The dimly lit back room of the Japanese restaurant is empty save for some scruffy codger hunched up in the corner, sitting sideways on, lost in his thoughts. At 56, it seems, Clive Vivian Leopold James has become smaller than life. Only when I am opposite him, face to face, do the features of the man on the box lurch into focus. And this is just as unnerving. After we have been chatting for a few minutes, picking over a salver of sushi, I forget that we are mid-conversation. I have been watching his lips move, enjoying the performance, imagining the TV set framing that familiar face – a face once described by its owner as small and pointed at the bottom, like a talking turnip – when suddenly the turnip gets all interactive on me and asks, ‘Have you read Kim?’ Startled, I nod and shake my head at the same time. ‘Well, you must. You must.’
This, I think, is Clive James as he likes to see himself: the pedagogue, at once avuncular and didactic. Had he not been a critic, poet, author, TV presenter, et cetera, et cetera, he would, you feel sure, have been that favourite English teacher at school. You know the one, pens in top pocket, tie over shoulder, infecting you with his sophistry – but always getting himself into trouble for teaching off the syllabus.
‘I warn you,’ he says. ‘This will be the dullest encounter of your life. I’m a nightmare. Cantankerous. Tetchy. I’ll either ramble or shut up.’ He grins crookedly, offering a glimpse of shiny bridgework, and then starts to ramble. But it is one thing for James to allow himself to stray from the point. Permitting his syntax the right to roam is another. Even in discourse he constructs his sentences with a precision bordering on the anal: he never has to search for the right word, but you can tell that he is listening out for a satisfying pitch and rhythm – even if it means, as his critics say, that he sometimes sacrifices content for form.
A detractor once described the TV column he wrote for the Observer for ten years as a cabaret turn. James took it as a compliment. But does he write as he speaks, or is it the other way round? ‘First and foremost,’ he says as nasally as the most unreconstructed Australian, ‘I think of myself as a writer. Even on TV when I say something spontaneous I have written it in my head a few seconds beforehand.’
It can sound like it. A favourite Jamesian (he’ll love that) device is to fold a sentence neatly in on itself, as in: ‘Not everyone who wants to make a film is crazy, but almost everyone who is crazy wants to make a film.’ A similar trick is to break one sentence into two and flip its tenses over until both sides are lightly browned: ‘Breakfast was there for the taking. I rarely took it.’ His own description is that he tries to ‘turn a phrase until it catches the light’. That he resists the urge to add ‘quod erat demonstrandum’ shows admirable, if uncharacteristic, restraint.
He has a more galling verbal tic: the rather anti-social habit of regarding conversation as an opportunity to pontificate – as Dr Johnson did, as James might put it. For that’s another thing. He throws in references to playwrights, philosophers and men of letters the way other people punctuate. This could be intellectual bullying – he studied for a PhD, and speaks eight languages – but, equally, it could be his way of flattering, as opposed to patronising, his interlocutor. Either way, he is well aware of the involuntary flinch that academic name-dropping elicits in the English nervous system. It is just that, after years of taking stick for it, he’s past caring.
‘Oh yes, I’m a raging intellectual snob,’ he says, thoughtfully tapping the tips of his fingers together. ‘But only because I see books, music, art and the life of the mind as a concrete reality. I can’t separate them from nature. I don’t just acquire knowledge to show off. I’ve read all my life. Devoured whole literatures. Why should I apologise for that? The English are embarrassed about learning. It’s unique to these shores – a kind of Philistinism encouraged by the landed gentry.’
Landed gentry? It seems too easy and arbitrary a target. Could it hark back to the same smouldering resentment that once prompted the Kid from Kogarah to write that the principle effect of the Sixties social revolution was to make young men who had been to Shrewsbury (the Private Eye crowd of Ingrams, Foot and Booker) feel less miserable about not having been to Eton?
Perhaps not. James gives an example of what he means: the time a journalist caught him reading Nietzsche in a restaurant in California. ‘A piece appeared in the English press saying I was ostentatiously reading Nietzsche. There was no counter to that because the journalist was assuming you only read a book like that if you are trying to impress someone. I don’t.’
