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James' memories are both moving and mischievous


Clive james

Clive james

Photograph: Eamonn Mccabe

Clive james

The poem went viral. I think it was the first poem that ever did. The poem in question? The valedictory Japanese Maple. The voice describing its recent internet virality? That of its author, Clive James.

It's a voice that remains instantly-recognisable. Softer and more hesitant now, perhaps, but lilting and inimitable still. "I'm pretty weak," James told Sinead Gleeson, on Saturday's edition of The Book Show, as he greeted her at the door of his Cambridge home, "but I'll brighten up".

And brighten up he did ­- ­despite the evident toll his leukaemia and emphysema have taken - illuminating this extended interview with memories and observations that ranged from moving to mischievous.

"I thought it was going to be a much bigger tree," observed Gleeson as she gazed out the window at James's now-famous maple. "Magic of poetry," said James, before quipping that "many of the people who read the poem" had assumed that once autumn came and the leaves had (as the poem puts it) turned "to flame," James would instantly "drop dead". "It's a bit embarrassing," said James, "I've got to... stop writing poems where I say I'm going to die tomorrow, because what if I don't'?"

Gleeson laughed, but questions of death, and its imminence, inevitably resurfaced.

The "great thing" about his (terminal) illness, James told her, is that "it's slow and it doesn't hurt very much".

"There's plenty of time to think about the life I've led and... get a lot of it down on paper," he added, "so I'm... really having a great time".

Before leaving, Gleeson returned to the viral Japanese Maple - a poem about "colour and illumination", she said, a "very visual poem".


"Do you find that as you've been getting older that you're literally seeing more around you?" she asked.

"It's not so much age, it's illness," James replied. "I see more intensely, possibly because I'm saying goodbye to it all."

A fine and robust interview, with a fascinating subject, under difficult conditions. It could have been sentimental, or excessively precious, or patronising. But it was, admirably and happily, none of those things.

Though I generally try to dodge the wacky antics 'n' blokey banter of Dermot and Dave, Friday's Old Old Toy Show (as they dubbed it) irresistibly sucked me into its orbit of shameless nostalgia. According to Dave Moore, this celebration of the "old toys we all loved as kids" was timed to coincide with "the start of the Toy Show season" - which I'd never realised was, y'know, actually a thing.

To be honest, I've no idea if the show was any good or not - because as soon as they started listing iconic toys of yore (Subbuteo, Action Man, Evel Knievel) my critical faculties turned to goo and I degenerated into grinning gormlessness.

You'd enjoy anything in that state. Even Dermot and Dave.