An Address to the Nation

Clive James

Dear Britain, Merry Christmas! If I may
Presume on your attention for the space
Of one broadsheet, I’d simply like to say
How pleased I am to see your homely face
Perked up and looking forward to the day
When even the downcast are kissed by grace –
The day a perfect birth is celebrated
And we who are imperfect feel elated.

It’s normally the Queen, I’m well aware,
Who takes upon herself the awesome onus
At each year’s end of going on the air
And giving us our verbal Christmas bonus.
This year when we switch on she’ll still be there,
A crumb of comfort History has thrown us,
Though some, and not the worst, think her the essence
Of suicidal social obsolescence.

But some things can’t be said on television
Nor may the Monarch speak of politics.
And thus it is I make the bold decision
In my role as a yokel from the sticks
To grasp the nettle and to court derision
And generally to kick against the pricks
By taking space in this great publication
Wherewith most humbly to Address the Nation.

Three million out of work and work undone
Because nobody can afford to do it.
A monetarist engine that won’t run.
Monetarists who say they always knew it.
A government which hasn’t yet begun
To reap the bitter harvest coming to it.
Next summer if the inner cities burn
Some dolt will say we spend more than we earn.

And over there the Loyal Opposition
Is catastrophicaily split between
Survivors who’ve long lost their sense of mission
And scolds who say exactly what they mean.
The former are in pitiable condition,
The latter even madder than they’re keen.
The old brigade run on the spot like Alice.
The new boys want to storm the Winter Palace.

It’s deadlock. Just to get the Tories out
Is no good reason to put Labour in.
One lot’s got rabies and the other gout.
Whichever way it goes you just can’t win.
The only proper state of mind is doubt
When Parliament sounds like a loony-bin
With each side barracking the other’s slogans –
Slogans with whiskers on like Terry Wogan’s.

You’ve reached a turning-point, that much is plain.
It’s deeply felt by almost all of you.
The social fabric, if not under strain,
Is further stretched than it’s accustomed to.
The body politic cries out in pain
And mere placebos will no longer do,
But just when it seems time to call for surgeons –
Behold! A peaceable solution burgeons!

They style themselves the Social Democrats.
It’s their ambition to take centre stage.
On Labour’s sinking ship they are called rats
By those who can’t swim owing to old age.
Their leaders take an extra size in hats.
They grandly talk of turning a fresh page
In British politics and might well do so –
Or hitting a new note croak like Caruso.

The truth is no one can be sure as yet
How this Third Force will in the long term fare.
Both Labour loyalist and Tory Wet,
Though by their parties driven to despair,
Still say the SDP is a bad bet
And doubt the possibility is there
Of wooing anyone but floating voters –
Exotic types in flannels and straw boaters.

Meanwhile the Liberal half of the alliance
Looks puzzled like a dog wagged by its tail.
The pressure of events dictates compliance
Lest their declining star grow yet more pale.
But offered a back seat some breathe defiance
Preferring to stand on their own and fail.
They too seem to suspect something innately
Unsound about a Johnny come so lately.

What class can it be said to represent?
What ideology does it propose?
Pressed on these points the SDP is meant
To reel back clutching a disjointed nose.
But questions thus put are more eloquent
About the attitudes which they disclose.
The questioner defines his own condition:
A patient who pretends he’s a physician.

You British are the only people left
In Europe who are still obsessed by Class.
It sometimes seems you’d rather remain cleft
In twain than see the age-old hoodoo pass.
Without it the West End would be bereft
Of half its drama and of all its farce,
And think of all those books gone down the drain
By Amis, Amis, Bainbridge, Barnes, Bragg, Braine ...

But artists of all kinds can be excused
For cherishing a stratified society.
Their privilege, which exists to be abused,
Is to lay hold of life in its variety.
Granted they do it well, we are amused
And readily forgive the note of piety
When Brideshead gets paid yet another visit.
It’s no more daft than numismatics, is it?

That stanza was completed in some haste
Because I had to pack, sprint for a plane,
And fly here to this strip of shameless waste
Camped in the midst of the immense inane.
Las Vegas revels in its own bad taste
With neon waterfalls that soak the brain –
A full-tilt celebration of democracy
That makes you think more fondly of theocracy.

And yet despite the uproar of vulgarity,
As always in the US I relax,
Encouraged by the general social parity
Whose class divisions seem no more than cracks.
Notoriously a place that’s short on charity
And long on shelters against federal tax,
Vegas breaks hearts and runs bums out of town.
Before you’re out, though, you must first be down.

If you can pay, you play. No one excludes you –
A rule of thumb for the whole USA.
There may be a sweet life that still eludes you,
But no code-word you don’t know how to say,
No simple accident of birth denudes you
Of dignity. You’re free to make your way,
And though one race gets held down by the other
At least they sometimes talk to one another.

