Clive speaks to the group

Message posted 27.11.97 to Midnight Voices

From: Clive James

Some of the Midnight Voices have been wondering why I've been so long checking in. There are two main reasons, in ascending order of importance. The first is that I'm computer illiterate in a big way. I'm writing this in the office on something called a Targa, and the word-processor function (right term?) is the only feature of it I can even access (right verb?), let alone understand. So it wasn't until Pete told me on the telephone (now there’s a piece of modern technology I'm reasonably comfortable with) that I realised this electronic coffee-house existed, and then I had to find someone in my very busy production office who knew how hack into it, and then I couldn't justify, bottom-linewise, the time he took to do it, let alone justify the time it would have taken me to catch up with the information streaming in and out of what sounded like the digital equivalent of the Platonic Dialogues. Now I've seen the complete print-out, and I get the point.

The second main reason is that this is Pete's show. As one of the Voices has already noted, the lyrics are all too easy to burble on about, but what counts is the blend of words and music, and Pete, against the inclinations of his own modesty, is the protagonist, numero uno, the head honcho, the man in charge. He is the one who did most of the initial work and went on to guard our heritage in dark times. Above all, he is the performer, and now that the show is back on the road the last thing he needs, especially at this crucial stage, is me second-guessing him from the wings.

There are, however, one or two recurring questions that I can perhaps answer. It has been flatteringly suggested tht I could organize a pro-Atkin "media blitz" if only I got off my behind. Alas, not so. It isn't within my powers to ring up media outlets and suggest to them that I might plug something, especially when another name besides mine is the main talking-point. Plugging, in the mass media, works by invitation only. During the catastrophic anti-marketing campaign for (against?) the THAM CD, I received some invitations to speak about it on radio, which I accepted, and did the best I could. With this new and welcome double-album re-release --- which thanks to the enthusiasm, dedication and intelligence of our new friends actually looks like an item to be cherished instead of deleted immediately --- I will certainly decline no media invitation that I receive, and would even risk talking to the press, although it has become increasingly hard, even with the broadsheets, to get a journalist to stick to the subject and not try for a general profile. (An agreement made with the editor, even in writing, is not always transmitted to the journalist, who starts off with the standard stuff about Margarita Pracatan but goes on to fish around in my private life, almost invariably with demoralising results.) As for my own television shows, be assured that it is not contractually or ethically possible for me to plug any of my own products on them, by whatever subterfuge. Would that I could: when I've got a new novel or book of essays out there dying the death for lack of promotion, nothing would please me more than to tell Joanna Lumley about it with eight million people watching --- but it doesn't work like that.

Meanwhile the Midnight Voices are obviously all set to propagate themselves like a nest of unusually nice aliens. Having read the transcripts, I think the best I can do is to stay out of all questions of general interpretation, except to say how flattered I am to be thought so deep. On specific points of factual reference, it is fascinating to see how the Midnight Voices keep on coming up with the right answers. Yes, it was Tolstoy’s Natasha at the ball. Yes, Pompadour did have a little theatre under the stairs at Versailles. Yes, the Inca gold in No Dice was sunk in the lake to save it from the Spaniards. Sometimes I have forgotten the sources myself, so I can't help much with Luria Cantrell, except to say that a search of the Raymond Chandler web-site, if such a thing exists, will probably turn her up. There is no reason why every such reference shouldn't be tracked down eventually, although every reason on my part to be delighted that anyone should care.

On the point of borrowed lines from literature, however, the matter is more complicated. I am sorry that even a few of the Midnight Voices should be miffed to find me doing so much quoting. It reminds me of how Louis MacNeice was disappointed (or said he was disappointed) to discover, in the course of his further reading, that so many of his favourite lines from T.S.Eliot were written by other people. (Incidentally, Mel Powell, you've been right every time about my raids on T.S.Eliot, although I hope you've noticed that in most cases I puritanically confined myself to hijacking stuff that he knocked off in the first place.) Yes, I would lift anything from a short phrase to a long line. (The phrase "the beautiful changes" is the title poem of an exquisite slim volume by Richard Wilbur; "the trophies of my lovers gone" is from Keats; it was in Garcia Lorca's pocket that the silver coins died for envy of the moon; and so on indefinitely --- indefinitely because sometimes I can't remember.) But I always tried to make a point of hiding the stolen goods in plain sight, as if saving the past was one of the things I was trying to do.

I still try to do that in whatever I write, because one of my impulses -- principles, if you like, although it might see like a lack of principle to the purist -- is to get language from anywhere it lives, which includes the library shelves. Most of the language in any of my song lyrics, however, doesn't come from literature. It comes from areas of life that literature doesn't usually touch on, and when the Midinight Voices argue over the origin of a phrase, sometimes the origin is a parallel universe where they haven't been, so they haven't heard it; but if they had been there, they couldn't have missed it. Most people, for example, have been to the theatre, but very few have ever been back stage. For anyone who has, none of the stage-manager's calls on the intercom down to the dressing rooms is more familiar or more frightening than "Beginners, please". The MV speculations about the meaning of "the beginners call" were enough on their own to convince me all over again that if living language is transferred from one context to another, some of its resonance will come with it, even if the result sounds strange, homeless and lost -- which I suppose is how a lot of my work does sound, but we are not in business to escape our fate, only to civilize it by giving it a voice. That one of the midnight voices of my own fate should be the music of Pete Atkin continues to rank high among the blessings of my life, and on my behalf as well as his I bless you all for your attention.

Clive James

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