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Clive James The Kid From Kogarah


ABC TV Arts

Posted: Friday, 30 August 2013 at 10:19am


Clive James is an intriguing character. He is high culture and pop culture bundled up together able to write a
new translation of Dantes Divine Comedy, provide hilarious commentary on Japanese television game shows
and write respected literary reviews. Threaded throughout all that he does is James trademark wit and
intelligence.
Clive James The Kid From Kogarah screend Tuesday 3 September at 8:30pm on ABC1
[TRANSCRIPT]
Kerry O'Brien
Its a long way from the streets of Kogarah in suburban Sydney to the ancient sandstone spires of Cambridge for a boy
brought up by a single mother on the widows pension but thats the road that Clive James has travelled.
Nearly fifty years later and an honorary fellow at his old college of Pembroke Clive James is battling not one but two
terminal illnesses. Theyve taken a toll on his body but the mind of the man who is a writer, a poet, a lyricist, a linguist, a
tv critic cum tv star, cultural commentator and internet pioneer remains as strong as ever.
Having just completed the work of a decade a very different translation of Dantes Divine Comedy Clive James is now
racing against the clock to write the last reflections of a life lived to the full, his sixth and final memoir.
Ah now its a long time since Ive been in here
New Republic observed that when England loses Clive James it will be as if a plane crashed with five or six of its best
writers on board.
The New Yorker called him a brilliant bunch of guys.
My special subject was Swift
Q Clive James, its good of you to give us the time.

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C Kerry, its very, very good of you to be here. Its a long way to come.
Q With pleasure. How are you?
C The simple version of the answer is that Im alive, ah and quite well, and I didnt expect to be because so much went
wrong with me. But ah the truth is that Ive got almost everything wrong. My lungs are in bad shape and ah you might
hear me do quite a lot of coughing soon, in which case you can lean forward and compassionately pat me on the back.
Q That might make it worse!
C And [ahem] I have to have my immune system replaced every three weeks at the great hospital, Addenbrooke's,
which is nearby. So effectively that means I cant travel further than three weeks from Addenbrooke's for the rest of my
life. And ah Ive got leukaemia, which is in remission at the moment, but might decide to come back. So when you add it
all together Im in terrible shape!
[laughter]
Q But were laughing! How[laughter] [coughing]
C Theres a cough.
Q How restricted are you physically?
C Pretty much. Im Im Im a bit of a shuffler and I cant walk very far or get- even make any kind of agitated movement
without um without getting a coughing fit or feeling tired. Yes, restricted physically. I liked- I love dancing, love dancing
the tango. I wont be doing that anymore. Theres a lot of things I wont be doing anymore. I wont be flying anywhere,
because you need a lot of oxygen.
Q And that means no flying back to Australia?
C Ah alas.
Q You dont see Australia again for the rest of your life . . .
C . . . I dont see Australia again, and its- It weighs on me. Im very sad about that.
Q You um you copped a double whammy all in one go, didnt you? You actually I think went to the hospital ah to be
checked out on one condition . . .
C . . . Yes . . .
Q . . . and by the time that was over theyd actually presented you with two terminal ones . . .
C Thats the message dont get cured!
Q Leukaemia- Leukaemia and emphysema.
C I turned up because ah like many men, foolish men, and most men are foolish, Id postponed my prostate operation
too long. And the night came, it was New Years Eve of 2009 and th-the first day of 2010 when you know I really
couldnt pee at all. So it was a case of going into the emergency unit and ah and I thought Id be there for a while, but I
was there for a long time because I almost had kidney failure.
And ah they took a couple of weeks to stabilise me and then they operated on that. Ah but I almost croaked then.
Q Yeah.
C And then later on I had a couple of bad things.
Q So in fact ah your daughter Claerwen has said that you had two very close brushes with death . . .
C . . . Yes, yeah, yeah . . .
Q . . . in that, in that early period?
C Yeah. It was while I went in there with the, w-with the kidney failure that they did spot the leukaemia, and the
emphysema they already knew about, but they realised how bad it was. [coughing] It sounds particularly bad now
because Im getting- Im enjoying myself!

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Q H-how hard has the fight back been?


C Well, when you consider what people go through and if youve spent a lot of time around a hospital you see it all the
time. Youve got to count yourself lucky. For example, this is the right time to be alive if youre sick, because you might
stay alive. And ah I wouldnt have had . . .
Q . . . And if you can stay alive a little longer, it might be even better.
C Yeah, exactly! And you start- Ill tell you, just before I got sick I was having illusions, fantasies that I was well weary
and Id had enough of life and it wouldnt really m-matter very much if I disappeared. Now Id done it all, all that
self-indulgent stuff. Those feelings vanished overnight as soon as I got sick! And I just wanted to live. and Ive found this
period when Ive been ill, as I am now, as I sit here and talk to you Im Im not a well man, I find that brings a clarity of
mind and an ability to concentrate on the essential that I never had when I was well. When I was well I was so energetic
I never noticed anything . . .
Q . . . Right.
C I was sort of like, I was like a banzai bumble bee; I was everywhere!
Q Youre saying . . .
C . . . but I never concentrated.
Q Youre saying a need to prioritise . . .
C . . . Yes . . .
Q . . . is much, much clearer?
C Yes. And bad health makes you, makes you think.
Q Theres a powerful poignancy I think about an essay that you wrote and delivered for radio in 2007, that you called
Smoking the Memory, ah which I, which I think measured the depths of your dependence on nicotine . . .
C . . . How foolish . . .
Q . . . Because after you gave it up you were still smoking by memory for a year . . .
C . . . Yes . . .
Q . . . until of course you went back to it.
C And I went- But the way I went back to it is particularly [ahem] shameful, is that I had a plan that Ill, yes, Ill smoke
again, but Ill smoke the occasional cigarillo, like Clint Eastwood, you know? Th-the dangerous cigarillo dripping from the
laconic lip?
Q Mm hm.
C Three or four a day. Within a week I was chain smoking the things.
Q Yeah.
C So it was worse than ever.
Q I-in March this year you wrote a poem called Holding Court, and ah if youll indulge me, Ill read a little bit of it.
My body, sensitive in every way save one, can still proceed from chair to chair...
C ....chair to chair. But in my mind the fire- the fires are dying fast. Breathe through a scarf. Steer clear of the cold air.
Think less of love and all that you have lost. You have no future so forget the past. Let this be no occasion for despair.
Cherish the prison of your waning day. Remember liberty, and what it cost.
Q Is that what you feel? The fires in your mind dying fast?
C I wasnt writing anything like that before I got ill. This is, this is quite a recent event. And its got lines in it that Im very
proud of. And cherish, cherish the prison of your waning day, is that what I wrote there?
Q Yes, yes.
C I I do feel thats what Im doing. Its you are restricted, but on the other hand your restriction gives you a vision, so

