When I was younger, I think a bit of my sense of humour was shaped by Clive James. I remember him being on TV, counting down gaffes of the year or offering his own (admittedly self-amusing) takes on world figures. I didn’t quite understand why it was funny that Leonid Brezhnev looked like he was operated by a foot pump, but there was enough stuff I got to make the confusion worthwhile.
As I grew up (and his TV appearances grew fewer, perhaps) I didn’t pay that much attention to him. Now, he’s back in the news. It’s the end of his life – illness is likely to claim him soon – and I felt a need to catch up on some of his written work. He was, after all, a columnist of renown for quite a while, so it seemed fitting to dive into some of his pieces.
This book is an assembly of brief pieces written for The Observer from 1976 to 1983. They serve as postcards of cities across the world, and as the years roll they tend to become more impressionistic: there’s still specificity on what’s done, and where, but there’s more musing about what the locale says about its inhabitants, or the nation it’s part of. There’s still intimate sketches of individuals, but there’s a distinct feeling of reaching for something bigger.
The writing is, without doubt, funny. Of course, it’s not problem-free. While James approaches his cities with a beguiling open-heartedness,
I’m certain, given the affection on display for most of the people in the tales, that the jibes are good-natured. But some of them – fewer than I expected, I must admit – stick in the craw today. I guess it’s the cost of reading something like this, that dates from before the internet – columns like this, and pictures in books and magazines (and films) were how people experienced the world. You couldn’t jump on Google Street View to check a place out beforehand – you had to go there and bumble through. It’s also a relic from the time when international travel was beginning to become much more accessible: toffs weren’t the only ones who could go abroad, and long journeys by ship were no longer de rigeur. The world was opening up, and middle class curiosity went with it – with all the negatives that entailed.
Throughout, though, the most vitriol is saved for the author himself. Self-deprecating humour? Maybe? But James is aware of both his social and sartorial failings, and foregrounds them in the writing. He is aware that he is in a privileged position, sure – but there’s the distinct impression that he doesn’t deserve it, or doesn’t belong there. He is a bit of an idiot abroad, assuming the idiot abroad has taught himself French by reading Proust.
Sure, these are colour pieces for a newspaper, but they often read like diaries or transcriptions of private thoughts. The pieces on Thatcher’s visit to China perhaps are the most like straight news with some laughs added. In between the yuks (some clangers, too) and descriptions of finest pottery, James begrudgingly acknowledges the political acumen of a woman he would never vote for, all seen from a spot in the press pack.
It’s unsurprising that James is known, lately, more for his poetry (and translations of poetry) than his prose. There’s a distinct feeling of poetry – of the love of language – flowing through here. There is a continual feeling of literary precedent in the work: references to epics and classics abound, none more apposite than his snatch of the Aeneid used in service of a description of Dachau. While it’s always amusing – if a little less vitriolic than someone like A. A. Gill, who would take this template and add more bitchery to the mix – it is occasionally masterful, the sort of writing that induces envy.
Though you may have issues with the lens through which James examines his subjects, there’s a lot to be said with this type of travel writing. It isn’t, for example, as bogged-down as many travel books can be. It features two pieces, at most, on the same place, and flits around from destination to destination. It’s refreshing and exhausted at once, and full of the same cack-handedness that marks travel as undertaken by the regular person – things going wrong, languages being misunderstood, connections missed, and moments of unspeakable beauty occurring in the strangest places.
Dated? Yes. But indicative of a burning passion for discovery? You betcha.
(Postscript: I can’t be sure, but it seems likely that a piece collected in this book is responsible for the steroidal bodybuilder descriptor of a condom stuffed with walnuts. For that alone, thanks are due.)