At his best, Clive James can nail a topic better than anyone. It’s something to do with his Aussie sense of the absurd, his impatience with posturing, combined with his deep reading back in time and across the spectrum. He knows his stuff, and because of this he can walk around a subject in 360 degrees. He’s irreverent and funny, clever without being cynical, and not afraid to flex his wits on anything and everything, from Susan Boyle’s performance on Britain’s Got Talent to the essays of Montaigne, by way of an MP’s duck house, the significance of Al Gore’s decision to live at sea level, and the “brave and beautiful” Aung San Suu Kyi. As he tells us: “The secret of criticism is to know what your real feelings are before you try to express them.”
His latest book, A Point of View, is a collection of his Radio 4 “essays”, first broadcast on Sunday mornings (and Friday evenings) in the slot once ruled by Alistair Cooke and his weekly letter from America. “There’s just no denying that you can’t eat your fill without insulting a lot of people who have nothing to eat at all,” he told us in August 2007 in a talk that began with the line, “Clams are happy”, from an early Robert Redford film, The Candidate, but which segued into hunger in Darfur, melancholy and the sheer pleasure of eating a slice of watermelon.
The essay, a pithy monologue on a theme with variations, has been a staple of radio since wireless broadcasting by the BBC began in the Twenties. At its best it’s inspired by a news story but wanders off on a journey into realms of knowledge only to return to the original point with a nugget of insight gleaned from the trip. Since Cooke’s death in 2004, various contributors, including James, Mary Beard, Will Self, Joan Bakewell and Lisa Jardine, have attempted to take over his role as Radio 4’s resident seer, but none has quite succeeded in capturing his consistency and authority. Perhaps this is because the “alert and receptive listener” of Cooke’s heyday has been replaced by the “i generation”, obsessed with their iPhones, iPads, iPods and the overall importance of i-ness. We’re all becoming less capable of precision thinking.
Radio, though, is experiencing an extraordinary renaissance, a rebirth that James is willing to acknowledge in spite of having made his name by writing about television, who then became even more famous for being on television, and who is still writing about television for this paper. James values the disciplines imposed by a medium where words matter most. “Spurred by the requirement to get long arguments into a short space”, in this case 1,600 words (twice the length of this review) or 10 minutes’ worth of radio time, James promises in his introduction to this collection to come up with an “occasional… usefully portable phrase, upon whose cogency one could preen oneself”. In March 2008, he presciently declares in an essay provoked by a news story about the amorous emails of a friend of Ken Livingstone, who was then Mayor of London: “Pinching private phone calls and emails ought to be a crime, but somehow it isn’t.” I particularly like that “somehow”, and the way he both trivialises and finesses the crime by describing it as “pinching”.
A Point of View, though, is diminished by the addition of a “PS” to each edition, as if suggesting that the original script for the broadcast was in some way insufficient. After an essay on the latest exhibit on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, James writes, “The deliberate repetitions in the first paragraph of this script are examples of what can sound quite clever in a broadcast or a stage routine, but might be less advisable in an essay for the page, because the reader can take the necessary time to spot the workings.” With his critical hat on, James is spot on. If an essay needs a PS, then in some way it hasn’t worked.
But he can still make you laugh out loud, as when he takes off from a tabloid tale about David Cameron’s illegal bike-riding antics into a flight of fancy about General Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, or writes about how Bruce Willis can “maintain a wry smirk while being blown backwards through plate glass”. In fact, this collection is perfect reading for the train, each essay short enough not to require too long a concentration span, but written loud enough to draw you right in, drowning out the voice of the person sitting next to you on their mobile phone.