Diary

Clive James

As Amersham achieves Privatisation
And sells the way hot cakes do when dirt cheap
We realise with a sickening sensation,
As of a skier on a slope too steep,
That if the soundest firms owned by the nation
Are flogged, the duds are all we’ll get to keep –
And when the auction ends they’ll sell the hammer.
We’re heading downhill faster than Franz Klammer.

On that one deal the public’s out of pocket
Some umpteen million quid or thereabouts.
Thatcher gives everyone concerned a rocket
But re her policy betrays no doubts.
Around her neck she wears a heart-shaped locket
In which lie curled some undernourished sprouts
Of Milton Friedman’s hair plucked from his head
Or elsewhere during hectic nights in bed.

I speak in metaphor, needless to say:
Milton and Maggie you could not call lovers
Save in the strictly intellectual way
By which they sleep beneath the same warm covers
And wake up side by side to face the day
Throbbing in concert like a pair of plovers –
Though Milty while he shaves sometimes talks tough
And tells her she’s not being rough enough.

Monetarism as an orthodoxy
Is lethal preached by one like the PM,
Precisely because she’s got so much moxie.
She burns deep like the hard flame from a gem,
Sticks to her guns like glutinous epoxy,
And views the dole queues others would condemn
As growing proof that cutting out dead wood
Can in the long run only lead to good.

No need to say those millions on the dole
Are there because the Government decrees it.
The contrary idea is a live coal,
A notion so dire that the mind can’t seize it.
Suppose that unemployment on the whole
Would be the same no matter what ... Stop! Cheese it!
Better believe that Maggie acts from malice,
Childishly spiteful like JR in Dallas.

An aircraft hijacked in Dar-es-Salaam
Arrives at Stansted full of Tanzanians.
The Immigration officers keep calm
Almost as if these folk were Europeans.
One wouldn’t want to see them come to harm.
Stansted’s a long way north of New Orleans.
But dash it all, eh what! What a kerfuffle
Just to sort out some minor tribal scuffle!

It seems these hijack chappies hate Nyerere
And think that Stansted’s the best place to say it.
The SAS are on tap looking scarey,
A mighty strong card if we have to play it.
As hijacks go, though, this one’s airy-fairy.
The price they ask is vague and kind words pay it.
Believing that their cause is understood
They throw down weapons mostly carved from wood.

A mess on our own doorstep’s thus averted.
What started it we fail to comprehend.
Once more we in the plush West have asserted
Our will that awkwardness must have an end.
And yet it’s possible that we’ve just flirted
With some great grief no words of ours can mend,
In which we might well once have had a hand –
A homing chicken coming in to land.

Speaking of which, one fears that Mr Thorpe
Will not reign long as Amnesty’s new chief.
Placed under stress he has been known to warp,
As David Astor points out with some grief.
I must say that Thorpe’s nerve gives cause to gawp.
A decent silence should not be so brief.
One does feel he might wear more sober togs
And do things quietly in aid of dogs.

Marcus Aurelius said there’s an age
Beyond which we should scorn the public eye,
Put down our seals of office, quit the stage,
Settle our business and prepare to die.
No one denies the emperor was a sage:
His precepts, though, we nowadays defy.
Old Brezhnev, for example, will stay there
As long as there’s enough dye for his hair.

Perhaps he’s dead already and controlled
Remotely by a powerful transmitter.
Another waxwork poured in the same mould
Might stir up protest or at least a titter.
His chassis, valves and circuits have grown old.
The struggle to replace them could be bitter.
At checking-out time for the ape-faced gremlin
Try to avoid the front desk of the Kremlin.

But just as I write this the rumour’s rife
That Brezhnev’s had it and the fight is on
For who’ll be next to taste immortal life
As General Secretary when he’s gone.
Silent arrests and kindred signs of strife
Compose the usual deaf-mute telethon.
One man scores points for standing near another
But drops out when denounced by his own mother.

How droll these thugs would be if not so sad,
Watching their backs and also the main chance.
Most aren’t insane or even mildly mad.
Each owns a blue suit with two pairs of pants.
By now they think Marxism was a fad
But still they hold that men should live like ants
While they themselves adorn the doll museum
Standing on top of Lenin’s mausoleum.

Blue-jawed top dogs of the Nomenklatura
They loom while squads of workers toting spanners
Come stomping by like Nazis past the Führer
Except the signs are different on the banners.
The idée fixe is still that a bravura
Performance turns this comedy of manners
Into some species of impressive drama
Instead of just a childish diorama.

According to the Sunday Times, Pat Wall,
Prospective Labour MP (Militant),
Has risen on hirsute hind legs to bawl
A vintage load of Jacobinist cant,
Insisting that the Monarch, Lords and all
Such privileged figures strangely yet extant,
Must forthwith holus-bolus be abolished
Or strictly speaking physically demolished.

