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Clive's Indian Summer
January/February 2012

 
His masterly voice: Clive James at work 

On YouTube there's a clip of Clive James and Robert Hughes being interviewed for Australian television in 1959. The programme is about Beat culture and James reads from Jack Kerouac's On the Road. When he's finished the presenter asks him: "Well, what do you think of it? What do you think of the formless prose?" James taps a pen on the page and replies: "It's overrated." That was half a century ago, and half a world away. And while I suspect James's criticism of Kerouac's prose hasn't changed — time has proven it to be pretty solid — the man who once practised lighting cigarettes with his head tilted to look like Albert Camus certainly has.

James has always been brilliant. Back when he was starting out on Fleet Street he admired the best writers on the Sunday papers and in the literary magazines for their ability to craft resonant sentences which shot straight into memory. James's enduring talent for making prose sound like ordinary speech makes him one of the few writers left to teach younger writers what a resonant sentence sounds like. But his brilliance was a gift; what he's earned is the wisdom to match it. Nowadays he's a man with a serious worldview backed by a lifetime of learning. James's voice on the page — and on radio and television — carries the force of a first-rate mind, a mind blessedly unharmed by a talent for slamming his head into the open door of a refrigerator.

James is occasionally found "braining" himself on things — the refrigerator door, the sloping roof of his study, the roof of a shed — in the 60 broadcasts he did for the BBC Radio 4 programme A Point of View. Part of this is humility, a way of inviting listeners (and readers) in by sending up his clumsiness. But James is also working one of his favourite tricks. By getting expectations down low early on, James is able to play to one of his strengths — his ability to speak plain sense about complex subjects. He's also able to say things that should be obvious to experts who waste a lot of time raising expectations very high indeed, about as high as our troublesome ozone layer. Alarmist climate scientists get the full treatment of a critical intellect in these broadcasts, and it's a treatment made doubly powerful because it's spoken in ordinary language even an expert can understand.

The format of A Point of View suits James's style. Each broadcast runs about ten minutes long, which meant James wrote a script of about 1,600 words each week. The scripts — which were broadcast over six series between February 2007 and December 2009 — are about the same length as a long newspaper column or a short magazine essay, two forms James excels at. They are printed here with postscripts in the same manner used for James's essay collections. Really this book is a collection of mini-essays. The topics vary widely, but the book is held together by several recurring ideas and the vibrancy of James's style.

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Anonymous
May 31st, 2012
9:05 AM
Fantastic Reads

Anonymous
January 3rd, 2012
4:01 AM
"Alarmist climate scientists get the full treatment of a critical intellect in these broadcasts". So a man with a command of language knows more about climate than all of the scientists at NASA and NOAA. Clive, the wordsmith is wonderful; Clive the scientist is ignorant. What a pity that he does not know the difference.

tom donald
December 27th, 2011
9:12 AM
good article! How satisfying it is to have Clive James appreciated as the wise chap he is... There's many a happy hour to be spent on his website, where the R4 talks can be heard, and a huge range of his writings can be read too. It's at clivejames.com CJ is a treasure!

Cornucopian
December 26th, 2011
4:12 PM
and why shouldn't Mr James not say it. he's had a good time of it, didn't he? It's his grand daughter who'll have to actually live in the sweet future which Mr James will conveniently miss. And it's not going to be merry go round all over again. There's a word that qualifies this sort of wisdom - 'conventional' [at least with regards to the future - but he gives himself away by that 'however well founded'.

Anonymous
December 24th, 2011
9:12 AM
bought book

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