His verse his wobble-board

Rolf Harris: remember «Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport»? «The Pub With No Beer?» Do you recall listening to «Jake the Peg», and shuddering? I thought so. Rolf reminds me of that other successful Australian export to London: Clive James. This news item arrived at the turning of the year:

Clive James, the Australian-born author, broadcaster and critic, has been awarded a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). James, who has lived and worked in the UK since the 1960s, is among close to 1,000 people from all walks of life whose achievements are recognised in the annual New Year’s Honours List.[….]
Northern Irish golfers Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke, who won the US and British opens respectively this year, are also on the list, capping an outstanding year for UK golf. Most of the people honoured with knighthoods or a variety of slightly lesser traditional titles such as Commander, Officer or Member of the Order of the British Empire (CBE, OBE and MBE) are unknown to the public. [….] Queen Elizabeth, whose sporting interests lie more in the world of horse racing than of golf, does not draw up the Honours’ List herself. Government officials seek out worthy recipients, who can also be nominated by members of the public.
– From Australian Broadcasting Corporation news 2012-01-01 at http://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-12-31/clive-james-helena-bonham-carter-get-new-years-honour/3753582

A while ago I watched a television program about Rolf Harris painting a portrait of the Queen of England. The end result was similar to the portrait of Laura used in the movie «Laura», 1944, or like one of those portraits you see in soap operas from the 1970s, painted by a commercial artist for fifty dollars in real oil paints. They bear a strange family resemblance to the cover paintings for romance novelettes or historical costume dramas. These artworks are painted full size then reduced to a quarter of their original size to be printed, and they look very detailed as a result. And of course Rolf’s portrait of the Queen didn’t have her fainting in the arms of a handsome doctor or dashing buccaneer, more’s the pity.

Clive James, with English cravat, 1972
Clive James, with English cravat, 1972

And Clive? With his brash success, his hearty colonial manner, his rhymes that brag and stumble, his mournful longing to be a real literary artist and his tendency to gush at the mention of the Royal Family – I realised that Clive James was the Rolf Harris of Australian Poetry, his verse his wobble-board.

8 Replies to “His verse his wobble-board”

  1. Yes, Clive James is certainly about as relevent to Contemporary Australia as Rolf Harris, though at least Harris now in his 80s seems to have retired.

    Of course James is hardly the villain in this context but rather those Arts journalists & commisars that rush after him whenever he’s around, believing that if his has made it ‘big’ in London that has a huge relevence to Australia. (Wasn’t the ‘cultural cringe’ supposed to have been buried about 40 years ago? I fear not.)

    Minor matter: that fine ballad ‘The Pub With No Beer’ was written & sung by Slim Dusty (‘But the bosss is inside drinking wine with his mates…’). For Harris think of the hideous ‘6 White Boomers’, not to mention: ‘Let me abos go loose, Bruce, let me abos go loose…’ I know that this was somewhat acceptable at the time…but really!

  2. I love the way the working class look down on wine drinkers: “But the boss is inside drinking wine with his mates…” What do you want him to drink? Kerosene? Don’t we all drink wine?

  3. The lines go:

    Now there’s a dog on the v’randa, for his master he waits,
    But the boss is inside drinking wine with his mates.
    He hurries for cover and he cringes in fear,
    It’s no place for a dog ’round a pub with no beer

    The song was a 50s song, the pub was a 50s pub & the boss was undoubtedly a 50s boss. Men in those days just never drank wine in pubs…they would be termed a Wino or a Wine-dot or worse. No place for a dog…

    Words & Music by Gordon Parsons & Dan Sheahan

  4. You’re right, Alan. In those days, wine bars were for derelicts or “winos”. I remember I once (1970s, I think) caught two large Australian salmon off the beach near Bermagui. I went to the bottle shop at the back of the local pub. “Do you have a dry white wine?” I asked. “Something to go with fish.” The fellow gave me a vaguely contemptuous look, went to the back of the shop, and came back with a jug of sherry. I must have looked aghast. “Well, it’s wine, isn’t it?” he said. “Dry sherry. That’s dry, isn’t it?”

  5. Did you know – the ‘portrait’ of Laura originally painted for the film by Mamoulian’s wife (when Mamoulian was directing) was rejected by Preminger in favour of a Fox glamour shot of Tierney ‘dabbed with paint’.

  6. Thanks, Kate. I guess that’s the difference between “art” and “entertainment” — Picasso on the one hand, Preminger on the other.

  7. Sitting at The Turtle in Elwood (near the fruit & veg shop as per Allison Croggon’s much anthologised poem) on the 3rd/Jan, jotted down some thoughts abt JT’s blog read earlier. Certainly an amusing piece. “His verse his wobble board”, what elegant mockery! The piece, of course, begs the question re- High & Low. I laugh along with Tranter’s jokes abt Clive James & the perfect foil/reference of Rolf Harris, but not necessarily at either James or Harris. I’d say a demonstrably difft situation applies in England re- the intersection of popular & esoteric culture/art/commentary et al. And I’d hazard that here in Oz it’s not half as relaxed as over there : defensiveness either side of the brow, so to speak, breeding all manner of enervating & somewhat out of date mutual-exclusivity. Odd to be thinking in such terms given that John & co are children of that 60s conflation, and cdnt help but be (aesthetically, socio-politically). (And it’s the condition of the modern, surely, –so i’ll desist!) Ive never doubted the seriousness of Harris’s devotion to painting, nor James’ to poetry, though I mostly prefer the effects of other types of seriousness (& devotion). Hockney’s case also comes to mind : his return to the plein air & its implications for the serious pleasures of the occasional & literal… I’d love to be able to read such witty critiques as Tranter’s & Wearne’s & others’ in such places as the The Age or ABR. Dont have to entirely agree with them (ditto Marieke Hardy) but need their fearless panache! Well done John!

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