It's just over a year now since Clive James died. Although he started out in the 1970s as a poet and literary journalist, to most people he was a television presence – desk-bound in front of a wall of screens in an over-lit studio. Looking mightily pleased with himself, he'd cue in clips from woeful foreign game shows or soap operas, then uncoil stinging put-downs of their makers, who had committed the crime of not being as smart and accomplished as he. And all the mockery would be delivered in that curious up-and-down Anglo-Aussie voice, which made him sound like he was cycling over a series of small hills while talking.
I never much liked this aspect of his career. Having read Unreliable Memoirs
– one of the funniest, but also saddest and tenderest books ever written about childhood – I felt it was unworthy of him. I suspect he came to feel the same way. Once he retired from television to become a full-time writer again, he adopted a new, much more ameliorative persona, labouring to restore the reputation of neglected authors in his 'big book' Cultural Amnesia
and advocating tirelessly for the reading of poetry (admittedly his own much of the time, but occasionally other people's too.) I think guilt was at the root of all this effort. Ascending to prominence as a sharp, funny, freelance critic outside academia is hard work in any era (not least because of the hideously low pay) and it does necessitate stepping on the necks of a lot of hapless victims. He was too sensitive a man not to feel somewhat rueful about this in later life and wished to make amends.
But even at the height of his television fame – when his own critics accused him, not without some reason, of wasting his talents – he was giving millions of people painless lessons in what scrupulously crafted prose sounded like through the voiceovers in his travel documentaries. Each one had its silly and even sexist aspects (the times being what they were) but all contained wonderful strokes of wit. And the wit didn't just exist for its own sake. Like the best humour, it encapsulated important truths far more succinctly than acres of solemn verbiage ever could.
As he roamed the world's cities in this Postcard
programmes, his jokes deftly illuminated such varied topics as London's multiculturalism ('No new arrival has ever gone home again, except the Roman Army and the German Air Force'), the perils of state-planned economy in East Berlin ('The Trabant's driving controls fell readily to hand – and from there to the floor') and Brazil's heart-breaking blend of beauty and poverty ('Rio has hills like waves and waves like hills. But it also has slums like tips and a currency that inflates like a dead dog in the sun'). I revelled in these bons mots and told him so in a fan letter, to which he responded with kindness and generosity.
When I first watched the Postcard
programmes, as a teenager, I'd hardly been anywhere, but I longed to go everywhere. Even then, I realised that their vividness dwelt less in the images, which any competent TV director could have captured, than in the way the words complemented them. Where other travel documentarians were content to write voiceovers that were rarely more than functional, he went at it as if every sentence were… well, yes, a line of pop poetry: not inaccessible in any way, but perfectly judged and often startlingly funny.
There's always something moving about writers who lavish far more effort on occasional prose (the review, the profile, the travel piece) than it strictly requires. Most of them come to grief quite early on, languishing on a pyre of unmet deadlines, but Clive James somehow made this particular form of madness work for him, both in print and on television.
I can't claim that I eventually managed to go everywhere. But I have been to a few far-flung places, mainly thanks to my dear wife, who is a born adventurer, in that she's far bolder, more practical and quicker-thinking than I and therefore takes each new unexpected development in her stride. We save up and then, work permitting, we travel. And every place we've gone, I've thought about Clive, either reflecting on what he said about it or wondering what he would have made of it if he'd filmed a documentary there.
I've also shared the desire to record my impressions on my return. The motivation was sometimes, I admit, purely practical (a chance to get something into print). But I also found that the discipline of distilling an experience into a couple of thousand words fixed it in my memory in a way that simply scribbling a diary entry at the end of each day never would have.
Nowhere was Clive more often in my thoughts than in Hong Kong, for reasons that will become apparent. My wife and I visited it in 2018, at a moment in its history that now seems surreally calm. On our return, when I – inevitably – felt I needed to write about it, my bright idea was to weave into the piece thoughts on how it had always been one of the great 'stopover' cities on the way from Europe to Australasia and to lament the fact that this role would be diminished by new, ultra-long range airliners that could cross the world in a single leap. Such a theme seems absurdly trivial in light of subsequent events: the 2019 Fugitive Offenders Amendment Bill, mass protests, the 2020 National Security Law, more mass protests, nearly 11,000 arrests. And then, most recently, the resignation of almost all pro-democracy lawmakers from the National Legislature.
