This winter I’ve hardly stirred out of doors. I can’t walk far and it takes me two minutes to get out of a taxi. But this week I had a dental appointment. I went to it, wondering why: for someone in my condition, keeping a date with the dentist is a testimony to one’s faith in doctors. You have to bet that the stuff the doctors do will give you enough extra time to show off the stuff that the dentist does. What do you want for the 10 minutes you’ve got left, a smile like George Clooney’s? Trigger warning: there will be teethist remarks in this essay.
I’m lucky with my dentist. He plays good jazz records in the background and his hygienist, when she’s got my mouth jacked open, asks only simple questions. “Did you see Skyfall on TV last night?” she asks. “Ngh,” I reply. Her assistant asks harder questions (“What did you think of Javier Bardem’s teeth?”), but is starting to realise that a strangled cry might mean that I am croaking. Basically, nowadays, I don’t mind a visit to the dentist, whereas when I was young I minded like hell. But even now I can’t see the point of the big white set of American teeth.
The Americans can’t see the point of anything else. They want their mouths to prove that eternal youth is a social obligation. It’s in their culture, which combines an excess of professionalism with a deficient sense of proportion. Back in my days as a journalist for print and TV, I gradually got used to visiting Hollywood, but never got used to the teeth, which were dazzling not only in the case of the star, but of any male in his entourage. To be smiled at by Ernest Borgnine’s lawyer was to incur flash-burns.
One day I was introduced to the veteran comedian Milton Berle. I had already realised that large and even teeth were an American standard, but his teeth weren’t just evenly large, they were blindingly white. The rest of his kindly head was about 100 years old, but when he peeled back his lips, it was to reveal the killing weapons of a charging adolescent Tyrannosaurus. He is buried in Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery, and the glow must come up through the ground.
Clive James: in the matter of how women are treated, Australia is the reverse of a stupid country
Happy to be on screen mainly in the UK and Australia, I was able to confine any cosmetic attention to my person within the bounds of normality. I had my teeth cleaned professionally, but not rebuilt. I was allowed to go bald naturally. But when a series of mine about the artificial effects of fame was shown in the US, an important critic denounced my unreconstructed appearance as if I had burned the flag.
When Clive James, who is 75 and in poor health, says “the end is nigh, but not that nigh”, he’s defying gravity, as usual. It’s something he’s got rather good at lately.
About two years ago, prematurely, the world’s media gave James the last rites: with valedictory interviews, hushed bulletins, sombre satellite appearances, and Australian TV anchors flying to his doorstep. “My obituaries were so fabulous,” he twinkles in an opening gambit, “I felt more or less obliged to walk the plank.” In a spooky echo of his own last chatshow, it seemed as if he had become “the late Clive James”.
That was a dark season for a writer who instinctively prefers to shine. When we met in 2013, he was living in a kind of internal exile, from family, from wellbeing, and even from his beloved mother country. Darkest of all, he was putting the finishing touches to a translation of The Divine Comedy while suffering a fate that Dante might plausibly have inflicted on a recent admission to one of hell’s training circles: leukaemia, emphysema, and a mixed bag of carcinomas.
James, believing himself to be virtually defunct, co-operated with these obsequies, watched himself being “safely buried”, and then found the inevitable joke. His next volume of memoirs, he declared, would be Prelude to the Aftermath, a title he lifted from his second volume of memoirs, Falling Towards England. But then, in a cartoonish twist of fate, he wasn’t “a goner”, as he’d thought, after all. He was the Comeback Kid from Kogarah, New South Wales. This, he concedes, is “all a bit embarrassing”.
Last week, at home in Cambridge, a terraced house full of paperbacks and NHS palliatives, he met with the Observer, the newspaper that gave him his first big break back in the 1970s. With a new book of poems in the offing, the conversation defaulted to his afterlife, a subject he treats with characteristically sardonic merriment. “I’ve got a lot done since my death,” he says.
Many writers half his age and twice as fit would be thrilled to be so productive. As well as publishing his verse translation of The Divine Comedy and a collection of essays, Poetry Notebook: 2006-2014 (Picador), with another volume in the works, he has made so many “farewell appearances” (first in London and then at the Cambridge Union) that his friend, PJ O’Rourke, has advised him to “soft-pedal this death’s door stuff because people will get impatient”.
