- Charles Charming’s Challenges on the Pathway to the Throne by Clive James
Cape, 103 pp, £4.95, June 1981, ISBN 0 224 01954 6
The first ‘poems’ by Clive James I can remember seeing were in fact song lyrics written to go with the music of Pete Atkin. I call them ‘poems’ because that’s what Clive wished them to be called. In fact, I’m not sure what they were: highbrow lyrics or lowbrow verse? Set to music, they sounded more or less OK, but ‘on the page’ they seemed sentimental and pretentious – endearing if you happened to like Clive, but almost embarrassingly overanxious to establish that the pop mode could accommodate a finely-educated literary talent. The ‘education’, I need hardly say, came over in the form of dropped names and flowery adjectives, and as for the pop, one could all too easily imagine teeny-boppers wondering how this booksy troubadour had ever found the time for bona fide heartbreak.
Challenged on these early efforts, though, James was determinedly unruffled. The point, he’d say, is that you’ve missed the point. And he would then make it fairly clear that the poetic ambitions of C. James had very little to do with the type of ambition which I and my versifying buddies were familiar with. Not for him the occasional column filler in the weeklies, the doomed slim vol., the Poetry Book Society Choice; not for him, though he wouldn’t mind this to be going on with, the thumbs-up from A. Alvarez. Nor, with his thespian flair (he was at that time running the Footlights in Cambridge), could James stomach the idea of himself ending up in some church hall whispering poignancies to a dozen or so schoolteachers. No, Clive’s unblushing message in those early days was: ‘Watch My Smoke!’
This was all in the late Sixties and we have, of course, been watching ever since. The conflagration of recent weeks comes as no surprise to those who listened to Clive’s early boasts. In 1968, if one had pressed him on his vision of pure heaven it would surely have included a celestial Publication Week, a week in which a poem by Yours Trewly would be read, seen, heard and talked about by more people than any newly published poem ever. It would be a book, natch, but it would also be a television programme, a West End play and an LP. Millions would know of it. Buckingham Palace would request a copy/script/videotape/LP/cassette, etc. And the reviews, when they poured in from all four corners of the media, would be Out of This World.
Well, as millions do in fact now know, Clive is not the sort to sit around and wait for heaven to call him. Charles Charming’s Challenges on his Pathway to the Throne has been a multi-media blow-out. In addition to this book, which has been handsomely excerpted in the Observer, there has been three-quarters of a South Bank Show, a run at the Apollo Theatre, and Virgin Records has given up whole windows to displays of the LP. Buckingham Palace didn’t need to request a copy: he had one mailed there and is still (perhaps not still, but was) confident of a response.