BOOK REVIEW: News Weekly
THE REVOLT OF THE PENDULUM: Essays 2005-2008, by Clive James
, December 12, 2009
Robust defender of the free society
THE REVOLT OF THE PENDULUM:
by Clive James
Hardcover: 320 pages
Rec. price: AUD$49.95
Reviewed by Bill James
This is a ragbag of a book, and certainly not in the same league as James's last offering reviewed in these pages, his outstanding Cultural Amnesia (see News Weekly, February 2, 2008).
Some of its subjects are abstruse, recondite and not easily accessible.
I had never heard of writers such as Karl Kraus, Elias Canetti and Octavio Paz, or directors such as John Boorman and Robert Bresson, and having learned a little about them from James, I don't find myself busting to go out and buy their books or watch their films.
Formula One car racing is a highly skilful and dangerous sport with a wide popular appeal, but I am sure there will be many others like myself for whom it is nothing but noise and petrol fumes, and who will therefore, like me, pass lightly over James's analyses of its leading drivers.
Finally, some of the pieces deal with individuals and issues of great personal relevance to James, but of limited fascination for the rest of us.
They include appreciations of James's musical protÃ©gÃ©, Peter Atkin, his late voice coach, Ian Adam, and his favourite songs, such as "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick".
So, what is the point of reading the book? Well for a start, some of the articles are genuinely interesting and enlightening.
Most of the Homeland section, on Australians such as A.D. Hope, Robert Hughes and John Anderson, is in this category, as is his dissection of the Nazi film-maker Leni Riefenstahl, and his analysis of the entertainer Tommy Cooper.
When he disciplines himself to omit descriptions of his voice coach, James's descriptions of his own life can be can be very entertaining, as his procession of autobiographical volumes attests, so his accounts of his early reading (Starting With Sludge) and film-watching, are both (as they say in Lima) worthy of a peruse.
Then there is James's robust commitment to liberal democracy which, "in the twentieth century, each of the two most virulent totalitarian forces thought was a worse threat than the other".
James represents the best that humanism has to offer, and prefaces his book with a quote from Joachim Fest, another clear-sighted recogniser of the moral equivalence of fascism and left extremism, who calls Nazism the "counter-spectre" of communism, and refers to them both as "the world-burning ideologies".
If James's subject matter sometimes palls, his style is irrepressibly and effortlessly agile, his idiosyncratic addiction to colons (I counted six in just two pages) notwithstanding.
Committed to clear language as a concomitant of freedom, like Orwell, and merciless in his excoriation of journalistic illiteracy, we know that James would deplore a sentence like this which begins with a dangling participle.
Here is a severely and regrettably limited (though still overly self-indulgent) selection of quotes from The Revolt of The Pendulum, taken from both the good and deserving, as well as the boring and obscure, articles.
Of public intellectuals: "Bored, they played with fire".
Of World War II: "It could have been said at the time that America's only aim was to secure its oil supplies, but it could equally have been said that the GIs were on their way to save the life of Harold Pinter, and that second thing would have been true."
"The reason terrorists don't use those risible cosmetic terms of ours such as Â'collateral damage' is that they not only have no intention of sparing the innocent, they have no more desirable target in mind."
Of a potentially good writer who wastes time hanging out with shallow trendies: "She should stay in more."
"Isaiah Berlin said that most of those bright young people who enrolled in the Communist Party in pre-war Britain didn't want a revolution: they were just liberals who wanted to feel serious."
"[In] 1945 [Denis Healey] advised his fellow-Labourites not to be panicked by evidence Â'that our comrades on the Continent are being extremist'."
"The language has always changed, so to protest looks reactionary. If there were no reactionaries, however, deterioration would become galloping decay."
"Only Australia could come up with a title like Â'function room': it sounds like a plus-point in a sales pitch for underpants."
"[A] government has no business providing a vision for the future. The job of a government is to preserve the freedom and justice that have already been established, while furthering both to the full extent in which one of them does not interfere with the other."