The Times – May 12 2007
- Ginny Dougary

Once famous for his barbed dissection of tacky TV, Clive James all the while was living a life of the mind. Our correspondent meets a modern polymath as he unveils his 40-year cultural odyssey on Times Online

Clive James
Photo: Mark Harrison

Australians, in my experience, however deeply transplanted, still crave the cerulean skies and bright light of their birthplace ­ which is why it is unexpected to find Clive James, on the sunniest of English spring mornings, in a curtain-drawn lair of such impenetrable gloom that the atmosphere seems to fizz with electricity from all the wattage. Or, perhaps, that’s just the effect of his personality.

His London pad is in a converted warehouse near Tower Bridge. It’s wine-bar territory rather than the sort of coffee-house bohemia that is his preferred habitat but that’s precisely why James chose it ­ all the easier for him to guard his anonymity and get on with the serious business of writing and, ah, tango dancing.

Most of the walls are covered with thousands of books: old Penguin novels with their classic orange and white design, and titles covering every subject that could conceivably prick the curiosity of their owner’s magpie mind. (This is a man who, after all, has painstakingly acquired at least six languages, including German, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian and Japanese, in order to read certain books in the original.) There are also paintings by his artist daughter, Claerwen, many photographs of beautiful women, including his wife, various objects from his travels and “Postcard from…” television programmes, and a loo full of Schiele-like nudes.

We sit at a dining-room table in the hall on high-backed Mackintosh chairs (only repro, James assures me) and get stuck in. His new book, Cultural Amnesia, is an 800-page whopper, which has taken him four years to write and all his life to collate. The subtitle is Notes in the Margin of My Time, and although there are many different figures in it, both well-known and obscure, the one that weaves through them all is the author himself.

This is Culture with both a large and a small C as befits the man who dubbed himself a premature post-modernist: “Hard to say, isn’t it?” he says, “Crazy name! Crazy guy!” ­ so under M, you will find Thomas Death in Venice, The Magic Mountain Mann, preceded by Michael Miami Vice, Manhunter Mann, sandwiched by Norman Mailer and Mao Zedong. American talk-show host Dick Cavett, Coco Chanel and Tony Curtis are given equal billing to Cocteau, Camus and Chesterton.

Several times in our interview ­ when we talk about lust, for instance, or sensitivity to criticism (neither of them foreign to James) ­ he directs me to one or other essay in his book. Ernesto Sábato, an Argentinian writer ­ “take this down”, James dictates, spelling out his name ­ is quoted: “Only a thick skin can defend itself, and the characteristic of an artist is an extreme delicacy of skin”, which prompts our cultural guide to ponder how the statement might apply to himself ­ “If I had my time again, I would never react publicly to criticism, no matter how unjustified.”

A page or two on, and he’s into the tango ­ “a sad thought, dancing” (coined, not by Sábato ­ we learn ­ but by a vernacular poet, Enrique Santos Discépolo, in the Thirties; the book is full of such snippets of what James is proud to call useless knowledge) ­ and he’s off again: “Undoubtedly it was the sight of old goats with pretty young women in their arms that helped draw me into the tango world, a man in winter longing for a touch of spring”, and on through a dazzling and sometimes beautiful series of seemingly unconnected connections ­ like a jazz riff, the notes scattering and cohering ­ to his conclusion: “A man who wants to find out who he really is should try watching the woman he loves as she dances the tango with a maestro.” There is more along the lines of this Old Man Winter refrain, prompted only partially by my first question. In the introduction to the book, James suggests that such a colossal work ­ based on four decades of jottings and notes ­ was something he had planned to write towards the end of his life.

So is the publication of Cultural Amnesia accompanied by the sound of a bell ominously tolling? “I’ve been feeling towards the end of my life-ish since I was about 24,” he wheezes and laughs. “I used to have some very bad habits including drinking, and I thought I’ll never last at this rate, especially at the rate I smoked. I always feel like I’m living on borrowed time… So I do feel this is the last round-up,” his voice taking on that ironic Jamesian swoop, “but as my friend P. J. O’Rourke has already warned me, I can overdo this last-ditch stuff. You can’t spend 20 years saying this is the last gasp.”

