Author, poet and TV entertainer Clive James is not a well man. But clinging on to life has inspired some of his most beautiful work ever. In an extraordinarily candid interview, the beloved star talks to Juliet Rieden about love, regrets, Diana, Princess
Clive James – love and regrets
Clive James wants his ashes to be scattered in Sydney Harbour. He’s picked the place and even written an inscription, a poem, for a small bronze plaque to mark the spot. “I’d like a quiet little ceremony at Dawes Point. Don’t forget, I won’t be there,” he says, chuckling.
The author, journalist and TV entertainer grew up in Sydney, an only child whose playground was the Tempe dump – a tip in Sydney’s inner west, which was the fabulous backdrop for his gang’s mischievous games, described in hilarious detail in his notoriously unreliable memoirs.
Clive, now 77, knows his failing body can never make the journey back to what he recalls as “paradise”: “the light that streams into the city of my birth”, “the ochre earth”. And so his poignant and rather cunning plan is to return after death. “The harbour waiting to take down my dust.”
“Here I began and here I reach the end,” is the first line of the poem that will undoubtedly have passers-by, if not tearing up, certainly pondering life’s biggest question as they read his two evocative verses etched in bronze.
The pronouncement in his latest book of poetry has caused quite a commotion, he tells me, a puckish grin creeping across his face. “Letters started arriving, including one notoriously crazy young lady from Sydney University who wants to arrange the whole thing. She’s practically hiring a submarine,” he jokes.
The plaque too has “aroused a lot of interest. I was stunned… I’ve more or less got to go through with it now. My family is going to look after it because they’ve realised the potential shambles I got myself into.” He’s laughing, but he’s also deadly serious. “I think most poets want to write their own epitaph if they can,” he adds. And Clive certainly can.
A brilliant career
Clive James sailed out of Sydney for England on New Year’s Eve in 1961. “My mother always felt English. In those days, it was quite common for people to feel that England was home, even though you were fully Australian, even though there was a war on! But I think I started feeling really English on the boat.”
“Passing between the Heads was like being born again,” he wrote in his memoirs. He was intending to be back in five years, but that never happened and although hugely successful in Britain, he has never shaken an acute sense of feeling “orphaned”, maintaining a visceral longing for Australia. “I was born and raised in heaven,” he tells me, his eyes twinkling and lovesick. “I try and get some of the joy-spring of that into my work.”
Clive has always been smart, erudite and laugh-out-loud funny; a larrikin with a penchant for literature and learning, a raffish passion for mass-market culture and an endearing running gag in self-deprecation. His hit TV series in the 1980s and 90s, combinations of talk shows and off-beat, satirical entertainment, were filled with
brash showmanship and he revelled – he confesses too much – in the excesses and glamour that came with his success.
“I misbehaved like shit. Fame gives you too many opportunities, it really does. It’s unnaturally unreal, unreally easy to meet people,” he pleads. “I sometimes think the world is conspiring to get you to screw it up.”
There’s no question he enjoyed the high glamour and fast living, but away from the applause Clive sees himself first and foremost as a poet. And since leukaemia and emphysema have strangled his health and confined him to his home, each day wondering if this will be his last, he’s been producing his finest work. “I got lucky,” he smiles. “If life hadn’t got difficult, I never would have reached this level, that’s absolutely true.
“Some of the best poems I’ve ever written about Australia I’ve been writing recently, because your memory lights them up. Memories light up further, the older you get, which I love. I find you don’t even have to concentrate. You’ve only got to think of it once and it’s in there somewhere, but it might come back to you with the edges knocked off, connecting up strangely.”
Clive was given his life sentence in 2010. He was in hospital for what he thought was the sort of prostate issue most men of his age eventually own up to, when the doctors spotted leukaemia. A lifetime of smoking had already resulted in emphysema, so the two combined hammered a brutal double whammy. “I had a ticket booked to go back to Australia just after I got sick, which I had to cancel,” he recalls with a sigh.
Clive has felt the breath of the grim reaper on his cheek many times since then – “His murmur is the closest you’ve heard yet /To someone heavy calling in a debt” he writes of “The Reaper” in his sobering new poem The Gardener in White. And yet Clive jokes he’s rather embarrassed he’s still here, since in the past four years he has all but received the last rites in a clutch of valedictory TV and newspaper interviews and penned what he thought would be his final volume of poems. But he certainly wasn’t faking it and it’s only the miracles of modern medicine that have allowed Clive to cling on to the raft.
His lungs are shot; Clive’s voice, always gravelly, is now hampered by punishing shortness of breath and a rasping cough. He shuffles around his home, his socks stretched on swollen feet, a shadow of his former “average” tango-dancer self, and throughout England’s winter he is pretty much housebound. “I haven’t been across the street for several months now. When the weather gets mild I’ll do enough walking to get me to the corner shop, but that’s all,” he says.
