Goddamit, the universe is conspiring to make one feel empathy for Clive James. How the hell did that happen?
The Kogarah blowhard was well on the way to being the most appalling man ever, with his post 9/11 dullard conservatis jeremiads on terrorism etc, his return to serious poetry — which amounted to terrorism — all capped off with Cultural Amnesia, a 1000-page groaner in which the world was berated for falling short of the standards of Sophie Scholl and Aung Sung Suu Kyi, who were, unbelievably, its dedicatees.
Then, James was hit with a tangle of diseases, a rare leukemia-esque condition most prominent among them, which stilled one’s rage at the rococo toffee sculpture of his late style — and even better, produced a handful of good poems from him, spare and direct lyrics focused through the prism of imminent death.
Now he’s got the quinella — being “exposed” by A Current Affair for an alleged eight-year affair with Sydney Harbour flotsam Leanne Edelsten, and being confronted by his ex-paramour (a)* in London, demanding to know the safe whereabouts of explicit photos she had sent to him — and had subsequently given to one of Australia’s highest-rating television programs.
The shots of an obviously illness-battered 72-year-old being berated by a bottle-blonde cloud of collagen and synthetic hormones (a) desperate for a publicity fix and a payday (a), shifted a lot of the spite Clive might have got for an affair that — insofar as it is anyone’s business — appears to have finally got him thrown out of the family home in Cambridge (his partner of 40-plus years is an academic; her lifelong attempt to remain anonymous, honoured in James’s endless volumes of memoirs, has been pretty much busted by this affair).
The details of the Edelsten affair were predictably icky. He called her “Mr Wolf”, she called him “Miss Hood”, they had tea and a Cherry Ripe before and after s-x — it is ungallant but irresistible to observe that the words “Leanne Edelsten”, “s-x” and “cherry” have most likely not been found in the same sentence for a long, long time — and so on. James, for his part, maintains that his attitude to flirtation has always been that it is OK “to look but not to touch” — a pose perhaps inevitable for a man willing to pass moral judgement on everyone from Borges to Yevtushenko, and increasingly blimpish about matters social.
Nevertheless, full sympathy for his plight might be tempered by some of his previous entanglements — most notably with the singer/journalist Fiona Russell Powell, detailed on her website. Russell Powell was a piece of ostensibly posh totty (actually from Sheffield), briefly famous as a singer of sorts with the late new romantic band ABC — yes, yes, Look Of Love, the ’80s, you had a weird haircut and a pirate shirt, and now you work at Optus, getoverit — and then as a journalist of sorts with The Face et al. Let Russell Powell take over the narrative:
“I had been introduced to him [James] indirectly by Martin Amis whom I had interviewed for The Face the year before, 1988. When I asked Amis if he liked the piece, he said: ‘Yes, and so did a friend of mine who would like to be interviewed by you too.'”
The ever-modest James had a few phone tangles with Russell Powell before meeting:
“He stayed at my flat for five hours and the interview never got done, not because we were up to anything untoward, but because I hadn’t read his entire oeuvre to date. Two of his books were quite enough. He seemed particularly upset that I had skipped through his, frankly embarrassing, book of poetry, Other Passports … I was very candid about my lifestyle and he already knew that I was the original wild child, one of the hip London cognoscenti who drank a lot and took drugs. He seemed to find it exciting … Some friendly flirting went on but that was as far as it went.”
The egos having landed each other things proceed:
“A few days later I went around to the flat in the Barbican where he worked during the week … Clive had prepared a candle-lit meal of Lean Cuisine and lashings of Ozzie plonk … I realised that s-x with him was inevitable …
“I tottered, invariably shit-faced, up to the top floor of his flat to go to bed with him (I doubt I could have slept with him sober) … According to my diary, I found him ‘adequate’ as a lover …”
And why was the dirt dished in such a manner (in Punch in 1997, then enjoying its final incarnation as a dirt rag)? Well, James had included her in one of his awful novels, in this case Brrm! Brrm! (aka The Man From Japan):
“When I finished reading it I was almost weeping with rage and humiliation.
“It was breathtaking that Clive thought he could get away with it. There were so many similarities between the Jane Austen character and myself. I grew up in Sheffield and did not get on with my parents. I was in the pop group ABC and also worked as a freelance style journalist writing for The Face, ID, Blitz and Arena. I was friends with Rupert Everett, who had just moved to Paris to embark on a singing career. I drank and took a lot of drugs. Well, guess what? ‘Jane Austen’ [the Brrm Brrm character] grew up in the North, did not get on with her parents, was in a famous pop group, had a famous bis-xual singing friend living in Paris, is a drug-addled alcoholic and tries to write for magazines ‘like The Face, Blitz, ID and Arena” only she isn’t quite good enough. And, as if that weren’t bad enough, Clive made her a psychotic slag by drawing on my battles with depression and the fact that I once tried to commit suicide (private information I had told him in confidence).”
Ah London. Even those of us who live there wish we lived there.
It’s worth remembering that this is not the only kiss-and-tell James has been subject to. In 2009, the opera singer Anne Howells detailed an affair with an old Cambridge friend, now a distinguished critic named “Clyde”, who had:
“… invited [me] to his Docklands flat and, after [we] had shared a couple of bottles of wine, he peered across the table at [me] and said: ‘Be my mistress.’
“[I] responded: ‘All right, I’ll give it a go.'”
Jaysus, but Jacob’s Creek has a lot to answer for. But I mean, Clive James. What the f-ck? No man’s lines of seduction read well when taken from their natural context, but my God there’s a limit to one’s indulgence. Curiously, his wooing (a) is not without similarities to much of his work — initially impressive, congealing later, and best encountered around the age of 18-and-a-half.
The man and his family don’t deserve this.
In Australia the serious media were predictably condemnatory — not least among them The Australian, whose Literary Review editor Luke Slattery had pursued the issue of James’s illness, a matter of no public interest, leaving James little choice but to come out in the open. A good get for the (twice-dead) ALR. Whether half the ACA audience know who James is remains to be seen …
*(a) = alleged. I am trying to establish this as standard copy technique, whch would save the media several billion keystrokes a year.