Books: The Revolt of the Pendulum — Gateway to Infinity |
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Gateway to Infinity

In 2005 I finally managed to buy my domain name back from a British pirate. Before the pirate got hold of it, my domain name belonged to another Clive James, a jet-ski instructor in Miami. I waited a long time for him to have his accident, but when I lunged forward to grab the vacant domain name it turned out that the pirate had already bought it. He sold it to me for only slightly less than it would have cost to sue him, but it was worth it. My fledgling multi-media website could now carry my name, an attribute that might come in useful when trying to attract the attention of anyone who remembered it from the days when I had my face on the box in the corner of the room, instead of on the screen of a computer.

By that time my plans for the website were already changing. My first idea was to set up an on-line archive of everything I had ever written. There were practical reasons for doing so. On the Web, your books need never go out of print. They can be made available while occupying no physical space at all: a reasonably humble aim, surely. But I have to admit that megalomania was part of the initial impulse.

I was building a memorial to myself: not a very charming idea even when the pharaohs did it. Luckily I soon realised that the project might be more useful if I included the work of other people. Some of my own work included other people anyway. I was already, in the Video section of the site, running little no-budget television interviews that I was making in my living room. Jonathan Miller, Cate Blanchett, Terry Gilliam, Julian Barnes, Ruby Wax, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis and others (the complete line-up of twenty-five half-hour interviews is still on the site now, and still growing, with a new series of nine to be uploaded soon) all contributed their services for not much more than a takeaway Chinese meal and cab fare. In the Audio section, I had been streaming dozens of radio dialogues that I had done with Peter Porter for the ABC in Australia. I had a Gallery section, and all its painters, sculptors and photographers were my guests. (By now there are seventeen of them, with seven pages each.) So why not have Guest Writers and Guest Poets?

Worldwide, there were journalists and essayists who were taking their business seriously. I wanted to help shine a light on their best work. When I was a journalist, I always thought that an individual piece was like an individual poem: if it was well enough done, it deserved to live. On the Web, nothing need disappear. There were poets who deserved a world stage. I wanted to help provide that. If I could load my website with enough permanently valuable material, people from all over the world might visit, not just because it was an example of one writer expressing himself, but because the site itself was expressing a wide range of human creation. A limitless range, in fact: because there were already countless good things glittering among the junk out there on the Web, so a site’s grizzled proprietor could turn his years to use by guiding visitors to the treasure.

You could say that this was megalomania taken to a further stage and disguised as altruism. But whatever the motive, after five years of steady construction the site has become the focus of my later life. I used to do several different things for a living. But they were all linked by writing, and now they are all happening in the one place, and I have to do a lot of extra writing to explain what’s going on. By the nature of the Web, this explanatory writing has to be terse, but that requirement never hurts.

The site’s comprehensive redesign, which has just been completed after months of work, looks a lot less tentative. It looks, as we used to say in television, ‘meant’. And so it should, because a lot of people are giving their efforts to it for small financial reward. They are headed by my copy-editor Cécile Menon, who can also converse with computers fluently enough to run the site. Powerfully persuasive for someone no bigger than a piaf, she recruits out in cyberspace the ghostly technical experts whose time is worth a fortune. Somehow she persuades them to work, like her, for a pittance. She is also gifted with adventurous taste. Many of our painters and sculptors are found by her. Sometimes she has to convince me, but only by making me look more closely, and invariably they prove to have a quality that my unaided eye might have skated over. Thus my education continues, and I get the chance to write outside my usual frame of reference. In this way, one’s mental range is increased. It’s the thing I like most about the Web. It can get you beyond yourself.

It can also get you bankrupt, but there is less reason to be afraid of that than you might think when you read press stories about dotcom entrepreneurs going belly up. For a start, you don’t have to be an entrepreneur. My aim is not to make money, and I have the account books to prove it. Google has now started advertising in our right-hand margin, but the revenue will probably fall a long way short of paying even for Cécile’s croissants. (J’ai faim! is her constant cry.) In fact the site was a steady drain on my savings until quite recently. But by now it is almost paying for itself. The drawback of webcasting is that you pay to send the signal, and the cost goes up with the number of viewers, so you can die of success overnight. The cost of streaming the shows could have been fatal, but luckily Slate magazine in the US offered to send out the signal and pick up the tab.