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cherish it.
Q Think less of love and all that youve lost.
C Ah, we dont want to go into too many details here, Kerry! But ah [coughing] lets say that my days, my days as aWhats the word Im looking for? Id better be very, very careful of my vocabulary here. My days of being . . .
Q . . . Somebody who appreciates beauty.
C Dr-drunk with the spectacle of female beauty, a little bit behind me now, and ought to be.
Q What are you working on at present?
C Oh if only there were time to do it all! Ah there was sixth volume of memoirs. My younger daughter approves of my
provisional title. The provisional title is Prelude to the Aftermath.
Q Ha!
C And ah I said I probably wont call it that, and she said, no, you must call it that! [laughter] [coughing]
Q You said in volume five ah on the TV years, on your television years, that in the next and final one youd try to sum up
a lifetime of reflections on your own existence. Is that still the plan?
C Yeah, thats what Im doing. Im about some almost 10,000 words into it. Im having far too much fun! And it was
meant to- And I I must get, I must get serious! also m-my memory keeps going back to my early disasters, which has
always been the the basic- the bedrock of my writings, i-is not my my later years in the limelight or in prominence, but
my early catastrophes. Ah theyre funnier!
Q Is it true to say that the writing has provided you with the central thread of your life?
C Oh sure, theres no question. A writer is what I am, and I probably wouldnt have been very good at anything else.
Q when you have such a passion for what essentially is at the core of your life, does that make you a selfish person?
C Necessarily and awkwardly and hard to live with. And ah I mean this is delicate territory, but its not the ideal ah- Its
not the ideal psychological const- Its not the ideal motivational force for someone who also wants to be a husband and
father.
Q But these things are very hard I think at times to separate, arent they, when . . .
C . . . Yeah . . .
Q . . . when we reflect on our lives, work and family?
C Yeah.
Q Particularly if youre passionate about both.
C Yeah, well Ive actually made a lot of time, especially in recent years, ah Ive taken time to reflect on how the actual
life, the real life actually connects up with imaginative life. And the truth is th-the imaginative life would not be so rich
unless the real life was there. The ideal of going away, living alone in a garret and ah just being an artist is is a teenage
fantasy really, mm.
Q Dont know whether youve thought about this, but its nearly 50 years since you first came to Cambridge University . .
.
C . . . Yeah . . .
Q . . . This library must have some very powerful memories for you? . . .
C I was, I was here, I lived on the other side of this courtyard, so I spent time here, especially at night.
A lot of things started here. And downstairs, in what used to be called the old library, it was a sort of underground
dungeon, I think its gone now, I think they demolished it, it used to be the venue for the Pembroke Smoker. It was a
concert once a year and everybody used to come to that concert. Peter Cook started it, Eric Idle directed it for years
and then handed it over to me. And he showed me how to build the stage. We built it out of beer crates in the corner of
the room, and all these undergrads and graduate students and dons came and all the fashionable women of the
university were all there.

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And ah it was there that, with one show I produced, Germaine Greer did her celebrated routine of Land of Hope and
Glory with her lips out of synchronisation with the words . . .
Q . . . Right, right . . .
C . . . which some people think was the single funniest thing they ever saw! They were, they were grown men with
knighthoods rolling on the floor. The dons went crazy about her. And it was, it was, it seemed like fun even at the time,
and these things always look good in the memory . . .
Q . . . And this . . .
C . . . And better in memory.
Q Th-the Smokers all fit into, um I mean the best of, I suppose, ended up in Footlights.
C Oh sure.
Q Which you also ran.
C Well, you could ah- I was President of Footlights as well, which sounds rather grand, but in fact it just meant youve
hang around long enough to get the job. I would do [ahem] two smoking concerts for Footlights every term, and then Id
do the Pembroke Smoker, and then you can sort of be guest star at the smoking concert of every other college, and
there are a lot of colleges! So really you could be on stage practically continuously throughout your undergrad career,
and thats what I did. What I did was extracurricular activities. I really wasnt much of a student.
Q Well, in fact I was going to say, there was a pattern, both at Sydney University and here, ah where you were, you
were hoovering up all kinds of literature, music, ah any kind of serious culture that that you could get your hands on.
Q Ah what you werent doing much of anything of was the actual course.
C Yeah. There was a terrible expression, set books, and I never could read the set books! And there was another
expression, off the course, and I was off the course! I did everything that was off the course. Its a temperamental
fault. It wouldve been easier, I believe [coughing] if Id just done what was set down for me. But ah it wasnt in my
nature.
Q What was the Australia you left behind in 1961?
C Oh well, I would like to think that it was a primitive, undeveloped place that I was well out of in my, in my search for
richer adventure. But the truth was, of course, that it was a startling country. It had everything. And one of the things
that it had was it offered the opportunity to see the world, you know. Y-you were rich enough to do that. I earned
enough at the Sydney Morning Herald, my first newspaper, to save up and buy a ticket to England. So I did what
everybody else did and I just got on a ship and went to see the world.
Q Were you ever really clear what you wanted from England? Did you have any kind of a plan?
C I think lemmings have a better plan than I had! I had no idea. And I got off the ship, I had ten quid in my pocket. I lost
that at my first party I went to. No, I had no, no plan, and I just followed my noise. And I I bless it now, because I ended
up doing strange things just to stay alive, like working in a factory for example, ah experience I still draw on. And um but
no, th-th-there was no plan. I knew I wanted to be a writer and I was- Id brought some poems with me and I wrote
some more, and I had what I thought was a collection of poems. Luckily nobody published it! That was a blessing,
because I managed to get it to a few publishers, and one or two of them kindly said it was promising. But luckily nobody
published it, because if they had Id be going around now trying to buy up every copy!
[laughter]
C Because they were just not ready. Very few poets are ready early; one or two.
Q You wrote that um that Cambridge was the one place where you could be everything that you- You could be
everything that you wanted to be . . .
C . . . Yes . . .
Q . . . all at once. Now what did everything encompass?

