The NS interview: Clive James

“We wore little forage caps and looked like the Hitler Youth”

New Statesman
Clive James. Credit: Joss McKinley/New Statesman

You turned 70 not long ago. Looking back over the years, would you say there was a plan?

In retrospect, it looks like a master plan, but I just followed my nose. There are still things I haven't done - I need another 40 or 50 years
of life. They say the first person who'll live to 150 is already alive, but I've got a feeling it's probably not going to be me.

Your career has had a very broad scope. Was that intentional?
It just feels like a natural consequence of the way the mind works. I just want to use every possible means of expression. The way fields
of creativity connect and develop is one of the interesting things about life.

What would you still like to do?
Every writer would like to write a play. For one thing, it pays well.

Your TV series Fame in the 20th Century seems quite pertinent now.
I was writing Fame in the 20th Century at a time when people being famous for being famous was just starting to happen. Liz Taylor was suddenly more famous in her old age, when she wasn't doing anything, than she ever had been when she was young.

Since then, it has started to happen in a big way, maybe to a critical point where it parodies itself and everybody knows it.

Which element of your career has brought you the most satisfaction?
The poetry, for me, is always the centre of the whole business. It's where I started. It's probably where I'll end.

That's probably not how most people look at your life.
I'm quite resigned to that, but it's nice of them to think about my career at all. And, to me, it is. It's where my discipline begins. The act of concentration, of getting the words right in a poem, is what spreads to everything else.

Do you miss working on TV?
I enjoyed the company and excitement - racing pulses and all that. But I could never have written Cultural Amnesia while I was on TV. It took me four years. I'm writing the second volume now.

One of that book's themes is the problem presented by freedom.
The west is in an inherently difficult position because it is free. The attraction of totalitarianism is that it solves all your problems by eliminating alternatives. I loathe pornography and that business - the thought that there are Russian girls in London who are technically slaves is repellent to me - but it's a consequence of liberty. I'd like the law altered to make it more difficult for men who profit from the trade, but when you alter the law you're on the point of creating a police state.

You've also written about honour crimes - you're quite outspoken on feminist issues.
I'm the male chauvinist pig version of a feminist. I've got a neat answer for honour crimes: they're an offence. What's remarkable is that people don't speak about it. It was a great moment when Nicolas Sarkozy confronted Tariq Ramadan and said: Are you against stoning women to death or not? And Ramadan said: We'll have to wait for the imams to decide.

What about Sarkozy's position on the veil?
Well, that's very much more complex: that's in the French tradition of secularism. And I quite see his point; I just don't like banning anything. I don't like any "funny hat" religions, because funny hats look silly. But I've worn funny hats.

Religious ones?
Only when I was in the Presbyterian Boys' Brigade. We wore little forage caps, and looked rather like the Hitler Youth.

You've built this vast website, but it's more than just an archive, isn't it?
I am more preoccupied with that than with anything - more than is healthy. Eventually everything I've done will be there, but I want to provide other links.

What do you hope to achieve with it?
The web is enormous, and inaccessible because it's enormous: you need someone to say, "Look here." And that's the basis of criticism - not "I know best", but "look at this". So if you haven't heard Elina Garanca and Anna Netrebko sing the duet from Lakmé - well, it's on this video, and here's a little essay, and in three minutes you make an opera fan of some kid in Nicaragua.

Do you vote?
On the whole, no. And this time I probably won't be voting for Labour. But I couldn't say who I will vote for. There's something about David Cameron that bothers me - those features of his are still waiting to turn into a face.

What would you like to forget?
Nothing professional. Many, many small acts of cruelty. But nothing big.

Are we all doomed?
I doubt if we'll be that lucky.

Interview by Alyssa McDonald
Clive James's new volumes of poetry, essays and memoirs are all published by Picador