over-statement – and Brooker wasn’t even part of a generation especially well-placed to receive the influence, born as he was on 3 March 1971, four days before James’s first contribution to the Observer. That debut was a book review, but James soon became famous – that’s not too strong a word – for a column about British television that ran every Sunday for a decade.

James was eager to acknowledge the precedent of Nancy Banks-Smith, who started writing about TV for the Guardian a few years earlier. He also noted a thousand Anglo-American influences, among them George Bernard Shaw, H L Mencken, George Orwell, Edmund Wilson, A J Liebling, Evelyn Waugh, Norman Mailer, Dwight Macdonald, Philip Larkin, Whitney Balliett, Cyril Connolly, S J Perelman, Conrad Aiken, James Agee, George Jean Nathan, Anthony Burgess, Randall Jarrell, Wolcott Gibbs, and Pauline Kael. But James's TV column nonetheless invented a new style of critical journalism, combining, as Gordon Burn once wrote, “seriousness and erudition with a slangy, couch-potato informality”. It was an exercise in what James called writing that doesn’t “sound like writing," and it caught on years before Charlie Brooker learned how to type.

Martin Amis (born 1949), for example, was so indebted to James’s tone that Kingsley Amis – himself a big influence on James’s style – would insist on reading his son’s book reviews aloud in an Australian accent. The cultural critic James Wolcott (born 1952), though based in Manhattan, was familiar enough with James’s work that when reviewing First Reactions, a 1980 compendium of his best pieces, he was able to moan about omissions not just of work collected in UK editions but of things that had only appeared in the Observer. (He conceded in a Village Voice piece the following year, bidding farewell to James’s column, that he’d stolen from him “left and right”.) The New Yorker essayist Adam Gopnik (born 1956) didn’t discover James until the appearance of First Reactions, by which point, he says, he was already half-formed as a writer, but he clearly picked up some of James’s tricks, the love of inversion and wordplay and bracing generalisation, and has in recent years named him, along with Chesterton, as one of the two best writers of “aphoristic prose. (A list of other Jamesians born during the two decades after the war might include Garner, Mark Lawson, Anthony Lane, Victor Lewis-Smith, A A Gill.)

I am 35 years younger than Martin Amis (he once said that you know you're getting old when you're being reviewed by people named "Leo”). A criticism buff from a fairly young age, I had heard rumours of James’s TV column, and now see that the second book I ever purchased on Amazon – exactly 15 years ago – was Visions Before Midnight. Then shortly before I left home the following summer, my father gave me a second-hand copy of James’s first book The Metropolitan Critic (1974), in a new edition containing reflective postscripts to many of the essays, so that it became one of those rare books that is at once a work of criticism and a reflection on the craft and trade. 

John Carey, in a review of unflinching ferocity – though later outdone by Christopher Ricks’s takedown of James’s next collection From the Land of Shadows – said that James wasn't just content for The Metropolitan Critic to be a “Who’s Who in Modern Culture”, with subjects including Elizabeth Bishop, F R Leavis, D H Lawrence, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, Heaney, Edmund Wilson (the subject of a TLS tribute commissioned at 2,000 words but run at 9,000). James felt obliged to drop additional names into his prose, “like dandruff”. Carey thought he was just a kind of show-off, with a “Book-of-Records approach,” full of thoughts about which painter was the most talented ever, which writer had read the most books. 

But when you’re 19, that's what you want, especially when, along with the perfectly welcome dandruff, there was so much "phrase-making" – the mockery of Robert Lowell’s idea that the Final Solution “met its implacable opponent” in Sylvia Plath, the drive-by put-down that the Leavises’ Lectures in America had been reviewed “favourably rather than well.” 

Soon after I received The Metropolitan Critic, in the autumn of 2005, James brought out his seventh book of critical prose, The Meaning of Recognition, with essays on, to me, as-yet-unplumbed writers: Frank Kermode, Primo Levi, Yeats, Aldous Huxley, Flaubert, Isaiah Berlin. Having wangled a free copy from the campus bookshop, I removed the flyleaf and set about the task of wearing the book thin. Again I enjoyed the little postscripts, with their smattering of further reflection, or a glimpse of life behind the scenes. I still remember James's contention, when looking back not very far to a piece on Philip Roth (“the insuperable problem with The Plot Against America is that America is against the plot”), that great writers “sound the way we do to ourselves, in those interior flights of eloquence that never reach the page”. 

