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Clementine Ford: What Clive James Taught Us About Love

"Have you got a biro I can borrow?"

I’d like to write your name

On the palm of my hand, on the walls of the hall

The roof of the house, right across the land

So when the sun comes up tomorrow

It’ll look to this side of the hard-bitten planet

Like a big yellow button with your name written on it

 

Have you got a biro I can borrow?

I’d like to write some lines

In praise of your knee, and the back of your neck

And the double-decker bus that brings you to me

So when the sun comes up tomorrow

It’ll shine on a world made richer by a sonnet

And a half-dozen epics as long as the Aeneid

 

Oh give me a pen and some paper

Give me a chisel or a camera

A piano and a box of rubber bands

I need room for choreography

And a darkroom for photography

Tie the brush into my hands

 

Have you got a biro I can borrow?

I’d like to write your name

From the belt of Orion to the share of the Plough

The snout of the Bear to the belly of the Lion

So when the sun goes down tomorrow

There’ll never be a minute

Not a moment of the night that hasn’t got you in it

  • Clive James

I was 21 when I fell in love for the first time.

It was real, proper love -- messy and painful, but illuminating. I met her at a dinner party. She was standing in the courtyard outside the kitchen, smoking a cigarette. We all smoked cigarettes back then. I walked in, chattering loudly to our mutual friend who was crouched pulling something out of the oven, or perhaps making a salad or pouring a drink.

“Where’s this friend of yours that you want me to meet?” I asked, reaching for a glass of wine or a piece of cheese or maybe a pouch of tobacco.

Later, she would say she heard my voice before she saw my face. It seemed important at the time, and I held the delicate words to my chest with soft hands to stop the wind from carrying them away. In her lamplit room one night, or perhaps it was in the park or in a letter or on the phone, she told me that falling in love is really about discovering yourself. I kissed her then, or maybe I didn’t.

Do the details of love matter?

Yesterday, another friend shared with me the poem "A Small Mistake" by Kevin Brophy, in which he writes, “I fell in love with her; I loved her as much as I could. That’s all. It was suddenly an overwhelming fact. That’s the way it is for most of us, isn’t it?”

It reminded me of another line in another book, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. Hazel and Gus are lying in bed together, and she thinks, “As he read, I fell in love the way you fall asleep; slowly, and then all at once.”

Gus and Hazel in 'The Fault in Our Stars'. (Image: 20th Century Fox)

There’s a scene at the very end of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that perfectly encapsulates the essential optimism humans have about love, even when love itself has let us down. The moment comes as Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) are standing in the hallway of Joel’s apartment building, both of them having just discovered they had the memories of their romantic relationship erased.

Via audio recordings, they’ve heard their former, pre-erased selves lay bear all of the worst frustrations they have about each other. The ways Clementine finds Joel "boring", complaining that he’s changed her from someone she used to like into someone she finds "pissy" all the time. How Joel thinks Clementine uses sex to make people like her, and thinks her constantly changing hair colours are an affectation. How she isn’t smart. How he’s wimpy and pathetic.

And yet. And yet.

Here they are, at the movie’s end, having organically discovered each other once again. In the hours before the tapes arrive, they’ve randomly met on a train and chosen to spend the day together. They are standing on the precipice of love, both of them feeling like this could be the start of something life-changing, neither of them knowing they’ve been here before. The promise of this is substantial enough that later, even after having heard how toxic they can and have been to each other, they stand there and agree to try. To fall in love, again. To fall in love, for the first time.

I think of this scene often. I thought of it again this morning when my friend shared the above poem by Clive James, to mark the moment of that great scribe’s death.

To know how to write about love like this, one has to have loved like this. To love with such abandon and such courage is a leap of faith, but particularly so when one moves away from the notion of love as a simple meet-cute and begins to understand it as a collaboration between souls. A trek through beauty, yes, but also pain and hardship.

Clementine and Joel in 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind'. (Image: Focus Features)

My first love and I didn’t fall out of love the way some people do. There were no explosive fights or fits of rage. Our love didn’t become toxic or bitter, turning the things we had previously found charming about each other into obnoxious irritations. We had a moment in time, perfect and profound in its own way but temporary. The sun rose and moved languidly across the sky, a day filled with promise stretching out before us. But the shadows grew longer, as they always do, and we turned away from each other in the dark.

That we want to love and be loved at 15 is hardly a surprise. That we choose to continue letting love in, even when it has shown itself to be an unreliable and sometimes dastardly visitor, is nothing short of a miracle. When we’ve been disappointed by love -- or even almost destroyed by it -- what is it that propels us, like Joel and Clementine, to want to keep trying?

I suppose the answer is simple. We remain relentlessly optimistic for all of love’s promise. We desire to know ourselves more, and in knowing ourselves more we wish to be seen. To have someone write our name across their palm, across the walls of the hall, across the sky, across the universe, from the Belt of Orion to the Plough.

To be loved like that... well, that would be a gift indeed.