Clive James. Credit: Joss McKinley/New Statesman
Show Hide image

The NS interview: Clive James

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

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

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Nightmare on Cameron Street

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The gay Syrian refugees still living in limbo two years after making it to the UK

They still have no right to live and work in the UK, no permanent accommodation or means of financially supporting themselves. 

31-year-old Ahmed and his boyfriend Said* fled Syria in 2013, after the civil war intensified. They both headed to Turkey – where they first met – then moved on through Greece, Croatia and Western Europe. In December 2015, they completed their 4,500km, two-year journey and arrived in the UK.

When Ahmed and Said shared their story with the New Statesman two months later, the Home Office was still deliberating on whether to accept responsibility for their asylum claim. At the time, their lawyer feared plans were being made to deport the couple back to Croatia, where they’d previously been registered while incarcerated in a refugee camp. 

Eventually though, in November 2016, the Home Office officially agreed to process their claim. The decision to do so is one of the few positive developments in their situation since they arrived in the UK more than two years ago. Little else has changed.

They still have no right to live and work in the UK, no permanent accommodation or means of financially supporting themselves. They’re unable to engage in basic day-to-day functions, from owning a bank account to booking a cab through an app. They still have to keep their identity and status as a gay couple anonymous – a precaution in case they are made to return to Syria, or outed to intolerant family members. They continue to live in fear that they could be summoned and deported at any moment. It’s been two years in limbo.

“For everything here you need documents or a bank account,” says Ahmed. “We don't have an address because you need income. So the minimum of life requirements we cannot get. We're not asking for much. We're not asking for financial support, we're not asking for accommodation. Just give us the right and we will depend on ourselves. We will work. We will study. We will find accommodation. We will pay tax.”

Shortly after the couple arrived, they were given temporary accommodation in Rochdale and a weekly allowance of £35. With no right to legally work in the UK, this was all they had to survive on. And while the flat in Rochdale was the first place they had space to themselves, they were isolated from the reason they came to the UK in the first place: to be with the only friends they knew in Europe.  

“We couldn't stay there, we tried really hard,” says Ahmed. “At that time we were alone, completely alone, in Rochdale. We were living separately there was no one around us… we got depressed. We got stressed there. So we decided to move to come to London because we have a friend here who can support us, who can be with us.”

In May 2016 the couple moved in to the spare room of their friend’s Mayfair apartment. She had arrived from Syria six years ago on a student visa. In the time they’ve been in London they’ve tried, in vain, to prepare for work, readying themselves in case they are actually granted asylum. After another friend loaned them some money, Ahmed, a trained architect, took an animation course, while Said, a chef, took a course to improve his English. Said finished the first level, but wasn’t allowed back to complete the next module without a passport. Ahmed stopped the animation course after running out of money from their friend’s loan.

Moving in with their friend may have bettered their living conditions, but it proved detrimental to their financial situation. The small sum they received from the Home Office stopped when they moved out of the accommodation in Rochdale. The Home Office claims this was due to the fact they were no longer classed as destitute.  The few friends they do now have in London have often had to loan them money or lend them essentials, like clothes. With no money and little to keep them occupied during the day, the limbo they’ve found themselves in has taken its toll on their mental health.

“Most of the time we get depressed because we don't have money to do anything,” says Ahmed. “You can't work, you can't study…you can't imagine how you feel when you spend your days doing nothing. Just nothing. Nothing useful in your life. Nothing. Can you imagine the depression you get?”

Though their friend has helped over the last year or so – giving them the place rent-free and providing them with food – she is now selling the apartment. They have four weeks to find new accommodation. If they don’t they’ll be homeless. The stress has caused Said’s hair to start falling out and he now has a plum-sized bald patch on the back of his head.

“If any country can accept us we would go back,” says Said. “But Turkey can't accept us. Syria can't accept us. Croatia can't accept us. So no one needs us. Where we can go? What are the options we have?”

The Home Office officially began processing the couple’s asylum claim in November 2016, and stated it aimed to make a decision by 27th May 2017. According to its own guidelines, claims should be processed within six months. Ahmed and Said have been waiting more than a year.

