A new poetry collection from Clive James, unexpected by author and audience, has been published today. Like its acclaimed predecessor, Sentenced to Life, it is a very hard book to read in extended spells: a half a dozen poems is about as much as I can cope with at a time, before James’ theme – once again his imminent but now six-years-postponed death – overwhelms me and I can’t carry on.
I’ve been a fan of Clive James for over forty years ago, since he used to present Granada TV’s Cinema in the early Seventies. I found his reviews hilarious and perceptive, though I didn’t remember how many of the films on which he commented I actually went to see, or whether he and I shared the same opinions.
I was also aware that he wrote lyrics for Pete Atkin, who was releasing albums through the first half of the decade. I only heard occasional songs by Atkin, which I generally liked because I liked his voice, and whose lyrics were certainly clever. But I only really began to follow James’ work the following decade when, initially from the library and then with my own copies, I read the collected columns of TV criticism from the Observer.
There were two books then, and I read the second first, and I remember reading this late at night and trying to have silent hysterics because my sister, in her bedroom, was trying to sleep and I wasn’t helping her. I remember the third book coming out.
I remember deciding to explore the Pete Atkin connection more deeply, first by borrowing the six albums from my mate John and copying them onto three C90 cassettes, which I would play on rotation in the car, enough that certain songs remind me of the places I was driving through when I was singing along with the song.
I loved the music, I loved Atkin’s voice, and I loved James’ lyrics, for their wit, their rhythm and the insight they displayed. And I started to collect his other books, with varying degrees of enjoyment (the literary criticism could sometimes be overwhelming because the high culture it dealt with was higher that I usually liked to go, and the reviews correspondingly long and involved). The novels were funny and involving, and I took different things from the four of them. There is a scene near the end of Brilliant Creatures that resonates so much, that culminates with a line so true and rueful that it slid backwards in time to inform my earlier experience, as if I had coined it myself for a moment I really did not want to go through.
That was the thing: one of the reasons I enjoyed Clive James so much was that not only did I agree with most of what he said, so much of it was something I could and might have said myself, if I were a little bit more intelligent, or creative. I was always behind him, and could never have written what he wrote, but once it was written, it was in my wheelhouse.
Would that he had influenced me more! I just wasn’t smart enough, the big influence on my writing style turned out to be Douglas Adams, even though I went off The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy years ago. But I still fell on everything he published, even to the extent of buying essay collections in hardback, and hunting out those older books, the long narrative poems from the Seventies, etc.
And there was the Pete Atkin revival, and twice I’ve seen the pair performing, Atkin singing and playing, James talking and reciting, and bringing me close to tears in public once, when he read his poem Occupation:Housewife, which began so funny and which slid so imperceptibly into heartbreaking regret for a father lost before he ever knew him, a situation that always moves me deeply.
Funnily enough, I wasn’t too bothered with the television series. I regularly watched On TV, enough so to continue enjoying it when it went to Chris Tarrant. But the other shows, the variety shows, the Saturday and Sunday Night Clive’s were always that bit too populist for my tastes, too diluted in James’ real abilities. Never did like the Japanese Game Show bit.
So I can’t be objective about Clive James, and given the subject of the poetry in this and Sentenced to Life before it, I can’t be objective about this book, and I can’t even finish yet, because after so many poems I have to take a long break. So these thoughts are more collected than uncollected, but they’re thoughts about Clive James, not Injury Time, which I suspect I’ll never really be able to analyse.