BOOK REVIEW / Post-prandial Ozfest: The dreaming swimmer by Clive James, Cape pounds 14.99
The backbone of The Dreaming Swimmer is a series of speeches James has given on his hind legs to gatherings of the hirers and firers of the British broadcasting industry over the past five years, the period of his televisual pre-eminence. The datelines are not particularly auspicious: BBC Enterprises Showcase Week, Brighton, 1991; dinner of the BBC Board of Governors and Management, Lucknam Park, May 1991; IBA Consultation on Entertainment Programmes, Cheltenham, February, 1986. And between the lines you can sense him talking against the effects of the fine wine and the brandy and the lonesome conference-
centre blues on his audience.
James's good sense and aphoristic presentation and usual flattering breadth of reference (the index to this book pairs 'Waring, Eddie' and 'Waste Land, The', 'Verlaine, Paul' and 'Vine, David'), confirm that his bosses have found the right man for the job. The former tongue-lasher hasn't exactly become a stroke-artist. But it is difficult not to summon up images of cigar smoke billowing into a contented fug and chests expanding proudly in their hired d-js as Clive reassures the men and women responsible for Noel's House Party, The House of Eliott and EastEnders that they are not the manufacturers of brain candy but of something much more nutritious, even ennobling. 'Good television is serious work, even when - especially when - it looks most frivolous', he tells them, putting some new spin on his belief that 'there is a level of seriousness which only those capable of humour can reach'.
He is positively evangelical on the importance of protecting public service broadcasting against the calamitous effects of rapacious deregulation. 'Sky Television is up there like an orbital garbage disposal grimly warning us of everything Britain can still manage to avoid - so long as it remains proud of what it's got'. Heard once, as most of his audiences heard them, these sound like the views of a wise and wised-up insider. Read repeatedly, as the reader of these collected pieces must read them, they end up sounding like a rant.
In so far as so slim a volume can be said to be a feast of anything, it is an Ozfest. There are (rather leggy) essays on Australian history and poetry, a piece on the sovereign-
fondling Australian Prime Minister, Paul Keating, and a verse paean to the 'opal sunsets' of James's youth. '(He) was the first Australian poet to take the measure of the junk media and find the poetry in their pathos', James writes of his countryman, Bruce Dawe. Such cultural panhandling - turning up nuggets where others have turned up only dross, seeing princes where others have seen only cultural teddy boys - has also always been Clive James's strength. The voice he developed in his television criticism for the Observer, fusing the mandarin with the colloquial, dandyism - even exquisiteness - with a bit of rough, has become the generic voice of a section of the British media.
But the fleeting nature of what he does on the box seems to have convinced him that everything he does away from it - programme notes for Billy Connolly, publicity puffs for Radio Times - is worth preserving in hard covers. The pervasive anxiety throughout seems to be: Do I have enough? Have I reached the critical mass? Reaching the end of The Dreaming Swimmer, you are left with the feeling that you have been watching a bunch of guys floss their brains in the hope that what results will be a book.
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