“I am not afraid of dying.” An emotional last conversation with the great Sir Clive James

Clive James was dying when I met him. Everybody knew it, because the great writer and broadcaster had said so in print. He had written a poem about he would never see the leaves on the Japanese maple in his garden turn green again, because leukaemia was about to claim him … but then the tree died first.

‘We’ve had it replaced,’ said James sheepishly, when I went to see him at home in Cambridge, two years later. ‘I am highly embarrassed to still be here,’ he said at the start of a long afternoon and early evening in which he talked with surprising candour but unsurprising fluency about his life and loves. There were tears, from both of us.

Never meet your heroes they say, but they’re wrong. He had been a writing of hero of mine since I was a teenager, when his brilliant memoir made me realise it was possible to be a writer even if you came from a place everybody else thought was nowhere. I’m glad I met him. It was a privilege. This is the first draft of what I wrote, an account of the encounter that is more raw and far less polished than what appeared in the Mail on Sunday, but closer to how it was.

“I thought I was a goner two weekends ago when I woke up at four thirty in the morning with a tongue bigger than my mouth,” says Clive James in a weakened, croakier version of that assertive, nasal Aussie accent that became so familiar during his days as a TV star.

He’s a slighter version of himself today in black shoes, black trousers and a black turtle neck, with whisps of white hair like smoke around a coin-shaped wound on his forehead, from an operation. Back then he was the king of prime-time – a bald-headed bulldog in a suit, with a face caught between a smile and a scowl – bringing us witty reports from far-flung places, wry documentaries on the power of fame and of course the eye-wateringly painful but endlessly hilarious Japanese game-show Endurance, as first seen on his hit series Clive James On Television.

A close friend of Princess Diana, for whom he declared his love when she was gone, James also produced a best-seller called Unreliable Memoirs, several books of critical essays, a handful of novels and some collections of poetry, for which he has only lately been given the credit he always felt he deserved. It was almost too late.

“I feel like I’ve had a whole other career since I got sick. My problem as a poet before was that people thought I could not be serious, I was a TV face. But when you’re on the point of death you look pretty much as serious as you can get.”

There was an outpouring of premature obituaries when he announced his terminal illness in 2014, but started doing better than expected thanks to Ibrutinib.

“Great name for a drug, isn’t it? Sounds like an Arnold Schwarzenegger character from the post-Conan phase.” He coughs, nastily. “Sorry I’m not just doing this for drama.”

We’re in the back room of his simply but elegantly furnished house in Cambridge, which has been adapted for this last season of his life. Sunshine is spilling through the skylights in the conservatory, a long space that serves as his kitchen, his living room and his library. James lives here alone. He split from his wife Prue a few years back, when a long-term mistress turned up from Australia and confronted him on the street, on camera. He has a rule never to talk about his family, but he is going to choose to break that today. We’ll talk about whether he is afraid of what is coming and he will reveal that there has been a remarkable and very touching reconciliation. “I’ve made every possible mistake. I’m still here, still married, which is quite incredible, considering my weaknesses.”

James only goes upstairs at bedtime, but it was there he had his recent attack.

“It was scary that morning, you can’t believe you can breathe because you can’t swallow. I was nine hours at Addenbrookes Hospital getting anti-hystamines pumped into me through a vein until it went down.”

The doctors don’t know if it was a side effect of the leukaemia or of the drug. “I am faced with the prospect that the thing that is keeping me alive is trying to kill me.”

How is his health right now? “It could be worse. It’s pretty bad. A combination of things including emphysema but leukaemia is the one that’s hard to argue with.

“My legs are very weary. They’re heavy and I can’t walk far. So I’m that unwell … but on the other hand, I’m that well. I’m here, I’m talking to you. My brain is apparently working quite well. That’s a tricky one, though, how do you know?”