But you’re not really all that old, are you? “No, I’m a fairly young 67,” he says, a little smugly. “I’m just wearing the internal effects of having smoked since I was nine.” He tosses aside the suggestion that this sounds as though he’s hinting at something sinister: “I’ve got the lungs that anyone would have who’s smoked since that age.” And then: “I’m not sick. I haven’t got time to be sick… I’ve no time to die.” He goes on to introduce his comments, several times, with the portentous words: “If I am granted life…” which seems to intimate a certain preoccupation with his own mortality.

England has been his home since James arrived here aged 21, but he has always been bewildered by the prevailing attitude that there is something suspect about throwing yourself into learning for learning’s sake; that it is bad form to wear your erudition as unlightly as he has been known to do.

In the old days, some of this hostility may have been attributed to a strain of anti-Australian snobbery, what James considers was “a licensed anti-semitism, particularly among the Private Eye crowd.” But there are plenty of towering English talents ­ Peter Brook and the late Anthony Burgess, to name two ­ who have also despaired of their own country’s anti-intellectualism.

Cultural Amnesia is aimed at the clever young ­ perhaps, like his whizbang, multimedia website, of which James is inordinately proud, it is another bid at longevity. “The hardest thing when you’re a young person going into university or the world is to figure out how it all ties up; the answer is that it doesn’t, and it takes a lifetime to find out why. It’s always handy to have voices somewhere up ahead of you, which I always did, and they tend to be the writers we worship ­ in my case, people like Scott Fitzgerald and Camus. Camus is one of my her-ow-ww-ws,” James says dragging out the vowels, like a dog howling at the moon. “And I wanted to write a book that would do that job for the next generation.”

The whole book ­ and I cannot pretend to have read all 856 pages ­ is like a free-form jazz piece. He assures me that “it’s designed to be dipped into ­ I hope that people when they dip, won’t be able to stop dipping”. It is also meant to be useless, he says: “It has no obvious use. Learning is not utilitarian. It should be pursued for its own sake. I wrote the book for its own sake. Although I do hope to get my money back.” Each small essay is so clotted with information and quotes and bridges between different times and people that although there is much to enjoy, it can also feel strangely airless and certainly too much to digest at one sitting. He acknowledges these challenges himself in his introduction, writing, “If I have done my job properly, themes will emerge from the apparent randomness and make this work intelligibleŠ I hope that the episodically intermixed account of direct experience from my own charmed life will alleviate the difficulties of a densely woven text”.

A clue to his thinking behind the book comes when I ask him how he rates his poetry. “I rate it very highly, actually,” says James, who reserves his self-deprecation for the things that don’t matter to him. “And it’s gratifying that as the years go by, the rating gets higher. As a showbusiness name, I was crossed off the list of the serious [those Japanese game shows can't have helped]. But that problem is going away and now I’m getting estimated somewhere near my true worth, which I think is fairly high up the second rank.” I cannot think of a living English poet who would have the gall to assess themselves in this way, with the possible exception of the deeply eccentric Fiona Pitt-Kethley.

So what poets do you rank yourself alongside? “I wouldn’t say but I know where I want to be,” he says. “I want to be with the poets who some of what they wrote is remembered and recited. My favourite poets wrote something ­a stanza, perhaps ­that you can remember.”

It is not the names in Cultural Amnesia that matter, so much as what they represent or, more crucially, the significance of what they said ­ often just a line or two (like the poet’s stanza), that may endure long after they have gone, often in this case, because they sparked something in James’s imagination.

There are occasions when Clive James disappears from his own prose, and allows an image of such shimmering, lovely economy to emerge that you catch a glimpse of that poetic soul. Describing his inability to squeeze his book into a conventional schematic straitjacket, he writes that he could only produce: “a trail of clarities variously illuminating a dark sea of unrelenting turbulence, like the phosphorescent wake of a phantom ship”. But elsewhere, he cannot prevent his Clive James ventriloquist’s doll from taking centre stage ­ that glib, punny TV persona ­ as in the essay on Sophie Scholl (“You’ve really got to chill, Will,” trills Marty cutely”, part of a drawn-out explanation as to why the actress Natalie Portman should playŠ oh, please, just read the book).

