Magazine article The Spectator

Antipodean Wit and Wisdom

Magazine article The Spectator

Antipodean Wit and Wisdom

Article excerpt

THE MEANING OF RECOGNITION : NEW ESSAYS , 2001-2005 by Clive James Picador, £14.99, pp. 367, ISBN 033044025X . £11.99 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Shocking, I know, but I hadn't paid much attention to Clive James since my dim distant undergraduate days 30 years ago, when I remember being vastly amused by his verse satire of Grub Street parvenus, Peregrine Prykke's Pilgrimage. Since then he's rather passed me by -- I never thought his television shows up to much, his byline has never grabbed me and I have yet to consult his latest project, described by the blurb as 'the world's first serious multimedia personal website' (serious? ). Nothing personal, no formulated opinion of his talent one way or the other, I just wasn't a fan.

Then came the prospect of a transatlantic flight, for which I decided his new collection of recent essays would be just the thing. It focuses on an engaging variety of topics -- Larkin, Yeats, Philip Roth, the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, his native Australia and its literature, the general election of 2001, The West Wing, Bing Crosby and the crooners, Formula One racing, and 'celebrity culture' among them -- and a cursory preview was encouraging. James writes buoyantly, he has a restless, lively intelligence and a range of cultural reference which stretches effortlessly from Alexander Pushkin to Zinka Milanov, via Primo Levi and Tony Soprano. His spirit is generous, based in a political stance that gives two decent cheers for liberal democratic societies and doesn't sentimentalise terrorism or tyranny of any colour.

So why did I find the book such heavy going, sometimes to the point of thinking that it would never end? One problem is a matter of length -- such is the cachet of James's name that editors seem to grant him double the space they allow anyone else. Most of these essays would benefit from sharp cutting, because James lacks the great literary essayist's instinct for shape and concision. He is a chatterer and a rambler, who will wander a long way off course in order to arrive at his punch-line and then forget where he was headed before the diversion.

But of course it's the punch-lines, quips and puns that made James famous, and they are still what his readership wants.

Ever one to oblige, he provides them thick and fast here. A failure of my sense of humour perhaps, but confronted with this rapier antipodean wit, I'm afraid I could only envisage an arthritic old circus animal gamely trotting out into the ring and leaping through hoops to dwindling applause. …

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