Well, you could have a look at his new book Play All, a collection of essays about The West Wing, The Wire and other great examples of the box set – the art form of our age – from the man who practically invented the art of the television critic back in the Seventies, before he was a star of it himself. The writing is magnificent, both funny and wise. But I’ve been reading it wondering, if I knew I had very limited time left would I spend it – some would say waste it – watching television?

“My immediate answer would be no, of course not,” says James. “It’s time to read Boswell’s Life of Johnson again. But I’ve done that, I read and write in the daytime and in the evening I’ve found myself watching television. Also, I’ve got a sense of theatre enough to know it would be interesting to people that I was sitting there watching television on the point of death. So I was being mischievous, writing this book.” Mischievous, surely, to the point of perversity? “That’s okay. That plays. It brought you here.”

Confessing his embarrassment at still being around is a smart line, but it’s not the whole truth. “I do feel very lucky that I’ve been able to have this time to think and to sum up. I feel lucky that I’ve had a life. And I didn’t really have to struggle hard with the choice when I was told my various diagnoses. The choice was: do you just lie down and wait for it or do you go on?’ I just went on quite naturally.

“Paradoxically I seem to produce quite a lot now, and the reason is very simple. I’ve got nothing else to do. I can’t get out of the house.”

Is that literally true? “I’ve been out of the house this winter – which is over now I suppose – maybe twice in all that time. Not counting my visits to hospital which are constant, but then I just step into the cab to go. My point is, I’ve got no other plans to make. And I know how to conserve what energy I’ve got left.”

Is he scared of dying? “No. That I’ve got going for me. I’m not afraid of death at all, not afraid of not being here. I don’t like the idea of the actual dying very much but it’s been a pretty smooth run so far, I daresay I’ll get taken away in some quiet manner.

“I’m not being heroic when I say I’m not scared. It’s all been an adventure and it has been a blessing to have the extra time. I’ve never written better, because my mind has never been clearer or with fewer distractions.”

How does he deal with the longing he still feels, to be on a beach somewhere, with a book and a beer and perhaps a beautiful young woman? “That’s how I deal with it,” he says, gesturing towards the books. “I write those. Yeah. Maybe watch Tea Leoni on television in Madam Secretary. I won’t say it’s a sore point, but it’s an interesting one. Libido doesn’t vanish entirely, because there are mental patterns associated with it that aren’t going to go away, but I deal with the longing mainly as I’ve always dealt with it, as a writer.”

He is distracted very easily by Stephanie, the picture editor, who has a French accent, saying to her: “I could keep you talking like that forever. Stick around. I’m a tremendous flirt in all languages.”

When she’s gone, he sighs. “She doesn’t know it but she’s got a smile that could start a war.”

He’s enjoying the visit. “We could talk about the fatal weakness of my personality as a lone, maverick artist is that I like attention. I’m having a wonderful time. I might have got more serious stuff done if I didn’t like all that, but I do.”

His daughter described him as both a showman and a recluse. “She got it exactly right. She’s sharp as a whip that one.”

Clive James was born in Kogarah, a suburb of Sydney, in 1939 and brought up by his mother. His father survived a Japanese prisoner of war camp but died in a plane crash on his way home.

“I was born in chaos. The circumstances of my father not coming back from the war shaped my life. People ask me about it as if it was a thing that happened then and I overcame it and moved on but I never overcame it. That’s what I am still doing, overcoming it.”

He was originally called Vivian, after a male tennis player, but hated it. “I told my mother, ‘Look I’m extremely unhappy being called Vivian, could we change it?’ She agreed to that. My mother had an extremely bad habit of doing what I wanted. That ruined me and it created me, because it got me used to getting what I wanted.”

He found his new name on screen. “I saw a movie with Tyrone Power playing a character called Clive and I chose that. I must have been 10 years old.”

Is there any part of him that still feels like Vivian? “Yes, all the time. Things grow complex and stay with you. I don’t think you solve them.”

