Clive James on empire, Naipaul, and music

Books are like the web. I wanted to read more books by Clive James after reading one of his essays that led me to other authors.

Along the way, James disclosed the secret of success in the arts. I will share it, too, but patience!

James is celebrated for his style and wide reading.

Both were evident when the Australian James writing about the Indian from Trinidad, V.S. Naipaul, summed up the history of the British empire in a poignant paragraph.

Referring to an essay by Naipaul, James wrote:

“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 colonial experience, and brought to realise how complex it has all been, this birth, growth and breaking up of 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, a few pipers marching and countermarching in the courtyard of Edinburgh castle. Eventually we might even have to say goodbye to Scotland, and there will be nothing of the old imperial world left except ten square yards of sand in Belize.”

Shades of Larkin

The image of the vanished empire reminded me of a poem I love, by one of James’ favourite poets.

Homage to a Government
By Philip Larkin

Next year we are to bring all the soldiers home
For lack of money, and it is all right.
Places they guarded, or kept orderly,
Must guard themselves, and keep themselves orderly
We want the money for ourselves at home
Instead of working. And this is all right.

It’s hard to say who wanted it to happen,
But now it’s been decided nobody minds.
The places are a long way off, not here,
Which is all right, and from what we hear
The soldiers there only made trouble happen.
Next year we shall be easier in our minds.

Next year we shall be living in a country
That brought its soldiers home for lack of money.
The statues will be standing in the same
Tree-muffled squares, and look nearly the same.
Our children will not know it’s a different country.
All we can hope to leave them now is money.

The empire’s gone, but the sun never sets on the English language, spoken and written the world over.

Naipaul and Nirad Chaudhuri

James cited Naipaul:

“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 he reminded me too much of the house where I was born.”

Provocatively titled Naipaul’s Nastiness, the essay begins:

“A modernising force embattled against his own background, V.S. Naipaul is the Kemal Ataturk of the Indian subcontinent. He has always wanted the Indian culture that he came from – by way of Trindad – to be modernised, if necessary out of existence… Nevertheless, we read Naipaul for his fastidious scorn, not for his large heart. Like the comparably great Nirad Chaudhuri, he is supreme for his style as a writer in English, not for his profundity as an Indian thinker.”

The essay on Naipaul is part of Latest Readings, a collection of James’ writings published in 2015. In the introduction, he wrote that after he was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2010, he moved from London to a house in Cambridge where, though half of his library had to be sold off to “create some breathing space”, he still had thousands of books.

Thinking of death, he wrote: “If you don’t know the exact moment when the lights will die, you might as well as read until they do.”

James lived for four more years after Latest Readings, publishing one more book, Play All, before dying at the age of 80 in 2019.

The secret of success: The hidden art of Bing Crosby

I promised to share his secret of success.

He divulged it in an essay called The Hidden Art of Bing Crosby, found in his book, The Meaning of Recognition, published in 2005.

Bing Crosby, who died in 1977, was one of the most popular singers in the 1940s and 1950s.

“I have just an ordinary voice,” said Crosby. “Anyone who can carry a tune thinks he can sing as good as I do.”

James pointed out, “He could do extraordinary things with it, but …he put most of his art into making sure that he still sounded (ordinary) even when he was performing prodigies.”

Why did the singer want to sound ordinary?

James explained, “The secret of great success in the popular arts is to bring the punters in on the event, and you can’t do that if you are manifestly doing something they can’t do. You have to be doing something that they can do, so that they can dream. It’s just that you do it better, so that they can admire. Essentially they are admiring themselves: it’s a circuit, and too much obvious bravura will break it.”

Frank Sinatra

James obviously admired Frank Sinatra. “What Sinatra really had was enunciation control… Sinatra could get the tone of bitter speech into singing words… making a song into a spoken statement.

“He, too, sang from the standard (romantic) repertoire, but by selection and presentation he dragged it towards the forbidden… in the direction of actual sexual passion, rather than well-behaved self-control. Bing stood for adulthood, with all its renunciations. Sinatra stood for adultery…

“Sinatra’s problem was that nuances were as far as he could go. In the world of the well-made song, illicit love, no matter how delicious, was a crime, and the compulsion to sing about it was the punishment. The standard song catalogue was a thousand modulations on the theme of anguish. Rock and roll was the shout of guiltless joy.

The rise of rock and roll… and singer-songwriters

“Rock and roll took over the hit parade, which would eventually cease to be a showcase for the well-made song, although the period of overlap lasted longer than we tend to remember. Elvis Presley and Sammy Davis Jr were sometimes up there one after the other,” reminded James.

“The rock numbers and the well made song could coexist. Some of the rock numbers, indeed, were themselves well made… (The Leiber-Stoller numbers in the Elvis opus Jailhouse Rock were put together with a precision that would have been approved by George and Ira Gershwin.)  What really hurt the tradition of the well-made standard was the rise of the singer-songwriter…”

Singer-songwriters like John Lennon and Paul McCartney disrupted the business, said James.

“The Beatles, apart from proving that Britain was a good offshore base from which to revitalise the American song, also proved that a singing act of any size would make more money if it wrote its own stuff. The act would get paid twice: once for performing, and again for what it wrote. It was an irresistible dynamic that spelled lingering death for the independent professional songwriter who wrote for all comers. This would be the age of gifted amateurs who wrote mainly for themselves.”

I couldn’t resist quoting Clive James at length on music from the 1950s and 1960s. His insights, like his prose, are dead on.

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