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Up Late With Clive James

Michael Birt

Clive James—the Australian-born critic, poet, and TV personality—is beloved in Britain, where he has lived for five decades, for reasons that are difficult to translate to an American context.

But try, if you will, to imagine that David Letterman also wrote long, charming critical essays for The New York Review, published more than 30 books, issued memoirs that moved readers the way Frank McCourt’s do, knew seven or eight foreign languages, and composed poems that were printed in The New Yorker, and you are getting close. When England loses Clive James, it will be as if a plane had crashed with five or six of its best writers on board.

James has endured a long and strange twelve months. He made headlines in June when he mentioned to the BBC that he was “getting near the end.” (He has leukemia, in remission at the time of this interview, and a form of emphysema.) Journalists mistook the comment to mean he was on his deathbed. Immediately, there was an outpouring of fondness for James, who is now 73, and for his elegance and erudition. He relished the attention. His friend Tom Stoppard told him: “This is marvelous! Don’t deny it, just go on enjoying it.”

Happily, James is still very much with us, as I discovered on a recent visit to the small, somewhat anonymous flat he now occupies in Cambridge. He’s living in this vaguely dire space due to headlines of a different sort he made last year. In April, he was ambushed by a tabloid TV reporter with an attention-seeking, blonde former model in her late forties in tow. This woman claimed she and James had had an eight-year affair, and reported that she had called him “Mr. Wolf” because he had “ravished” her. Not long after, James’s wife of more than 40 years, the Dante scholar Prue Shaw, tossed him from their house. He later told an interviewer: “I deserve everything that has happened to me.”

Months later, James and Shaw are speaking again. She dropped by our interview, and the two traded mostly good-natured barbs. (When James praised a recent lecture she’d given, she replied, “Clive, you didn’t come to the lecture.”) James tires easily, coughs frequently, and shuffles to get around. About his health, he declared: “It turns out Keith Richards chose the right drug. Those of us who stuck to booze and fags, now look at us. He’s in a lot better shape than we are.” Maybe so, but he has three books coming out this year: a translation of Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” a reissued essay collection, and a new book of poems. “If I fell off the twig tomorrow,” he told me, “it would still look as if I was very busy.”

Dwight Garner: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you become a reader?

Clive James: It wasn’t until I got to university that I started reading serious books, books you would recognize as literature. But I always was a reader. Basically, I read junk. I started off with Erle Stanley Gardner and things like that. I read everything. I moved up gradually to Arthur Conan Doyle. I built up my reading muscles by reading stuff that wasn’t necessarily of the first order. I suppose it’s something lonely children do. And I suppose I was a lonely child.

DG: You attended Cambridge, yet you seem, to an extraordinary degree, to be self-taught.

CJ: I suppose I’m the kind of person who is an autodidact even when they’re enrolled in the university. I never did stop reading and discovering new languages, in a quite disordered manner. My intellectual life would have been neater if I had been taught Latin and Greek when I was young. I had the capacity to take things in. I’m not so sure I’ve still got it. I’d love to start learning Arabic. But there are too many reasons why I can’t. One is I probably don’t have enough time.

DG: How did you get so much done? Are you a fast writer?

CJ: I’m seventy-plus. I should have done something. I started quite late. I think I was in my mid-thirties before I published a book. Maybe the kind of book I was doing was more easily done than an integrated work. I was writing collections of pieces mainly. One of the first books I wrote that was all of one piece was Unreliable Memoirs, which I didn’t do until 1979. How did I get so much done? I wanted to. I learned to use my time well. In TV, when you’re out on location, there’s a lot of waiting. I learned to use that time, reading or writing. I can work on a piece of writing in the middle of chaos. I don’t have too many things in common with Dante, but he was famous for being able to go on composing his poem in the middle of a battlefield. I don’t need ideal conditions. My parents’ lives had been ruined by the war. My father never came back. I think I felt I owed it to them to get something done.

DG: You’ve written five memoirs, yet you call yourself a private person.