On 11 September 2017 they received a letter from the Home Office via their legal representatives at the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit, an organisation which provides free advice and representation predominantly through the legal aid scheme. The letter apologised for the fact their asylum claim had taken longer than six months to process. It went on to say that they would be invited for a “substantive asylum interview within 14-18 weeks with a decision to follow 8 to 12 weeks after.” More than 22 weeks later, the couple are still waiting an invitation.

“When they didn't [invite them to an asylum interview], we threatened them with a judicial review again,” says Ryan Bestford, an immigration lawyer at the unit, who has been working with the couple. In Ahmad’s case, the judicial review – an application to a higher court which seeks a review of a government decision - would look for an order forcing the Home Office to interview him. “In response to our [judicial review] threat, they then claimed that they will interview Ahmed within 10 weeks.”

The letter to their lawyers also states that there are many reasons why a claim may take longer than six months. According to the Home Office “further internal enquiries in relation to your client’s asylum claim were being made,” hence the delay in Ahmed and Said’s case. No additional information for the delay was provided.

According to a recent report in the Guardian, claims are often classified as complicated or non-standard by the Home Office to excuse the UK Visa and Immigration Unit from processing claims within six months. Ahmed and Said’s lawyer scoffs at the notion their case is complex.

"This case is not complicated," says Bestford. "They are from Syria and even the UK government accepts that the situation in that country is so bad that all Syrians are entitled to refugee status. In addition they are gay. This case is straightforward."

Bestford has been working with the couple since January 2016, when the Home Office wanted to return them to Croatia, despite the fact the Croatian government had made it clear that they did not want them. As LGBT asylum seekers, Ahmed and Said are an especially vulnerable group. Said is also HIV positive, and when the Home Office consider his application to asylum they’ll need to consider his ability to access treatment.

Such vulnerabilities are no guarantee of asylum. According to a Home Office report published in November 2017, 3,535 asylum applications were made on the basis of sexual orientation, 2,379 of which were rejected. Just 838 were approved.

"They should have been granted refugee status a long time ago," says Bestford. "I have no idea what the reason for the delay is. But it certainly cannot be the complexity of the case. If the Home office are saying that it is because of the complexity of the case – they are not fit for purpose."

As well as support from the few friends they have in the UK, they’ve also found an ally in Lord Paul Scriven, the Lords spokesperson for international LGBT rights. He highlighted the plight of the couple in July last year, in a speech which raised concerns about the detention of LGBT asylum seekers and the systemic delays in processing asylum claims.

“I am both bewildered and surprised that [Ahmed] and [Said]* are still waiting for their case to be dealt with and them been granted right to stay,” says Scriven. “I have written to the Home Office and made it clear it is totally unacceptable and needs now to be dealt with as a matter of urgency.

“As in many cases the reason for this delay lies at the door of the Home Office and the way in which they deal with cases of asylum for people claiming on the grounds of their sexuality or gender identity.  In many cases this slow and cold approach is all too common by the Home Office.”

Ahmed has contacted the UK Visa and Immigration Unit helpline to try and seek temporary accommodation. He is still waiting to hear back from them. For now the couple’s situation is no clearer; but with impending homelessness it’s certainly more desperate.

They arrived in the UK eager to work and excited about the possibility of living openly as two gay men. They arrived brimming with ideas for what a new start could look like. The last two years have taught them to abandon any forward planning and to avoid imagining a life where they have been granted asylum.

“I can't plan anymore,” says Ahmed. “All our plans have disappeared…we thought we escaped from the war…we thought we're gonna start again. We thought there's justice here. We thought there are human rights. But nothing exists. There's no justice. There's no fair. There are no human rights. They treat us like animals. The dogs live better than us here.”

Close to defeat, Ahmed and Said have discussed one final alternative. “Or I go back to Syria,” says Ahmed. He swiftly disregards any concerns about the conflict and his identity as a gay man. “I prefer to die there at least with my family in my country. Better than dying here alone. “

In a statement provided to the New Statesman, a Home Office spokesperson said:

“The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need our protection.

“An asylum case that does not get decided within 6 months is usually one classed as a non-straightforward asylum case. These cases are usually not possible to decide within 6 months for reasons outside of our control.

“Asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute are supported with free accommodation and a weekly cash allowance for each person in the household. This is available until their asylum claims and  any appeals are finally determined or they decide they do not require Government support.”

*names have been changed

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Nightmare on Cameron Street