Clive’s distinctive full forehead is dappled with remnant craters from carcinomas and the endless medical procedures that are the ebb and flow of his daily existence, while a blackboard in his living room is chalked with his medication schedule, names and telephone numbers of key people, from doctors to family and friends, and most importantly, today’s date!
“Every three weeks I go to Addenbrooke’s Hospital to have my immune system pretty well replaced. There’s gallons of the stuff,” he explains. But he’s also surprisingly upbeat. “I meet people there who are worse off, which is good for your character. I’ve usually been a lucky man and I meet a few people who aren’t lucky at all. It does me good.
“I just count my blessings. They are blessings, you know. I was really for the high jump in 2011. I wasn’t going to walk out of that one in a hurry, but while it was in remission for three or four years, a whole new set of drugs came online and that’s really why I’m upright at the moment.”
The drug that’s keeping Clive with us is called Ibrutinib, the “little cluster-bomb” he’s penned a poem to. “It gets in there and gives the bastard hell,” he writes. “It doesn’t take the thing away but it keeps it quiet for an indeterminate period,”
I misbehaved… Fame gives you too many opportunities.”
Clive tells me. “That indeterminate means that you don’t know, so I don’t make long plans, but I go on making plans.”
His new book of poetry, aptly titled Injury Time
– the snatched reclaimed minutes (one hopes for Clive it’s years) playing out before the final whistle, during which a football player prays he will score the golden goal that will win the day – displays a beautiful, and at times heartbreaking, aching for the world, and an acutely vulnerable self-awareness that is, I suspect, only possible if your life is hanging in the balance.
These are love letters to a life Clive is not ready to leave, but one he feels extremely lucky to have lived. “I’m feeling rather fond of the world,” he says with a gentle smile.
There’s an acceptance in Clive’s response to his situation, even a sense of embrace. “No, I’m not raging – rather welcoming the dying of the light,” he says quietly. “If it’s at the right angle it can be quite beautiful.” And while death is a constant in his life, he’s not scared by it. “I’d rather it didn’t hurt… but I don’t fear not being here.
“After the last book [Sentenced to Death], which did surprisingly well as a piece of merchandise, I wondered, ‘Is there a danger of overdoing it?’ But I didn’t set out to write a book of doom. Since the obvious lesson out of the previous few years had been you don’t really know if you’re going to stick around, I wrote the book as if I didn’t know whether I was going to stick around – a slightly different viewpoint.
“It is a romance,” he agrees. “Much more than the previous one.
“I’ve got no clear vision of where all this comes out, except that I drop off the twig. Hopefully, at the most useful and dramatic time [while] talking to you,” he chuckles, as if we are forging our own Faustian pact. “‘At that point he keeled over and I applied artificial respiration.’” Clive suggests, adding with a flirty smirk, “It’s getting good!
“If I give you a call, we could make an arrangement. I’m only half joking, actually.
I may as well do a deal with someone. ‘Hey look, I’m feeling really shitty, why don’t you get here quick?’”
We are sitting together in his living room, which is more like a library-cum-writing den, and the beating heart of a home built for one in leafy Cambridge, home to the dreaming spires where, 50 years ago, he became a star of the Cambridge University Footlights, the kindling for a glittering career. The bone-dry humour and mental tapdancing that shone back then are still very much in evidence, only now they’re tinged with a soft and gentle pathos.>>
There’s no question Clive had a ball travelling the world and hanging out with the rich, funny, famous and beautiful, including Jerry Hall and Diana, Princess of Wales, with whom he shared regular lunch dates. Clive was at Diana’s funeral and wrote his Requiem for her in The New York Times. In Injury Time “There are two poems about Diana,” Clive says. “She brought a lot of joy to people’s lives. She was like the sun coming up when she was enthusiastic about something. She was beautiful and I’m a fool for beauty and Diana was great company,” he adds.
“She civilised me in some ways. She was very good with the kids, hers that is. She’d fly business class [rather than first or charter a plane] and she not only did that for herself; she made sure the kids did, too. In that ambience, in that world, that’s a terrific step to take. That puts you right among the public. She thought it was bad training for them to get used to luxury. Not a bad idea for someone who was the daughter of an earl, is it? I admired Diana’s attitude.”
He also, I suspect, was rather in love with her. In Choral Service from Westminster Abbey Clive writes. “Six men / Shouldered the coffin and I could have sworn / That they brought her to me. … she could smile as if she were the dawn /All set for a night out. / That she would die /So soon, and never race your heart again /Seemed not in nature.”
Family close around
Clive’s family are key inspirations for his work – notably his mother, wife and granddaughter. He has vowed not to talk about them in interviews at their request but he can’t help writing about them.
In 1968 Clive married Prue Shaw, a scholar of Dante among other things. She introduced Clive to the Italian poet when they lived together in Florence in the 1960s, and in 2013 after years of work he boldly published his own translation of the verse. As his work and social life took precedence, the couple lived in separate London flats during the week and came together at weekends to their Cambridge home. But in 2012 Prue reportedly threw Clive out when details of his eight-year clandestine affair with Aussie model and socialite Leanne Edelsten hit the headlines.
