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Newsletter 316

Published December 9, 2019
Clive James. The Long Farewell is over

When someone of the stature of Clive James dies there is inevitably a vast outpouring of tributes and reminiscences. Reading some of them last week I was struck by the tendency of the obituarists to spend so much space writing about themselves. This would have amused Clive, himself a famous egotist. He more or less prepared the ground for these lengthy, (overly) considered tributes by giving us the most protracted farewell since Nellie Melba. I hope someone has totted up the volume of books, poems, articles and interviews Clive churned out from the time he first told us – was it ten years ago? – that he was living under a death sentence.

I only met him a couple of times so I won’t be adding much to the egocentric reminiscences – although there are at least two moments worth recording. Talking about his work on TV, Clive gave me some advice. “When speaking to the camera,” he said. “Always be yourself. The camera knows a phoney and it hates a phoney.” I’ve always remembered these words whenever I find myself speaking to the wretched, impersonal lens.

The other story concerns Jeffrey Smart, whom I visited when he was working on his portrait of Clive. Amid wry remarks about Clive’s boundless self-esteem, in an effort to get under the skin of his subject Jeffrey asked Clive: “What one thing do you think about all the time?” The reply, which came hurtling back, concerned a certain part of the female anatomy – an obsession that would get him into trouble from time to time. “I’ll see if I can write it into a bit of graffiti in the background,” Jeffrey replied.

In the finished portrait Clive turned out to be as big as a mouse against a vast slab of brutalist architecture. It’s widely presumed this was the artist’s way of inflicting a touch of hubris on his sitter. The obsessional word didn’t make an appearance.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Clive James was his will to learn: to read everything, to master various languages, to school himself in the broadest range of topics. I suspect it was all part of his need to show the world he was a real-deal intellectual – or a major poet – rather than simply a sharp, amusing journalist. In this he may have been thwarted because many so-called intellectuals believe that anyone who writes in a fluent, readable manner must be a phoney. To be truly respected by one’s academic peers it’s best to be incomprehensible.

As for his poetry, I can’t claim to have read volumes of the stuff, but I’ve never found it to rise to any great heights. David Malouf, for instance, seems to me a much more skilful poet. Peter Porter too. Beyond that I’m out of my depth.

Clive’s greatest achievements are probably his essays on literature and popular culture, and his brilliant memoirs. These can be read with consummate pleasure and considerable profit. For me he was one of those inspirational writers to whom one would turn when the words refused to flow and a deadline loomed. A quick browse in those anthologies of short, witty television reviews, or a crisp, economical literary essay would be enough to kick-start my stalled creativity. I don’t think I can pay him any more sincere tribute. Writers are as common as sparrows, but inspirational writers are as rare as the Night Parrot.

This week’s art column is devoted to another rare bird – Jon Molvig, whose Brisbane retrospective is called Jon Molvig: Maverick. Few Australian artists left a bigger legend than Molvig (1923-70) who is still a local hero in Brisbane. It’s a legend that has been burnished by his premature death from kidney failure, although his reputation might have benefited from a few additional productive years.

Molvig was an instinctive expressionist, which means one has to make allowances for the ragged nature of his work. He was an artist who put feeling ahead of form, and must be judged along those lines. Personally, I’ve always had a soft spot for him – for all the anxiety, anger and energy that radiates from his best works.

The movie column looks at Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary, Where’s My Roy Cohn?  A portrait of a bent lawyer who became one of the most powerful fixers in American history, this is a film that casts an ominous shadow on the current state of political life in the United States. We can only be thankful Cohn passed away before the era of social media and fake news. Such tools would have been like magic wands in his hands. Were Cohn still around he’d be sitting in the White House alongside one of his best-known former clients, ensuring that Planet Trump didn’t make so many dumb mistakes.