Friday, December 16, 2005

Clive James on "Sludge Fiction"

There's a marvellous article in today's Times Online, taken from the Times' Literary Supplement, where Clive James reminiscences about the books that he read as a child, and how they inspired him to life as a lifelong reader. Anyone that's spent a goodly part of their childhood with the nose stuck in a book, oblivious to all around, will empathise and be delighted. Not least if you spent that childhood reading the same stuff as Clive, which is Biggles, Bulldog Drummond, Sherlock Holmes and those sort of shams. Marvellous.

The role of what Clive's English teacher described as "sludge fiction" is often under-estimated in literary circles, where it seems the butterflies flit from John Banville to Tommy Pynchon and maybe a touch of De Maupassant (in his original French, naturellement) thrown in for a breather. This is not An Spailpín Fánach's experience, as An Spailpín Fánach, like many of his contemporaries, is inclined to leaven the wheat somewhat by carefully tempering my exposure to heavy dudes with a good shot of sludge. I'm a big John Buchan man ("You inferal cad! I'm going to give you a damned good thrashing!" I mean, where would you get it?) and I am not ashamed to admit that I have read every James Bond book. An Spailpín Fánach's current guilty secret is that he is slowly working his way through Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise ouevre. Ripe as bedamned, but strangely compelling.

Guy Bolton, who collaborated in writing musical comedies with Jerome Kern and PG Wodehouse in New York in the 1920s, once said of Wodehouse that he had read more books not worth reading than any other man alive. That was part of the secret of Wodehouse's great talents, but also that he leavened that with great big chunks of juicy Shakespeare and Tennyson.

Of course, one does rather need to tread carefully, as a lot of the stuff that's masquerading as sludge out there is, in fact, not masquerading at all, but in deadly, stinking, earnest. Your humble narrator once found that out the hard way.

An Spailpín Fánach is a big fan of Newsnight Review, the Arts Show on BBC2 at eleven o'clock every Friday evening - tape it sometime if you can't tear yourself away from the Late Late. The panel can be a bit of a curate's egg (nothing like Bonnie Greer declaiming the PC gospel to see An Spailpín breaking off at a run for a few swift stouts), but poet and critic Tom Paulin is usually very reliable for something interesting. Anyway, a number of years ago, the panel were reviewing a book called "Ralph's Party" by Lisa Jewell, Ms Jewell being then in Britain what Cecelia Ahern is now in Ireland, a bit of a publishing phenomenon. Tom Paulin was in raptures about Ralph's Party - it was such a breath of fresh air, it was so lightly written, it made the heart sing. And yadda yadda yadda from the normally quite stern TP.

Reader, I bought it. And over two or three hundred pages I discovered that spending too much time in the groves of academe had slowly drained the oxygen from Tom's brain. Ralph's Party is not very good at all. But you can't win 'em all, and even as I speak, I can take full comfort in the fact that Ms Blaise is waiting for me at home, hair casually tied back a chignon, all set to take me to Tangiers on another caper. Can't wait.