On the Move: Clive James

From The Sunday Times, March 11, 2007

I had to give up driving by public demand

Emma Smith

Clive James left Sydney for England in 1961. He read English literature at Cambridge then became The Observer’s television critic from 1972-82 before forging a television career of his own. He has written four books of memoirs and many volumes of poetry, fiction and criticism. He is married with two daughters, including Claerwen James, the painter.

Clive James grew up amassing an impressive collection of Dinky cars, drawing cutaway diagrams of Ferraris, memorising the contents of Autocar, Flight and Motorcycle magazines and fantasising about his future life as a world-class aeronautical engineer. He enrolled in Sydney Technical College confident it was only a matter of time before he was building jet engines to outclass Rolls-Royce.

But by the tender age of 15, it was already time to face facts. Despite early successes in homemade billycarts, he was a hopeless technical klutz. What was fine in theory just didn’t come together in ham-fisted practice. His skill with a lathe made everything “end up as a blob” and while his friends took apart their motorbike engines, all he could do was pass the spanners.

Driving was another skill he failed to master and he was in his forties before he passed his test. Taking lessons from Sir Stirling Moss while filming a television show entitled Clive James — Racing Driver, probably didn’t help matters. “I learnt a kind of racing style which quite frazzled the [driving test] examiner and I’m afraid I carried that over when I took to the road. I enjoyed driving on a racetrack because all the cars were going the same way — it was the cars coming in the opposite direction I couldn’t handle.”

Even though he has a licence, he doesn’t drive and sticks to public transport. “I drove for a week and then by public demand I stopped. I’d dented a few cars, including my own, and I thought, ‘I’d better get out of this’.” By common consent, Clive James is one of the few master wordsmiths alive today, and it may be that all the cleverness in the literary part of his brain crowds out the space available to perform tricky manual tasks. In Unreliable Memoirs — the first instalment of his four-part autobiography — he describes how at university in Sydney he reluctantly came to terms with the fact that he was more at home with the aesthetes than the geeks. His writing talent began to flourish during stints on The Sydney Morning Herald while he was still a student.

His career took off in Britain in the 1970s when his sardonic wit and irreverent style made him by far the best and funniest television critic around. He fronted Clive James on Television for ITV followed by The Clive James Show on the BBC, featuring his trademark self-deprecating one-liners plus celebrity guests and weird TV clips from around the world.

It was the Postcards From series of travel shows in the 1990s that put James back behind the wheel and allowed him to indulge some of his childhood fantasies, including carving up the Miami highways in his ultimate dream machine, a red Ferrari Testarossa. “It made that wonderful Ferrari sound, like a coffee machine,” he says dreamily. “I was laughing along in it like Don Johnson. I even wore a special pastel suit and coloured socks. I loved that car. I didn’t get it out of first gear — but it will do 90mph in first.”

Flirtations with a string of exotic machines followed, a different one for each episode of the BBC travel series. In the name of art, he reversed a pickup truck into a postbox in Nashville and drove “popping and banging” under the Brandenburg Gate in a clapped-out Trabant after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He drove a Honda FSX at 130mph around the Goodwood race circuit in Sussex while waiting for Ayrton Senna, the Formula One world champion — he never showed up — and was “scared shitless” on the Los Angeles freeways in a Mercedes drophead.

“I love machinery, I love cars, I love watching them, I follow Formula One religiously, I enjoy high performance in any field. But boy racers should not be on the roads. The problem is really I would love to be a racing driver.”

Still James’s mixed-up love affair with technology continues. In his seventh decade he has become an unlikely internet pioneer with his own website (www.clivejames.com) offering access to a growing archive of writing (his own and others), recordings, visual arts and webcasts. At the same time he hasn’t quite figured out how to work the central heating in his London warehouse apartment. “Sorry about the cold,” he says.

And, despite his newfound “web guru” status, he claims he can barely turn on the computer. “I am planning to do an Intel computer course. The only problem is you actually have to do it on the computer . . . You see the problem?” He has an assistant to handle the technical side, while he takes care of the artistic vision. His website has no sponsorship and no advertising and survives via alliances with mainstream broadcasters and publishers who offer financial support or equipment in return for the right to use some of James’s material. Most popular are the webcast interviews, filmed on James’s sofa in Butlers Wharf, southeast London. Previous interviewees have included Martin Amis, Ruby Wax, Cate Blanchett, Terry Gilliam and Julian Barnes, who all appeared for the price of a Chinese takeaway. Alexei Sayle, Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson and Victoria Wood will be dropping by for spring rolls soon.

James calls the site his “retirement project” but at 67 he appears to be as busy as ever (despite insisting he’s lazy). Having walked away from television in 2001 — “I terminated myself before anyone could terminate me” — he has recently taken on a new weekly broadcast for Radio 4 and is still a prolific writer of poetry and prose.

In October he published the fourth volume of his memoirs, North Face of Soho, and this year will see the publication of Cultural Amnesia — 800 pages of history and cultural criticism and four years in the writing, due out in the UK in May.

He does a lot of his reading, writing and thinking in buses, trains and taxis. He calls Ken Livingstone “my favourite comic figure” and has now learnt never to set forth without something to while away hold-ups on the Underground and in London’s congested traffic system. “Something like the Bible or the complete works of Shakespeare is usually enough to fill the time,” he says with a chuckle. But as long as he has a good book, he doesn’t mind the delays. “Burning a hole in my pocket at the moment is a Freedom Pass,” he whispers conspiratorially, adding a hitherto unknown air or mystery to what is otherwise known as pensioners’ bus pass. “A Freedom Pass is available only to those select few who are still alive at a certain age and after 9am it’s a powerful weapon.”

On his CD changer

“I often listen to music while driving between show dates with Pete Atkin, my musical partner [they recorded six albums together in the 1970s]. We work our way through his Steely Dan albums, also Barenaked Ladies and my personal, everlasting, never-dying favourites, the greatest hits of the Eagles.”

Pete Atkin Home Page