Clive James: 'I don't think art is the most important thing people do'

The formidably intelligent and witty writer performs a one-man show at Edinburgh but his work reveals very little of his real self

Clive James is giving a good impression of someone who does not hate being interviewed. He has charmed the photographer with a stream of self-deprecatory jokes and now it's my turn – my turn for the wit, erudition and glittering intelligence of the man The New Yorker once described as "a brilliant bunch of guys".

Evidence of the erudition is everywhere: in the book-lined hallway of his riverside loft apartment, and the book-lined dining room, and the book-lined study, and the book-lined sitting room, which we're now sitting in, the room he calls (with perhaps a flash of that wit) "the library". And evidence of the glittering intelligence is to be found in the fact that, nestling among the Proust, and the Auden, and the Goethe, there's one name on a spine that crops us an awful lot. Clive James. Clive James's memoirs (five and more to come), Clive James's poetry collections (five, and more to come), Clive James's books of essays (15 and more to come), Clive James's novels (four and, yes, you've guessed it).

The problem with interviews, however, is that you don't get to write them. Well, I do, obviously, but he doesn't. "If you'll forgive me," he says, in the tone of a politician preceding a blistering attack with the phrase "with all due respect", "it's a very approximate form of getting at what someone means. And, in my case, I like to think I do it for myself. To that," he adds, "the argument is 'you're just asking to construct your own image' and the answer is, 'well, yes'." Clive James is also, clearly, a brilliant bunch of arguments. He's a brilliant bunch of questions, a brilliant bunch of answers, and soliloquies and theories and counter-theories. No need for an interviewer, really, except that I'm here and I'd quite like to do it.

So why, I ask, desperate to chip in, does he submit himself to a process he describes as "agonising"? "When I'm on the road doing a stage show," he says, "I owe something to the impresario. And I want to fill the house. And a one-man show doesn't fill itself automatically. But left to myself, I probably wouldn't do it. I find that I can write it better." Gee, thanks. Actually, I've no doubt that Clive James could write it better. This, after all, is the man whose TV reviews for The Observer were read even by people who didn't watch TV, the man whose hilarious memoirs have all been bestsellers, the man whose book of essays, Cultural Amnesia, was hailed by J M Coetzee as "a crash-course in civilization". But an interview, to state the absolute bleeding obvious, is a different thing. It's not a monologue, it's an encounter, written by somebody else. And of course it's "approximate". Isn't all journalism approximate?

"You have to have the story," says James, "and the story can become a prison. Peter Cook once said he knew what the headline would be when he died because he had this big bust-up with Zsa Zsa Gabor on television. He said he knew it would be 'Zsa Zsa man dies'. I suppose," he says, with the comic pause he perfected in his TV work, "I'll be 'Japanese game shows' – if I get a headline at all..." Oh, come on. "These things linger," he says. "Anyway," he adds, "since they can't be avoided, you fall into the second trap, thinking you can manage it, and you can't manage it beyond a certain point." So what exactly is he trying to manage? He wriggles on the sofa and leans forward. "You," he says. "I'm doing my impersonation of a civilised, subtle man."

Gosh. That's quite a preamble. A man who, it's clear from his books, is a civilised, subtle man pretending that he's pretending to be one; a man who's been famous for more than 40 years in quite a lather about an interview in a newspaper which, alas, cannot aspire to world domination; a man who knows that he has an international reputation as a writer, journalist, essayist and TV star, pretending that when he dies there might be no obituary at all. There's self-deprecation and then there's just plain madness. And double bluffs. And triple bluffs. Is this an ego the size of Mars masquerading as an ego the size of an amoeba or is it the other way round?

Still, we'd better talk about the one-man show, because that – it's more than clear – is why I'm here. In his most recent collection of essays, The Revolt of the Pendulum, he talks about the "addiction" he developed to public performance, ranging back to his Cambridge Footlights days, an addiction that was fed by his years in TV – interviewing "celebs" and celebrating the quirkier aspects of world culture, including, yes, those Japanese game shows – and which, well into retirement, continues now. He's not short of a bob or two, and he's already famous, so why does he still do it?

"I just love the charge," he says, "the immediate reaction, seeing how it goes, changing it every night." The show, which is funny, of course, is not billed as funny. "I want to talk seriously," he says in The Revolt of the Pendulum. "I just don't want to get lynched while I'm doing so." It's the usual James smoke and mirrors. "I can't do a Russell Brand," he says, "I can't get up there and shake my crotch." Er, no. "The question," he adds, more seriously, "is something that started to preoccupy me quite early, when I formed the rule 'never try to be funny in a funny context'. And the stuff that really works in the theatre for me, and on the page, is when the opinion is concentrated into a form that creates humour because the reader recognises it."

