- 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.
As to the reviews: they have indeed poured in and have certainly been Out of This World – although, it must be said, Clive has here encountered a slight Snag. For two weeks running, he has been slaughtered in the Sundays (not the Observer), and throughout Publication Week, not a day passed without a dozen hitmen (book, TV, theatre) pumping lead into his vital parts. Charles Charming may have been the most exposed poem in history, but it may also turn out to have been the most comprehensively reviled (the Sunday Times went so far as to dub it ‘The Worst Poem of the Twentieth Century’). Thus, even in this unlooked-for bloodbath, there has been a Jamesian scope and magnitude. I have a feeling that he may already have worked out a way to turn it all to his advantage.
Still, for old times’ sake, and as the first publisher of James’s first so-called ‘epic’, Peregrine Prykke, I would have rather liked to have rather liked this fourth effort in the genre. No such luck. Charles Charming really is a pale and laborious effort compared to the first three: indeed, since Peregrine Prykke there has been a steady decline in energy, timing, in general zip and expertise. Here, though, the falling-off is all-pervasive: the scansion is shakier, the rhymes more thumpingly obtrusive, and there are even bland, abstract stretches in this new piece which suggest a writer writing at half-pressure – not, even his worst enemies would agree, one of James’s usual faults. As to James’s treatment of his royal subject, the problem is not so much sycophancy as timidity – his fear of seeming deferential makes for irreverences which are just a bit too hairy-handed: thus he will invariably attempt to balance a slice of royalist homage with some chortling stuff about shitting or masturbation. Only in set-pieces where no particular attitude to royalty is needed can he settle into any sort of fluency: a number of these are funny, but in ways in which James has been much funnier before.
The strength of Peregrine Prykke was in the detail of its little world (who is Terry Towelling, Hugo Harsfried, Klaus Mauler?). Most readers couldn’t know about the true-to-life-ness of his characters, and could therefore respond to them as if they were James’s own ribald inventions. The tiniest of cameos had to be strong enough to raise non-knowing chuckles. More important than that, though, there was a real point to the enterprise: it was a poem about poets – a poem whose length, metrical regularity and sheer industriousness were meant to mock the brief, self-expressive, somewhat enervated ‘free verse’ of the bards who occupied its centre-stage. James, the newly ‘arrived’ innocent, had been genuinely shocked by the Literary World’s other-worldliness, and repelled by the drab limitedness of what his fellow poets thought of as Success. He abhorred the exclusiveness of the high-culture vigilante and feared having his own promiscuous energies stifled either by romantic bohemianism (some of the most inspired stretches of P. Prykke are to do with his almost theological horror of the bottle) or some Leavis-derived book of rules. All of these elements got into the poem, either as confession or polemic – or as fun. It was an impressive work, and I would like to see him update it to encompass his later career.
Charles Charming is deficient in just the ways in which Peregrine Prykke was strongest. It doesn’t have a point, and since there is no real quirkiness in its view of Charles and Di, it barely has an occasion: why toil so long and hard merely to add to the overkill? Accused on TV by Melvyn Bragg of writing about the Royals from a position of ignorance, James contended first that they are so well protected that it is impossible to know anything about their private lives, and second that they are so busy that they don’t have private lives worth knowing about. Hence, he claimed, it was correct to base his caricatures on the available press caricatures: Randy Andy, the equine Anne, the hearty Philip, and so on. Correct to be obvious? Why could he not go for an inspired guess, a bold and mysterious speculation? James seemed, in his interview, to think that fantasising of this sort would be ‘gossip’ of the kind he (looking pompous) most deplores. So much for the wayward imagination.
How, then, faced with a subject like the Royal Family and a mere armful of press cuttings, does the poet manage to spin the thing out for some two thousand lines? James’s first method seems to have been to check through his own obsessions, and see how much of Charles’s life provides a helpful overlap. As might be guessed, there isn’t much, but what there is Clive makes many meals of. Charles’s stay at Timbertop (Australia) is obviously a gift, and a long section of the poem is thus devoted to Kerry Packer instructing the Prince on how to ‘be careful in the dunny’:
‘A redback up your arse-hole isn’t funny,
Charles believed him, but evinced
A certain vagueness even as he winced.
‘One’s not quite certain what a red-back does,’
‘Does it hum or does it buzz?’
‘don’t come the raw prawn!
You Pommy poofters hardly know you’re born.
Red-backs are spiders. Get one up your bum
You’ll more than likely end up deaf and dumb,
So always take a dekko down the pan
Before you drop your strides.’