No-one who has visited Hong Kong and admired it could fail to be saddened by these developments. It may be worth noting, though, amid all the talk of Beijing's creeping authoritarianism, that a key motivation for the riots also lay in the substantial economic inequalities – particularly with regard to housing and job opportunities – that have existed in the city since long before the handover. Not only that, but the British Government itself didn't shrink away from brutally suppressing protests by the island's citizens over similar issues when it was still a colony, with the Hong Kong police beating several people to death in the 1960s.
The fact remains, however, that the rest of this piece has become an elegy, in a way, for a place that will probably never again exist quite the way it did only a few years ago. When the British relinquished control of it in 1997, it represented nearly a quarter of the Chinese economy. Leaving it more or less alone made sound financial sense. These days, it represents only 2.7 %. The future isn't hard to discern, in the light of this statistic.
At the risk of sounding glib, I have to say the first thing I noticed from the air when we arrived on that bright April morning was that Hong Kong's hilly, mist-enshrouded setting looked more like the pre-historic island from King Kong
. Seen from a distance, the creases and hollows of its intensely green landscape swallowed almost every building, reminding you that even now a substantial part of the island is a nature park.
There was nothing outmoded, however, about the city itself. It really was as dynamic, productive and forward-looking as advertised. Arriving at Chek Lap Kok Airport, we were whisked from tarmac to terminal to hotel via different forms of fuss-free, clean public transport. Only an hour into our visit, we had a sense of a place that knew exactly what we needed before we even realised it ourselves and was determined to send everyone home happy.
Shown to our room on the 36th floor of our hotel, I made the mistake of expecting a panoramic vista. Instead, I found myself staring into the equally tall building opposite. In almost any other city, the view would have been of someone making a meal or watching TV. Here it was of a man sitting at a computer in an open-plan office. During the following days, no matter how early I woke from jet lag, he was always there, slaving away. Suddenly, Hong Kong's intense air of prosperity no longer seemed like such a mystery.
Not content with punching the clouds, the hotel also had a cavernous shopping mall beneath it, complete with every high-end brand name I'd ever heard of and many I hadn't. There was also a blindingly pink Veuve Clicquot display that took up about a quarter acre of floor space, and the kind of restaurants that make your credit card glow radioactive just from reading the menu. It occurred to me that a shopaholic gastronome could quite happily spend a week in Hong Kong and never leave the hotel and its basement. But we had things to see.
So we hit the streets. Or, rather, we hit the elevated walkways that connect all the key places in the midtown district. Getting away from these walkways is an achievement in itself. Bustling but faceless, they give the impression of having been designed to prevent any worker bee – one the way from one terribly important appointment to another – from being tempted to stop and smell the flowers for even a microsecond.
Eventually, however, we fought our way to ground level and caught a tram down to the ferry terminals. The trams spent the earlier part of their working lives in Glasgow and have been beautifully preserved. In a way, they symbolise the best thing about Hong Kong. Just when you feel like you're trapped in an electronic corporate labyrinth, there's a romantic building, like St Andrew's Church, a romantic green space, like Chater Garden, or a romantic experience, like a chugging trip on a Star Ferry to Kowloon.
Hong Kong has a fabulous waterfront, but Kowloon is the place to see it from – ideally from the O-Zone Bar at the very top of the district's tallest building. The bar itself is as generically chic as you'd imagine (and its menu so overpriced that we seriously considered sharing a soft drink), but at half a kilometre high, the view is something else. Across the bay, the city's neon is softened by the humid, oceanic air into something almost poetic – even when every logo is screaming at you to buy stuff.
The other great view is from Victoria Peak. There are eminently efficient ways to reach it, but we decided to begin our journey by escalator. This isn't as crazy as it first sounds. Completed in 1993, the Central-Mid-Levels system is nearly a kilometre long, comprising 20 individual escalators. It was designed to make it easier for inhabitants of the warren-like Mid-Levels to get to work in the business district.
Ascending one escalator after another, anyone who recalls David Niven's fate in the classic Powell-Pressburger movie, A Matter of Life and Death,
will experience a slightly surreal and unsettling 'stairway to heaven' flashback. But the washing strung between apartment blocks and the colourful flowerpots on the narrow window sills offer a wonderful insight into the true experience of living in Hong Kong – a glimpse of reality behind the glossy façade.
Reaching the top of the escalators, we found ourselves amongst some of the most expensive real estate in the world. You wouldn't guess this from the relatively anonymous architecture; it's all about the location above the city's frequent blanket of fog, traffic fumes and pollution from the nearby coal-fired power stations on the Pearl River Delta. Having asked directions from a charming lady with – no kidding – a miniature poodle nestled in her Louis Vuitton handbag, we completed our journey to the Peak by bus.
