Clive James: I'll never see Sydney again
Clive James says his appearance on stage in London this Saturday is probably his last, as he husbands his remaining energy for his writing.
The Australian author, who has advanced leukaemia and emphysema, said in an interview on BBC radio he was trying not to be morbid, and even his thrice-weekly visits to the hospital just served to remind him how lucky he is.
Though his speech is slower and raspier, he has been tempted back for an hour on stage at this weekend's inaugural Australian & NZ Festival of Literature & Arts.
''I've got much less energy – I have to budget it very carefully and just do a few things, so I make sure that I enjoy them,'' James told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday.
''I do love going on stage and I thought [I'd] maybe do it one more time. I'd just go on stage for an hour and just do some reciting and talking.''
Asked what he would say when he left the stage, he said simply: ''I'll say, ‘Thank you very much and now would you like [me] to sign my books?' ''
James' emphysema means he cannot get enough oxygen from the air of an aeroplane's cabin, cutting him off from air travel. His need for a blood transfusion every three weeks makes a long sea voyage impossible. Even walking is like ''wading through deep clay'', he wrote in a recent poem.
He will never see Sydney again – but in his mind's eye it is clearer than ever, he said.
''I'm kind of stuck, [but] on the other hand I have my memories of growing up in Australia and those memories become clearer all the time,'' he said.
''The mind is quite a wonderful thing. It can translate past experience into immediate experience and I practically hallucinate the sheer beauty of Sydney Harbour, for example. It couldn't be more vivid in actuality than it is in my recollection.
''At night-time I miss the noises. It's very quiet in England at night. In Australia [there are] the whipbirds and the kookaburras, the possums fighting in the trees, it's a clamour out there.''
But he said he has always had a ''sunny nature'' – he felt content and he joked that his illness was ''terrific material''.
''The poetry I write now, I think, is quite a lot more penetrating and sensitive than my earlier work – because it needs to be,'' he said.
''Inevitably you start saying goodbye. I like to think that I hit a sort of plangent tone of threnody, a sort of Last Post, a recessional tone.
''But the trick is not to overdo it and don't do it too long. As my friend PJ O'Rourke once told me, he said, 'You're going to have to soft pedal this death's door stuff, Clive, because people are going to get impatient.' ''
James said visiting hospital two or three times a week helped him keep a sense of proportion, because he often saw things that reminded him he had had a lucky life.
He is putting the finishing touches to a book on poetry, which he says will look at its intensity of language and its value for money – the secret of popular art (''I think even Michelangelo, when he was up there in the Sistine ceiling painting away, he was thinking, 'Well this is value for money.' '').
''If I should by any chance in that time before publication drop off the twig … well immediately I'll have a posthumous book out, which is good for the family finances.
''I don't complain. I'm lucky. I'm getting near what my friend Bruce Beresford calls the departure lounge but I've got a version of it that doesn't hurt. So I may as well enjoy myself for as long as I can.''
Sydney Morning Herald