CJ: They conceal more than they reveal. I loved doing them. The first volume, Unreliable Memoirs, has been a very good friend to me, especially in Britain and Australia.1 It’s never caught on in America. It’s because I say right at the start, “Some of this isn’t true.” You can’t do that in America.

DG: What is a memoirist’s duty to the truth?

CJ: My memoirs have a core of truth—they’re emotionally true. I’ve compressed the events, and sometimes speeded them up and made them into cartoons. It didn’t occur to me not to. I wanted to be entertaining. This goes back to my childhood, during which I wanted to be entertaining in order to be noticed and to stay alive. It was a habit, which I’ve still got. Here I am, an old man, and I’m still doing it. I’m doing it to you right now. I’m frantically thinking, as we speak, “Is there a shorter or funnier version of what I just said?”

DG: In today’s literary climate, how would this kind of memoiristic tinkering go over?

CJ: You’d have to put a preface on the book indicating you’re aware that, in America, this is an issue. Almost uniquely in America, it’s a big issue. People are discovered to have deceived Oprah Winfrey! Crimes on that scale [laughs]. American culture is different from the rest of English-speaking culture. In America, the label has to say what’s in the can, so in the supermarket you know what you’re picking up. Deception and nuance and ambivalence are not favored in America. Funny writers are called “humor writers,” a term I can’t stand. A humor writer is expected not to be serious. Those things don’t mix well in America, and I’ve always tried to mix them.

DG: When you first arrived in London, you hooked up before long with a pretty fast intellectual crowd, [Christopher] Hitchens and [Martin] Amis and ...

CJ: Well, that wasn’t until later. When I first arrived in London, in 1961 or 1962, I knew nobody. Nothing happened for a couple of years except poverty. It’s all in my second book of memoirs, Falling Towards England. That book is about what it was like to be in the swinging ’60s when you didn’t have the wherewithal to swing. It was a party, but there was an entrance fee, and I didn’t have it. I rescued myself by going to Cambridge in 1964. It was after that that I made contact with the London literati. Some of my student journalism got noticed in London. I think the New Statesman’s literary editor wrote to me and said, “Would you like to review a book for us?” Later on, when I was theoretically still a Ph.D. student, I was spending more and more time in London, and I did make contact with these people. At one stage, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Hitchens, James Fenton, and I were all writing for the New Statesman and we’d see each other every week.

Photo by Prue Shaw
James and Simon Schama, just lounging, in the early ’70s

DG: Someone said that you looked like an extra from Easy Rider during this period. You had a whole rack of paisley cravats.

CJ: Hitchens used to suggest that I got dressed in the dark. I wasn’t dressing badly deliberately. I just had no time. I would purchase the first thing on the rack, to get it over with.2 They were quite tolerant toward me, the lads. The boys.

DG: Despite the fact that you were never a big drug user, you’re the man who once wrote, “I not only Bogarted that joint, I Lee Marvined it.”

CJ: A good use of cultural parameters. I also think I said, “I can get through a lifetime’s supply of anything in two weeks.” I’m probably still that way. I drank too much and I didn’t hold it well. I wasn’t a graceful drunk. I was quite funny for half an hour and then I’d roll under the table. And as for smoking, it was the death of me.

DG: Why do you think you have, as you have admitted, an addictive personality?

CJ: I’ve got such a galloping sense of insecurity from when I was six years old and my father was killed, and I’ve probably still got it.

DG: What was your sense of Kingsley Amis?

CJ: He was a difficult man. He could be tough company, especially toward the end, because he didn’t let any loose language by. It could be quite a strain, watching your tongue all the time. But I loved him. I could afford to; I wasn’t his son. For Martin, it was harder. He did a brilliant job of writing about it.

DG: Do Kingsley’s novels, in your view, hold up?

CJ: Well, nothing beats Lucky Jim, you know. I read it again this year. Not even Martin can beat Lucky Jim. You get one chance in history to write Lucky Jim, and Kingsley took it. Incidentally, I think Martin is one of the best critics of his time.

