Lucky Brrm

John Sutherland

  • Brrm! Brrm! by Clive James
    Cape, 160 pp, £12.99, November 1991, ISBN 0 224 03226 7
  • Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler
    Chatto, 337 pp, £14.99, October 1991, ISBN 0 7011 3787 8
  • Faustine by Emma Tennant
    Faber, 140 pp, £12.99, March 1992, ISBN 0 571 14263 X

Recently in this journal C.K. Stead explained the dilemma of being a popular Australasian performer in England: ‘He can only be fully understood at home: but there he’s likely to encounter sullenness and resentment, which is overcome, paradoxically, by the irresistible force of a fame earned where the comprehension of what he is doing must be less than complete.’ It is not easy to get this paradox straight. If I understand him, Stead claims that for the Australian or New Zealander to make it in England – as many of his generation have – more than reverse migration is required. An exhausting oscillation is imposed on these ornaments of the post-Sixties British scene – a generation of exiles who seem not so much lost as culturally over-extended. Stead was writing in the LRB about his friend and fellow Antipodean, Barry Humphries. Humphries is nowadays primarily a West End and small screen entertainer with his largest viewing constituency in Britain. The same – but more – could be said of Clive James. James has earned himself reputations as a television host, reviewer, newspaper columnist, songwriter, ‘metropolitan critic’, versifier and novelist (Brrm! Brrm! is his third published title). He is the master of many trades and must be envied by more varieties of hack than anyone in England. Envy is sharpened by James’s being so ostentatiously an outsider – still as aggressively Australian as the day he landed on our shores, thirty years ago.

Clive James introduces himself in passing into Brrm! Brrm! as ‘an Australian in lamentable physical condition’ who specialises in poking fun at Japanese game shows for mass-audience British television. These programmes feature witless orientals stuffing lobsters down their trousers for a few minutes of fame in Japan and side-splitting ridicule in the West. When it suits him, as on these public occasions, James projects himself as a bald, fat, Oz, Jap-basher and all-purpose xenophobe. In his latest, and very, funny, New Year’s Eve revue the running gag was bumbling Clive’s pathetic attempts to chat up his glamorous French co-hostess, who consistently squelched him as a total creep.

This self-caricature is no more Clive James (who by his own account is clearly as attractive to foreign ladies as the next celebrity) than Edna Everage and her remarks about tinted gentlemen is the sophisticated Mr Humphries. One of James’s most effective tricks is to switch personalities on his audience. You are solemn and straight-faced, he smirks and wisecracks; you slap your thighs, he is suddenly vulnerably sensitive and very cultivated. May Week was in June, the last instalment of his on-off autobiography, discloses that for years he has been laboriously studying Japanese in a spirit of anything but racist superiority. The volume ends with a carpe diem in James’s hyper-sensitive mode. The buffoon of the earlier pages – popping his biceps and washing under his armpits in a vain attempt to lure Germaine Greer into bed – is suddenly transformed into an artist gravely contemplating his oeuvre, cherry blossom and death. Inside the fat Australian, we discover, there is a slim beautiful Japanese poet struggling to get out:

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