Well, maybe. We are, however, obliged to report that there’s only one problem with this game plan: its star player. Vivian Leopold (aka Clive) James has not yet, apparently, tired of himself. Far from it. Some people treat the appearance of Mr Reaper with resignation, shuffling off this mortal coil as if discarding an old coat, or settling an overdue gas bill. But for James, his trip to A&E was an alarm call that perked him up no end. He responded to being in extremis with all the equanimity of a drowning man. Above all, he got serious. “I am restored by my decline,” he writes, “and by the harsh awakening that it brings.”
Ever since 1958, he has always written and published poems, with a strong bias towards entertainment. The Book of My Enemy has Been Remaindered is a classic of light verse. But suddenly, fulfilling his claim that he is “a late developer”, he had a big subject, perhaps the biggest, his own last exit. The best blooms from this late flowering will appear next month in a new collection, Sentenced to Life, a title that shows James will never miss an opportunity to flash a bit of skirt. But these poems are older, sadder and wiser, the work of a clown who has found his circus inexplicably dark.
Clive James, however, is an Australian “larrikin” with a megaton of inner resource, and whose glass is never less than half full. He says he divides his poems into “lovelies” and “funnies”, which sometimes take shape on the page so fast, he says with a laugh, “that it would be giving away a trade secret to admit how swiftly they can get written”. In Sentenced to Life, there are just two “funnies”, cabaret turns, “about death, doom and destruction”. More typically, the title poem describes “a sad man, sorrier than he can say”, who confesses that “my sin was to be faithless” and who describes seeing himself afresh “with a whole new emphasis”. Occasionally, James the poet steps back to consider himself from the point of view of a literary critic, his most reliable alter ego:
What is it worth, then, this insane last phase
When everything about you goes downhill?
This much: you get to see the cosmos blaze
And feel its grandeur, even against your will,
As it reminds you, just by being there,
That it is here we live, or else nowhere.
(from Event Horizon)
Some of these late poems have struck a chord with poetry readers. Japanese Maple went viral in 2013. Montaigne once observed that we laugh and cry at the same thing, and James is an old master at playing both sides of the street. Japanese Maple caused him some embarrassment, he says, finding the joke in his situation again. “It more or less promised that I would only live till autumn . But then autumn came – and there I still was, thinking, ‘Shucks!’”
Another potential source of awkwardness, to which he seems finely attuned, is the curse of sentimentality. How does he deal with that?
“You’d just better hope that you’re Puccini,” he replies, cheerfully. “Puccini spent a lot of time being told he was sentimental. To which he muttered in Italian: ‘Who gives a fuck?’. You can’t deal in feelings without running the risk of being sentimental,” he instructs. “‘Sentimental’ really means ‘an excess of feeling without sufficient cause’. I think there’s plenty of cause in my work.”
Which brings us to the central theme of Sentenced to Life, the poems written to his wife, Prue, the beloved dedicatee of the collection. This strand in the book comes with another health warning. When we last met, husband and wife were estranged and James was in the middle of a campaign for reconciliation which, characteristically, he conducted in print. The introduction to his Dante translation was more or less a love letter to Prue, who happens to be a distinguished Dante scholar. Some of the best poems in the new collection are for her, again. Balcony Scene, riffing on Romeo and Juliet, closes with this appeal:
Be wary, but don’t brush these words away,
For they are all yours. I wrote this for you.
He says he is “under sentence of execution” if he speaks of “family matters”, but it’s clear that his domestic circumstances are improving. “Negotiations continue,” he says discreetly, changing the subject.
Tom Stoppard, an old friend and longstanding fan, says that James’s poetry “is open to being under-esteemed because he is accessible”. Stoppard adds that he detects “a Graham Greene-like dichotomy between the entertainments and the more heartfelt, serious stuff. Some of his early poems should be in The Oxford Book of Light Verse. These later ones gravitate more naturally towards The Oxford Book of English Verse.” Stoppard identifies James’s melancholia as a source of inspiration: “I hope he goes on rowing against this current.” Apropos the poems addressed to Prue Shaw, Stoppard observes: “One of the most moving chords ever struck in English literature is the sound of a man falling in love with his wife.”
We don’t need to get too misty here, because the poet himself has his own splinter of ice firmly in place within. “There’s a dilemma,” he says. “I hope that she [Prue] is pleased, and I hope she likes them. But finally, the poet writes for himself. I think that what Prue likes about my poems is that they are written for myself. Maybe she thinks my ‘self’ has improved... ” A mischievous chuckle. “Careful now!” he admonishes. We tiptoe around this a bit more, and move on.
