To the Martin Harris Centre, for an event with Martin Amis, one of a series that exists largely to justify his salary, I expect. The attraction for me was not so much Amis fils, but Clive James, who, since he’s now three-score years and ten, was considered to be a suitable candidate for a debate about ageing and literature. Ghoulishly, Clive’s old (in every sense of the word) sparring partner Peter Porter was too ill to attend. That didn’t matter of course, since Clive can talk enough for a dozen. Amis looked like an ageing roué, in a raffish Leslie Phillips sort of way. Clive eschewed the trademark leather jacket in favour of a black polo shirt disturbingly like the ones I habitually wear.
The two of them then both made opening statements. Amis pointed out that the forties were the time when you discovered mortality, but the fifties were when you discovered death. You look in the mirror, and you know death is interested, is intrigued by you…
His basic premise was that writers invariably declined as they got older. Mr Amis is 60.
Clive, working with no notes, and speaking far more fluently than Amis – who did have notes – refuted the Amis argument with a string of examples. What struck me about Clive is that he speaks in sentences, perfectly formed, balanced, with barely a pause or an erm or a y’know. It’s quite uncanny, really. There was some good knockabout stuff at the expense of Roth and Updike, but Clive insisted that even when youthful inspiration has gone, the craft remains to sustain the writer. He also confirmed what I have long suspected- that his recent prolificity is a conscious decision to get stuff out with time’s winged chariot in the background.
…and doesn’t Martin look exactly like his dad these days?
Update: Just read the review of two of Clive’s recent books in the current (Dec 18th) TLS. As Oliver Dennis says: “In what is surely the final phase of a glittering career, Clive James is busier than ever. No other contemporary writer is more aware of the ticking clock, or more likely – time permitting – to deliver on a promise.”
Further update: the podcast of the event is now available here.
Old Lags by Dr Rob Spence is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.