DG: I agree. Why doesn’t he do more of it?

CJ: Well, for him, the novel is what comes first.

DG: Why were there no women in your famous lunch group with Amis, Hitchens, Julian Barnes, and others?

CJ: It was a male chauvinistic culture. It’s a reprehensible answer. And we wanted to talk about them. It wasn’t the main subject, but it was one of them. I have no excuse, and nobody who was there has an excuse. Times have changed. Thank god.

DG: You were all terrific admirers of [Philip] Larkin. Do you still admire him as much as you did?

CJ: More than ever. Larkin was very kind to me. A strange thing happened to me once. I was out on tour with Pete Atkin [with whom James wrote songs and performed]. I think it was our farewell tour, and we stopped one night at Hull University, at the student union, to do a concert. I realized during the concert that Larkin was there, at the back. I went and asked him what he was doing there, because I knew he was deaf. He said: “You’re right. I didn’t hear a thing. But I’m just interested in what you are doing.” That was terribly, terribly nice. He wrote some lovely things to me. About my lyrics, he told me: “They don’t need music. I don’t say they are good poems, but they’re poems, full of wit and imagination.” I’ve never published that anywhere. I can’t.3

DG: You’ve called yourself “a pioneer couch potato.” You were one of the first critics, writing in The Observer in the 1970s and ’80s, to take television seriously.

CJ: I was the first person to take unserious television seriously.4 There were plenty of people who were writing profoundly about profound stuff. I was first to spot the importance of stuff that was unimportant: the stuff in between the shows, the link material, the sports commentators, the trivia. I started writing about that.5 It was illustrative, and you could be funny about it. You start describing a culture by taking that approach. That was my contribution.

DG: Did you hit on this formula right off the bat?

CJ: I started as a TV critic not at The Observer but at The Listener, under Karl Miller. Making Karl laugh was quite hard. He’s practically John Calvin. But I noticed that, when I quoted a sports commentator or something, Karl laughed, so I thought I might be onto something. I didn’t just write about the trivial stuff. Every third or fourth column would be about the Holocaust or something. Writing TV criticism was a chance to write about everything, because TV, especially in this country, talked about everything. It seemed harder to do in America, because TV in those days wasn’t as rich. William Shawn asked me to come to do it for The New Yorker. I didn’t go.

DG: Why not?

CJ: I thought I might run out of material rather quickly, because the network fare didn’t look all that nourishing. Also my family was here. My wife, her career was here.

DG: Was Dick Cavett an influence on your television shows?

CJ: I was hugely influenced by Cavett, much more by him than by [Johnny] Carson. I admired Carson. I admire anyone who can hold and carry a show like that. But Cavett really was admirable. I loved his memoir.

DG: Who is doing this kind of show well now?

CJ: It would be invidious to say. I want to watch Sarah Silverman. I want to know what she’s doing.

DG: Do you keep up with the prestige American cable shows?

Courtesy of Getty Images
James on the late-night show “So It Goes.”

CJ: “Breaking Bad” I’m just about to start on. “Homeland” I’ve watched every episode of. In the second season, it’s gone haywire. It was bound to go haywire, because all it had to do to get worse was to keep going. The bunch that made “24” made it. The bunch that made the program that pleased Mrs. Cheney. I’ve spent two seasons now waiting for the daughter to get kidnapped. That’ll be Desperationsville, when they do that. But I love watching Claire Danes and Damian Lewis.

DG: Are you a fan of “Downton Abbey”?

CJ: No. For us here, that kind of show is a dime a dozen. We don’t have the expression “a dime a dozen,” but we have the thing. A drama series about masters and servants is not unknown here. We’re on our second tour. “Upstairs Downstairs” has already been through two incarnations.

DG: Why has “Downton Abbey” caught on in the U.S.?

