Clive James



‘Clive James’ was invented by Vivian Leopold James of Kogarah, New South Wales, ostensibly because he was sick of being put on the wrong list at school and being sent to sewing classes. More pertinently perhaps the new name illustrated, and was a product of, a quest for fame and acclaim, identity and attention, that began at the age of five when he was told that his father was dead.

Now he has come full circle and his second novel The Remake – seemingly about almost nothing other than the books he’s read and how clever he is – concerns in part his efforts to achieve the exact opposite: to escape Clive James.

Vivian James was born in 1944, the only child of a mechanic and an upholsterer who named their son after a member of the 1938 Davis Cup Squad. (He later took the name ‘Clive’ from a Tyrone Power film). 

When the war in the South Pacific ended, the Americans flew the Australian Volunteers home early rather than wait for more ships. His father’s plane was caught in a typhoon and everyone on board was killed. 

James describes his memory of watching his mother receive the news as “piercingly vivid.” He writes in Unreliable Memoirs, this time reliably: “at the age of five I was seeing the full force of human despair.” 

He has “never ceased to feel orphaned” he says, or been “incurably envious of all families.”

Raised on a War Widow’s pension, as a child he was stocky, shy, and exuberant; a show-off and smart aleck. 

Averse to attending school, he had an “absurdly carefree childhood” consisting of Saturday afternoon cinema shows, posing as ‘The Flash Of Lightning’, being caned for hitting girls round the head with his ‘donger’, and masturbating with his best friend. 

He read voraciously but only comics (Wizard, Hotspur) so that when his status as a War Orphan won him a place at Sydney University he was still reading Driving To Adventure whilst his friends had progressed to The Age Of Anxiety.

At university he discovered Art, intellectuals, jazz, drink, girls, friends, and (almost) sex, traipsing naively through the fads of friends like Bruce Beresford and Barry Humphries, smoking heavily, reading Ezra Pound, wearing Chelsea boots, growing a beard, and gradually getting fatter and balder: an interesting, not to say disturbing, image.

One New Year’s Eve, aged 21, he left for England. He failed to get a job at London Transport and worked in a light metal factory and a library before filing authors’ photographs at Penguin Books after suggesting, he claims (unreliably), that they publish his unpublished (and unwritten) Collected Works. Fate intervened when a professor at Cambridge (a former lecturer at Sydney) procured him a place on recommendation.

James made his name, his face, via an acclaimed ten-year spell at The Observer and TV shows like LWT’s Think Twice, The Party’s Moving On, Cinema, Saturday Night People, and most recently The Late Clive James as well as a string of documentaries. His 17 publications include a travel book, some horrendous mock-epic verse like Charles Charming’s Challenges On The Pathway To The Throne and seven brilliant books of TV and literary criticism.

Married 20 years with two daughters (“both Poms”), he lives in Cambridge and London. 

He describes Camus as his “first mature literary experience”, learning Russian in order to read Pushkin and German to read Brecht. His other literary heroes include Larkin, Betjeman, Bennett, Donne, and Kingsley Amis amongst a few thousand others. 

He is “a passionate liberal” and has said that the writers he dislikesare “any of the young Marxists.” He is planning the last part of his ‘Memoirs’ (the Cambridge years), talks of directing the film of Unreliable Memoirs, and was dedicated and serious enough to become teetotal “to make time for writing.”

Nowadays he maintains that he refuses “all Aussie-type commercials” or TV shows that “attempt nothing new or get my face on the screen just for the sake of it.” Women interviewers always ask him about being sexy. I confess this did not occur to me. 

I can, however, predict that having immersed himself in Literature, Film and Opera, a Grand Prix bore and a Techno bore, next year Clive James will discover Tim Rice, wine, and either golf or cricket – thereby finally completing his transition into an Englishman.

Buried in his memoirs, inside the smart remarks, re-written history, and one liners, he writes: “I know now that until recent years I was never quite there. I was play-acting instead of living and nothing except my own self-consciousness seemed real. Eventually in my middle 30’s, I got a grip on myself.”

Welcome, Clive James.


He looks smug. Makes a joke about being smug – to show he isn’t smug – and laughs smugly, staying smug, getting smugger.

His first words are: “I’m not very good at this.”

Do you know what you’re going to say?