Wild Wall includes the judges in his fury,
Which indicates that when he comes to power
As well as MP he’ll be judge and jury –
A prospect at which even saints might cower.
The Party handles him as Madame Curie
Handled her radium hour after hour,
Unmindful that the steady radiation
In her own blood and bones worked devastation.

But now South Africa becomes the focus
Of every cricket lover’s expert gaze,
While those who think the great game hocus-pocus,
A ritual rain-dance that goes on for days
Until the grey clouds open up and soak us,
This time can only look on in amaze
As British cricketers receive abuse
For being not just tiresome but obtuse.

Boycott, we hear, should live up to his name,
And not be one by whom sanctions are busted.
He and his mates of almost equal fame
Could well prove to have been falsely entrusted
With their credentials in the holy game.
Students of sport pronounce themselves disgusted
Since segregated cricket, in a sense,
Is like denying blacks the sacraments.

Apartheid has not much to recommend it.
What else can it engender except hate?
One day the blacks will find a way to end it
Their masters will not spot until too late.
Meanwhile the sole good reason to defend it
Somebody should be brave enough to state:
With all of the appropriate delights
Top-level cricket is reserved for whites.

You must be white to wear the proper cap
And have a drink while you watch Boycott bat
And during lunch go down and meet the chap
And slap him on the back and have a chat
And go back up and take a little nap
And finally he’s run out and that’s that.
Yes, that was Boycott’s finest innings yet:
Those fifteen runs that took three days to get.

Boycott was born to give the Wisden bores
The perfect subject for their lucubrations.
He is the average oaf whose average scores
Are averaged out in their long computations,
Reducing you to helpless yawns and snores.
Like small boys spotting trains in railway stations,
They fall into the deep trance of the mystic
Merely by contemplating some statistic.

The Thunderer survives. To celebrate
It seems the editor must walk the plank.
You’d think that Gray’s Inn Road was Watergate.
If driving there you should go in a tank.
The building’s angled walls of armour plate
Look harder to bust open than a bank,
But in the corridors strong men now stagger
Their shoulders having grown the sudden dagger.

By having Rupert Murdoch as proprietor
Printing House Square hoped for some meed of peace,
But even if at first the storms grew quieter
From disputation there was no release.
And now your average Times man thinks a rioter
Is lucky to be fighting just the police,
Such is the measure of the relaxation
Achieved under the Murdoch dispensation.

When I dispraise my great compatriot
It’s not just out of envy for his loot,
Though if it’s good he should have such a lot
Still tends to strike me as a point that’s moot.
For how his influence sends things to pot,
However, one’s concern must be acute.
The centre cannot hold, things fall apart
And everybody ends up in the cart.

Howe’s budget pacifies the Tory Wets,
And at the same time seems fine to the Drys.
In other words, the PM’s hedged her bets
If only for the breathing space it buys
While everyone who’s got a job forgets
Roy Jenkins once was roughly twice as wise
A Chancellor as is Sir Geoffrey Howe –
A fact she’d rather like suppressed just now.

The Peace of Bishop Stortford and Howe’s Budget –
In each case the effect might not be meant,
But if it’s by the outcome that you judge it
You must ascribe it to the one intent:
Don’t rock the party boat or even nudge it,
Bail as a team until the squall is spent,
And when the central threat has blown away
We’ll fight among ourselves another day.

At Hillhead Jenkins slips back in the polls.
The press rehearses Doom for the Alliance.
Great play is made with the electoral rolls.
Psephology is cried up as a science.
E’en as the cookie crumbles the bell tolls.
The gaff is blown and fate brooks no defiance.
One question, though, if anybody cares:
How often do you answer questionnaires?

Never, of course, because you are too bright,
As most Hillheaders are cracked up to be.
Which could just mean, if I am guessing right,
There’s still a vote there for the SDP,
Though if it will be all right on the night
We’ll simply have to wait ten days and see,
While Jenkins stands increasingly alone
On those cold concave doorsteps of grey stone.

Supposedly a media creation,
The SDP’s now patronised in print
From all sides as a hollow aberration,
A candy zero like a Polo Mint.
At best such lofty talk’s an irritation,
At worst it sets the heart as hard as flint,
But summed up it must prove, if Jenkins conquers,
That stuff about the media was bonkers.

Columbia flames spaceward from the Cape,
Aboard it a glass box of moths and bees.
As Jenkins makes a last lunge for the tape
The press and pollsters are in agonies.
The free-fall moths still buzz in tip-top shape.
The bees just hang there looking hard to please.
Both moths and bees go nowhere in a hurry,
Bees in a sulk and moths in a fine flurry.

