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Authors: Clive James

Reliable Essays

BOOK: Reliable Essays
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‘When I come across a Clive James essay in a periodical, I save it for last, knowing it will be a treat . . . [his writing] adjusts a frequency in the reader’s head, and finds thereby new thoughts, new possibilities of feeling’
Michael Schmidt,

‘Clive James’s brilliance shines on everything from Torvill and Dean to Seamus Heaney . . . James’s critical journalism . . . extends and honours the tradition established by Johnson, Hazlitt and Virginia Woolf. And what makes it valuable is the way it testifies to a passion for literature, and a desire to proselytise for it, that are nowadays rare, precious, probably anachronistic motives . . . James’s own lucid, witty, metaphorically vivid style is his grateful yet keenly competitive tribute to all those better makers whose work he analyses here . . . I finished this book wishing that I knew as much as James does, and that I wrote as well’
Peter Conrad,

Reliable Essays
is full of good things . . . The essays are brilliant . . . James’s literary essays, along with the first volume of
Unreliable Memoirs
, are his best work’
John Lanchester,
Daily Telegraph

‘He is one of the most lively, shrewd and resourceful essayists currently writing . . . his own writing is impeccably witty, flexible and urbane . . . Parodies, jokes and slang sit comfortably with moral and political arguments, lightly-worn erudition and scrupulous close readings of poetry and prose . . .
Reliable Essays
is an instructive (and, for a reviewer, fairly intimidating) book, but it’s also immensely enjoyable to read’
Christopher Tayler,
Sunday Telegraph

‘Wit dances about over almost everything he writes like a Mexican jumpingbean’

‘The smartest cultural commentator on the Commonwealth block . . . James is good in any mode, but he is really good at being funny’
Irish Times

‘Superb, world-class essays . . . At his best he is up there with Gore Vidal’
Birmingham Post

‘His writing . . . positively gusts off the page with muscular energy and elegance. James is one of the finest living essayists; engaging, humorous (naturally) and capable of structuring fresh arguments with depth’
Nottingham Evening Post

‘He writes with energy, clarity and brio on a range of subjects: literature, biography, film, pop culture; he agitates your mind and makes you smile as it’s moving . . . He writes to give us access to the world. He’s an essayist with the lot’
Weekend Australian


CLIVE JAMES is the author of more than twenty books. As well as three volumes of autobiography,
Unreliable Memoirs, Falling Towards England
May Week Was in June
, he has published collections of literary criticism, television criticism, verse and travel writing. His most recent novel is
The Silver Castle
. As a television performer he has appeared regularly for both the BBC and ITV, most notably as writer and presenter of the
series of travel documentaries. He helped to found the independent television company Watchmaker, and is currently chairman of the Internet enterprise Welcome Stranger: he webcasts in video and audio on In 1992 he was made a member of the Order of Australia, and in 1999 an honorary Doctor of Letters of Sydney University.




Unreliable Memoirs

Falling Towards England

May Week Was in June


Brilliant Creatures

The Remake

Brrm! Brrm!

The Silver Castle


Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage Through the London Literary World

Poem of the Year

Other Passports: Poems 1958–1985


The Metropolitan Critic (new edition, 1994)

Visions Before Midnight

The Crystal Bucket

First Reactions

From the Land of Shadows

Glued to the Box

Snakecharmers in Texas

The Dreaming Swimmer

On Television

Even As We Speak


Flying Visits




First published 2001 by Picador

First published in paperback 2002 by Picador

This electronic edition published 2009 by Picador
an imprint of Pan Macmillan Ltd
Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Rd, London N1 9RR
Basingstoke and Oxford
Associated companies throughout the world

ISBN 978-0-330-47548-8 in Adobe Reader format
ISBN 978-0-330-47547-1 in Adobe Digital Editions format
ISBN 978-0-330-47549-5 in Mobipocket format

Copyright © Clive James 2001

The right of Clive James to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

You may not copy, store, distribute, transmit, reproduce or otherwise make available this publication (or any part of it) in any form, or by any means (electronic, digital, optical, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of the publisher. Any person who does any unauthorized act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

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Sidere mens eadem mutato


‘Life is a cemetery of retrospective lucidities’
Jean-François Revel,
La Connaissance Inutile


Author’s Note

Introduction by Julian Barnes


The All of Orwell

Four Essays on Philip Larkin

1. Somewhere becoming rain

2. On Larkin’s Wit

3. Don Juan in Hull

4. An Affair of Sanity

Evelyn Waugh’s Last Stand

Charles Johnston’s Catacomb Graffiti

Nabokov’s Grand Folly

How Montale Earned His Living

On Seamus Heaney

The Poetry of Edmund Wilson


Postcard from Rome

Mrs T in China

The Dragon Lady Flies East

The Great Leap Homeward



Approximately in the Vicinity of Barry Humphries

Germaine Greer: Getting Married Later

Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Masses


Primo Levi’s Last Will and Testament

Hitler’s Unwitting Exculpator

Postscript to Goldhagen


Your Space or Mine?