“Not for this, no. I wouldn’t dream of going on TV without some kind of preparation. I find this whole confrontation fundamentally false and weird, which is why I go into Defence Condition 5, ha-ha-ha. It’s not just that I’m particularly reticent or protective, although I am. It’s just that often I just don’t know the answers. I give long, boring, unintelligible, answers that you can’t print. You’ll hate me for it. By the end of the day I’ll be in rags.”

And he is.


At one point he says to me: “I think that the secrets of personality can only be revealed through works of art, so I don’t feel threatened by any of this. Look at this face. This face doesn’t write that book, it gets written by something behind it.”

What this actually means I’m not sure.

“If I had it all over again,” he adds unprompted, “I would choose another face and make that famous, I’ve no doubt about that. Just hire somebody, to do everything. Max Headroom time.”

The face of Clive James – character in the life of Vivian Leopold James – does not look like it does on television. Disappointingly, he does not look like The Hood from Thunderbirds as I remembered. Not, as Who Dares Wins once observed, as if he has a stocking over his head. As little old ladies would say, he doesn’t look as fat as he does on the telly.

James is a shy, exuberant, stocky man. A show-off and a smart aleck. A lonely man grown up from a lonely boy. Soft more than cynical and never outrageous, he presents a rock of carefully chubby charm and wit (two qualities you should never underestimate), always rather too pleased with his own smart remarks like a child.

He looks like an English don who writes novels with five interweaving plots having learnt to dress, he admits, as plainly as possible: blue suit and blue banker’s socks matching his gleaming, shrewd, blue eyes which dart about the room as if chasing an imaginary autocue.

Anthony Burgess called him “the funniest man we’ve got” (although I found Burgess far funnier as James has no real self-mockery in him). But certainly James’ humour is effortless enough for any of those newspaper Q&As ‘People I’d Invite To A Dinner Party’ lists.

Posing for our photographer, slicking back strands of grey hair he mutters: “Good job I had that haircut. Good God, look at that expanse of stomach!” His face becomes, at last, a grinning Chinaman on top of Ted Heath/Mike Yarwood laughing shoulders: as seen on TV.

Feet up on the desk, he turns down the offer of wine, grinning: “I’d like to…But I won’t. I drink Slimline.”

To stay slim?

“To stay fat,” he double-acts, the Australian TV twang perfectly timed.

“My own life is so distressingly normal I don’t want to talk about it, if you’re asking (I wasn’t). And I have no intention of discussing it, ha-ha.”

For once he laughs too much, making a joke out of something that is not a joke.


Still an outsider, James has understood television well enough to have mastered one of today’s finest arts – making empty entertainment seem like something else: the born ham who can fake naturalness.

The Clive James of Television, though, is just another rubber mask.

TV smoothes out the edges, erases the personality, so that James – like Wogan, Frost, and today’s TV politicians – is simply too professional to take personally. 

Only the conversation of James The Writer is revealing. Sincere and amenable, his conversation is still mined with diversionary phrases like “I asked Hugh Hefner the same question” or “we had him on the programme” (duly followed by an anecdote).

“Kingsley (Amis) said to me ‘It’s very important to stay naïve, but you have to work at it.’”

(And surely none has worked at it harder than James)

“Getting known, you meet a lot of people…being blasé – it always comes. The capacity to be astonished by people is very important, especially for a writer. Otherwise you end up writing about catching fish and fighting bulls, hahahaha.”

How often do the guests on your show astonish you?

“In one way, almost always. Victoria Wood was infinitely astonishing because she’s still discovering her own personality (this will be news to Victoria, who embarrassed even James’ quick wit). She relaxed for the first time on television,” he adds modestly.

“What interests me? Bringing out what I think the viewer should know. I probably already know it (naturally). You’re not going to find out what Charlotte Rampling’s really like on air. It’s no use asking a question that only you want to know the answer to – to prove you’re a Serious Person or that you know them well. A TV show has to entertain.”

His “punishingly high” standards entail four or five re-writes of the script.

“I like it when it gets strange… I’m really proud of that show. It’s taken five years to get good, simply because it’s such a difficult show to do.”

It looks easy. It looks cosy.

“It doesn’t feel cosy. I still get nervous, yes. I work very, very hard to make it look effortless, so you can’t complain if someone says, ‘He’s not making an effort’. You spend a long time on a documentary making what you write sound like speech, so you’ve no comeback when someone says  ‘he’s just talking’.”

Do you do TV for the money?

