Miller, James and the Cultural Spirit…

So, farewell then Clive James and Jonathan Miller. Rarely is the waning of a generation as dramatic as when two of its most talented and prominent members die on a single day. Jonathan Miller, the upper-class Englishman, and Clive James, the working class Aussie expat, were two of the most versatile and hard-working intellectuals and personalities to emerge from Britain’s post-1960s cultural life. Miller was a satirist, theatre and opera director and fully trained research fellow in neuropsychology and medical history. James was a critic, poet, novelist and television presenter. Both men had more careers than most of us have hot breakfasts. Undeniably, they left no talent on the table.

Miller was a driving force behind the influential satirical stage revue Beyond the Fringe. Peter Cook might have been the funniest member of the cast but Miller was the most earnest. In one article he wrote about creating:

…the weapons necessary for the final overthrow of neo-Gothic good taste…The ranks are drawn up and the air resounds with the armourer’s hammer. When battle is joined one can only hope that blood will be drawn.

Miller’s biographer, Kate Bassett, notes that this militant tone amused the less serious Peter Cook, who said that blood was only drawn when a lady smacked him round the chops with her handbag.

Miller was a gifted wit and performer, with excellent timing and a long-legged physicality that the younger satirist John Cleese would perfect, but he had serious intellectual ambitions. Soon, he was writing about Marshall McLuhan and Sigmund Freud, and presenting interviews with Susan Sontag, to the scornful amusement of no-nonsense British critics.

Britons have a not entirely unjustified reputation for being “anti-intellectual”. At its worst that can entail a pig-headed contempt for anyone who writes with more complexity than Daily Mail columnists. At its best, however, it involves a sense for when intellectual abstractions have transcended the world as it is and entered a realm of mere verbiage. Miller, who had been so enthusiastic about the role of satire in skewering the high-minded pretensions of Victorian good taste, was dismayed when its comedic spears were turned on his earnest intellectualising.

Miller took himself off the stage. He found lasting success as a director of films, stage and television plays and operas. Here, his artistic and academic instincts could be rooted in human lives. Lord Harewood, one-time chairman of the English National Opera, said that Miller’s medical instincts as well as theatrical flair were important in his directing, as a story, however fantastical, should still “fit the facts”.

If Miller yearned for higher intellectualism, Clive James embraced popular culture. The stocky, balding Australian could be found writing literary criticism in the London Review of Books or interviewing Boy George on his television show. His twinkling eye roamed across all aspects of human life, and he seemed as interested in a pop star as a poet.

For James, cultural variety was a rebuke to the dogmatic totalitarianisms of the Twentieth Century. In Cultural Amnesia, a book of essays about cultural and political figures James admired and deplored, he wrote about how the book’s theme was in a sense resistance to thematic unity. Man was too complex for any kind of rigid moral, cultural or political order, and humanism emerged from the sprawling and flexible amalgamation of his creative gifts.

James had an awful lot to say, and a tendency to want to say it all at once. His essay on Sophie Scholl, for example, veers off into an inexplicable digression about Natalie Portman. Like his colleagues Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens, he had a tendency to wield words like “liberal democracy” and “totalitarianism” less to add substance than to gesture towards it. His eclecticism had many admirable qualities, like curiosity and open-mindedness, but sometimes left one feeling that one’s cultural consciousness need not have rigid borders to have a more solid centre.

“There was never a time like this to be a lover of the arts,” James commented cheerfully in Cultural Amnesia. High and low culture were available to all. Yet he seemed increasingly disturbed by what popular culture had come to represent. His own adventures in pop music had produced sweet little songs like “Have You Got a Biro I Can Borrow” but now he saw “rap lyrics distinguishable from the “Horst Wessel Song” only in being less well written.” He could write a lusty savaging of Dan Brown’s Inferno but glumly accepted that Brown’s “complete lack of talent as a writer” would not prevent his books from being best-sellers. “Should you read this book? Of course you shouldn’t. Will you read this book? Of course you will.” Low culture is tremendously interesting, but one’s interest tends to be anthropological.

Perhaps what will survive of James is poetry: his poems, like “Japanese Maple”, but also his poetry criticism. This is a genre where the very name, never mind the work, is liable to send the reader dashing off towards the kitchen with excuses about unwashed plates but here James’ unbounded enthusiasm was an asset. He could write about Larkin and Auden with the excitement of a friend enthusing about the latest Netflix serial, and with no trivialisation of the poems. He wrote once that writing should “popularize without reading” and his essays achieve that. It is to his credit that with a direct line to publishers and producers he nonetheless insisted on writing about poetry, which shifts few copies and attracts few eyes. Here, in crystal verses, was a kind of clarity.

What should also survive of Miller and James is their seemingly inexhaustible creative energy. While one was a satirist and the other a critic there was never idle cynicism sneering through their work. Not everything they did came off, of course, but they were never satisfied with sniping from the sidelines, and never willing to be comfortably typecast. Where does it come from? Egotism? Partly, of course, as it does for all of us who make our work public. But I also think of a comment Miller made to James on a talk show about seeing joggers, “Pursued by death, always three feet behind, saying, “I can keep up.”” Both men knew they had a little time to let out their potential and to leave a little light for people who would follow them.

About bsixsmith

I am a writer of stories and poems - published by Every Day Fiction, The London Journal of Fiction, 365 Tomorrows and Det Poetiske Bureau - and a columnist for Quillette, Areo and Bombs & Dollars.
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