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Friends reunited: Clive James and the New Statesman

Over the past five years, as James defied his bleak prognosis, he published some of his finest poems in the NS.

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Clive James’s career as a writer began in the pages of the New Statesman. He was supposed to be working on a PhD on Percy Shelley when he met Nicholas Tomalin (they were on the same team at the Cambridge Union, debating “some such footling topic as ‘This House Would Rather Be Amused’”), who had recently become literary editor of the NS and was looking for new contributors. Soon afterwards, in July 1967, James’s first piece appeared, a review of Their Shining Eldorado: A Journey through Australia by Elspeth Huxley, whose whistlestop tour of James’s home country led him to describe her as “Cobbett in a Cessna”. James had written for undergraduate publications, and took on the role of arts editor at Granta, then a Cambridge magazine, but this was his first piece for a national UK readership, a year before his first contribution to the TLS and four years before his debut in the Observer.

James continued to write for the NS into the late 1970s contributing book reviews and the occasional poem for subsequent literary editors including Claire Tomalin, Martin Amis and Julian Barnes. But it wasn’t until decades later, after his terminal cancer diagnosis in 2010, that James reconnected with the magazine. A short poem, “Procedure for Disposal”, had been published in 2011. Then, in 2014, a few months after I joined the NS as culture editor, my colleague Philip Maughan pulled an email out of the overflowing poetry submissions inbox. It was from Clive James, and it contained “Driftwood Houses”, a moving meditation on his own disintegration through a memory of his daughters on the beach. Soon after the NS published the poem, Maughan went to visit James at his home in Cambridge. James “loved every minute” of the interview, though was keenly aware that he was facing the end: “I’m a bit terrified,” he said. “What I wouldn’t give to be starting out again.”

Over the next five years, as James defied his bleak prognosis, he continued to send us poems; each time his email address popped up on my screen all other distractions stopped. The tone was not always elegiac, and James’s wit often breaks the surface. In “My Latest Fever”, published later in 2014, sequences from action movies play “On the screen / deep in my head” as James’s body tries to repair itself and he dreams of invincibility, “as in Salt, where Angelina / Jumps from a bridge on to a speeding truck / And then from that truck to another truck. / In North Korea, tortured for years on end, / She comes out with a split lip.” (He would return to the theme of the action hero in “Candy Windows”.) The following year “Nina Kogan’s Geometrical Heaven” described the work of the Russian suprematist artist, examples of which hung on James’s walls, as “Splinters and stoppers from the bombing of / An angel’s boudoir.” He imagined meeting Kogan, “were there an afterlife” – which he was adamant that there was not.

But, as in “Driftwood Houses”, his “imminent personal extinction” – as he put it in an NS Q&A interview, published just four days before his death – was the theme of his most memorable work. “Return of the Kogarah Kid” (2016) is a suggested inscription for a plaque at Dawes Point, Sydney Harbour, where his ashes will “sink from sight where once we sailed away”. Two years later he is, in another poem, wrestling with the “paradox” of his increasingly debilitating illness: “And I am in two minds: all set to go, / Mad keen to stay.”

In his correspondence James was always modest: “I will fully understand if you feel too short of room, so don’t hesitate to bounce whatever I send,” he wrote in July 2014. “Mainly thanks to my death’s-door dramatic news value I have several places where I can publish things, but I do covet your famous pages, where I more or less started my London literary career all those years ago.” He would regularly remind me to send him a contributor’s copy of the magazine, sending emails with subject lines such as “Clive delighted” once he had seen his work in print. Pieces first published in the NS were included in his collections Sentenced to Life and Injury Time, and at the launch parties he would stand to read a few poems and sit to receive a line of friends and admirers paying their respects. A smaller gathering at his home in Cambridge in September 2018, to celebrate the publication of his book-length poem The River in the Sky, settled into a conversation between James, Tom Stoppard and Julian Barnes. The three old friends told anecdotes about Graham Greene and Keats, and reminisced about their first encounters with each other while the rest of us listened. “It all used to come so fluidly off the tongue,” James said, as he searched his memory for the right tale. “Back in the days when you couldn’t stop me talking.” (In The River of Sky he connects the art of conversation with that of verse: “It’s a sufficient destiny / To make the right remark / At exactly the right time: A poem might be more than that / But it is never less”.) My impressions of the afternoon were published in the NS, and James sent me a note to say that he was “a bit vague at the moment but full of gratitude”.

The prolific nature of James’s late phase (no less than nine books between his diagnosis in 2010 and his death in 2019) meant that there were plenty of poems to go around: alongside the NS he published in the TLS, the Spectator, and American magazines (“Japanese Maple”, published in the New Yorker a few months after the appearance of “Driftwood Houses”, became that rare thing: a viral poem). But it seems fitting that his last printed piece should appear in the same place he made his debut: the pages of the New Statesman. James sent “The Floral Clock” to me in June and we published it in our summer issue. In it, he looks back “along a blaze / Of mirrors like that great hall in Versailles” and sees dogwood, camelias, frangipani, honeysuckle, blooming through his memory. Reading “The Floral Clock”, I was reminded of James’s habit of signing off his emails with the word “Onward”. Past and future seem to play out simultaneously in this poem, even as the poet acknowledges his own time is up. There is something irrepressible about the sense of continuity with which it ends:

though I grow so weak
I can no longer see, the flowers will speak
Their language, which is time made visible.
It thrilled me from the start. It thrills me still.

Clive James’s poems for the New Statesman are collected here.

Tom Gatti is Deputy Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.


This article appears in the 04 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What we want