“It pays for the groceries, yes. I’d do it anyway, ‘cos I adore television. Not at the expense of writing, no. But I need regular work and television eats less into my writing time than journalism did. It’s a real problem that most writers never solve. I miss not having the excuse to watch TV, yeah, I did watch an awful lot. I was very serious about it – watching two sets at a time. Now? I loved Tutti Frutti…Anything except what’s good for me.”


The Remake is certainly a treat for anyone who loves quotations but notably missing Quentin Crisp’s priceless, wise, advice to would-be writers: “Never read.”

Sadly, James has clearly never read it.

The Remake is littered with an interminable, intolerable, onslaught of name games, book-talk, and dinner-table debate about Art and Reality. On page one we go from Sartre to The Thorn Birds and eventually three solid pages of conversation ‘snippets’ become mere lists of references to Rab Butler, Eldridge Cleaver, Raymond Chandler and others.

A dream becomes just another list. Everyone who’s anyone is in there somewhere: Lord Lucan, Yasser Arafat, Donald Sinden, Galileo, Esther Rantzen. From Bolan to Philip Glass, Jimmy Connors to Shostakovich, Z Cars to Roland Barthes.

Naturally the writers win out in the end: Jeffrey Archer to Stendhal, Dorothy Parker to Proust… you’d be hard pressed to name one who’s not in it. (A theme for his next novel, no doubt.)

When he says to me: “my philosophy of the arts is that value for money is paramount. Three pages of boredom that contributes to ‘the structure’ is no good,” he’s either being disingenuous (admitting his failure) or, probably, being naïve (again) – a result of his inexhaustible enthusiasm and appetite itself a consequence of discovering literature late. 

But in trying to catch up and acknowledge all these influences, James jumps about like a one-legged man in a forest fire.

No wonder he says: “I want my books to be like a little university you can carry around. I used Kafka’s line about girls’ summer dresses (“how short life must be if something so fragile can last a lifetime”) so that when young people read it they’ll dash off and read Kafka. If I did write a novel to show off my reading, it’d be very different. I’ve read a lot more than that. I’ve been alive a long time!” he finishes.

With a chuckle, grin, and autocue glint.


The effect of all this is like being in a room full of clever people all being clever together – occasionally thrilling but ultimately tiresome. Thankfully, the story underneath it all is a good one – by turns readable, implausible, enjoyable, and forgettable.

Joel Court (JC/CJ) is a middle-aged Australian TV presenter and astronomer from Sydney University (“the David Attenborough of the Asteroids”) with two children, a working wife, and a house in Cambridge. He likes literature, cinema and opera. He is “fat and complicated”. Who could he be based on is a mystery.

Joel is thrown out for having an affair with his research assistant at the same time as his pet proto-star project is triumphantly analysed by his rival Veronica. Joel moves into the Barbican flat of his friend, writer-director-poet-megastar, Chance, at the same time falling into the high-flying hustle of Chance’s star-world of film producers, actresses, and media moguls and falling for Chance’s girlfriend, the adorable ‘Mole’, a student who cooks, skis, dances, plays the cello, and wears gloves on the tube. 

More of an infatuation than a ménage a trois, both touching and amusing, the portrayal of the relationship is proof that James’ best writing deals with fondness, warmth, disappointment, loneliness, and the complications of friendship. 

The touching quality has the stamp of realism, I tell him.

“It’s meant to sound like that.”

Isn’t that a trick that pretends to be a trick…


…when it’s actually the truth.

“No,” he laughs, pausing as he calculates how much to give away.

“I’ll come this far out into the open,” he says, edging to another patch of shadow. “Joel loves her but he can’t have her and accepting that, he grows up. Too late – he should have grown up before. He’s emotionally stupid, like a lot of men. I wouldn’t say I’ve done this before…but I recognize it. I know I said they were my emotions, hahaha. The good guys suffer. They fuck up because it means too much. The good girls spot that. I flirt outrageously, yes, but no one can take me up on it because I’m too busy ! Ha-ha-ha.”

It took two years to write.

“I needed everything I’ve ever done and ever learnt to write this book. My ideal is to write a book that people feel guilty about reading – they think they should be doing something more serious. I’ve got a feeling that’s the kind of book that lasts. (The kind of book, by implication, like his book.) When Catcher In The Rye came out, reading it was like drinking a glass of water on a hot day. I’ve read Lucky Jim every year of my life. It’s like Hamlet to me.”


