Diary

Clive James

For Mrs Thatcher’s visit the Chinese
Have laid on a Grade Three official greeting.
Which doesn’t mean the bum’s rush or the freeze:
She gets an honour guard at the first meeting.
But not much bunting flutters in the breeze.
Tian’anmen Square contains no special seating.
Instead there is a lot of open space
With here and there a mildly curious face.

She’s here to pin them down about Hong Kong.
She’d like to have a written guarantee.
The PM’s habit is to come on strong.
The Chinese instinct is to wait and see.
Any idea the business won’t take long
Ebbs when the welcome turns out so low key.
China in that respect remains immutable –
The people speak Chinese and look inscrutable.

The Great Hall of the People is the venue
For a fifteen-course State Banquet every night.
There isn’t any need to read the menu:
You take a pinch of everything in sight.
It all tastes at least wonderful and when you
Happen upon a dish that’s sheer delight
Just go on eating while they bring you more.
They’ll keep that up until you hit the floor.

Shown how by locals in black Beatles suits
We find out what to chew and what to suck.
First having added sauce and onion shoots
We fold the pancake round the Peking Duck.
Maddened by fish lips and sliced lotus roots
The journalists eat like a rugby ruck.
Even our diplomats up there with Her
Tuck in so fast their chopsticks are a blur.

A thousand million ordinary Chinese
Are outside staunchly doing what they’re told.
They’d never even dream of meals like these.
It’s luxury for them just to grow old.
From dawn to dusk the streets swarm with belled bees.
I hire a bike and join them, feeling bold
And bulking large against the average male
As if I were a wobbly, two-wheeled whale.

Petite they are and easy on the eye,
This quarter of the world’s whole population.
The same seems even more true in Shanghai.
Each city stuns you like a whole new nation.
They march together under a red sky
Towards a dream of human transformation.
It’s awe-inspiring yet one has to say
One’s heart goes out still to the Student Wei.

Young Wei it was who, raised as a Red Guard,
Looked back on his achievements with remorse.
With Mao set to cash in his Party card
Deng and the boys announced a change of course.
The Student Wei invited ten years hard
Saying they’d got the cart before the horse:
If freedom came first, progress might begin.
He pulled his ten years and five more thrown in.

As Thatcher’s VC10 with me aboard
Spears up and doubles westward from Kai Tak
At 30,000 feet I still feel floored
By China and make large plans to go back.
It wasn’t Communism I adored:
It was the beauty too refined to crack
From history’s hammer blows, and yet possessed
In common, everywhere made manifeast.

I never knew the sky was full of dust
Above Peking and turned plum at sunset
While all the palace roofs acquired a crust
Of crumbling honeycomb. If I forget
The details or confuse them as one must,
That first sigh of assent is with me yet.
In China though the mind recoils offended
One’s visual range can’t help but be extended.

With due allowances, the same’s applied
To local artists since the Shang at least.
No bronze bell has been cast or silk bolt dyed
If not with reference to the visual feast
Spread out what still must seem the whole world wide
Each day that dawns where else but in the East?
A boundlessness which suffers no real border
Except the outline of an ideal order.

Sung pictures fix my dreams of public art:
Intensely subtle, spaciously compact,
Produced by an élite not set apart,
The theory left implicit in the fact,
A measured naturalness felt from the heart,
The intellect controlled by natural tact –
Schooled to the limit yet prepared to meet
Half-way the average cyclist in the street.

The cyclist, one need hardly add, sees few
Fine paintings from one year’s end to the next,
But still the small extent to which his view
Of local architecture has been vexed
By modern public buildings must be due
To precepts found in no official text,
And least of all in Mao’s Little Red Book –
Which you can’t buy however hard you look.

Yes, Mao has been reduced from god to man.
He’s back to being ordinary flesh.
His mausoleum’s small extractor fan
Must now work overtime to keep him fresh.
The Party’s cranking out a whole new plan
In which, they say, the word and deed will mesh.
Good luck to them and let’s hope Wei gets sprung
In time to share the wealth while he’s still young.

We’ve flown so far that distances deceive
But back in the real world we left behind
The demonstrators march through Tel Aviv.
Sharon and Begin still have not resigned,
But ask their best young people to believe
They never had a massacre in mind.
It must be true since who’d be such a klutz?
Which leaves you thinking they must both be nuts.

There’s uproar in the Bundesrepublik
As Schmidt’s brought down. Some say he’ll get back in
Stronger than ever, others he’s so weak
There’s just no chance that he can save his skin.
These latter prove correct. Schmidt’s up the creek
Without a paddle and Herr Kohl must win.
All those refreshed by Schmidt’s astringent attitude
Must now adapt to Kohl’s gift for the platitude.

