Clives James takes stock of life and literary output |
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Clives James takes stock of life and literary output

by David Free, The Australian, December 9th/10th 2011

Let’s start with the good news. Clive James’s leukemia, whose diagnosis was widely reported earlier this year, is officially in remission. Moreover, his COPD — the chronic lung condition that has had him in and out of hospital during the past 18 months — is “under control”.

“On the downside,” James tells me, “my right eye has almost packed up and I have cataracts in both.” He is scheduled for an eye operation early next year.

James’s Job-like run of health disasters during the past two years — he also has suffered a kidney failure and a near-fatal blood clot — hasn’t stopped him from writing. Indeed, he seems to have taken these scares as a cue to hurry up, not slow down. But they have imposed some drastic restrictions on the 72-year-old’s social life. He isn’t allowed to fly, for instance.

“Not being able to get to Australia without carrying my weight in oxygen is a depressing prospect, especially at a time when I might have to miss the Warne-Hurley wedding,” he says.

And even with his cancer in remission, James must pay regular visits to a clinic for blood infusions. “My immune system is being successfully replaced with an immunoglobulin drip-feed that encourages reading for at least a couple of hours a week.”

All this means that James, at the moment, can’t be interviewed except by email. This isn’t a bad arrangement when you’re interviewing one of the wittiest writers in the world. It will, however, make it hard for me to throw in the standard references to the man’s physical appearance, the firmness of his handshake and what kind of beverage he leans back to sip on while considering his answers.

Improvising, I offer James the chance to provide a scene-setting description of himself. “Surprisingly hale and hearty-looking for someone described in the newspapers as being at death’s door,” he replies. “Clive James gives few outward signs of feebleness to anyone who did not know him when his energy was unimpaired. When he sets the kitchen on fire, as old men are inclined to do, he is a little slow at getting to the blaze. His eyes are a bit screwed up, but he hopes to get that fixed.”

It hurts to think of James as an old man. If he is one, then those of us who grew up with his books and television shows must be growing old, too.

James sailed from Australia to Britain in 1962, age 22. While studying at Cambridge he wrote and performed for the Footlights, where his fellow thespians included future Python Eric Idle, future Goodie Graeme Garden and the eternal firebrand Germaine Greer, with whom he had attended the University of Sydney.

After graduating, James established himself as one of the most stylish and influential London literary critics of his time. When the young Martin Amis began publishing book reviews in the 1970s, his father Kingsley would read them back to him in an Australian accent, convinced his son had fallen under James’s stylistic spell. At the same time, James was attracting a broader audience with his weekly TV column for The Observer. He gave that up in the early 80s, when his booming career as a TV performer began to present a conflict of interest.

In Unreliable Memoirs, his much-loved book about his Sydney childhood, James called himself the Kid from Kogarah. The name stuck, and even now it still suits him. Sick as he has been, James retains a boyish eagerness to take on new projects. An internet enthusiast, he runs his own multimedia site, which he is constantly restocking with fresh links and material. Earlier this year he went back to writing a weekly TV column, this time for Britain’s Daily Telegraph. When a nasty reflaring of illness put him flat on his back for much of the British summer, he continued to file the column from his hospital bed.

These days James is up and about again. He spends half of each week writing in his London apartment and the other half in Cambridge with his wife, their two married daughters and his young granddaughter, who has made several touching cameo appearances in his recent poetry.

“My routine used to be four days in London and three in Cambridge. Now things are more even because all my clinics are in Cambridge: eyes, lungs, oncology. So I write a bit more at home and get in everyone’s road. They are very nice about it.

“Illness has scrambled my timetable because there are some kinds of writing that are affected more than others. My TV column is fun to do and pays for the groceries, which is important to me because I don’t like living on my pension if I can avoid it. A poem still, as always, puts in an appearance when it is good and ready. But between those two extremes there are the long critical pieces that I write for The Atlantic, and I can only say there was a time when they would have come more easily.”

As James pushes on with these ventures, a couple of bigger projects have just come to fruition. A book of his radio commentaries, A Point of View, appeared in November. Hot on that book’s heels, Australian company Madman Entertainment has just released The Clive James Collection, a three-DVD set of documentaries James made for Britain’s ITV during the 80s.

The DVD release comes at an important time for James. Having narrowly dodged death twice in two years, he has been intensifying his efforts to get his back catalogue in order. At his website, he and his cyber team are busy uploading the text of his out-of-print books, so that the oeuvre, when the time comes to leave it behind, will be as shapely and complete as possible.

“I do aim to get all my books on site before the pearly gates swing open before me, or swing shut behind me or whichever it is, and it would be satisfactory if I could do the same for any TV work I value. At my age you don’t really want to lose anything.”

