Clive James

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Clive James

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  • 26 | November 6, 2014 | | Cambridge News

    Writer, presenter,poet and nationaltreasure, CliveJames is nothingless thanimpressive, andrather lovely toboot. On the eveof a rare publicappearanceat CambridgeLiterary Festival,ELLA WALKERvisits him at hisCambridge home.


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    IMUST admit, I was born too lateto remember watching Clive Jameson TV.He says as much as soon as he

    opens the door to his Cambridgehome, built more out of books thanbricks: Youre very young.

    My already jangling nerves jangledsome more.

    It is a daunting thing, interviewingthe man who spent decades quizzingthe giddily bright and famous for ITVand the BBC. Well, Im a dauntingperson, he says wryly when I admitmy fears. Im so threatening, haha.

    The Australian author, whocelebrated his 75th birthday inOctober, has gently grilled everyonefrom Stephen Fry and Billy Connollyto Frank Sinatra and the Spice Girls,wielding a mastery over the realm oftelevision throughout the 80s and 90sthat was only ever challenged by theprowess of Parkinson.

    I was hoping to interview [Fidel]Castro but it didnt come off. On thewhole I met them all, James recalls.Id had enough by the end, I can tellyou that.

    You wouldnt have guessed it, buthe was always more comfortablepresenting straight to camera, and israther happier being the intervieweethese days.

    I was always pretty embarrassedabout interviewing people. I couldnever ask them awkward questionsand I didnt like being asked awkwardquestions myself, he remembers.Interviewing was hard work.Sometimes the customers as Iused to call them, were as nutty asfruitcakes.

    James doesnt t the term nuttyhimself hes funny, engaging andfantastically bright but his careerhas had elements of the madcap to it(not limited to his launching of Cubannovelty singer, the perpetually happyMargarita Pracatan, on The CliveJames Show).

    He has been culture critic at TheObserver, TLS and the New YorkReview of Books, was great friendswith Princess Diana, has written vememoirs (most notably UnreliableMemoirs he has plans for a sixth),spools of arts criticism, numerousforays into ction, as well as a recent,much-applauded translation ofDantes Divine Comedy.

    Prolic doesnt begin to coverit; neither does the term nationaltreasure. Haha, which nation isthat? he says self-effacingly. I thinkI was a national treasure in NewZealand once, which was a bit odd.

    When we meet it is to discussthe release of Poetry Notebook, abeautiful edition of Jamess critical


    Cambridge Literary Festival: CliveJames, Cambridge Union Chamber,Friday, November 14, at 8.30pm.SOLD OUT.

  • Cambridge News | | November 6, 2014 | 27


    thoughts, essays and snatched musingson poetry from the past 50 years,which hell be talking about during arare public appearance at CambridgeLiterary Festival. He promises to recitea few of his own poems on the night,as well as answering questions, andexplains itll be a sit-down stand-uproutine because he hasnt got hisusual energy.

    Born Vivian James in 1939, andnamed after a tennis player, thewriter rst came to Cambridge in1964 to study English literature atPembroke College (I used to readoff the course and 50 years wentby and Im still doing it). Despite alacklustre approach to lectures, heswiftly became president of Footlights(Shamefully extracurricular activitieswere what I did best), and made theUniversity Challenge team: I won formy team in the rst week supplying acrucial answer and in the second weekI messed it up, supplying the wronganswer at the crucial time. Itake the blame!

    He was persuaded toreturn to the city for goodby his eldest daughterafter being diagnosed withleukaemia and emphysemain early 2010. Clive James isdying, you see, and has beenfor some time thanks to an energeticabuse of booze and fags in his youth(he once claimed to smoke 80cigarettes a day).

    He needs to be close toAddenbrookes (which I think isthe most marvellous place, theyvesaved my life three or four times),where he goes every three weeks tohave his vanished immune system

    recharged and replaced, but, he says,its no true hardship being conned toCambridge: It is astonishingly lovely.

    Death is not something Jamesdiscusses in hushed tones. In fact,he speaks about it so candidly thatthe nality of it seems like the muchdelayed punchline of a long-runningjoke that is far funnier than its nale.In fact, dying has given him a wholenew topic to write about, and hessurprisingly jolly about it.

