Clive James needs no introduction, though he asked Julian Barnes to provide one for Reliable Essays, a selection from three decades of James’s literary journalism made by his publisher, Peter Straus. The Kid from Kogarah is, as The New Yorker once famously observed, ‘a brilliant bunch of guys’: literary essayist (his ‘best work’, Barnes insists), television critic, poet, novelist, autobiographer, rock lyricist, documentary-maker, television host, famous person. Barnes implies that the ‘best’ of Clive James has regrettably been consigned to the ‘land of shadows’ by the ubiquitous ‘TV host, famous person’. In his concluding paragraph, Barnes welcomes the recent news that James is to stop being what the tabloids call ‘TV’s Clive’. Welcome back to Grub Street, ‘Literature’s Clive’, he perorates.
Unlike Martin Amis, whose The War against Cliché: Essays and reviews 1971–2000 features a cover illustration with pens and pencils, both of the volumes under review include a cover photograph – a topic on which James writes with authority in ‘Pictures in Silver’ in the ‘Best of …’ collection –of Clive James, among other luminaries. Doubtless ‘TV host, famous person’ generates this. Yet there is, surely, something missing from this familiar, droll yet stern visage, beneath that noble if thinly furnished cranium. It begs for a wig. A wig for a wag. Not the contemporary ‘rug’, but a noble, eighteenth-century job, nothing Cavalier, but a sensible wig, an august wig that bespeaks James’s Johnsonian, delighted concurrence with the common reader.