Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia Notes in the margin of my time (2007)

What were they putting into the water at Sydney University in those days? In the persons of the native Sydneysiders Robert Hughes and Clive James, and Germaine Greer who joined them from Melbourne, it produced a cohort of Arts graduates who went on the challenge the world. (It’s said that on his first day there Hughes met another freshman, Les Murray, who went on to perhaps greater achievement, but unlike the others he did not emigrate.) Having made my way home from a New Year’s Eve party with a copy of a book of essays by James under my arm, the time had clearly come to read it.

James offers us reflections on a variety of contributors to modern culture.  His book contains over a hundred essays on significant figures, mainly from the twentieth century but joined by such eminences as Gibbon, of whose style he is wittily and convincingly critical, and Tacitus. I cannot imagine anyone not learning heaps from it while enjoying being educated. It is testimony to a life profitably spent in coffee shops, perhaps on the Continent for preference, and second hand bookstores. (The Wm. Montgomery Watt whose copy of Das dritte Reich, purchased at Jena in 1934, he subsequently bought at a second hand bookshop in Edinburgh, will have been the figure who went on to occupy a chair in that city and write The Majesty that was Islam.) His observations on intellectual and cultural life are acute, his range generous enough to include music, cinema, and various other forms of art, and he can be very funny. Take this passage (drawn from another of his books, May Week was in June), about a contentious Cambridge don: ‘Like an old volcano that goes dead in its central crater but unpredictably blows hot holes through its own sides and obliterates villages which thought themselves safe, Leavis was dormant yet bubbling.’

James has spent a fair part of his life near universities, and someone once pointed out to me in awe the street where he lived while in Cambridge. Yet his style is not academic, and it’s taken me a while to work out just why this is. Cultural Amnesiais a book of essays arranged alphabetically; there is no big statement, of the kind humanities  scholars dream of making in their better moments. Rather his strength is the short, provocative and humorously opinionated piece. Allied to this is a range of competence far broader than one that just about anyone who lectures in the humanities would find professionally safe (he more than once mentions George Steiner, with whom he has things in common.) And while he is interested in popular culture, his perspective is far different to that of people who write about cultural studies: James deals with ‘all the fields of creativity that I seemed to love equally, whatever their place in a supposed hierarchy.’   The strengths of such a thinker suggest ways in which contemporary universities may have lost the plot.