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C I think it was probably the right time, you know. It was my middle 20s. Im very glad I wasnt here earlier, at the time
the other- I was older than the other undergraduates by just that crucial few years. And um so I could, so I could see
what the requirements were and find a way of getting around them, and I realised the extracurricular stuff was it. I
realised that straight away. I knew that th-the thing to go for was Footlights, drama and student journalism, and I started
really to be a cultural journalist here. I would do- I wr-wrote for the Cambridge Review, I wrote film criticism, I wrote all
kinds of essays. And they started to get noticed in London, because in those days London, it probably still does, the
editors would keep their eye on the universities, and ah youd get an invitation, would you like to review a book for us?
Would I! Yes, I would!
Q But the interesting thing was that um that with those reviews, y-you- the film reviews you were writing for Cambridge
Review, um ah you broke a mould, didnt you, because ah because you were writing about Hollywood as much as you
were writing about.
C . . . Oh sure, yeah . . .
Q . . . as much as you were writing about continental films.
C Yeah, or more. Id go for the popular end every time.
Q Yes.
C Suspecting that the real creativity might be there. And later when I became a TV critic I did a lot of that.
Q When you first seriously hit the mainstream, it was by taking the exact, exact same approach with your television
reviews . . .
C . . . Yeah . . .
Q . . . as you had with your film reviews for the Cambridge Review . . .
C . . . Th-thats true.
Q This was with The Observer. Ah you took popular art seriously, but also sent it up brilliantly. D-did the success
surprise you?
C yes, i-it got very popular very fast. But in those days, which are different from today, print journalism, print journalism
were very strong, especially in London, and um about a million of the brightest people in the country took The Observer
every Sunday. So you were really hitting an audience, and I became part of the landscape.
Q I wonder if you can remember your column on ah Charles and Dis wedding, the wedding of the century, because . . .
C . . . Oh I had fun writing those . . .
Q . . . because people who read it at the time or read it in The Book of Columns would certainly remember it.
C Oh I had a lot of fun composing those things. I composed them like a mosaic, because so much was happening. And
what I did is I covered the coverage. Ah the great Australian journalist whos dead now, Murray Sayle, used to say what
matters is its the story, its the story of the story. And I would cover the coverage, and I would write down what the TV
commentators were saying and/or what the celebrities were saying. And I- Barbara Cartland was asked her opinion,
and there she was on screen, and I was able to say that that her eye makeup looked like the corpses of two crows that
had flown into a chalk cliff!
And that was a case of a phrase becoming well-known. It still is; people quote it to me! Flatteringly, people quote it
back to me! It was like later on I said that Arnold Schwarzenegger looked like a brown condom full of walnuts . . .
Q . . . That ones come back, that ones . . .
C . . . People, people will, people- Thatll be on my tombstone, people come . . .
Q . . . No, itll be on his!
[laughter]
C Actually he did get To hear of it
Q When the opportunity came for you to leave Fleet Street and perform for television, what was the lure that hooked
you?

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C It appealed to me to do television, and it did for a long time. And I didnt quit until the year 2000 and that was because
I wanted to get back to have all my concentration available for writing again. Also it was getting a bit hard. I wasnt, I
wasnt young anymore.
Q But I think also didnt you find values changing? Didnt you findC Yes. It got very, very hard . . .
Q . . . To focus? . . .
C . . . t-to interview the people I wanted to interview. I wanted to interview a ballerina, they wanted me to interview a
Spice Girl. They were right, because if you interview the Spice Girl the figures go up by a million. Actually its a million
people who eat crisps, but its another million people. So I could see it from their viewpoint, it was just that it wasnt, it
wasnt my interest.
Q So how do you look back now on those television years that catapulted you into stardom?
C With gratitude, because it would be churlish not to. Ah it made me well-known here and in Australia, not in America,
only a few of my shows went to America. Um [cough] but I was grateful for the attention, and which I still get because
people dont forget that youve been on television.
C But no, Im grateful. Ah a lot of awkward stuff comes with it, ah and that Im not grateful for. Im not really, although I
love the limelight, Im not made for media attention.
Q Well in fact ah your daughter, Claerwen, must be very wise, Clive, must be very observant. Shes perceptive. Shes
talked of your conflicting sides that dont sit comfortably together.
C Yes.
Q Quote, Hes a showman and a recluse at the same time, and has conflicting impulses of gregariousness and the
need to be alone to work.
C Shes clever, isnt she?
Q Mm.
C Thats exactly true.
Q Well, she had a box seat.
C Yeah, but on the other hand Im not so sure Im the only person whos had conflicting impulses, and that again is a
subject, the way being ill and approaching death is a subject. And writers love subject. Im writing things now I never
wouldve written before, and ah I can write about in memoirs, volume six, this very division in my nature. Ah so its ah its
not nothing to weep about . . .
Q Claerwen the wise again, quote, Fame is distorting, uncomfortable and toxic. I was in my late teens when he was
suddenly on TV a lot. His TV persona didnt seem to be him. To me hes someone who reads, thinks and writes poetry.
C Isnt sheQ Perceptive.
C Shes so clever, in fact quite damming when she says that. You know that terrible thing that John Updike said, that
fame is a mask that eats the face. Well, Claerwen saw that, but ah I think I did a probably better job than my family
thinks. First of all, of protecting them from the onrush of interest, and also I didnt go quite entirely crazy. Its very easy
to go crazy.
Q Of course youll always be remembered as the man who discovered Japanese television in all its ah glorious
eccentricity for the rest of the world . . .
C . . . Im afraid its its going to go- thats going to go on my gravestone too.
Q Japanese game show man dies!
C Yes! Japanese game show man dies! Yes. Theres no way out of that one. Um it seemed like an original idea at the
time. Ah we had a stringer in Tokyo who sent us this footage. In those days you had to ship everything by air in a
parcel; there was no electronic transferring, and there was miles of this stuff. And I took one look at it and thought this,

