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Clive James on poetry, family and illness: “I’m a bit terrified, this really is the mark of the end”

The 74-year-old poet and broadcaster, who is terminally ill, reads a new poem “Driftwood Houses” and reflects on his career, family and the power of “simple, ordinary things”.

Clive James is, by some miracle, 74 years old. He was diagnosed with terminal leukemia and emphysema in 2010, and has come close to death a number of times. I'm in no doubt that everything depends on modern technology, he said, when we visited him recently in Cambridge, and the availability of cheap electricity”.

Everybody has a favourite Clive James. He is a poet, broadcaster, critic, author and translator, whose most recent work – his “crowning achievement” – is a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Since arriving from Australia in 1962, he has forged a reputation unlike any other in British public life. Even now he is brimming with ideas. He plans to abandon journalism over the coming months in order to start work on a new book – or two. There’s already one in the bag, however, a book of poetry criticism which will be published this autumn, “even if I drop off the twig, as we say in Australia”.

While we spoke, James’s sentences were punctuated by a violent, rattling cough. “This has exhausted me,” he said as we drew to a close. “But I’ve loved every minute of it.”

As we left and loaded our cameras into the car, he came out and stood by the gate. He thanked me for my questions, for taking care of the poem published in this week’s New Statesman, and for coming up to visit. “Oh to be starting out,” he said. “What I wouldn’t give to be starting out again.”

In the video above, James reads his new poem, “Driftwood Houses”; below he talks about poetry, family, illness and his plans for the future.

Driftwood Houses
by Clive James

The ne plus ultra of our lying down,
Sled-riders face-down see the earth unpeeled
Into their helmets by a knife of light.
Just so, I stare into the racing field
Of ice as I lie on my side and fight
To cough up muck. This bumpy slide downhill
Leads from my bed to where I’m bound to drown
At this rate. I get up and take a walk,
Lean on the balustrade and breathe my fill
At last. The wooden stairs down to the hall
Stop shaking. Enough said. To hear me talk
You’d think I found my fate sad. Hardly that:
All that has happened is I’ve hit the wall.
Disintegration is appropriate,

As once, on our French beach, I built, each year,
Among the rocks below the esplanade,
Houses from driftwood for our girls to roof
With towels so they could hide there in the shade
With ice creams that would melt more slowly. Proof
That nothing built can be for ever here
Lay in the way those frail and crooked frames
Were undone by a storm-enhanced high tide
And vanished. It was time, and anyhow
Our daughters were not short of other games
Which were all theirs, and not geared to my pride.
And here they come. They’re gathering shells again.
And you in your straw hat, I see you now,
As I lie restless yet most blessed of men.

More by Clive James in the NS:

“Procedure for Disposal”

“Nature Programme”

“The Emperor’s Last Waltz”

“My Latest Fever”

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Why do the words “soup, swoop, loop de loop” come to mind every time I lift a spoon to my lips?

It’s all thanks to Barry and Anita.

A while ago I was lending a friend the keys to our house. We keep spare keys in a ceramic pot I was given years ago by someone who made it while on an art-school pottery course. “That’s er . . . quite challenging,” the friend said of the pot.

“Is it?” I replied. “I’d stopped noticing how ugly it is.”

“Then it’s a grunty,” she said.

“A what?” I asked.

“A grunty. It’s something you have in your house that’s hideous and useless but you’ve stopped noticing it completely, so it’s effectively invisible.”

I was much taken with this idea and realised that as well as “grunties” there are also “gruntyisms”: things you say or do, though the reason why you say or do them has long since been forgotten. For example, every time we drink soup my wife and I say the same thing, uttered in a strange monotone: we say, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop.” How we came to say “soup, swoop, loop de loop” came about like this.

For a married couple, the years between your mid-thirties and your late forties might be seen as the decade of the bad dinner party. You’re no longer looking for a partner, so the hormonal urge to visit crowded bars has receded, but you are still full of energy so you don’t want to stay in at night, either. Instead, you go to dinner parties attended by other couples you don’t necessarily like that much.

One such couple were called Barry and Anita. Every time we ate at their house Barry would make soup, and when serving it he would invariably say, “There we are: soup, swoop, loop de loop.” After the dinner party, as soon as we were in the minicab going home, me and Linda would start drunkenly talking about what an arse Barry was, saying to each other, in a high-pitched, mocking imitation of his voice: “Please do have some more of this delicious soup, swoop, loop de loop.” Then we’d collapse against each other laughing, convincing the Algerian or Bengali taxi driver once again of the impenetrability and corruption of Western society.

Pretty soon whenever we had soup at home, Linda and I would say to each other, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop,” at first still ridiculing Barry, but eventually we forgot why we were saying it and it became part of the private language every couple develop, employed long after we’d gratefully ceased having soupy dinners with Barry and Anita.

In the early Nineties we had an exchange student staying with us for a year, a Maori girl from the Cook Islands in the southern Pacific. When she returned home she took the expression “soup, swoop, loop de loop” with her and spread it among her extended family, until finally the phrase appeared in an anthropological dissertation: “ ‘Soup swoop, loop de loop.’ Shamanistic Incantations in Rarotongan Food Preparation Rituals” – University of Topeka, 2001. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt