Clive and kicking

 

Clive James's new memoir is a vindication of the feeling that life is not planned, that 'it's all lying around in pieces', he tells Hugh Linehan

Clive James is wrestling with a breakfast bap. For the moment, the bap, a great, dripping slab of bread, pig and fried egg, appears to be winning. But James, now 67 years old, is no pushover. "I don't normally eat this for breakfast, or I wouldn't be here," he points out before lunging in.

Such are the indignities of the promotional circuit: squeezed onto a pre-dawn flight from London, extruded into Dublin traffic, funnelled into a hotel lobby for the first interview of a long day . . . but James - writer, broadcaster, critic, novelist, poet, blogger - knows what needs to be done. "I've got a big appetite for reading and writing. That's basic; if you're bored by that you really shouldn't try all this. I'm still thrilled by it."

North Face of Soho is the fourth instalment in Unreliable Memoirs, the autobiography he began writing more than a quarter of a century ago. Where the three previous volumes charted his Sydney childhood, early adulthood and departure for England, and his circuitous route into a successful stint at Cambridge, the new volume, spanning the late 1960s to the early 1980s, covers the period when James became, if not quite a household name, then close enough to it, through his work in print and broadcasting. "I enjoyed the attention. It would be implausible if I denied that," he says.

Later he was to become even better known for his more mainstream television work. But, for many of us who began reading newspapers in the mid- to late 1970s, his TV reviews for the Observer were a delight and an inspiration.

THIRTY YEARS ON, those reviews are as enjoyable as ever to read, but I wonder whether he ever revisits the programmes themselves. How does the so-called Golden Age of Television look now? "Anything they kept, I watch," he says. "I was a big fan of the over-qualified presenters. And not just the ones who stayed famous, like Ludovic Kennedy and Charles Wheeler. These guys had been through the war, they had a very complex and subtle line on politics, they were great at presenting a full historical view and making it entertaining. Whenever you see their stuff you revel in how good it is." People still ask him wouldn't he love to be a TV critic now, he says. "But they don't notice that I still am, because I'm always talking about this stuff. It's where the action is."

I venture the opinion that, despite the veneration of the 1960s in some quarters, the world we live in now was really shaped in the messy years between 1970 and 1980. "I agree, and it's one of the things I should have made more explicit in the book. The Sixties was a party, sure, but the Seventies was where the hard stuff got done."

For James, the 1970s were years of personal progress and success, which presented him with a problem when writing the book. "My Unreliable Memoirs as a genre depend on catastrophe and failure," he points out. "By the time I get to this book I've run into situations where self-flagellation starts to look like self-indulgence, because things went quite well. The truth remains that what I learned, I learned from things going wrong, some of them spectacularly so." Disastrously underplanned TV comedy shows, doomed film adaptations and long-forgotten theatrical flops are all exhumed with relish from the dustbin of history to show what a mess James was still capable of making of his burgeoning career. For years, with his musical collaborator Pete Atkin, he tried to write a hit record (the resulting albums have enjoyed a miniature revival in recent years after decades of invisibility).

But alongside all this was a steady upward curve which took him from the meagre earnings of a lowly freelance hack to becoming one of the most sought-after journalists on Fleet Street. "The Observer was still in great shape in those days, and Fleet Street was still very coherent, which suited me," he recalls. "I wouldn't have been very good at travelling out to some faraway office on the edge of town. I enjoyed the propinquity and community of the journalistic fraternity. I was very good in the pub."

IN ADDITION TO writing journalism, he was appearing with increasing frequency on television. A stint presenting a film review programme for Granada gives rise to some piercingly accurate pen-portraits of stars such as Burt Lancaster and Peter Sellers. "It was still a very creative time for television," he says. "There was still the post-war impulse to spread enlightenment, the idea that civilisation had been brought to the brink of ruin, that it was incumbent on the great and good to spread enlightenment to the people. There were still quality requirements on the ITV franchises. Later, Thatcher destroyed all that, which was her single most destructive act. The idea that TV had a mission was still implicit."

While Clive was climbing the media pole, Britain was going down the toilet. He doesn't dissent from the general view that the country was falling apart in the mid-1970s.

"Paradoxically, it was Thatcher who put it back together by releasing a new kind of potential which had some ugly aspects - which we'll get to in the next volume," he says. "But this was the pre-Thatcher period, and the Labour party was in terminal decline. I either didn't notice that or it didn't affect me - probably the first.

"My political opinions were fairly clear; they were just regarded as ridiculous. It was quite clear to me that socialism was over, that a tamed and civilised version of capitalism would be the only possible outcome." When he stated those opinions, he says, he was regarded as hopelessly naïve. "The sophisticated opinion was all to the contrary."

Despite the outlandish fashions (gleefully described), and the ancient, pre- computer technologies, North Face of Soho serves as an excellent primer for anyone seeking to make a career in writing or media today. "That was one of the aspects of the book I most enjoyed," says James. "I knew that I would do that when I was planning this volume. I hope for younger readers what the books - and this one especially - offer is a vindication of that feeling that your life really isn't planned or integrated at all, that it's all lying around in pieces. Well, we all feel like that, and it's OK. It's remarkable what people don't learn, how they work against their own careers and their own advantage through a failure to learn elementary lessons, like don't spend everything you earn, for example. There's a mechanism missing, and that mechanism is: I made such an arsehole of myself last week that I really shouldn't do it again. I've seen people die of that, and some of them are in the book.

'I CAN SEE now I had a few lucky breaks, but the big lucky break was that I had quite a lot of physical energy. I could stay up all night and meet the deadlines, and I had a resilient character. I could take defeat and frustration much better than I would have anticipated."

By this stage, the breakfast bap has been slain. He is, he agrees, a man of substantial appetites. "But I'm fairly good at renunciation. I'm usually good at it because I've so over-indulged that I'm disgusted. Finally, I binged out on self- discipline. I exaggerated that too. I gave up alcohol for 13 years, for example. Well, 13 months would have done the trick. I would have been able to drink socially after that, but for 13 years I didn't touch a drop."

He also gave up smoking - both the legal and illegal variety - in the early 1970s. What effect did all this self-denial have? "I got a lot done, which is probably what I wanted to do. There's a kind of a hard drug thrill in producing writing for me. It's a kind of need. My big book coming out next year [ Cultural Amnesia, a collection of linked essays] is a 250,000-word monster. I had a continuous rush while writing that thing. I wrote it three or four times. I scarcely needed to eat."

He continues working on his impressive website, www.clivejames.com, where readers can find all sorts of interesting stuff by writers he admires. "Zoe Williams wrote a piece a few years ago about Buffy the Vampire Slayer which I think is one of the best pieces ever written about popular culture, and I asked her for it." He's hoping to get the copyright clearance for some of Michael Frayn's "absurdly good" and long out of print early essays. And then there's his poetry. His poetry collection, the Book of My Enemy, was published last year.

"I'm just getting established as a poet," he says. "For a long time, the rest of my reputation was on the wane, and there was no point complaining about that. Most people don't care about poetry, and, of the few who do, only a few care about my poetry. You're getting down to an activity that's almost not worth pursuing. It's certainly not worth pursuing financially. But I can't stop. It's at the core of what I do, and to me it's the most important thing. My fallback position is that I'd do it even if my name wasn't on it."

North Face of Soho is published by Picador