Until yesterday I could have safely counted the number of funny Australians on the thumb of one hand. Now there are none. Funny is not what Australians do. They’re too rugged and practical and when they do try funny it just comes out clunky and awkward, and when that doesn’t work they just get uptight and have to remind you how rugged and practical they really are and somehow sporting prowess will always come up. Not that I don’t like Australians, they’re fine, it’s just that it’s quite hard to get a good laugh out of most of them and even harder to get them to say something funny.
Anyway, Clive James died yesterday and he was as funny as Australia ever got. The fact he spent a good deal of his time in Britain speaks volumes. Wifey was a big fan too and always indulged in his weekly column in the The Guardian magazine on a Saturday. He wrote rather beautifully about the perpetual distraction of his rampant leukaemia and when he suddenly vanished a couple of years ago, to be replaced by someone altogether less interesting (I think it may have been Howard Jacobson) I took that as a sign to ditch the otherwise worthless jumble of left wing misprints and on trend flesh pressing and revert back to The Times. I missed Clive James but I never have missed The Guardian. Now I can properly miss him.
According to those who knew him best Clive James was a reader without equal. A font of seemingly bottomless literary knowledge. His interest in almost anything was all consuming and when P.J.O’Rourke referred to this on Radio 4 yesterday evening it made me regret all the time I have wasted when I could have been reading. I also regret that I have only ever read the first one and a half volumes of James’ memoirs. What I did read was fabulous, it’s just that I always get distracted by something else; but that’s the story of my life and I’d prefer to stick to his.
I like the fact that he got on well with Christopher Hitchens. A long, wet, nicotine hazed lunch in London with those two and perhaps Martin Amis and other assorted chums sounds like heaven to me. Hitchens (also very sadly dead, though given his lifestyle he had it coming; take heart – we all have it coming) refers to James in his memoir, Hitch 22 (which is highly recommended) as a master of the hyperbolic metaphor – famously describing Arnold Schwarzenegger in ‘Pumping Iron’ as “a brown condom stuffed with walnuts” and when referring to being talked to by some chap with serious halitosis claimed drolly that “by this time his breath was undoing my tie”. These are lines that most can only dream of flicking out with loose wristed, cavalier nonchalance, but for Clive James they were just meat and potatoes, and what’s worse is that, much like Hitchins, I just can’t see anyone to replace him.
I shall make an immediate effort to get on with the rest of Clive James’ written word. I doubt I’ll bother with much of his poetry: I am both ignorant and self-aware enough to admit that poetry really does very little for me and I am also happy to say that I am both sorry and not at all sorry about that. But what I will always have is my earliest memories of Clive James in his prime, hosting the likes of Saturday Night Clive and just seeming like the best company anyone could ever have in one go. The highlight was always those precious few seconds when he would introduce the brilliantly awful Margarita Pracatan. Whatever he said, it would always be dry and measured in withering but also somehow warm and generous and delivered with a disarming smile and you kind of knew that Ms Pracatan was just as in on the joke. Piers Morgan he was not, which is the highest of complements.
Yesterday was not a good day for people hoping it wasn’t their last. Jonathan Miller waved goodbye and he often had some very interesting things to say, but for me his great offering was to have been astoundingly lucky enough to have worked with Peter Cook, which is almost the best one line CV anyone can ever have. Wifey was also surprised to hear that Gary Rhodes had died, but he had the rotten luck of being announced first and then quickly lapped by two bigger beasts. Like late buses famous people occasionally seem to die in quick succession. Clive James had been slowly dying for the last 10 years (again, as are we all) but even that didn’t dull the impact of his final breath. Most people under 25 probably haven’t got a clue who he is. I don’t know which makes me sadder.
G B Hewitt. 28.11.2019.
Ps – his collected memoirs are £12.99 on Kindle at the moment. Go on, have a flutter.