Clive James

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Clive James (born 7 October 1939) is an expatriate Australian writer, poet, essayist, critic, and commentator on popular culture.

Memoirs[edit]

Unreliable Memoirs (1980)[edit]

  • Most first novels are disguised autobiographies. This autobiography is a disguised novel.
    • Opening lines to the preface, p. 9
  • Rilke used to say that no poet would mind going to gaol, since he would at least have time to explore the treasure house of his memory. In many respects Rilke was a prick.
    • From the preface, p. 9
  • I was born in 1939. The other big event of that year was the outbreak of the Second World War, but for the moment that did not affect me.
    • Opening lines of the autobiography, p. 11
  • My mother had naturally spiced the pudding with sixpences and threepenny bits, called zacs and trays respectively. Grandpa had collected one of these in the oesophagus. He gave a protracted, strangled gurgle which for a long time we all took to be the beginning of some anecdote.
    • p. 13
  • I remember the shock of seeing Ray undressed. He looked as if he had a squirrel hanging there. I had an acorn.
    • p. 17
  • Children in Australia are still named after movies and sporting events. You can tell roughly the year the swimming star Shane Gould was born. It was about the time Shane was released. There was a famous case of a returned serviceman who named his son after all the campaigns he had been through in the Western Desert. The kid was called William Bardia Escarpment Qattara Depression Mersa Matruh Tobruk El Alamein Benghazi Tripoli Harris.
    • p. 29
  • Herzen was closer to the truth when he said that every memory calls up a dozen others. The real miracle of Proust is the discipline with which he stemmed the flow. Everything is a Madeleine.
    • p. 56
  • It often happens that we are most touched by what we are least capable of. Evanescent delicacy is not the quality in the arts that I admire most, but it is often the characteristic by which I am most reduced to envy.
    • p. 64
  • Riding the crest, I diversified, exploiting a highly marketable capacity to fart at will... By mastering this skill I set myself on a par with those court jesters of old who could wow the monarch and all his retinue with a simultaneous leap, whistle and fart. Unable to extend my neo-Homeric story-telling activities from the playground to the classroom, I could nevertheless continue to hog the limelight by interpolating a gaseous running commentary while the teacher addressed himself to the blackboard.
    • p. 105
  • The whole secret of raising a fart in class is to make it sound as if it is punctuating, or commenting upon, what the teacher is saying. Timing, not ripeness, is all. 'And since x tends to y as c tends to d,' Fred expounded, 'then the differential of the increment of x squared must be... must be... come on, come on! What must it flaming be?' Here was the chance to to give my version of what it must be. I armed one, opened the bomb bay, and let it go. Unfortunately, the results far exceeded the discreet limits I had intended. It sounded like a moose coughing.
    • p. 105-6
  • As I begin this last paragraph, outside my window a misty afternoon drizzle gently but inexorably soaks the City of London. Down there in the street I can see umbrellas commiserating with each other. In Sydney Harbour, twelve thousand miles away and ten hours from now, the yachts will be racing on the crushed diamond water under a sky the texture of powdered sapphires. It would be churlish not to concede that the same abundance of natural blessings which gave us the energy to leave has every right to call us back. All in, the whippy's taken. Pulsing like a beacon through the days and nights, the birthplace of the fortunate sends out its invisible waves of recollection. It always has and it always will, until even the last of us come home.
    • Closing lines, p. 174

Falling Towards England (1985)[edit]

  • It is almost better to be an impulse shirt-buyer than an impulse shoe-buyer. I have worn shirts that made people think I was a retired Mafia hit-man or a Yugoslavian sports convener from Split, but I have worn shoes that made people think I was insane.
  • My idea of a fine wine was one that merely stained your teeth without stripping the enamel.

May Week Was in June (1990)[edit]

  • After that, I was on the right track to the city centre, where there was enough light to distinguish people from letter boxes. The letter boxes, in my perhaps embittered view, had warmer personalities than the people.
    • p. 15
  • The entrée wasn't tender enough to be a paving stone and the gravy couldn't have been primordial soup because morphogenesis was already taking place.
    • p. 18
  • His pear-shaped head, I could now see, was situated on top of a pear-shaped body, which his black gown caused to resemble a piece of fruit going to a funeral.
    • p. 19
  • I was officially advised that during the long vacation it might be profitable to attain at least a nodding acquaintance with the curriculum, and thus stave off the already likely possibility that I would receive a degree classified so low it would be tantamount to a certificate of mental disability.
    • p. 45
  • Not everyone who wants to make a film is crazy, but almost everyone who is crazy wants to make a film. It is just one of the things that crazy people want to do, like starting a law suit or sending long, unsolicited letters to people in the public eye. A letter from a nutter has a recognisable format and orthography, as if all letter-writing nutters have to go through some kind of Top Gun nutter-letter-writing academy.
    • p. 93
  • The professor was a bore on a Guggenheim, a long-range drone, and international ballistic fossil. I spent the whole hour drawing little pictures of hanged men.
    • p. 120
  • When the bell rang to start the Italian hunting season, devotees of la caccia drove at full speed into the woods and shot everything that moved. Since the animals were sensibly lying low, most of the victims were people. Advancing at random through woods, the hunters - whose minds, like their expensive guns, were on a hair trigger - fired when they thought they saw something. Often they had seen each other. They also killed civilians in nearby villages. The occasional animal got hit, but only by a fluke. One man blasted a rabbit that was already hanging from another man's belt. So much vehicular traffic on the woodland roads, however, ensured that a considerable amount of wildlife was run over.
    • p. 144
  • On the surface of the water, a midge vanishes into a hungry ripple. I'm not ready yet. He wonders why, at his age and having come so far, he still feels that. The culmination of his luck is that he will never feel any other way.
    • p. 240
  • All I can do is turn a phrase until it catches the light. There was a time when I got hot under the collar if the critics said I had nothing new to say. Now I realise that they had a point. My field is the self-evident. Everything I say is obvious, although I like to think that some of the obvious things I have said were not so obvious until I said them.
    • p. 241
  • It just never occurred to me that the real distance I would have to cross would be in my own mind. In that respect, I had flown half a million miles before I moved an inch, and these three volumes are just the rattling the side of my cot made when I climbed over, on the first stage of that long, momentous journey across the carpet, towards the light of the open door.
    • closing lines, p. 249

