Clive James and the Australian Genius

Netflix? Nah, I’ve completed that. With more time on our hands than ever, COVID-19 has us all scrambling for new sources of entertainment. Joseph Haynes breathes life into a forgotten Australian author who just might be the answer.

It was sometime during my final high school year that I finally dived into the literature of Clive James. As I recall, my family had recommended him for a number of years, probably as a counteractive to my burgeoning Anglophilia. In many ways someone who likes books and history will always be attracted to England, but this doesn’t make the attraction any less pernicious for an Australian. It is over a year now since then and, without being too dramatic, I’m glad for my family’s intervention. 

A comic, a satirist, a classicist, a modernist and a humanist all in one. Like an informercial but more well-read

When Australians read Clive James we can’t help but feel that no one who didn’t grow up in Australia could write as he did. His tactful balancing act between self-deprecation and profundity (an act which it turns out consists almost entirely of the former) is uncannily similar to the witty Australian who has figured out how to be wise without being pretentious. It goes without saying that any young person in Australia today will unrestrainedly tell you that the worst crime of all in a social setting is to be perceived as arrogant. It was with this mindset that Clive James exported the Australian genius to the world. Six months on from his death last year, I am determined to prevent the fissures of time let him leak from our memory.

Describing Clive James to someone who has never crossed his path is pointless. No other wordsmith, no matter how good at smithing words they may be, can do him justice. He was many writers crammed into a single body. A comic, a satirist, a classicist, a modernist and a humanist all in one. Like an informercial but more well-read. I do recall him stating in an interview that he would foremostly like to be described as a poet. But this only implies that there are other ways to describe the man, which I can confirm. He was probably most famous for his appearances on television, during which he would host or be a guest on a jumble of programs. Clive James on Television, The Clive James Show and Saturday Night Clive are just a whiff of the programs he used as his pulpit to the masses, and are testament to his ability in ensuring every show he was on had his name in the title. I will not pretend that I was born in time to witness any of these live. But with the miracle of YouTube it’s easy to trawl through the hours of material Clive used to flood the airwaves. His ‘Postcard from…’ series is a particular gem, and is chocked full of his dry sense of humour. I seem to remember a running joke in the Sydney edition being the idea that Mozart was from Australia. I imagine there were a few viewers who heard this and thought it sounded about right.

But of course television was always the sidecar to his career. Really, he was a writer. His essays are modicums of brilliance, his poetry moving. In one poem, A Perfect Market, he describes the need for a poet to not only be able to say things well but to have something worth saying. He holds up the image of a great poet as being a master of reading and of writing. This notion of a producer still being fluent in what it means to be a consumer is integral to Clive’s character, and is I think where the perfect market in the title comes from. He was someone who understood high culture enough to write about it, but had enough common touch to be appreciated by the ordinary person. He never let his breadth of knowledge and appreciation for the high precede his love of the low: he kept true to the larrikin, he kept true to being Clive. It was a very egalitarian way to look at poetry, and, I think, a very Australian way to look at poetry. In his first memoir he talks of nearly accepting an offer to be educated at Sydney Boys High, before turning it down for Sydney Technical School. Further on he describes his regret for not taking up High, which he predicts would have led to him being exposed to great literature and the classical languages at a more formative stage of his life. I understand his consideration but am selfishly grateful that he wasn’t absorbed into the intellectual bubble until later on. It only enlarged his authenticity, and, if anything, probably protected him from the elitism that festers in the sandstone institutions of this country. It also meant that he was always playing catch-up, which I think gave him an appreciation for hard work as well as trial and error. 

His humility makes reading his memoirs the most respectable of any writer’s I’ve seen. Rather than them being almost a manual for ascending to greatness, as some memoirs fall into the trap of being – Christopher Hitchens comes to mind – they are instead an exploration of failure and regret, which make them refreshingly down to earth. In his memoir’s afterword he punctuates the tear-inducing end to the final chapter by stating that the book is more about Australia than himself. He reminds the reader that the book is ultimately a sad one, but predicts that its sadness will have slipped past our notice because of the inexorable joy that reading about Australia causes. This is perhaps the most insightful observation of the memoir, and of Australian literature as a whole. Even when reading Storm Boy, between stops to clear the lump in my throat, I am renewed by the slick landscape in which the boy and his pelican live. No matter how sad a story may be, if it is framed by the wonder of Australia’s natural beauty, it is hard to feel totally depressed by it – the song of the galahs will keep you warm. 

