Clive James on his late flowering: ‘I am in the slightly embarrassing position where I write poems saying I’m about to die and then don’t’

Poetry, civilisation and the critical benefits of facing leukaemia

4 October 2014

9:00 AM

4 October 2014

9:00 AM

Clive James has published a new poem days before we meet. It opens, ‘Your death, near now, is of an easy sort’. It is about a Japanese maple his daughter has planted in the garden of his Cambridge home where we are sitting, and whether the poet will live to see the leaves flame red this autumn. The poem has made news.

‘At the moment,’ he says, laughing, ‘I am in the slightly embarrassing position where I write poems saying I am about to die and I don’t. My wife is very funny on that subject.’ It is part of an astonishing late body of work. This month there is a new book of writing on poetry, Poetry Notebook. He still hopes to live to see a new Collected Poems out next year, perhaps finish a final volume of memoirs and write a sequel to his immense 2007 work Cultural Amnesia.

‘Although I have only got half my energy I am probably writing at the rate I always should have. But other things got in the way. I liked those other things, I don’t blame them for getting in the way. But I am in ideal conditions now so there is no excuse for not getting on with it. The only drawback is I don’t really know when it will all get switched off. You see the trouble with this thing, I have a lot of things, as you can hear, but the one that you can’t see is the one that’ll get me, it’s a brand of leukaemia. It’s a nifty little fella. It can get beaten into remission, but it gives no indication of when it’s coming back. When it comes back, that’s when you have to fight. My chest I fight all the time. I have only just finished a bout of pneumonia — any infection turns to pneumonia almost instantly but the leukaemia will put a limit on things.’

In Cambridge he is close to his family and also to Addenbrooke’s hospital, where he receives treatment. Yet here are these amazing works, highly praised, technically and emotionally heart-stopping poems reflecting gratefully on a life, as well as a recent translation of Dante. ‘I am getting the kind of praise now that poets dream of,’ he admits. ‘I wonder if you have to be standing on the edge of a cliff to get it, though. Has that occurred to you? If that’s true everyone will start doing it! Look, no parachute!’

James’s famous voice twinkles even in his weakened state. But we dare to venture into the garden only briefly on this bright September day. ‘I can’t really see anyone for longer than about an hour and the trouble is — this is great, I’m loving this — but the trouble is, loving it is what wears you out, so the more successful your conversation, the more it is likely to be prostrating in the aftermath. It’s a terrible pity but I lasted this long so I give thanks.’

Aside from writing poetry he talks and writes about poetry with an enthusiasm which must have been embedded early. He did the usuals — Gray’s Elegy and Dorothea Mackellar — while a schoolboy in Kogarah. How would he set a child off on it now? ‘Forbid it and penalise it and jail anybody that’s caught dealing in it and give severe punishments to anyone caught reading it and then it will be popular.’

He caught it fully himself at university: Auden, Eliot and, back then, Pound. He says in Poetry Notebook, ‘There is always more room in the pantheon, because the pantheon is not a burial chamber for people who have said things, it is an echo chamber for things that have been said.’ At Sydney, ‘I would pop around corners of buildings and jump out of bushes at the university reciting E.E. Cummings. I was lucky to be at university. There was a great change going in Australian society because [Robert] Menzies, a conservative prime minister, had done a revolutionary thing, his government created the Commonwealth Scholarship Scheme, which meant for the first time that anyone could go to university. In a previous generation, if you didn’t have the money, your family didn’t have the money, you couldn’t go.’

You sometimes hear it claimed that James’s omnivorous intellect, like that of Peter Porter, came partly with the passage from Australia. In a 2010 obituary for Porter, James describes how his friend spent much of his life ‘punished in Australia for trying to please the Poms, and punished in the UK for being an Aussie expatriate with a frame of reference above his station’. Did James feel that too — that somehow he had to do more? ‘That’s not national, that’s personal,’ he says. ‘I just felt I owed it to the ruins of my family, I owed it to my mother and father, for the life they might have had, to do what was within me.’

He was born in 1939, and was an only child. His father survived the war, but the plane bringing him back crashed on the way home. The passage describing this in James’s first volume of memoirs, and the poem he wrote on visiting his father’s grave later, are both devastating.

‘I was born into it,’ he says. ‘Just when I was being born the massacre was actually already on in Poland, and while I was a little kid, trainloads of children were getting gassed. When I found out, it formed my worldview. My worldview isn’t formed by my personality. I like to think I am a merry man who has a good time, spreading laughter all around. But that’s not my worldview. My worldview is tremendously pessimistic. I think it’s a miracle we’re here, considering what human beings can do to scorch the earth. Democracy itself is a miracle.’ He claims no prescience, but of the 1960s student rebels he says, ‘I knew they were talking bullshit, but I didn’t realise to what extent they were talking bullshit. There was something about the way the enthusiasts for China wrote that told me the whole thing was a bill of goods. Then the facts started to come out and they were there if you wanted them. There is a crucial stage in big alterations of opinion on a world scale where the facts are there but people don’t yet want them, and sometimes you just have to wait.’