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well this is great, well have to edit it down, but this is just ideal. And um and it took off straight away.
[Clip of Endurance]
The contestants have to stand on their hands and lean their bare bodies against the blistering metal. A dangling bit of
cactus stops them falling forwards and strips of cactus stuck to the hot steel make sure they dont fall sideways.
Remember where the Japanese come from its just a game.
C What I didnt know was that the actual shows we were looking at were going to influence the whole of television all
over the world.
Clip of Endurance
Strapped to a wooden framework from which they cant escape they are dusted with powdered fish food. Hungry
catfish wait in the river for the contestants to join them for lunch.
Those who drown are not allowed to go forward to the next stage.
C It was the beginning of of reality TV, in the sense that th-the participants must suffer. I mean if you turn on TV now,
there are people suffering all over the, all over the place.
Q What special qualities did you endeavour to bring to your interviewing?
C Im not so sure how good an interviewer I was. I found it quite difficult to ask an awkward question, a question that
the the other person didnt want to answer. I never could do that.
Q Well, youre saying that and Im immediately thinking of Roman Polanski.
C Well, Polanski, see there was a deal on there. Polanski knew that if I was gonna help him plug his book, he would
have to answer the question about the underage girl. The reason he answered it is that Polanski didnt see anything
wrong with it. Youve gotta get that clear in your head.
[Clip of Polanski interview.]

Clive James: When the newspapers and magazines and books talk about you and little girls right is there anything
in it?
Roman Polansky: Well I like young women lets put it this way and I think most of men do actually.
J But the question turns on how young doesnt it
P Well yes and here you come to a concrete case for which i have been behind bars and thats what you want to
talk about
J Doesnt the age of consent mean precisely that that under a certain age whatever age may be it doesnt matter if
the girl says yes or not or wants to or not youre supposed not to because..
P Yes I know I know in that particular state again its a question of ..
J Everywhere in the west has got some sort of age of consent
P No but you see if you think of the united states there are states where the age of consent is twelve

C Polanski is a European refugee whod seen the SS wiping out his family; he just didnt think there was much wrong
with what hed done. The rest of us do, and I think were right, but he didnt, so thats why he answered the question. So
I didnt have to probe for that; it wasnt wasnt difficult.
Q Katherine Hepburn, that wouldve been a slightly different . . .
C . . . That was difficult because there were things she didnt want to talk about. She didnt want to talk about Howard
Hughes, she didnt want to talk about Spencer Tracy. I asked a clever question of her about Hughes. I congratulated
myself! I mean when I finally got to it, the way I framed the question was, Some people think that falling in love with you
was the only sane thing Howard Hughes ever did, and she was stuck she had to answer it! And she did.

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[Clip of Hepburn interview].


Clive James: I cant even mention Hughes
Katherine Hepburn: Well you can mention Hughes, he was flying around the world...
J Well it did just occur to me...
H a very distinguished man
J Well it did just occur to me that falling for you was the only sane thing he ever did
H I think it was on a par with the rest of the things he did but poor Howard he was a brilliant man. You know he
was deaf at 15 he was deaf seriously deaf. I think it was what made him seriously eccentric.

C What I didnt do of course was uncover all the secrets of Katherine Hepburn; she didnt want them uncovered.
Q So while you were leading this double life in your television years, you were building your bank of poetry, writing
memoirs and essays . . .
C . . . Yes.
Q The poetry was always your first love?
C Always there, from the first, when I arrived in Sydney University on the first day I met my first poets, and I knew
instantly that I wanted to be one of them. And Ive written poetry all my life. I like to think that Im getting better.
Q Youve said that ah that when you write prose you, quote, try to write the phrase that will get past peoples defences
and get right into the middle of their head before they get a chance to censure it on the way in . . .
C . . . Yes.
Q How does that differ from when you write poetry?
C: Youve got to get peoples attention straight away, and thats where show business comes in. I actually write show
business poetry in the sense th-the poem is actually working for attention from the first phrase. But all- [coughing] Every
phrase in the poem has to be as good as those phrases in prose. I once said about- I once, listen to this! I once saidQ Youre quoting yourself!
C I once said, modestly, modest that I am! I once said that all I do is turn a phrase until it catches the light. Well, the
second part is the interesting part. Y-youve got to turn a phrase that people are startled by.
Q Is it also in the process- Is it the purest distillation . . .
C . . . Yes . . .
Q . . . of thoughts?
C I think so, but some some would say philosophy is, and I dont know which is, which is true. I love writing what I would
regard as philosophical prose where I, where I work on a a concept and try and tease it out and explain it and so on.
But um no, I think poetry is distillation.
Q You wrote in volume three of your memoirs in 1990 that if you had an important book in you, it would be what ah
happened in the Pacific in the war.
C Ah!
Q But you said it would take a decade to prepare even before you began to write. You got at least as far as the title,
River in the Sky, but what happened to the book?
C You see what happens when you make predictions? I g-got sick and thats- And The River in the Sky would be a big
project. I dont think there is time for it. The urge is still there
Q Why did it not really get going?
C I knew Id have to do it at the end of my life when everything else was done. It was going to take time. It was going to
be m-my swan song.
Q But it all started because you lost your father to that Pacific War . . .

