Flying Visits: Postcards from the Observer 1976-83, by Clive James. New York and London: Norton. 199 pp. $14.95. Clive James grew up in such proximity to the runways of Kingsford Smith Airfield in his native Sydney that his mother's dishes had a hard time surviving the rattling induced by the planes overhead. In spite of this ordeal by noise -- or perhaps because of it -- James developed a veritable passion for aircraft, although he never experienced the joys of flying until he was well into his 20s and living in London. In the past two decades, he has more than made up for his delayed start as an air traveler. Far from becoming blas'e, he finds his interest in air travel and aircraft has intensified.
Indeed, each essay in this book begins with a description of the plane and the flight that took him to his destination. He calls his pieces ``postcards.'' They were originally published in the London Sunday newspaper the Observer, for which James was television critic from 1972 to 1982. In the sense that these pieces give a picture of wherever he is, from Sydney to Hong Kong, his metaphor is apt. But in another sense, it is too modest. For, while they are not in-depth urban studies, nor do they emulate the exquisitely literary and intuitive flights of fancy found in Jan Morris's city portraits, James's descriptions are infused with a keen intelligence combined with a refreshing absence of cant.
He exhibits that quality so rarely seen in an increasingly cynical world and in an all-too-cynical profession: gusto. That virtue, so admired by the great English Romantic essayist William Hazlitt, animates James's style and content alike. Whether he is flying on the Concorde -- clearly a dream come true for him -- or reveling in such Washingtonian treats as a congressional committee hearing, his enthusiasm enables him to extract and extrapolate the maximum from his subject. As befits a writer of ``postcards,'' he also brings to his reflections the fresh perspective of an outsider, and (far cry from the peevish insularity of John Mortimer, whose animadversions have increasingly outstepped even the bounds allotted a curmudgeon) a perceptive and open-minded one at that.
Unlike so many of us, James does not, for instance, take for granted the openness of the American political system. And, given his experience of two of the freest democracies in the world, Australia and the United Kingdom, his tribute is all the more valuable when he says, of a routine meeting of the House Committee on Energy (certainly no Watergate inquiry!):
Such a hearing, if it ever took place in Whitehall, would not be open to the public, and even if it were it would be called off immediately once it was revealed that the investigators were pursuing their inquiries with the aid of internal memos secured . . . by means unstated. But the automatic assumption here is that the public has the right to know, so nobody feels guilty about obtaining private memos from ``sources.''
Perhaps the best of James's ``postcards'' are the two he wrote when accompanying Margaret Thatcher to China in the autumn of 1982. A supporter of the Liberal/Social Democratic Party Alliance, James is no fan of the Prime Minister. He refers to her passim (this is shortly after the Falklands war) as the ``War Leader.'' Yet he is able to render a portrait that is affectionate as well as biting: ``But I had grown to admire her. She is what she is, and not another thing. . . . She deserves credit for her iron guts, even if you think her brains are made of the same stuff.''
He can be thoughtful as well as flippant. Summing up the press corps' reaction to the prime ministerial performance on the China tour, his scrupulousness comes through: ``As for what we thought of her, the answer is not easy. Some had their prejudices confirmed. None thought less of her.''
These pieces by James read well -- and they reread well too, which is more of a rarity. The more you look at this book, the more insights it yields. And with each re-reading, you will certainly not think less of Clive James.