To learn about the brief, brave life of Sophie Scholl is one illustration of why Cultural Amnesia is an important book. She was a member of the White Rose student pacifists who was guillotined by the Nazis at Stadelheim prison in Munich on February 22, 1943, for publishing and distributing anti-Nazi leaflets. She, unlike her brother Hans, was offered the chance to recant.

But she refused and died, with her whole life stretching ahead of her, at the age of 21. At her trial, Sophie said simply: “Finally, someone has to make a start. We only said and wrote what many people think. They just don’t dare to express it.” The Scholl siblings were Aryans protesting against the fate of the Jews, as James writes, “purely out of common humanity”. Humanity, and what binds us together, being the central thread of his thinking.

How do we account for such selfless courage in someone so young? James has clearly spent a great deal of time thinking about such matters and, indeed, dedicates his book in memory to Scholl, along with three other fearless women, but he has no answers for me. “I can’t account for it and the book is saying that you can’t account for it,” he says.

The linking theme of the book, James says, is the reaction of the thinker or the writer to a political development, particularly to totalitarianism. In the introduction he refers to “the worst of times which has become our times” ­ and I wonder what makes him so certain that this is history’s darkest age. “I didn’t actually phrase myself well there,” he says. “I think that the time that I was growing up was the worst of times when the Soviets and the Nazis were both going full blastŠ and things have eased off a bit. Totalitarianism hasn’t gone away entirely. It’s still there like aer–os–ol spray,” an extravagant wave of the arm, “but people are dying now in thousands not millions. That’s about as good as it gets.”

James is presumably thinking, in part, about the toxic spray of the Taleban and al-Qaeda terrorists, but he’s reluctant to be drawn into a discussion on the new totalitarians. “I try to keep my counsel and reserve my opinions for articles at the very least and for books if possible,” he says. It could be said that people who have spent their lives reading and thinking have a duty to speak out about the crucial issues of our day, I say. “Yes, but I’d rather wait and find ‘the words for my bewilderment,’” he says quoting a French philosopher.

I don’t get it. There’s barely a writer I’ve interviewed ­ from Martin Amis to Norman Mailer to Salman Rushdie (naturally) ­ who hasn’t felt it necessary to engage in this subject. It seems miserly, almost ignoble, to hoard his nuggets of wisdom for some future publication date. And it’s particularly odd when the entire raison d’être of his new book ­ which we are, after all, here to discuss ­ is that democracy is worth fighting for at all costs.

After some badgering, he says, “Anti-semitism is a great enemy of the Palestinians and I state it as a paradox that’s true because they’re really saying that the Israeli state should disappear and it will only disappear in one way ­ in a great mass of heated light that will melt the entire district ­ so you do the Palestinians no service by giving a moment’s credibility to anti-semitism as a position… But that’s as far as I will go towards a sound-bite.”

Is that really it? “If I wrote a long article or a short book on the subject, I’d say that waiting until Islam secularises itself as our religions have done is too long a wait, and what we have to hope is that moderate Islam ­ which, of course, is the majority ­ will see its way clear to denouncing extremism and get out of this trap where you can’t denounce extremism without being seen to favour the West. But that’s as far as I’m prepared to go, because I don’t want to be consulted as though I’m some sort of expert when I’m just a writer. If I’ve got something to contribute, I’ll contribute it as a writer, not as a public figure.”

There’s more circumspection, albeit less surprisingly, on Diana, Princess of Wales, as we gear up towards the tenth anniversary of her death. The very mention of her name prompts an urgent desire in my interviewee to retreat to the kitchen and make a pot of coffee. I tell him about the time, a few years before her fatal accident, when I was lunching with Sir Hardy Amies at Launceston Place. Towards the end of our meal, Diana walked past our table, looking radiant ­ close up, she did take your breath away ­ in a bright-yellow suit (a colour not many women could carry off with such aplomb), and ducked her head, in that nervous birdlike gesture of her early photographs, at the sight of the Queen’s couturier. “She’s a very bad princess,” Amies said loudly, as she walked out of the door, followed some minutes later by… Guess who?

