There must be poets writing today who can’t remember a time when Clive James wasn’t dying. Indeed, his capitulation to the leukaemia and emphysema his doctors diagnosed in 2010 was so protracted, and his willingness to write and talk about it so inexhaustible, that in the last few years an element of doubt crept in, with some cynics suggesting that perhaps he wasn’t sick at all, but merely pretending to be so to burnish his bardic credentials.
Calling his last two collections I’m Not Buying any Green Bananas and Any Minute Now couldn’t have helped. I jest, of course. But having met and briefly worked with James I don’t think he would have minded (the real names of two of his last collections, after all, were Sentenced to Life and Injury Time). And though disdainful of joke-telling in the ‘did-you-hear-the-one-about’ tradition, he was a natural humorist, and a brave enough poet to indulge that disposition on the page.
But the pages where Poms like me first encountered his larrikin wit were in The Observer, for whom he was television critic through the seventies. Until then, Britain’s so-called quality press hadn’t deemed much TV worthy of critical attention; ‘watching the box’ being essentially what people who hadn’t been to university did when the pubs were shut. When James got the Observer gig, improving documentaries like Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation and classic adaptations like The Pallisers and Brideshead Revisited had begun to add some gravitas. But his genius was to write just as often, and just as incisively, about low-brow, high-rating fodder like Dallas and Sale of the Century. And in doing so he probably helped to democratize the medium in the UK as much as any commissioning editor.
Indeed, his Observer column was so popular that he himself soon became a familiar face on what he’d dubbed ‘the crystal bucket’. And was so good on camera that when I was briefed to write The Observer’s TV ads, I immediately asked if Clive would appear in them. The editor, the great Donald Trelford, thought that most unlikely, but to everyone’s surprise Clive agreed, and even offered to co-write the scripts. The campaign we came up with, sipping earl grey tea in his groovy Barbican pied-a-terre, was simple enough. Each ad would open on him standing in a white set in his trademark crumpled suit and tie, then have him deliver a dreadful pun, or participate in some hopelessly contrived sight gag, at the conclusion of which he would look into the camera with Oliver Hardy-style despair as the voiceover delivered the strapline: ‘The Observer. It’s a lot better written than its advertising’. Everyone liked the scripts, and thought the campaign might even pick up a few prizes, so to thank Clive for his cooperation my boss invited him to a slap-up lunch a week or so prior to the shoot. He arrived with his agent, and was very funny, and everything went well until the agent left, whereupon Clive stopped covering his glass with his hand when the wine waiter approached, and proceeded to be even funnier. Several hours later, swaying slightly on a Mayfair corner, he asked me and my art director to accompany him to Groucho’s to finish the job. We declined, but I promised I’d see him the following afternoon to finalise production details. I never saw him again – in the flesh, at least – and those ads were never produced. Because late the next morning the suit on the account interrupted my hangover to tell me he’d just had a very icy call from Clive’s agent telling him that Clive had decided not to be involved in the campaign after all. She added that prior to meeting ‘the young copywriter’, her star client hadn’t had a drink in five years.
No Australian has worked harder, and on more fronts, than Clive James did to disburden himself of the cultural cringe. But while the quest for old world intellectual approval certainly took the boy a long way out of Kogarah, it never quite took every last trace of Kogarah out of the boy.
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