‘The term [dude] is used mainly in situations in which a speaker takes a stance of solidarity or camaraderie, but crucially in a nonchalant […] manner. Dude indexes a stance of effortlessness.’ Scott F. Kiesling (1)
‘Meestah Cliiiiiiive Yaaaaames.’ With those feather boa tones, Margarita Pracatan used to introduce Clive James on his television show some years back. Like a good many of my friends in sixth form, my first introduction to James was watching Clive James on Television. My friends and I tuned in, not so much for the international TV clips, but for what he used to say about them. Later, after his defection to the BBC, I used to make a point of watching Margarita, Vitaly Vitalyev, P. J. O’ Rourke and others being coaxed into giving up the very best of their wit to a T.V. audience by the outrageously twinkly Australian. James wasn’t so much a TV presenter as a cultivator of personalities. He nurtured his guests like an expert gardener might lovingly provide the right conditions in which some rare, delicate orchid could flower. Back in the sixth-form common room, during ‘frees’ when when we should have been writing essays on Hamlet, we would discuss the previous week’s guests and TV clips, laugh over the best jokes and feel a little bit more intelligent as we retold them, even though we couldn’t hope to imitate the composure of Mr James’s delivery. Clive James, my friends and I thought, was a dude.
‘Dude’ is, at first sight, a grossly inappropriate word to apply to someone who, as long as I can remember, has been cuddly and decidedly avuncular. ‘Dude’ is a word that seems to belong in Bill and Ted or The Big Lebowski. It is a word that acts as punctuation in the speech of Bart Simpson. It doesn’t, at first glance, fit the meta-articulate James at all. But I mean the word in two very particular senses. Firstly, it’s a ‘street’ way of expressing admiration for a person, and in particular, their masculinity. The kids I teach often use the word in this way, boys sometimes greeting each other with ‘Yo! Dude!’ It’s a way for boys to say ‘I love you’ to their male friends without the other kids questioning their sexuality. The kind of masculinity these kids admire, however, is ‘gangsta.’ James’s masculinity couldn’t be more different. His wit is powerful but never violent, affectionate and yet unsentimental and undeceived. He’s a ‘dude’ not because of his swagger (he couldn’t swagger if he tried) but because of his genius for camaraderie and the seemingly effortless grace with which he writes and speaks. He is also a ‘dude’ because he is able to speak of everything from ‘the street’ up to the Sistine Chapel ceiling and beyond. Recently, his unmissable Radio 4 ‘A Point of View’ show encompassed Amy Winehouse and Snoop Dogg, but he can write just as movingly on Auden or Roland Barthes.
Above: ‘Dude’ Lebowski being…a dude.
James’s Protean intellect makes him a dude in a much more archaic sense too. A dude was originally a New York aesthete, possessed of certain fastidious and refined sensibilities, a lover of beauty and truth. James’s whole career has been a defense of this old-fashioned worldview, but with one critical difference from the aesthetes of old: they were fond of championing art for art’s sake. James loves art for life’s sake. For him, to borrow from Blake, ‘everything that lives is holy.’
But Keatsian? Like ‘dude’ this is an honorary title, but perhaps even more of an apparently unlikely appellation. Or so it seems, unless you’ve had the chance to make more than a superficial acquaintance with the life and works of the early-nineteenth century poet. Keats had a reputation until relatively recently for being a rather fey, dreamy, wistful type. In the popular imagination he was rather feminine. (3) But as recent scholarship (most notably Nicholas Roe’s) has shown, Keats is tougher and far more politically engaged than was previously thought. Keats’s problem was his image. His was what he termed a ‘poetical character,’ delighting in whatever persona he created. He himself felt he was a thing of nothing. His friends (among them, Shelley) and enemies alike couldn’t bear this slipperiness and nothingness of spirit and tried to cast him as ‘piss-a-bed’ poet (Byron) or the wan and wounded Adonais (Shelley). Anything but that ‘poetical character’ Keats felt himself to be.
Clive James hasn’t had the extremes of critical response endured by Keats; he’s not consumptive; and has proven himself magnificently capable of avoiding early death. However, I’d like to suggest a couple of gentle affinities. James is a little marginalised these days, the default Keatsian position (why isn’t he on BBC4 and ITV simultaneously, being at once erudite and populist as is his gift?). In addition, his writing has a ‘poetical character’ to it: his TV criticism, his essays, his poems, his comic ‘to camera’ pieces, reveal a delight in Iagos and Imogens alike– all of that work fed by the Keatsian wellspring of permanent, discreet melancholy, beating in every measured word. ‘Where but to think is to be full of sorrow’: surely James’s whole poetical identity (if he has an identity) feeds on the marrow of this axiom.(4)
Benjamin Haydon’s sketch of Keats for Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem.
1) American Speech, Vol. 79, No. 3, Fall 2004, pp. 281-305.
2) Watch James in Clive James on Television and listen with nostalgia for the intelligence and humour with which he dissects ‘Captain Power’ and the singing kiddy evangelists: http://youtube.com/watch?v=eXf4ZtYsSWg
(3) Given my earlier comments on Rufus Sewell and ‘feminine’ masculinity, I also have a secret soft spot for this Keats, the Keats whom Byron accused of perpetually ‘frigging his imagination’ in verse. Nicholas Roe’s book is John Keats and the Culture of Dissent.
(4) James’s own website has a splendid selection of prose, poetry, audio, video work by James and people whose work he admires. www.clivejames.com