It certainly does work. At his best, Clive James is very funny indeed. Wit is the air he breathes. But has he, I ask a touch hesitantly, ever thought of humour as some kind of addiction? "Yes," he says quickly, "the person who always jokes becomes very tiresome. There are people who can only joke, but I like to think I'm not one of them." Does he always get the balance right? A brief pause. "No, not always, and I continually reflect on my work. My book Unreliable Memoirs is generally thought to be amusing, and indeed I hope it is, but I don't think it's just that."

No, it isn't, and nor are his other memoirs, but the person at the centre of them remains strangely remote. James has always been clear that his private life is off limits. He never talks about his wife and daughters in his books, or interviews. But while the books don't stint on humiliation, or ambition, they reveal very little of the inner Clive, the Clive unprotected by jokes. James has, of course, pre-empted the criticism with a title that makes it abundantly clear that this narrator stakes no claim to reliability. But even so. Could it be that the price paid for the gags is a certain amount of truth?

"Yes," says James quietly. "More often than not, possibly. But the fifth volume, The Blaze of Obscurity, is about to come out and there are truths in there I didn't reveal earlier, emotional truths. But I think when Graham Greene said every writer needs a chip of ice in the heart, I think that was what was wrong with him. To be cruel about someone who has loved you is a very poor reward for their devotion." Sure, but aren't there other ways of having chips of ice in the heart? Like, for example, obsessively writing books in London, rather than being with your family in Cambridge?

"The feeling that you have done that instead of a life can be quite nagging," he concedes, "especially when you think the people who have depended on you have suffered. There's an element in it which, if you are sufficiently decent and reflective, you realise is a kind of ruthlessness and also it's on the verge of the most dangerous thing, which is an artist thinking that he has a right of privileges, which I do not believe, because I don't think art is the most important thing people do. It's more important to be a doctor. This is the centre of my political belief. My politics start from there."

And this is where we meet the deadly serious Clive James, the one who engages with art, literature, culture – and yes, long before the cultural studies bores insisted that Big Brother was better than Beowulf, popular culture – in order to reflect on the bigger picture, the bigger picture of 20th-century history. "When you grow up in an epoch seemingly dedicated to extermination," he says in the introduction to his book of essays, Even as We Speak, "it influences your world view for life". In as far as it's possible to sum up the message of several thousand pages of argument (876 of them in Cultural Amnesia), James's message is that only liberal humanism can stop the relentless march of the near-interchangeable ideologies (Marxism, Nazism, Islamism) that have wrecked the lives of millions.

His vehicle for exploring this is largely literature: in Cultural Amnesia, figures ranging from Akhmatova to Borges, Camus, Rilke and Wittgenstein. The book is James's masterwork. It's the fruit of the man who has taught himself to read in eight languages, including Japanese and Russian, the man who devours obscure philosophers with the enthusiasm that some of us reserve for chocolate muffins. It is, rightly, the work of which he's proudest. Except, perhaps, for the poems.

It is, in fact, almost unbelievable that a man who does all this writes poems, too. Serious poems, good poems, poems that get published (as I see when he proudly shows me a copy) in The New Yorker. His selected poems, Opal Sunset, published this month, reveal, he says, "all there is to know about me". And there, on page 59, there's the key. "My tears came late" he says in "Son of a Soldier", "I was fifty-five years old/ Before I began to cry authentically: / First for the hurt I had done to those I loved, / Then for myself, for what had been done to me/ In the beginning, to make my heart so cold." It's a cry of anguish for the father he lost to history (in the Second World War) when he was five, and of sorrow for the wife he repeatedly betrayed, and, I think, of exhaustion at the unending struggle to fill that gap and make his mark on history.

Which, I think, he has. Clive James (who now does tango with the wife he still adores) will keep on writing, keep on reading, keep on thinking, until the day his sturdy legs buckle under him. And when that happens – which, pray God, won't be for many years yet – I'd be surprised if the talk was of Japanese game shows. I think it will be of a brilliant and strangely vulnerable man, who reminded us that the pursuit of art and culture and poetry and philosophy and, indeed, journalism is very serious indeed.

'Clive James in the Evening: More to Say' is at the Gilded Balloon Teviot, Edinburgh, from 16 to 21 August (www.edfringe.com)

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