Sad news today with the demise of Clive James, arguably one of Australia’s most erudite exports. I remember my father being a huge fan of Clive’s and peripherally I was aware of him when I wasn’t naming my pet cats or taming lizards.
Later in my life I began to admire this witty Australian who seemed to radiate out of the television screen with twinkling-eyed, devilish, observational humour couched in some truly delightful prose.
Everyone, including God, was fodder for his wit.
And I say that today more than ever we need people like James to puncture the bubble of conceit around the worn-out institutions that rut society. The man may not have been kind to his wife or his mistresses but he served as an alternative voice to the inflexible social norm that erodes a society if left unchallenged for too many decades. I hope we see his like again soon before the opportunity for significant change passes us by. Right now the world is seeing the result of failing to challenge the unconscious acceptance that proliferates dis-ease and rot in the form of Trump, celebrity Royals and the obscenely wealthy Forbes A-Listers who are increasing the chasm between rich and poor. This way lies stagnation, social gangrene and worse, revolution. The problem with all these outcomes is the lack of significant change. Observers with mental clarity and verbal parity like James can signpost change in a way that revolutions and plagues fail to. James had the gift of humour to temper his warnings and as we sink into the sticky mire of a world run by humourless grifters like Trump, Gates, Bezos, Johnson, Buffet, Zuckerberg etc we need humour almost as much as we need hope. To forge a scaling of this imbalance we may need to elucidate sectors of society that have been otherwise invisible and voiceless, for instance, women and minorities. It is incumbent upon each of us to seek out solutions that serve the planet and raise up the least among us because unless we start thinking globally and empathically we will not survive. And we need to facilitate change with humour.
It’s really that sad and that simple but we need to support leadership amongst the unlikely. Two inspired and unlikely leaders who spring to mind are Angelina Jolie and Sacha Baron Cohen. Listen to them both speaking passionately about the plight of an unbalanced world. The are humble, humorous and empathic. And there are others worth listening to. It is vital to our survival that we all tune in because the current crop of vainglorious headliners and power-brokers are too dazzled by the pond to notice Echo. When/if they raise their heads from contemplation of their own reflections they will realise that the adulation they have craved and courted has been nothing more than an echo of their own self-absorption and this rot evangelism that spews from the mouths of the Johnsons and the Trumps and the Gates serves no-one. James recognised this balderdash when it appeared differently striped and monogramed last century and he called it out. Maybe this was the secret behind James’ enigmatic smile: he knew he was reaching the masses in a way that the narcissistic power-brokers could not.
He was being heard.
Segueing tightly: you would have to have been on Mars not to have been aware of the taxpayer funded depravity Prince Andrew has been indulging in. I find it very interesting and somewhat telling that Royal news and gossip is one frame up from the latest updates on The Bold and the Beautiful in the right-hand side ads streamed daily. The goldfish bowl anachronistic existence of the British Royal Family is well-placed in the same column as the fictitious celebrity gossip around TBATB, surely one of the silliest and most tawdry soaps ever to come out of America. What purpose beyond expensive taxpayer funded entertainment does Royalty provide these days? And surely their purpose can be better served by a scripted soap with an interchangeable cast?
The insane amount of money forked out each year to support the ever-expanding Royal Family can be better directed towards social welfare and I can think of several commendable uses for Buckingham Palace other than housing the spoilt, idle and arguably indolent Windsors who are, let’s face it, hopelessly out of touch with the public they are supposedly serving.
But to return to the scourging wit of Clive James. No sector was too sacred for comment and largely he had compassion. Except when it came to women.
Of course no-one’s perfect and each must be allowed a narrow margin for error. And err he did. His long-suffering wife deserved a medal for tolerance and his parade of mistresses must have learnt quickly that they were little more than distractions. Obviously, James is not an island in this, but it’s sad that such a brilliant man failed to have the common decency to treat women with the kind of equity he espoused for the wider classless world.
Those of you who read my blogs regularly, all three of you, will know that my bête noir is my defence of women, whom I regard as the most downtrodden, overlooked sector of society. As other groups gain rights and recognition and equality, women are still fighting for a voice.
James regularly featured a singer called Margarita Pracatan whose claim to fame was that she was chronically out of tune and hopelessly arrhythmic. She was funny, hilarious actually. But we laugh at her because she’s so bad and therein lies the rub for me. We women can be forgiven for being famous, successful and wealthy as long as we are incompetent, pretty, obliging and dumb. Being stupid is really important. The most successful comediennes on television in recent years have been exquisite, man-hungry and stupid – Fran Drescher and Sofia Vergara. I’m sure in person they are smart and savvy but onscreen they are the latest incarnations of similarly-sculpted comediennes who dared not reveal their IQs – Lucille Ball, Rosalind Russell, Goldie Hawn to name but a few. Survivors all. But how are they serving the rest of us who struggle to raise the bar and be the best we can be?
What is the worst thing that could happen if Shakespeare’s sister was to emerge or Clive James’ equal was to wink at us in Prime Time?
Would the male population crumble?
Would the plinthed patriarchal heads of Art, Literature, Politics, Religion, Philosophy, Science and the Culinary Industry (Jamie Oliver etc) stumble and smash on the cold hard tiles of feminine acuity?
Or would the world be enriched, balanced and redefined?
It’s a pity James didn’t set the bar a little higher where his love life was concerned because he could have impacted greatly on the stalled inequity of women worldwide. But he didn’t and like all flawed heroes, Byron, Miller, Hemingway, I must take him as he was and celebrate the illuminated best of him. So let me leave you with one of his poems. I know the sentiment, having lived just up the road from the poor lions at Taronga Zoo and every day walking through the Zoo (I had a free pass to get to the ferry) I paused to commiserate with one tired old fellow who paced his lonely life out in a cage no bigger than a prison for the worst of human offenders. I see him still, his exquisite Majesty whose royal life in Africa where he had been a King was only a hazy strange dream that haunted him on sultry nights. Poor darling never lived to see the much-improved prison the current crop of lions are interred in. Prisoners still but at least they are in a family group and the wardens/zoo keepers do their best to keep them from going mad.
VALE Clive and thank you for recognising so many cages and may you now fly high enough to escape the visual and visceral bars that ever-so-slightly blinkered your estimable life.
THE LIONS AT TARONGA ZOO – Clive James
The leaves of Tower Bridge are rigged to open
For any taxi I might chance to catch.
They say that when the ravens leave the Tower
It means they’ll use my rain-stained study skylight
As a toilet. I can see Canary Wharf
Like a Russian rocket packed around with boosters
The night they send it up from Baikonur.
Tate Modern’s bridge is cleared for one sick pigeon
To crash land. When that lens-shaped office block
Is finished it will bend a ray from space
To burn the Belfast like a sitting duck.
I’ve known the NatWest Tower since it was knee-high
To the Barbican, another high-tech know-how
HQ that used to look like the last word.
From my place I can see last words in vistas
As far downriver as the spreading spikes
Of the Dome, some sad bitch of a sea urchin
Losing its fight against a stray Dutch cap
While hot-house pleasure boats leak foreign voices
Like tourist minibuses nose to tail
In the corridors of Buckingham Palace.
Been there, done that. The Queen, she hung one on me.
I’ve got it in a box. The box to frame
My body will be built here, like as not,
And probably quite soon. I’ve lived in London
For longer than some people live all told.
Except for the way out, I know it backwards.
So at night when the lions at Taronga
Roar in my memory across the water
I feel the way they must have felt, poor bastards —
Gone in the teeth. The food dead. On display
All day and every day. Sleep in a fortress.
Every familiar walkway leads to strangers.