by John Boland

By Clive James. Picador, £15.99 sterling

Clive James is the finest living essayist and many of us have long admired both his supple prose and the bracing wit that enhances rather than  undermines his essential and humane seriousness on subjects as diverse as artistic excellence, popular culture, the perils of celebrity and the evils perpetuated by political ideologies.

No one, however, is a bigger fan of Clive James than the man himself. That’s always been evident but it’s especially noticeable in this latest collection, where on occasion his self-infatuation loses the run of itself.

When he’s not telling you – and more than once – about the marvellous intellectual nourishment to be found on his website (, he’s letting you know how many languages he’s mastered,  wondering why his poetry and songwriting haven’t enjoyed the critical esteem he knows they deserve, and – just in case you’d forgotten – reminding you of his former fame and stature as a television personality.

Plainly, the man has lots to be immodest about, not least his magnificent recent opus Cultural Amnesia, which, through contemplation of over a hundred cultural and political figures, examines the rise of totalitarianism in the 20th century, indicts those who furthered it and celebrates those who fought against it.

But he might be advised to remain discreet about some strands of his output. Although a fine critic of poetry (no one has written with more feeling and insight about Philip Larkin), his own poems reveal an accompished versifier rather than a poet of real substance, and his whining about those who don’t take his verse at his own evaluation of it is both embarrassing and unattractive.

And nowhere does it seem to occur to him that when he ceased appearing regularly on television a decade ago, it came as something of a relief to many viewers, who had never thought this medium suited to his talents and who had always felt that in gauchely embracing the celebrity it offered he had become the kind of figure whom, in his earlier incarnation as a brilliant television critic, he had rightly ridiculed.

He can be a frightful cultural name-dropper, too, airily telling us in this volume that Alain Finkielkraut is “the most interesting of the recent French philosophers,” even if he’s less famous than “the distinctly less original” Bernard-Henri Levy. But we also “ought to hear far more than we do” of Michel Onfray, while “the truly essential man right now is undoubtedly Pascal Bruckner,” the “essential argument” of whose La Tyrannie de la Penitence “should be at the fingertips of every serious political commentator in English.” Indeed, so busy is he letting you know the breadth and depth of his reading that he never bothers to explain what this “central argument” might be,  never mind who the hell are Alain Finkielkraut, Michel Onfray or Pascal Bruckner – though the implication is that ignorance of them is somehow our fault.

Get beyond these irritating tics, though, and the collection of essays remains the finest since…well, since Clive James’s last one. There are wonderfully written and enlightening pieces here on Karl Kraus, Kingsley Amis, Camille Paglia, Denis Healy, Tommy Cooper, Leni Riefenstahl, Robert Hughes and Elias Canetti, Hollywood movies, Australian politics and bad writing – the list alone demonstrates the range of James’s interests. So once again we’ll forgive the ego and celebrate instead the insights and the elegance of one of the great prose writers of the age.

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