My First Job: Clive James

The broadcaster's path to success
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The Independent Online

He applied to be a Tube guard, but failed the psychological test. He saw a man about a job in the wine trade and ended up cutting his hedge in return for a cheese roll. He did land a job that involved processing the results of a student survey, in which respondents were asked how they rated the chances of God existing, on a scale from one to five.

Another temporary task lasted for two months, or should have done; he was supposed to compile a chart about Commonwealth students in higher education but, defeated by his own complex system for calculating this, he did a runner.

Somehow, he did manage to earn enough to stay (a) alive and (b) in England long enough to qualify for a grant to go to Cambridge University. And that's where I met him, in the room above mine inhabited by a fellow-Footlights member. Our first encounter is unaccountably missing from his otherwise wonderful memoirs, Always Unreliable (Picador, £12.99), but I recall being amazed that he had been through more jobs than I had eaten hot dinners in Hall.

His most recent paymaster had been Penguin Books. He had initially asked them to publish his collected works: a rash suggestion, as he had yet to write them. (The Book of My Enemy, his collected verse, was finally published two years ago - by Picador.) He was offered a job filing photographs.

This was more important than it sounded, as Penguin had just spent a fortune replacing all the covers of two books, one by a Professor Thompson, the other by a different Professor Thomp-son. The Thompson not-twins understandably disliked the fact that their mugshots decorated each other's books. James's task was to enforce quality control, which he did by placing the snaps into envelopes and arranging the authors alphabetically. He would then fish out the right writer on request (apart from once, when confusion arose between a Bernard Wolfe and a Bertram Wolfe ("At least I didn't send them Virginia Woolf").

This job took so little time that James could also write poetry and take a nap, thus freeing up his nights for drinking. Just like student life, really.

Details of Clive James's forthcoming tour with the singer Pete Atkin are on www.peteatkin.com

jonty@jonathansale.com

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