The cost of shooting the shows could have been fatal again, but the British cable channel Sky Arts stepped in to pay the bills, and soon, I hope, a further alliance with Times Online will make another season of programmes possible. The bottom line — I love this business talk — is that I not only choose the guests and run the show, I get to run the finished product on the site forever. The same goes for the radio material: all my ‘Point of View’ pieces that I record for BBC Radio 4 are mine to keep. The Gallery section acquires a new artist every month, and the library of guest writers grows, and ... well, I’m not exactly planning to install a swimming pool, but there’s already the beginnings of a virtual bookshop, although browsers will have to make their own coffee at home. Wandering the gangways of this transparent space vehicle that we have been building as it flies, I try to see it through the eyes of the viewers. There is already plenty for them to choose from. But who are they?

In that question lies the only thing for the aspiring webster to be really scared of. You can throw a party, and nobody might come. As of now, there are at least seven million websites in the world, and about ninety million blogs, and it’s already obvious that when everyone on earth is building a personal display case they won’t have time to look at anybody else’s. As many lone bloggers have already found, their regular audience is only going to be a handful of people like them. Some of the handful are in Iceland or Venezuela, which can be a thrill, but on the whole, no matter how well the bloggers write, if they haven’t got a selling point beyond their own opinions they are digging their own graves under the impression that they are putting up a building.

But when I wake up sweating in the night, wondering if I am going broke to no purpose whatever, I can check the viewing figures and remind myself that at any given moment, as the sun comes up around the world, there are people on line to find out what we’ve got to offer. Not a lot of people, perhaps, but they come from more than fifty different countries. Since most of them, if they decide to browse around, will read as well as look and listen, it’s a safe assumption that they are good at English, which they got from books. The fear that the Web necessarily erodes the ability to read is groundless. The Web is fundamentally literate, even if only at a low level.

At an even lower level, alas, it is also frightening, because a huge percentage of it consists of pornography, eked out by master classes in bomb-making, conspiracy theory and religious terror. The word ‘jungle’ is almost too genteel to apply. But if the whole thing really is a lethally dangerous primeval forest, then a crucial battle will be lost if clearings are not provided in which people can find nothing but civilisation. I suppose the most glittering prize the Web offers is that it gives you a chance to put your life on the line in a constructive way. Even the brightest young people, wherever they come from, are more likely to find an older voice worth listening to if it is talking about something beyond wealth and power. It can talk about value, saying not just ‘This is what I have done’ but ‘This is what others have done, and I find it valuable beyond price.’

I wouldn’t want to sound too worthy, because I have never had so much fun since my first trip to the movies. I wish, though, that the Web had been around a couple of decades earlier, because a site on this scale is so obviously the ideal form of self-expression, where you get your name on the gateway to infinity. What would a pyramid be beside that? Just a pointed building sticking out of the sand.

(The Times, May 16, 2008)


My website can be defined in two ways: as the first personal fully fractal multi-media archival-critical instrument on the Web, and as an unbeatable method for going broke slowly. The video department is its most money-hungry feature, and to offset the production and transmission costs I have formed various alliances, always with the aim of giving the ally something he needs for the moment while I get something to keep for my Casaubon concordance, my scheme for joining the stars. Forming an alliance with Times Online, I ran the risk of looking as if I had gone to work for its proprietor. But the executives were very kind about allowing me to proclaim my continued independence, and I am grateful to them for giving me the space to do so. Meanwhile, the other departments of the site continue to grow, unhindered by any considerations except those attached to my diminishing supply of time. I wish that last thing were not so pressing, but I would never have started building the site in the first place if I hadn’t thought that the day had arrived for getting things together. How to keep running it after I conk out is the big question now. But my Web editor, second-in-command and sole crew member Cécile Menon is already testing an early model of a cyborg boss, which has a close physical resemblance to Gérard Depardieu. It makes strange noises, but so do I.


Archive Editor’s note

Clive was right to be concerned about the survivability of his Website. In fact for reasons not clear to me the site’s hosting service collapsed and all files were lost, some time in the late-2018 / early-2019 period and several months before its instigator, to use Clive's own phrase, ‘conked out’. In late summer 2019, previous Webmaster Dawn Mancer and I set about, quite independently of (and indeed at the time unknown to) each other, and with zero budget, to rebuild the site. Dawn produced the new with its sleek modern mobile-friendly look; I for my part attempted to recreate the look and feel of the old (Cécile Menon) site, but with corrections, usability enhancements and several hundred new pages of Clive’s earlier work. My project turned into this permanent ‘Website Archive’ ( Neither this nor the ‘main site’ is yet complete.

(SJB, October 2020)