Diary

Clive James

The old year ends with Cambridge under snow.
The world in winter like the Moon in spring
Unyieldingly gives off a grey-blue glow.
An icy laminate caps everything.
Christmas looks Merry if you wish it so.
One strives to hark the Herald Angels sing,
But at each brief hiatus in the feast
A bitter wind howls sadly from the east.

In Poland now the only Santa Claus
Is General Jaruzelski looking grim.
With Solidarity a brave lost cause
There is no father figure except him.
His overall demeanour gives one pause.
Nor are peace prospects really made less dim
By Ronald Reagan recommending firm
Measures that make his Nato allies squirm.

Snow falls again. The atmosphere turns white.
The airfields of East Anglia are socked in.
The atom bombers will not fly tonight.
Tonight the Third World War will not begin.
There’s so much concentrated heat and light
Stored around here that if they pulled the pin
The British Isles would be volatilised.
Even the dons would be a bit surprised.

One theory says the Polish Army acted
Only to stop the Russians doing worse.
So clumsily to have a tooth extracted
By family friends calls forth a garbled curse,
But left too long the fang will get impacted
And you won’t like the dentist or his nurse.
At least – the pun’s not just weak but emetic –
Get the job done with local anaesthetic.

Such reasoning is comfortable like us
But soon there are dark rumours to belie it.
The fact the coup has led to far more fuss
Than they say, you can tell when they deny it.
Here in the West we have much to discuss
Beyond the danger to a healthy diet.
You like the thin mints? Try the orange sticks.
Has anybody seen the walnut picks?

Most of the Poles have not got much to eat.
Their democratic leaders have still less.
A cold and cruel and long-drawn-out defeat
Must be the price they pay for small success.
They bucked a system that they could not beat
Which reasserts itself through their distress.
White flakes may decorate the searchlight beams –
The barbed wire is exactly what it seems.

Those men and women braver than the brave
Penned in the open air are telling you
It’s better to risk death than be a slave –
Something you thought that you already knew.
And yet to stick together till the grave –
Could we do that if that’s what it came to?
One’s rather glad one’s not cast as a hero
Out there tonight at twenty below zero.

The turkey carcass and Brazil-nut shells
And mandarin rinds fill the pedal bin.
The ice-rimmed church and college chapel bells
Stiffly combine to call the New Year in.
The snow melts and in London the Thames swells
As once the lake lapped Tantalus’s chin,
But as I leave the usual filthy train
I guess that the embankments took the strain,

Or else my book-lined eyrie near St Paul’s
Would look down on a city rather like
Venice or Amsterdam plus waterfalls
Cascading over many a broken dike.
There’d be ducks nesting in the choir stalls
Of Clement Dane’s, and people would catch pike
(With suitably refined outbursts of joy)
From windows at the back of the Savoy.

But there is nothing underfoot save slush
Compounded from crushed ice, old snow and dirt.
Your wellies slurp and gurgle in the mush.
Spat by a taxi wheel the stuff can spurt
Up from the street in one exultant gush
To inundate you where you stand inert.
You might think you’ve been struck blind but don’t worry:
It’s just your eyes are full of ice-cold curry.

Schmidt goes to Washington and tells the Yanks
That while his Germany might still be Jerry
The Russians are not Tom and have large tanks
Whose side-effects it can take weeks to bury.
Therefore he is reluctant to give thanks
For Reagan’s speeches, which to him seem very
Naive, as if designed to aggravate
The blind intransigence they castigate.

Congress is humbled by Schmidt’s eloquence
Which makes the President sound like an actor
Who reads a script well but is slightly dense
If not as crass as Carter on his tractor.
The Chancellor’s impact has been immense.
Intelligence emerges as a factor
In statesmanship and might well start a fashion
Of saying things with point and not just passion.

But whether he is right is hard to judge.
Meanwhile the snow which only last week went
Comes back as if it bore a lasting grudge
And whites the country out from Wales to Kent.
On the M4 the lorries do not budge.
The usual helicopters have been sent
To find the troops last seen the day before
Searching for lost bird-watchers on Broadmoor.

In no time the whole country’s ten feet deep:
Landscapes by Breughel, cityscapes by Lowry.
They’re using sonar gear to find the sheep.
All Europeans get this as a dowry
But after twenty years I still could weep,
Feeling more foreign to it than a Maori.
I’m half delighted and I’m half disdainful –
It looks so lovely and it feels so painful.

Roy Jenkins will be standing at Hillhead
In Glasgow. The world wonders: is this wise?
Lose Warrington and it’s a watershed:
Defeat there was a victory in disguise.
But this time if he doesn’t win he’s dead
With all his party sharing his demise.
The SDP, awed by its own audacity,
Strikes postures of unflappable sagacity.

