CLIVE James left some words wandering around my head all day yesterday. These weren’t the brilliant sparklers of his old TV column in the Observer all those years ago. Or a fragment of his poetry. Just six simple words at the beginning of a sentence… “When I was first a student…”
I re-read those words while trying to work out the resonance. Perhaps it is the placing of that ‘first’ that does it, giving the words a poetic rhythm. No long-winded “When I was a student first time around” or anything from James. There is a biblical clarity almost to his words.
James is recalling his youth on Avalon beach in Sydney while summoning up memories of a lissome girl called Pat he knew 50 years ago. “I can only just remember her pretty face, but I can remember vividly her taste in reading.” What she was reading was Ulysses by James Joyce. I am with Pat on that one, although it’s been a few years now since I picked up my battered paperback copy from when I first was a student. And from when I last was a student, too.
James writes a short column called Reports Of My Death that appears towards the end of the Guardian Weekend supplement every Saturday. It should be required reading all round. The writing is so sharp and the thinking so clear.
As the title of the column suggests, the poet, writer, journalist and wit is dying of cancer, but he is taking his time over his departure. This is good news for us and hopefully for him too. These sainted extra days have given James great mental strength while his body falls apart around him.
Bashing words out isn’t necessarily hard, but good writing is difficult. What James offers each week in this protracted farewell is the best sort of writing. Simple and yet capable of profundity.
Anyway those words stayed with me all of yesterday. They were there when we went to see some friends for a coffee in the morning. They were there when I did some work in the afternoon. And they were there when I was returning from a friend’s 40th birthday party in York and waiting outside York Theatre Royal for the bus home.
This is a good spot for a different sort of theatre on a Saturday night. People streamed or wobbled past. A young woman hampered by short skirt and high heels tottered while she shouted into her mobile phone. “You don’t know what I have to put up with,” she screamed. “You have no idea. You don’t know the half of it.”
Gravity threatened to interrupt her rant, but she recovered her balance and kept on shouting at whoever it was that didn’t know the half of it. Although perhaps by then they knew the whole of it.
A young man who might have been wiser about his nourishment tugged up oversized jeans as he balanced on his belly a pizza in its box. Neither pizza nor jeans fell, which was a relief all round.
A group of cyclists forgot which side of the road they should be on. And then the Number 1 bus rolled up on the right side of the road, and I rolled home.