There are other dimensions to this, I suggest: the British fear of appearing boastful, of being seen to try too hard. ‘That’s the influence of Private Eye for you,’ he says, lightly conducting with his chopstick for emphasis. ‘The assumption that if you are an intellectual you must be a bore. Perhaps the people who assume that should be more bothered for their souls. For their loved ones. For their children.’
James is talking in an untypically muted voice. As he does, he rests the side of his head against the wall to his right, as if to relieve his neck from the burden of all that weighty grey matter. It throws half his face into shadow, and this, too, seems unfamiliar: James as you never see him, away from the make-up and the harsh lighting of the studio. Someone once described his face as being that of a bank robber who has forgotten to take the stocking off. It is a cruel description – but not altogether unfair. Apart from two insouciantly raised clumps of wirebrush eyebrow, his face is curiously lacking in definition. It is something to do with the width of the nose; the corrugated shape of the lips that barely move, even when engaged in perpetual monologue.
That monologue is just one of the reasons why Clive James is almost impossible to interview. You feel you know too much about him already. What he has not told you on TV, he has in his novels and essays or in the three volumes (so far) of his Unreliable Memoirs. You know, for instance, that he sees himself as a wolf-whistling, red-blooded all-Australian male, but that his first sexual encounter – mutual onanism – was with a boy, Gary. You can guess, too, why he doesn’t open his mouth much when he talks: ‘The last and hardest job was to clean my gums. After every few scrapes I flew around the surgery like an open-mouth balloon. The [dental assistant] pinned me with a body-slam and the job was done.’
What does not come across in his memoirs, though, is any real sense of his emotional geography. James will tell you that he is conceited, arrogant, pompous, naive and insensitive, but this, you suspect, is probably what he thinks other people think; it is not necessarily what he feels. He charts his motives at every turn, but instead of analysing what he finds in terms of his own condition, however painful that might be, he cops out and sweeps them aside with some clever-clogs aphorism or generalisation that applies to Everyman. ‘Christ died for our sins,’ he tells me. ‘It’s rather presumptuous to think you have to die, too.’ Yes, yes, you find yourself asking, but what about you? What, for instance, makes Clive James cry?
‘I can be moved to tears by my own failures and failings in relationships,’ he answers. ‘But that’s self-obsession. Usually when one weeps one weeps for oneself. That’s the terrible truth. So I try to weep as little as possible.’ He adds that the way he empathises with a tragic novel is to imagine it happening to his children. ‘People say it’s impossible to imagine the Holocaust. But all you have to do is picture your own children being taken from you and gassed.’
James has been married to Prudence, a lecturer in modern languages, for 28 years. They have two daughters – James says he can imagine dying in order to save their lives. ‘I really hope I could. But you never know. In Germany, people killed their own children in order to save them from a fate worse than death in medical experiments. That took real courage.’
Just as we’re descending into despair, James inadvertently flicks some raw fish across the table. ‘Ah. Sorry about that. Always been a messy eater, especially when I’m talking.’ He sees me prodding warily at what looks like a piece of pink wood. ‘Try holding that ginger under your tongue and let the juice come out,’ he says, playing mentor again. ‘And wash it down with that sake. It’ll do you the world of good. Clean up your sinuses.’
In an attempt to keep the mood light, I ask him if the sake will also make me fighting drunk. ‘No,’ he says with a chortle. ‘Sake only makes the Japanese wrap bandannas around their heads and charge when they are officially at war.’ It is a surprisingly glib reference to a subject he is known to be haunted by. (His father was taken prisoner in the fall of Singapore in 1942 and died in an air crash while flying home at the end of the war.)
This, says James, was what spurred him to learn Japanese about ten years ago; it was, he felt, his best chance of coming to terms with his past. He has, too, been working for some years on an epic novel about the war in the South Pacific (along with a novel on Rio, and the next volume of his memoirs – no slouch, our Clive). Perhaps the epic may do something to atone for having single-handedly reduced the Japanese race to a crude stereotype in the eyes of the British viewing public. At best, I suggest, the mockery he made of Endurance, the masochistic Japanese game show, was entertainingly patronising. At worst, it was racist.