North Face of Soho (2006)[edit]

  • The sure sign of a weak man who ascends to glory is that he can't tolerate having strong men around him.
    • p. 126
  • I was wrong, however, to suppose that Sellers thought the world revolved around him. He thought the cosmos did too, and history, and the fates... Like every egomaniac, he behaved as if everybody else spent their day being as interested in him as he was.
  • He had a conspicuous individual talent, but it was interpretive, not directly creative. He could never have emulated Chaplin, Keaton or Jacques Tati and set up a whole project by himself, controlling its every detail even if the task took years. But there is no point carping. He had such a protean capacity that it would have been a miracle if he had been in full command of it.
    • Ibid.
  • Actually, like the vast majority of Australians, I had been born and raised in a city, but in the British imagination at that time the whole of Australia was still the outback, which was somehow equipped with a beach. Later on, this outback beach acquired an Opera House and a row of brick bungalows, one of them occupied by Kylie Minogue.
    • p. 165
  • If it feels like a mistake before you go in, don't go in.
    • p. 166
  • ...I never got away from the enigma of Coren's personality. For me he remains the most enigmatic man of his generation, because the sprawling palace of his attainments has so many rooms he has scarcely bothered to look into. He can fly planes, drive fast cars, dance accomplished jive, speak perfect German. But who is he? His writing never tells you, because its humour is a shield.
  • I should say in haste that his early poetry gave him the right to think of himself as a giant. But he was also a nutter, one of the manic-depressive type who, when in a downhill phase, accuse themselves loudly of being Hitler. (They never accuse themselves of being the seventh anonymous stormtrooper from the right at a dedication ceremony for the new blood banner in a provincial town twenty miles from Dortmund: they always accuse themselves of being Hitler, just as the people who had previous lives in ancient Egypt always turn out to have been pharaohs or chief priests, and never night-shift workers on the crew that put up the third tallest obelisk in one of the satellite temples at Karnak).
  • If the assembled company rags you for a failing, you can usually play up to it for comic effect: it's the failing they don't mention that you have to watch out for.
    • p. 190
  • Martin, rather than step into the spotlight, would prefer to die in an unarmed attack on the power station supplying its electric current. His genuine modesty is the main reason for the fateful discrepancy between him and the journalistic literary sexton beetles who make copy out of him: they would like to receive the degree of attention that he would like to avoid, and the clearer it becomes that he would like to avoid it, the more they resent him for failing to appreciate their generosity.
  • John Carey, who had once buried The Metropolitan Critic, hailed Unreliable Memoirs as the written equivalent of sliced bread. Instantly I revised my opinion of his critical prowess upwards.

Essays and Reviews[edit]