Soon after graduating in Sydney he moved to England and had various jobs before going to read English at Cambridge University. Then he went off like a rocket, becoming president of the Footlights, making people laugh and captaining Pembroke College in University Challenge.

As the Seventies began he was a journalist: one of those characters who emerged at the time as champions of the idea that you could come from what he calls “ordinary circumstances” and still expect to get a great education and make a name for yourself.

Charlie Brooker, for one, has called him an inspiration.

“I have to say it is a bit easier coming from Australia, because there is no class system. The system here is pretty hard to beat, for the British. I wouldn’t say that it was one of my hopes in life, to set out as a social revolutionary, to give bright eyed people incentive and hope, but it’s a very nice effect to have had, if one has.”

As a journalist, he was credited with being the first to write about television as a serious work of art, and his reviews were also very funny. As a critic, he contributed to ever major journal from The Times Literary Supplement to the New York Review of Books.

James was a fixture of prime-time television during the Eighties, with shows collecting the best and worst of TV around the world, most notably the Japanese game show Endurance.

He made very popular travel programmes and documentaries about the arts and fame. James was given a special achievement award at last year’s Baftas, for his contribution to television.

His first book Unreliable Memoirs was – and still is – an international best-seller. It was followed by several more, a handful of novels, books of poetry and lyrics and three years ago a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, in which his wife Prue is an expert.

It was taken as a gesture of love for her as well as Dante, after news of a long-running affair hit the headlines. The former model Leanne Edelsten made a documentary about having been his mistress for eight years, and confronted him in the street. After that, he left the family home.

It was apparently the end of a partnership that stretched all the way back to his youth.

“When I first knew her, a long time ago now, she was the most beautiful girl in Australia. In the world. A long time has gone by now and she still is. Things got bad because I wanted to feel that way about every other beautiful girl in the world.”

He looks around at the rows of books and records and the art on his walls.

“No matter how bad things got, we have all this to share and can’t do without each other in that way. Books, music, sculpture. It pleases me greatly that she’s a great scholar. I find that an endlessly renewable source of interest and love.”

There were other reported affairs too, over the years. “I’ve made every possible mistake. I’m still here, still married, which is quite incredible, considering my weaknesses. You won’t find me going too far with that theme but you say what you like, you’re a free man.”

He is a romantic, there’s no doubt about that. “The Italians used to call it the visione amorosa, the divine vision of love is a thing in itself. Different human beings walk in and occupy that space and over and over again you are faced with this blow to the heart of what you hope to attain but cannot have.

“Even now there’s a girl I meet every three weeks in the immunoglobulin infusion unit and I would fight my way through a lake of crocodiles just to get a glimpse of her. The mere suggestion of what might happen is enough.”

He smiles to himself. “I can’t be hypocritical about this. Falling in love, a thing that happened often, could happen in five minutes. It could happen now as I walk – no, shuffle – down the street. I regarded that as a direct injection of energy into my creative impulse. It was and still would be if I was out there.”

There were affairs, he has admitted so of late. “My great mistress who was in my life for more than 20 years never used my first name because other people had. She just avoided names. She was amazing. She’s still somewhere. Some of them are dead.”

As a rule, he will not talk about his family in interviews; but it emerges as we talk that his daughter lives next door and his wife and other daughter live across the river Cam, just ten minutes walk away. He was living in a basement when he got thrown out by his wife after one affair but this quiet two-up, two-down has been adapted for him on her orders, with the bright and airy conservatory that doubles as a library. Given all this, has he been forgiven?

“It’s not for me to reach that conclusion but the evidence is building. I must have something to me. One of the reasons I’m grateful for this extra time is that I’ve been able to think about my track record and bring it to some sort of conclusion and be grateful that I’m a better man than before I got sick.”

His daughter says his close brush with death has changed him, enormously.

“I’ve got more time for them, for time for her and everyone. And I must be more considerate. I’m bound to be. I couldn’t have been worse. I was like a lot of driven people. I made that an excuse for not stopping to listen.”