CJ: I’ve been asked by several American publications to write about it. It’s a reflection on America. They’d like to have that kind of aristocratic structure. Very soon Julian Fellowes, who created “Downton Abbey,” will be in America writing the American equivalent. He has plenty to work with. Because what have the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers been doing if not running a moneyed aristocracy? The desire for it betrays a longing in American culture, in the way that the admiration for the president betrays a longing for monarchy.

DG: Speaking of monarchy, you were a friend of Diana, the princess of Wales, and you’ve watched the royals fairly closely. Where does your interest come from?

CJ:It’s a political interest. I don’t especially admire the members of the royal family. The one I cared about most died. I think they do fairly well for people who are acting out an inconceivable fate, which is to have your destiny prescribed for you. They do all right. It’s quite an efficient system for keeping public service honest. The honours system, for example, is quite a cheap and efficient way of avoiding corruption. Hitchens and I used to disagree in a big way about this. He thought I was joking when I said I thought the royal family was functional and essential. But I’m an Australian and, in my view, it’s a desirable thing that Australia is still connected to Britain and to the monarchy. It’s a way of having our head of state offshore. We don’t even have to pay for it. There are numerous other political advantages. I suppose this is not a thrilling answer. It would be a thrilling answer if I told you that I found the royals adorable people. They’re no more adorable than anybody is who spent their lives doing what they have to do. They deserve commendation for doing it.

DG: You said about Diana that “her mind was under-stocked, but I thought she was clever.”

CJ: She was interested in everything and knew almost nothing. It was all news to her. That’s why she was so interested in you—meaning me, meaning anyone. It was a perfectly genuine fascination when she heard about what you did for a living. She was like that with a coal miner. The coal miner would go away afterwards under the impression that she had at last met her destiny as a coal miner, that she would shortly start digging coal. Because she was so keen to find out. There are various things she could have been. She could have been a dancer.

DG: A dancer?

CJ: She was a beautiful natural dancer. We all saw her dance. But as one of the prima ballerinas pointed out, starting with a privileged background is not the way to become a ballerina. Studying until your feet ache is the way to become a ballerina.6

DG: Are you easily wounded?

CJ: A bad review hurts. I hate seeing my carefully constructed, beautiful book in the hands of someone whose own prose reveals he has no sense of rhythm at all. It’s a mismatch. But it’s part of life. If I could be stopped by that sort of thing, I would have been stopped long ago.

DG: I’d think your skin would be quite thick by now.

CJ: Thick skin is not the thing to have if you are an artist of any kind. It’s got to be bulletproof in the sense that it lets the bullet in, and it travels through, and it comes out the other side. I’ve had everything hurled at me, especially in Australia. Australia is where the tough journalists are.

DG: Speaking of thick skin, you’ve made other kinds of news—tabloid news—in the past year.

CJ: Yes. You won’t get far with this, for a very good reason.

DG: You’ve always been quite private, for a public person.

Photo by Prue Shaw
James and his eldest daughter, then four months old, 1971.

CJ: I’ve tried to keep my family out of the media, for their sake. And I suppose for mine. The feeling that you have when your book is in the hands of a critic who can’t read—that’s only the beginning of the feeling you get when your private life is in the hands of someone who’s being paid to be as crass as possible. But there are worse things that can happen, and it’s a free country. People are agitating for some kind of law to govern the press. I’m not so sure I’m in favor of that. I said somewhere that, sooner or later, sex will make a fool out of anybody. It does.

DG: You felt compelled to issue a statement. You took full blame.

CJ: I was apologizing to my wife.

DG: Philip Roth. Give him the Nobel?

CJ: Oh yes. I don’t believe him when he says he’s stopped. There’ll be a book soon about a man who says he’s stopped.

DG: [John] Updike versus Roth?

CJ: I only like Updike’s Bech books, the books about being a famous writer. Rabbit Angstrom never convinced me. The Bech books are huge fun.

DG: What about Updike’s criticism?

CJ: He tours a subject like nobody else. I’m not so sure he penetrates. There’s a reason why there’s so much of it. He also had the misfortune, in my view, to write with ease and with naturalness in The New Yorker manner. The New Yorker is a tough place to write for, except if you’re Updike. Because Updike actually wrote like that. It hurts everyone’s reputation to write too much.

