I once made eye contact with Clive James.
It was the summer of 1996 in London – the day of the England v Germany semi-final as it happens – and I was at the launch of a friend’s art degree show, not knowing anyone and feeling particularly thick at not understanding any of the abstract pieces on display. The first floor was galleried and I stood looking down at the crowd below feeling thoroughly out of place.
The students were all strutting popinjays of colour in clothes that reflected their artistic personalities. They praised each other’s work loudly with air kisses and that enviable confidence that goes with the certainty of youth.
Their parents milled around smiling awkwardly at each other, dads in suits and ties, mums in their best frocks and uncomfortable shoes, all looking around nervously, fingering the stalks of their wine glasses and asking each other what time the train back was again.
One of these parents looked more at ease than the rest though, and was standing at the edge of the crowd listening politely to a young man who was talking animatedly to him, unfurling his middle finger from his wine glass and pointing it at the parent’s chest to emphasise a point. As I looked down, the parent excused himself from the conversation, turned round and happened to glance up to where I was standing.
And that’s when I made eye contact with Clive James.
I am hopeless with eye contact. I get all shy and flustered and look away immediately, even with people I’ve known for years. This time though, I kept looking, raised my wine glass slightly and nodded. Clive James smiled, raised his glass, dipped his head to me, and disappeared into the crowd.
There are some creative people; writers, musicians, actors, whatever, with whom your relationship is an intensely private one. It’s an appreciation that goes beyond a matter of liking their work; it’s a feeling, entirely unfounded in the opposite direction, that you understand each other.
It’s such an unspoken, private thing that when someone asks you about the people you admire you often don’t even think of them let alone mention them because they’re so indelibly soaked into your personality. That’s how it is with Clive James, who it seems will not recover from his cancer, and that’s why I will always remember that moment at the art show. Without even knowing it he made what was for him a simple, immediately forgotten act of politeness into a shared, personal moment I’ll never forget.
I’ve grown up with Clive James ever since we were set the first volume of his autobiography Unreliable Memoirs for English O Level. Since then I’ve read every instlament of his memoirs, his pioneering collections of television criticism, his novels, his poetry and his essays. I’ve watched all his TV series too, from Clive James On Television to the brilliant Fame In The Twentieth Century via his Postcards travel shows.
I didn’t set out to be a Clive James completist, it just seemed to happen organically. Even then I would read and re-read almost without realising: this is about my third copy of Falling Towards England, and look at it:
It takes a rare talent to make such a thunderingly huge intellect so accessible and self-deprecating as well as a special generosity to share it so freely. Over the years his work has inspired me, reassured me, made me laugh and made me learn. He taught me it was OK to like Dallas as well as Dante, that both were as valid as each other. He taught me about childhood, family, student life, coping with real life after student life, about work, about television, about literature, about art, about music, about travel and made me realise Harry Carpenter really did pronounce Wimbledon as ‘wmbldn’.
If I’d had to pay the going rate for that level of education I’d have run up a debt the size of a planet. But £6.99 a pop for a paperback? Incredible.
He’s not gone yet though, so this is a rare opportunity for people to truly appreciate someone before it’s too late, people like me, people who have this private, personal relationship with Clive James.
I can’t remember the name of the college. I can’t even remember the name of the friend. But I remember like it was yesterday the time I made eye contact with Clive James and he nodded back at me.
I once made eye contact with Clive James.