Clive James: my gateway to infinity

From The Times, May 16, 2008

The writer, critic and broadcaster explains how his website grew from
an online archive of his own work into a multimedia cultural resource

Clive James

In 2005 I finally managed to buy my domain name,, back from a British pirate. Before the pirate got hold of it, my domain name belonged to another Clive James, a jet-ski instructor in Miami. I waited a long time for him to have his accident, but when I lunged forward to grab the vacant domain name, it turned out that the pirate had already bought it. He sold it to me for only slightly less than it would have cost to sue him, but it was worth it. My fledgeling multimedia website could now carry my name, an attribute that might come in useful when trying to attract the attention of anyone who remembered it from the days when I had my face on the box in the corner of the room, instead of on the screen of a computer.

By that time my plans for the website were already changing. My first idea was to set up an online archive of everything I had ever written. There were practical reasons for doing so. On the web, your books can be made available while occupying no physical space at all: a humble aim, surely. But I have to admit that megalomania was part of the initial impulse.

I was building a memorial to myself: not a very charming idea even when the pharaohs did it. Luckily I soon realised that the project might be more useful if I included the work of other people. Some of my own work included other people anyway. I was already, in the Video section of the site, running little no-budget television interviews that I was making in my living room. Jonathan Miller, Cate Blanchett, Terry Gilliam, Julian Barnes, Ruby Wax, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis and others (the complete line-up of 25 half-hour interviews is still on the site, and still growing, with a new series of nine to be uploaded soon) all contributed their services for not much more than a takeaway Chinese meal and cab fare.

In the Audio section, I had been streaming dozens of radio dialogues that I had done with Peter Porter for the ABC in Australia. I had a Gallery section, and all its painters, sculptors and photographers were my guests (there are now 17 of them, with seven pages each). So why not have Guest Writers and Guest Poets?

Worldwide, there were journalists and essayists who were taking their business seriously. I wanted to help to shine a light on their best work. When I was a journalist, I had always thought that an individual piece was like an individual poem: if it was well enough done, it deserved to live. On the web, nothing need disappear. There were poets who deserved a world stage. I wanted to help to provide that. If I could load my website with enough permanently valuable material, people from all over the world might visit, not just because it was an example of one writer expressing himself, but because the site itself was expressing a wide range of human creation. A limitless range, in fact: because there were already countless good things glittering among the junk out there on the web, so a site's grizzled proprietor could turn his years to use by guiding visitors to the treasure.

You could say that this was megalomania taken to a further stage and disguised as altruism. But whatever the motive, after five years of steady construction the site has become the focus of my later life. I used to do several different things for a living. But they were all linked by writing, and now they are all happening in the one place, and I have to do a lot of extra writing to explain what's going on. By the nature of the web, this explanatory writing has to be terse, but that requirement never hurts.

The site's comprehensive redesign, which has just been completed, looks a lot less tentative. It looks, as we used to say in television, “meant”. And so it should, because a lot of people are giving their efforts to it for small financial reward. They are headed by my copy editor, Cécile Menon, who can also converse with computers fluently enough to run the site. Powerfully persuasive for someone no bigger than a piaf, she recruits out in cyberspace the ghostly technical experts whose time is worth a fortune. Somehow she persuades them to work, like her, for a pittance. She is also gifted with adventurous taste. Many of our painters and sculptors are found by her. Sometimes she has to convince me, but only by making me look more closely, and invariably they prove to have a quality that my unaided eye might have skated over. Thus my education continues, and I get the chance to write outside my usual frame of reference. In this way, one's mental range is increased. It's the thing I like most about the web. It can get you beyond yourself.

It can also get you bankrupt, but there is less reason to be afraid of that than you might think when you read about dot-com entrepreneurs going belly up. For a start, you don't have to be an entrepreneur. My aim is not to make money, and I have the account books to prove it. Google is now advertising on our pages, but the revenue will fall a long way short of paying even for Cécile's croissants (“J'ai faim!” is her constant cry). In fact the site was a steady drain on my savings until recently, but now it almost pays for itself. The drawback of webcasting is that you pay to send the signal, and the cost goes up with the number of viewers, so you can die of success overnight. The cost of streaming could have been fatal, but Slate magazine in the US offered to send out the signal and pick up the tab.

The cost of shooting the shows could have been fatal again, but Sky Arts stepped in to pay the bills, and soon, I hope, a further alliance with Times Online will make another season of programmes possible. The bottom line - I love this business talk - is that I not only choose the guests and run the show, I get to run the finished product on the site for ever. The same goes for the radio material: all my “Point of View” pieces that I record for BBC Radio 4 are mine to keep. The Gallery section acquires a new artist every month, and the library of guest writers grows, and... well, I'm not exactly planning to install a swimming pool, but there's already the beginnings of a virtual bookshop, although browsers will have to make their own coffee at home. Wandering the gangways of this transparent space vehicle that we have been building as it flies, I try to see it through the eyes of the viewers. There is already plenty for them to choose from. But who are they?

In that question lies the only thing for the aspiring webster to be scared of. You can throw a party, and nobody might come. There are at least seven million websites in the world, and about 90 million blogs, and it's already obvious that when everyone on Earth is building a personal display case they won't have time to look at anybody else's. As many lone bloggers have already found, their regular audience is only going to be a handful of people like them. Some of the handful are in Iceland or Venezuela, which can be a thrill, but on the whole, no matter how well the bloggers write, if they haven't got a selling point beyond their own opinions they are digging their own graves under the impression that they are putting up a building.

But when I wake up sweating in the night, wondering if I am going broke to no purpose whatever, I can check the viewing figures and remind myself that at any given moment, as the sun comes up around the world, there are people online to find out what we've got to offer. Not a lot of people, perhaps, but they come from more than 50 countries. Since most of them, if they decide to browse around, will read as well as look and listen, it's a safe assumption that they are good at English, which they got from books. The fear that the web necessarily erodes the ability to read is groundless. The web is fundamentally literate, even if at a low level.

At an even lower level, alas, it is also frightening, because a huge percentage of it consists of pornography, eked out by masterclasses in bomb-making, conspiracy theory and religious terror. The word “jungle” is almost too genteel to apply. But if the whole thing really is a lethally dangerous primeval forest, then a crucial battle will be lost if clearings are not provided in which people can find nothing but civilisation. I suppose the most glittering prize the web offers is that it gives you a chance to put your life on the line in a constructive way. Even the brightest young people, wherever they come from, are more likely to find an older voice worth listening to if it is talking about something beyond wealth and power. It can talk about value, saying not just “This is what I have done” but “This is what others have done, and I find it valuable beyond price”.

I wouldn't want to sound too worthy, because I have never had so much fun since my first trip to the movies. I wish, though, that the web had been around a couple of decades earlier, because a site on this scale is so obviously the ideal form of self-expression, where you get your name on a gateway to infinity. What would a pyramid be beside that? Just a pointed building sticking out of the sand.

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