Diary

Clive James

Foot plumps for Aslef but as if in spite
The TUC does not and the strike’s broken.
Foot’s coiffe should go a purer shade of white
Unless his fiery gesture was a token
To make him look a tough nut in a fight
For all those gritty doctrines he has spoken
On that day when they have to be renounced
And Arthur Scargill’s strike bid must be trounced.

But Arthur’s rhetoric is like his hair.
Though spurious, transparent and bombastic,
It’s legal and has some right to be there.
The threat it poses to the state is drastic
But one democracy’s equipped to bear.
He’s less fanatical than he’s fantastic.
That puff-ball pan’s so openly ambitious
Only a stocking mask could make it vicious.

Indeed his nimbus of elated strands
Bespeaks not just the patience of a saint
But holiness. It balances no hands.
The halo Giotto botched with thick gold paint
On Arthur’s a UFO that never lands,
A cap of gossamer you might find quaint
But can’t deny has something brave about it –
He’s sparing us the way he’d look without it.

In Knightsbridge a car bomb with up-to-date
Remote controls proves powerful competition
For horsemen wearing plumes and silver plate,
While up in Regent’s Park a similar mission
Is carried out with a success as great,
Ensuring, at the moment of ignition,
Musicians who have never hurt a soul
Are shown up in their true repressive role.

For what’s a bandsman, when all’s said and done,
If not a soldier of a certain sort?
What is a trombone but a type of gun?
What is a bandstand but a kind of fort?
Objectively, the difference is none:
These men were troops no matter what they thought,
And as for sleepy listening civilians –
They symbolise the acquiescent millions.

Who now unquestionably come awake
And wonder for a week stretched to nine days
If this is not more than the nerves can take.
The horses’ wounds bared to the public gaze
Cause many a grave thoughtful head to shake.
Dumb pain is real but how strange that it weighs
Thus heavily, when humans ask what mattered
So much it left them or their loved ones shattered.

Did Cromwell’s ruthlessness bring this to pass,
A woman crawling with a face of blood?
Did the Earl of Essex raise a storm of glass
When he set fire to houses of thatched mud?
A bugle boy for being armed with brass
Was pricked to die. What caused that? The Great Flood?
The grievous debt goes back to the beginning
That makes these men more sinned against than sinning.

The guilty live, the innocent lie dead:
The summer sun shines warmly on them all.
In Biarritz it shines on my bald head.
My scalp accepts the photons as they fall.
No Scargill I, I let my skull turn red,
Building my daughters a thick sand sea wall.
They crouch behind it, clinging to the notion
Somehow their father can control the ocean.

I can’t stop waves, or much else, reaching them.
Relieved they’re not in Belfast or Beirut
I’m flattered in a way some might condemn
To find their sense of beauty so acute.
Each shell’s looked at as if it were a gem,
Held to the ear and blown on like a flute.
By those too young to know the world is cruel
A cured sea-horse is treasured as a jewel.

The London papers bring the usual news –
Inflation’s down yet unemployment climbs.
But here the gulf’s laid out in greens and blues:
Lapis, fresh lettuce and the juice of limes.
Lulled by the heat one’s body cells refuse
To wait for the return of better times:
They take their holiday though deprivation
Should devastate the luckless British nation.

The spirit’s willing but the flesh is weak.
Skin will be free and easy if it can.
Through down-turned mouth with deep concern we speak:
The epidermis has its selfish plan
To look less like the thick end of a leek.
The height of its ambition is a tan.
For two weeks while the tide goes up and down
I watch it and react by turning brown.

In Biarritz the sun sets like a peach
That ripens and ignites towards the water.
Waves which were blue like denims when they bleach
Turn silver as a newly minted quarter.
Absorbed by darkness outwards from the beach,
Like lemon ice licked by my younger daughter
White light is ineluctably consumed,
Ripples erased. Desired and therefore doomed.

In Britain the health workers strike for pay
Which surely in all conscience they’ve got coming.
The harvest’s in and farmers stack the hay.
Around the rotting fruit the wasps are humming.
The CBI says Thatcher must give way.
It’s all so soothing, not to say benumbing.
England is now and history is elsewhere.
Most of the rough stuff isn’t here, it’s there.

It’s there in Israel where General Sharon
Even by Begin’s found intransigent.
In Gdansk the water cannon are turned on
As if cold spit could wash away cement.
Now Arafat with all his options gone
Concedes perhaps it’s time his people went.
The PLO might recognise Israel.
The Poles pretend Walesa’s not in gaol.

But history here at home is the two Krays
Let out of clink to mourn their saintly mother.
The boys for all their rough-and-tumble ways
Both loved her as they never loved another.
People repaired with grafts, pins, splints and stays
Still can’t decide which was the nicer brother –
The Kray who’d chat you up before he grabbed you
And held you helpless, or the Kray who stabbed you.

