June 23, 2012

Clive James, Julian Gough, and Father’s Day

A tweet from Julian Gough alerted me to the decline in health of Clive James, the Australian author, critic, televisual catalyst and bloody good bloke. I didn’t know that James was suffering from leukemia. A newspaper report had put him at death’s door, but it seems that while the 72 year-old is very ill he is “quite merry” and hopes to soldier on for a time to come. I am glad to hear it. Julian included a link to an essay he wrote about James in 2009. (This was also news to me and briefly elevated my Gough envy into something far more sinister.) You can read his essay on the Clive James website here: I hope that you do, especially if you are a James fan. (I am). It is too easy to remember James introducing Margarita Pracatan and think that was all there was to him. His eyes would gleam and his shoulders shook with unconcealed mirth as he introduced the unpredictable Pracatan and her gleefully amateur keyboard, her feather boa often slithering across James’s barren scalp. There was nothing barren about Margarita, and James had the imagination to recognise that.

My father introduced me to Clive James by lending me, or at least allowing me to read, his copy of Unreliable Memoirs, the first volume of James’s sporadic autobiography. Looking back, it occurred to me that while my mother had kickstarted my serious interest in reading—by quenching a particularly lengthy outbreak of “I’m bored!” with The Hobbit—it was my Father that really nurtured the habit. Pre-Hobbit I was all Just William and Biggles books, Boy’s Own stuff and easily done away with, but The Hobbit was an entry to a different world. Not just in that it was set in a different world, but it really allowed me to leave this one temporarily. (I liked that). My father introduced me to the books of Spike Milligan, Desmond Morris, Nevil Shute, Joseph Heller and – father’s crowning glory – Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk. I went on to read James’s The Crystal Bucket: television criticism from the Observer 1976-79, Falling Towards England, Snakecharmers in Texas: essays 1980–87, May Week Was in June, The Dreaming Swimmer: non-fiction, 1987–1992, North Face of Soho and have Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts in mind to read one of these days when I catch my breath. (It was only recently that my father returned my copy of Falling Towards England if I remember correctly).

My father is a little older than Clive James, my mother long-passed. So with Father’s Day fresh in my mind I say thank you to that best of good men for my love of letters, and so much more.

Yes. Yes. That’s why I need more time. Because you get into what my friend Bruce Beresford calls the Departure Lounge, and two things happen: suddenly time really matters, you can hear the clock, and also you have all these freedoms, because you’ve got more of life to reflect on. There’s no young man’s version of the stuff I’m writing now.

Clive James, interviewed by Julian Gough