Clive James has been at the business of writing now for so long that his literary activities have almost outlived the fame that used to get in the way of their apprehension. Twenty or so years ago, it was possible to think that the man who clowned around in those ‘Postcards’ travelogues on television, and who seemed to reach some apogee of self-satisfaction and self-definition chatting to celebrities on the box, was just slumming it when it came to literature; that he had bigger fish to fry than this diminished thing, even, if he was forever reminding us of the grandness of the refusal he had made.
After all, the poems that had entered (highbrow) public consciousness were essentially jokes on the whole enterprise, weren’t they? ‘Last Night the Sea Dreamed It Was Greta Scacchi’ – ‘it did not’ was the Martin Amis rejoinder – or ‘Bring Me the Sweat of Gabriela Sabatini’ seemed to fall, like his mate Robert Hughes’s ‘Sohoiad’, into the category of brilliant interventions from a world elsewhere, a greater world that could handle the merely literary with its left hand. It was all too easy to imagine that James, for all his manifest brilliance, had fallen, like Lucifer, never to rise again.