“Me?!!” James shouts back. “Where were we? Oh yes, she liked that place. She liked Caprice when she wanted to hide in public ­ hahahahahaha ­ and Kensington Place and Launceston Place when she was really hiding.”

So were you in love with her? “Who wasn’t?” he responds, quick as a flash. “Most men were.” But you weren’t at a distance, were you? “I fell into the category of wicked uncle,” he says. “You’re not going to get much out of me on this one. I’ve nothing more to say. [He does tell me that he's been approached ­ and declined ­ to contribute to various high-profile anniversary pieces.]” He still has no misgivings about Requiem ­ “I don’t regret it a bit, that’s what I felt and I’m proud of it. I adored her” ­ the piece he wrote for The New Yorker in the week of Diana’s death, where the rawness of his emotion came to the fore in such overblown lines as these: “What flowers have I to send her but my memories? They are less a wreath, not much more than a nosegay: just a deuil blanc napkin wrapping a few bloom of frangipani, the blossom of broken bread.” But he is unsympathetic to the extraordinary displays of mass emotionalism that greeted her death: “Why should anyone who was born in 1939, as I was, and grew up during the war against the Nazis, trust mass emotion? One of the reasons that I like England is that I don’t like the idea of proving that you’ve got emotions.

“I understood the grief ­ and shared it ­ but the idea that there was necessarily something sincere about showing it rung hollow. Show business. I’ve been in show business all my life and I know how it works. It all turned into a production. The main reason that I’m so unforthcoming about the subject is that I really do believe in letting her rest, I’ve written about it and I have no more wisdom to add ­ heh ­ to the subject,” and he retreats back into the kitchen.

Perhaps it is the relief of not being asked to comment on subjects in the public domain which encourages James to be less careful than usual about his private life. Still, it’s a bit of a surprise ­ after all our fencing over the things that really matter ­ to be at the receiving end of the Clive James flirtation method.

He is telling me that he’s a sceptic rather than a cynic, and a romantic (“I’m very romantic” is what he says) not a sentimentalist, so I ask him whether he falls in love easily. “Constantly,” he says, drawing a big breath. “I’m falling in love right now.” Oh, stop it. “I go for smart redheads.” Stop it ­ and, yes, of course I’m giggling. “I can’t stop,” he says. “And this goes back to the roots ­ attractive and smart women are infinitely appealing to the extent that the woman only has to be attractive and I start thinking she’s smart. That’s the flaw.” What does that go back to then? “It probably goes back to my beautiful mother whose life would have been different if history had not played such a cruel trick on her. I can’t bear to see a woman’s potential creativity thwarted.” This “cruel trick” refers to his father’s death ­ who, having survived horrific years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, died in a plane crash on his way home to Australia. James still remembers his mother falling apart when she read the fateful telegram, and early volumes of his memoirs leave the reader in no doubt about the lasting imprint this made on his life as a fatherless only child.

His mother, he wrote back in 1980, “was the only pillar of strength available. One parent is enough to spoil you but discipline takes two. I got too much of what I wanted and not enough of what was needed. The effects have stayed with me to this day, although in the last few years I have learnt to blame myself instead of circumstances.” I catch several glimpses of this spoilt only child ­ if we spent any time talking about one of the subjects of his book, particularly if they were male, James would bleat: “But, anyway, let’s get back to me!”

He, himself, acknowledges that he likes to boast: “I have a big ego but you need a big ego… because people who are going to be modest for you are lined up from here to the horizon.” I ask him how he knew that his mother, who was obliged to go out and earn a living in a menial job to support him, was thwarted creatively? “She wrote beautiful letters for one thing, and everything she touched was neat and interesting,” he says. “What little money she made on top of her war widow’s pension, she made by smocking baby frocks. She was an expert smocker and I used to watch her doing it, and the stitching provided me with one of my ideals of concentration and density and neatness, because these things get to us very early.”