Having spent most of my life reading about far-off countries – Ireland, the Deep South, London – to look down at words on a page and make out descriptions of what it’s like to be a child running along the rim of Redleaf Pool, the stoney paths of the Botanical Gardens, or watching the waves crash onto the bow of the Bundeena ferry, re-colourises the world I’ve lived in for so long. Our “natural blessings” in Sydney, let alone the rest of the continent, have an energy that will always renew our belief that this really is the lucky country. And with the COVID-19 shaped bullet we’ve just dodged it looks as if our luck hasn’t run out. 

If I may turn your attention to perhaps the most powerful description of Sydney Harbour ever written I’m sure you’ll appreciate Clive’s understanding of the land he came from:

“In Sydney Habour…the yachts will be racing on the crushed diamond water under a sky the texture of powdered sapphires. It would be churlish not to concede that the same abundance of natural blessings which gave us the energy to leave has every right to call us back… Pulsing like a beacon through the days and nights, the birthplace of fortune sends out its invisible waves of recollection. It always has and it always will, until even the last of us come home.”

Luck was an attribute Clive clung to like glue. Almost every achievement he had he accredited to luck, from his place at Cambridge to his goddess of a mother. But was he really lucky? His father died on transit from Japan to Australia after the war had already ended. His only remaining father figure died prematurely too. He was brought up on a war widow’s pension which wasn’t enough for a widow let alone her child. So no, I’m not inclined to say Clive was particularly lucky. But this is a lesson in what the belief in one’s luckiness is. It is not a belief that things will always go your way, that is just blind optimism. Rather, it is the perception of the world as a kind place and a faith in the natural order as being inherently fair. Of course, it’s easy for many Australians to say this. And even easier for the urban middle-class Australian. But being what is essentially a floating mineral deposit that has enjoyed twenty-eight years of uninterrupted economic growth – a good innings that even the pandemic hasn’t made its mind up on ending – it is easy to recline in the rays of the ozone’s hole and revel in what we call our luck. 

Of course, Australia still has its shortcomings. Our foreign ownership of universities, our growing underemployment rate, and our seeming inability to reconcile the history of racism in this country are skeletons with more than a foot out of the closet each. Still, the lucky mindset has served us, something Clive indulged in himself. Overseas however, our cheeriness is unequivocally our ticket to ride.

But if nothing else, you proved that a kid from Kogarah could conquer the world

Indeed, Australia’s international reputation is perhaps our greatest asset. Although ball tampering and bleached coral may have scuffed it in recent years, it is still an ever-aiding aura that I believe shines around us like the smile of a Qantas flight attendant handing out hot towels. The wealth we can acquire here that allows us to travel and see the world is our richest resource. Even greater than iron ore. It is the reason more than half of us have a passport. It is the reason we have some of the busiest air corridors on the planet. And it is what allows us to be so worldly. Go to a café in a fairly normal suburb of any city or town and you will find people that have seen Europe, Japan, America, and Asia. That’s not bad for a country that invented boxed wine.

Clive evinced this way of life. So of course he had to leave. But all the more to it, for he was one of our first cultural exports who did not feel the need to efface their Australianess. Fluent in the way Bob Hawke used to scull beer to the way Henry Lawson once described Sydney as “the city set in jewels”, he gave Australia to the world without turning it into a parody. And for that we should thank him. Tim Winton perhaps has his sentiment, Barry Humphries his wit, Gough Whitlam his constitution. But for an all in one deal, I’d pick up Clive James’ memoirs any day. I remember he once said that Australia “tastes of happiness.” Little did he know that one of the reasons I was happy to be an Australian was that I came from the country that gave birth to Clive James. 

Ultimately, Clive believed in the liberal arts. He believed in culture, and he believed that anyone could be European. He believed in doing things for the sake of them – what he called the “literal definition of Humanism.” So really I shouldn’t be hoggish by implying that Clive belongs only to Australia, for really he belongs to the world – but what an Australian thing to do all the same. Letters were his trade, and he used them, whether in verse, prose, or television, to turn his life into a living embodiment of gregariousness. He also managed to live out one of the longest public deaths in history that made the boy who cried wolf look sincere. I believe he enjoyed being flawed, and enjoyed telling people about his flaws so that they might laugh and feel all the better about being a member of the human race. You can probably see how his sentiment has rubbed off on me. But that is only because he knew how to use sentiment so well.

So to Clive I say thank you. You made us more aware of our genius and made the melancholic clown an art form of integrity. But if nothing else, you proved that a kid from Kogarah could conquer the world.

Joseph is currently completing his gap year, pursuing all things literary. He plans to study Arts/Law at the University of Melbourne.

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