  • [T]he sure sign of a shlock media product is that it is drawn not from life but from previous media products.
    • 'Holocaust' (The Observer, 10 September, 1978)
  • Himmler was certainly banal, but he was also baroque, steaming around in a special train and diverting large amounts of the Third Reich's increasingly thin resources to such 'tasks' as proving scholastically that the Japanese were Aryans. How could you show all that and be believed? The whole Nazi reality was a caricature. The more precisely you evoke it, the less probable it looks.
    • Ibid.
  • Santayana was probably wrong when he said that those who forget the past are condemned to relive it. Those who remember are condemned to relive it too.
    • Ibid.
  • He wasn't just a genius, he had the genius's impatience with the whole idea of doing something again. He reinvented an art form, exhausted its possibilities, and just left it. There is always something frightening about that degree of inventiveness... He didn't lose his powers. He just lost interest in proving that he possessed them.
  • The mad idea that the Jews have no right to exist is a potent intensifier of the almost equally mad idea that the State of Israel can somehow be eliminated. I say 'almost' because a friend of mine in Australia recently presented me with a plausible case that the Middle East would probably be a more peaceful area if the State of Israel had never been founded. Like her argument that the Aborigines would have been a lot happier if the Europeans had never shown up, this contention was hard to rebut, except by rudely pointing out that we were both sitting in an Italian restaurant in Melbourne, history having happened.
    • 'The University of the Holocaust: On Anti-Semitism Now', (Sunday Times, March 28, 2004)
  • I quite like talking myself, but when Peter was in the room there wasn't much point, you just had to listen. He was unimaginably, overwhelmingly gifted. You had to imagine a cross between Dr. Johnson, Isaiah Berlin, Peter Sellers and don't forget Charlie Chaplin — because Peter was a great mime too. … He was inexhaustible. It was like talking to Europe, talking to history.
  • Only the misapprehension that [Paglia] can be wise like lightning could explain her brief appearance, in Inside Deep Throat, to tell us that the cultural artefact in question was 'an epochal moment in the history of modern sexuality.' On the contrary, it was a moronic moment in the history of exploitation movies made by people so untalented that they can't even be convincing when they masturbate.
  • ...by now some of the editors and subeditors [on Fleet Street] are themselves products of the anti-educational orthodoxy by which expressiveness counts above precision. It would, if the two terms were separable. But they aren't. Beyond a certain point - and that point is reached early - precision is what expressiveness depends on.
    • 'The Continuing Insult to the English Language' (The Monthly, May 2006)
  • Sandburg is unreadable today only because of the way he wrote. His prose was bad poetry, like his poetry.
    • 'On American Movie Critics' (New York Times Book Review, June 4, 2006)
  • Hughes spends a lot of time in this book saying what his country never had, and still hasn't got. Actually it's got it, because it's got Hughes. He should give his country a little more credit, if only because it still gives so much credit to him.
    • Review of Things I Didn't Know by Robert Hughes (New York Review of Books, January 11, 2007)
  • [H]e could never have played the hero, because for him it was creativity itself that had the heroic status, beyond politics, beyond patriotism, beyond even personal happiness. It’s the reason why his work is like that. His poetry, so wonderful when it is really flying, isn’t trying to tell you how much he knows. It’s giving thanks for how much there is to be known.
    • On Peter Porter, 'Talking for Posterity' (Times Literary Supplement, May 14, 2010)

Visions Before Midnight (1977)[edit]

Reprints of selected television reveiws from The Observer, published by Jonathan Cape in 1977.

  • Every week I watch Stuart Hall on It's A Knock-Out and realise with renewed despair that the most foolish thing I ever did was to turn in my double-0 licence and hand back that Walther PPK with the short silencer.
    • 'Eddie Waring Communicates'

At the Pillars of Hercules (1979)[edit]

  • It's yet another mark of Auden's superiority that whereas his contemporaries could be didactic about what they had merely thought or read, Auden could be tentative about what he felt in his bones.
  • For the educated man, there is a moment of his early acquaintanceship with Dante when he realizes that all he has slowly taught himself to enjoy in poetry is everything that Dante has grown out of.
    • Ibid.
  • There is abundant evidence in Stoppard’s plays to show that he is as capable of emotion as anybody. In Enter A Free Man Linda is a finely tuned moral invention whose equivalents we might well miss in the later plays, if we really thought they should be there. The mainspring of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is the perception—surely a compassionate one—that the fact of their deaths mattering so little to Hamlet was something which ought to have mattered to Shakespeare.
  • Solzhenitsyn can imagine what pain is like when it happens to strangers. Even more remarkably, he is not disabled by imagining what pain is like when it happens to a million strangers - he can think about individuals even when the subject is the obliteration of the masses, which makes his the exact reverse of the ideological mentality, which can think only about masses even when the subject is the obliteration of individuals.
  • In a piece written circa 1960 called 'The Twelve Caesars' he said that world events were the work of individuals and that the motives of those individuals were often frivolous, even casual. There is something of Suetonius and Plutarch in Vidal's unblushing readiness to view contemporary history in terms of character.
  • As far as talent goes, Marilyn Monroe was so minimally gifted as to be almost unemployable, and anyone who holds to the opinion that she was a great natural comic identifies himself immediately as a dunce...As a natural silent comedian Marilyn might possibly have qualified, with the proviso that she was not to be depended on to invent anything. But as a natural comedian in sound she had the conclusive disadvantage of not being able to speak. She was limited ineluctably to characters who rented language but could not possess it, and all her best roles fell into that category. She was good at being inarticulately abstracted for the same reason that midgets are good at being short.
  • Strong language in Larkin is put in not to shock the reader but to define the narrator's personality. When Larkin's narrator in 'A Study of Reading Habits' (in The Whitsun Weddings) said 'Books are a load of crap' there were critics - some of them, incredibly, among his more appreciative - who allowed themselves to believe that Larkin was expressing his own opinion. (Kingsley Amis had the same kind of trouble, perhaps from the same kind of people, when he let Jim Dixon cast aspersions on Mozart.) It should be obvious at long last, however, that the diction describes the speaker.
  • [Larkin] himself is well aware that there are happier ways of viewing life. It's just that he is incapable of sharing them, except for fleeting moments - and the fleeting moments do not accumulate, whereas the times in between them do.
    • Ibid.