During the holidays, I picked up old copies of other James collections (Snakecharmers in TexasThe Dreaming Swimmer), which were never hard to come by in those days. And though the lack of online archives for most of James’s outlets meant one was forced to search for uncollected pieces – there weren’t very many – in the hefty bound volumes kept in the rolling stacks of reference libraries, there was plenty of other stuff, including the interview series Talking in the Library, available on clivejames.com, described by James as “the world’s first personal multimedia website of its type”.

By the time I left university and began writing for the New Statesman – in the legendary "back half" of the magazine where James himself had got his start – he had published, among other things, a further critical collection (The Revolt of the Pendulum) and the memoir North Face of Soho. In this book, as well as discussing the brown-condom image, he explained how the Observer TV column and The Metropolitan Critic came into existence, and more generally what it's like to live as a freelance writer. (If it weren't for that book, I'd probably be an accountant with a mortgage by now.)

There was also the much-touted, long-rumoured, and largely brilliant Cultural Amnesia, at once an argument against totalitarianism of both the left and right, and a kind of personal dictionary of heroes and villains, where the entries under "Mann" include the writers Thomas, Golo, and Heinrich, from the same illustrious German family, and the film director Michael, creator of Miami Vice. Even after his cancer diagnosis in 2010, James didn’t stop. If anything, he accelerated, bringing out volumes of TV criticism (Play All), literary criticism (Play AllPoetry Notebook, the just-published Somewhere Becoming Rain, on Larkin), radio stuff (Points of View), memoir (The Blaze of Obscurity), and poems galore, several of which he first published in the New Statesman. As well as the collections Sentenced to Life and Injury Time there was a translation of Dante, a verse commentary on Proust (Gate of Lilacs), and the autobiographical epic The River in the Sky.

If James had a weakness, it was the not inconsiderable one that a lot of what he wrote carried a slight whiff of bullshit. His reviews in particular often seemed driven more by verbal rhythms or habits, the taste for a good line or the need to espouse a beloved principle, than by a desire to represent in all its nuance the object or phenomenon under discussion. His style of thought was typified more by elegance than intelligence, the generalisations and apothegms frequently provoking from the reader responses like Is that really true? or Where on earth’s he getting that from? I always found it harder to read him on subjects about which I know something, such as modern criticism – his loathing of “dons” was indiscriminate and uninformed – and cinema (see his appallingly philistine review of Philip Lopate’s anthology of American film criticism). On the other hand, his authority regarding things like Formula 1, Italian culture, and the poems of Theodore Roethke seems to me unassailable.

Other, perhaps lighter criticisms were more routinely expressed. The idea that James merely showed off while punning was captured in a series of Craig Brown parodies (“This much I know: I know so much”). Then there was the charge – more prevalent before Cultural Amnesia proved that he was capable of producing a Big Book – that James had spread himself thin. In the copious writing about his work – a genre in itself –the same, slightly barbed image recurs. Robert Hughes, in his 2006 memoir Things I Didn’t Know – the subject of James’s terrific final contribution to the New York Review of Books – recalled his friend at the University of Sydney in the late 1950s as "a brilliant and omnivorous apprentice writer”. Christopher Hitchens titled his review of Cultural Amnesia “The Omnivore”. Could someone be good at so many things? Could they be really interested in tango and Tolstoy, musicals and Montale, be a historian of the War in the Pacific while spending a lot of time sending up Japanese game shows? But this was a characteristic he worshipped and aspired to emulate, praising George Bernard Shaw, perhaps the greatest of his non-poet heroes, as an “intellectual omnivore.” (Shaw’s correspondence, he wrote, exhibited “industry as a form of rest”.) 

Higher on the same page of The Metropolitan Critic, James had noted that James Agee –film critic, reporter, screenwriter, poet, novelist – had been “versatile in an age that doesn’t understand versatility.” If that prejudice genuinely existed, James did a lot to overturn it. Even John Carey, while savaging James’s efforts said that his “versatility merits respect”. (Carey later softened towards James and even chose Unreliable Memoirs as one of the 50 most enjoyable books of the twentieth century.) 

And James rarely gave the impression of stinting on any of his activities. It was more that he kept up with all of them, while giving each of them priority in turn – first criticism, then television (as critic and presenter), and finally poetry. 

Today the borderlines he disdained, separating high and low, criticism and creativity, philosophy and fun, are no longer so crisply drawn. I suspect that it will be the idea of James's trailblazing appetite – his desire, as he once put it, to reflect the world’s “multiplicity” while writing about Buffy the Vampire Slayer – as much as all the cultural dandruff and resonant but not always cogent phrases, that will continue to inspire now that he will no longer be pelting us with books.

Leo Robson is winner of the 2019 Foreign Press Association Award for Arts & Culture Story of the Year

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.