    A lot of my poems are about howill I am and how I probably wont livebeyond next week. I publish a poemand everyone says cluck cluck, howwonderful, how brave, but thenembarrassingly Im still here! You seethe problem? he laughs. Approachingdeath doesnt scare me, just that Iwont be able to write about it anymore.

    Physically, his voice is more fragile,his face less rounded and his ears lessamenable (I am awfully deaf) thanin the YouTube footage of him Idmainlined in the run-up to our chat,but he is just as sharp, just as wittyand just as determined to keep onworking.

    Everything I ever did was writing,he says forcefully. Nothing will stopme except one thing and until thenI appear to be writing unstoppablyabout it. Its a natural event, Im verylucky that its a natural event.

    Theres nothing brave about itbecause ones had a life. Also I havea version of my diseases that doesnthurt, which is a great stroke of luck.But I was born into a time, the 1940swhen the Second World War was on

    When I nally gotout of hospitalin 2010, I had todecide whether tojust lie down, eatsome grapes andhave a drink, orwhether I would geton with my work.I chose the secondcourse and I dontregret it





    Picador, isout

    now priced


    Id quitelike to writemy obituary.What thehell, Ivehad a goodspin.

    Turn to page 28

  • 28 | November 6, 2014 | | Cambridge News

    and young people were gettingkilled by the million in Europe. Inever forgot that and I think its agreat blessing to have been given alife to lead thats lasted so long.

    He adds thoughtfully: I dontseem to have deserved so muchluck. Thats why I dont like luck,its not fair.

    What he sees as luck, most wouldsee as sheer hard work, regardlessof his protestations that hesactually a lazy chap.

    Jamess still-rising poetic proleis a case in point. Its been subjectto a late owering in the wordsof The Spectator, thanks to his mostrecent poem, the crushing, heartwrenching Japanese Maple (Yourdeath, near now, is of an easy sort).James laughs that hes alreadygetting a taste for posthumousfame.

    That trees famous now, hetells me, nodding towards thegarden, where fronds of orange andred lick against the window. Itsalready changing its personality; ithad sweet simplicity when I rstmet it and now its carrying on likeLindsay Lohan! Im afraid that famedid the same to me, but I try andcontrol it.

    Aside from Poetry Notebook, acompact piece, jauntily and brightlywritten, full of insight that knowinglypoints out how he will not allowhis mortality to hamper his writing,James is as prolic as ever with acouple of books on the go, andhas plans for a urry of new worksnext year: the sixth memoir, a shinynew edition of his Collected Poems,called Sentenced To Life (Its on theschedule even if Im not, he quips),a sequel to Cultural Amnesia and a

    book on his literary consumptionfor Yale University Press in America,titled Latest Readings. I dontaccuse them of cynicism but Imsure some clever editor realised thatthat would be just the right littlebook that would end with dot dot

    dot, he grins.Is it strange to work on something

    you know you may not nish?When I nally got out of hospital

    in 2010, I had to decide whether tojust lie down, eat some grapes andhave a drink, or whether I would

    get on with my work and I chosethe second course and I dont regretit, says James. Id like to write myown obituary anyway. I write quitegood obituaries, Ive spent severalyears now writing them for almostall my friends. It would be [strange],but what the hell, Ive had a goodspin.

    You toe the line between themorbid and the cheery marvellouslywell, I tell him.

    Im mainly quite cheery, heagrees. I spring about sheddingsweetness and light! Its not reallymy view of the world, which isvery tragic and pessimistic. In factI sometimes wonder why mankindis still here, its made such a messof things. But when you considerwhat mankind can do, thats quiteinspiring.

    So Ive got a double personality,but then most writers do.

    He explains that it is at thiscrossroads where poetry starts.The joy of poetry is in the shape,the way it springs along and withinthat youve got control of the form,the movement, the dynamics of it,within that you can be as sad as youlike.

    Our conversation ends on thefar less morose topic of poets andsex appeal, namely the late FelixDennis Poets dont normally havethat many female fans! and LordByron He was running away fromthem most of the time!

    We talk of the bear Byron keptin his rooms at Trinity, Cambridge,which hed take for walks on a leashthrough the quadrangle. Byronsbear, James murmurs, lost inthought. Id forgotten that. I shouldwrite a poem from the bears angle;the bear talking; the bear slightlypissed off. Thats a good idea.

    You see, he never stops working.

    From page 27