The Crystal Bucket (1982)[edit]

  • Probably it is only in free countries, however, that a humorous regard for corruption is possible. In the totalitarian countries, corrupt from top to bottom, nobody is laughing because nothing is laughable. There is no difference between what things are and what things ought to be, since what things ought to be no longer exists even as a standard.
    • 'The Weld This Week'
  • [In Marcel Ophuls' film The Memory of Justice] Mad old Nazis were to be heard deploring modern decadence. 'The difference is, we weren't obsessed with smut,' said one comfortable, retired SS man, all unaware of being up to his neck in blood and pus.
    • 'The Weld This Week'
  • But you will never catch Sir Oswald [Mosley] admitting to anti-Semitism. All he does is embody it. He talked of 'the use of Jewish money power to promote a world war.' Taxed on this point, he disclaimed anti-Semitism, by saying that he meant 'not all Jews, but some Jews.' That's as far as he will ever reduce his estimate. The truth, of course, is that the real number of Jews responsible for World War II was zero.
    • 'The Truly Strong Man'
  • On Miss World (BBC 1) Patrick Lichfield and Sacha Distel helped herd the beef. Even further down-market, The Royal Variety Performance (BBC 1) was hosted by Max Bygraves, who tried the time-honoured gimmick of singing the finale at the start. 'And if you doan like our finish / You doan have to stay for the show.' Thanks. Click.
    • 'The Truly Strong Man'
  • I can remember being young enough, long ago, to believe that in Tennessee Williams the giant themes of Greek tragedy had returned, all hung about with Magnolias. Ignorance of Greek tragedy helped in this view.
    • 'Over the tarp'
  • Everybody caught one another's eye with a 'Spot the loon' look when [Tony] Benn was talking. The show was probably true to life, since each minister had a vested interest in briefing the journalist chosen to play him. It's a sweet technique for getting at the truth, so I imagine someone will put a stop to it soon enough.
    • 'Wini und Wolf'
  • The most solid documentary of the week was White Rhodesia (BBC1), presented by Hugh Burnett. He was on screen only two or three times and even when he was there you would have sworn he wasn't.
    • 'A load of chunk'
  • Perry [Como] gave his usual impersonation of a man who has simultaneously been told to say 'Cheese' and shot in the back with a poisoned arrow.
    • 'Olde Rubbishe'
  • The Italian Marxist composer Luigi Nono (BBC2) proclaims the necessity for contemporary music to 'intervene' in something called 'the sonic reality of our time.' Apparently it should do this by being as tuneless as possible.
    • 'Wuthering depths'
  • Among artists without talent Marxism will always be popular, since it enables them to blame society for the fact that nobody wants to hear what they have to say.
    • 'Wuthering depths'
  • Disco dancing is really dancing for people who hate dancing, since the beat is so monotonous that only the champions can find interesting ways of reacting to it. There is no syncopation, just the steady thump of a giant moron knocking in an endless nail.
    • 'The flying feet of Frankie Foo'
  • [Mrs Thatcher] started quoting St Francis within minutes of becoming elected, and scarcely an hour had gone by before she was sounding like the book of Revelations read out over a railway station public address system by a headmistress of a certain age wearing calico knickers.
    • 'Zorba the Hun'

From the Land of Shadows (1982)[edit]

  • One of the many services performed by Professor Smith's book is to show that Nuremberg was not a kangaroo court. Even the Russian and the French judges were able to act with some independence from their governments. It is true that some of the defendants were arbitrarily chosen, true that the indictment was questionably framed, and true again that some of the verdicts were anomalous. But by and large justice was done. The idea that at Nuremberg the victors tried the vanquished is a false one.

The vanquished were the millions of guiltless men, women, and children already obliterated.

    • 'Only Human: On Nuremberg'
  • Here is a book so dull that a whirling dervish could read himself to sleep with it. If you were to recite even a single page in the open air, birds would fall out of the sky and dogs drop dead. There is no author's name on the title page, merely a modest line of italic type advising us that Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev's 'short biography' has been composed 'by the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, CPSU Central Committee.' This is the one statement in the entire opus which is undeniably true. Only an Institute could write like this.
    • 'Brezhnev: A State of Boredom'
    • Opening lines of his review of the Brezhnev: A Short Biography
  • Nothing Like the Sun and the Enderby books prove that Burgess is as clever as he seems. His utopian satires, of which 1985 is yet another, mainly just seem clever. At a generous estimate there are half a dozen ideas in each of them.
  • First-rate science fiction was, and remains, more interesting than second-rate art.
    • Ibid.
  • After half a lifetime of poking fun at Bernard Shaw's materialism Kingsmill was not above touching the despised sage for ten quid. Even in the Australian school of literary morals, we weren't allowed to slag a man and put the bit on him simultaneously: it had to be one or the other.
  • Joseph Brodsky, writing about Mandelstam, called lyricism the ethics of language. Larkin's wit is the ethics of his poetry. It brings his distress under our control. It makes his personal unhappiness our universal exultation. Armed with his wit, he faces the worst on our behalf, and brings it to order.
  • As a work of art it has the same status as a long conversation between two not very bright drunks...
    • 'A Blizzard of Tiny Kisses'
  • People don't get their morality from their reading matter: they bring their morality to it.
    • Ibid.
  • Mrs Krantz, having dined at Mark's Club, insists that it is exclusive. There would not have been much point to her dining there if she did not think that. A bigger snob than she might point out that the best reason for not dining at Mark’s Club is the chance of finding Mrs Krantz there. It takes only common sense, though, to tell you that on those terms exclusiveness in not just chimerical but plain tedious. You would keep better company eating Kentucky Fried Chicken in a launderette.
    • Ibid.

