This Sweet Moment

This Sweet Moment

This week’s poem is Clive James’s moment of triumph over his unnamed enemy, the humour of which lies in James’s witty description of his schadenfreude derived from the misfortune attending his opponent’s book.

But just supposing that such an event should hold
Some slight element of sadness, it will be offset
By the memory of this sweet moment.

Clive James (1939—2019)

Poem 221. ‘The Book of my Enemy Has Been Remaindered’

The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am pleased.
In vast quantities it has been remaindered
Like a van-load of counterfeit that has been seized
And sits in piles in a police warehouse,
My enemy's much-prized effort sits in piles
In the kind of bookshop where remaindering occurs.
Great, square stacks of rejected books and, between them, aisles
One passes down reflecting on life's vanities,
Pausing to remember all those thoughtful reviews
Lavished to no avail upon one's enemy's book—
For behold, here is that book
Among these ranks and banks of duds,
These ponderous and seemingly irreducible cairns
Of complete stiffs.
The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I rejoice.
It has gone with bowed head like a defeated legion
Beneath the yoke.
What avail him now his awards and prizes,
The praise expended upon his meticulous technique,
His individual new voice?
Knocked into the middle of next week
His brainchild now consorts with the bad buys
The sinker, clinkers, dogs and dregs,
The Edsels of the world of moveable type,
The bummers that no amount of hype could shift,
The unbudgeable turkeys.
Yea, his slim volume with its understated wrapper
Bathes in the blare of the brightly jacketed Hitler's War Machine,
His unmistakably individual new voice
Shares the same scrapyard with a forlorn skyscraper
Of The Kung-Fu Cookbook,
His honesty, proclaimed by himself and believed by others,
His renowned abhorrence of all posturing and pretence,
Is there with Pertwee's Promenades and Pierrots—
One Hundred Years of Seaside Entertainment,
And (oh, this above all) his sensibility,
His sensibility and its hair-like filaments,
His delicate, quivering sensibility is now as one
With Barbara Windsor's Book of Boobs,
A volume graced by the descriptive rubric
“My boobs will give everyone hours of fun”.
Soon now a book of mine could be remaindered also,
Though not to the monumental extent
In which the chastisement of remaindering has been meted out
To the book of my enemy,
Since in the case of my own book it will be due
To a miscalculated print run, a marketing error—
Nothing to do with merit.
But just supposing that such an event should hold
Some slight element of sadness, it will be offset
By the memory of this sweet moment.
Chill the champagne and polish the crystal goblets!
The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am glad.

One wonders what Clive James’s enemy had done to deserve this eloquent excoriation. James expertly conjures for us the image of those stores like The Works, where books which have failed to sell languish in obscurity, deserved or unearned. James’s powers of trenchant obloquy are deployed to their uttermost as he compares his rival’s work to contraband goods seized by the police and condemns it to its place amongst “these ranks and banks of duds”.

In the second stanza, he speaks of the emptiness of the praise and prizes heaped on his foe, now that his work has been consigned to reside with “the Edsels of the world of moveable type”.

The third stanza ranks this derided volume with some samples of the kind of books that suffer the ignominy of remainder: Hitler’s War Machine, The Kung-Fu Cookbook, Pertwee’s Promenades and Pierrots and the crowning moment, the application of salt to the inflamed and aching ego: its classification with Barbara Windsor’s Book of Boobs, a wicked contrast between the elevated sensibilities of the unnamed target of James’s ire and the earthy charms of the late Barbara Windsor.

In the last stanza, James muses that perhaps one of his books will eventually suffer the same fate as his enemy’s though not, of course, to the same extent since James assures us it could only be due to the ordering of too many copies, rather than the disposal of meritless rubbish. Even so, he says, the slight pain he may feel in such an eventuality will be more than adequately compensated for when he thinks of this moment.

I like this poem because it reminds me of Clive James and his particular sense of humour and because it is delightfully funny in its lampooning of those books that we find in the remainder stores in such quantities and of those authors whose good opinion of themselves is entirely unjustified.