It was cool clear breezes that brought the original colonial Brits to Victoria Peak in the first place and the air was as refreshing as advertised when we got there. The focus of the place is an anvil-shaped multi-level galleria, which swarms all year round with tourists of numberless nations. We headed straight for the observation deck. The view of the sampans and fishing boats crowding the harbour – and the New Territories further in the distance – was stunning. There's something about enjoying panoramic vistas while surrounded by people chattering happily in so many different languages that gives you hope for the future of humanity and our ability to all get on together. Or maybe I was just intoxicated by the altitude.
We spent the next several days exploring more of Hong Kong's parks, hidden back streets and (yes) shops. It was all great, but there came a point when breathing freely started to feel like something of a priority again. So we caught a ferry to Lama Island.
On Lama Island, the Blade Runner
-ish skyscrapers of Hong Kong's central district seemed a whole world and several centuries away. We were now in the South China Sea, amid fishing villages, sandy bays and Buddhist shrines. We hiked around the island in a couple of hours then rewarded ourselves with lunch at the Man Fung Authentic Seafood Restaurant. No seafood restaurant could be more authentic than the Man Fung, not least because many of the ingredients are blowing bubbles in glass tanks right next to your table – or, at least, they are until you point to the one you want to eat. Some of them (the crustaceans in particular) looked impressively weird. A seafood fan, I do appreciate that this might represent an unwelcome transition from Blade Runner
for many people, but the food was delicious. And oh so fresh.
As our week's holiday drew to a close, I knew there was one last thing I'd promised myself I would do if I had the time. So, while my wife joined a Tai Chi class in Victoria Park, I caught a cab out to Sai Wan Bay War Cemetery. Clive James's father is buried there. Albert James volunteered in 1940 to fight in the Pacific. Captured by the Japanese, he endured five years of slave labour on the docks at Kobe and barely survived the experience. In 1945, the victorious US offered to fly him and his fellow POWs home to Australia on a B24 Liberator. But the plane crashed in Formosa (now Taiwan) having diverted to avoid a typhoon. All aboard perished. Albert James has lain in Hong Kong for 75 years now.
The cemetery occupies a beautiful slope of lawn, framed by acacia and cotton trees – although the view of Sai Wan Bay itself has long since been occluded by tall apartment buildings. None the less, it's an oasis of peace in an otherwise boisterous city. Standing there, contemplating Albert James's grave, it's not hard to comprehend why his son was so preoccupied with Hong Kong. He had, by his own admission, a very fortunate adult life, with all the rewards talent can bring. But the sense of hauntedness that accompanies loss can sometimes be inflamed rather than diminished by success, with the thought 'I wish x were here to see this' occurring all the more keenly.
Like many men who lose fathers young, he must have felt that the possibility of a different future – one in which paternal guidance led to fewer follies and less time wasted on trial and error – lay there, beneath that white headstone.
Towards the end of his Postcard from Hong Kong
, which was broadcast in 1996, Clive visited Chris Patten, the outgoing governor, and interviewed him on the cool, white veranda of the official residence. Patten offered assurances about the handover. 'We have to put some panes of glass in the window before we leave, so there's a chance of their values and way of life being protected,' he said. 'The Chinese could March in and turn it into Tibet. They've done it before.' It seems strange that neither man raised the more likely outcome – a creeping diminution of independence, as Hong Kong became less economically important to China. Most likely they didn't raise it because they knew there was sod all anyone could do about it.
It's always dangerous for writers to imagine they possess any powers of prophecy. At the moment, it looks as though China has found a way of squaring the circle to accommodate ever-growing wealth without the troublesome messiness of democracy. But maybe that won't be true forever. Maybe essential human nature is more powerful than East or West and people will always want a real say in how things are done once they have prosperity. Maybe it'll just take a lot longer to happen in China.
All of that, of course, is small consolation to the citizens of Hong Kong, who must be wondering what's coming next. But what a fascinating city it is. Though everything works with a cheerful efficiency that can only provoke envy in the Occidental visitor, it's the sheer untidiness of the place that wins your heart. Only a short distance from some gleaming mall or office block, fish vendors gut and clean their produce right there on the street. It has simply accumulated in its lush setting according to no plan whatsoever. Elsewhere in the world, efficiency can be somewhat antiseptic; not in Hong Kong. I'm so glad we went there when we did. All we can do now, I'm afraid, is wish it luck from a distance.
David Cunningham has published fiction and non-fiction in a wide range of magazines, including the London Magazine, New Writing Scotland and the New Statesman. He works at Strathclyde University and currently has two new books looking for a publisher