An obscure sort of celebrity
He may be a veteran of 70 now, but writer, poet and broadcaster Clive James is still ‘a blunderer, who finds things out by trial and error’, he tells FIONA McCANN
THE FIRST WORDS from Clive James are surprisingly upbeat, considering I’m 20 minutes late for our interview. “Congratulations!” says the voice over the intercom of his apartment building. “You found it!” Yep, that’s Clive James alright, his voice unmistakable despite the intercom distortions: that mild Australian accent, the slightly nasal intonation, the wry but upbeat delivery.
It is in many ways his trademark, though impossible to reproduce in print, which may explain why most people remember him from his lengthy career in television, though he’s been writing – poetry, fiction, essays and articles – for far longer.
He opens the door to his sixth-floor apartment, and I step into a world of books: shelves packed tightly, a coffee table covered; books everywhere – a testimony to his love of words and writing. Which is, after all, the reason I’m here: he has just published another book, volume five of his memoirs. Volume five? No wonder I keep reading about his self regard and smugness – can someone really have that much to say about himself?
Apparently so, and yet Clive James is not as solipsistic as that sounds. “In 1979, when I wrote the first one, it just seemed like a good gag to write an autobiography,” he explains. “Because I hadn’t done anything. That was the joke, you see.” But the joke doesn’t quite work any more, given that Clive James has since done a great deal. On top of the decades in television, the documentary series, the four novels, nine books of poetry and 15 of non-fiction, including the acclaimed Cultural Amnesia, he has also managed to learn to tango. So why does he keep writing about himself? “I always talk about my experience anyway on stage or I try to make fun of it, and I thought it would be good material. It’s the thing I know best,” he says with disarming logic. “It seemed a neat trick, so I did one volume. It caught on and after that it was publisher’s demand really. They’re the books of mine they can be fairly sure will sell, which supports all the other books, which are sometimes quite chancy.”
Yet, though they are his bread and butter, he is at pains to dispel any myths that these memoirs, which have sold in droves, are a throwaway exercise. “I think I do some of my best writing in my memoirs. I write them quite carefully.” He’s keen to make them readable. “I don’t trust my memory so much, I trust my forgetfulness. You’ve got to be able to forget all the stuff that’s boring and just remember the key events, and you don’t always remember them in the right order, and I don’t bother to check up. I put them in the most dramatic order.”
Careful, then, does not necessarily mean accurate. “I’ve always liked the idea of the autobiography that tells all kinds of lies, but is really telling the emotional truth, which I try to do. I don’t see myself in any other way except as a blunderer who finds out everything by trial and error.” His blunders are well-documented in this new book, The Blaze of Obscurity, which is based on his television years, and he swears that any exaggeration is at his own expense. “I’d rather exaggerate by making myself out to be a blunderer than try to protect my self-love.” It’s hard to put this down to false modesty, especially given that James is far too interested in other people. He is solicitous and fiercely curious, engaging on a wide range of topics, including whether new media have brought about the demise of the old.
“It’s over,” he says of the kind of television that made his name. “It was almost over when I left. I sort of sensed it coming because the celebrity culture had started to reign supreme, in the sense that fame was everything, and I couldn’t interview anybody who wasn’t famous even if they’d done nothing.”
He hasn’t given up on the visual format, however, having developed his own multi-media website since leaving television, and launched the online series, Talking in the Library, featuring video interviews he conducted with Ian McEwan, Stephen Fry and Cate Blanchett, among others. “I’m off the hook that I was increasingly getting impaled on in TV where the billing of the guest was everything.” Thus his television career has come to an end, and with it the big money he admits came with it. “It’s very easy to get spoilt by that.”
It also brought him a modicum of fame, and into contact with those with more than a modicum. He recalls a party he attended once at Gore Vidal’s house: “I was shown in, and there were hundreds there and there wasn’t a single face that I didn’t recognise, and they were all united by one common expression as they looked at me in the doorway, and the expression was ‘Who is he?’”. He laughs. “Paul Newman was standing there with a look of terror on his face, and the look of terror said ‘How does someone I don’t know get this close to me?’” The rich and famous didn’t always have that reaction: One person unterrorised by the sight of James was Princess Diana, with whom he became friends. “I miss her,” he says simply. “She was fun company you know. She was. She really lit up the place.”
Though his own fame may have facilitated such encounters, its consequences are not always positive. “It is distorting, and you get false expectations, and when you leave it and try and retreat from that kind of attention, you find all kinds of reflexes have to be rebuilt,” he says. “There’s the simple one of getting on an aircraft and turning left for example. You probably won’t be doing that any more.”
THOUGH HE HASleft the days of first class travel behind, James hasn’t slowed down much. He still writes profusely, still tango dances, still reads in several languages, and looks after his website. Yet though he’s on board with technological developments, he doesn’t always see them as a good thing. “Be frank: the whole blogroll is a nightmare for literature, and the whole of amateur video-making for the net is throwing away 50 years of experience. And you probably won’t get it back.”
Which hasn’t stopped James from getting stuck in, while also continuing to give talks and write articles for a variety of publications, including Slate.com. His latest screed is a call to Western feminists to take up the fight against honour killings. Does that mean Clive James is a feminist? “Yes, I’m an unreconstructed male chauvinist pig feminist,” he says with that famous wry smile. “Therefore I like to think I have a certain value.”
And of course, there’s the book, The Blaze of Obscurity, which documents times past on the small screen, including his interviews with Luciano Pavarotti, Roman Polanski and Tom Cruise. Any regrets? He cites his notorious programme about Playboypublisher Hugh Hefner, during which James jumped into a jacuzzi with three Playboy girls. Perhaps not his finest moment, but “we had to save the show because Hefner was just pitiably boring”. He saves his regrets, perhaps unsurprisingly, for the things he hasn’t done.
“Trouble is, I want to be everything,” he says, his eyes as bright as an eight-year-old in a chocolate factory. “But when you are a writer you can be everything, that’s the great thing about it! Especially when you write poetry – everything can come into poetry. All the desires of your personality can be there and you can fulfil them. It’s a deeply satisfying thing, poetry. It’ll be the last thing I do, and it was always the first.”
So the fire in his belly burns on? “I don’t lose the thrill,” he admits. “Never have. The first time I was published in a newspaper, a proper newspaper, was about 1958 I think, the Sydney Morning Herald, and I bought 10 copies of it, in case I lost nine of them. I still feel like that.”
Clive James may be a 70-year-old grandfather, but it seems he’s only just getting started. Which is how I feel about the interview when the time is suddenly up, largely because its subject is just such good company with an undiminished passion for his work. “I love the whole thing,” he says fervently. “It answers some deep need, and it can easily be ridiculed. I try to do it first before anyone else can ridicule it.”
He laughs, and there’s a final nod at his own self-styled blundering. “‘Hey! I’m over here! Hi Mum, look at me! I’m on the diving board!’”
‘ The Blaze Of Obscurity: The TV Years’is published by Picador