Reading The Remake is not like drinking a glass of water because James jeopardizes his story (deliberately, as it turns out) by smothering it with an ostentatious display of irksome, often irrelevant, Technique – his assault on the annals of literature. Even though on the first page he proclaims “God save me from Technique.”

Still, it’s an impressive risk.

“It’s got everything the narrator hates,” grins James. “Five interweaving plots, characters quoting another character’s diaries quoting another character’s letters (sheer showing off). Novels with lots of letters in them are a real cop-out, don’t you agree?”

“I do,” I say.

“I don’t,” he says.

Not satisfied with sounding clever, he has to sound clever-clever. This comes out in the book in lines like: “It would have been an obvious pot-boiler if it wasn’t so obviously an obvious pot-boiler.” Or: “the only way to find out he wasn’t coming back would have been to wait until he didn’t.”

This is all very clever but why do you like it?

“I suppose I like intellectual playfulness, pizzazz. My favourite period of architecture is the rococo (which he pronounces as if it were part of the hokey cokey). It’s about an ecstasy of self-consciousness. Every artistic technique is fully self-conscious throughout the book, and yet I think its aim of telling a story directly from the emotions is achieved. It’s the Second Simplicity – you’ve got to know everything first to get back to innocence. I’d read so many tricky novels by academics – tricky novels about academics writing tricky novels about tricky academics – I thought I’d put all the kinds of books I hate into one, but have a story so strong in its simplicity that it survives. It’s a symbolic book: the star’s signal Veronica analyses, all the complicated stuff, can safely be ignored. The risk of being misunderstood is great. Is your annoyance going to disable you? If it is too tricky it’s all my fault. The public is always right, yes… I couldn’t tell the story on its own, no. Why not? Maybe next time. I’ve got an idea for a story that’s nothing but a story.”


One wonders if James can escape himself. Encompassing his TV column, his book reviews, his travel book, and documentaries, The Remake is The World Of Clive James rolled up into one little plasticine ball: Dallas, Pat Cash, The Groucho Club, The Barbican, even What The Papers Say, and Kingsley Amis get mentions. Amongst some rather perfunctory jibes at cashpoint cards, supermarket queues, and plastic surgery (“Don’t want to end up with my cock hanging out of my forehead”), there’s even evidence of the racism he finds so amusing when he talks about the Japanese game-show Endurance: “my Engrish is not fruent.”

Is this necessary?

“That’s how it sounds. The Japanese cannot pronounce the letter ‘L’ !” he laughs, as if  this observation was not just hilarious but brilliantly original. “I knew it would be seized upon, but why shouldn’t I have a Japanese? (As an extra, why should he?) MostJapanese people have too many teeth for their mouth, hahaha.”

Again, seriously unfunny…

Even more than MemoirsThe Remake is autocue-writing. Lines like “the smart bastard from The Observer said that when I walked, he thought the single-frame-advance on his VCR had got stuck” or “on CNN they were dying in Beirut. It looked easier than living in Beirut” are either leftovers or just sound like them.

To my surprise, he agrees.

“Straight out of the TV column, I know. I can think of a dozen more. It’s the worst problem with everything I write. I’d like a neutral tone. It can only be approximated. I mean, is Flaubert’s tone neutral? He says it is.”

I mention Doris Lessing’s experiment of submitting a book anonymously.

“I didn’t think it was a very good experiment. It was quite funny when it got rejected. She drew the wrong conclusion – perhaps her other books should have been rejected too, ha-ha-ha-ha. The Real Me isn’t squirming inside wondering what those bastards think of me. I know how good I am. It’s probably conceited but it’s better than sitting around waiting for six guys with dandruff to tell me I’m a good writer. I might wait forever. They could be wrong.”

How much of you is in this book?

“Oh, there’s nothing but me. It’s about five different versions of me. I’m too busy writing books like this to lead Chance’s jet-set lifestyle. I’ve calculated only what I think it reveals… You alter everything – men to women, young to old. But it’s got to be emotionally real. They’re emotions I’ve experienced or seen people experience.”

Actually the story reveals a lot – that he’s romantic, prurient, old-fashioned, suffering from a mawkish nostalgia, soft, sentimentality. 

He still has a thing about foreigners, lesbians (his female goddesses always turn out to be “dykes”, and feminists. Although he writes that, “women on television are always as under-qualified as possible so as not to threaten the men that put them there”, his feminists are usually “Girton frumps” in kaftan and clogs.