Americans talk all the time, of course.
They use a lot of words while saying little.
They verbalise until they should be hoarse
Yet somehow don’t run short of breath or spittle.
They’ll plough on like a saga in Old Norse
And what they say won’t mean a jot or tittle:
Semantically it’s not much more than static.
It is, however, deeply democratic.

They speak a language everyone can speak,
Which means the tongue-tied aren’t left in the cold.
The powerful talk bunkum like the weak.
The timorous talk loudly like the bold.
Even to strangers they all talk a streak.
They drone on while you stand there growing old.
E pluribus unum. Out of the many, one.
It means you’ll hear the same mish-mash from anyone.

There’s no nuance because there is no rigour,
But in amongst the mush there’s often verve.
One can be struck by a demotic vigour,
A heady access of linguistic nerve,
When someone suddenly lets loose a figure
Of speech that like a screwball or a curve
Will swerve around your bat and leave you flailing
Flat-footed, with a feeling that you’re failing.

Just such a gift belongs to Melanie,
A neat blonde who deals blackjack at the Sands.
This week she’s made a pauper out of me.
The cards that flow like water from her hands
Smoothly entice me into penury,
And yet I could embrace her where she stands
Because her riffles, shuffles, flicks and flutters
Turn pale beside the patter that she utters.

She tells me that I’ll never beat the grind
Unless I bet big with the house’s money
While I’m ahead. ‘But don’t pay me no mind.
You got a special style that’s all yours, honey.’
In this light you can’t tell her face is lined.
There was a day she was a Playboy Bunny,
And when it’s time to take up a new trade
You can be sure that she won’t be afraid.

Having your health bills paid from womb to tomb
Strikes Melanie as organised servility,
She claims she’d scream from lack of elbow room.
She cherishes her own adaptability.
She’s certain that one welfare cheque spells doom
For any spark of spiritual agility.
She sounds, in other words, like Margaret Thatcher –
Though words are just where Thatcher couldn’t match her.

It’s easy for the Yanks to preach self-help:
There’s so much protein they can help themselves.
In Britain we’d be feeding children kelp
And watching them grow up the size of elves
Were we to heed the age-old Tory yelp
That’s heard when the tinned goods on the shop shelves
Are priced so as those people can afford them
Who’ll only eat them when they ought to hoard them.

Our film on gambling is completely shot
So back we fly to where it’s cold and poor.
There it was hot and rich but here it’s not.
Yes, here now feels less nice than there before.
There is a lot that Britain has not got –
A fact it takes some effort to ignore.
(I fear this stanza’s a bit elementary:
I’m shattered by the impact of re-entry.)

A news flash. In the latest by-election
The Liberal William Pitt has won the seat.
His personal appeal defies detection.
At previous attempts he met defeat.
Clearly it is the SDP connection
Which has supplied the upsurge of white heat
That melts the Tory vote to a minority
And Labour’s to abject inferiority.

This Pitt falls far short of so grand a name.
Long in the beard, he’s less so in the legs.
He lacks the stature for his sudden fame.
It’s plain that of the Pitts he is the dregs,
And yet he is a Titan all the same.
The great name lives again as sure as eggs:
For Mr Steel, Pitt minimus will function
To bless and sanctify the new conjunction.

With no more murmurs in the Liberal ranks
In Labour’s there is total consternation.
If Michael Foot tore out his hair in hanks
He could not look more prone to perturbation.
The right wing loudly calls the left wing cranks
And no one stays calm in the altercation
Except for Tony Benn, who sucks contentedly
On his prop pipe and stares ahead dementedtly.

What does he see there in the depths of space?
Still half-defined, it sets his large heart beating.
The vision clarifies and lights his face.
He sees some vast canteen in which a meeting
Of Britain’s work-force endlessly takes place
And no one minds the lack of central heating.
What lifts their spirits? Why are they ecstatic?
Because their chairman is so charismatic!

No, Destiny demands he try again
To wrest the Party from the Right’s dead grip.
He stems from a long line of working men.
His fellow workers need his leadership.
Lord Stansgate walks the earth as Tony Benn.
He comes to cleanse the temple with his whip.
They’ve crucified him once. It felt quite nice.
No reason why it shouldn’t happen twice ...

