The Book Of My Enemy, by Clive James (review)

Clive James   The Book Of My Enemy (Collected Verse 1958-2003)      Picador  £15.99

Clive James’ The Book Of My Enemy supersedes his 1985 collection, Other Passports. It adds 30 more recent poems, five verse letters, song lyrics written for Pete Atkin’s guitar, and the whole of Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage, the cod epic about the literary scene first published nearly thirty years ago. The original collection is included in its entirety.

Reading the poems is like listening to a talking book. James is one of the very few writers whose voice is well-known enough to ring in your ears when you’re scanning the page. This helps, not just in recognising (for instance) that slant/cant is a perfect rhyme. It infests the poems with personality, in this case with that familiar braggadocio, that strictly upbeat delivery, relentlessly hyper, sardonically jolly. He loves the smell of long and recondite words, almost as much as he loathes Eliot and Pound. This means he can return the disfavour in spades. He has already skewered Eliot more successfully than anyone (and it’s a big field) with his stage-Indian piss-take The Wasted Land, originally published under the pseudonym Edward Pygge. I’ve laughed myself under the table with that one fifty times. There is a brilliant addition which nails Eliot and Pound (“One was the head, the other the hindquarters.... such a well-connected horse’s arse.”).

Of the other new “recent poems”, there are some particular treats, including The Eternity Man, about Arthur Stace, who relentlessly chalked the single word “Eternity” on Sydney’s walls, and whose story is much cherished in Australia. (It probably needs a note, as the poem on Egon Friedell from the earlier collection did. James is a polysaturated writer; he is an agreeable know-all; but we need some assistance). Another instant hit (and his hit is frequently instant) is a spaced-out take on jet lag.


All the same, I’d have preferred a Selection, not a Collection. Perry Prykke was of the moment; so too was his Poem Of The Year (it was 1983), despite his sterling defence of it. The long verse letters are highly skilful, but they bang on and on and on. Even some of the shorter poems make a banquet out of what should have been a snack. The Light Well, his poem about visiting The Bay Of Pigs, about a hundred lines long, should really read “Blow the tuba/ For Cuba”. An older poem, about the intolerance of religion, Will Those Responsible Come Forward?, is repetitive and pointless blather. You sense from his 1985 introduction, reprinted here, that he expects this sort of complaint. It ends with the well-timed paradox “At any length, the aim is brevity.”

James can control rhyme like Fangio managed bends; he can be witty at the collapse of several hat-stands. Jonathan Raban once lashed out at his writing as “boisterously smartyboots in tone and fake-Augustan in its grammar”. But when it works, when his cylinders are firing for (preferably) a sprint, he is endless good fun. Forty of the poems included here have skip, insight, timing and agreeable passion. It isn’t just a matter, either, of his leaning on a lampoon. His poem about paedophiles (Stolen Children) is intense, bringing together Botticelli’s images of children, his own observation of children bouncing and jumping in Covent Garden, and a newspaper piece about an abductor. Any collection with forty winners is worth it. For the rest, you can always avert your gaze.



From The Independent