He knows he did things wrong. He writes in one of his poems, Sentenced To Life, that he is: “A sad man, sorrier than he could say.” Is that true? “Yes.” So what does he say in his own defence? “I do have all the standard defensive strategies of the weak artist. I can say betrayal, confusion, weakness, greed, all these things are not unknown in the history of the arts. Very few artists are complete people. If they were they wouldn’t do these things. That statement to me is sounding a little gloomy,” he chuckles to himself.

“Some people, especially my wife and daughters, have heard all that bullshit before – but there’s something to it. There’s some very nice people who were artists but there are far more nasty ones, and the majority is somewhere in the middle.”

So the artist is always selfish? “No, it’s because he’s not Jesus Christ, who never wrote a poem, except everything he said was a poem. I wouldn’t want to be too glib about that. The reason for behaving well is that you really love and respect the people you are behaving towards.”

This is a lesson he learned almost too late, it seems. Does he have any regrets? “I don’t have any bad regrets. I’m lucky that I’m inherently a merry man, even though I have a tragic vision. I enjoy life. I’m a natural enjoyer. I might have done a bit more dancing. I might have had singing training, but I certainly have no regrets that I chose this course. Well it chose me.”

James has long been an avowed atheist, but I know from his writing that he admires some people of faith. Is there any sign of him changing his mind about God now?

“No. If there was a supreme being, he would have intervened. He would have come to Auschwitz at Christmas when the snow was falling. He never did. No, of course there’s no beyond. This is beyond. We’re already there.”

“I’m certain that all the heaven and hell that I need to bother about and will ever know is here on earth. I’m at Addenbrookes quite a lot and you see evidence there all the time that the man upstairs doesn’t care who he kills. You see children with half their heads missing.”

So what does he think happens at the end? “One day in the morning you don’t wake up. You don’t wake up thinking, ‘Christ, I’m not here.’ I that sense Wittgenstein was absolutely right when he said, ‘Death is not an event in life.’

Is there a temptation to end things by his own hand?

“If I was in pain I probably would be. I’m no hero. Either I’ve got the painless version of whatever it is I’ve got or the doctors and scientists are getting very good. Only pain would make me want to do that, and not while I can still write and read and listen to music.”

He tells me about Thurber who dealt with his loss of sight by getting bigger and bigger pieces of cardboard on which to write. “I could do something like that.

“I’m saving music up. My wife and I were sitting here a few months ago on that couch and I was playing her one of the Beethoven late quartets, opus 131 which I think is a towering work of art. I thought, ‘Maybe I should be doing this all the time.’ I’ve only got one eye working as it is, but if the time comes when I can’t see, I’ll start listening then, to all the old stuff. I could spend a couple of years just listening to Stravisnky, so I’m not going to run out of material.”

He has left instructions for his ashes to be scattered at Dawes Point in Sydney Harbour.

“People of my generation will remember that the boat we got on sailed from just nearby, the international terminal. That’s where the big ship was. Some of my old mates from those days are still alive out there. We’re still in touch, although some of them I didn’t see for many many years.”

We finish with him reading a poem he has written about his own funeral, which he hopes will one day be the words enscribed on a plaque at Dawes Point, with the first line: “Here I began and here I reach the end.”

As Clive James reads the final words that he wants to leave the world, the strength of his voice returns and for a moment he is the cocksure Aussie with the quick tongue again; the brilliant young man from Kogarah who became one of the cleverest, wittiest commentators in Britain and dominated our culture for such a long time. Now, he knows, the end really is near.

“That we, who learned to breathe the brilliant air,
And first were told that we were made of dust,
Here in this city, yet went out across the globe to find fame,
Should return one day, to trade our gains against a certain loss,
And sink from sight, where once we sailed away.”

Published by Cole Moreton

Award-winning interviewer, writer and broadcaster.

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