Life & Culture

Clive Sinclair: The gunslinger armed with a pen

A critic's fond memories of a writer with a love of Westerns


Clive Sinclair died on March 5, 2018. This year he would have been 75. Friends and relations gathered recently at his favourite restaurant to mourn his loss and celebrate all that he achieved.

Clive was the kindest and most loyal of friends. He was also one of the best writers of his generation, funny, clever, smart. And a superb critic.

No one wrote better about Philip Roth or Isaac Bashevis Singer. He was a first-rate film critic too. His best essays on his beloved westerns, from John Ford’s classics to High Noon, were published in a collection called True Crit.

His mother was Betty Jacobovitch. When his father joined the British Army in 1939, he changed his name from Smolinsky to Sinclair.

Clive gave the name Smolinsky to a private detective who appears in several stories in the collections Hearts of Gold and Bedbugs. When Clive was born in 1948, he could have been Smolinsky or even Jacobovitch.

Instead, he was Clive Sinclair, part of that generation of post-war British Jewish writers called Harold (Pinter), Arnold (Wesker), Howard (Jacobson) and Bernard (Kops).

Clive lived a divided life. Born in Hendon, later living in St Albans, his imagination found its landscape far away, in the Wild West and his literary homelands, Israel and the worlds of Roth and his favourite writers from central and eastern Europe.

Perhaps the first taste of that divided self came when he was studying at the University of East Anglia (UEA).

His PhD was on a family of Jewish writers from Poland: Isaac Bashevis Singer, his brother Israel Joshua Singer and their sister Esther Kreitman. At UEA he studied with Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson and met young writers such as Angela Carter, Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro. It was such an exciting time.

Clive published his first books of short stories in 1979 and 1982. He married Fran Redhouse in 1980 and they had their son, Seth, in 1981.

He published his PhD in 1983 and in the same year came his big breakthrough when he was chosen to be one of 20 writers included in Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists together with Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Ishiguro, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie, a new generation of exciting young writers who took the literary scene by storm. Clive was the only Jewish writer in the group.

In the same year Clive became literary editor of the JC, where he championed a group of young reviewers including Bryan Cheyette and David Cesarani. Cheyette interviewed him the next year for The Jewish Quarterly.

Did he have to leave England to write? “I had to leave England to find something interesting enough to write about. I find no engagement with England at all.

Everything here is a pale reflection of elsewhere... I feel that in England I am on the sideline.” He talked about the Israeli and east European writers he admired.

“One envies the writing yet, at the same time, you don’t envy the history that has created that writing. There are writers who are, to use a hackneyed phrase, writing on the edge of existence.

The problems are real — life, death, censorship, imprisonment and exile.”
For Clive the real problems came all too soon. In just a few years in the early 1990s he lost his mother, his wife, his sister-in-law Susan and his father. A dear friend of his wrote to me after Clive died: “The lack of female members of the family was so marked at Seth’s bar mitzvah.”

Clive himself developed renal failure, began dialysis and then had a kidney transplant. He started writing about these years in a series of deeply moving articles for The Independent, which were later published as A Soap Opera from Hell (1998). He was an extraordinary stoic during all his years of illness.

Above all, during these years he was a devoted and loving father to Seth and he met Haidee Becker, a hugely talented artist. When Seth was at primary school, he had to write a short story. Clive virtually wrote the story for him, expecting at least a gold star. He was quietly amused when the teacher awarded Seth 7/10.

After Fran died, Seth and Haidee became two centres of his life. One of his oldest friends wrote: “Clive would sometimes say he was searching for his inner cowboy.

A birthday card he and Fran sent to Seth was signed by the Sheriff and his Deputy. That still makes me smile.”

During the 1990s he also wrote some of his best articles and stories: The Lady with the Laptop (1995), published in a prize-winning collection of stories with the same title, The El-Al Prawn (1997), Meet the Wife (2002). Towards the end of his life, he published one of his best books, Death & Texas (2014), a collection of short stories — one of the best books published by any British writer since the war — and then, posthumously, Shylock Must Die (2018).

He also spent many years attending a monthly Bible reading group, a chapter each month. The group never got past Exodus.

Clive was such an insightful reader. It added another dimension to his Jewish world. The Brothers Singer from Warsaw, Philip Roth from New Jersey and now Abraham and Isaac.

For Clive, as for Roth, very little was off limits, but he was once asked by an interviewer why he would not consider writing about the Holocaust.

He replied: “Auschwitz is not mine to conquer. And it’s too easy; you get a spurious gravitas when you do Holocaust material, and I don’t think I’ve earned it.”

In the essay collection A Soap Opera From Hell (1998) he wrote: “As a diaspora Jew, whose life story seems writ on water, I have always considered that the blessing of being part of the whole outweighs the curse.”

Sinclair was awarded several prizes and received much acclaim. He never won the recognition he deserved, either as a writer or a critic. But he was supremely gifted as both, one of the best writers of his generation. And one of the kindest men.

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