Clive James is as effusive on the joys of flying as in his praise of the Indian writer Nirad C Chaudhuri. And few have written better. Funny, vivid, acute, he punches all the right buttons needed to be a good writer.
James, an Australian who died in England in November 2019 at the age of 80, made his name as a television critic, but he also wrote novels, literary criticism, travel pieces and memoirs. His homage to flying verges on poetry: “the jet engines worked their continuous invisible miracle of plaiting cold air into a rope of power”. Anyone who can come up with a line like that is a writer of the highest order. And so, he says, are Chaudhuri and Naipaul.
In his essay on Chaudhuri, in his collection of essays, Cultural Amnesia, published in 2007, he writes:
Born in East Bengal in 1897, Nirad C Chaudhuri lived for a hundred years, which meant that for almost the whole of the twentieth century one of the great masters of English prose was an Indian: and of Indian masters of English prose, Chaudhuri was by a long way the most distinguished. He was granted that title even by other writers of Indian background who might well have claimed something like it for themselves: VS Naipaul, Anita Desai, Zulfikar Ghose. They revered him even when they disagreed with him…
Like the Trinidad-born writer CLR James, whose message to the Third World was that it should learn from the First, Chaudhuri offered no automatic comfort to the old Empire’s self-renewing supply of angry radicals. Most of Chaudhuri’s political talk means discomfort for someone, usually India’s intellectuals. Many big subcontinental names have admired him, but you can’t imagine any of them not dropping the book and whistling at some point, especially when he reaches the conclusion (and his writings in toto reach no other) that Britain made India possible. The best reason to whistle, however, is the quality of his prose. Ten pages into The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, he’s already snared you. “The rain came down in what looked like already packed formations of enormously long pencils of glass and hit the bare ground.”…
Chaudhuri’s prize was to live for a hundred years, retain a rock-pool clarity of mind, and spend his extreme old age in England, surrounded by the foreign language he loved best, and of which he was a master…
Yes, indeed, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian is a remarkable book and Chaudhuri’s description of the rain in East Bengal is a joy to read.
James salutes Naipaul, too, for his prose but it’s not unalloyed praise. In his collection of essays, Latest Readings, published in 2015, he has a chapter provocatively titled Naipaul’s Nastiness, but it’s tempered criticism, mixed with genuine appreciation. James writes:
…once, at his home in London, a workman wanted his help in opening a window, and Naipaul telephoned his wife at her place of work to tell her that he was being disturbed, and could she come home immediately because there was manual labour to be done. Or so the legend goes: with him there are always legends, increasingly boosted, in the autumn of his patriarchy, by his own testimony. He behaved like an autocrat to his women, and in 2008 he cooperated with a biography saying that he did. Throughout his writing career, some of his most entertaining stuff has been written in contempt of the backwardness of the culture from which his family fought to emerge. He can be hilarious about just how little cleaning an Indian cleaner gets done when cleaning the steps of a government building, but perhaps the hilarity would be less hilarious if you were an Indian. Nevertheless, we read Naipaul for his fastidious scorn, not for his large heart. Like the comparably great Nirad Chadhuri, he is supreme for his style as a writer in English, not for his profundity as an Indian thinker…
Profound or not, Naipaul had something in common with James, according to James himself. He is struck by the affinity when he reads the essay on Joseph Conrad in Naipaul’s book, Literary Occasions. James writes:
Naipaul talks about Conrad’s analysis of the colonial experience. In doing so, Naipaul talks about his own colonial experience. And in reading Naipaul on the subject, I am faced with my own colonial experience, and brought to realise how complex it has all been, this birth, growth, and breaking up on an empire. And most of it happened so abruptly. After a few hundred years’ practice in subjugating Ireland, the British subjugated most of the world in the blinking of an eye. Now there is nothing left except a language, a golden coach, and a few pipers marching and countermarching in the courtyard of Edinburgh castle. Eventually we might even say goodbye to Scotland, and there will be nothing left of the old imperial world except ten square yards of sand in Belize. Naipaul at his best, as a writer of factual narrative, gives you the sense that the language itself is the imperial inheritance that matters. Whether I shall read A House for Mr Biswas again remains to be seen. More than fifty years ago it filled me with admiration, but reminded me too much of the house where I was born.
In that short passage, James touches on so many things: the dissolution of the British empire, the colonial legacy, the durability of the English language, and the universal appeal of A House for Mr Biswas.
Joys of flying
Poet, intellectual, writer extraordinaire, James also had the common touch, evident in Flying Visits, a collection of travel pieces he wrote for the Observer between 1976 and 1983. That’s where he pays homage to flying, in the introduction to the book. He writes:
I like airports and airliners… I used to spend all those early flights with my nose squashed against the window… At night the cities were like jewelled cobwebs on black velvet. There was always something to look at, even if it was only a sea of cloud, and the more often you flew the more were the chances of an epiphany such as the occasional clear day over the Alps when there was nothing under you except naked geology up which girls in dirndl ran yodelling, while the jet engines worked their continuous invisible miracle of plaiting cold air into a rope of power…
I finally got a trip on a Boeing 707 at just the time it was about to go out of style, because the first wide-bodies were already proving their routes. But it was still a thrill, not least because the destination was Boston — a long way from Europe. Over mid-Atlantic a BOAC VC-10 going the other way went past a few miles to our left on my side of the aircraft, and a mile or so above. The condensation trail came out of the coral blue distance like a spear of snow. As we let down into Boston, I watched the magic suitcase of the Boeing wing unpack itself, the flaps jacking out and curving down to turn the aerofoil into a parasol.
Nobody with a proper appreciation of the Boeing 747’s looks will ever call it a Jumbo. The 747 is so suavely proportioned that it doesn’t even look very big, except when it happens to taxi past its ancestor, the 707, whereupon you feel that a mackerel has given birth to a mako shark.
Singapore Airlines stewardesses and Changi airport
He can be funny, as in his description of Singapore Airlines stewardesses, and is suitably impressed by Changi Airport in Singapore. Airports “can be very pleasing”, he writes:
The experience is easier on the eyes than anything you are likely to encounter in the cabin once you get airborne, unless you are flying with Singapore Airlines, whose stewardesses are really as advertised. They are far more beautiful than they need to be and in First Class there seem to be two of them assigned to each passenger, filling him continuously with delicious food and bursting discreetly into tears if he stops eating. The Singapore commitment to the putative beauty of air travel verges on the mystical, and not just in the air. The same applies to Changi airport, which is currently the second most beautiful aerospace architecture in the world. But after admiring the indoor fountains and having been suitably dazed by the shops full of microchip prosperity, you might need something to read. The bookstalls all carry several different biographies of Lee Kuan Yew, whom Singapore has got the way Salzburg has got Karajan. But somehow, read in that glittering context, Lee’s story becomes exciting instead of tedious, in the same way that coffee tastes better than it should. It is because there are so many aircraft in the vicinity. Airfields made even Kafka happy…
Fond of travel, James wanted others to share his good fortune. At the end of his introduction to Flying Visits, he writes:
One hot afternoon on the West Bank near Alara, a Palestinian taxi driver showed me his house. It was Ramadan, so the children could look at the cakes his wife was preparing but were not allowed to eat them. I, on the other had, was not allowed not to eat them… The main difference between us was that I had seen something of the world. The main hope for the future is that his children will see something of it too. That chaos in the airports is our chance to live.