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Kevin Cryan
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Clive James as an inspiration.
« : 25.05.10 at 10:04 »

As The Guardian launches its third Young Critics' Competition some of its own critics and feature writers write about criticism and about the writers who inspired them.
'Clive James was LOL before those letters were put together' Peter Bradshaw, film critic
It never occurred to me to read critics or, indeed, newspapers when I was a teenager. The newspaper my mum and dad took in the 70s was the impossibly stuffy and dull Daily Telegraph, and I would no more want to read their reviews than to read the lines of stock market prices in the Financial Times, although perhaps memory does it a disservice. But from around the age of 15, I discovered the NME in its inky-finger newsprint era, when it had a zing and a distinctive writerly excitement that regular papers didn't have or want. For good or ill, my first memory of a review was Julie Burchill on the Sex Pistols' album Never Mind the Bollocks.
Weekends were another matter: we took the Observer. Like so many others of my generation, the first critic I came to read regularly, and looked forward to reading, was Clive James in his pioneering television column. James turned kids my age on to being writers and journalists the way James Herriot inspired others to be vets.
James was smart, sharp and always really funny: he was LOL before those letters were routinely put together. He showed that television was amenable to sophisticated analysis, but handled it with a light touch, making insights and gags work together: he knew his job was to entertain and not bore. He was a bit show-offy, sure, but how many others had the brains and the chutzpah?
James more or less invented the critic-columnist trope of riffing, digressing, zooming off at a tangent, and applying a critical sensibility to pop culture, but with wit and without condescension: his reviews of the BBC's Wimbledon and snooker coverage were a total joy, as was his response to the BBC's Shakespeare project. What is less widely remembered is the real passion that would often suddenly surface. I can still remember his magnificent disdain for Albert Speer's disingenuous semi-contrition for his role in the government of Nazi Germany, although I can't remember the TV show that must have occasioned it. Later, at university I discovered his Unreliable Memoirs a rereadable comedy classic; his reviews for the TLS are now a must.
He was inspirational then, and remains a class act, because he showed that good writing is the critic's first duty: it's the sincerest tribute a critic can pay their subject.

Kevin Cryan
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