DG: Why is there no magazine like The New Yorker in England?

CJ: People have always tried, and always failed. Before World War II, there was a magazine called Night and Day, which had everyone in it. Graham Greene was the film critic. I’ve got the complete set somewhere. It only lasted about a year. For some reason, that formula doesn’t work here. No one will put that kind of effort and dedication into it. You have to be a fanatic like Harold Ross.

DG: How would you describe your politics?

CJ: Deeply conservative in a cultural sense. In the actual political sense, quite left wing. I was raised on the left in Australia, where the touchstone was the fair go. The “fair go” is: a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. I still believe in it. I don’t think that the free market, although it’s necessary, has a mind and can regulate itself. Of course, the government must interfere. So I’m left wing in that sense.

DG: When you say you are deeply conservative in a cultural sense, what do you mean?

CJ: I think young people should go to school and learn to spell. I want to see a curriculum that concentrates on real achievement. I’d now be a bad friend to the avant-garde. There were great days for it, but it has deteriorated into commercialism. I’d be right there with my friend Robert Hughes in blowing the whistle on Andy Warhol. In terms of music, I can’t go much beyond [Arnold] Schoenberg’s middle period. Anything beyond “Verklärte Nacht” is, to me, hard to assimilate. Long before you get to John Cage, you run out of patience with modern music. I want to go back and listen to [Anton] Bruckner. I never did, because Hitler liked him. You can’t go dismissing artists because Hitler liked them.

DG: Do you regret supporting the invasion of Iraq?

CJ: Not at all. I thought invading Iraq, when Saddam Hussein was running it, was the thing to do. It didn’t turn out very well. It could have been handled better. It sure could. Hussein was running a regime beyond evil. It was awful. What have you got to do with places like that? We’re facing exactly the same dilemma now with Syria.

DG: Someone told me recently that they felt that the energy a previous generation put into writing this generation puts into food.

CJ: Food writing doesn’t draw on the full reserves of the critical intelligence. It’s easy to make a polite and interesting noise about it. I don’t want to sound mocking, because why should I pronounce about what I don’t know about or care about?7

DG: What is the role of the critic?

CJ: Well, my role as a critic is coming to an end. But the older I get, I become more convinced the thing a critic should do is point toward the things he or she admires, for the benefit of the next generation. I’d like to be able to go back and add things where I thought I was insufficiently attentive to the qualities of a work of art. I’d be less interested now in attacking. Only be hostile in defense of a value.

Dwight Garner is a book critic for The New York Times. This interview has been edited and condensed.

  1. This book’s opening sentence is: “I was born in 1939. The other big event of that year was the outbreak of the Second World War, but for the moment that did not affect me.”

  2. In his 1985 memoir “Falling Towards England” he wrote: “It is almost better to be an impulse shirt-buyer than an impulse shoe-buyer. I have worn shirts that made people think I was a retired Mafia hit-man or a Yugoslavian sports convener from Split, but I have worn shoes that made people think I was insane.”

  3. James is a well-known poet. His most anthologized piece of verse has long been “The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered,” a comic masterpiece that commences: “The book of my enemy has been remaindered / And I am pleased. / In vast quantities it has been remaindered / Like a van-load of counterfeit that has been seized.”

  4. James once wrote about highbrows who shun TV: “Anyone afraid of what he thinks television does to the world is probably just afraid of the world.”

  5. James also wrote music criticism in the 1970s for Creem magazine. This stuff is worth finding. He compared Robbie Robertson’s lyrics for The Band to “receiving intermittently clear radio transmissions from a station outside time.”

  6. James himself became adept at the tango. About it, he wrote: “A man who wants to find out who he really is should try watching the woman he loves as she dances the tango with a maestro.”

  7. About drink, James once deposed: “My idea of a fine wine was one that merely stained your teeth without stripping the enamel.”