October 2011

Arts & Letters

Clean as you go

By Paola Totaro
Clive James, 2006. © David Levenson/Getty Images
A correspondence with Clive James

And so it began, an often elating, occasionally haunting, rollercoaster of a month in conversation with Australia’s expatriate homo universalis Clive James – him confined to a bed somewhere in Cambridge’s world-famous Addenbrooke’s Hospital after a brush with the “old man with the scythe”, a leukaemia diagnosed after kidney failure early last year.

I suspect my email caught James at a moment of great impatience, when he was expecting to be up and about quite quickly after a new round of chemotherapies only to be felled by the drug cocktail.

We decided that, until he was “upright again”, I would read his new book, A Point of View, due out with Picador next month (400pp; $39.99), the latest poetry collection, Angels over Elsinore (Picador, 288pp; $54.99), and the most recent published poems. Then we’d meet in London at the Docklands pad where he writes and spends his weekdays for the traditional interview. When I mentioned my last profile was Geoffrey Robertson, he quipped: “You must be looking forward to hearing an Australian accent.”

On 5 August he wrote:

I’ve just been incommunicado for ten days while the hospital was putting me through the wringer again, and I can promise you that when I’m up and about, I’m full of life, having seen the old man with the scythe from so close. And porca miseria, what a breath.

Clive James’s output is phenomenal: 12 books still in print, including five volumes of memoir, three of poetry, eight volumes of essays, uncountable works of journalistic criticism, forays into theatre and music. And that’s not taking into account the decades as a TV critic – and TV star himself.

A Point of View is a collection of short monologues transcribed from the program of the same name on BBC Radio 4. It is a rollicking and thought-provoking read, spanning vintage, comedic James on the hideous excesses of the language of marketing or the modern penchant for facelifts and plastic surgery to brainy dissertations on racism, on class in the UK, on the role of torture in warfare, on Damien Hirst and modern art.

Perhaps the only jarring note in the collection is James on global warming. A robust defence of scepticism as a fundamental tenet of scientific thinking is hardly surprising from James but, on this topic, he seems to be of the view that the Earth is undergoing a natural cycle of climate disruption. He has a point when he lambasts the media for not properly reporting the lack of scientific consensus on the issue, but his own language in the postscript appears equally one-sided: the press all “embrace the doom scenario”, the University of East Anglia team had “constructed a neo-Swiftian machine for rewriting the past in order to lend weight to their fantasies about the future”, Obama’s chief climate adviser is a “career alarmist”, wind farms are “useless”.

The perennial joker, inordinately erudite, outwardly sure of himself and yet gently self-deprecatory, the kid from Kogarah, now 71, has now been famous, really famous, for close to 40 years. The face, the bald pate, the lopsided, boyish smile and little upward tufts at the edge of each eyebrow are instantly recalled by most of us with very little effort. Close your eyes and James’s voice is just as easy to conjure: the swaggering, up-beat delivery, slightly smart-arsey, braggadocio tone, the vowels rounded with precision but still Australian after all these years.

The Quadrant editor and historian Keith Windschuttle says his prose ‘voice’ comes from the 1950s state high school system: “The prevailing ethos was egalitarianism, though not the chip-on-the-shoulder kind. At the time, you admired people of obvious ability – Clive has written memorably about rugby league player Reg Gasnier – but you developed a sharp eye for poseurs, self-promoters, time-servers and salesmen, and had fun sending them up and putting them down. These were the essential skills for literary criticism and Clive made the most of them when he went to London. They still serve him well today.”

It’s been many years since there was any real critical dissent about the quality of James’s prose, but it’s only been over the past seven or eight years that his poetry – for him “the centre of the whole business” – has started to truly penetrate the literary world. Not being taken seriously for the activity that “mattered to me most” has been a source of great frustration in the past for James, who wondered aloud in an essay in this magazine (‘The Velvet Shackles of a Reputation’, August 2007) why a successful career in TV and a talent for entertaining should “rule out any possible reputation as a serious writer”.

Hints of this professional dissonance – and a certain existential unease – are also apparent in almost every interview James has given in the last few years. One interviewer writing in the Independent in London in 2009 observed that James’s memoirs, despite not stinting on humiliation or ambition, actually reveal “very little of the inner Clive, the Clive unprotected by jokes”, and that the person at the centre of them “remains strangely remote”.

James has always been clear that his private life is off limits. He never talks about his wife, the Cambridge academic Prue Shaw, or his two daughters. His desire to keep an iron grip on how others perceive or write about him manifested in my attempts to speak to old friends and literary colleagues, which were met with a wall of loyal silence.

As our electronic to-ing and fro-ing continued, though, I realised that, at this point in his life, very little of the ‘inner Clive’ is being hidden. Just as he says himself, it’s all there in the poetry.

Despite the gruelling regime of treatment, James has been writing verse with gusto. Throughout our conversation, he seemed most comfortable addressing questions about the process of poetry writing – where the urge in him springs from, its impact on his fulfilment as a writer. Of writing poetry now, in this moment of intense danger, he says:

The old man with the scythe is no stranger to me, because he came to my house when I was six years old and ruined my mother’s life. And I suppose he determined the course of mine, because I have always been conscious of how fleeting life might be. In between four or five different face-offs with the ancient villain over the last two years I have written almost constantly, as if my life depended on it, which, when you think about it, is absurd. I suppose the main driving force of what might be my last spate of work is that there are things I haven’t said yet. Some of those things drive poems, others drive prose. 