Were you enthralled by what she produced? “I was enthralled that she was doing it, and somehow that stuck. If a woman wants to be a dancer or something,” he segues unexpectedly, “I give them credibility. I love dancers and singers, and of course you fall in love all the time, who doesn’t? I suppose wise men don’t but who wants to be wise?”

Did you always know you would be like that? “Eventually you have to explain to your wife and that can be awkward.” I’m sure that she must have learnt to become indulgent of you over the years, that must go without saying? “More coffee?” he says. “I tell you what does go without saying,” he continues from the refuge of his kitchen, “you have to be very careful ever to co-operate with any effort that portrays your wife as long-suffering. Nobody wants to be long-suffering.” While we are wading around in what James has called the squalor of the male mind, I press him ­ in an attempt, possibly, to outface his flirtatiousness ­ on what he finds sexy. He flays around a bit, suggesting that it might be a woman’s voice ­ “the Anna Ford phenomenon” ­ before settling for this: “A beautiful woman… are you ready to escalate?… reading one of my books!”

Naked, I suppose. “No ­ if she’s naked she’s not paying sufficient attention. It happened to me,” he continues. “It was in Sydney harbour and a girl of stunning beauty got on to a ferry carrying one of my novels, and the ferry was pulling out and I thought, ŒHere it is. All I’ve got to do is jump 16ft and a conversation is going to begin that’s going to change my life.’ So I didn’t jump.” But, alas, awkwardly, I know of at least one occasion when he has jumped.

Ten years ago, Fiona Russell-Powell, a pop star in the Eighties with the group ABC, turned journalist, angrily denounced James for grafting her life on to one of his characters in his novel Brrm!Brrrm! on the back of their five-month affair. This became a front-page splash on the News of the World, followed by a self-penned account by Powell herself in Punch. The story has resurfaced in the Australian press, and there’s not a lot James can do to make it go away.

“Yes,” he says, when I mention it. “I’m sorry about her… she was a talented young girl.” Since there is something elegiac about his tone, I ask him whether she’s still alive. “I have no idea,” he says (she is). “She had some very…” Drug problems? “Yesss. I regretted that. The occasional busy journalist, especially in Australia, likes to run an article when they hear about this, saying that Clive’s marriage is on the rocks, and I have to point out, if I get the chance, that my marriage has been on the rocks for 40 years.”

But by far the most damning portrayal of James, in my opinion, was one that he participated in ­ a Sunday Times Relative Values interview with the writer and his older daughter, Claerwen, last year. He may have agreed to do it to help his daughter’s career but she certainly did not return the favour. A more cool-eyed portrait (in that respect, not unlike her own beautiful but strangely detached paintings of children, particularly girls) of a neglectful and selfish father would be hard to find; his daughter’s efforts to engage his interest are quite painful to read. And what are we to make of James’s own comment about his daughter: “I think there is a great deal in me that she feels disappointed in, but I don’t want to know ­ life’s tough enough… There’s a great loneliness in some of her paintings, I hope I’m not responsible for that.”

When I ask him about Claerwen’s comments about him never appearing at any of her school events and her sudden realisation that it was unusual to have a father who was never home, he laughs for a long time. What on earth are you laughing about, I ask. “She knew it would wind me up, that’s why. I regret it but there it is,” he says. So no feelings of guilt on your death bed? “Well, look at her,” he says, pushing the catalogues of her art towards me. “Yeah, look at her.”

James is probably not the first man of his generation to be bored by young children, but he may be unusual in admitting it. “When they got old enough to read my books, that’s when they get interesting,” he says. You narcissistic sonofa… “It’s more than half true,” he shrugs. He admits that he is cold-hearted: “I’ve got the chip of ice Graham Greene talked about.

There’s almost nothing that I can’t shut out when I’m concentrating. When I’m working on a poem and fancying myself the most sensitive man, I’m insensitive to everything, yeahhhh,” he sighs.