So what’s the point of effort in that case?
Why didn’t old Roy stay home and write books
Instead of pounding through this paper chase,
The sweat of which does little for his looks?
The bees have got the right approach to space:
The moths flap uselessly like fish on hooks ...
The tension’s fearful and one feels no better for
Committing such a thoroughly mixed metaphor.

The die is cast but does not yet lie still
And while it rolls it’s hard to count the dots.
The shape of politics for good or ill
Lies in the gift of a few thousand Scots
Of whom a certain element will fill
Their ballot papers in with jokes and blots –
But that’s Democracy and worth preserving
Although at times incredibly unnerving.

Roy Jenkins wins and history is made
Or if not made at least it’s modified.
The dingbats straight away are on parade
With Benn at his most foam-flecked and pop-eyed,
Saying the gains the SDP has made
All clearly point to a retreating tide.
Thus King Canute spake as his feet got wetter,
But further up the beach his court knew better.

But now a comic opera interlude
Wins our attention from domestic cares.
The generals in the Argentine, though rude
And cruel and prone to giving themselves airs,
Have in the foreign field so far been shrewd,
Confining lunacy to home affairs.
Their latest coup arouses less admonishment
Than universal open-mouthed astonishment.

The Falkland Islands taken by invasion?
So what’s there to invade excepting sheep?
It’s no great wonder that on this occasion
The Foreign Office got caught half asleep.
Deuced awkward that the natives are Caucasian
And what is more, we’re told, resolved to keep,
Though so far flung, their British nationality –
True grit that borders on irrationality.

Storms in a teacup are a sign of Spring
And few can take the Falkland business seriously.
Wavers of flags will have their little fling,
Diehard imperialists will speak imperiously,
And one sincerely trusts that the whole thing
Will fade away the way it came, mysteriously.
Meanwhile by long tradition Oxford’s won
The boat race and there’s been whole hours of sun.

Nobody wants to be a fading power
And countries are like men in that regard.
A nation brushed aside as past its hour
Even if that is true will take it hard.
The sceptic courts a sojourn in the Tower
Of London with a yeoman as a guard.
War fever mounts. All one can do is watch it
And hope that this time our side doesn’t botch it.

The Secretary of Defence, John Nott,
Has made a whopping balls-up in the House.
The Foreign Secretary’s on the spot,
Loudly accused of being short of nous.
The top gun-boat exponent of the lot,
A prancing lion where once crouched a mouse,
Is Michael Foot, who now speaks for the nation
In this alleged Hour of Humiliation.

Lord Carrington presents the dazed PM
With his own head upon a point of honour.
The nitwit Nott stays at his post pro tem
Though in the long term he must be a goner.
Poor Thatcher makes a mighty show of phlegm
At all the bad luck that’s been heaped upon her,
Announcing, as the Fleet prepares to sail,
We must not even think that we might fail.

Such rhetoric is brave if weirdly phrased,
Though fustian it’s backed up by legality,
Yet what can’t help but leave you slightly fazed
Is the persistent air of unreality.
Those china eyes of hers were always glazed
But now have the glaucoma of fatality,
As if what happened on the field of Mars
Could somehow be predicted by the stars.

Proud ancient Athens sent a sure-fire mission
So strong it could not fail to overawe.
Its name was the Sicilian Expedition.
It lost them the Peloponnesian War.
Ill fortune and long distance worked attrition
Not even the most timorous foresaw.
Thucydides was there and for posterity
Wrote down the consequences of temerity.

As those Greeks at Piraeus in the dawn
Cheered when the galleys raced towards Aegina,
Our patriots now lean on the car horn.
The little motor-boats from the marina
Are teeming in each other’s wash like spawn.
All wish the Fleet fair winds for Argentina.
Invincible looks worthy of its name.
The battleship Repulse once looked the same.

I don’t doubt our atomic submarines
Can sink their diesel ones in nothing flat.
We sold them all our second-best machines
And man to man should put them on the mat.
But time and place are with the Argentines:
Say what you like there is no blinking that.
We’ll take two weeks to get to where we’re going –
Which means that until then there’s just no knowing.

Two weeks go by and there’s no other news
Except what centres on the vexed Malvinas.
If UN Resolution 502’s
To mean a thing the next move’s Argentina’s.
The Yanks, alas, are either short of clues
Or scared of being taken to the cleaners.
Al Haig, while six quacks monitor his ticker,
Sits on the fence through which his allies bicker.

South Georgia falls to us with no life lost.
Our Fleet is justly proud but Fleet Street’s prouder.
The jingo hacks want war at any cost:
Abaft cleared desks they sit on kegs of powder.
At last the US gets its wires uncrossed.
Sighs of relief are heaved but somewhat louder
The first bombs fall. It may or may not suit you,
But those who are about to die salute you.