James’s seminal poem ‘Son of a Soldier’ reveals much about him – a howl of pain for the father who survived a Japanese POW camp in World War II only to die in an aircraft accident on the way home to his wife and five-year-old, only child. James’s mother never re-married and the weight of that loss, and James’s own sense of guilt and powerlessness, is viscerally conveyed, as is James’s ongoing struggle with the conventions of marriage. (He has never really lived, except on weekends, with his wife and children.)

James uses the poem to directly confront his failings as a husband:

The love that he did not return to make

To the first woman I knew and could not help,

Became in me a thirst I could never slake

For one more face transfigured by delight,

Yet needing nothing else. It was a doomed quest

Right from the start, and now it is at an end.

I am too old, too raddled, too ashamed.

“Can I stay in your house? I need a friend.”

“So did I,” she said truly. “But be my guest …” 

Read together, much of James’s most recent poetry is not only vividly evocative and lyrical but creates an intimate and generous window into Clive James, the person. ‘My Tears Came Late’, published in Opal Sunset, says:

I was fifty-five years old

Before I began to cry authentically:

First for the hurt I had done to those I loved,

Then for myself, for what had been done to me

In the beginning, to make my heart so cold.

The vast emotional terrain he has walked in the last few years includes growing old and the death of friends (‘We Being Ghosts’); the passing of time, restlessness and unfulfilled marital dreams (‘Castle in the Air’); and the melancholy beauty of youth and the sadness of ageing (‘Portrait of Man Writing’).

I questioned James about artistic fulfilment, and he wrote:

I’m not sure writing poetry can ever fulfil anyone. It’s like water: necessary but never enough, or not for long. I certainly don’t ‘turn to’ poetry whether as reader or a writer, in times of greater or less happiness. I turn to it when I might otherwise be idle. Just to address the matter of what a poet feels about spending his time on Earth putting words together: What other people get from holidays, I get from writing poetry. It’s a kind of indoor surfboard. At moments of greatest concentration nothing else exists except you and the structure forming itself in front of you. You don’t turn to poetry: you turn into it. 

James began writing poetry at the University of Sydney. His first poems were published in the University of Melbourne’s magazine, receiving encouragement from Les Murray. Later as editor of the University of Sydney’s magazine, Honi Soit, the young James first published Murray’s landmark work ‘Property’.

James mused that, even as a kid, his nature seemed to mesh naturally with the process required to write poetry:

I liked, still like, the idea of saying a lot in a few words: a kind of eloquent taciturnity. People like La Rochefoucauld and La Bruyère were practically the first French writers I read, even in English, if you get me. At Hurstville Primary, in woodworking class, I was taught an essential principle: clean as you go. It was the only part of the subject that I ever mastered. I made a lousy dovetail joint but I had a clean bench.

His good friend Christopher Hitchens – himself fighting a virulent (oesophageal) cancer – reminisces with great brio about James in his memoir Hitch-22. The Friday lunches, boozy and riddled with literary banter, have since cemented their place in several memoirs; they went on from the mid ’70s well into the early ’80s with a bunch of the greats (Martin Amis, Peter Porter, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes et al.). Hitchens says the tradition began as a sort of “end-of-the-week clearinghouse for gossip and jokes” and marvels at James’s ability to have an “absolutely massive following on television while slaving until dawn in Cambridge to produce gem-like essays for no-readership magazines like the New Review”.

The authority of James’s prose, Hitchens observes, goes unchallenged when it comes to the ‘hyperbolic metaphor’:

Arnold Schwarzenegger in Pumping Iron resembled “a brown condom stuffed with walnuts”. Of an encounter with some bore with famous halitosis, Clive once announced “by this time his breath was undoing my tie” … his review of Leonid Brezhnev’s memoirs … [opens with] “Here is a book so dull that a whirling dervish could read himself to sleep with it.” 

James offered his own description of the difference between verse and prose:

With prose you’re licking a vast surface of the nougat but with a poem you’re biting a piece off. It’s really yours. Sometimes I simply get a phrase, hear the potential for music and rhythm in it, and know straight away whether it will serve as decoration into an article or whether it will be part of the structure of a poem. A poem, like a movie, is all structure: and some fragments you think of simply won’t fit any poetic frame without undue distortion, which I always try to avoid. 

James’s “twanging marsupial tones” (again, Hitchens) has changed little over the years and his passion and continuing interest in Australia is well documented. In the past, he has imagined himself fishing off McMahons Wharf in his dotage but the truth is that his life has been England – where “a resident Aussie was thought of as a sort of honorary Pom anyway” – and it is here it will probably end.

James says he never really “chose” to stay on in the UK:

A lot of the choices around where to live aren’t really choices … my wife’s work, while she was still a don, was here, in England. So that ruled out New York, let alone Australia. But also there were more and more opportunities to fly home … Until I got sick I went home whenever I wanted. Being short of oxygen has hurt me in that department, but I have hopes. I always like to be drinking pots of coffee at Rossini’s on the Quay when the jacarandas blossom in October. They really roll out the purple carpet for the pigeons and the gulls. 

Still, Australia has figured large in recent writing:

Without really planning to, I’ve written more and more about home in recent years. It isn’t tactics, so much as a registration of how the mind works. In my case anyway, it works by reminiscence. And I’m certain that if I’d never gone away I would never have spotted the connection between poetry and memory … distance lends enchantment not just to the view, but to the viewing. If I’d never left home I never would have coped with the spectacle of Sydney from close up.

On 1 September, Clive James wrote to say we wouldn’t get to meet before the Monthly deadline:

A good method, this ... those subject to interview should always try to get sick beforehand, instead of complaining about feeling sick afterwards. Don’t forget to keep all this exchange so I can put it on my website one day. And you never know, it might be a book, with a picture of you and me strolling beside the Thames, taken just before I threw you in.

Un bacio, Clive

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