Though Kohl’s arrival means there’s one bore more
The nett effect seems no worse than narcosis.
We know from sub-Orwellian folklore
That bombast by a process of osmosis
Corrupts the social process to the core,
That rhetoric is verbal halitosis –
And yet one still lends to be more afraid
Of forthright men who call a spade a spade.

In Rome some group propounding the belief
That baiting Jews is simply common sense
Creates the optimum amount of grief
By firing shots at minimal expense
Into a crowd of worshippers. Though brief
The sense of satisfaction is intense:
Just one dead child can seem like a whole lot
When it’s the only pogrom that you’ve got.

You know just where you are with men like these.
They say they want to kill you and they mean it.
In Ireland when they nail you through the knees
You know they’ve got a point because you’ve seen it.
Be grateful there are no more mysteries:
Thugs hold the slate and you must help them clean it.
You wanted honest politics? They’re here.
Answer the door. What have you got to fear?

In Poland where all terror’s state-controlled
The time for Solidarity has come
To be outlawed. Leaders left in the cold
Until their lips turned purple and tongues numb
In dribs and drabs are let loose to grow old
As proof it’s wiser to be deaf and dumb
When there’s few friends outside to be inspired
And room for them inside if so desired.

But though the days are quicker to grow dark
In Europe now the year starts bowing out,
The flow of dreadful news lifts up an ark
Of hope as all good men combine to shout
Hosannahs for Prince Andrew and Koo Stark,
Who when the chips are down are not in doubt
That what needs doing when the world looks bleak
Is best done on the Island of Mustique.

Too bad that jealous Fleet Street crabs the act.
Andrew deserves a break with his show-stopper,
In view of all the dreary weeks he hacked
Around the Falklands with his lonely chopper.
Nevertheless you have to face the fact
Young Koo’s the next thing to a teenybopper:
Highly unsuitable and, if adorable
From certain angles, all the more deplorable.

Page Three pin-ups and skin-flick clips of Koo
Are dug out so the Palace might take note
That Koo viewed in the long term just won’t do
Though in the short term she would stun a stoat.
We’re told the Queen has carpeted Andrew
And warned him not to act the giddy goat.
How do the papers get this information?
Let’s hope not by nocturnal infiltration.

Gdansk erupts but Martial Law’s imposed
To boost the standard military rule.
The Lenin Shipyard wound is not quite closed
But treatment nowadays is prompt if cruel.
The Zomos leave the area well hosed
With noxious matter flushed down the cesspool.
When Jaruzelski reads the fever chart
He’ll see the outbreak stymied at the start.

At home the NUR’s lost Sidney Weighell.
The SDP has lost points in the polls.
For parties needing TV time I feel
It’s mad to have a Conference that Rolls
Instead of staying put, while the appeal
Of packing up each night as for the hols
Is hard to see, unless they’re taking pains
To prove that Shirley Williams can catch trains.

More serious than polls for the Alliance,
Roy’s Statutory Incomes Policy
Is greeted with a vote of non-compliance,
Thus demonstrating that the SDP
Is not just for a gang of famous giants
But ordinary folk like you and me –
Stout thinking, yet the move, it not divisive,
Can’t help at this stage seeming indecisive.

But John De Lorean shows more than strain
In several parts of that uplifted face.
The handcuffs induce shame on top of pain
As in Los Angeles he falls from grace.
Busted with many kilos of cocaine
Packed nearly in a custom pig-skin case,
He’s proved his gull-winged dream cat always flew
On snowy puffs of powder from Peru.

And there but for the grace of God go I
Who also in an excess of belief
Am swept up in wild schemes that I swear by
And feel the impact when they come to grief.
But then the raucous critical outcry
Condemns one as more mountebank than thief,
Unless one deals with stale funds like De Lorean
And fiddles them like Sallust the historian.

The artist when he claims the Right to Fail
Just means the risk he takes is a sure bet.
Success occurs on an eternal scale.
The lack of it we instantly forget.
The man of action’s not free to avail
Himself of such a useful safety net:
He bites the sawdust with the floodlight’s shining.
The crowd slays put to watch the vultures dining.

A fact which Arthur Scargill demonstrates
By calling on his Membership to strike.
Most of the men down mines are Arthur’s mates –
He fights on their behalf and that they like,
However much his bumptious manner grates –
But now they tell him to get on his bike.
From lower chin to fairy-floss beret
His visage holds more egg than a soufflé.

You’d almost think ‘poor Arthur’ were it not
That Solidarity’s new riots show
How little chance a free trade union’s got
Once fear is planted and has time to grow.
There’s no need nowadays to fire a shot.
Just make them run. They’ve got nowhere to go.
The hoses gush, the truncheons rise and fall
And where a thousand marched, a hundred crawl.

