Once upon a time – for about 37 years in fact – I was a book reviewer. This was a dream job for someone who lives and breathes books of all kinds. All that was missing in the amenities department were the sofa and the chocolates. The pay was derisory, and only those who would rather read than eat would contemplate working for a very few dollars and a free copy of a book – and not care.
Clive James is one of my favourite writers. Mostly he writes essays (perhaps my favourite non-fiction genre) on a wide variety of topics, and when I was sent “The Revolt of the Pendulum” (Picador) to review, I fell on it with glee. It is, to quote from the blurb, “part memoir, part conversation, part performance and part state-of-the-nation address”. It’s a real treat.
He puts book reviewers, including himself, in their place, according them what he calls the tiny immortality of termites, and sometimes helps his fellow book reviewers out by reminding them of some small but pertinent detail they have unaccountably forgotten to mention. Unlike many of us termites, James is also a poet, novelist, essayist, media celebrity, tango dancer and literary journalist. Astonishingly well-read, he is sublimely, unrepentantly opinionated, and he can be forgiven because what he has to say about anything is said with such crackling style and wit that we have to laugh even while questioning our own wishy-washy opinions.
In this book, among other matters, he frets about the decline of literary standards, discusses detective novels as travel books, takes six pages to fillet a single very bad sentence written by a hapless sports reporter, and discusses racing drivers, a bag lady, and the business of being a celebrity.
I’ve been clearing out my bookshelves for months now, preparing for the demolition of the house and my removal to somewhere else as yet unknown but almost certainly with less room than I currently enjoy. Throwing out books – any books – really hurts. But Clive James is safe. He is eminently re-readable and he will be going with me no matter what.