A brief comment about the astonishing news – leaked from Private Eye – that the Telegraph has sacked Clive James as its TV reviewer because he doesn’t offer ‘value for money’.
Where to start ? Clive James is the best TV reviewer this country has ever had. People of my generation will recall his work for the Observer, which was an extraordinary mixture of wit and judgement. We remember the weepingly funny demolition jobs – such as the inability of BBC commentators to pronounce Wimbledon – but we also remember the great mixture of compassion and justice he brought to his writing. His assessments of political and social issues were always on the button, not just in terms of right and wrong but also in scale, which is often as important. The anthologies – “Glued to the Box”, “The Crystal Bucket” and “Visions Before Midnight” – are still enormously readable.
But he is much, much more than that. His literary criticism is profound without being pretentious, the essays will last a long time. “The Dreaming Swimmer”, “From The Land Of Shadows”, “Even As We Speak”. If you can’t get them via the normal non-tax paying channels, try a second hand bookshop. The poetry is wonderful – see “The Book Of My Enemy”, which is still in print. You can catch up with recent, enormously sad, verse on the New Statesman web-site. He published a translation of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”. “Fame In The Twentieth Century” is as good a discourse on celebrity as you’ll get. His web-site is a thing of wonder and delight. There is some forgettable stuff, like the rambling narrative poems – I never liked “Peregrine Prykke” as much as some, but that may be a blindness caused by my aversion to things Oxbridge.
I have a particular weakness for the wonderful songs he wrote with Pete Atkin in the 1970s. I saw them first on a wet night in Middlesbrough in the mid 1970s and have been an addict ever since. The songs are on a playlist in my I-pod, and my favourites change regularly. “Laughing Boy”, “Beware of the Beautiful Stranger”, “Time and Time Again”, “Girl On A Train”, “Wristwatch for a Drummer”, varying from laugh-out-loud funny to poignant and romantic. Spend an evening on YouTube just drinking them in.
But the true appallingness of the Telegraph management’s decision is that Clive James is dying of leukaemia. This is not a state secret – he makes no pretence that he is not approaching his end. I wrote a while ago about obituaries being the real celebrity magazine. I wish Clive James a long and painless life, and a swift and merciful end when it comes. And I hope when he dies he will gain more listeners and readers and fans, and will be marked as a person whose intelligence and honesty greatly added to British civilisation.