Clive James’ The Fire of Joy was his last work, completed in 2019 against a background theme of his terminal illness. The book’s subtitle is, “Roughly eighty poems to get by heart and say aloud.” Never having the capacity to recall poetry more complex than the simplest doggerel, and never having been in a context where people recited poetry, I have made no attempt at learning the lines.
In the postscript to the book, “Growing up in poetical Australia,” Clive James reflects on the poetry he encountered in his youth and ponders how it reflected the vast absence that constitutes much of Australia. He concludes “When I myself come back, it will be in a box of ashes.”
Aware of his impending death, his earlier passing reference to lines from Harry Hooton is an allusion with a deep poignancy. The lines are quoted within the context of a brief discussion of Australian poets, he does not expand upon the brief poem:
In the midst of life
We are in Perth.
The idea that life in Western Australia equated to death might not have been popular with the inhabitants of the city at the time of Hooton. How readily would the allusion now be understood?
The community in which I grew up would have been minutely small compared to the hugeness of Australia, but when you live your life within a few miles of where you are born, then ten miles can seem as distant as a hundred miles or a thousand miles. There was a sense of isolation as deep as may have been felt in the sort of place where Clive James suggests a dog changing its position in the afternoon sun is noteworthy.
Perhaps such isolation created a shared sense of meanings. My family never went to church, ever, yet we would have understood Hooton’s words, we would have known they were from the funeral service. Perhaps from books, perhaps from television dramas, perhaps from skimming through the prayer books the old clergyman brought into the classroom on a Friday morning (The Burial of the Dead was much more interesting than the Catechism).
It seems likely now that words from the Sixteenth Century services of the Church of England have no more meaning for most people than references to classical literature have for those who like myself never read the classics.
In the midst of life, we are where? In times of remote lessons, the answer I would probably receive in the chat box is “idk.”