Cultural Capital 28 April 2014 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”. Sign UpGet the New Statesman's Morning Call email. Sign-up 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” › Would Clegg be able to block a Cameron-Miliband TV debate? Philip Maughan is an editor at 032c magazine and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. Subscribe For the latest TV, art, films and book reviews subscribe for just £1 per month!