But more of that – much more, no doubt – anon.
Meanwhile Mark Thatcher’s managed to get lost
Somewhere in Africa. The hunt is on.
Airborne armadas at tremendous cost
Search all directions where he might have gone.
One tends to find one’s fingers slightly crossed.
The days go by and soon it’s not a joke.
He’s even talked of as a nice young bloke.

Since he in fact is something of a prat
This sudden fondness constitutes a proof
The British heart still beats though lagged with fat.
His mother weeps who once was so aloof
But few there are who take delight in that.
Many who think her son a cocksure goof
And wish her and her politics in hell
Nevertheless in this case wish her well.

The boy is found and instantly reverts
To his accustomed status, that of jerk.
The next blow to the nation really hurts.
ASLEF the footplate union will stop work.
The papers tell us we’ll all lose our shirts
Because train-drivers can’t forgo a perk.
The sum of Fleet Street’s pitiless analysis
Presages chaos, followed by paralysis.

If Fleet Street takes so unified a view
We can be sure the truth must lie elsewhere.
The first train strike of 1982
Inspires more irritation than despair.
Unmotivated locos are not new.
What’s fearsome is when planes fall from the air.
In Washington one does. Down on the bed
Of the ice-locked Potomac sit the dead.

The whole world tuning in through television
For once sees human nature at its best.
A man who might have lived makes the decision
To stay and try to save some of the rest.
Were this a movie, think of the derision
With which we’d greet such an absurd beau geste.
On that small screen the big hole in the ice
Frames the reality of sacrifice.

The feeling that there’s grandeur in mankind
Is soon dispelled by fresh cause for lament.
A rapist is not jailed but merely fined
Because, it seems, the girl was Negligent.
Perhaps the judge has gone out of his mind,
Unless it’s him that’s straight and us that’s bent.
He’s set the price for screwing a hitch-hiker:
Two grand. Just toss her out if you don’t like her.

Fleet Street, which always disapproves of rape
Despite provoking hot lust on page three,
This time gets on its high horse and goes ape.
In Scotland several men have been set free
Because the woman is in such bad shape
She can’t be called on to give testimony.
The man in charge says it’s an awkward case.
He’s got a point, but no one likes his face.

So Nicky Fairbairn now gets pulled apart
Both in the House and by the public prints.
I must confess I’m not touched to the heart.
That ‘style’ of his has always made me wince.
I’ve never liked his haircut for a start,
Nor the sharp trews in which he’s wont to mince.
His Who’s Who entry puts the lid on it:
He has the hide to call himself a Wit.

That title’s one which nobody can claim.
You have to wait for others to bestow it.
Not even Oscar Wilde assumed the name,
Who called himself both genius and poet.
That he was self-appointed to his fame –
A true wit wouldn’t hint it, much less crow it.
Poor knackered Nicky thinks he’s Alan Coren:
He’s just a wee laird with a twitching sporran.

And yet it’s wise to give conceit expression –
Within the limits set by the absurd.
A boast might be self-serving like Confession
But similarly festers if unheard.
Much meekness stands revealed as self-obsession
When self finds a release too long deferred.
Beware the kind of people who don’t flower
Until their shrivelled roots taste fame and power.

Take Henry Kissinger as an example.
The man personifies megalomania.
He’s back in action with another sample
Of foreign policy from Ruritania.
On Poland Reagan’s harsh words have been ample
But Henry hankers after something zanier.
Leave it to me, he seems to be implying,
And Russian fur will pretty soon be flying.

Suslov checks out. Unless he died of fright
At Henry’s rhetoric, it’s just old age
That now removes Stalin’s last acolyte
And faithful killer gently from the stage.
The mental stature of potato blight
Left him unchallenged as the Party sage:
The perfect man to make sure Ideology
Maintained its power to torture by tautology.

They bury Suslov in the Kremlin wall:
A tribute to his cranial rigidity.
Propped up like that the bricks will never fall.
Meanwhile the intellectual aridity
He helped create still casts its stifling pall:
A dry red dust of cynical stupidity
Ensures the last trace of imagination
Is wept away in hot tears of frustration.

Frustration, but the trains do run on time –
Mainly because the drivers must keep driving
Since any form of strike would be a crime.
No doubt there are time-honoured forms of skiving.
Perhaps their trains, like ours, are sprayed with grime
Before they leave and once more on arriving.
They do, however, go. Without delay.
And what is more they do so every day.

Ours at the moment run five days a week
Or four days, subject to negotiation.
It might be three days even as I speak:
I’ve lost track of the inverse escalation.
The union leaders talk their usual Greek.
The matter must not go to arbitration.
The strike must bite. The strike days must be staggered.
Sir Peter Parker still smiles but looks haggard.

