My recent conversion to writers identified with the Establishment continues to baffle me and assault my credibility as an underground hero. Currently I'm reading Clive James' "MAY WEEK WAS IN JUNE" and I'm loving it. He's such a great wit and prose stylist; and there are moments of surpassing beauty nestled among the jokes and plangent observations that any Beat hero would be proud of.
Am I growing up? Am I opening my mind? Am I just selling out? Or am I, as I suspect, just reading?
I dunno. But James, in particular, can't be dismissed as simply "Establishment", if anybody can (I suspect they can't, things being a lot deeper and more complex than we usually like to think, in the world of archetypes that rebellious souls inhabit). He's too much of an individualist. And he excites a very special memory for me, which links him--albeit somewhat tenuously--to my beginnings as a writer, back in the mists of time when everything was in black and white and dinosaurs walked the earth.
When I was at school, my English teacher Patrick Norman tried to connect with us, his bored and unruly pupils, by offering examples of literature and journalism that were crisp, funny, contemporary. He once read the first two chapters of "Catcher In The Rye", which wasn't on the syllabus, in a ridiculous American accent. The mild swear words and cynical humour, not to mention the grotesque and disrespectful portrait of Holden's ageing and sickly teacher, amazed a class full of kids who had been led to believe that literature was all stuffy Victorian noodling or incomprehensible Shakespearean verse.
The other writer Mr Norman liked to read was Clive James. He had an Observer tv column back then, and Norman--"Nutty" Norman as we amusingly called him--would read from it periodically, standing at the front of the class giggling girlishly, his face turning beetroot red as he progressed. I don't remember whether I got the jokes as I sat there listening, but I definitely enjoyed the fact that while my teacher was indulging himself we weren't having to read Charles Dickens.
The memory of those classroom Clive James sessions charms me now as I sit with his book next to the keyboard, writing. Especially since Mr. Norman is no longer with us, having died, I believe, of a heart attack several years ago.
James, in a sense--along with J.D. Salinger--was where I began. To dismiss him would be like declaring myself better than my hometown of Ipswich, and I would never do that.