Sunday Times, 19 August 2012
There are piles of books on the floor. All the paintings except a single Sidney Nolan have gone from the walls. Contracts are due to be exchanged. In Cambridge, in a house full of books, a study is being prepared. The London life of Clive James is coming to an end.
“I have to be near my doctors,” he explains.
That much is obvious. Not long ago he was a great striding Aussie bull, confidently chuckling his way through life, art and literary society. Martin Amis once told me that when asked how James liked his steak, he would reply: “Knock off its horns and wipe its arse.”
James embodied his role as an Australian interloper who annexed the London media and literary worlds in the 1960s and has, since, never stopped pouring out television and radio shows, essays, books of poetry, criticism and cultural history.
Not long ago he was a great striding Aussie bull, confidently chuckling his way through life, art and literary society.
Today he still has that curious Dalai Lama-like grin that seems to close his eyes, but the stride has been replaced by a shuffle, the bull neck by the striations and wattles of age and the confidence by a humble reliance on medical technology. There is no steak this afternoon, just tea and biscuits.
“I have about six different clinics in Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge that I have to attend. One of them is very important. I have to get immunoglobulin every 21 days to boost my immune system. Effectively it means I can’t be more than 21 days away from Addenbrooke’s,” he says.
On New Year’s Eve 2010 James realised he could not pee. He had known he had a prostate problem but he had put off having the operation. That evening he had to capitulate and checked into A&E.
“My kidneys had almost stopped, they saved my life,” he says. “The doctors had to stabilise me, I was in there for weeks. The trouble is, once you are in there you get diagnosed for everything else.”
After years of heavy smoking he knew he had COPD — emphysema as it used to be called — but the hospital also told him he had rampant CLL, chronic lymphocytic leukaemia. Chemotherapy finally controlled it, but the cancer had fried his immune system and now he can be poleaxed by the slightest “exacerbation” as the doctors call it — a cold or, as when we met last week, a fungal infection in his lungs.
The diagnoses came as a shock. Since a bout of suspected diphtheria in childhood, James had been in rude good health, scarcely knowing a day of illness.
“It was the first time I ever had to go to bed in a hospital and contemplate my own urinary tract hanging on the wall — a sort of amber Rothko,” he says. It startled him into realising how much he wanted to live.
“I had suicidal thoughts when I was young. I fancied myself as a melancholic, quite a lot of people do, it’s a fashionable thing. Anyway, all these ideas were coming to me when I was going to sleep, ideas of self-destruction. They all promptly vanished the moment I was under real threat. There was a sudden urge to live. I wanted to do more, to write more.”
It was, for a long time, not clear that he would make it. Close to death on several occasions, his intake of medication seems to have been vast and not always welcome: “They once gave me a mood stabiliser because I was getting a little ratty. I mean, the last thing you want as a writer is a mood stabiliser.”
A further catastrophe hit when earlier this year some Australian tabloid reporters unearthed an affair he had been having for eight years with Leanne Edelsten, a former model, and his personal life imploded. He has two daughters with Prue Shaw, a modern languages academic to whom he has been married for more than 40 years. At present, however, despite his failing health, he lives alone.
“My wife is very angry with me, so the situation is fluid,” he explains. “I deceived her and she’s annoyed. She is not just within her rights, she is perfectly justified and I not only understand but I admire her.”
Later he feels the need to make an almost formal statement about the matter: “I’d like to say I love my wife and family very much and I am sorry that I have behaved so badly . . . I have great respect, admiration and love for my wife and the proof of that is in the book.”
The book is Nefertiti in the Flak Tower, his latest collection of poems. It is dominated by meditations on illness and death as well as on love. At the end of the poem Book Review — a love poem to Prue — he imagines being addressed by Dante, the great Italian medieval poet:
You are the weakling and you always were.
If you would sing for glory, sing of her.
He will not say they will get back together — “I’m not saying so, I don’t want to get caught presuming even one thing” — but he does say they do not plan to divorce.