Up Here from Down There


The Sherlockologists

Raymond Chandler


Souls on Ice: Torvill and Dean

Pictures in Silver

Author’s Note

Every author would like to think that the aggregate of his incidental prose, from the merest book review to that smart written reply to the tax inspector, forms a picture of his complex, subtle, infinitely ramified mentality: hence the tendency to put everything in, and the pain at seeing anything taken out. But if my editor has, as it seems to me, made his selection according to his own interests, at least he has found some of his interests reflected among mine; and a writer can’t hope for more from a reader than that. Bewitched by the example of his great precursor Montaigne, the habitual writer of non-fictional pieces goes on filling a long shelf in the belief that he will show the whole of his mind, but the reader he most fears – the one who will see through to his heart – should also be the one he most desires. Eventually he will be remembered only through intelligent appreciation, which is always cruelly selective. Even the aphorist, who tries to do the winnowing in advance, is winnowed in his turn: writing a hundred words to stand for a thousand, he would feel flayed to discover that only ten of them got through.

Peter Straus thinks that this book contains the essence of what I have done in the form. Ambition says that the essence is bigger and more complicated. Common sense should say – when it can get a word in – that an essence is a nice thing for a discursive writer to be thought of as possessing, even if it is only a few pages long. In the long run those few pages will come down to a few sentences, and even then only with luck. Usually they will come down to nothing. The harsh bargain we must accept, if we try to write our prose to last, is that most of it certainly won’t, and quite likely none of it will. But if that bargain were foremost in our minds as we sat down at the desk, we would get nothing done that was worth reading. So we write as if we were going to live. After all, we live that way.

To each piece I have added a footnote, meant more as an afterthought than a second guess. It is always too late to hedge a bet once the hand is played, but in our heads the game goes on, whether we won or lost. What we said, when we said it, what we might have said instead: all these things are part of a writer’s story. To think he
a story might be part of his egomania, but I have never been convinced that a lust for anonymity is a better guarantee of seeing the world as it is. A magnificent detachment should be the aim, but it can’t be aimed at except by a man sufficiently interested in himself to have found out something about his own failings. Julian Barnes knows my failings very well, so I am doubly grateful that he found time to write an introduction. He is wrong, though, about those studio audiences. They do indeed exist, and as with any other kind of audience their laughter is hard to get, and therefore well worth getting. But I know what he means, and I am flattered that he means it.

London, 2001


‘I suppose,’ said Clive, ‘you wouldn’t consider writing an introduction to my selected essays?’ When he heard a micro-pause from my end of the telephone, he went on, ‘Seeing how you’ve always irritated me by calling them my best work.’ And then, as a clincher, ‘Because if you don’t do it, we’ll have to get ----- -------.’ He named a famous Professor Dryasdust.

Well, Clive, you asked for it – in both senses. So I’ll repeat on the public page what has (for no good reason, it seems to me) wound you up in various restaurants, pubs and domestic quarters down the years. You are, as the
New Yorker
once famously observed, ‘a brilliant bunch of guys’: literary essayist, TV critic, poet, novelist, autobiographer, rock lyricist, documentary-maker, TV host, famous person. You also draw pretty well and have a natural eye for a tennis ball. I admire you in nearly all of these guises. I frequently quote your incomparable poem of literary revenge, ‘The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered’. I bond with strangers over your epic account of childhood karting in
Unreliable Memoirs
. I even remember your flawless impression of Norman Mailer on some long-forgotten TV arts show a quarter of a century ago. I trust there will one day be a blue plaque to you in Tufnell Park where, in your humbler days, you once bunked down inside the discarded brown paper bag from some plutocrat’s new mattress. But I still think your literary essays are your best work.

BOOK: Reliable Essays
2.17Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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