Darkness

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What a spectacularly rubbish week. The kind of week which makes you almost believe there are Greek gods toying with your life.

No-one died, no one got hurt, but the needless jostling of egos and the triumph of the selfish over the selfless leaves me flat as a pancake. Awful.

Clive James explains, forewarns and laments a good deal of what has driven my week in his poem Leçons des ténèbres:

But are they lessons, all these things I learn
Through being so far gone in my decline?
The wages of experience I earn
Would service well a younger life than mine.
I should have been more kind. It is my fate
To find this out, but find it out too late.

The mirror holds the ruins of my face
Roughly together, thus reminding me
I should have played it straight in every case,
Not just when forced to. Far too casually
I broke faith when it suited me, and here
I am alone, and now the end is near.

All of my life I put my labour first.
I made my mark, but left no time between
The things achieved, so, at my heedless worst,
With no life, there was nothing I could mean.
But now I have slowed down. I breathe the air
As if there were not much more of it there

And write these poems, which are funeral songs
That have been taught to me by vanished time:
Not only to enumerate my wrongs
But to pay homage to the late sublime
That comes with seeing how the years have brought
A fitting end, if not the one I sought.

I should have been more kind. It is my fate
To find this out, but find it out too late.

I hope that a time will come when those who have made my week so dire come to contemplate alone the ruins of their faces – and might come to wish they’d also played it straighter in more cases and not just when forced to.

Faith has indeed been broken far too casually. My challenge is not to lessen myself in how I respond.

Winter

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A bit like being winded by a whack in the solar plexus, this poem takes the wind out of your sails – and leaves you gasping.

Clive James’s wit and humour of have always been rapier sharp. But here, his acute observations on his own chronic decline are both a curse and a redemption.

If I appear to be on a morbid streak, I’m not really. But this interminable winter has made me reflect on the seasons of life. I’m ready for another spring in my summer years, so good the sun’s out today.

Holding Court

Retreating from the world, all I can do
Is build a new world, one demanding less
Acute assessments. Too deaf to keep pace
With conversation, I don’t try to guess
At meanings, or unpack a stroke of wit,
But just send silent signals with my face
That claim I’ve not succumbed to loneliness
And might be ready to come in on cue.
People still turn towards me where I sit.

I used to notice everything, and spoke
A language full of details that I’d seen,
And people were amused; but now I see
Only a little way. What can they mean,
My phrases? They come drifting like the mist
I look through if someone appears to be
Smiling in my direction. Have they been?
This was the time when I most liked to smoke.
My watch-band feels too loose around my wrist.

My body, sensitive in every way
Save one, can still proceed from chair to chair,
But in my mind the fires are dying fast.
Breathe through a scarf. Steer clear of the cold air.
Think less of love and all that you have lost.
You have no future so forget the past.
Let this be no occasion for despair.
Cherish the prison of your waning day.
Remember liberty, and what it cost.

Be pleased that things are simple now, at least,
As certitude succeeds bewilderment.
The storm blew out and this is the dead calm.
The pain is going where the passion went.
Few things will move you now to lose your head
And you can cause, or be caused, little harm.
Tonight you leave your audience content:
You were the ghost they wanted at the feast,
Though none of them recalls a word you said.

CLIVE JAMES
(First published in the Times Literary Supplement)