The other big event is Poet Sue,
A scribbling Cambridge undergraduette,
Who as the French once went mad for Minou
Is cried up as the greatest talent yet
By dons who should have better things to do,
You might think, than to stand there getting wet
Drooling about the girl’s supreme facility
For sonnets of Shakespearean fertility.

It seems she churns them out like a machine
That manufactures plastic souvenirs,
And on the whole that’s roughly what they mean:
They’re so banal you can’t believe your ears.
They echo everything that’s ever been
Created in the last five hundred years.
Sue’s poor brain is a boneyard, a Sargasso,
A pulping mill, a collage by Picasso.

The dons who praise her were once Leavisites,
Slow to admire and vicious in dismissal.
What aberration has brought on these flights
Of rapture as they cluster round a thistle
And call the thing a rose and spend their nights
Composing articles that make you whistle,
Since even Leavis’s worst panegyrics
For Ronald Bottrall didn’t sound like lyrics?

The dons are punished for their dereliction
With dour gibes from the joyless Donald Davie
Who demonstrates at length Sue’s vaunted diction
Tastes thin compared with dehydrated gravy,
While as for her alleged powers of depiction ...
The dons must feel they’ve been shelled by the Navy.
He calls them symptoms of a deep malaise
As Cambridge English falls on evil days.

But dons were ever shaky in their taste.
Davie himself is nuts for Ezra Pound.
It’s not on judgment their careers are based.
They tend the fields but they break no new ground.
Old Leavis thought that writers could be ‘placed’
Even while they still lived and moved around.
Alas, he was so tone-deaf that his scrutiny
Made spinning poets in their graves plot mutiny.

The reason why the dons find Sue prodigious
Is patent when you see a photograph.
No wonder they forgot to be prestigious:
The girl’s so pretty that she makes you laugh.
I trust no don involved will get litigious
For being likened to a love-sick calf –
I understand completely how the urge’ll
Emerge to call a virgin a new Virgil.

A summer madness that began in Spring
The Sue Affair’s explained by a don’s life.
His winter schedule is a humdrum thing
And often the same goes for the don’s wife.
Though every day the sweet girl students bring
Their essays which he goes through like a knife,
The whole deal’s on the intellectual level
And busy hands do no work for the Devil.

But then the crocus drives up to the sun
And Sue puts on a floating cotton dress
And that fine friendship as of priest and nun
Erupts into a secular distress.
Those sonnets that she turns out by the ton
Must mean the girl’s a gifted poetess:
Sue’s such a doll she’d make Professor Carey
Say that she wrote like Dante Alighieri.

Sue’s bubble reputation having popped
Her teachers must wipe soap out of their eyes,
But one would hate to see those young wings cropped
Merely because her mentors were not wise.
If that compulsive gush of hers is stopped
It ought to be because she’s learned to prize
The disciplines that temper and anneal,
Growing slow blooms of strength inside the steel.

There’s energy in Sue’s headlong slapdash
Which most of our young careful craftsmen lack.
They watch their language and do nothing rash.
Crushed in the boot and wound tight on the rack,
Pressed flat with weights and strung up for the lash,
Each poem is a puzzle that must crack,
Yielding its meaning drop by anguished drop
Until, drained dry, it dies with a full stop.

One image per two stanzas is the ration,
Though some there are who don’t risk even that.
Such level surfaces are hard to fashion.
It takes a kind of built-in thermostat
To ward off sudden puffs of wayward passion
Which might cause pimples in what should be flat,
Protected in all possible directions
Against the threat of critical objections.

Better to write in quite another style
And be accused of sentimental clowning.
Better to court the condescending smile
Of that drear ghost still droning on in Downing.
In Italy for all too short a while
I grapple with the greatest work of Browning.
What chance would it have stood against those wits
Of our day whose chief skill is to pick nits?

But even Browning sweated for more density
Than line could hold which brain could still retain.
Astonished by the man’s sustained intensity
I see the packed force of that hardwood grain,
But find his tapestry’s compressed immensity
Undone by a pervading sense of strain:
The book runs such tight rings around itself
No wonder it sits heavy on the shelf.

Perhaps there’s now no hope of being clear
Unless one’s also hopelessly naive;
An air of easiness is bought too dear
If cheap effects are all it can achieve;
But in Ferrara I stand very near
The kind of art in which I can believe –
That generous tribute to a mean employer,
Cossa’s great frescoes in the Schifanoia.

Faded to pastel they’re still full of light.
Each panel has an effortless proportion.
It’s love of life that makes those faces bright.
The skill is consummate without distortion.
Sure of its knowledge like a bird in flight,
Such perfect freedom feels no need of caution,
And so the teeming polychrome quotidian
Enjoys perpetually its just meridian.

