The writer, critic and broadcaster explains how his website grew from an online archive of his own work into a multimedia cultural resource.
(First published in The Times, May 16th 2008)
In 2005 I finally managed to buy my domain name, clivejames.com,
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 fledgeling multimedia 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 online archive of everything I had ever written. There were
practical reasons for doing so. On the web, your books can be made available
while occupying no physical space at all: a 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 25
half-hour interviews is still on the site, 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
(there are now 17 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 to shine a light on their best work. When I was
a journalist, I had 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 to 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, 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
It can also get you bankrupt, but there is less reason to be afraid of that
than you might think when you read about dot-com 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 is now advertising
on our pages, but the revenue will 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 recently, but now it almost pays 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 could have been fatal, but 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 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 for ever. 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 scared of.
You can throw a party, and nobody might come. There are at least seven
million websites in the world, and about 90 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
online to find out what we've got to offer. Not a lot of people, perhaps,
but they come from more than 50 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 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 masterclasses 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
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 a
gateway to infinity. What would a pyramid be beside that? Just a pointed
building sticking out of the sand.
Postscript to this story