Clive James


Snakecharmers in Texas

Essays 1980-87


Having enjoyed some of James’ TV work when I was a teenager in the 80s I thought I’d give this a go. James is articulate and has sense of humour, but there wasn’t really enough here to make this worth the effort.


Several of the essays should really only have been published in journals for those with specialist interest – particularly those dealing exclusively with photographs we couldn’t even see! Moreover – while James would deny it and point to his love of popular as well as elite culture – the first half of this collection is uncomfortably pretentious: it’s important for Clive to show off his arcane knowledge with ubiquitous italicised Latin or French phrases, and constant high culture name dropping. Don’t get me wrong – talking about Samuel Johnson if you’re writing an essay about Shakespearian criticism is not pretentious; but throwing in Swift (et. al.) when you’re writing about Bob Geldof is:

“…it can be said that the evocation of his Dublin childhood has a specifying force which reminds you that Swift, Joyce and Beckett came from the same city.”

It reminds you of no such thing of course – it’s purely to remind you that James is familiar with these impressive names, and that he knows they all came from Dublin.


Despite this sort of thing James is a competent writer and you can see why magazines and papers have employed him throughout the years. He also brought that usually enjoyable personal aspect to many of his reports, so you might, for example, get as many paragraphs about the difficulties he had finding a hotel as you do about the event he’s ostensibly reporting on. However, again, the content of papers and magazines are almost inevitably dated – is there really any justification for including in a collection for posterity details like:

Yesterday the sun shone bright. Piquet went straight out on one of his two permitted sets of qualifying tyres and notched up a time that only Prost could beat. Lauda went backwards with a sick engine. Then Piquet put on his other set of qualifying tyres and pipped Prost, taking his ninth pole for the season.

The interest in this paragraph was exhausted less than a day after it was published originally. Maybe, just maybe, up and coming journalists may want to look at some of these articles to get some tips on style for their own reporting, but there isn’t anything here for the general reader.


I’m a general reader. If you are too, I’d advise you to leave this one on the shelf.


May 2006