He studies his nails, revealing liver-spotted hands and hairy fingers. ‘It’s almost impossible to avoid being accused of those things,’ he says. ‘You’re wide open to it. All you can do is rely on the good sense of the public. It’s true, I made my name on television making fun of Japanese game shows. But Japanese game shows are really like that. Hilariously awful. Most Japanese know that, too.’ James showed he knew it with his last novel, Brrm! Brrm!. It was about Japan, or rather about an immaculately courteous and cultivated Japanese man who comes to England to acquire manners.
Brrm! Brrm! received favourable reviews, although, tellingly, most critics admitted that they came to bury it and ended up singing its praises. For the critics have never been particular kind to James. Auberon Waugh, another favourite schoolmaster, said of him: ‘He pretends to be an irreverent figure but in fact is a cringing man on the make.’ Such crushing comments have left James with a complex, or at least a feeling of insecurity. ‘I’ve learned that the profile as a form does not favour me,’ he says, screwing up his face in a stage grimace. He gives me an example. Earlier this year, a reporter from the Daily Mirror did a friendly ten-minute interview with him that was blown up into a double-page spread devoted to snide implications of serial lechery. ‘They got a photographer to go up to Cambridge and photograph my house. They got someone else to trail my wife and my children. A rock came through the front window the morning after the article appeared. We were showered with glass. You don’t have to be paranoid to find that a cautionary tale. The reporter wrote to me afterwards and said, ‘How can I apologise?’, and I wrote back saying, “You can’t. Get another job.” He laughs at this, lowers his chin and looks over the top of his glasses. ‘I’m trusting you. I hate doing that. I’ve been stitched up by nicer-looking, more plausible, more literate people even than you.’
But because being sarcastic is what he does for a living, he knows that he cuts a less than sympathetic figure. Lest we forget, he did once describe the tennis player Andrea Jaeger as having a smile like a car crash (she was 15 at the time and had braces on her teeth). And he is proud to tell you he once got a letter which said, ‘You were so harsh about my translation of Aeschylus that I didn’t write for a year.’ And that he wrote back saying: ‘Don’t be a cry baby.’
Does James take his own advice? He tries to, but the truth is he bruises easily. Indeed, he once wrote that he enjoys a good joke against himself, before he goes quietly away somewhere to be sick. More recently, he failed to duck when the Modern Review took a swipe at him. ‘I like to think I took the attack philosophically. With poise. The fact is it was designed to piss me off and it pissed me off. But I don’t think you should punish yourself if you feel hurt. As a writer, a thick skin is the last thing you should grow.’
Having both dished out criticism and received it, he knows the thing you should do is ignore it – but that you never can. ‘You always think the guy who is critical about you has got it right,’ he says. ‘Words are magical. If someone attacks you in print it wounds you grievously. Maybe you only get to see it all in perspective when you are on your deathbed.’ Warming to his maudlin theme, he adds that the attacks in the Modern Review were so vitriolic he couldn’t imagine what terms of disapprobation the writers would have had left if asked to condemn Hitler or Himmler. It is a line I remember reading in his memoir, May Week Was in June, where James used it to describe the personal attacks FR Leavis made on his rival academics, Hough and Holloway. For the sixth time during this lunch he makes a reference that has me flicking mentally to the appropriate page in one of his books – ‘a 93-year-old Scots lady wrote to me saying that, when young, she had done all the same things I did’. Flick flick flick, page 12, Falling Towards England.
It strikes me that the price of James’s success is that he has become a pastiche of himself, formulaic, cruising on autopilot, or rather autocue. He has come to inhabit a fictionalised reality of his own making, a twilight zone in which he constantly re-reads the 26 books he has published and then, perhaps unconsciously, reiterates their tried and tested contents as part of his everyday speech. It makes me feel slightly cheated, but it doesn’t change my view that he is, on the whole, a good thing. There, I’ve said it. I like his writing. He makes me laugh and pause for thought. I can’t think of anyone else who could have come up with: ‘I find myself left alone with an Iranian biochemist whose name sounded like a fly trapped against a window.’ Or: ‘My own transitional persona must have seemed as out of focus as a chameleon crossing a kilt.’