James, who retired from the TV industry in 2000, has always viewed his best TV stuff as continuous with his literary output. But there was a time when his TV fame threatened to compromise his reputation as a writer, and especially as a poet. “I can only wonder,” he wrote a few years ago, in an essay called The Velvet Shackles of a Reputation, “if my name as a poet might not have made quicker progress had I been less notorious for the other things.”

Some of the other things James was notorious for are on display in the new DVD. In one program he dons a tight red tracksuit to participate in a Japanese game show. In another he pulls on a pair of togs, jumps into Hugh Hefner’s swimming pool and interviews a trio of glistening playmates.

But there is plenty of serious stuff, too. There is a riveting hour-long interview with Roman Polanski, who is hair-raisingly frank about the sexual assault charges that made him flee the US. “I like girls of this age,” Polanski explains. (The girl was 13.)

James, who says that interviewing celebrities is “a soul-stealing activity to be good at”, believes his most valuable TV work came in his travel documentaries, known as the Postcards. “I think some of my best writing is in the Postcard programs. Practically every one of them has at least one paragraph of commentary that has me lounging around admiring myself.”

Certainly, James’s way with words is the unifying element of the documentaries. It keeps them fresh, even after 20-odd years. Consorting with various lethal beasts while on safari in Kenya, James says in voice-over: “It was time for breakfast, but we wanted to eat it, not be it.”

I ask James if some of his stunts for the TV camera, in Africa and other places, weren’t a bit rash. It would have been a shame, I suggest, if we’d missed out on his late poetry because he was too keen to get into a two-shot with a charging rhino.

“I’m glad to hear that some of the TV action work looks dangerous because we were fairly careful to make sure none of it was. If I’d had any Steve McQueen tendencies, they would have been quelled by the producers, whose closest connection was with the insurance company. Such was my concern with my own safety, indeed, that I would rejig even the mildest stunt so that I was scarcely even in it. My literary future was safe, believe me.”

Perhaps the key work in James’s literary future was the monumental Cultural Amnesia, published in 2007. Reading that book, one can understand why some critics think of James as a paradoxical figure, or even as two separate men. Can the James who wrote such a polymathic survey of the West’s high and low culture — a book J. M. Coetzee called “a crash course in civilisation” — really be the same man who jumped into Hefner’s pool, surfacing remarkably close to the awesome chest of Miss January?

Well, he is the same man. The paradox, when closely examined, isn’t a paradox at all. The plain fact is that James is a born performer. If he weren’t, his serious writing wouldn’t be so absorbing. He is constantly looking to entertain you with the texture of his language. Cultural Amnesia looks like a brick but it reads like a breeze because James’s prose is driven by the same crowd-pleasing instinct that animated him on the Footlights stage and on TV. With James, you can’t have one thing without the other. And what’s so bad about having both?

Does he miss performing? “I do indeed. I always tried to keep the volume level down, but basically I was the kind of restaurant guest who would perform for the waiter. “The cruellest deprivation, since I got sick, is that I can’t go on stage and do my 1 1/2 hours. Perhaps one day. Unfortunately it takes quite a lot of puff, which I’m short of.”

Sadly, this lack of puff has also taken the wind out of a couple of long-meditated books. For years he has spoken of writing a big novel about the war in the Pacific, the war in which his father died when James was five. This work, James now says, “is reconciling itself to never seeing the light of day”.

A sequel to Cultural Amnesia is a more realistic prospect, although at the moment, James says, the project is “mainly a pile of notes”.

There is better news for fans of the memoirs. To date, the original book has yielded four sequels. James now says that “a sixth volume, incorporating all my medical disasters, is such a potentially hilarious prospect that I don’t think I can much longer resist it”.

The original Unreliable Memoirs has gone through more than 100 printings and sold more than a million copies. Did James sense, while writing it, that he was in the process of striking gold?

“No, I never felt I was on to something special when I was writing Unreliable Memoirs. I was having so much fun I was on automatic pilot. Today, I tend to obsess about a dangling participle on the last page. Now that the book has become a school text I want it to set a good example.”

Consulting my own copy of the memoirs, I’m damned if I can find the dangler in question. Instead I find myself succumbing, yet again, to the ravishing cadences of the book’s conclusion. Dangler or no, those closing pages of James’s book contain some of the most lyrical writing about childhood ever done, anywhere.

“Secretly,” James admits, “when I give myself time, I am very pleased to have written a book that will undoubtedly outlast me, unless they cancel the latest print run on the day I croak.”

Emboldened by James’s candour on the mortality question, I ask him if he minds what posterity will think of him. Would it bother him, for example, if he was remembered more for his prose than his poetry?

“I’d be grateful to be remembered for anything,” he says. “By the way, who’s going to tell me?”

Archive editor's note, July 2020

The Australian has a large number of more recent articles by and about Clive James on the paper's WEBSITE, but even the site's archive material is protected by a paywall: you need to pay at least AUS $14 in order to access it — SJB