Even As We Speak

Clive James

I could happily read James just writing out the phone directory at this point. Even the numbers themselves would be laconically delivered and have a killer joke to finish. James remains a rare combination of intellect, wit and readability. Even if you don’t necessarily agree with him he’s almost always worth reading for his seductive style.

His essay on Diana, written in the direct aftermath of her death, is the highlight of the volume. It’s a finely drawn picture in which James unashamedly admits to being dazzled by her charms and is lent weight by a thoughtful postscript which allows the author the facility to reflect on words written in the heat of the moment. Other than that the book’s is frontloaded with a fine one-two punch at the start with an extended reflection on the life and work of George Orwell and a review of a book called Hitler’s Willing Executioners which ponders on the wider questions of how ordinary Germans were complicit in Nazi atrocities and how weighty subjects demand a wide frame of reference. Suffice to say James appears to say more on the subject, and in far fewer words, than the author of the original book managed in his whole. Both these essays point the way to where James would eventually end up with his masterpiece, Cultural Amnesia.
Other than that there are some fine pieces, such as an obituary for Peter Cook and a heartfelt plea for experts in the field to present TV shows rather than actorly voiceovers (it’s slightly outdated now, James must adore BBC4). And his pieces on the Sydney Olympics are beautiful snapshots of the time, though probably outdated by the British having their own similar epiphanies during London 2012.

There’s a small amount of filler here – Incident at St Denis, for instance, is written for and about a friend and is of little interest beyond that. But in a collection like this you can forgive the author his odd indulgence.

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