Thursday, March 15, 2007


Slate has decided to provide a high-profile home for Clive James's webcam interviews, which is excellent news, and to launch them with an extravagant editor's appreciation:

Whether we know it or not, one of the chief inspirations for our ongoing efforts to provoke thought and mirth at the same time is none other than this polymathic Australian extrovert. The kind of television coverage Troy Patterson writes in Slate grows almost directly out of the column James wrote for the London Observer beginning in the 1970s. The quick-witted cultural writing to which we aspire owes its tone to James' essays, first collected in The Metropolitan Critic.

That seems a bit much. Clive James was better than anyone before or since at turning the TV review into a blast of highbrow comedy, but he wasn't first with the idea. Bernard Levin, of all people, used to do it in the Manchester Guardian of the 1950s, where the ground was prepared for him by a once-famous tradition of needlessly witty and erudite music-hall reviewing. And although I admire James's reviewing, I can't shake the accusation in Jonathan Raban's For Love and Money that he writes a dialect "as recognisable as Mummerset; at once donnish high-falutin' and come-off-it low slang, it is the received standard accent of the smart English book review".

But Jacob Weisberg is right to wonder why the man is not more prominent in America; he is as widely cultured a good talker as Christopher Hitchens, treading much of the same literary territory, and better at reading closely (as if that matters). I suppose it's to do with the primacy of politics over culture, Hitchens being a political writer deriving status from his cultural hinterland and James a cultural critic aiming for a political edge. And then Hitchens's old socialist-among-liberals schtick would be more of more use to American talk-show bookers than the liberal-among-socialists one that drives most of James's more political stuff. That James's jokes are for laughing at, rather than admiring as sallies of wit, and that he puts so much work into looking laid back, probably do their share of damage too.


Jonathan Raban said...

Yes, Bernard Levin did something similar, but the overwhelming influence on James's TV column was the late Ian Hamilton, who wrote a highbrow, disparaging column on the week's television for the Listener, ca. 1969-1975. Hamilton specialized in watching TV out of the corner of his (jaundiced) eye, and was dryly funny at the medium's expense. James sometimes filled in for him, and copied the mannerisms of his mentor, exaggerating them in the process until they became his own boisterous, knockabout style. Hamilton was too wry, too ironic, too allusive to appeal to more than a coterie audience; James coarsened the Hamilton manner, and mass-marketed it. I remain a steadfast unadmirer.

Jasper Milvain said...

Thank you. I'll have to go and find somewhere with the Listener on open shelves. One of the reasons I love For Love and Money (and I'd have been clearer that I do, had I realised you might be watching) is that it made me start seeking out books by Ian Hamilton.

Jonathan Raban said...

I may be a little out on those dates. I968, if not '67, to ?

Footnote: James wanted to dedicate a book--The Metropolitan Critic, as I remember--to Ian Hamilton "the conscience of our generation," which Ian thought ineffably pompous and embarrassing, and nixed it.