Winton Pawprints 

Winton (c.1995-2012) was our beloved shop cat and still has the last word every month in her regular column.

Play All

 - Wednesday, September 07, 2016
I’ve just finished binge-reading Clive James’ new book, Play All ($35.95). Like the high-end (and less so) ‘box set’ series James writes about in this collection of essays, his deep trove of both literary and cinematic references and the stream of consciousness connective pleasure in his age-old, oil-burning TV, VHS habit that the dealers have re-upped with some great new stuff ... the credentialed TV epic, niftily slotted into a folding sleeve, amplifying a long-term addiction into a form of brain-scrambling suicide, warrant an immediate re-read. For example he explains his use of the now standard neologism ‘box set’ as opposed ‘boxed set’ by referring to Jonathan Swift’s horror at the 18th century barbaric use of ‘idolatry’ instead of the etymologically correct ‘idololatry’. Or that Sartre’s Being and Nothingness could be anagrammatically Binge and Nothingness. So he’s keeping up his monumental ‘latest’ reading despite the time consuming effort of box set viewing, and re-viewing.

James wrote a regular weekly column about TV for the London Observer between 1972 and 1982 at the end of which he signed off with a confident prediction that although the American production centres, having fed their shows to the networks, might go on picking up secondary earnings by flooding the world with stuff priced low because it had already made a profit in the home market, the droll sarcasm of the desk sergeant Phil Esterhaus in Hill Street Blues would be about as clever as their effort would ever get. Seriousness, sophistication, and the thrill of creativity could be supplied only by the older, wiser, more mature nations. He is charming about the depth of his wrongness comparing the rise of the cable shows to what the Americans had done in WW2, for which, at the beginning, they had very little military equipment, and the end, after only a few short years they were building a new aircraft carrier every fortnight and had developed the B-29 pressurized high-altitude bomber, not to mention the atomic bomb. None of that had been predictable either, but the thought did not console me when, at the millennium, I looked back on my confident pronouncements of the early 1980s and lashed myself for having so completely failed to guess what might happen to the American television output later on. It was a punishing example of what ought to be a critical rule: if you can’t quell your urge to make predictions, don’t make them about the future.
In recovery from his cancer treatments, James did most of his viewing with his younger daughter, Lucinda. Their viewing was pretty moderate—5 episodes on Sunday night, not the lone hallucinatory 24 hour whole season/series gulp when you wake from troubled dreams haunted by the homepage music loop and have to figure out where you nodded off. So there’s a comradely conversational style to his critiques of shows from NYPD Blue and The Sopranos to Game of Thrones—like you’ve joined him & Lucinda on the couch. Unfortunately James has a set against zombies, which is a shame as I would have liked his take on The Walking Dead—he’s at his funniest when putting the boot in. Stockard Channing, and Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston cop some good one-liners.

After a second reading, and following up all the references in Play All, I’ve decided it’s time to turn off the TV, open up James’ literary criticism in Latest Readings, and embark on a directed reading project. As stimulating as they can be, I think I may have spent enough of my lives on the ‘box set’.