Clive James still Channel hopping

TV presenter and critic loves Paris and the Eurostar but keep him away from the weather in Normandy.

6 January 2009

TV PRESENTER and writer Clive James is a frequent visitor to France. While he admits he stumbles to get the words out, he enjoys reading the language and believes the French focus on ‘the little things’ is what makes trips here so pleasant.

His latest projects include the book Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts and writing for his website www.clivejames.com

What are your connections with France?
I've been on holiday with the family to Biarritz. My family loved it there and we often went.

We also holiday with friends in Normandy. There's almost no point in being in Normandy as far as the climate is concerned. My family have this mad love for Normandy - I think it's because they want to get rained on. I want them to go to the south of France.

I love France. I often regret that when I got to Europe in the 60s I did not go to Paris; but it was a hard place to be poor. In London people understood how to be poor.
If I was starting over again now I would probably start in Paris or Berlin.

How is your French?
I started with books. What I can't do is speak it easily. You have to have the environment to do that. It’s a language I love.

Did you do any travel programmes in France?
I did a show called Postcard from Paris on the TV in the 80s. I interviewed [author] Françoise Sagan - she was still driving high speed at the time. She could even break the speed limit in Paris and you can't even manage that at night. I interviewed [model] Inès de la Fressange as well.

I did the first catwalk show in Paris in 1982 - The Clive James Fashion Show. It was the first time anyone had done a show like that.
My director Richard Drewett invented that long shot with the long lens you see of models coming down the catwalk.

As an Australian who has lived in Britain for so long, what do you think about 'expats' in general?
One of the first things a liberal democracy does is export people. You just get itchy to see the world, you love being 'abroad'. It broadened my mind and my mind needed broadening. Australians dream of Europe because Europe is more complicated.
There are about one million Australians who live abroad. You might ask why - they're just adventurous. The world is far too fascinating to stay in one place, although if you make a commitment to a new language you probably put down a few roots. My daughters are just poms. They were brought up as English.

What would you say has changed over here?
The strange thing is that Britain has become rather more attractive to the French. You can see a lot of French people arriving in London to live because it’s easier to work.
France always seemed well ordered until you realised there was the paperwork.
Britain is rather more stable compared to France - almost boring you might say. There was always that trait of the French young to question the stability of French society. I suppose the main thing that I have seen develop here is the gradual acceptance of liberal democratic society.

In fact, I'm much more impressed with what has stayed the same. The petit bonheur of Paris still seems to be there. The service culture is well engrained. The little brioche and the coffee is still there.

France is really, really good at doing the little things. The minute you sit down at your table and you have your coffee and croissant your day is made. Café culture has been well maintained in France.

I have always adored Paris. It is a great pleasure to jump on a train from London and be there in a couple of hours. I will probably die on the Eurostar. When I have something serious to write I check into a hotel on the left bank and write it there. The phone is switched off - it's just perfect.

Who are the French figures in your latest book Cultural Amnesia?
The French figures are prominent; Camus, Sartre, Paul Valéry. The French intellectual life until WWII and beyond is very important to me.
Jean-François Revel was my hero. I would love to write like that. Also Raymond Aron - after the war it seemed like democracy hadn't done much to stave off the Nazis, so people thought maybe communism could do it.

Aron spent the war living in London - he was a Jew so he had to go. When he returned he began the long struggle of arguing against the influence of Jean-Paul Sartre who kept insisting there was something to the Soviet Union and red China. Aron said there's only one solution and that's to improve the democracy we have. This sort of debate made Paris the centre of the mental world.

Photo: Copyright Ed Wright Images

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