Originally published in a privately published book featuring tributes to Clive James from members of the Midnight Voices mailing list/Smash Flops web-site, dedicated to the life and works of Pete Atkin and Clive James – http://www.peteatkin.com/pa.htm
When I sat down to select a favourite Clive James lyric, I knew it wouldn’t be easy. A few seconds thought was all that was needed to have a dozen phrases ringing in my head, moments of sharp perception, elegant twists that suddenly allow you to see a commonplace situation or emotion from a reverse angle.
Some of those songs were simple love songs – or at least as simple as they get with Clive. I thought of The Flowers and the Wine, and the outward bravado of: “When you set the date for tête-à-têtes like these / what tells you that I count the days between / except my nothing-caring air of ease?”. I remembered Between us there is nothing and the constant, elegant shifts in perspective, from the proximity of the beloved – “Between us, the wristwatch comes to rest” – and the wider, uncaring world of the fantastic, yet natural: “the trainee seagulls contour-flying / through the swells long trough and crest”. I imagined Tongue-Tied, and that plea to be allowed eloquence when: “the poems that start out / by eating my heart out / are lost on the air.”
And there were the newer songs – newer to me at least – like The Magic wasn’t There and the times when “you even weep for what did not take place”, or The Standards of Today and all of those who “never had the temperament, I guess / for less”
But there were also those vistas of the fantastic, the sweeping and dramatic, or the allegorical that nevertheless fold into the intensely personal. The Rider to the Worlds End traverses “the broken bottle forests” and “the fields of ash” but their devastation is nothing beside “a suddenly relaxing set of knuckles never rapped against a door”. The Tenderfoot “moves by echoes through the cold formations”, “journey(ing) where the sky meets the sierra / that every man alive must one day cross”, but the torment is nothing beside the realisation that “his pride at never being sentimental / was just another way to be unkind”. And the magnificence of the yachts and yachtsmen, coming and going into harbour beneath The Faded Mansion on the Hill that houses “the out of date black Cadillac / with the old man crumpled in the back / that Time has not yet found the time to kill”.
And let’s not forget the stories. Those moments when a person sits and contemplates, taking in their surroundings and the circumstances that have brought them to this place and this pass, like Payday Evening (beloved of MV’s and needing no further explication here), or – a personal epiphany here – Thirty Year Man, as the veteran tinkles at the piano in the dark, aware of the moment when the glistening turns away from reflecting a devotional object and becomes “bones at the end of a cave”.
But how can I ignore Sunlight Gate? The precision, the balance, the falling away of instrumentation as the heroes ranks are winnowed, as they return, when “their faces are never the same”.
Or The Wristwatch for a Drummer and that mad, glorious piling of rhymes on top of one another until it seems impossible Pete will have the breath to sing them: “a warning bell that tells you when you’re overstaying / your tentative welcome with the paying / customers in the deep, decaying / cellar club with the stained and fraying / velvet drapes and the stooped and praying / owner”.
Or the smooth velvet of Perfect Moments, sliding by, an easy, feet-up recollection of all those things that ease our passage through the void, “Charlie Chaplin policing Easy Street / Charlie Parker playing My Old Flame” – but nothing is ever perfect except: “the perfect bitch, it doesn’t work that way”.
But I see that now I’m talking about the music. That’s alright, so I should, because these are songs, not poems. Clive knows the difference well, knows that songs are meant to be sung, would be nothing without the music, without Pete and everything he’s contributed.
So I come to the last two songs on the ‘short’ list, both from A King at Nightfall, the 1973 album championed by Noel Edmonds (a pox on his name, save for this) that first drew my ears. I was thrilled by The Last Hill that shows you all the Valley, an idealists song, written as a lament but for Pete seeing what Clive didn’t, turning it into a surge of anger, set to a marching beat. But what are those helicopters doing on the Walls of Troy?
I wanted to tape that but the last song Edmonds ever played from that album turned out to be Carnations on the Roof and I had to settle for that. Skittery, skittish in sound, disjointed, jerky, yes. But I wrote down the words and I studied them, reading a picture of an ordinary man at the end of his life.
“Though he had no great gifts of personality or mind / he was generally respected, and the proof / was a line of hired Humbers lagging quietly behind / a fat Austin Princess with carnations on the roof”.
My dad had died just a couple of years before, when I was 14. He was no-one special, except to us. Clive’s words could have been for him. I chose that they were. So many of Clive’s words, in verse or prose, move, amuse, touch, illuminate me, but they deal with things I want to understand, to know or learn about. So few of them speak to me so directly about my own life.
In the end, we choose our favourites by what they mean to us. Thank you, Clive.