Yet I know plenty of people who do not share my enthusiam. He knows plenty, too. So why is it, does he suppose, that he never seems to inspire neutral feelings? He gives an exaggerated blink: ‘I might be just obnoxious, I don’t know.’ But even then he’s hoisted by his transitional persona. When he’s doing interviews on TV, his critics say, he isn’t obnoxious enough – just sycophantic. I ask him whether his interviewing style is deceptively gentle or just gentle. ‘Just gentle. I’m not very good as a probing interviewer – too easily embarrassed. I believe in bowling under arm, instead. That way they take a big swing at it and get caught out. There’s far too much attention paid to the adversarial style of interview. Get them through their vanity instead. I took a lot of stick for my Ronald Reagan interview. But I knew that there were two ways of asking him about his connection with McCarthyism. I could ask outright, ‘Were you a stoolie for the FBI in Hollywood?’ – at which point he would have clammed up. Or I could say, ‘How serious was the Communist menace in Hollywood?’ – which I did and he opened up and told me everything.’
You don’t get the feeling that Clive James tells you everything. Perhaps he expects you to read between the lines of his novels instead. Indeed, there are a number of parallels between the hero’s life in his latest novel, The Silver Castle, and that of the young James. Both learn about the world through magazines and the cinema. Both fuel their ambition with envy and fantasise constantly about being famous. Both incorporate self-mockery into their armoury of devices for staving off wrath, even if it is not the way they really feel about themselves. Both are cursed by a sense that, even in their own country, they can never feel at home.
James has lived here for 34 years, yet still, I suspect, he does not feel as if he belongs, quite. He feels that he is still a bit of an outsider. An exile. ‘I feel more Australian the older I get,’ he says, yet he can’t imagine fitting in there either. England – the motherland – is the only place he feels he could fit in, but, he says, he has never had the least urge to try. ‘So cold in England,’ he once wrote, ‘even when it was warm.’
His friend Vitali Vitaliev, a Russian journalist, describes him as being too melancholy in his private life. Yet James himself once wrote that only self-discipline keeps his face straight. Which is true? The answer seems to lie in the chameleon reference. He is always playing a role, as he probably is here in the Japanese restaurant on the edge of Holland Park. In the Postcard From… series his persona is that of a wide-eyed amateur, charmingly lost, sometimes nervous. For one who lives his life in front of a TV camera, it can sometimes seem an implausible conceit. ‘It’s part genuine, part gimmick,’ he shrugs. ‘But it does answer a genuine need in my character. Egomania is not incompatible with extreme self-doubt.’
To his irritation, James has often been asked why he is wasting his learning – and talent as a writer – presenting populist TV shows. ‘I’m very flattered that people assume I have talent to waste,’ he says. ‘I don’t believe I am wasting it. I believe in mass communication, not art for the few. The short answer to why am I wasting my talent is that I never heard much about this talent before I started wasting it.’ But when I ask him if he is happy, he gives a categorical no. ‘On the other hand,’ he adds, ‘I’m happy to be alive. Happy to be here. But I won’t pretend that I don’t know what the question means. By keeping busy, I’m compensating for something – a sense of the world’s arbitrariness that I acquired in childhood, perhaps. But I’m not about to burst into tears.’
His memoirs, he tells me, were written as a form of therapy. But writing something down, coolly and dispassionately (and later editing it, of course), is not the same as discussing it live, as it were, in the here and now. I am struck by the paradox that Clive James might actually feel uncomfortable talking about his favourite subject. ‘No,’ he replies. ‘I don’t mind talking about myself – because I can just offer the outer layer of the onion.’ And with this he goes off in search of the chef, in order to practise his Japanese for a few minutes before it is time to go.
In my imagination, the onion analogy wrestles momentarily with that of the turnip, and then topples it off its throne. Onions have thin skins – those concentric layers of white succulent flesh that are bitter when raw, sweet when cooked. They also have a pungent odour which brings tears to your eyes, or makes you gag, depending on how you look at it.
Clive James said, after this appeared in 1996, that he would never agree to be interviewed again. He did, four years later, to promote a new collection of his essays as well as his internet site. He was much ridiculed in the press in 1997 when he wrote a long and heart felt tribute to Diana, Princess of Wales, for the New Yorker.