Most significantly, the narrators of both his novels are tired, regretful, falling through mid-life crisis, while the main characters (Chance, and Victor in Brilliant Creatures) are both creators who are losing the knack for their fame and power, contemplating the size of fame and the price of power. James is hinting strongly that he is tired of himself – sick of his grinning, smartarse image and supermarket fame, bitter about the superficiality of TV fame and its fickle public.

“Yeah, it’s about having a fatal capacity to be a celebrity when you really want to have weight. At one point I was going to call it ‘Stardom’ (he should have). Chance literally disappears into his own celebrity. My own centre of the book is Primo Levi’s line about the Italian Jewish internees when they’re told they will be killed the next morning: ‘During the night the mothers washed the nappies ready for the journey’ (on the gas trains)… Chance says: ‘when I read that, I knew I was finished.’ He knows that’s all that is worth doing, but he wasn’t at Auschwitz and Levi was. He’s really considering what he should do. I am too, I suppose. I do dwell on my role, yes – it’s part of the book. That’s probably all it is good for, hahaha.”

You used Wilde’s line “Beware of what you dream, it might come true”, I mention. Were you always ambitious?

“I can’t think what it would mean to say ‘no’ to that.”

It would mean it had all been an accident.

“Well, the role luck plays in human life never ceases to astonish and dismay me. I always assumed I was famous. I was locally famous, hahaha. I suppose I wanted something roughly like this. I expected to be some kind of a writer. I could easily have been a theatre director. I’ve written poems since I was young and will carry on doing, never making a dime out of them. I was ruthless, yes, with myself. You won’t get anywhere in television by being ruthless to other people. Word gets round.”

Does fame make you more or less shy?

“Both really. When I’m writing, I’m frustrated I’m not with people and then vice versa. If anything, I’m too gregarious for my own good. I’m still awkward – especially when they want you to sing and dance, ha-ha. ‘Make me laugh.’ On the whole I find it disturbingly natural. As long as I don’t get involved in those feature articles on ‘My Wonderful Front Room’ or discussing problems with Claire Rayner. The pressure of writing the novel is part of it, yes. But you soon get your humility back when you go to China, where there are one thousand million people who don’t know me, or Japan, where there’s one hundred and sixty million, I don’t feel very famous then.”

Chance says “there comes a point where you can’t read about yourself without feeling pieces are being bitten out of you.” You couldn’t have written that without feeling it.

“Yeah, I do feel that. Occasionally. You see… I really pride myself on bringing the best out of the guests. I want to shoot myself if I fail. I’llshine some other time. Then some reviewer says, ‘Clive James is out to outshine the guest, always trying to prove he’s cleverer than they are.’ That makes me fearfully angry because it’s just not true! I hate being involved in anything that could attract the attention of someone who could want that. I feel the shame of the gladiator who looks up and sees the arsehole with his thumb up or down. It’s life, yes. The humiliation to have someone like that judging your work… I remember those moments, yes.”

Are you sick of your image?

“Yeah, but I wouldn’t say sick to the point of throwing up. I’m living the life I chose. I sometimes get depressed by the level of gross response. I really just want to do good work. Wealth and fame don’t interest me half as much as glory. I like achieving things and being admired by people who know what I’m achieving. I’m stuck with it all anyway. It’s better than believing it all, isn’t it?”

Andre Gide once said: “it’s more important to matter than to be happy.”

“Mmmmh. I’d sacrifice an arm and a leg but I’m not so sure I’d sacrifice happiness. I’ve already sacrificed my body! Midnight oil did this to me. I’m interested in my work mattering to the point that it no longer belongs to me. But it doesn’t really bother me because time will sort all that out. I get melancholy about time though, yes, that’s there too, you’re right. It’s a real problem. You don’t worry about it in your thirties. The forties is a different attitude. I know how not to waste my time. Maybe because I’m running out of it. I quite enjoy growing older, but I do feel life is short. Kafka was right.”

You worry about the time passing?

“Yes. But I’d worry a lot more if it didn’t.”

Boom boom !

He tells me to write it how I want and, looking worn, complains: “Jesus Christ, you’ve worn me out !”

His last words are: “Can I go for a piddle now?” 

He scuttles away like a mole out of the sunlight. 

And then Clive James, or someone like him, goes home and switches off the act.