Glued to the Box (1983)[edit]

Reprints of selected television reviews from The Observer 1979 to 1982.

  • Television is simultaneously blamed, often by the same people, for worsening the world and for being powerless to change it.
    • 'Introduction'
  • Anyone afraid of what he thinks television does to the world is probably just afraid of the world.
    • 'Introduction'
  • The literary critic, or the critic of any other specific form of artistic expression, may detach himself from the world for as long as the work of art he is contemplating appears to do the same.
    • 'Introduction'
  • Shaw said that three years as a theatre critic was the maximum before insanity set in - the implication being that anyone who lasted longer than that was too dull to be unbalanced by his nightly ordeal.
    • 'Introduction'
  • Give or take the odd anatomical discrepancy, John Berger affects me exactly like Jane Fonda - ie. any opinion of mine which I discover he shares I immediately examine to find out what's wrong with it.
    • 'Woodhouse walkies'
  • The repeat run of Fawlty Towers (BBC2) drew bigger audiences than ever and deservedly so. Statistical surveys reveal that only the television critic of the Spectator is incapable of seeing the joke, which is that Basil Fawlty has the wrong temperament to be a hotel proprietor, just as some other people have the wrong temperament to be television critics.
    • 'Bovis and Basil'
  • In The Bob Hope Golf Classic (LWT) the participation of President Gerald Ford was more than enough to remind you that the nuclear button was at one stage at the disposal of a man who might have either pressed it by mistake or else pressed it deliberately in order to obtain room service.
    • 'Blinding white flash'
  • If Brideshead Revisited is not a great book, it's so like a great book that many of us, at least while reading it, find it hard to tell the difference.
    • 'Borgias on my mind'
  • The running gag of the Grand Prix series is that whereas Murray [Walker], safe in the commentary box, sounds like a blindfolded man riding a unicycle on the rim of the pit of doom, the men actually facing the danger are all so taciturn that you might as well try interviewing the cars themselves.
    • 'Hot pistils'
  • Speer never made the mistake of saying there were no extermination camps. He said he didn't know about them. He impressed the gullible by declaring himself willing to accept responsibility for Nazi crimes even though he was not aware of their full scope. But as the man better informed about the Reich's industrial resources than anybody else including Hitler, Speer was in fact fully aware of the purpose and the extent of the Final Solution and by pretending he was not he did the opposite of accepting responsibility.

Speer cheated the rope, cheated the world, and yet further insulted the shades of innocent millions. Those of us who live by our brains should remember his example, which serves to prove that intellect confers no automatic moral superiority. Otherwise we will meet him again in the Infernal Regions, and be once more confronted with that look of puzzled concern, as if there were something difficult, ponderable, and equivocal about the rights and wrongs of tearing children from their mothers' arms, piling their little shoes in heaps, and pushing their twisted corpses into ovens.

    • 'Speer Checks Out'
  • Twin miracles of mascara, her eyes looked like the corpses of two small crows that had crashed into a chalk cliff.

Flying Visits (1984)[edit]

  • To me [Sydney Opera House] looks like a portable typewriter full of oyster shells, and to the contention that it echoes the sails of yachts on the harbour I can only point out that the yachts on the harbour don't waste any time echoing opera houses.
    • 'Postcard from Sydney'
  • In the twelfth century the Basque fisherman of Biarritz used to hunt whales with deadly efficiency. When the whales sensibly moved away, the Basques chased them further and further, with consequence that the fishermen of Biarritz discovered America before Columbus did. (This is a matter for local pride but on a larger view is not quite so stunning, since with the possible exception of the Swiss everybody discovered America before Columbus did).
    • 'Postcard from Biarritz'

Snakecharmers in Texas (1988)[edit]

  • Speer got quite a lot done in Berlin and if hostilities had not started early he would have transformed it utterly, with consequences far more hideous than anything achieved by the RAF.
  • ...that's really the first thing to say about Speer's architecture. It was just awful. A genius without talent, he was essentially a theatrical personality, with enough gumption to be quiet about it.
    • Ibid.
  • When Humphries writes in propria persona his prose can scarcely contain its freight of cultivated allusions. He writes the most nutritiously rococo English in Australia today, but nobody will be able to inherit it. To know him would not be enough. You would have to know what he knows.
  • When Pushkin - who was in the position of having to think what form a national culture might take - called for a dispassionate criticism, he wasn't calling for help in writing poems, which he could do all by himself. He was merely stated his wish to write them in a civilized atmosphere, whose absence was reducing him to isolation, and thereby damaging his individuality.
    • 'A Death in Life'

The Dreaming Swimmer (1993)[edit]

  • Schnabel said that Beethoven's late piano sonatas are music better than could be played. Larkin's best poems are poetry better than can be said, but sayability they sumptuously offer. Larkin demands to be read aloud. His big, intricately formed stanzas, often bridging from one to the next, defeat the single breath but always invite it. As you read, the ideal human voice speaks in your head. It isn't his: as his gramophone records prove, he sounded like someone who expects to be interrupted. It isn't yours, either. It's ours.