The lesson goes on for a score or so more lines, with a digression into Kerry’s vulgar plans for the future of World Cricket, but James is for once thoroughly at ease with his material, and this is one of the best sections of the book. Kerry makes other forced appearances during the course of the work: indeed, James leaps on any opportunity for a bout of virtuoso Strine.
Another ‘common’ area is Cambridge, and several hundred lines are wrung out of, or forced into, the Prince’s uneventful undergraduate career at Trinity. James introduces him, one by one, to various academic luminaries – quite a few of them from Oxford: Freddie Spare, Israel Blintz, Dame Helen Gardenome, A.J.P. Tailspin. The reason Charles gets introduced to them (along with Rayon Woollens and F.R. Looseleaf) is that James thinks he has a joke or two on each of them. For a book and a half, therefore, we more or less lose sight of the Prince and are beckoned back into the world of academic and literary dispute: again, a world James knows something about, although it must be said that these particular portraits are among the cheapest and feeblest in the book.
Extending the cast-list is another method James uses to disguise the thinness of his subject: simply adding names, few of them known for their involvement with the Royals. The Investiture and the Jubilee are thus ways of ushering in cultural, political and media figures of the type who featured in the earlier epics. And here James ought to find it rather shaming that he not only takes over some of Private Eye’s established targets (e.g. Desmond Wilcox and Esther Rantzen) but also employs that paper’s schoolboy codes (Uganda and the like). And if, as he gratuitously insists, ‘the tabloid press ... Makes up with crassness for not being clever,’ how would he defend couplets like:
And Harold Half-pint sat there looking harried
From being unsure whether he was married.
There are perhaps a hundred two-liners of about this calibre sprinkled throughout: quite dead on the page, they might just get a belly-laugh or two at the Apollo.
On Charles himself, there is a handful of quite nice ideas: having him always speak in the third person, arranging for a part of his chin to be swapped by plastic surgery with a part of Anne’s nose (Philip’s advice here: ‘By all means rub your new chin but don’t pick it’), making him slavishly follow his grandmother’s advice about meeting new people:
Start off by putting strangers at their ease.
‘Have you come far?’ They always like that one.
And always ask how many years they’ve done
Whatever thing they do the whole day long.
Shortly after digesting this lecture, Charles plays Macbeth in the Gordonstoun school play:
The night arrived and he was pretty good.
Hands clasped behind, he greeted Birnam Wood.
‘Have you come far?’
he asked in Royal fashion
But Banquo’s spectre most aroused his passion.
‘Have you been a ghost?’
Mild, affectionate mockery of the royal routine might have been one way of handling the whole subject, but to have done this would have meant leaving himself out of things: his Australian self-consciousness, his obsession with academia, his media know-how – all these reliable stand-bys would have had to go. Also he might have had to suppress, or treat more subtly, his evident and quite solemn fascination with the Prince of Wales as a figure more famous than even Clive James can dream of being. Some of the more squirm-inducing passages of Charles Charming are on the subject of Fame, the hint being that Clive, having had quite a bit of that shimmering commodity, knows how Charles must feel, who has more of it than he can possibly know what to do with. This pally-compassionate note is struck time and again: ‘And he must spend his life as a marked man,’ ‘And thus his life of sacrifice began,’ ‘Just one more thing he’d have to do alone’. And on Charles and Anne, when they are rushed off for their transplants:
They liked the secrecy – that precious stuff
Of which they never seemed to get enough,
Although, of course, they were not yet aware
That all their lives it would grow still more rare.
And Charles on himself:
One simply has to learn to grin and bear it.
It’s just a case of if the crown fits wear it.
So in the end Clive feels sorry for Charles: sorry, in a way, that the Prince hasn’t had (indeed can never have) the chance to be Clive James: famous but private, chosen but sometimes left alone, serious but free to fool around. The only times Charles Charming is really happy in his life are when his life most resembles Clive’s: shooting the fat with Kerry out in Oz, having his first girl at Cambridge, doing a bit of show-biz (though he didn’t make the top slot in the Footlights). At one point, James even has him deliver the following heart-rending (if now slightly hollow) cry:
If only one could stay down here
And make mass entertainment one’s career.
Charles Charming carries cartoons by Marc. They are as sharp as ever, but only half a dozen are on Royals. The others include Barbra Streisand, Bianca Jagger, F.R. Leavis, Lord Lambton, David Owen and other famous courtiers.