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C . . . Yeah, I think thats . . .


Q . . . even though the war itself was over?
C Thats quite obviously the motivating point of my life, although how it motivated me is a big question. I think seeing my
mothers helplessness, and she was a- She wasnt a helpless woman, and like many women of her generation she was
terrific at the whole business of of running the house and having a job, and sh-she used to smock babies clothes, ah
very intricate, f-finicky work. And on top of her widows pension pension that kept us alive. Ah no, she was a very
capable woman, my mother.
Q But ah but there was such a cruelty about the way he died . . .
C . . . Yeah . . .
Q . . . that that hed survived the war as a prisoner, ending up as a prisoner in Japan.
C Yeah.
Q Hes released. You and your mother, but particularly your mother I would imagine, because you had not really known
him . . .
C . . . Yeah, I was tiny . . .
Q . . . had this expectation that he was coming back. Hed survived the war and he was coming home.
C And the telegram came instead. I was there when she got the telegram. Yes, it was, it was cruel, but it was, it was
only bad luck. Um bad . . .
Q . . . But but a huge impact on two lives.
C Ah I got the sense that nothing was nailed down after that, and I also got the sense that I had to have the life that
they might have had, a productive life. I think it probably motivated everything, but that was the main conclusion I drew
at the, at the mature and wise age of six! It wasQ You think!
C Was that ah the universe, creation, providence, theyre not on your side. Its just chance.
Q After the first of two visits to your fathers grave in Hong Kong you revealed in a poem called Son of a Soldier that at
the age of 55 you cried authentically . . .
C . . . Yes . . .
Q . . . for the first time, an opening of the floodgates. What do you mean by crying authentically . . .
C . . . Well, I dont . . .
Q . . . for the first time at 55?
C It was my impression that that, that that was true, that I felt that I, until then Id been locked up and I was at last
facing a truth about not just my life, but life itself.
Q First for the hurt I had done to those I loved, then for myself for what had been done to me in the beginning to make
my heart so cold.
C Yeah.
Q Do we take that literally?
C Yes, I I think I did . . .
Q . . . A cold heart?
C I think I did have a cold heart, and to a certain extent still do. That doesnt make me a monster. There are people with
lot colder hearts than I have, but I have got- I think I got scarred and injured when I was very young by that incident . . .
Q . . . But but does that mean not trusting your emotions, not wanting to invest emotional in others? I meanC Not realising at the time what the emotion is, yeah. Yes. Yes, protective mechanism. I dont want to go into too many

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details because it gets it into- gets into personal territory. But um yes, thats ah, Id say that was a characteristic, is sort
of cold detachment.
Q Had you come home, I would not be what I am, I cried.
C Yes.
Q I couldve loved my mother less and not searched for more like her among others, parched for a passion, undimmed
by distress, while you lay deep behind that looming dam. What were you saying?
C What I was saying is I dont think my personality wouldve been as it turned out. I think my father, my father wouldve
told me things, but he wasnt there to do so. And IQ What might he have told you?
C [12:05:09] He wouldve told you to find someone, love her and dont be stupid.
Q Your wife, Prue, was there with you and you wrote, I turned to meet her eyes. Let me explain, I said to her, my tears
were trapped because he left me to be tender, strong and brave.
C Yeah.
Q Who was none of these things, inflamed by fright, the love that he did not return to make it to the first woman I knew.
And could not became in me a thirst I could never slake for one more face, transfigured by delight.
C Yeah. Ah OBrien, how sly you are to dig away and find all these revelations, which in factQ There are many of them.
C In fact I published them!
Q You did, you did! You did.
C Nobody ever made himself more clear or more vulnerable. Yes.
Q So honesty there, honesty there, not lies . . .
C . . . Yes, beginning of honesty. Honesty about emotions is quite a hardQ Do you think thats true for all, or more for you?
C True for me, yeah. Whether whats true for me is true for everybody is a question Im still addressing. Ah I think the
idea that everyone else in the world is like yourself is called solipsism, and I hope Im not guilty of it.
Q Those years growing up in Kogarah w-were the most powerful . . .
C . . . Yes . . .
Q . . . powerfully formative ah years of your life. How much of the kid from Kogarah is still in you?
C Oh its still me. I mean theres no question of it. The kid from Kogarah is sitting before you. Ah I think ah, I dont know,
cant remember whether it was Auden or Stravinsky or maybe it was both of them, but lets say it was Auden who said
that he always felt as if he was the youngest person in the room.
Q Right.
C Yeah. I still feel that.
Q The galloping sense of in security?
C Yeah, well just ah I feel a lot of other people are wiser and more mature than I am. I wouldnt say it was insecurity so
much as inadequacy. Mm.
Q And that goes all the way back?
C Oh sure.
[coughing]
C In fact, the very thought of it brings on a coughing fit!
[laughter]