James has always had other fish to fry. He has worked in so many genres, and also sold himself to television, which paid the bills. He has no regrets about his years working inside “the crystal bucket” and strenuously denies that he squandered his talent on the tube. “Anyone afraid of what he thinks television does to the world,” he says, combatively, “is probably just afraid of the world.” In the 1980s, his TV “postcards”, he insists, were “as good as anything I’ve ever done”.
Ask him what kind of a writer he is – critic, novelist, poet, memoirist, translator, or journalist – and he’s likely to say, with earnest flippancy, that he’s running a mixed business. “In Australia,” he explains, “it’s the one shop in the suburb that sells a bit of everything: fishing line, frying pans and flypaper. It’s quite a hard thing to run.”
Part of this “mixed business”, now that he’s stepped back, for the moment, from death’s door, is the second volume of Cultural Amnesia, his compendious collection of biographical essays from Akhmatova, Borges and Camus to Wittgenstein and Zweig, provisionally subtitled “The Wrath of Darth Sith”. There are also some more “lovelies” and “funnies” in the pipeline, and maybe another volume of memoirs. Oh, and he’s fretting about getting his website (with his voluminous backlist) in order.
The phone rings. It’s Addenbrooke’s hospital, booking him to check the “wound” on his scalp. (He’s just had another carcinoma cut out.) “This stuff happens all the time,” he says, seeming temporarily lowered by the irruption of medical concern, and then returns to the conversation, with a reference to the 19th-century French novel. “As a writer, if you can arrange it,” he jokes, “it’s good to be Victor Hugo.” A beat. “I’m a natural inhabiter of the limelight,” he continues. “It’s a character weakness. I may as well treat it as a strength, but it’s a character weakness.” Speaking now of the character who haunts the pages of Sentenced to Life, he claims that he’s “the same kid who wrote Unreliable Memoirs. That kid was full of melancholy and fear, beneath a lot of self-confidence. I wouldn’t want to lose him. Maybe he’s my meal ticket.”
Surely, at this late stage, as the object of so much attention, he must have a choice about how to live in the antechamber to oblivion? “That’s the strange thing. I got confined to…” He gestures round the kitchen in which we are sitting: “To my burrow, but the lights haven’t switched off.” Now he perks up again. “It’s very gratifying. The condition of most writers is to be forgotten, and while they’re alive, too. That must be tough.” He preens imperceptibly, comparing himself en passant to Madonna. “Luckily, I’m a story.”
Does he think about posterity? “Posterity?” he challenges. “It’s here. I’ve always thought that it was here. If you play to the gallery, that’s posterity. The best you can hope for is another gallery after you’ve gone, but you won’t see it. Statistically, it’s unlikely that much of what one does will be read for ever. It may just be one or two poems. For example, my Japanese Maple poem is famous among people who own a Japanese maple.”
James’s appetite for the limelight is only a small part of the explanation for the show he’s putting on in Sentenced to Life. He is too steeped in the classics to be ignorant of the Roman ars moriendi (“The Art of Dying”), advice on how to “die well”, though even he would think it bad form to refer to it. Another part, I think, is a characteristically Australian two fingers to British reticence.
Ever since he landed here in the icy winter of 1962, James has been engaged in a raucous, self-centred and highly entertaining argument with British cultural conventions, a dispute complicated by the awkward truth that he also loves British culture to bits. In the process, he virtually invented TV criticism at the Observer, infuriated the poetry establishment, and reminded the British reading public, which has always been curiously partial to the Australian voice, what could be done with the English language if you had been raised in the Sydney suburbs and had the good luck not to go to Eton or Winchester.
In short, he found a voice. For some writers, Tom Stoppard for instance, “that wonderful tone of voice was so refreshing. There was nothing else quite like it.” In consequence, Clive James has been celebrated, parodied, acclaimed, patronised, lionised and disparaged – but never ignored. He admits he’s taking an “unconscionable time to die” and reports, wryly, that Germaine Greer has briskly declared her intention, when the time comes, to make her exit with “a lot less fuss”.
James cannot help himself. In his Observer days, he became Sunday’s must-read columnist – a vertiginous mix of literary exuberance, show-off allusion, topical wisecracks and fuck-you Aussie irreverence. Who can forget his picture of the Formula One commentator Murray Walker describing every grand prix “as if his trousers were on fire”?