Trouble up a’ t’ Gridiron…

As a Guardian reader I’m ever cross with the Guardian. It’s a healthy arrangement, posited on the belief that what’s good about the paper outweighs what’s bad. One failing is the relentlessly clever-dick writing by its thirty-something star scribblers. This is at its worst when combined with the Guardian’s insistence on assuming that all its readers are aged thirty-nine – old enough to remember the Beatles as icons but still groovily digging Mumford & Sons while keeping grey hair at a disrespectful minimum  It began on another paper with Caitlin Moran (now grey-haired at the point where the two full glasses of milk are poured into the swirling Cadbury’s chocolate) but has its origins in something entirely original and not a bit OTT – Clive James.
What the Guardian smoothies don’t realise is how competitive their exertions are, to the extent that they are entertaining and informative but really indistinguishable. Grace Dent has taken her Guardian clever-dickery elsewhere. I discount Lucy Mangan because she once sent me an email with an ‘x’ at the end, and Tim Dowling, prisoner of the marginally eventful family life, because pathos requires only deadpan reportage.. But for an example of someone trying to write themselves beyond the pale, nothing beat the Hard Sell comment that used to grace page three of The Guide, a weekly dig at the ludicrous fastnesses of advertising. I see it’s been dropped, or moved elsewhere. Sometimes this up-its-arse writing, surely ironic on that account, was incomprehensible.
But Clive was simply funny, a master of the bon mot rather than the tortuous mot. Now, I see he’s been kicked out of the marital home and is living in a terraced house in Cambridge, squeezed rotten by emphysema, dotted with carcinomas and sitting on temporarily docile leukaemia. Reports of his death have been enthusiastically exaggerated. James knew that ‘cleverness’ in writing was not something one worked at (to be as clever as possible) but the result of a sardonic take on life in general by someone otherwise serious-minded. Of course, some of his targets were seated and conspicuous.  But they, and more sinister types such as Henry Kissinger, needed only a light prod for their absurdity to be revealed, something Guardian writers could learn from him.
James never looked as though he were trying too hard. His ‘serious’ work – he’s an accomplished poet and autobiographer and has just translated all 15,000 lines of Danté’s La Divina Commedia into quatrains rather than the original terza rima – reminds me of Richard Burton’s desire to have been a bookish academic rather than an uxorious Hollywood jerk, with the difference that James never sold himself short as a commentator. His final writing-place, pace the marriage breakdown, seems fitting. I hope he gets good reviews by people not primarily intent on advertising themselves and their slick turns of phrase.


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