What are the facts we are waiting for now? ‘Watch out for the deep water. I don’t want to get into the middle of a jihad. But we’ve known for a long time now that the Islamic cultures and countries were the enemies of women and women’s rights, but not even our feminists made anything of it until quite recently. It took a few unbelievably brave Islamic feminists to say these things. All this has been available but it just took time to come out because it’s too uncomfortable. Now it must, I think.’ His political worldview is neither right nor left, but consistently and straightforwardly anti-totalitarian.

I remark how lucky his generation has been. ‘You’re not kidding. We’ve gone all the way through without a single war we had to go to. I used to illustrate it with the image of Buster Keaton standing there with the facade of a house behind him and it falls forward and the doorway which is empty fits just over him. That was us — the whole fucking house fell in and it didn’t hit us. It is a stroke of luck I think you have to pay back if you can.’

It requires an awful discipline to leave him. We talk of friends living and dead, the power of ideas and how particular writers like Robert Conquest have changed history. His talk is Eichmann and Stalin, but also Auden, Eliot and Les Murray. He scorns a description of himself as a pioneer. ‘If you stick around long enough, you end up being a pioneer of everything. You practically invented ice cream.’

What has he learned along the way? ‘Well I learned the hard way to drink moderately and don’t smoke.’ And of course he learned how to work. ‘I have seen very talented people waste themselves, it’s a terrible spectacle, people I’ve known. I don’t know how they can do it. It’s like not really understanding how people can commit suicide — although sometimes when you look at the world you wonder why everybody doesn’t.’

He speaks of his daughters and wife with a quiet, touching pride. And what about him, I ask, as we steal a final minute outside his library, looking over the maple tree. Did he get what he wanted from this life? ‘Oh yes,’ he replies. ‘More than I deserved.’

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  • Anton

    Mr James please get cracking on the sequel to Cultural Amnesia. I have it in a printed and audioversion and often dip into them both. Excellent writing and subject matter. Thanks for the lovely article Mr Murray.

  • Dominic Wynn

    Ah bum. Keep trucking Clive. Read falling towards England shortly after it’s release. James was on the tv for much of the late eighties and early nineties and largely expresses my world view. I can only hope I can meet death with his equanamity.

  • Samson

    Great article, very glad James is cracking on with the writing

  • Jenny Soep

    Delightful piece. Further fuels the respect I have for Mr James. Nice illustration too.

  • BonzoDog

    Never will you hear a hackneyed expression or a cliche pass his lips or see it on a page of words he has put together. He chooses every word and phrase with care and he seeks originality married to precision. He is one of those people you want to read just for the thrill of the language. And his observations are acute but quirkily skewed in a way that is clever but not pompous. And he is funny. He delights in amusing us and that takes a certain sort of irreverence, but in his hands it’s a respectful one. Does the word “Jamesian” exist? If it doesn’t, it should.

  • artemis in france

    A very enlightened gentleman indeed. I’m ten years younger than Clive James and remember well his many télévision programmes and his review columns in the Sunday papers. When he resurfaced with his witty and informative documentaires, featuring famous people, he showed another side to his talent, almost Alan Whicker like in his ability to get people to open up. And then he emerged as one of the first climate change sceptics and was abused for it. He stuck to his guns in his gentle and persistent way and it is very sad that he may have to leave us earlier than we would like. Thank you, Douglas. You enlightened men need to stick together.

  • cromwell

    Onya Clive, we will not see your like agen.

  • edlancey

    “‘Well I learned the hard way to drink moderately and don’t smoke”

    Wise words. No denying that it’s the gaspers, especially over a few decades, that are the real killers.

  • Dereklowe

    I would be very happy indeed to see whatever sequel to Cultural Amnesia might be in the works – it’s a terrific work, one that makes you simultaneously happy about being able to experience it, but terrified about some of the points it brings up. Civilization is a lot more fragile than we’d like to think!

  • Christian

    I miss him already

  • Innit Bruv

    “Democracy itself is a miracle”
    It would be nice if Australians other than John Pilger were,once in a while, to draw attention to the disgusting racism in their own country.(Peter Tatchell,Germaine Greer,Barry Humphries…. the silence is deafening!! Or maybe I have missed something.)

    • Treaclebeak

      Yes, I know, Australians have much to learn from the UK model, country-wide race riots, extreme right wing racist parties and of course Rotherham.

      • Innit Bruv

        I don’t think that anything in Britain could compare with the treatment of Aboriginal people in Australia.( Check out a few Amnesty International reports on the topic).

      • Mary Squire

        Totally different situation.

    • mustbenice

      There is no difference, at all, between racism in Aus and any other country. Having lived in several countries for years at a time I can categorically state that racism is racism is racism, everywhere you go. In every country there is racism, white against black, black against white, brown against slightly different shade of brown. No idea what we can do about it, but to imagine that one country is more racist than any other is nonsensical.