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Q I guess there are, there are at least apparent contradictions in us all, but you paint yourself as this kid who was
outwardly gregarious, always in the action, playing Joe Cool or trying to play Joe Cool, but also lonely, ah an anxiety to
belong.
C [12:08:29] Its a good subject. Dont forget that.
Q Yeah.
C And thats why you can never trust a writer.
Q Right.
C They dramatise themselves.
Q Ive just read Unreliable Memoires again.
C God bless you!
Q Ah and it still made me laugh out loud in the most embarrassing places! But your description of the billycart days has
to be an absolute classic, Can you recall your pice de rsistance, which was the billycart supertrain[laughter]
Q And Mrs.- And Mrs. Branthwaites poppies . . .
C The supertrain, the supertrain, there's a big thing Ive gotta say about this, when I finish the story. Mrs. Branthwaite
had the house on the corner ah where one street turned into another. Lets call it the corner, and remember the front
strip? I think theyve still got them in Australia, beyond the footpath theres a strip of green between there and the kerb,
and some people would plant flowers there. And Mrs. Branthwaite had the worlds- the gr- the districts anyway, the
greatest collection of poppies, the greatest display of poppies, carefully cultivated, and she was known to call the police
if anyone even picked one of them.
It was down- [laughter] [coughing] It was down the hill that I projected the billycart which Id been inspired to build. The
supercart was my billycart, followed by all the other billycarts had been bolted onto it. And there were about 20 kids in
it, including little kids with their koalas and dummies, you know. And it came steaming down the hill!
Q With all the people coming out of their houses to watch this phenomenon . . .
C . . . Oh everyone was watching, yeah. And they even stopped hosing. People would hose you, because of the noise
of the, the noise of the ball race, ball bearing wheels made. But they were looking in awe as this thing came [coughing]
thundering down the hill and into the turn into the next street. And of course it was while I was making the turn I realised
Id miscalculated, and because the thing wouldnt follow the first cart around, it would lash its enormous tail, which it did.
And it wiped out [coughing] all Mrs. Branthwaites poppies.
The air was full of them, and full of little kids and dummies and ah it was carnage. And and she came out of the house
and saw this and had a stroke, and had to be helped away. She was taken away in a van, or she was in my memory!
Now we get to the question of my memory! Let me tell you something about that hill. I went back to it years later its
very flat!
[laughter]
C You see the danger . . .
Q . . . Everythings relative . . .
[laughter]
C . . . The danger of writers, yeah, especially with their childhood memories, because they remember everything on the
way childhood exaggerates them.
Q B-but at the same time y-you said ah once that theres as much hidden about you in the memoir as there is revealed.
C Yes. Yes. Ah Ive got a feeling they may have revealed more than they hid.
Q But what did you want to hide?
C I was discontented with ordinary life. Id like to have been free to do everything, which you know you cant be. I cant
go into detail, because it would be breaking faith with people, breaking f-faith with my own family. But although I realised
that being a married man was the centre of my existence and the anchor and the secret of my existence, which it still is,

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Im not built for it. Im built to be Ulysses, not physically perhaps! But to be out there, to see everything, to be the
universal adventurer, universal lover, all those things.
Q Do you understand what that springs from? Do you understand what it is in you?
C Hunger.
Q Hunger?
C Yes. And I dont know what- where the hunger comes from.
Q In the early memoirs you ah you paint your mother as a relatively simple, solitary, long-suffering figure who lived for
her son and often despaired of him. But you eventually wrote about 30 years I think after you left for England, that youd
come to realise she was quite a sophisticated woman.
C Yes.
Q Ah ah a natural psychologist, you said, whose letters revealed a gifted writer.
C Oh yeah.
Q Tell me about that.
C Yes, I underestimated her. Um th-there were several tragedies in the life of my mother, and indeed that generation of
women. Higher education was unavailable to most of them, and because my- her father, my grandfather, was a wastrel,
having ruined one family in England he came all the way to Australia to ruin another family. Gambler. And because of
that, she had to leave school at 13 and ah she spent her teens on the production lines at General Motors Holden. Um
never had the education she couldve had. What difference w-we wouldve made, we dont know. But later on it did
strike me that Id had all the privileges that she hadnt a thing which bothers me now.
Q Um you mustve poured a lot of effort ah in the post-television years ah into producing such a monumental work as
Cultural Amnesia, a collection of more than a hundred essays on mostly 20th century figures, the great writers,
philosophers, despots.
C Yeah.
Q Politicians, musicians, even comic actors, described by the Nobel Prize winning ah author J. M. Coetzee as majestic
and acutely provocative, a crash course in civilisation. Youve described it as a book designed to start arguments.
C Its attracted all kinds of favourable comments, as well as unfavourable ones, all over the world. It was ah my first big
success in America, and its read in places like India, which pleases me greatly. Yes, and i-its meant to dis- its meant
to start the subject in each ?? Sometimes I dont even tackle the person that I nominally am writing the essay about; I
just go off at a tangent.
Q Yes -its really a book of what human beings were capable of, is it not? . . .
C . . . Yes.
Q A-a-and what they did in the 20th century, from the brilliant and inspirational, to the absolutely despicable.
C Hitler is there. in one extreme, and then one of his victims, a little girl called Sophie Scholl, Sophie Scholl was one of
the Munich conspirators that the Nazis executed in 1942. Ah and she was only, she was very young. And um thats, I
think, is my key essay in there. But ideally in a book like that, every essay is a key essay because every essay leads
somewhere else.
Q Yes. You were obviously impressed by the cafe society in Vienna .
C . . . Yes . . .
Q . . . and to a slightly lesser extent, Berlin, but dominated by Jewish intellectuals.Um before the rise of Nazism. Now,
what was it about that cafe society . . .
C . . . Well this . . .
Q . . . that impressed you so much?
C The cafe was the house of wit, of learning, and irresponsibility. Um and people werent model citizens; they were quite

