Poem: ‘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.

The full text of this poem is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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