Sir Peter Parker picked a pickled peck
Of pepper when he took on British Rail.
With every kind of triumph at his beck
And call, perhaps he felt the need to fail.
His chance of saving something from the wreck
Equals his chance to find the Holy Grail.
You never know, though. He and Sidney Weighell
Might possibly cook up some sort of deighell.

If Buckton’s ASLEF joined Weighell’s NUR
Then BR’s board plus ACAS minus VAT ...
We might as well give up and go by car
Or coach, or on foot if it comes to that.
Some say the train lines should be paved with tar,
Which no doubt counts as talking through your hat,
But if it’s true what’s needed most is cash
Then stand aside and watch out for the crash.

It’s no time to be in hock to the bank,
A fact now underlined by Freddie Laker –
Although in part he has the banks to thank
His airline’s laid out for the undertaker.
It seems they lent him dough as if they drank
Their lunch directly from the cocktail shaker,
But now the plugs are pulled and in mid-flight
His planes turn back as he gives up the fight.

Disconsolate the DC 10s come home
To Gatwick where in time someone will buy them.
An airliner is not a garden gnome.
They can’t just sit there. Somebody will fly them.
Defeated legions coming home to Rome
Would choose new emperors and deify them,
But Freddie, though his hearty laugh rings hollow,
Is not an act just anyone can follow.

Sir Freddie, Thatcher’s knight with shining wings,
Her favourite Private Sector buccaneer,
Seems to have made rather a mess of things.
Is this collapse the end of his career?
His air of loosely buckled swash still clings.
The cut-price flying public holds him dear.
They send pound notes to keep Skytrain in motion –
Straws in the wind although drops in the ocean.

Here’s proof the people value enterprise
And overlook, in those they think have got it,
A Rolls like Freddie’s of excessive size,
A house so big an astronaut could spot it.
Whatever shibboleth might galvanise
The public, public ownership is not it.
Despite the very real risk of fatalities
People identify with personalities.

Just when Sir Freddie masticates the dust
The civil servants get their indexed pensions.
Not only Thatcher fans express disgust
At this exposé of the inner tensions
Between what she would like to do and must.
It is an awkward fact she seldom mentions:
The spread she said she’d end of public spending
Increases, and the increase is unending.

She can’t trim bureaucratic overmanning.
She cuts the social services instead.
You needn’t be as wise as Pitt or Canning
To see how malnutrition lies ahead.
Conversely, Labour’s universal planning
Is just the cure to leave the patient dead.
The Alliance must win if it has the nerve to.
At this rate if they don’t they don’t deserve to.

A thought to bear in mind as we now watch
The Labour Party tear at its own guts.
The Peace of Bishop’s Stortford’s a hotch-potch
Which to place faith in you must first be nuts.
With moulting mane Foot still attempts to scotch
All doubts by well-placed ha-has and tut-tuts,
But while he waffles wanly about Unity
The toughs build up their beach head with impunity.

The Peace of Bishop’s Stortford lulls the Press
Which now says it’s the SDP that’s split.
The lead of the Alliance has grown less,
The tabloids chortle, champing at the bit.
Alliance policies are in a mess
And all in all this new lot aren’t quite it.
On Tebbit’s union bill they show dissension –
Clear indication of internal tension.

De Lorean the glamour-puss tycoon
Whose gull-wing car is built with our tax money
Might lay at least a gull-sized egg quite soon.
He’s suave and clever and his wife’s a honey.
For Northern Ireland he has been a boon.
But still and all there’s something slightly funny ...
Or maybe I just find the car too dull,
Attractive only to another gull.

At any rate, the books are with Jim Prior,
Who must decide if we should drop De Lorean
And cut the loss or raise the ante higher.
De Lorean’s first name should have been Dorian:
That ageless face of the Playboy high-flyer
Is decomposing like an ancient saurian.
I think he’s guilty mainly of wild dreams
And now he sees them cracking at the seams.

Prior pronounces. Not another penny
Of public funds. De Lorean must raise
The cash himself. Has he himself got any?
His blink-rate slows to a stunned mackerel glaze.
No doubt he has some rich friends but how many?
He has to find the moola in two days.
Meanwhile the bootlace leeches of Fleet Street
Come sucking up in search of easy meat.

De Lorean finds every well is dry
And Prior duly puts in the Receiver,
Who luckily is not just the one guy
Since lately he’s been working like a beaver.
Times Newspapers might be the next to die,
Tossing and turning with the self-same fever.
A mighty panic’s on to kill things off.
They’re giving the last rites at the first cough.