Civilian: You were a child of the Second World War. Were you conscious of this growing up in Australia?
Clive James: In Sydney the war was a dominating presence, with thousands of men in uniform. Luckily none of the uniforms was Japanese. The beautiful streets were full of all these huge blokes striding about in slouch hats. Except that my father wasn’t there. So I spent the whole war hanging on to my mother’s hand.
Sydney was a great place for growing up healthy and full of curiosity, although I soon twigged that all the great paintings were present only in reproduction. But the music was terrific, mainly because of European immigrants. And Sydney University was a hot-bed of hungry learning. Our generation was the first to get a tertiary education that cost nothing.
Did your years as a television star interfere with your life as a writer – or enhance your scope and deepen your understanding of the world?
My family are convinced that television fame shrank my brain to the size of a walnut
I firmly believe that the time I spent in front of the camera gave me more to write about and taught me to cooperate with other people – something that writers are rarely good at. On the other hand, my family are convinced that television fame shrank my brain to the size of a walnut.
You have interviewed so many famous people – do they have anything in common?
The great Hungarian philosopher Kirk Douglas put it in a nutshell: fame doesn’t change you, it changes the way other people behave towards you. With few exceptions, the famous are well accustomed to appearing normal in the madly artificial circumstances of being interviewed. The exceptions are the ones who are incurably honest.
Has the world of celebrity changed or simply cheapened in recent years?
Just when you think the media couldn’t be worse, you read about, say, Florence Nightingale, and find out that the cheap press tried to get the dirty on her. There was no dirty, but they still tried to get it. No, the world of celebrity has been unspeakable all the way back to Caligula and beyond. But it sells tickets.
It’s often overtly negative, but even seeming adulation can be dangerous, as in Vogue’s piece on Asma al-Assad, “the rose in the desert, chic and young” – an article that mysteriously “vanished” from the website later…
I fell for Asma myself, in the sense that I thought her campaign to ditch the veil and get all the Syrian women working was bound to lead to a liberal, democratic state. In spare moments from being dazzled by her style and beauty, however, I tried to remember that her husband had already suggested that a good way of stabilising the region would be to wipe out Israel.
You live a quieter life these days in Cambridge, scene of some of your highest jinx in earlier years. Do you miss the TV studios and the razzmatazz?
I so tremendously don’t. It was such hard, intense work that I didn’t much enjoy it even at the time. But people write to me and tell me how much they enjoyed the shows. For some of the young viewers, mine were the first sentences they ever heard that had relative clauses in them. So from that angle, it was all worthwhile. And it paid for the groceries.
Australia boomed all by itself, as indeed it should have done, being so prosperous, so democratic, and such a glittering destination for all the world’s most ambitious migrants
In your lifetime you have seen Australian culture blossom and flourish? Do you feel you began that movement?
No, the Aussies had been a powerful international cultural presence since Dame Nellie Melba. In the 1930s and 1940s, Robert Helpmann helped to invent British ballet. In recent years, the boom in the media has made the subject of the Australian expatriates look romantic. But if you look at what happened at home, you soon find that Australia boomed all by itself, as indeed it should have done, being so prosperous, so democratic, and such a glittering destination for all the world’s most ambitious migrants.
As the author of so many essays on the state of the world, your perspective is always erudite and always conscious of historical resonances. Are you an optimist about the present state of humanity? Are we doing any better?
Any of our anti-Western commentators needs to be infiltrated into Syria by nightfall with a packed lunch
I’m the kind of pessimist who feels optimistic because of the miraculous fact that mankind is still in charge, instead of the ants and cockroaches. Being a career intellectual myself, I think I’m allowed to say that it’s the pseudo-left intellectuals who depress me most. Any of our anti-Western commentators needs to be infiltrated into Syria by nightfall with a packed lunch. Also, as an invalid whose life has been saved several times by the personnel and the machinery at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, I think I’m allowed to say that anybody who preaches the desirability of interfering with our supply of cheap electricity should be invited to go boil his head.
Of all your accomplishments in a long career in the media, writing is your most enduring, and poetry has been increasingly prominent in that. Is poetry the sublime quintessence of writing?
How poetically you put it, my dear. Yeah, sublimely quintessential, that’s what it is. Joking aside, however, language is the most intense thing I know about, and poetry is where intense language turns incandescent.
Incandescent is a word that might well apply to Dante’s Divine Comedy. What inspired you to tackle a translation of that epic?
Back in the 1960s, in Florence, my wife Prue Shaw, now one of the most famous Dante scholars in the world, took me through some of the showpiece bits of the Divine Comedy and I wondered right then if I might do an English equivalent. About forty years later I finally figured out how.
Just lately I’ve written a poem about the Japanese maple tree in my garden. In the autumn, the tree turns to flame. Poetry does that, but in every season: anytime, anywhere, as long as it’s written with sufficient imagination and technical skill. But for more about that, do see my little Poetry Notebook, which is getting some attention, I’m glad to say. I was never sure that I would last long enough to see it published, but here it is. C
Poetry Notebook (Picador, £14.99) is out now. Clive James will appear at a special Cambridge Literary Festival event on 14th November 2014.