Tuesday, 24 June 2008

A Madeley Pen Profile: No 27. Clive James (Poet, Essayist, Humourist, Presenter, High Druid, Elvis Impersonator)

I wrote a long letter to Sir Clive James the other day; prompted, I suppose, by the sight of him dancing naked beneath the full moon at the garden party we recently held to mark the summer solstice. The letter had nothing to do with his work as High Druid of our order. I just wanted to thank him for being such a damn good bloke.

Rarely, in these dark and troubled days, do we reach out to people. How often do we look a friend in the eye, shake them by the hand and say ‘thanks pal, for being there’? Yet Sir Clive has always been there for me. For over a decade, he was the bull-necked TV host, too large for his shirts, who taught me that we television types can be intelligent, witty, wry, occasionally profane, but generally urbane and decent.

Saturday or Sunday night, we would turn on the TV and welcome him into the Madeley home where he would sit in corner of the room and never abuse our trust or look out-of-place beside our fitted carpet or mantelpiece strewn with awards. It’s been one of the great rewards of fame that I can now sit the real thing in the corner of the room and serve him quality alcohol in healthy amounts and listen to him rant about the late novels of Philip Roth or do his infamous Elvis impersonation. In fact, there are few sights that fill me with as much pleasure as seeing Sir Clive coming up the drive, his bags packed for a weekend stay, his nose stuck between the pages of some rare Somali poet’s latest collection of limericks.

It reminds me of the very first time he came to stay. It was around the time he published the first volume of his ‘Unreliable Memoirs’ and I was preparing the guest room when I heard that deep sonorous voice sounding from down the street:

‘There once was a man from Mogadishu
Who lined his underpants with tissue,
One day he did sweat,
His buttocks got wet,
The rest... well, that’s a delicate issue.’

He then went on to recite one of his own poems about a sunburnt tourist from Bangor but that’s far less suitable for this family-friendly blog, especially the bit where he rhymes ‘Lurpac’ with ‘sack’. Less extreme is his limerick sequence, written while still at Cambridge. Some critics believe that they are the equivalent of Ezra Pound’s 'Cantos' but in comic verse. I’ll quote only the first three of the nine hundred.


There once was a man with ten chins,
Who lived all his life in Berlin,
Such was his draw,
People flocked to his door,
To see his nine magnificent grins.


There is a man that I know,
Who likes to make patterns in snow,
But he took it too far
When he copied Degas,
And was severely frostbitten below.


There once was a man, well muscled,
Who dreamed of visiting Brussels,
It’s in Belgium, you know,
You can get there by boat,
Or fly if you’re particularly pectoraled.

Quite amazing, I’m sure you’ll agree, combining flawless technical mastery, a delight in the absurd, and an occasional recourse to the vulgar. Yet that is one of the things that I most admire about men like Sir Clive James: that he can appreciate the value of a good profanity or a filthy joke whilst retaining every ounce of his academic credentials. Stephen Fry is the much the same, as are, to a lesser extent, Bill Oddie and that man Clarkson. Experts in their own field (or, in the case of Fry, many fields and a few municipal car-parks thrown in to boot) they are intelligent without being afraid to get in touch with their scatological side. One need only whisper the word ‘buttock’ in Stephen’s ear and he’ll laugh himself silly until dawn spreads her rosy cheeks, which is, itself, an allusion to Homer that Stephen happens to find particularly funny.

What I suppose I am saying is that they are men after my own heart and in saluting Sir Clive, I’m saluting myself. Well done Madeley, I say. You haven’t turned out too bad.

Of course, Sir Clive never responded to my letter. Why should he? His days are still full of essay writing, limericks, and Elvis. I’m just happy knowing that I possibly brightened up his morning inbox. And I’m also happy that things are finally right between us. For a while, there was some animosity given our last rather unfortunate interview in his study. But that’s all water under the bridge. I had caught him on a bad day when he was still feeling frisky, what with the musk of Martin Amis still heavy in his den, and I was little better.

So, on this rather quiet Tuesday, I just want you to go over to Sir Clive’s place and read his words, listen to his poems, watch his television programmes, and generally live a while in the company of a man of fine habits, serene intellect, and all the foreign satellite channels that you could ever hope to receive. And don’t forget to ask him to show you the movements to his limerick about the man Billericay.

There once was a waiter from Billericay,
Whose elbows were terribly tricky,
They bent the wrong way,
So first thing each day,
Somebody had to fasten his dicky.


Richard Havers said...

This is all rather spooky. Last evening I had an email from an eminent QC friend of mine asking for help, on behalf of a friend of his, in trying to locate an album by Pete Atkin's called, 'Driving Through Mythical America'. The lyrics to the songs on this album are written by Mr James.

Dick Madeley said...

I'm just sensitive to the wants of my readers and I sensed that you were thinking of Sir Clive.

I also happen to know that album well. Every lyric is in the form of a limerick, isn't it?

Richard Havers said...

You beat me....I have a vague recollection of hearing it when it came out and thinking it was pretty dull. Mind you I was going through a 'Yes' phase at the time and so anything other than the sublime lyrical heights to which Jon Anderson climbed on a daily basis seemed somewhat trivial to me....

Lola said...

Clive James is urbane. That's exactly what he is.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

You know, I've often contemplated Clive's buttocks when a piece of lobster goes down the wrong way or whatever.

Richard Havers said...

lola, is that Urt Urbane?

Anonymous said...

Is there anything that man can't do....and do damn well?..I heard one of Sir Clives many well written songs on the radio just the other week. It put me in mind of what Bob Dylan would have sounded like if he had spent years in the bush.

The Twitch said...

....rather than just smoking it.

Anonymous said...

I once had a school teacher with buttocks like Clive James's. Welshcakes...did you ever teach at Cardiff High School by anychance.

Anonymous said...

....not that I have ever had the pleasure of seeing the great mans buttocks....I am just going off Welshcakes description of " a lobster going down on you the wrong way "..or something like that...whatever.

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