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3 October 2018

“I’ve got a few of these stories”: An afternoon with Clive James, Tom Stoppard and Julian Barnes

A party at Clive James’s house turned into a symposium between three of our greatest writers and talkers. We were happy to be the listeners.

By Tom Gatti

One recent Friday morning, I headed to a rendezvous point on a street behind Finchley Road station in north London. A minibus had been laid on to take us to Clive James’s house in Cambridge, to launch his new book: a single long narrative poem, The River in the Sky. I spotted a head of grey curly hair that looked familiar: it was Tom Stoppard. As he smoked on the pavement, Stoppard and I talked a little about politics: the problem of having nobody to vote for, the prospects of a new centrist party and the example of Emmanuel Macron. Then Julian Barnes arrived – “Ah, Julian!” said Tom softly, and they embraced. Barnes is happy because he’s into writing his new book. Stoppard is happy because he is working on a new play.

On the bus, I sat across the aisle from the critic John Carey. As Stoppard and Barnes worked their way through the newspapers, Ian Shircore, who wrote a book about the songs of Clive James and Pete Atkin, talked of running a folk club in the 1970s. The first time Ian saw Clive, he told us, he mistook him for a bouncer. There must be something about James: the build, the well-formed skull. In The River in the Sky he describes Thelonious Monk mistaking him for a cop.

At Clive’s house, on a quiet street north of the River Cam, the midday light poured through from the open French doors. (Clive later thanked the “man upstairs” for arranging the weather.) There were shelves upon shelves of beautifully arranged books: library-quality editions of Milton, TS Eliot, ee cummings. On the walls were a tiny, delicate drawing by his daughter Claerwen James and an explosion of coloured shapes by the Russian suprematist Nina Kogan – Clive described it as “Splinters and stoppers from the bombing of/An angel’s boudoir” in “Nina Kogan’s Geometrical Heaven”, a poem we published in the New Statesman. Many Nina Kogans are fakes, he told me – but not this one.

With an editor from Picador I helped lug in from the bus a box of books that were then set out, the blue-on-blue cover print by Claerwen handsome on the dark wooden table. Clive, who is about to turn 79, was sitting at the end of the table, in a black top and trousers and slippers. It’s nearly nine years since he was diagnosed with leukaemia. It’s not surprising that his clothes look too big for him. He had a glass of champagne in front of him, though I didn’t see him drink from it. He smiled and greeted guest after guest.

An hour or so of mingling and drinks later, Clive got up to give a speech. He thanked Tom Stoppard for giving the book a thorough critical reading, and identifying that Clive had described an obsolete sort of Jiffy bag stuffing. He thanked – unrolling his name in a Franglais accent – Julian Barnes for choosing the wine. He thanked his family and his granddaughter’s dog, who he says is underrated as a critic: “He has the gift of silence.” But then the speech faltered – “I’m making a mess of this,” he said. He can’t recapture his train of thought but is not hurried or anxious about it.

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Clive introduced Don Paterson, his editor and “a great poet in his own right” (“You see what’s wrong with that?” said Clive, enjoying the self-aggrandisement). Paterson talked about The River in the Sky and how the long, page-turning poem is not a particularly common form. Only a couple of poets could pull it off, he said, mentioning Richard Wilbur, whom both he and Clive admire.

The guests stood in a semi-circle around Clive’s long table, and we listened as Tom Stoppard picked up the baton. It was Clive’s writing on poetry, Stoppard said, that led to their meeting: “It was the first time I heard literary criticism that seemed to be in a real voice. It was like some bloke talking with a drink.” Stoppard resolved to write the author a postcard – “Then I turned the page and he had written about me. So I thought: I can’t write now, it will look like I’m just saying, thanks for the plug.” But he did write, and he also began to read contemporary poetry overnight.

“I’m winking at Julian,” Clive said, beaming, “because he knows I’m in heaven.”

Clive was congratulated for his loyalty to Picador, and replied that Byron would not have approved of “author loyalty”. When John Murray claimed that Byron’s contract would break the publisher, Byron replied: “That’s the idea.”

Julian Barnes has an anecdote for that. Graham Greene was about to publish Travels with my Aunt, but the publisher didn’t like the title. Greene telegrammed: “Easier to change publisher than title.” And he did (change publisher that is), the same day.

Clive’s speech might be abandoned, but he has found his flow. He mentions his first book The Metropolitan Critic, and John Carey’s review (in 2013 Clive wrote that Carey “brought all his wit and knowledge to the task of shriveling my first collection of essays… I slept badly for months”). But the critic, almost 45 years later and now a friend, has put him off his stride again: “I saw you glaring at me,” Clive teases. “You’ve got a famous glare.”

Who was the writer, Stoppard wonders, who, when his publisher asked him for a better photograph for the book jacket, replied with a blunt telegram: “Little, Brown: you have an ugly author”? But nobody knows.

“I’ve got a few of these stories,” says Clive. “I might try to trot them out. All I have to do is try and remember them. It all used to come so fluidly off the tongue. Back in the days when you couldn’t stop me talking. Julian remembers that all right.”

“We used to have Friday lunches,” offers Barnes, bringing up a famous bit of 1970 literary lore. “There were the silent ones and then there were the talky ones. The silent ones were me, Terence Kilmartin and Russell Davies, and the talky ones were you, Martin Amis and Mark Boxer. We got lunch – and we got lots of instruction.”

“For that kind of kaffeeklatsch,” says Clive, “you must have a balance. There must be listeners as well as talkers. Otherwise it goes haywire.”

“You held your own very well,” says Barnes. It’s hard to imagine otherwise.

The afternoon has somehow turned into a symposium between some of our greatest writers and talkers. We are happy to be the listeners.

“Those were the days,” says Clive. “Those were the days. Some of us are still here. I must say that surprises me about myself.” Clive was, he reminds us, “supposed to have dropped off the twig ten years ago”.

Stoppard remembers the early days of Clive’s illness: “I called you” – he says to Clive’s wife Prue – “in New York because I heard from somewhere that Clive was desperately ill.” (This was 2011, explains Prue: Clive had deep vein thrombosis and was in Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan.) Stoppard turns to Clive: “I wouldn’t have called New York if I thought I’d see you again,” he deadpans.

Clive talks about his illness and the new drugs that have prolonged his life, including the “wonderfully named” ibrutinib (addressed in last year’s Injury Time as “you little cluster-bomb/Of goodness”). “I often think of Keats,” he says, as if talking of an old friend or colleague. “In Rome, walking up the Spanish stairs I would often pause and do the homage, looking up at the window. Boy, what a difference penicillin would have made. Change the whole of literary history.”

Stoppard asks Clive if he’s still getting up every morning and writing a few lines.

“I haven’t got a schedule,” says Clive. He wishes he had one, because he is impossible to live with: “When the time’s come to write, I write, and it could be any time of the day or night. Discipline must be marvellous.”

“Yes, think how many books you could have written with discipline,” says Barnes. The uproarious laughter that follows is appropriate given Clive’s prolific late phase: he has published nine books since his diagnosis in 2010.

There’s a pause. The waiting staff come in with chicken on skewers and there are little cooing noises from hungry people.

“Listen folks,” says Clive. “You’re supposed to be spreading out and enjoying the party.”

There’s a pause, and Clive James raises his hands.

“Maybe this is the party?” 

This article appears in the 03 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The fury of the Far Right