Clive James: writing without the dull bits

Common sense and a sense of humour are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humour is just common sense, dancing. Those who lack humour are without judgment and should be trusted with nothing.

I did not say that. I wish I had, but I didn’t. It’s rather like Christianity, in that you wish everyone would “get it”, because if they did, the world would be a better place.

It’s probably something to bear in mind when approaching the General Election. Does your candidate have a sense of humour? It’s probably a more important question than most we’ve heard so far.

The person who did say it was Clive James, who has just died. One day in the late 20th century I met him as I walked across the Barbican in London. I wanted to stop him and tell him what a huge inspiration he had been to me, in the way I wrote and what I wrote about.

But of course I didn’t. I thought, Why should he care? He looked worried enough already.

Some of you may be puzzled about my being inspired by a TV personality, but of course to me he was always a writer – more specifically, a television reviewer. His witty, beautifully written columns in the Observer in the 1970s led me to try my hand at the same thing. I got hold of one of the earliest video recorders, taped programmes while I was at work (in the evening) and spent a few priceless daylight hours writing a TV column for the Church of England Newspaper.

This later became a more general column, and I was eventually able to write a weekly page for the Eastern Daily Press, which lasted for eleven years, as well as many other pieces, including fiction and poetry. But that’s another story. Several other stories, in fact.

There are many things Clive James and I did not have in common. I could not be Australian – I have never even been there, because it’s too far, as Corey Ford almost said. And I could not share his lack of belief in an afterlife, because I think it’s an absurd position to take up in face of all the evidence. But you can admire someone without agreeing with them.

“All I can do is turn a phrase until it catches the light,” he said. He always caught the light for me. I may be the only person in the world who would say his three strongest influences as a writer were Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Clive James.

I hope this doesn’t come as too much of a surprise, but I suspect it might. You have to laugh, don’t you?