The movement is just two years old today
And looks already paralysed with age.
That fine collective courage drains away
Into a helpless, inward-turning rage.
The price of protest gets too high to pay.
You shake the bars but cannot shift the cage.
Only the young can be brave as they wish
When one-time physicists are selling fish.

Atomic bombs are our first-string defence
Against all this. A reassuring sign
Is that they’re backed up by Intelligence:
From GCHQ any foe’s phone line
In two ticks can be tapped at his expense.
A man employed there says it works just fine,
And if he sounds a trifle well-rehearsed
It’s just because he told the Russians first.

One secret, though, the Russians couldn’t keep
A moment longer even if they tried.
Brezhnev might well be more than just asleep.
It’s reasonably certain he has died.
The time has come for crocodiles to weep
And stir the bucket of formaldehyde.
The last spark has winked out in that great brain
Which once did Stalin’s work in the Ukraine.

Andropov of the KGB emerges
Inevitably as the next big cheese.
In Hungary he supervised the purges
Which taught them just how hard the Bear can squeeze.
But now it seems he has artistic urges
And intellectual proclivities.
At speaking English he is Leslie Howard:
At playing the piano, Noel Coward.

There’s consolation in a fairy-tale,
But none when Lech Walesa is released –
Surely the final proof that he must fail.
In back rooms as a species of lay priest
He might say mass but only in a pale
Reflection of that sacrificial feast
When Poland at the hour of dedication
Tasted what life is like in a free nation.

In Congress Reagan loses the MX
Because they don’t think much of the Dense Pack –
A grand scheme calculated to perplex
Red rockets as they swoop to the attack.
Them critters will collide and break their necks.
Some will run wild and others will head back
To blow the roof off the Politburo.
Remember John Wayne and the Alamo!

But there will be, should out blue planet burn,
At least some shred of reason for the fire;
There’s just no guarantee we’d ever learn,
Try as we might, to live behind barbed wire;
So threat and counter-threat, though they might turn
The stomach, are not terminally dire –
Even if we end up in a scorched crater
The aim was to talk first instead of later.

Someone thinks otherwise in Ballykelly.
A pub explodes and falls on those inside.
The whole platoon of soldiers blown to jelly
Must constitute a cause for quiet pride.
Those girls who should have been home watching telly
You’d have to say committed suicide,
An act which no true Christian can condone.
So ends the news-flash from the battle zone.

Ken Livingstone has failed to uninvite
The IRA to meet the GLC.
The Fleet Street hacks with ill-concealed delight
Pour hot lead on his inhumanity.
I like his gall but question his eyesight.
When looking at his newts what does he see?
You’d think that his pop eyes could count their eggs.
No doubt he’d spot it if they lost their legs.

In Florida the last month of the year
Is balmier than England was in June.
There’s wild hogs in the boondocks around here
And manatees asleep in the lagoon.
Launch Complex 39’s the stack of gear
That fired the first Apollo at the Moon.
Beside Pad A the storks pose poised to scuttle
At any sign of life from the Space Shuttle,

Which stands on end all set to hit the trail
Out of this charnel-house that we inhabit.
It’s an ejector seat on a world scale.
Given just half a chance who wouldn’t grab it?
Sit still for the volcano up your tail
And you’d be off and running like a rabbit –
Till upside down, a baby before birth,
Floating in silence you would see the Earth.

Earth shows no signs of us viewed from up there
Except the Wall of China, so no wonder
It looks a vision in its veils of air,
The white opacities we hear as thunder
Braided with azure into maidenhair –
It’s those conditions we are living under.
That stately clockwork of soft wheels and springs
Keeps time whatever mess we make of things.

Back in the London frost I pile up drifts
Of crumpled A4 as I type my piece.
Some halfwit has been spitting in the lifts.
The thieves patrol more often than the police.
I head for Cambridge with the children’s gifts,
Walk down a street made loud by sizzling geese
And am appropriately stunned to see
The work continues on our Christmas tree.

An angel where there used to be a star.
Twin tinsel strings like stage-struck DNA.
The leaves peel off the Advent calendar
Uncovering one chocolate every day.
The decorators may have gone too far
In hanging Santa Claus from his own sleigh.
Behold two members of the privileged class –
The young, who think that time will never pass.

Too soon to tell them, even if I knew,
The secret of believing life is good
When all that happened was the scythe spared you
While better men were cut down where they stood.
My fortunes thrived in 1982.
I’d have it on my conscience if I could,
But next year will be time to make amends
For feeling happy as the old year ends.