Clive James

In the clear light of a cloudy summer morning
The idiot boy, holding his father’s hand,
Comes by me on the Quay where I sit writing.
His father spots me looking up, and I don’t want
To look as if I wished I hadn’t, so
Instead of turning straight back to my books
I look around, thus making it a general thing
That I do every so often –
To watch the ferries, to check out the crowd.

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Clive James once said that the problem with being famous is that you begin by being loved for what you do and end up thinking that you are loved for who you are. Quite possibly, it is to avoid such a fate that James has returned in the past few years to the thing that got him noticed in the first place – writing dazzling prose. Absenting himself from the Crystal Bucket, he has become once more a full-time writer, popping up in the Times Literary Supplement and Australian Book Review with gratifying regularity. The title of his latest collection of essays refers to its first and final pieces, both of which deal with the crucial difference between celebrity and recognition, a subject currently dear to his heart, partly for the reason outlined above, partly because the current media is saturated with noisy nonentities. Since James is no doubt frequently recognised by people ignorant of the very achievement for which he really deserves recognition, his thoughts on the subject are clearly invaluable.

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Someone once described Clive James as ‘a great bunch of guys’, a joke worthy of James himself, although he is probably tired of hearing it. Some of those guys – the television comedian and commentator, the best-selling memoirist – are better known than others, and there’s little doubt that their fame has obscured the achievement of two of the quieter guys in the bunch.

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There is a difference between celebrity and recognition. Celebrities are recognised in the street, but usually because of who they are, or who they are supposed to be. To achieve recognition, however, is to be recognised in a different way. It is to be known for what you have done, and quite often the person who knows what you have done has no idea what you look like. When I say I’ve had enough of celebrity status, I don’t mean that I am sick of the very idea.

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Advertisements asked ‘Which twin has the Toni?’
Our mothers were supposed to be non-plussed.
Dense paragraphs of technical baloney
Explained the close resemblance of the phoney
To the Expensive Perm. It worked on trust.

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Clive James is a fussy A-grade mechanic of the English language, always on the lookout for grammatical misfires or sloppiness of phrasing that escape detection on publishing production lines. Us/we crashtest dummies of the written word, who drive by computer, with squiggly red and green underlinings ...

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Reliable Essays by Clive James & Even As We Speak by Clive James

by
October 2001, no. 235

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’ ...

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If T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound
Came back to life, again it would be found
One had the gab, the other had the gift
And each looked to the other for a lift ...

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Brilliant Creatures is not so much a novel – a first novel, as the title page coyly points out – as it is a presentation pack. The text itself is bookended by an introduction at the front, and a set of extensive, very boring notes and index at the back. A set of notes and an index for a novel, a first novel? Yep. Clive James has heard of Nabokov and Pale Fire. He has also, as the four-page introduction makes clear, heard of his ‘illustrious ancestor Henry’: of Gide, Montaigne, Sterne, Peacock, Firbank, Trollope, Joyce, Shakespeare, and Nietzsche.

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