13 June, 2011Issue 16.4TravelWriters

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Stop Worrying…

Benjamin Jellis

Clive James

Hitler’s personal architect Albert Speer narrowly dodged the scaffold at the Nuremberg war crime trials. He then busily spent the second half of last century attempting to convince the world that he was the most reluctant of enthusiastic Nazis. One who saw most clearly through his denials was Australian essayist and critic Clive James, whose father died fighting the Japanese in World War II. In a classic article published in the Observer in 1983, James skewered the shared megalomania of Speer and Hitler by describing a visit to the derelict Zeppelinfeld outside Nuremberg. Once the scene of vast Nazi pageants and rallies, it had become nothing more than an overgrown field littered with empty Fanta bottles.

James began that piece by describing Speer’s architectural “Theory of Ruin Value”. The idea was that Nazi buildings should be designed to appear in the distant future as “the great shards of the far past”—even in ruins they would remind the world of the power of the regime. In Nuremberg, James found the decades-old ruins of the 1000-year Reich not impressive, but “just sad”. And it had to be so: the Nazis’s pretense of building a great civilization was never more than a chimera. James found in Nuremberg that “the glory has not departed. It was never really there. Mostly it was made of cheap white light, and the free people came to turn off the power.”

It is almost impossible to describe adequately the life’s work of so varied and accomplished a writer as James—but one could do worse than begin with his description of Nuremberg. It is packed with James’s characteristic dry wit and delight at pointing out historic linkages and irony. Also revealing is the forum in which the article was first published; James cannily used the mainstream press and that most vapid of literary vehicles—the travel article, of all things—to tackle themes of Nazi guilt and historic memory. Part of James’s appeal is that he is a Cambridge-educated thinker who will use any medium available, from poetry to magazines, from travel-writing to television appearances, to speak to the public. James is an elite talent who has always refused to become elitist, driven foremost by the desire to be heard.

Last month, James, now 71, revealed that he had been diagnosed last year with leukemia. The announcement put in context a poem James had published in the New Statesman just a fortnight before. In this clearly autobiographical piece on mortality, James describes how his “year of feebleness” had killed “whatever gift I had for quick success”. One of the most prodigious writers of his generation had watched himself slow to “a single page/of double spaced” in half a day.

The somewhat maudlin tone of the poem might come as a surprise to those who are more aware of James the lively critic with an eye for the devastating put-down. This, after all, is the man who once described Arnold Schwarzenegger as looking like a “condom full of walnuts”, and Sydney Opera House as a typewriter stuffed with “oyster shells”. In fact, themes of time and mortality have often been features of James’s work. They are captured in the famous quip, frequently attributed to James (although its provenance is unclear), that we should “stop worrying—nobody gets out of this world alive”. It was also a central theme in his television series “Fame in the Twentieth Century”, which looked at the impermanence of celebrity and happiness. A revealing choice, given that James was by this time a household name in both England and Australia. Of fame, he was to conclude that “like happiness, [it] ruins anyone who pursues it for its own sake, and exalts only those who have proper work do to.”

Thoughts about time and decay permeate James’s travel writing. Over 30 years ago, in another great Observer piece, James described his trip to Rome: looking down from the plane he reflected that “those strings of lights were roads all leading to the one place”. Describing his visit James captured a common feeling among Australians in Europe, identifying it as a kind of vertigo or even discomfort at the extent of Europe’s history. Of Rome he concludes,

I still like the idea of what Lucretius describes as the reef of destruction to which all things must tend, spatio aetatis defessa vetusto -– worn out by the ancient lapse of years. But I don’t want to see the reef every day.

James wrote those words while a member of a close-knit set of London literary figures which included Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, and Christopher Hitchens. Propped in city cafés, they shared long hours discussing words and writing. They were part of a marvelous, unparalleled generation of writers. And this generation is growing old.

Sadly, Hitchens too has recently revealed his own struggle with serious illness. That diagnosis was made during the promotion tour for his recently published autobiography Hitch 22. On hearing of Hitchens’s recent illness, his friend Martin Amis remarked that every writer is motivated by a desire to outlive their own life. So of Hitchens he explained “the desire for immortality explains all the extraordinary achievements, both good and bad.”

Amis’s words ring true. The desire to write is, at its heart, an exercise in hoping one’s own creations, theories, or ideas take on a life greater than their author’s. In a sense, it is an act of great egotism to wish that your innermost thoughts be captured in time and shared with other generations. For every writer who wants their work to be immortal, writing contains an implicit desire to outlive death. This is truer of James than most, as he has been driven to produce a prodigious amount over his life whilst rarely being out of the public eye. The great criticism sometimes made of James is the claim that he is an attention-seeker, but to an extent this misses the point of James’s writing. A diarist loves to write, but a writer loves nothing more than to be read.

In Australia, James is best known for his first autobiography, titled Unreliable Memoirs. Most Australian households seem to have a copy. James describes growing up in the suburbs of Sydney, before going abroad to attend university with other famous Australian ex-pats Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes (both thinly disguised in the book by pseudonyms), leaving Australia for “the mother country”. The book remains immensely popular: James’s nervous adolescence in the suburbs and ultimate success in England in some ways parallels Australia’s own growth away from England and into a more confident and independent country.

In an essay about the writer and performer Barry Humphries, another successful Australian ex-patriot, James pinpointed the reason for Humphries’s hometown popularity. James recognised the key to Humphries’s work in one sentence of his stage show dialogue, which read simply, “snails in the letterbox”. This would be baffling to any other audience, but Australians familiar with this particular problem “shouted with recognition”, finding joy in having their own strange country, and its gardens, reflected back at them. James claimed that Humphries was the first to discover that “in Australia the familiar is seen to be bizarre as soon as it is said. Or else the English language, fatigued by 12,000 miles of travel, cracks up under the strain of what it is forced to connote.” In this comment, though, James also reveals the secret to his own great popularity at home. At its best, much of James’s writing tells Australians things they already knew about themselves.

James’s third autobiography is almost equally treasured. In May Week Was in June (the title refers to the Cambridge tradition of postponing May Day celebrations until a time of their own convenience), James describes his years as a Cambridge student and member of the London writing scene. The book is notable for its unique description of English college life. While much has been written about arriving at Oxford or Cambridge in the full spring of youth, James tells a story about arriving as a rounded man, a graduate in a paradise for undergraduates, of respecting the fellows and dons without any risk of being in awe of them. In capturing the dissonance of being a fully formed person at an institution where most people come to find themselves, May Week Was in June remains the best description of the Australian post-graduate experience.

Though we may look forward to James’s career continuing for many more years, already by Amis’s measure James’s work has achieved a life of its own. The breadth of James’s work is immense, much of it now, happily, collated and accessible on a compendious website that contains hundreds of his varied essays. In a sense, James has achieved what he recognized as missing from the theory of ruin value and Speer’s vain attempt at immortality. James understood that a man cannot be outlasted by a greatness that never existed in the first place. Such is his skill and the joy already provided to decades of readers, he needn’t worry about his own legacy.

Benjamin Jellis is reading for a BCL at Magdalen College, Oxford.