      • Innit Bruv

        Some countries are worse, Australia is one of them.
        If Australia claims it is a “liberal democracy” than it should behave like one and less like South Africa in the bad old days of Apartheid.

        • Treaclebeak

          Nonsense, despite prejudice against Aboriginal Australians the country is nothing like ‘South Africa in the bad old days of Apartheid’, you’re grasping at straws.
          Oh, I forgot to mention the massive ‘white flight’ from London’s inner suburbs, sounds like de facto apartheid to me.
          This ‘pot and kettle’ exercise is rather pointless.

          • Innit Bruv

            “White flight from London”? Are people being driven out of our capital? Is there some kind of ethnic cleansing I wasn’t aware of?If so by whom? Please elaborate,I must have missed something.
            Re Australia: I am merely pointing out that they have more in common with Apartheid South Africa than with the UK in matters of race relations.(Which is not to say that the UK is perfect,there is certainly room for improvement.You only have to look at some of the readers’ comments in publications such as this one or the Daily Mail to realize that).
            Try reading what John Pilger has to say on the matter.We can safely assume that he is a hell of a lot better informed than either of us in these matters.
            You might also want to check out a few Amnesty International reports on the topic.

          • Innit Bruv

            “White flight from London etc etc…..”
            I was hoping for some answers.

          • Innit Bruv

            Still no answer… Hmmmmmm….

      • Mary Squire

        The difference is in government policies. In NZ we have a conservative government (National Party) but they have chosen to work in coalition with the Maori Party. As the president of the National Party said recently, “We’ve been a better government because of it.”

        • mustbenice

          Irrelevant to my comment. As stated, every country has exactly the same problem with racist and non racist people. Trying to pretend Australians are more racist than others is ludicrous.

    • Mary Squire

      I absolutely agree with you there. As a Kiwi, married to an Aussie, I have been amazed by the blind spot that Australians have with regard to the Aboriginal people. Whereas most Kiwis are prepared to look at the past and try to redress the injustices done to Maori, it seems that Australians have no place in their hearts for their native people. I put it down to their upbringing and education. Maybe the younger generation are different; I don’t know.

      • Innit Bruv

        Thank you!!!

  • tomgreaves

    Lovely. A touching and moving piece that reflects my respect and admiration for Clive James and his works. He has much to teach on the dignity of facing death.

  • Fergus Pickering

    Stay with us, Clive,
    Unconscionable sloven.
    Long may you thrive.
    Take all the time you’re given.
    Just say alive.
    Keep well away from Heaven.

  • LyndaOR

    I love the man…just love him. Thanks for this, Doug Murray.

  • AJH1968

    Thank you Douglas for another brilliant article. Mr James never fails to humble me with he’s talent and erudition.

  • nicktoleg

    Say it ain’t so mate. Don’t give me no jive, Clive. You’ll be here for years. They find new advances all the time.

    I’ve loved your stuff since I first saw you on telly in the late 60s or early 70s. You presented Cinema wearing a terrible sweater with no shirt or tie. The excellent Mike Scott had quit and ITV took a chance. Funny as fuck, but brilliant and perceptive too, like all your later work. I used to read your TV reviews in The Observer for years and I can quote from them like other bores can quote from Monty Python. It would be nice to bump into you by accident and say all this (don’t worry, I’m not a stalker) but I won’t, so just in case, thanks for being a fantastic and indispensable contributor to our times and an enhancer of my life.

  • splotchy

    James’ poems are enchanting – every word tessellates perfectly and is just-so; neither grandiose or trite yet draw out a scene, an emotion…… “My Father Before Me” is one of the most moving poems I have read.

    He has been generous enough to share the majority of his work online – Thanks Clive.

  • john

    ‘I am in the slightly embarrassing position where I write
    poems saying I’m about to die and then don’t’

    There is a rather easy way to avoid this embarrassment!.

  • Jamie Stevenson

    I often ask myself why I go on with this subscription. Then along comes an article like this. I didn’t know that you had it in you, Mr Murray. What a brilliant piece. Captures everything we love about the man perfectly.

  • I hope I can wind up my meager affairs half as graciously as this, when my number comes up.

  • Sheila Elliot

    Enjoyed this piece. Thanks Doug Murray? I like to read everything about CLive James. We are both exiled he in UK me in oz. We both have the same blood cancer CLL or chronic leukaemia. There’s lots of new research and trials of new drugs in the pipeline there is hope for us. A few lights in that Tunnel! He inspires me to write poetry too.

  • Catherine

    This is a beautiful piece of writing. I only wish more of my fellow Australians were like Mr James.

  • Partner

    what an admirable human being he is.

  • Carol Easton

    I made my living, even raised three kids, as a writer, finally got lucky and now LOVE not writing, which is, at least for me, so fucking hard. So Clive’s dedication baffles me, but I have to salute it.