As Of This Writing (2003)[edit]

  • [[T]he question of originality, if it arises at all, can never be peripheral: originality is more than a requirement in good poetry, it is a description of it.
  • McAuley's nominal subject was left-wing incomprehension of the recently published Dr. Zhivago, but the real object of his ire seemed to be liberalism in general, starting with the invention of moveable type, or perhaps the wheel.
    • 'The Great Generation of Australian Poetry'
  • Our post-Hannah Arendt imaginations are haunted by the wrong figure: for every owl-eyed, mild-mannered pen-pusher clinically shuffling the euphemistic paperwork of oblivion, there were a hundred noisily dedicated louts revelling in the bloodbath. The gas chambers, our most enduring symbol of the catastrophe, were in fact anomalous: most of those annihilated did not die suddenly and surprised as the result of a deception, but only after protracted humiliations and torments to whose devising their persecutors devoted inexhaustible creative zeal.
  • …it makes no sense whatsoever to call the perpetrators of the Holocaust ‘the Germans’ if by that is meant that the German victims of Naziism – including many Jews who went on regarding themselves as Germans to the end of the line – somehow weren’t Germans at all. That’s what the Nazis thought, and to echo their harebrained typology is to concede them their victory.
    • Ibid.
  • In Germany, everyone knew that helping or hiding Jews was an unpardonable crime, which would be punished as severely as an attack on Hitler’s life – because it was an attack on Hitler’s life. Why, Goldhagen asks, did the population not rise up? The answer is obvious: because you had to be a hero to do so.
    • Ibid.
  • Claus Graf von Stauffenberg’s famous last words Es lebe das geheime Deutschland have turned out to be not quite so romantically foolish as they sounded at the time. If there never was a secret Germany, the July plotters at least provided a sacred moment, and the Germans of today are right to cherish it.
    • Ibid.
  • The Holocaust would have been unimaginable without the Nazi Party; the Nazi Party would have been unimaginable without Hitler; and Hitler’s rise to power would have been unimaginable without the unique circumstances that brought the Weimar Republic to ruin. To hear Goldhagen tell it, mass murder was all set to go: a century-long build-up of eliminationist anti-Semitism simply had to express itself. But the moment when a historian says that something had to happen is the moment when he stops writing history and starts predicting the past.
    • Ibid.
  • We tend to think of [Hitler] as an idiot because the central tenet of his ideology was idiotic – and idiotic, of course, it transparently is. Anti-Semitism is a world view through a pinhole: as scientists say about a bad theory, it is not even wrong. Nietzsche tried to tell Wagner that it was beneath contempt. Sartre was right for once when he said that through anti-Semitism any halfwit could become a member of an elite. But, as the case of Wagner proves, a man can have this poisonous bee in his bonnet and still be a creative genius. Hitler was a destructive genius, whose evil gifts not only beggar description but invite denial, because we find it more comfortable to believe that their consequences were produced by historical forces than to believe that he was a historical force. Or perhaps we just lack the vocabulary. Not many of us, in a secular age, are willing to concede that, in the form of Hitler, Satan visited the Earth, recruited an army of sinners, and fought and won a battle against God. We would rather talk the language of pseudoscience, which at least seems to bring such events to order. But all such language can do is shift the focus of attention down to the broad mass of the German people, which is what Goldhagen has done, in a way that, at least in part, lets Hitler off the hook – and unintentionally reinforces his central belief that it was the destiny of the Jewish race to be expelled from the Volk as an inimical presence.
    • Ibid.
  • The answer to the nagging conundrum of how a civilized country like Germany could produce the Holocaust is that Germany ceased to be civilized from the moment Hitler came to power.
    • Ibid.
  • For those who would like to throw off the burden of history and move on, Goldhagen’s book has been a welcome gift. Purporting to bring the past home to the unsuspecting present, he has had the opposite effect. If he has not yet asked himself why his book has received such an enthusiastic reception in Germany, he might ponder why ‘the Germans’ should be so glad to be supplied with the argument that their parents and grandparents were all equally to blame because they inhabited a culture blameworthy in itself: we’re different now. But nobody is that different now, because nobody was that different then.
    • Postscript to Hitler's Unwitting Exculpator
  • The new Germany is a democracy. So was the old Germany, or it tried to be: but then the Nazis got on, and Hell broke loose. It can break loose anywhere: all people have hellish propensities.
    • Ibid.

The Meaning of Recognition (2005)[edit]

  • Roman Polanski's new film The Pianist is a work of genius on every level, except, alas, for the press-pack promotional slogan attributed to the director himself. "The Pianist is a testimony to the power of music, the will to live, and the courage to stand against evil." If he actually said it, he flew in the face of his own masterpiece, which is a testimony to none of those things. In the Warsaw ghetto, the power of music, the will to live and the courage to stand against evil added up to very little, and The Pianist has the wherewithal to respect that sad fact and make sense of it. In the Warsaw ghetto, what counted was luck, and the luck had to be very good.

Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of My Time (2007)[edit]

  • The full facts about Nazi Germany came out quite quickly, and were more than enough to induce despair. The full facts about the Soviet Union were slower to become generally appreciated, but when they at last were, the despair was compounded. The full facts about Mao's China left that compounded despair looking like an inadequate response. After Mao, not even Pol Pot came as a surprise. Sadly, he was a cliché.
  • 'Introduction' p.XVIII
  • Sartre, whose underground activities had never amounted to anything except a secret meeting on Wednesday to decide whether there should be another meeting the following Tuesday, not only claimed the status of Resistance veteran but called down vengeance on people whose behaviour had not really been all that much more reprehensible than his own.
  • Whoever said "Wagner's music isn't as bad as it sounds" was as wrong as he was funny, but there is surely a case for saying that the story of Captain Ahab's contest with the great white whale is one of those books you can't get started with even after you have finished reading them.
  • Borges, alas, had no particular objection to extreme authoritarianism as such. The reason he hated Peronismo was that it was a mass movement. He didn't like the masses: he was the kind of senatorial elitist whose chief objection to fascism is that by mobilizing the people it gives them ideas above their station and hands out too many free shirts.
  • Unreliable Memoirs was just too hard to classify: most of the first wave of American reviewers had convicted it of trying to be truthful and fanciful at the same time. Since I had clearly had no other aim in mind, I read these indictments with sad bewilderment. The most powerful reviewer, in The New York Review of Books, had seized on my incidental remark 'Rilke was a prick' in order to instruct me that Rilke was, on the contrary, an important German poet.
  • Taste was his world. Rilke behaved as if art were taste elevated to the highest possible degree. The armigerous chatelaines who played hostess were happy to believe it, since the idea made them artists too.
  • The question isn't about what Schubert would have done if he had lived as long as Beethoven. The question is about what Schubert would have done if he had lived as long as Mozart.
  • Back in the late 1950s, on the sleeve of the Beyond the Fringe record album, Jonathan Miller made a dark joke about his worst fear: being tortured for information that he did not possess. The assumption behind the joke was that if he had something to reveal, the agony would stop. He was looking back to a world of polite British fiction, not to a world of brute European fact. In the Nazi and Soviet cellars and camps, people were regularly tortured for information they did not possess: i.e. they were tortured just for the hell of it.
  • Since the Nazi era need never have happened, to say that he prophesised it is actually a belittlement of his creative achievement, and only one step up from saying that he caused the whole thing. But nobody could now read The Trial without thinking of the Soviet show trials, or the short works Metamorphosis and In the Penal Colony without thinking of the death camps.
  • Attempting to define the sensationalism of the press, Malcolm Muggeridge came up with the slogan 'Give us this day our daily story.' A doomed effort, because all it did was remind the reader that the King James Version of the Lord's Prayer was better written than an article by Muggeridge.
  • Few artists were ever fully well, so it is no great trick to prove them ill. There are commentators who can't get interested in Caravaggio until they find out he killed someone. They are only one step from believing that every killer is Caravaggio.
  • One of [Mann's] many reasons for hating the Third Reich was that it forced him to be a better man than he really was.
  • The flowers bloomed, the schools of thought contended, and Mao's executioners went to work. The slogan had the same function as the Constitution of the Soviet Union, which Aleksandr Zinoviev tellingly defined as a document published in order to find out who agreed with it, so that they could be dealt with.
  • Pedants and snobs are fond of declaring that only accomplished French speakers can catch Proust's tone. That might be so, but the tone is only one of the things to be caught.
  • If you can't have a revolution without Jacobinism, then it becomes a matter of how to have reform without revolution. Anyone who "accepts the necessity of Jacobinism" wants to try his hand at it. When François Furet hinted at this conclusion in his truly revolutionary book on the French Revolution, he found himself immediately tagged by the left as a diehard spokesman of the reactionary right. It was assumed that if he was against the Terror, he was against the people. His contention that the Terror had been against the people was not accepted.
  • A man who wants to find out who he really is should try watching the woman he loves as she dances the tango with a maestro.
  • In Sartre's style of argument, German metaphysics met French sophistry in a kind of European Coal and Steel Community producing nothing but rhetorical gas.
  • After being murdered at Stalin's orders, Lev Davidovich Bronstein, alias Leon Trotsky (1879-1940), lived on for decades as the unassailable hero of aesthetically minded progressives who wished to persuade themselves that there could be a vegetarian version of communism.
  • There is a consoling mythology, constantly being added to, which would have us believe that genius operates beyond donkey work. Thus we are told reassuringly that Einstein was no better at arithmetic than we are; that Mozart gaily broke the rules of composition while jotting down a stream of black dots without even looking; and that Shakespeare didn't care about grammar. Superficially, there are facts to lend substance to these illusions. But illusions they remain. There is always some autistic child in India who can speak in prime numbers, but that doesn't mean Einstein couldn't add up; Mozart would not have been able to break the rules in an interesting way unless he was able to keep them if required; and Shakespeare, far from being careless about grammar, could depart from it in any direction only because he had first mastered it as a structure.