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the opposite, they were all characters. It was, it was the opposite of the totalitarian mentality, and of course it was very
intelligent and very funny. And the things you like about Hollywood, the Hollywood moguls cracking their terrific jokes,
that all comes from Viennese cafe society. It runs right through the century, a-and still does I think
Q You observe with regard to the fate of the Jews ah and its accompanying achievements, you said that there could be
no clearer proof ah that the mind is hard to kill, nor could there be a more frightening demonstration of the virulent
power of the forces that can combine to kill it.
C There is such a thing as evil. One of the philosophers, Stuart Hampshire, modern philosopher, was at Nuremburg and
one of his jobs was to interrogate the Nazi prisoners. And he had been a philosopher ah who was very strong on the
idea there was no such thing as evil, and hed make a good case for the fact that there isnt, for the idea there isnt. And
then he met Kaltenbrunner whod been the head of the SS, and he came away and it changed- h-his whole philosophy
had changed there is such thing as evil. It can show up in little things. Sometimes its just, its just so petty. Ah that
was something, in the Soviet Union that was standard you make life impossible for the independent thinker. You take
away their union membership, they cant eat in the cafeteria, they cant get work. You, you peck them to death. Ah
thats evil.
Q And after all these reflections and all this accumulation of knowledge, are you a wiser perso- person yourself?
Knowledge is supposed to bring wisdom.
C I think I had to be. I think I was such a klutz!
[laughter]
C I think- Yes, I think I had to be wiser. Since I ah [coughing] my recent disasters, Ive grown a lot wiser. But I I know I
was unusually unwise when young.
Q John Lennon said count your age by friends, not years; count your life by smiles, not tears. To the extent that you
can define your life by the company that youve kept, what would it say about you?
C Do you know, that line of his count your life by friends strikes home to me, because I probably didnt do a good
enough- In fact, I know I didnt do a good enough job of of cultivating and keeping my friendships. I took them as they
came along. It was easy come, easy go. When I look back on it I wish Id lived differently, but that means wishing to be
a different person. Its a sore point this, because Im probably t-too good at solitude and ah I try to avoid obligations.
And sometimes you shouldnt.
Q Do you think that means you took the friends for granted, that theyd always be there when you needed them or
wanted them? . . .
C . . . Yes, yeah, I tend- I tended to. And possibly I hope I dont do that so much anymore. Now, Ill tell you a big
difference between now and then, because nowadays I go to funerals, because fairly soon one of those funerals might
be mine!
Q Youve talked more than once about the importance of women in your life.
C . . . Oh gosh!
Q Youve said Ive always been extremely susceptible to the beautiful women . . .
C . . . Here comes trouble!
Q I dont know why you ever actually said that in public, but there you go!
C Because Im a fool!
[laughter]
C I should've shut the f up!
Q Youre not alone in that, b-but does this go all the way back to your childhood too? . .
C . . . Yes. Ive always thought that the face of a beautiful and preferably intelligent woman was a revelation of God.
And I suppose at some level I still, still do. Sometimes the beautiful woman isnt quite as intelligent as I expected or
thought she was. Um but thats because men are romantic. One of the reasons Ive found women so attractive is theyre
less romantic; theyre more realistic. So when they say they like you, probably theyre telling the truth! [laughter]
Q Right, right, right.

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[coughing]
C Its an infinite subject. And someday Ill find a way of getting at it. I still dont know, quite know how.
Q So what sort of a routine have you been able to develop to cater for the illness?
C I never in my life had a routine, ah in which I could get up in the morning, sit down at a certain time and write. So I
dont miss that, because I never had it. But ah necessarily now that Im ill I spend most of the day asleep, which is very
boring. Most of the night and quite a lot of the day. And um then there are visits to clinics over and- One clinic of another
kind or another every few days. And when I do manage to write, its usually my my Daily Telegraph TV column, which I
put together piece by piece over a couple of days. And then if theres any time left over from that, I might do an article,
or blessedly work on a poem. But you couldnt call it a routine.
Q In fact, um when you did write a poem at about the time that you were diagnosed, and you were clearly pissed off
that um that it took you half a day to write one page . . .
C . . . Yes . . .
Q . . . double spaced.
C Yes. Ah it was a cry of pain. That was- It was when I, just when I was getting sick, wasnt it?
Q Yes.
C Ive got to realise that Im working on 50 percent power, and try and use that economically. But it takes some getting
used to, because I was always accustomed to working as much as I like. Thats one of the reasons why writers
generally, and me specifically, specifically, were so hard to live with, is Id be up at three oclock in the morning writing.
The idea came, you get up and write it.
Q And why at this point in your life, when time is of the very essence, ah would you use up so much of it translating
someone elses work?
C Theres been at least a thousand translations of Dante, and most of them will bore you to tears, especially in the
second books, Purgatory and Paradise, because theyre simply not poetic enough. And the Divine Comedy is a poem, it
must be, it must be poetic. But you ahQ But youre also translating 14th century Italian . . .
C . . . Yeah . . .
Q . . . as well as his own particularC Thats true, although 14th century Italian is practically Italian, because Dante invented the language. Dante brought all
these dialects together into this great poem, and created the language we know as Italian today.
Id always wanted to do it, and j-just after 9/11 I was on holiday in Greece and I finally figured out how to do it, to turn
Dantes terza rima, thats the triple rhyme, which is impossible in English, or very hard, to do it in quatrains, which Id
been practicing for all my life and I was quite good at, i-in my own opinion. So I knew how to do it, but it still took years.
Q How how big an issue is it in the literary world to take someone elses, particularly someone like Dante, and to
actually change the structure of their poetry?
C on the whole its been a pretty good critical reception. Ill give you an example of what I did. Ah the inscription over the
gate of hell, ah which in the Longfellow translation has the famous line abandon hope all ye that enter here.
Q Right.
C I didnt want to reproduce Longfellows line, and I did fine there was room to introduce a line of my own, but the trick
was to make that good enough for Dante. So this is the way that the- This is the inscription over the gate of hell, canto
III, and the last stanza goes, this is gate of hell talking to people who are about to enter hell, big voice, right? From now
on, everyday feels like your last, forever. Let that be your greatest fear. Your future now is to regret the past. Forget
your hopes; they were what brought you here. You see, I think that last line is not bad. And its not his!
C I I made that one up and stuck it on! And when the a- When some of the reviewers see . . .
Q . . . So how do the traditionalists deal with that?
C Well, they dont, they go nuts. If youre lucky, they give you some praise for invention and originality.

