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Clive James, commenting on how his illness has become some new story material for someone else’s entertainment and consumption.


Clive James

June 25, 2012Opinion

Australian born comedian and author based in the UK Clive James“The journalists for the cheap press are uneasily aware that nobody cares much about what they say” … Clive James. Photo: Ben Rushton

Everybody knows the story of how Mark Twain read newspaper stories about his death and said they were much exaggerated. But to know how he felt, you need to have read your own obituary, or at least to have read an interview in which you seem to be knocking on death’s door.

On Thursday London’s Daily Mirror carried just such an interview with me. It was harrowing. You would have thought that I had only a few hours to live. The strange thing, though, was that I never gave the interview to the Mirror.

The newspaper had got hold of a transcript of the instalment devoted to me of the BBC radio show Meeting Myself Coming Back and selected a few dozen quotes so that I seemed to be practically expiring in the arms of the journalist assigned to register my dying breath.

But what I might say for the radio, where the tone of voice is under my control, would not be the same thing as I might say to a newspaper journalist, where the tone of voice is more under his control than under mine. In the radio interview I say that I am getting near the end of my life. Well, at my age everybody is. But if you put the statement as baldly as he did, it sounds as if I am passing out in the journalist’s lap.

If I did so, I would do my best to bite him in the upper thigh, for he is a very mischievous fellow. He, my interviewer at the gates of doom, is like one of the old lags out of Evelyn Waugh’s classic novel Scoop, which I just happen to have been re-reading this week.

During my life I have read the book several times, each time with growing awareness that Waugh wasn’t exaggerating when he made every journalist in the book a confidence man. Journalism on that level is practised with a remorseless logic. Why say that you are quoting from the transcript of a broadcast when you can just leave it to be assumed that you have conducted a proper interview? If the victim objected, would anybody listen?

I’m not objecting, because I haven’t got time. In the interview I am represented as saying that I am losing my battle with leukaemia. Well, of course I am. Eventually I must. But the main thrust of the broadcast is, I can assure you, quite merry. In my life I have managed to get a certain amount done, and my chief aim now is to live longer so that I can do more. My current book of poems, Nefertiti in the Flak Tower, hits a pitch that I have been working towards all my life, and I sincerely hope that I am not finished yet. I enjoy life, but work has always come first. And the people I love feel the same about their own work. Nobody is a member of a leisured class.

Journalists who write junk like that aren’t really working at all. As happens in Scoop, they take dull stuff out of one tray and brighten it up until it is ready to go into another tray, on its way to publication. Evelyn Waugh was a master at parodying the mental processes involved, because he had something of the malicious gossip in his own personality. But he was careful to put most of that malicious impulse into his novels, which were avowedly fictional.

I’m getting to be an old man now. I still have a few years left, I hope, even with my range of ailments, but I’m definitely no spring chicken. I would have thought that my years of celebrity were safely behind me. They never amounted to much. They had mainly to do with television, which people forget, although they don’t often forget a face. Only yesterday someone in the street said: ”I always enjoy your shows, Mr Anderson.”

But if you were ever on television the press never forgets it, because for them, television is a measure of achievement. If you have been up there, you must be somebody, and will always be that somebody even if you head for the exit. So when the Mirror ran its piddling so-called interview, the telephones started to ring, and newspapers wanted a last article from the dying man, if necessary transmitted by telephone from the intensive care unit.

I hope my wonderful hospital, Addenbrooke’s in Cambridge, wasn’t too much pestered. I know my agent was, not to mention my family. In keeping with my somnolent metabolism over the past couple of years of illness, I was slow to find out about the fuss. It was fully developed before I tuned in. Instantly I thought: well, I could sure do without this. But actually it comes with the territory.

The journalists for the cheap press are uneasily aware that nobody cares much about what they say. Hence their sad conviction that they can say things any way they like, even if it means staging a man’s funeral for him just because he makes a few down-in-the-mouth remarks. Talk about getting the hearse before the horse.

This is an edited version of an article first published in the London Telegraph.

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