Clive James in his own words

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Clive James, who has died at the age of 80, was without parallel as a incisive and witty commentator on life – his own and other people’s – as well as television and all forms of culture.

Here are some of the most memorable lines from his books, reviews, programmes and interviews.

On himself:

“It often happens that we are most touched by what we are least capable of. Evanescent delicacy is not the quality in the arts that I admire most, but it is often the characteristic by which I am most reduced to envy.” Unreliable Memoirs, 1980

“It is almost better to be an impulse shirt-buyer than an impulse shoe-buyer. I have worn shirts that made people think I was a retired Mafia hit-man or a Yugoslavian sports convener from Split, but I have worn shoes that made people think I was insane.” Falling Towards England, 1985

“All I can do is turn a phrase until it catches the light. There was a time when I got hot under the collar if the critics said I had nothing new to say. Now I realise that they had a point. My field is the self-evident. Everything I say is obvious, although I like to think that some of the obvious things I have said were not so obvious until I said them.” May Week Was in June, 1990

“I think the control I had over my work was less than adequate. There was nothing wrong with the good bits in my poems, it’s just that they were packed around with lots and lots of bad bits, and I think that the only way I’ve improved in the last several decades… is that I’ve learned to leave out the bad bits.” On ABC Radio, 2005

“Unfortunately I can’t [drive]. Or rather I can, but nobody believes in my ability enough to give me a licence.” Postcard from Los Angeles, BBC TV, 1990

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On art and the world:

“Television is simultaneously blamed, often by the same people, for worsening the world and for being powerless to change it.” Glued to the Box, 1983

“A painter can leave you with nothing left to say. A writer leaves you with everything to say.” Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of My Time, 2007

“People don’t get their morality from their reading matter: they bring their morality to it.” A Blizzard of Tiny Kisses, London Review of Books, 1980

“Among artists without talent Marxism will always be popular, since it enables them to blame society for the fact that nobody wants to hear what they have to say.” The Crystal Bucket, 1982

“The sure sign of a weak man who ascends to glory is that he can’t tolerate having strong men around him.” North Face of Soho, 2006

“It makes no sense whatsoever to call the perpetrators of the Holocaust ‘the Germans’ if by that is meant that the German victims of Naziism – including many Jews who went on regarding themselves as Germans to the end of the line – somehow weren’t Germans at all. That’s what the Nazis thought, and to echo their harebrained typology is to concede them their victory.” As Of This Writing, 2003

On other people:

On Barbara Cartland: “Twin miracles of mascara, her eyes looked like the corpses of two small crows that had crashed into a chalk cliff.” Glued to the Box

On Philip Larkin: “[Larkin] himself is well aware that there are happier ways of viewing life. It’s just that he is incapable of sharing them, except for fleeting moments – and the fleeting moments do not accumulate, whereas the times in between them do.” At the Pillars of Hercules, 1979

On Brezhnev – A Short Biography: “Here is a book so dull that a whirling dervish could read himself to sleep with it. If you were to recite even a single page in the open air, birds would fall out of the sky and dogs drop dead.” From the Land of Shadows, 1982

“If Brideshead Revisited is not a great book, it’s so like a great book that many of us, at least while reading it, find it hard to tell the difference.” Glued to the Box

“As for David Attenborough’s Life On Earth, it was obvious from the first episode that thousands of new zoologists would all be conceived at once, like a population bulge. I watched enthralled, distracted only by envy of my own children, for whom knowledge was being brought to alive in a way that never happened for my generation or indeed any previous generation in all of history.” The Crystal Bucket

“In The Bob Hope Golf Classic (LWT) the participation of President Gerald Ford was more than enough to remind you that the nuclear button was at one stage at the disposal of a man who might have either pressed it by mistake or else pressed it deliberately in order to obtain room service.” Glued to the Box

On The Lord of the Rings: “I still haven’t forgiven CS Lewis for going on all those long walks with JRR Tolkien and failing to strangle him, thus to save us from hundreds of pages dripping with the wizardly wisdom of Gandalf and from the kind of movie in which Orlando Bloom defiantly flexes his delicate jaw at thousands of computer-generated orcs. In fact it would have been ever better if CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien could have strangled each other, so that we could also have been saved from the Chronicles of Narnia.” BBC Radio 4: A Point of View

“Spielberg had done his best with Schindler’s List, but his best left some of us wondering just how useful a contribution it was, to make a movie about how some of the Jews had survived, when the real story was about all the Jews who hadn’t.” BBC Radio 4: A Point of View

On a South Bank Show interview with Harold Pinter: “It was exactly like getting blood from a stone, except that stones do not smoke. Pinter smoked all the time. You could tell that the interview was edited down from hours of film because in every shot Pinter had a fresh Balkan Sobranie in his hand. In the tight head-shots there was so much smoke pouring up from the bottom of the screen that you began wondering if his trousers were on fire.” The Crystal Bucket

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