BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
, March 17, 2012
A POINT OF VIEW:
The Book of the Radio Series
by Clive James
Paperback: 400 pages
Reviewed by Bill James
The Times Literary Supplement website, with that subtle understatement for which the British are so renowned, assures us that one of the TLS’s regular contributors is “wickedly subversive”.
Clive James probably can’t aspire to those heights, but he could perhaps be honestly placed in the category of “good-humouredly rib-nudging”.
This is a collection of 60 transcripts of 10-minute radio talks which he presented on the BBC’s Radio 4 program A Point of View between 2007 and 2009.
Each piece has a postscript in which James reflects on what he said, sometimes offering second thoughts, or bringing the material up to date.
Clive James is an Australian expatriate based in the UK, where he established himself as a television critic and presenter.
His autobiographical volumes have been very popular, but he can also write at a serious level.
The critically admired Cultural Amnesia: Notes In The Margin Of My Time was reviewed in News Weekly (February 2, 2008).
While making no secret of his atheistic and left-wing stance (“I still count myself as left-wing in politics, however I might be in matters of culture…. Nobody’s idea of conservatism or progress should penalise the worst-off”), James is not rigid, militant, ideological, humourless, boring or obnoxious in defending it.
He dismisses the doctrinaire anti-Christian diatribes of the late Christopher Hitchens (whom he otherwise admired) as “trite”.
Unlike some others who would place themselves in his left-of-centre niche on the political spectrum, James is a passionate defender of liberal democracy and of a free (though not completely unregulated) market.
And then there are his other excommunicable heresies.
He refuses to unconditionally demonise John Howard or Rupert Murdoch, can see the good side of the Iraq War (including an improvement in conditions in Abu Ghraib!) and is critical of Western journalists who were more interested in discrediting the United States than conceding any improvement in post-Saddam Iraq.
He is always consistent in his opposition to injustice. If it is true that no-one’s professed anti-fascism can be taken seriously unless it is matched by a comparable anti-communism, and vice versa, then James comes through with flying colours.
He refuses to patronise the so-called Third World by pretending that all its present problems, such as poverty, dictatorship and corruption, are the result of colonialism.
Unlike some Western feminists, he is prepared to admit that there are misogynistic aspects of Islamist culture which it is legitimate to raise in public, such as “honour” killings.
The variety of topics covered in these offerings is vast.
It ranges from tennis to plastic surgery, smoking to Harry Potter, the monarchy to race issues, privacy to screen violence, bicycles to pornography, drugs to privacy threats, wheelie bins to frivolous litigation, and the connection between big yachts and empty minds.
A number of emphases recur throughout the book.
One is James’s scepticism regarding anthropogenic global warming.
He exposes not only the mere common-or-garden-variety silliness of some of its true believers, and their closed-minded paranoia (“anyone who did not think the climate was in crisis must be in the pay of an oil company”), but also the way in which they trivialise cosmic obscenity by equating agnosticism about AGW with Holocaust denial.
Another is his appreciation of technology, and opposition to the romantic dogma, popular amongst the well-off Western bourgeoisie, that humanity needs to halt global industrial development, no matter how eager underdeveloped countries might be to gain access to its comforts and conveniences.
Yet another is the “compensation culture” which blames suppliers of commodities such as alcohol for the ill-effects produced by the abuse of their products by adults with free will.
Any serious attempt to present James’s best quotes would result in a reproduction of a vast proportion of the book, because he writes with an apparent angelic effortlessness.
Here, to conclude, is a severely circumscribed selection.
On fantasy (to which he admits to having “a blind spot”): “I still haven’t forgiven C.S. Lewis for going on all those long walks with J.R.R. Tolkien and failing to strangle him, thus to save us from hundreds of pages dripping with the wizardly wisdom of Gandalf…. In fact, it would have been even better if C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien could have strangled each other, so that we could also have been saved from the Chronicles Of Narnia.”
On misused terms: “The word ‘icon’ gets tossed around like the term ‘Renaissance man’. Just as any actor is called a Renaissance man if he can play three chords on a guitar, so the photograph of any face becomes an icon if you can still attach a name to it after its owner is dead.”
On Picasso: “the kind of communist who disguised his limousine as a taxi in order not to arouse class resentment.”
More on Picasso: “Some men, even great men, need time to grow up, and there are cases when the very greatest never grow up at all. On the whole, we forgive them if they are painters; forgive them less if they are musicians; and forgive them least if they are writers.”
On the late Kim Jong-Il: “a bouffant hairstyle joined to a pair of elevator shoes by a psychotic personality.”
On jokes about Pol Pot: “Wits in the West came up with exactly one gag — HANDS OFF DEMOCRATIC KAMPUCHEA — and it was unintentional.”
On technology and emotional blackmail: “I had always been suspicious of doomsayers who claimed that anyone holding my opinions must be harbouring a callous indifference to the fate of our ‘children and grandchildren’. Anyone who wants to make the lives of children in Africa dependent on windmills and solar panels doesn’t really care if they live or die, and we only have his word for it that he cares more than we do about the children here at home.”
On language: “The largely nonsensical procedures of literary theory and cultural studies should have been rumbled at the start, simply from the double-talk in which they were expressed.”
On warmist panic merchants: “Those who hold that we’ll end up under twenty feet of water dotted with the corpses of roasted polar bears.”
Bill James is a Melbourne writer.