"And then I eat the stick"
"Relative Values"--Clive and Claerwen James
« : 21.05.13 at 21:16 »
Apologies if this has already been posted...
Back in March the Sunday Times featured a pair of articles written by Clive and his daughter Claerwen. The article, which features a recent photo of a noticeable-thinner Clive, is best read online (at http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/Magazine/relative_values/article1228348.ece#page-1), but since the Times has a weird access policy, I'm reprinting it here as well.
My Dad still steals the show
The broadcaster and writer Clive James and his oldest daughter, a painter, talk about his battle with terminal illness and why they inspire each other
Published: 17 March 2013
The best moment of this year has already happened for me. And that was to make the opening of Claerwen’s latest art exhibition. Right now my illnesses are pretty savage. I can’t breathe very well, I can’t see very well, I feel as if my body is falling apart. So events like this are a huge deal for me.
The funny thing is, I went from one decade to the next without going near a doctor. But all that changed three years ago when my urinary tract packed up on me and I nearly died. I got me to A&E just in time to save me from kidney failure. It was my prostate, I’d been ignoring it, and now I had to be operated on straight away.
That was just the start of it. The doctors also discovered I had emphysema and leukaemia, and I’m only in remission now because of the chemo I’ve had. So having nearly croaked, not once, but twice that year, I’m grateful for every breath I take. I am also grateful that I still have the energy to write, and most importantly that I have my family living near me.
I live on my own in Cambridge. I’m still married to my wife, Prue, but she is very angry with me, for reasons I won’t go into. [Last August, James apologised to his wife for having an eight-year affair.] What I will say is that right back at the start, Prue and I were childhood sweethearts. We were at university together in Australia and, after graduating, I left to go to England, she left to study Dante in Florence. But I quickly realised that if I was going to stay ahead of all the Italian men who swarmed around her, I had to learn Italian. So I did, and on one of my visits, she took me through a verse in Dante’s Inferno about two lovers — Paolo and Francesca. And to this day, I think of it as the most poetic moment I ever had.
Prue and I eventually got married and we settled in Cambridge, where she worked at the university as a lecturer in Italian and I worked as TV critic for one of the nationals. So it was into a fairly artsy, scholarly environment that Claerwen and her younger sister, Lucinda, were born.
During that period, I did the fatherhood role up to a point, but not beyond. I could see that it wasn’t always enough to hand over my wages and say to Prue: “Here, get a nanny.” But if I was going to be there all the time, I’d need to have been a different man.
So to the girls, it probably seemed like I was always working. If it wasn’t reviews or essays, it was books, poetry, or reading. I had a flat in London where I stayed during the week, but even when I came home, the girls would resort to various means to get my attention. One of Claerwen’s little tricks was to pick up the cat and sit him on top of me. That one usually worked.
Claerwen was a bright girl — her passions went from Jane Eyre to the atomic bomb — but with both our daughters, Prue and I were careful not to overwhelm them. The trouble with powerhouse families is that you can put too much pressure on kids. You can crush them. For that reason, we let them, for the most part, find their own interests.
When Claerwen went down the science route at Oxford, I was secretly glad. It was so removed from what either of us were doing that it was clear she’d chosen her own path. Of course, she was on the verge of finishing a PhD in molecular biology when she gave it all up to become an artist. But as dramatic as this decision was, we knew it was a serious one, so we supported her. She’d had a love of painting that goes back to her childhood, so this does feel like her true calling in life.
And as an artist, I think she’s got great things ahead of her. I know I won’t be here for all of it, but she need not worry. When I’m up above, I’ll be waiting, ready to shout down: “Hey, everyone, that’s my daughter.”
When I was a child, one memory that sums Dad up is this particular day when he took me swimming. He was meant to teach me how to do my first strokes, but as attentively as I sat on the edge of the pool, it was clear that all he wanted to do was show off. In fact, he got so carried away, he didn’t see me fall in. I realised then, he loves to entertain people.
But as I’ve come to realise, Dad has many sides to him, often very opposing. He can go from being the showman to the quiet solitary figure who wants to be left alone to write. Growing up, there were two crimes you could commit. One was to interrupt him in the middle of him telling a joke, and the other was to make a noise when he was writing.
We grew up in a terraced house in Cambridge. Mum was a lecturer in Italian at the university and Dad was a TV critic. He wasn’t the kind of dad to ask me how I was getting on at maths, or any subject for that matter. He wasn’t involved in the way so many parents are today. Neither was Mum. It was more a case of benign neglect, which I think was good. Having said that, one thing Dad has is a natural curiosity about everything, and that did inspire me.
Of course, he loves TV, and I did watch a lot of programmes with him, but Dad’s obsession with books is something else. As well as working from home, he also had a London flat, where he’d be during the week. And other than a bed, TV and fridge, in which he only ever kept boil-in-the-bags, there was nothing but books. It was like a maze, barely room to walk. Left completely to his own devices, he’d probably live in a state of total squalor.
But, what I can appreciate so much more now is that, as obsessions go, it’s quite a nice one, and we have endless conversations about what he’s reading. Between his writing, particularly his poetry, and my art, we actually find a lot of common ground. And Dad is a huge fan of mine. I’ve drawn and sculpted him, but never painted him, and just the other day he reminded me of this, adding: “You know, you might not have that long.” As always, he can be the joker, even when there’s a serious undertone. His brush with death was a huge thing for all of us. He’s always been so robust, so full of energy, so tireless, to the point where it drove us all crazy. He’d come on holiday with us and get so bored, he’d start writing a book.
It all changed three years ago. And it came to a head when, of all things, he couldn’t pee. At all. We rushed him to A&E, where he was told he was not only on the point of renal failure, but had a list of things wrong with him — emphysema and leukaemia among them.
Then, after giving himself time to recover and come to terms with all of this, he was determined to come to the opening of an exhibition I was having in New York. Because of the emphysema, he couldn’t fly, so he took the Queen Mary, but as soon as he got off the ship, he showed me one of his legs. It had swollen to three times its size, so I rushed him to A&E. The doctors found a clot that went all the way from his knee to his groin. It was terrifying.
As a result of all that, he now has to walk a lot, or, as they say in medical circles, ambulate. I’ll see him ambulating maybe two or three times a day. He does get dispirited at times, but for the most part, he keeps incredibly busy. He’s got three books alone coming out this year alone. Dad just isn’t the sort of person to give up. Ever.