From West Beirut into the waiting ships
The PLO pulls out on television.
With gestures of one cashing in his chips
According to some tactical decision
Their leader puckers those unlovely lips,
But only fools would whistle in derision
As his sad captains all get kissed goodbye –
Mere military defeat won’t stop that guy.

I must say he’s no oil-painting, Yasser,
Or if he is then it’s of something weird.
Nothing would make him look as good as Nasser
But still you’d think he’d try a proper beard.
For head-gear an entire antimacassar
Arranged so that his features disappeared
Would do more than that tea-towel does at present
To make his aspect generally more pleasant.

One day no doubt he will be played on screen
By some young ringer for Alain Delon.
Most people look at odds with what they mean:
We’re bound to simplify them when they’re gone.
Golda Meir’s reported to have been
Transformed by Ingrid Bergman to a swan,
But now, with Bergman dead at 65
No one in Casablanca’s left alive.

It was a clumsy film with a bum script
Yet watching it once more I sit and dream.
The cigarettes they smoke aren’t filter-tipped.
Bogie pours whisky in a steady stream.
Small vices. It’s by virtue they are gripped.
Of self-indulgence there is not a gleam.
She wavers but he has the strength of ten
As time goes by and Sam plays it again.

Reagan and Thatcher ought to be like that.
Instead they have a frightful falling-out.
The Russian pipeline has inspired the spat,
Or that’s what spokesmen say it’s all about.
In private Maggie’s spitting like a cat.
In public, as per usual, she says nowt,
Calling the USA our greatest friend
While thinking its top man the living end.

Scargill and Benn say let’s break Tebbit’s law.
Jim Callaghan less bluntly says that too.
Israel and Syria might go to war.
The boggled mind wonders what else is new.
In Berne the Polish Embassy’s front door
Is opened while some breakfast is pushed through:
The terrorists are hauled out bearing traces
Of the omelette which has blown up in their faces.

But wait a second. Don’t you find it odd
So dumb a move comes from pro-liberal Poles?
Are these a self-selected awkward squad
Or has the other side smartly switched roles?
To keep Walesa endlessly in quod
It might help if more tender-hearted souls
Thought Solidarnosc meant armed insurrection
Against the Party’s warm clasp of affection.

It’s possible one’s getting paranoid:
Walesa’s just too big to disappear.
But murder’s been a frequently employed
Political technique in this past year.
To show the Government what to avoid
Sicilian mafiosi arouse fear
By gunning down the general sent to face them
Before he even gets a chance to chase them.

Dalla Chiesa’s death convinces me –
I think that all in all and on the whole
I won’t go righting wrongs in Sicily.
Nor will a few lines praising a brave Pole
Do very much to set his people free.
Perhaps a phantom quest’s the one sane goal –
As now the Sun claims to have found Lord Lucan
In deepest jungle with tapir and toucan.

The Jungle Fugitive’s a Fleet Street thriller
That Martin Bormann starred in last time round.
Embezzler on the lam and missing killer
Swathed in lianas are abruptly found.
One day no doubt they’ll bump into Glenn Miller,
So many scribes are covering the ground.
He’ll be with Harold Holt and all the rest
Back to the crew of the Marie Celeste.

No news is good news and fake news is fun
Or would be if the bad news caused less strain.
To stop us laughing too long at the Sun
Another DC10 comes down in Spain.
The Lebanon’s Gemayel lived by the gun.
He puts the gun down and is promptly slain,
While in her palace chapel Princess Grace
Too soon lies dead in high-necked silk and lace.

Our big affair was over years ago
And merits no more than this brief report.
I claimed her for my own in Rear Window
And from the Odeon walked lost in thought
The long way home exuding love’s hot glow.
Believing Rainier was far too short,
I gave her up in fury mixed with grief
The seventh time I saw To Catch a Thief.

Flying above Beirut towards Bombay
By night en route to faraway Peking
One’s well aware that earlier today
Down there the corpses were still quivering.
The most the Israelis are prepared to say
Is that the Christians had their little fling
Unsupervised, with awkward consequences
For Muslims not equipped with barbed-wire fences.

Thousands of blameless people lying dead,
The state of Israel’s credit well-nigh wrecked,
And all of it on Begin’s bullet head
Who should have seen his duty to protect
Civilian lives if his invasion led
To the point where each and every local sect
Was tempted to vent pent-up animosity
By staging the odd small-scale mass atrocity.

The least that Begin and Sharon can do
Is step down and donate their brains to science.
What few friends Israel has left urge them to
But neither hero seems moved to compliance.
The Knesset is a Hebrew hullabaloo,
The blunderers are childish in defiance,
But for the nonce I put off shame and pity
Standing entranced in the Forbidden City.