His wife, Prudence, is a Dante scholar ­ profoundly allergic, one feels, to the whole showbiz nonsense ­ who James returns to for weekends in their Cambridge home. It was their daughter, again, who revealed that James “holds on tightly to us all. He rings mum three or four times a day, in an are-you-still-there? kind of way. Yet the content of his call is always that he is too busy to call.” I wonder how he would have reacted if Prue had left him?

“Ohhh, we can’t get into that. Nohhh,” he says, making a cross sign at me. And then, “Of course it is devastating when the kids say, ‘You weren’t there’ but I’m still not there. I’m an absentee ­ and I’m an absentee even when I’m there because I spend a lot of time in my head. If I had a chance to do it again, I would have been somebody else. I would have been a guy who regards his work as definitely a sideline to the importance of being a family man ­ and with me it’s the other way round and was bound to be so. “I always knew that I had no business being any way except alone. I’m very glad I’m not because it civilised me. To the extent that a man like me can be civilised, I’ve been civilised by my family.”

James talks of himself as a “partial creature” ­ who “experienced my own interior life as fragmentary and one of the consolations I got from Camus is that he said that all bright people feel that way. So I console myself by thinking that people who are complete don’t have any great impulse to complete something on the page or on the canvas or in music. But I don’t spend a lot of time sitting in the corner punishing myself for what’s missing in my personality. I just get on with it.” I wonder if there isn’t a contradiction between his propensity for falling in love and his essential coldness. “Well, there are plenty of feminists who would say there’s a connection there. You love everyone because you can’t love anyone.”

Oh, so is falling in love just lust then? “Just lust!” he says, shocked, before referring me to the second essay in his book… a Viennese coffee-house poet and bum by the name of Peter Altenberg who when challenged by his pretty young protegée, protesting that he was only interested in her body, responded, “What’s so only? But it’s so much better in the German,” James says, writing it down as he speaks “Was ist so nur? It’s a very, very deep statement. There’s nothing only about being attracted to someone.”

We finish with a tour of the newly installed sprung dance floor upstairs which, as he quite rightly says, has been overbilled as a Versailles ballroom. Still, despite the grubby white curtains ­ which James points out ­ there is a touch of the Sun King about the space. The first thing you see as you come up the stairs, for instance, next to a throne-like chair is a portrait of Clive James in the black polo-neck sweater he is wearing today ­ followed by another huge painting of a bald-headed James (back view) dancing the tango, surrounded by a giddy swirl of dancing couples. He reels off the names of the women dancers, but not the men, as he slides and shuffles on his own around the dance floor, practising the steps that he loves: the tango, his holiday from words.

At the start of our interview, he warned me that he would be a dull interviewee. Whatever else James may have been, dull is not the word.

Clive James online

For the first of three exclusive films for Times Online on the figures that have shaped our world, go to timesonline.co.uk/clivejames

Clive James tells the stories of:

Coco Chanel and the Nazis: “During the occupation she took the easy path. She took on a powerful German protector. It paid off in a big way in the early stages: she would not have wanted for butter or sugar.”

Albert Camus: “Though he sometimes fudged the research and often fell victim to the lure of a cadence, Camus was stuck with a congenital inability to be superficial: he could be glib, but would regret it while correcting the proofs.”

Chairman Mao: “To concentrate on Mao’s late-flowering monstrosity is surely misleading. His early-flowering humanitarianism is a much more useful field of study.” Part two premieres on Saturday May 19: Evelyn Waugh, Tony Curtis and Margaret Thatcher. Part three premieres on May 26: Sigmund Freud, Louis Armstrong and Sophie Scholl

Cultural Amnesia by Clive James is published by Picador and is available from BooksFirst priced £23 (RRP £25), free p&p on 0870 1608080; timesonline.co.uk/booksfirstbuy

Related posts:

  1. Educating Piers
  2. Edge of darkness
  3. Better by design: how I can improve your life
  4. Dennis Hopper
  5. Elizabeth the first