CLIVE JAMES : THE CAMBRIDGE CRITIQUE MAN OF 2019
For his lifetime achievement in the cultural world and his recent epic poem, The Cambridge Critique names writer Clive James as its Man of 2019. His body of work is immense. He is surely unique among artists in having incorporated decades in the media spotlight as an acerbic television presenter with his role as national cultural commentator. Always a writer and critic, he has a lifetime commitment to poetry and even lyric writing. His latest epic poem ‘The River in the Sky’ Picador, is the zenith and apogee of that creative life.
Here we interview Clive James about ‘The River in the Sky’, and include assessement of its meaning and impact from the two most eminent literary critics of our day, Mary Beard and Professor Dame Gillian Beer who writes,
‘This ranging poem moves like a river, dawdling sometimes then opening out into its full force. Clive James is gathering a life full of event, people, humour and remorse, books and writing: all now present in the copiousness of memory. It is a book written in the knowledge that death is coming near. It feels, and communicates, the pleasures of being alive in your one inimitable life. It speaks too of the melancholy when all that is held together in one person vanishes with their death. Poetry holds that loss at bay:
If my ashes end up in an hour-glass
I can go on working.
Patterns of gravity
Will look like writing.
This poem feels like conversation: a free conversation in which we come to know and will go on knowing another person. We won’t know everything, but encountering a life so full of enjoyment of the world, we can share enough to feel the kinship we all discover as we age. The poem is about long marriage and long life. It uses all the skills that Clive James has drawn together and that have gone on growing during this last unexpectedly elongated time of his life, for which we can be thankful.’
And Professor Mary Beard observes
‘The River in the Sky is a wonderful new take on an old form: a mini epic (or what the Greeks and Romans would have called an 'epyllion'). For me it is the heady mixture of high culture, popular culture, poignancy and naughtiness that is so memorable. It's brilliantly destabilizing, as he juxtaposes what we all watch on television with great thinkers that most of us have never heard of -- and they work enticingly together. And we are led the world over in Clive's mind, and in his life story. I guess I would say it is about how culture works in our memory, and how memory works in our culture.’
A brief interview with Clive feels like a dense immeresion in quirky thoughts all competing for attention;
Where does Australia lie in your mental landscape these days?
‘Australia is still at the centre of my memory but by now almost everywhere I have ever been is retreating to the margins. Africa, for example, is just a lion’s growl away but the mental picture comes from the next galaxy. I have grown increasingly impressed by descriptions of the universe which place everything as infinitely distant from everything else. It would be a crazy enterprise to try verbally reflecting that huge expanse but perhaps one can’t help doing so just be specifying that the milk-jug and the jam-jar are on the same table but without touching each other, or, indeed, without touching the table.
Modern Society? What are we getting wrong - or right?
I don’t think we’re missing all that much as a society compared with, say, the Middle Ages. I would miss modern dentistry, for example; and at the moment I am having my life saved by X-ray bombardments, which were hard to come by in the age of Charlemagne, who would have burned Madame Curie as a witch.’’
In ‘The River in the Sky’ Clive’s father is heartbreakingly present . He was captured by the Japanese early in the Second World War and kept prisoner. Clive has even had disturbing glimpses from fellow prisoners of the savagery of punishments meted out to him by one psychopathic guard who singled him out for brutality. At the war’s end he was hurried back to Australia aboard an American plane. It crashed killing all aboard. Clive was three years old and he grew up with an an acute awareness of his mother’s loss. And his own So many of his memories he realizes in the poem belong to his search for his own father. . I asked what place does his father play now in his remembered world?
‘I have always spent a lot of time thinking about my father’s death and that preoccupation has only intensified now that I am obliged to think about mine. It’s not just my subject: it’s my condition.
I think that towards the end we retain everything we can remember, and then, lo and behold, those memories are all we are’.