Kate Chisholm

In love with words

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No wonder Clive James thought he was writing his own obituary when he was interviewed by John Wilson for the Radio 4 series, Meeting Myself Coming Back (Saturday night). Wilson played him a clip from a recent Mastermind programme on which one of the Specialist Subjects was...Clive James. ‘I was halfway between being amazed and appalled,’ he told us. ‘I’m already being treated like some kind of historic monument.’

His mistake was to have agreed to do the programme in the first place. The series is made by the Archive on 4 team, whose job is to ferret around in the BBC’s repository of lost conversations, old achievements, forgotten soundtracks like audio archaeologists searching for mummies in the Valley of the Kings. After being forced to listen again to an hour’s worth of clips from his past, James, like an ancient pharaoh, began to wonder, ‘How much of this stuff can I take with me?’

From the off he sounded as if he was preparing us for his own imminent demise: ‘I’m getting near the end...I’m a man who is approaching his terminus.’ (He is suffering from leukaemia, and any number of medical complications.) This did not make for cheerful listening. But it was compelling. James sounds older but he still talks almost as fast as ever, and still with that machete-like wit. He’s in love with words, and with the sound of his own voice delivering them. This is not all that unusual. But James combines this with a rueful, yet not self-lacerating, honesty.

That’s why we heard so much about his illness, his obsession with his own mortality. It’s in the forefront of his mind. Wouldn’t we all feel like this if we were in his shoes? No longer able to travel, to do what he once could after not just one but four near-death experiences. This, though, in spite of media reports to the contrary, is not what made the programme such a gripping listen. Who, after all, wants to dwell on death? No, what kept me listening were James’s insights into TV and its potential power.

‘It’s the intimacy,’ says James on a clip from the TV programme Friday Night, Saturday Morning. ‘I’m only about four feet away from the people on the other end of that tube.’ James adds as explanation, ‘The intimacy is occurring along the line of vision...It amplifies talk.’ Surely, though, this is much more true of radio? So why does he love TV? ‘I want people to hear me,’ James admits. ‘On TV there are more people to hear you.’

James has never given the annual Reith Lectures. Perhaps they should rush him an invitation. His ability to talk about Catullus and Kylie in the same sentence exactly fits the Reithian model — to educate, inform and entertain. This year’s lecturer, Professor Niall Ferguson, reminded us of this as he began his series on ‘The Rule of Law and its Enemies’ (produced by Jane Beresford), referring to Reith as ‘another greater Glasgow academic’ (not ‘great’ as some columnists have claimed).

Why are Westerners far richer than Resterners, demanded Ferguson in his first lecture, ‘The Human Hive’, alluding to the West’s astonishing rate of growth in the past 500 years or so. In 1978, he claims, the average American was 22 times richer than the average Chinese. What caused the great divergence between the West and the Rest?

We were soon deep in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, an area of English history so lacking in colour that very few bother to study it. Ferguson, though, believes otherwise, asserting that what happened then created the institutional conditions which made possible the industrial revolution and the British empire. Now, though, things are beginning to go wrong in the West — that average American will now be only five times richer than his Chinese counterpart. Why is this happening?

Ferguson speaks like a cheerleader, rallying the troops to his cause. His rhetoric is difficult to resist. Yet I couldn’t help wishing for a little bit of uncertainty, of Jamesian wit. Ferguson’s intellect is awesome, as is his self-belief, but you emerge from one of his talks feeling battered into acquiescence.

The most memorable radio image of the week was created by A.L. Kennedy’s afternoon play Love, Love, Love Like the Beatles  (Radio 4, Tuesday). Oliver has just lost his job and spent the night wandering the streets. He’s been in love with Jo for years but is unable to tell her so. The title is cheesy, the ending not much better, but Kennedy’s wordplay is so sharp you can’t help laughing out loud. ‘Is it love?’ Oliver is asked. ‘I’m not a chaffinch,’ he replies.

Not all that funny you might think. But Oliver is halfway up a tree, surrounded by rustling leaves and the odd twitter, and is played by Bill Nighy. Catch it if you can.