Eventually, James was notified, and even though he had not been expecting me, because he had forgotten about me, he welcomed me up to his apartment, which was huge and walled with books.
We sat at his table and he made me coffee.
I had read that he had recently managed to finally quit smoking. He began the interview by asking if I minded if he smoked.
Of course I didn’t – I was interviewing Clive James, whose intellect and wit were marvels to me – I wouldn’t have minded if he’d injected meth or done the interview standing on his head.
He lit a cigarillo and made me promise not to include this detail in the interview, and all of a sudden, I was in conspiracy with the great polymath, the man who showed Australians that you could come from Kogarah and conquer the world.
He was about to fly to Sydney to present a series of concerts called Crime Time at his beloved Opera House, in which the Sydney Symphony Orchestra played scores from films including Chinatown, Rear Window and Rebecca.
I was writing a piece on it for the Herald.
James, a cinephile before all else, was to present the music with a little preamble, a chance to “crack wise” and chat about his first love – movies.
As a child, his mother, a factory worker, would take him every week to the Ramsgate Odeon to see a film, and as a teen, he would take himself to the slightly bigger smoke of Rockdale to watch movies, cartoons, and episodes of serials.
He loved musicals the best – “MGM musicals set my standards for the exuberance, joy and sheer skill of popular art,” he said.
He took me into his study to show me a video of Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire dancing “The Girl Hunt” from an old movie called The Band Wagon.
The dance was the perfect combination of wit and sex, with Charisse sparkling like a jewel in red sequins. It was impossible not to smile at it.
James had posted the clip on his personal website where he was collating his life’s work – it was 2008 but his mortality was front of mind.
“I plucked it from YouTube,” he said of the film clip. “It’s mounted there like a plum.”
We finished the chocolate croissants but the conversation continued. I asked James about his passion for popular culture and interest in celebrity and how that fit with his intellectualism.
He was working on notes for the second edition of Cultural Amnesia, which I was reading at the time. The breadth of his interests was awe-inspiring – he could segue from Albert Camus to Duke Ellington to Norman Mailer and onto Barack Obama (who he admired) with vivacity and ease.
Pop culture and high culture were “conflicting forces,” he said.
“So I write about the conflict.”
James described himself as “an old leftie”, but he despaired of much left-wing activism and spoke about it with what seems like prescience now.
“The left was very reluctant to let go of the idea that there might be some kind of totalitarian solution for social justice,” he said.
“What staggered me was its persistence in regarding Western liberal democracy as the real source of oppression.”
Eventually, the conversation roved to my broken heart.
“It never gets any easier, you know,” he said.
“It hurts as much at 60 as it does at 30.”
It could have been quite bleak, that line, but he delivered it with what I can only describe as a twinkle, as though he was letting me in on one of the great secrets of universal experience, which he was.
That is the purpose of art, after all, and he devoted his life to it.
Eventually, I took my leave. Like a gentleman, he walked me along the Thames to the Tube.
As we parted, he kissed my hand with a sort of ironic flourish, and my heart felt a little less heavy for having caught a small corner of Clive James.
Jacqueline Maley is a senior journalist, columnist and former Canberra press gallery sketch writer for The Sydney Morning Herald. In 2017 she won the Peter Ruehl Award for Outstanding Columnist at the Kennedy Awards