Time has healed and his illness has brought them closer. Today Clive lives alone in his Cambridge terrace, his marriage still intact and his two daughters, Claerwen, an artist whose striking and somewhat lost portrait of a young girl in a red dress is one of his prized possessions, and civil servant Lucinda – “she’s the brains” – pop in every day.
“They’re all around me,” Clive explains. “My elder daughter is next door, my younger daughter is with her mother right now, on the other side of the river. They built this place for me on the understanding that they’ll be in and out all the time to make sure I’m still in one piece.
“I like the family dropping in all the time and I think it’s probably the ideal balance. I need a lot of solitude. I always have as a writer. I’m the kind of writer who gets up at three o’clock in the morning. That’s very tough on anyone that you’re married to. I’m probably more bearable like this.”
In his poetry Clive talks about being “faithless” and I ask if what he really means is that he was unfaithful. “That’s exactly what I mean. There’s no way it’s right, but it happened,” he confesses.
Does he think he was a good father to his girls? “In my opinion I was brilliant,” he quips. And in their opinion? “Average,” he concedes. In a newspaper interview two years ago Claerwen admitted she didn’t like being a child much.
“Claerwen has told me that I should have spent more time with her while she was growing up.
“I don’t think they suffered permanent damage. I think it was tough for my wife. I wasn’t an easy man to be married to,” he tells me. “Probably still am not. Better than I was.”
With his illness in remission, Clive has been using his time wisely to talk to those he will miss most, starting with his family. “It’s quite a thing to have a family,” he says proudly. “Very quietly, I’ve said to people, we may as well have this conversation because it might not be possible later. There were people I would miss if I was conscious. That’s the realisation, that you’ve had it, this is all you get. It’s not bad. Count your blessings.”
He says the one person he can’t talk to is the light of his life, thoroughly adored granddaughter Maia. “She knows I’m sick. She’ll be in here in a minute probably. She moves at the speed of light,” he coos. There’s a wonderful poem in Injury Time about Maia. “I loved writing it. She came back from Wales with a video of her stepping off a wall, and doing a back cartwheel in mid-air and landing on the sand. Holy shit! I started writing straightaway.”
The biggest thing in my life
As we talk more I realise that hiding in the shadows behind every emotion and action are Clive’s own parents, Nora and Albert James.
His father was captured and held in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp during the Second World War and then when released, in a cruel twist of fate, the plane carrying him home to Nora and Clive crashed, killing Albert.
Clive was six years old and his world imploded. “It is the biggest thing in my life,” he says. “What that did to my mother – she was strong, she was tough, and she bore it, but it was a lot to bear.”
As an only child he was left as the man in his mother’s house, but laments he didn’t protect her enough. “I regret it now. I should have been better. You can kill yourself thinking why didn’t I mow the lawn when she asked? The answer is, you had some prick-like opinion it threatened your independence. Oh, just do the lawn! My two girls have been beautifully brought up in that regard but I confess not by me.”
Nevertheless, Clive and
Nora made quite a team and he says she not only made him laugh but taught him how to be funny. “She was a very beautiful woman. I liked making my mother laugh.” Clive developed what he calls “the gift for merriment,” becoming essentially the joker in his school pack. “But what I feel inside is another question and she could tell when I was sad,” he adds.
“A problem that kept cropping up in later years was that as I got well-known, some of the men who’d been in that camp with my father and got back, wanted to tell my mother the awful things that had happened. The last thing she wanted to hear after the war was any news about my father’s suffering. She loved him. It was part of my education in what love is.”
Nora lived all of her life in Sydney, a brilliant seamstress in the art of smocking, and died aged 94. “I think she missed me terribly and that weighs heavily on my mind,” says Clive.
In 1999 he arranged for Nora to come from her nursing home to see him conferred with a Doctor of Letters degree from The University of Sydney. “Her chief fear was always that I wouldn’t be able to earn a living, so she thought, ‘At last he’s got a qualification!’”
His focused, hard work now is for Nora. “I’m trying to make a good end so if she were here she’d know I had. That’s what it’s all for,” says Clive. “I like to look at my difficulties as a privilege, as a way to make me better.” And although he rails against becoming “a tragedian” and letting loss “distort his life”, he admits begrudgingly and almost in a whisper: “Sometimes I feel desperately sad – I will save that for my last poems.”
I wasn’t an easy man to be married to.”
In the 1960s Clive went to Florence with wife-to-be Prue. Here he’s pictured lazing on a hill above the city, reading.
This photo was set up for a shoot. “Jerry [Hall] said her ideal man would be an Australian whose fingertips were stained with printer’s ink. But it turned out she had her eye on someone else,” jokes Clive.
Clive James at his home in Cambridge, where he spends his days writing.
Clive, Claerwen, Prue and Lucinda in 1975; and (above) Clive as a toddler with his beloved mother, who he says was “a very beautiful woman”.
Clive has been doing some of his finest writing since his illness, and has had a new book of poetry, Injury Time, published.