Healey, meanwhile, turns beetroot red with rage,
His jowls so vibrant he can hardly speak.
The right ideas, the right looks, the right age –
And yet his place is filled by an antique.
While fools ensure a once-proud heritage
Goes down a tube that comes out up the creek.
But he and Hattersley must grin and bear it:
The cap Benn gives them fits. They have to wear

The Labour Right’s lip-service to Clause 4
Now stands revealed as outright atheism.
They simply don’t believe it any more,
Hence the exultant rancour of the schism.
The heretics have nine points of the law.
The creed they preach is Fundamentalism.
They say the Right is Socialist no longer.
They say the truth, and so they must grow stronger

But purified or not, the Labour cause
Within our time could dwindle to a rump.
Not for the sake of some outdated clause:
It’s just that people tend to get the hump
When told too often that Behind Closed Doors
Ten million union votes cast in one lump
By some strange means have all made the same choice.
Whatever happened to the human voice?

The Tory version of it now seems camper
Than ever. Thatcher’s condescending whine
Was always guaranteed to put a damper
On anybody’s urge to rise and shine.
She made you want to pack a wicker hamper
And have a picnic down a disused mine,
But still the odd factotum like Jim Prior
At least seemed relatively a live wire.

Now Prior’s gone and in comes a new broom
Named Twitchit. Rabbit? Sorry, I mean Hobbit.
His eyes like lasers penetrate the gloom.
He takes the nation’s pulse like William Cobbett.
He paces, ponders, clears his throat of rheum
And in due course gives forth this juicy gobbet:
We must work harder. That’s what we must do.
(No need to add that by ‘we’ he means you.)

That’s the Employment Secretary’s plan
For getting us out of our present mess.
One wonders if he’s really the right man.
He should be tagging wildlife in Loch Ness.
The CBI are back where they began,
Frantically making signals of distress.
They said they wanted to be lean and mean
And now they are, and now they’re not so keen.

Inflation slows but industry slows faster
And British Leyland might grind to a halt.
The strike looms like a nuclear disaster
Except no expertise can trace the fault.
The management’s run out of sticking plaster.
The Cabinet might perform a somersault
Or else stand firm where previously it wouldn’t,
Or would have done but as things stood it couldn’t.

The policy said No Help For Lame Ducks.
Reality said big lame ducks must eat.
A lame duck that makes half our cars and trucks
Could put a million people on the street.
For such a bird the treatment is de luxe
Lest it should trip over those awkward feet.
Hence the webbed boots and plastic knee-protector
Paid for by cutting back the public sector.

Leaving the Mini Metros to their fate
I pack my bag again and take the air,
Progressing south-east at a dizzy rate
Until I look down and see Sydney there.
The Harbour Bridge looks like a paperweight,
The Opera House like fractured Tupperware.
It all shines like quicksilver in the dawn.
Cloud-cuckoo-land. The land where I was born.

Here when the young are forced to take the dole
It just means they spend more time at the beach.
Thinkers bemoan the country’s lack of soul
While still contriving to own three cars each.
You scoop wealth up like opals from a hole.
All you can dream of is within arm’s reach,
And no one mugs you, kidnaps you or taunts you –
Though sometimes you might find your conscience haunts you.

As our world goes this is an unreal land,
A paradise devoid of modern menaces,
A land where Eve and Adam hand in hand
Star in a rewrite of the book of Genesis.
Recumbent Adam gets his forehead fanned
While wooing Eve in verse like C.J. Dennis’s.
They never have to leave. They’re set forever.
They’ve got the freehold of the Never-Never,

I’m here to plug my book from town to town.
All day I’m either in the air or on it.
The first time I wrote that last stanza down
It came out three lines longer than a sonnet.
I’m having trouble telling verb from noun.
Quid verbis opus est? A plague upon it.
But after all it’s just the flesh that’s tired.
The spirit’s willing, not to say inspired.

Inspired above all by the piercing twang
Of Austral voices flagrantly projected,
Astringent as the antiseptic tang
Of iodine upon the place infected.
It might not be the song the sirens sang.
You might wish that your ears were disconnected,
But still you must admit there’s something stimulating
In how they have no notion of dissimulating.

They may lack subtlety who have no guile.
They often – it’s their own word for it – whinge.
The open freckled face they call the dial
With injured pride adopts a purple tinge.
Often they bristle when they ought to smile,
But what you never see them do is cringe.
Would-be sophisticate or brute barbarian,
Your Aussie is a true egalitarian.

But now the demon bowler Denis Lillee
By his behaviour starts a frightful barney.
Too much success too young has made him silly.
He kicks the shin of a small Pakistani.
Here and in Britain the Press willy-nilly
Combines to sing a chorus from Ernani
All are agreed that such obtuse aggression
Denotes the opposite of self-possession.

Perhaps they’re right. No people should be praised
For confidence when they are so well fed.
Needless to say I’m suitably amazed
At how my native land has gone ahead,
But when one’s had one’s turn at looking dazed
Reluctantly it also must be said
That anywhere so prodigally blessed
Is ultimately short of interest.

