When I was growing up in Canberra in the 1970s, my parents would have bouts of intense homesickness. Both were born in Wales, £10 Poms, and Canberra was a proto-city – a Wild East town in scrubland, a radius away from the glowing pastures of Breconshire.
Melancholy was best captured on an Autumn climb to the top of Black Mountain, which rose at the heart of Canberra, and to look down at the deciduous imports smouldering in hundreds of gardens below. Oak, Elm, Silver Birch and the odd Japanese Maple.
There were, though, other balms. My dad would bring home Country Life magazine from the office library, odd for a life-long socialist, but he’d scour the ads for estates in the English countryside, marvelling that back then a one-hundred acre pile with twelve bedrooms, ‘in need of repair’, could be fetched for £30,000. This he found reassuring and settling.
The Two Ronnies were another settling reference point, as was Fawlty Towers. I remember the neighbours knocking after Manuel’s “I am from Swanage” line to see what the fuss was about.
The final liniment was the Observer. Dad would bring home a dozen back issues and he and mum would read everything in them. The first furious flick was to Clive James.
Clive James’ television column was the altar of laughter. I rarely saw my dad disabled by a joke, but Clive was inflictor-general. He’d laugh like a spider.
This exile from Australia, then, became the cultural intercessor in my parents’ lives, keeping them in touch with what all their old friends would be watching – or had been watching eight weeks earlier. Clive was like a slow Gogglebox, his observations travelling by the slow boat – bringing home news of home.
There must have been some kind of environmental incident in Australia in the 1930s. What it was isn’t clear. Four people emerged affected: Barry Humphries first – and then later in the decade, Robert Hughes, Germaine Greer and Clive James. If Marvel Comics had commissioned a quartet of Australian cultural superheroes, here they were. Humphries, with his capacity to turn his schadenfreude in on himself; Hughes, with his critical scalpel; Greer, speaking truth to power, and Clive James with his ability to break the laws of physics in a sentence.
Clive James is my writing superhero. His cultural omnivorousness, his capacity to be as crystalline about ham actors as he is about Hamlet, his words like smooth stones.
As remarkable is his ability to show rather than tell. On Murray Walker, for instance: “Even in moments of tranquillity, Murray Walker sounds like a man whose trousers are on fire”.
Most writers dream about selling the film rights to their work. Clive opensources the film rights with most of his greatest sentences. Who else could take a walnut, the colour brown and a condom and conjure Schwarzenegger in front of us? Who could do the same with two crows and a chalk cliff and give us Barbara Cartland?
The essential gift in most of his phraseology is the seemingly-effortless creation of a hinterland beyond the sentence on the page. He does this with whatever he does, so when he translates Dante and takes the line hitherto read as ‘abandon all hope ye who enter here’, he goes for ‘forget your hopes; they are what brought you here.’ A beautiful pivot that leads us straight into reflection.
The filmic metaphor is perhaps, though, his greatest gift. He wrote once about being able to turn a phrase to catch the light.
When I am asked by new recruits how best to learn the writer’s craft, I say read Clive James and try to copy him. It’s what I do. Occasionally, I’ll feel that I’ve nailed a Jamesian line, but if it doesn’t pass the test after a week or two, it doesn’t count – and no line has ever seen out three weeks. But the unlikely and separately prosaic ingredients of his best sentences give me hope. I flick through the dictionary, with its trillions of combinations, experiment, start again, experiment, start again.
I can’t think of another writer whose words radiate exhortations to keep trying. It’s the simplicity of his ingredients and the effortless of the combinations that say this is in reach of us all. His capacity is almost Shakespearean, in the sense that what he writes works for every audience in the yard and the galleries. He is Everywriter – and an alchemist.
Imagine if Clive James had taken to Twitter. Turning 140 characters into an army of 140,000 with his Tardis lines. Long live the Japanese Maple.