Television and Radio[edit]

  • The controls fell easily to hand, and from there onto the floor.
    • On the Trabant. From Clive James' Postcard from Berlin.
  • Everything the British Empire built here will be history. Most of it already is, but it’s a history that has left its mark. In the War Cemetery at Sai Wan Bay you can see it clearly: understated but indelible. The armed forces of Imperial Japan tried to enslave the whole of the East, including Japan itself. Caught up in the terrible war that raged in Asia and the Pacific, a lot of our people who came out here to fight never came home. They died in a good cause. But if the people in this graveyard were somehow to learn that yet another tyranny was on the way, they would find it hard to rest in peace. One of them is my father, who has lain here now for fifty years. He lived and died under our old empire without ever thinking that it was wonderful beyond question. But he thought that it created more than it destroyed, and he was right. The best hope of our last colony is that when the men from the mainland finally take over they will not try to rewrite history by pretending we were never here. Some of us will always be here.
    • On the then imminent transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong from the British Empire to the People's Republic of China. From Clive James' Postcard from Hong Kong.
  • I see the pain on your face when you say the word intellectual, because it has so many syllables in it.
    • From an interview with Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central's "Colbert Report"
  • I think the control I had over my work was less than adequate. There was nothing wrong with the good bits in my poems, it’s just that they were packed around with lots and lots of bad bits, and I think that the only way I’ve improved in the last several decades [. . .] is that I’ve learned to leave out the bad bits. I’m not sure you do improve beyond that.
    • From a conversartion with Peter Porter broadcast on ABC Radio, Australia in the program 'Book Talk' on Saturday 15 October 2005

Radio 4: A Point of View[edit]

  • In Australia during WWII, a couple of established poets invented the supposedly nonsensical works of a fictitious poet called Ern Malley and used them to discredit the modernist pretensions of the young editor who printed them. It never occurred to them that as writers of talent they were not in a position to suppose that they could deliberately write something perfectly meaningless.
    • 'Congratulations!', on scams, frauds and hoaxes.
  • [E]ven if you do know about art, you can’t talk about it socially… Damien Hirst’s shark was a common talking point for a time, and so will the diamond skull be: for a little more time, perhaps, but not forever. The Botticelli paintings are forever because they aren’t talking points.
    • 'Reflections on a Diamond Skull', on corporate art
  • After thirteen hours we arrived at Bangkok airport and I raced for the smoking room. Smoking room was a big name for a small Perspex cubicle that was opaque from the outside because of the grey pressure of the fumes within. I opened the door, saw all the other smokers sitting there face to face in two tight rows, and I realised that I would have to smoke in the standing position. Then I realised I didn’t have to light up. All I had to do was breathe in. It was the moment of truth.
    • 'Smoking the Memory', on giving up smoking
  • I still haven’t forgiven C. S. Lewis for going on all those long walks with J. R. R. Tolkien and failing to strangle him, thus to save us from hundreds of pages dripping with the wizardly wisdom of Gandalf and from the kind of movie in which Orlando Bloom defiantly flexes his delicate jaw at thousands of computer-generated orcs. In fact it would have been ever better if C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien could have strangled each other, so that we could also have been saved from the Chronicles of Narnia.
    • 'Harry Potter Envy', on bestsellerdom
  • Spielberg had done his best with Schindler's List, but his best left some of us wondering just how useful a contribution it was, to make a movie about how some of the Jews had survived, when the real story was about all the Jews who hadn't.
    • 'Glamourising terror', on The Baader-Meinhof Complex.

Poems and song lyrics[edit]

  • From 'What Happened to Auden'
His later manner leaves your neck-hair flat,
Not standing up as Housman said it should
When poetry has been achieved. For that,
In old age Auden simply grew too good.
  • From 'The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered'
Soon now a book of mine could be remaindered also,
Though not to the monumental extent
In which the chastisement of remaindering has been meted out
To the book of my enemy,
Since in the case of my own book it will be due
To a miscalculated print run, a marketing error -
Nothing to do with merit.
  • From 'We Being Ghosts'
Well, good to see you. Sorry I have to fly.
I'm struggling with a deadline, God knows why,
And ghosts keep interrupting. Think of me
The way I do of you. Quite often. Constantly.
  • From 'Windows Is Shutting Down'
Windows is shutting down, and grammar are
On their last leg. So what am we to do?
A letter of complaint go just so far,
Proving the only one in step are you.
Better, perhaps, to simply let it goes.
A sentence have to be screwed pretty bad
Before they gets to where you doesn't knows
The meaning what it must have meant to had.
  • From 'Anniversary Serenade'
The ring is closed. The rolling dice we cast
So long ago still roll, but not so fast.
The colours fade that we nailed to the mast.
We lose the future but we own the past.
We own the past?
From our first kiss, a lifetime to the last.
  • From "Payday Evening" (sung by Pete Atkin on The Road of Silk 1974)
Outside the junkie tries to sell his girl
Her face has just begun to come apart
Look hard and you can see the edges curl
Speed has got her beaten at the start
  • From the same song
In midnight voices softer than a dove's
We shall speak superbly
Of our lost loves
  • From "Beware of the Beautiful Stranger". title song of 1970 album, sung by Pete Atkin.
"You live in a dream and the dream is a cage"
Said the girl "And the bars nestle closer with age
Your shadow burned white by invisible fire
You will learn how it rankles to die of desire
As you long for the beautiful stranger"
Said the vanishing beautiful stranger

External links[edit]

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