Loose Canon — The extraordinary songs of Clive James and Pete Atkin

As  Stephen Fry puts it in his introduction to Ian Shircore’s survey of the songs of Clive James and Pete Atkin, ‘those of us who have hugged the secret of this wonderfully gifted pair to ourselves can’t help feeling rather special and discerning, and we don’t need anyone else to clutter up the premises of our small and select club’.

As a long-time fan of the pair’s work (see  ‘My Long Weekend with Pete and Clive – http://www.bernardokeeffe.com/?p=452 ) I understand exactly what Stephen Fry is on about. In 1973 the rock critic Charles Shaar Murray included James and Atkin alongside Bowie, Elton John, Lennon and McCartney and Jagger and Richards in a list of the country’s best songwriters. To say that James and Atkin never quite made it as big as the others would be to give new meaning to the term understatement.

That the wide awareness, recognition and acclaim which  Atkin/James deserved never quite materialised has made familiarity with their work a passport to Fry’s small club. An encounter with another member has, over the years, led to instant bonding and ritualistic  reciting of favourite lines (in my case from ‘Beware of The Beautiful Stranger’ or ‘Girl on The Train’). I had one such encounter with a friend at University whose cartoon of me (now sadly lost) had me holding a pint of beer, wearing a sensible sweater and the line ‘concerning us there are no fables, no brilliant poems airily discarded, just liquid circles on formica tables’ in a thought bubble coming from my head (club members are now nodding wisely and saying to themselves ‘Payday Evening’ from ‘The Road of Silk’) .

And yet it seems this select club has, over the years, boasted more significant members than I had realised –  Charlie Brooker, Stuart Maconie and Simon Schama, for example. Ian Shircore’s ‘Loose Canon’ may well spread the news more widely and lead to a surge in membership, but more likely it will be a compulsory purchase for all card-carriers who will press it, together with the music itself, into the hands of those lucky enough (in the sense that those yet to see Venice are kucky) not to have heard the songs before.

‘Loose Canon’ is a great book. Shircore gives an engaging account of the development of the songs, and his relationship with them, over the years. The facsimiles of original working drafts, together with the photographs and the anecdotes, intelligently illuminate both the songs and their contexts, but at the heart of the book lies Shircore’s readings of the songs themselves. Each chapter moves to a focus on one particular song, and has intelligent and thoughtful close reading at its heart. Particularly intriguing is Shircore’s claim that ‘comparison between Clive and John Donne is not at all farfetched’. The beauty of both Shircore’s writing and the James/Atkin songs is that you end up almost believing him. *

‘Girl on The Train’ – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EGYGVigFXhg&list=RDEGYGVigFXhg

(*The Atkin/James song ‘Sunrise’ ( off ‘Beware of The Beautiful  Stranger’) directly addresses Donne’s ‘The Sun Rising’. ‘How many clever men have called the sun a fool before today’ asks James’s song, cleverly, with Donne’s opening line ‘Busy old fool, unruly sun’ clearly in its sights. As Ian Dury once sang – ‘there ain’t half been some clever bastards’. John Donne. Clive James. Clever bastards both.)