He has always written poetry. This, he says, is his best book — “I have never before reached this pitch of intensity” — but it is also his darkest. Well known for his television shows, his comical memoirs and his hilarious book reviews, he has, as a writer, always been much darker than his public persona would suggest. One review that he wrote about The Incredible Hulk was included as part of an English exam. A woman who sat the exam paper recently wrote to tell him she had to be escorted from the room because she was laughing so much.
lYears ago Germaine Greer spotted something about James that was not funny: “I always write fairly doom-laden work in among the merriment because I think I was reacting to the war. Germaine spotted that I was really speaking for and about the wartime generation. I’ve always been grateful to her for that.”
His first volume of autobiography, Unreliable Memoirs, is generally regarded as one of the funniest books ever written, but there is also tragedy which, as he says, can be spotted by those “with ears to hear and eyes to see”. The tragedy struck him in 1945 when he was six. His father had survived a Japanese PoW camp and was on his way home, but was killed when his plane crashed. James was with his mother when she got the telegram.
“I understood what it did to her in one second. I understood everything. I knew she had spent all that time waiting and she could not bear it. When she collapsed I saw suffering she could not bear and it marked my life, no question.”
He was an only child, which probably made matters worse. Certainly it explains his self-destructive streak — he was once proud of being able to fill a hub cap with cigarette butts in a day.
“I was not a cautious man. I didn’t look after my physical capital,” he admits.
He hates complaining, he hates regrets. “I’m 72, that seems like a fair spin, 73 would be a fair spin or 74,” he says. “By complaining at all I am complaining too much. We are all lucky to have got here . . .” Having left Sydney for London in the early 1960s, he was seen as part of an Aussie wave that included Robert Hughes, the art critic who died this month, Greer, the comic Barry Humphries (aka housewife superstar Dame Edna Everage), the film maker Bruce Beresford and Michael Blakemore, the actor and director. But although they are all friends, they were never any kind of movement. He says they didn’t even hang out together and gives me a jokey assessment of each character — “difficult, very difficult, moody, exhausting, a handful . . .”
Making his name as a television reviewer, James became a media and literary superstar. He created a new way of writing in newspapers and no other new way has since outdated it. How does he see it all now that looking back has become almost an obligation? “Your life has turned to look you in the face”, as one of his poems ends.
“I understood everything. I knew she had spent all that time waiting and she could not bear it. When she collapsed I saw suffering she could not bear and it marked my life, no question.”
“I am a reprehensible character who needs to clean up his act. But I have already done a few things that may have justified my existence and, given time, I would do more. I don’t think I was a bad father but I was a terrible husband, much to my regret. I deserve everything that has happened to me. I want to make that clear. But I am truly proud of my daughters and they seem to put up with me.”
I can do better than that. James’s television work, brilliant as it was, has tended to blur his identity as one of the most influential writers of his time. At one level every newspaper is still packed with James wannabes, his prose tricks and tropes are imitated everywhere; at another level, the whole 1980s wave of new British fiction, especially Martin Amis, showed signs of having learnt from James. Most important was his invention of a way of writing seriously about popular culture.
He admits getting a little impatient when his “serious work gets lost in the shuffle” and I have often had the feeling lately that he feels slightly underrated. But, as he says, he doesn’t really mind being classed as “an entertainer . . . there are worse things to be called”.
Sadly all the initials the doctors have hung on him — COPD, CLL — have blocked him. He has started to do a television column in The Daily Telegraph but has managed only one small poem in the past year and he can’t quite bring himself to get going on his next volume of memoirs. “I don’t know what I am waiting for. I am not likely to feel any better than this. Perhaps once the move to Cambridge is over I will be better. It will take about a year to finish it. My daughters are helping and my wife is in financial control.”
We leave the emptying flat and he walks down the road with me and, once again, I become painfully aware of the ravages of illness. His step is slow and he manages only a hundred yards or so. I suppress the urge to shout at passers-by, “Don’t you know who this is? This is Clive James, the great writer!” Instead I shake his hand, to be rewarded by that Dalai Lama grin. He shuffles back towards his flat for another cup of tea and to check if contracts have been exchanged.