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Q Now, it was your wife, Prue, who opened you up to Dante in the first place, wasnt it? I meanC Yes. God bless her.
Q Ah shes a noted scholar on Dante . . .
C . . . Yes.
Q What did she bring to the table for you?
C Oh everything. It was in Florence in the early 60s, you need some music here! Romantic music, because its a very
romantic scene. We werent married yet. We were a couple of exiles living in sin in Florence, and ah she knew
everything about Dante, and I wanted to know how it worked. And she opened up the first book, the Inferno, hell, to
canto V, th-the episode of Paulo and Francesca, and she showed me how this worked. And immediately I was
enthralled. It was a big thing for me, it was a big thing for me and her. In fact it was, it was a romance thats still in a
way going on 45 years later!
I should say that. You know, were still married and still involved. But you dont get more involved than when youre
reading something together. And strangely enough, the bit we were reading is about two lovers who are reading a book.
And ah it was a big moment for me. But what I didnt know then and didnt find out for another 40 years, was how it
could possibly work in English.
Q Youve written quite a bit about your wife in both memoires ah and poems, ah albeit under another name. Prue
became Francoise.
C Francoise!
Q In ah 2005 you wrote an anniversary serenade to Prue.
C Yes.
Q You are my alcohol and nicotine, my silver flask and Cigarette machine, my share of heaven and my sheer delight, my
soda fountain and my water sprite, and it moves onC Do you notice the first two things are about booze and fags!
Q Thats right! The colours fade that we nail to the mast. We lose the future, but we own the past. We own the past
from our first kiss, a lifetime to the last.
C Yeah. And when I wrote her a poem I always did my best. Shes like that. When I translated Dante, I did my best.
Q Youve obviously been hit hard by the troubles in your marriage, although ah Claerwen says the two of you are
reconciled but still separated.
C This is going to be good
Q Regardless of whats happened, Prue has obviously been incredibly important to you.
C Yes.
Q I know you are still married wh-what are the chances of you getting back together?
C Its a difficult question. Its up to her. Were not divorced. Its been 45 years and were still involved. Were in
communication with each other. It really is up to her. But I have no other plans.
Q You once told me that even after all the time away you still had the fantasy that you might return to Australia before
the end . . .
C . . . Yes . . .
Q . . . to maybe live, yeah, in Sydney on the Harbour, and dangle ah a fishing line in the water. But that was, that was
always going to be a
fantasy, wasnt it?
C It probably wont happen. But it happens in my imagination. And finally the imagination is everything, because the
imagination is formed in the place you want to talk about. My imagination was formed in Sydney. I see in colours

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because Sydney was brightly coloured. I see through clear light, because Sydney had clear light.
Q If I can read again from that poem you wrote on getting your deadly cocktail of diagnosis, if I that is, If I, that is,
should finally succumb to these infirmities
C Im slow to learn the names of, lest my brain be rendered numb with boredom even as I toss and turn, then send my
ashes home, where they can fall in their own sweet time from the Harbour wall.
C Yes. I actually mean that. How theyll get my ashes home, I dont know. I think you have to buy a first class seat on
Emirates! Its a big deal. Nothings easy! But when the ashes arrive there I hope therell be a few people, perhaps
yourself included, who will be there for the tipping . . .
Q . . . But I like . . .
C . . . of the ashes into the Harbour.
Q I like thatC Its beautiful there on- You know the spot across from McMahons Point, th-that point beside Circular Quay, from
there?
Q Yes, yeah. I I like like the the idea that that theyd fall in their own sweet time from the wall . . .
C . . . Yes, thats crucial. Thats thats the culmination of the poem, because y-youre gone, so its up to, its up to them
what your ashes do. Your ability to control your life is is finished.
Q If you couldve written your own ending, what would it be?
C I know what I wont do. I wont be buying a ticket to Switzerland so I can book into some clinic and pay people to put
me into a long, deep sleep. I can get that from television here!
[laughter]
C So I I wont be helping the process.
Q You wrote a valedictory to the English poet, Philip Larkin . . .
C . . . Yes . . .
Q . . . who you greatly admired, ah which ended with the line, your immortality complete at last.
C Ah, did I say that? ThatsQ You did.
C So I did.
Q What do you most want to be remembered for?
C Well, its hard to say. I would like of course for someone to suddenly recite a whole poem at some romantic moment
to a suitable listener. Im not so sure that will happen. Ah Im not so sure that people will even read a single book. But I
think if they do its likely that itll be Unreliable Memoires, because its part of the Australian landscape and part of the
British landscape. Unreliable Memoires, God bless it, its been 34 years now, 35 years that its been in print, its gone
through about a hundred editions, is a dream of Australia which shows Australia as a dream. And its also Britains
dream of Australia.
Q Now Im Im going to read um the poem that you had published relatively recently, that you called in French, Lessons
from the Darkness.
I shouldve been more kind. It is my fate ....
C ..to find this out, but find it out too late. The mirror holds the ruins of my face roughly together, thus reminding me I
should have played it straight in every case, not just when forced to. Far too casually I broke faith when it suited me,
and here I am alone. And now the end is near.
Q So Id like to hear you just comment on that.
C Well, I was pretty deep in the pit when I wrote that. That was more than a year ago. I was, I was sick, I was ah been

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really banished from home by my family, um and I meant it, on the other hand I also meant the way the poem is
constructed. And it sounds quite neat and vigorous. This is the saving grace of this kind of poetry. To make it work
youve got to give the reader a reason for going on with it, and its got its own strength and music, I like to think. But
th-thats one of the things I meant by it, that Im still here, Im still writing. But also I mean that Ive Ive faced the facts,
and ah the ending- the end is getting close.
Q But now I have slowed down I breathe the air as if there is not much more of it there......
C ...and write these poems which are funeral songs that have been taught to me by vanished time, not only to
enumerate my wrongs, but to pay homage to the late sublime that comes with seeing how the years have brought a
fitting end, if not the one I sought.
C It gives thanks for the fact that Im here at all, that Im here to write it, that I have the power and the powers to reflect
on experience. Most people dont get that. A lot of people get subtracted from the world without a chance to comment.
Thats why I often think of my father crashing in the plane, the plane going down in Taiwan. He mustve had a few
seconds to think, well, this is it. And Ive had a better chance than that. And since I have certain powers of expression, I
owe it to the world and to my country to to say it as well as I can.
Q I think that could be fairly said. Clive James, I know this hasnt been easy for you. But thank you very much.
C Well, I appreciate it. I really do.

Credits:
Produced and directed by Ges DSouza.
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The Beats. In 1959, Keith Smith interviewed young Sydney intellectuals Robert Hughes and Clive James about their
impressions of Beat culture and the work of Jack Kerouac.

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