So began what was a roller-coaster summer of correspondence when every email ping into my Blackberry brought a gust of laughter, a line of lightning erudition or the occasional haunting glimpse into the heart of a man facing his own demise.
“I’ve just been incommunicado for ten days while the hospital was putting me through the wringer again, and I can promise you that when I’m up and about, I’m full of life, having seen the old man with the scythe from so close. And porca miseria, what a breath.”
By then, James’ output had already reached the prodigious mark: 12 books still in print, among them five volumes of memoir, three poetry books, eight volumes of essays and uncountable works of journalism and cultural criticism. And that didn’t count his decades as TV critic for The Observer and in front of the cameras as one of Britain’s best known, loved – and now mourned – TV stars and interviewers.
As I researched for our promised meeting, I remember agonising about the words of a critic in The Independent who had observed that even in memoir, James always managed to remain “strangely remote”, offering little of the “inner Clive, the Clive unprotected by jokes”.
And yet as London succumbed to race riots and our emails began to ebb and flow, I realised quickly that asking questions in writing about his writing, particularly at a time of such physical vulnerability, James was both candid and generous with his inner self, at times, disarmingly so.
“The old man with the scythe is no stranger to me, because he came to my house when I was six years old and ruined my mother’s life. And I suppose he determined the course of mine, because I have always been conscious of how fleeting life might be,” he told me.
“In between four or five different face-offs with the ancient villain over the last two years I have written almost constantly, as if my life depended on it, which, when you think about it, is absurd. I suppose the main driving force of what might be my last spate of work is that there are things I haven’t said yet. Some of those things drive poems, others drive prose.”
Sure enough, a close reading of one particular poem, Son Of A Soldier revealed more than any interview could. It is, first and foremost, an unabashed howl of pain for his father who survived a Japanese POW camp only to be killed in an aircraft accident on the way home to his wife and five-year-old, only son. But it is also a viscerally conveyed expression of James’ ongoing struggle with conventional marriage, not to mention a head-on confronting of his much-publicised infidelities.
The love that he did not return to make
To the first woman I knew and could not help,
Became in me a thirst I could never slake
For one more face transfigured by delight,
Yet needing nothing else. It was a doomed quest
Right from the start, and now it is at an end.
I am too old, too raddled, too ashamed.
“Can I stay in your house? I need a friend.”
“So did I,” she said truly. “But be my guest …”
Rereading our emails, this week I saw too that James offered me a key to his thinking early on in our correspondence, making it clear and with characteristic humour that if I wanted to elicit certain answers from him, I needed to find interesting ways to do so: “Customarily I drag the little things in … provided that nobody asks me about them,” he cajoled.
“For example, a question about nuclear physics is more likely to get an answer about [English talent show judge] Simon Cowell’s pencil-head hair arrangement than a question about Simon Cowell would. People who ask me ‘Whatever happened to that woman Margarita Pracatan?’ get my opinions on the Eurozone.” (I had to Google to learn she was a Cuban novelty singer, who found global fame in the 1990s after Clive James had her perform live on his TV show.)
James seemed to enjoy a conversation that allowed time to reflect, without the pressure of physical presence. “We haven’t met yet, just made contact in this new electronic era which I was lucky enough to see the beginning of. Now we can talk across time etc. Send each other new poems (one attached) and so on. Then, when it’s all nearly done, we meet for a drink down by the river and you finally see that I’m a Cylon. C”. (I had to google Cylons too – robots at war with the 12 Colonies of Humanity in Battlestar Galactica).
As summer turned to autumn, I began to look forward to his formal answers but also hearing about his day, learning what engaged him or made him curse or howl with laughter. And each time I read his words, my mind inevitably conjured that unforgettable Clive James drawl, always upbeat in delivery, slightly smart-arsey and braggadocio in tone, vowels nicely rounded but always distinctly Australian.
He missed Australia terribly but flying was now out: “The matter was settled by my illness … I’ve got enough oxygen to walk, but not to fly. I’d need a lot more than a bottle: I’d need a tent. I’d be a fire hazard.”
One day, when I told James I’d just survived a horrible, near-crash landing near Turkey (as London succumbed to looting and flames) he quipped: “How come you’re flying into a war zone when you can get all that at home? Send me some more questions and I’ll make a start on them tomorrow night. In the day I’m allowed to go home but I have to sleep here while they watch the gauges and dole out the antibodies. Gad, what a drag.”
Later, when he was feeling a little better he wrote: “We’ll probably be able to meet chez moi in London in about 10 days or so but by that time the hard part of the job will be already done – a good method, this. Those subject to interview should always try to get sick beforehand, instead of complaining about feeling sick afterwards. Onward, Clive.”
(Our only awkward moment came after publication when he questioned my credentials for describing his scepticism about anthropogenic global warming as “jarring”.)
In the decade he would spend with his death sentence, James entered a period of ferocious creativity and published an extraordinary 11 books, including two epic poems. He told Professor Mary Beard last year that he owed his publisher a last memoir but was “finding it hard because I don’t know how it will end”.
This week, I couldn’t help smiling when I read one of his last emails: “Don’t forget to keep all this exchange so I can put it on my website one day. And you never know, it might be a book, with a picture of you and me strolling beside the Thames … taken just before I threw you in. Un bacio, Clive”.
I never did get to meet Clive James – but like millions of others, will never forget him.
She covers political and social issues in Britain and mainland Europe and describes her turf as “pretty much everything between Greenland and North Africa!”. Her previous role was Editor of the Saturday Sydney Morning Herald. Paola has held some of the paper’s most senior positions including editing News Review, heading the Herald’s State Political Bureau and leading the Education and Urban Affairs teams. Born in Italy, she has still to take Australian citizenship despite a long standing passion for the country that brought her up.