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26th June 2023

An interview with Sir Tom Stoppard on his friend Clive James

Christopher Jackson hears from the 83-year-old playwright about his old friend, and finds evidence of a moving friendship

I’m sometimes surprised by how quickly dead writers recede. It amazes me that John Updike will be 13 years dead in January 2022; Philip Roth departed four years ago. The same with VS Naipaul. Christopher Hitchens has been dead nearly a decade.

In each instance, you find the writer’s profile declines at their death; for one thing they’re not around to promote their books. Dead poets need advocates. Two year on from Clive James’ departure, it’s very soon to worry about his posthumous reputation – and too soon to reappraise.

But as these two years have passed, and the world been changed utterly by the pandemic, I’ve found myself thinking about his work. But then that’s no surprise. As readers know, poems like “Japanese Maple”, “Holding Court”, and “Leçons des Ténèbres” have a habit, as Larkin’s did, of loitering in the memory.

I never met him, though I did get to interview him over e-mail towards the end of his life. What Clive would have thought of the pandemic is anyone’s guess. Housebound in Cambridge for his last decade or so, it seems likely that he would have found the humour in the pandemic just as he did in so much else. But the fact that he never clapped eyes on the words Covid-19 and coronavirus is now the principal distance between us and him. Perhaps it’s the first hurdle his poetry has to traverse: it needs to touch us now.

The memory of Clive can still stir people into action who don’t usually feel like doing media. One is Sir Tom Stoppard who was friends with Clive. Having been through Hermione Lee’s monumental biography of Stoppard and found little but passing reference to Clive, I decide to see if Stoppard is in the mood to reminisce.

To my mild surprise, an email comes back. “You’ve sent me back into Clive’s “Collected” for an afternoon,” he says. “I’m grateful because the reading rebuked me for not having read so many of these poems before (and forgetting many I had read).”

If you want to imagine where Stoppard is writing from, it’s worth watching Alan Yentob’s recent Imagine documentary, which shows the playwright in a country house with enviable gardens, and a number of pet tortoises.

The Stoppard-James friendship is an intriguing one: of writers working in the late 20th and early 21st century their work seems to me the most likely to last, not just because of the richness of their output, but because of their infectious quotability.

Here – plucked at random from his oeuvre – is the James voice for those who might have missed it: “Santyana was probably wrong when he said that those who forget the past are condemned to relive it. Those who remember are condemned to relive it too.” On Peter Cook: “He wasn’t just a genius, he had the genius’ impatience with the whole idea of doing something again.”

And here he is on Stoppard: “The mainspring of Rosencrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead is the perception – surely a compassionate one – that the fact of their deaths mattering so little to Hamlet was something which ought to have mattered to Shakespeare.”

So how far do they go back? Stoppard says he finds it hard to remember his first associations with Clive. “The past is mostly fog. I can’t remember how I first met Clive. Early on, he took me to join in one of those “famous” literary lunchings (Amis, McEwan et al).”

I note how from Stoppard’s perspective, these lunches, which sometimes form a slightly obligatory part of our literary lore, have vanished into the ether.

Clive and Tom have both spoken publicly about the way in which Clive used to send the playwright his poems – but again there is no mention of it in Lee’s book.

So did Clive send Stoppard his poems? “Yes he did, during his last few years, send me some poems for comment.” And did Stoppard ever offer suggestions, and if so did Clive ever accept them? “He sometimes accepted the point,” Stoppard continues. “But I haven’t kept my letters and remember no instances. I don’t think I sent him my plays.”

In plays like Arcadia, the action turns on a hapless biographer desperate to get at the truth of the past, only to find that the past hasn’t been properly preserved. It’s interesting to find that the playwright is himself cavalier with preserving communiqués of obvious literary interest. Stoppard has pulled off the trick of making me feel like a Stoppard character.

But what comes across instead is that Stoppard genuinely admired Clive’s work: “I hugely enjoyed his writing, poems and prose,” he continues. “What I enjoyed, aside from his craft, was the way his store of cultural trivia (about Hollywood, machines, films, sport, etc) was intermixed with the real erudition.”

But has Clive’s reputation suffered a bit precisely because he could do so much? “I guess that this connects with that: a lowbrow intellectual with a highbrow appreciation of the commonplace.  From Auden to Weissmuller.”

I have to look up Weissmuller who, though he sounds like he ought to be a philosopher, turns an Olympic swimmer, the subject of a Clive poem ‘Johnny Weissmuller dead in Acapulco’. It’s in the Collected, so no doubt it popped into Tom’s mind because he’d read it that day. It’s a very Clive thing, to visit his poetry then find yourself sent back to your laptop to look up a forgotten athlete. I’m not sure if there’s another writer who so often sends me to Google.

We tend to punish people sometimes for knowing too much; we suspect the heart is losing out to the head, and sometimes as in poems like ‘Jet lag in Tokyo’ (“Flat feet kept Einstein out of the army”) or Whitman and the Moth (‘Van Wyck Brooks tells us Whitman in old age/ Sat by a pond in nothing but his hat’) it might be that Clive is too concerned to tell you what he knows before he tells you what we really want to know: how he feels.

But Stoppard, who is known for complexity in the theatre, favours simplicity in poetry, and this is why Clive’s poetry has merit for him: “In addition, he is always an “easy” poet, his poems come across wholly at first reading, everything declares itself in one shot, like an Annie Liebowitz photo (as Clive might say).”

I ask Stoppard which poems in particular he values. Stoppard gives a thoughtful response. “The last long “The River in the Sky” just flows along, doesn’t it, as though dictated, but how difficult to bring it off.”

This is assessment reminds me for some reason of what Andrew Marr once told me: “I read that poem, and thought how wonderful that there’s somebody on this earth who’s actually read something.”

This sense of Clive as keeping the lights on on our behalf is perhaps an underestimated aspect of his achievement: there’s always a sense that he was doing it for us all. We felt included in his project and that’s an integral aspect of the affection in which he continues to be held.

Stoppard has another important point to make. “There’s an exhibitionist in him, and perhaps exhibitionists aren’t really trusted.

Clive was as much a fan as a star.  Most stars are careful not to show fandom to too many too often. But Clive couldn’t help himself.  He went overboard for those he loved.  I felt overestimated by him, as many did, I hope and suspect. But his approval mattered to me.”

Stoppard also has some favourites from James’ vast oeuvre: “Although he wrote bigger, greater poems, I love ‘Living Doll’ a lot. The poem I’ve read aloud most to more people is ‘The Book of My Enemy’.”

This sends me back to ‘Living Doll’ which I hope everyone who reads this will look at. It shows what James was able to do by the end: poems where the performance has receded before the urgency of what has to be said – and said clearly and musically.

There remain doubters here and there about Clive’s poetry, but my sense is he got awfully good towards the end in a very short space of time. It was an astonishing, courageous old age.

Of course, you don’t do that without being pretty good to begin with. My sense is that as the years, and centuries go by, no one will mind whether he did his best work late or not – just as we don’t first read ‘The Tower’ as late Yeats. Buttressed by time from the circumstances of his life and death, we’re more likely to read it as Yeats.

It’s generous of Stoppard, who is extremely busy, and has also earned a right to some peace and quiet, to answer these questions. But it’s clear that the generosity is towards Clive’s ghost, not me. I don’t delete his email as he apparently deleted Clive’s – but as I finish work that day, it’s a pleasant thought to imagine Tom spending the afternoon with Clive like that. May he spend many more. 

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