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

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

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.”

Dou­ble whammy

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.”

Love let­ters

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.

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