Clive James is the UK’s favorite Australian, which for once demonstrates the good taste of the British. Whether he’s writing poetry, performing as a talking head on TV, penning his autobiographies, or, as here, delivering weekly radio commentaries lasting 10 minutes apiece, he’s invariably intelligent, invariably funny, and almost invariably unpredictable. Australians must still lament the day he decided to leave.
BBC Radio runs a series of short opinion pieces called A Point of View, and, from 2007 to the end of 2009, James contributed 60 of them. They’re reprinted here (“bonsai sermons,” he calls them), with a short “postscript” after each one giving his thoughts on their topics. At such an easily digested length they’re hard to put down, and, with James’ energy and ebullience scarcely flagging at his present age of 72, they add up, all in all, to an excellent book.
Among James’s most famous opinions are his skepticism about the more alarmist warnings on climate change (or, at the very least, his habit of using these as a butt for comedy) and his enthusiasm for the next in line to the throne, Prince Charles. Both are in evidence here. The first leads to references such as one to “those who hold that we’ll end up under 20 feet [6m] of water dotted with the corpses of roasted polar bears.” As for the second, it occurs here in several asides, though none as uncompromising as his statement in the New Yorker following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales that Charles was “a man as good and honest as any I have ever met” who would become “the most intelligent and concerned monarch this country has ever had.”
This latter view is especially remarkable considering two things: the widespread feeling in the UK that Charles will be merely a stopgap king, with all hopes pinned on the succession of Prince William after him, and James’ former closeness to Diana. Shortly before she left the UK for Europe they were in the habit of having regular lunches together and sharing memories of their emotionally deprived childhoods.
By Clive James
Other controversial opinions, in what the producers wanted to be opinionated pieces, are that Tolkien is hard to be enthusiastic about, that food has little interest except as a necessity for prolonging life, that American tennis commentators speak better English than their UK counterparts, and that the appalling pay rates of Dubai’s construction workers, complete with their 15-minute lunch hour, constitutes a scandal of international proportions.
On the 2009 parliamentary expenses affair — when many UK legislators were discovered to be claiming the maximum expenses permitted, often for frivolous ends — James takes the then unfashionable view that it was something of a storm in a teacup. Maintaining two homes, one in London and another in their constituency, was, James thinks, an expensive requirement, while the uproar that followed the disclosures was a testimony to the generally uncorrupt nature of British public life. In genuinely corrupt countries, he remarks, such peccadillos — and the UK claims were not even illegal, merely sometimes ridiculous — would pass unnoticed.
Constituting routine laugh-lines — topics that James had trained his audiences to think funny but that were in reality merely obsessions of his own — are the logo for the London Olympics, wheelie-bins, a promise to his radio producers to be less negative, and 60-watt lightbulbs.