Clive James: “My earliest memory? The roar of the rain in my back yard”

The writer talks Churchill, Succession, and Sophie Scholl, the German student killed for fighting the Nazis.

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Clive James was born in Sydney in 1939, and moved to England in 1962. In 1968, he captained the Pembroke College, Cambridge team on “University Challenge”. His career spans criticism, poetry, memoir and fiction.

What’s your earliest memory?

The roar of the rain in the back yard while I was cowering in the glass-walled veranda of our house in Kogarah, stunned by the clamour.

Who are your heroes?

As a child, my hero was undoubtedly Biggles. Now it is Sophie Scholl, whom the Nazi judges would have spared despite her being implicated in the plot against Hitler’s life, but who chose to join her friends.

What book last changed your thinking?

No single book has ever changed more minds than Robert Conquest’s book about the Soviet Union, The Great Terror. And although I never believed in communism, this book told me why I was right to think that way.

Which political figure do you look up to?

I look up to Churchill. He had his weaknesses, but his strengths were decisive in saving us from Nazism.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

The way to win is to pick a narrow subject. “Aircraft of the Second World War”, for example, is too big. Better to choose “single-engined, twin-tailed aircraft of the First World War”. I think I could hold my own there.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Vienna before the Nazis rose to power. I would love the life of the literary cafés.

What TV show could you not live without?

Lately I’ve been watching Succession and wishing it would last forever. It’s the show in which Brian Cox finally achieved acting.

Who would paint your portrait?

It’s already been done, incomparably, by the Australian Jeffrey Smart, who portrayed me as a vanishing dot in the urban distance.

What’s your theme tune?

The “Harry Lime Theme”.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

The great journalist Nicholas Tomalin told me in the late Sixties that the decisive thing was to get there on time. I had only been five minutes late to meet him, and I was never late again, for anything.

What’s currently bugging you?

If you mean what’s on my mind, the answer is “imminent personal extinction”. If you mean what’s irritating me, I am in a state of zen-like calm. Notice how I touch my fingertips together, thus. That’s how much I care about Brexit.

What would make your life better?

A Marks & Spencer individual bread and butter pudding.

When were you happiest?

Right now. I’m aways happiest when I’ve got a new book out. And there’s a new video out on YouTube of a song I wrote with Pete Atkin called “Canoe”. I’m still working, right up to the end, which is as good as life can get, in my view.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I could have been a tennis player or a high diver. Perhaps not simultaneously.

Are we all doomed?

We are all going to die, but I doubt that we’ll all go at the same time just because we’re managing the weather badly. 

“Somewhere Becoming Rain: Collected Writings on Philip Larkin” is published by Picador

This article appears in the 20 November 2019 issue of the New Statesman, They think it’s all over