Australia’s cities remain safe and clean,
The public telephones unvandalised.
Like free advertisements the beach-girls preen
In costumes overstressed and undersized.
Once more as I take off from Tullamarine
I feel to leave all this is ill-advised,
But also, floating over the Dead Heart,
Feel somehow not unhappy to depart.

Down there in that hot ocean of red rock
There is no history, only geography.
Some ethnic dance-group may attempt to shock
With semi-nude formation choreography,
But basically this place has stopped the clock.
Made time a tableau like high-speed photography.
It’s only at the fertile utmost fringes
The age we’re living in even impinges.

Dante’s Ulysses told his trembling crew
They should not slay like beasts where life was easy,
And Baudelaire, who sailed to find the new,
Best recognised it when it made him queasy.
Australians with a thirst for derring-do
Find modern Britain challengingly sleazy –
It’s chill, dank, broke, pale, dirty, constipated,
But also tough, real, quirky, complicated.

Heathrow at dawn is cloud down to the ground,
Black taxis queue as if for the bereaved.
The body of a child has just been found.
It seems that British Leyland is reprieved.
One Aussie dollar buys almost a pound.
Welcome to Britain. Why am I relieved?
Because although life here is far less pleasant
Nevertheless it happens in the present.

Foot now at last and probably too late
Tells Benn to either belt up or get lost,
While Thatcher at an ever-quickening rate
As if there were some profit in the cost –
Unbolts large pieces of the Welfare State
Which lying in the rain rust where they’re tossed.
Good people in both parties look hag-ridden.
Small anguished cries come to their lips unbidden.

The Crosby by-election, shriek the polls,
Must go to Shirley Williams by a cable.
Should that occur the toiling Fleet Street trolls
Will find her shapelier than Betty Grable,
While making sure a solemn tocsin tolls
To tell Roy Jenkins he is not Clark Gable.
About the top spot there’ll be much palaver
As some fans cry bravo! and others brava!

Someone will have to lead the SDP.
Ten Downing Street won’t sleep a whole committee.
In all good time a choice there’ll have to be
But making it too soon would be a pity,
Lest we, bombarded by publicity,
Lose touch with what should be the nitty-gritty –
That polite knock on the large door at the centre
Outside which common reason waits to enter.

Perhaps by now it’s been too long outside,
Hat in one hand, the other with raw knuckles.
Perhaps by now it’s gaunt and hollow-eyed,
Wearing a powdered wig and shoes with buckles.
Perhaps it will take one unsteady stride
Before dissolving into drunken chuckles,
But what most of us hope we will be seeing
Is just a reasonable human being.

The secret of the so-called common touch
Resides in its appeal to common sense.
Though simply to talk straight might not seem much
The consequences could just be immense.
Now that the country’s choking in the clutch
Of toxic verbal fog at its most dense,
Merely to speak in terms that do not slight us
Might almost be enough to reunite us.

Which must be done before the long slow task
Of getting well again is undertaken.
The patient’s lying there in a gauze mask,
Fed through a vein and feeling Godforsaken.
He’ll do the twenty press-ups that you ask
But first his will to live must reawaken.
He must hear in your voice the note of sanity
Struck by acknowledgment of shared humanity.

As long as the Alliance can talk sanely
It will not so much matter for the nonce
That when it moves it is a bit ungainly
And stumbles off six different ways at once.
Would-be hard-bitten critics snipe inanely,
There’s mockery from every hack and dunce,
But for most people that uncertain feeling
Is just what makes the new lot so appealing,

By now the big ideas have all been tried,
Become bad jokes we have grown sick of hearing.
The economic rough-stuff on one side,
The other’s dreams of social engineering,
Render the average punter gratified
That honest doubt at last is reappearing.
At least this bunch don’t spout like know-it-alls
The usual load of patronising balls.

Ideally they should stay unencumbered
With whopping programmes that they can’t enforce.
It’s still the classic way of getting lumbered.
The cart is meant to be behind the horse.
There is no need to feel our days are numbered,
Only to trace the power to its source;
The people’s good will is what drives the nation
And holds the secret of regeneration.

Ms Williams wins. This time she caught the train.
But BL’s Longbridge plant is still on strike.
From Ireland comes the daily scream of pain.
It’s still the same old story if you like.
The deep-ingrained uncertainties remain.
The Way Ahead’s a hell of a long hike.
You’ve got nothing in common but the weather.
The rain’s the only thing you’re in together.

The rain, the sleet and soon, no doubt, the snow.
Through autumn into winter I have scribbled
This crackerbarrel tract at which I know
The expert commentators will wax ribald.
This is a complex subject, they will crow,
A mountain range at which a mouse has nibbled –
But I still think the British within reason
Have reason to be glad this Festive Season.