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Screened: 19/09/2005 Clive Robertson

Clive Robertson

Peter Thompson talks with the 'Bad Boy' of broadcasting on steam engines, God and his favorite place on earth - Broken Hill.

PETER THOMPSON: Winston Churchill once said about Russia, "It's a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." He might well have said the same thing if he'd met our guest tonight, broadcaster, Clive Robertson. Welcome to Talking Heads. Clive, it's great to have you here; thank you very much.

CLIVE ROBERTSON: You don't know yet whether it's great Peter, you're being presumptious.

PETER THOMPSON: Tell me, you're a bit of a naughty boy of broadcasting, aren't you?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Yeah. Well, I only care X amount, Peter. I mean, you know, it's a bit like - like most things in life. If you take away all the good bits, you say "I don't want to do it any more", so I worked out early on, not consciously, but subconsciously that I'll do it and if it's too much trouble, I'll say "I don't want to do it any more." So it's a weird sort of bravery.

PETER THOMPSON: But it's interesting, you don't walk into a persona to be a broadcaster; you are who you are very much?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Yeah. It always amuses me when people finally meet me if I let them meet me, they say, "You're the same off-air as you are on-air." Which is actually a comment on the people who are on-air that everyone thinks everyone has got an act. And I don't know why that is, perhaps it started off with a Vaudvillian matter in the '50s, we were all terribly strident, I don't know. You're the same off-air as you're on-air. And I'm so grateful for that, Peter.

PETER THOMPSON: Let's have a look at early Clive Robertson days; let's go way back.


CLIVE ROBERTSON: I was born in the Blue Mountains Hospital in Katoomba in 1945 which means I was conceived during the war. I was the youngest. I don't think my parents necessarily learned anything. Always say that the youngest gets the benefit of the parental experience. I I'm not sure that was the case. I don't know how close I was to my brother and sister. I don't know that we were really terribly chummy as kids. I don't think we needed to be. Perhaps they're more or less like me, I don't know.
I think dad didn't want to be a father but I think he found out after the event. He'd do weird things like if he wanted to punish us, he'd wait two hours and then creep up on us and hit us. We were sort of border-line poor because dad had the money, but wouldn't give it to us which is a strange thing. If that's going to make me stronger, I'd rather have been a little bit weaker and have a bit more money. I used to go to school with sandshoes with holes in them, no socks, no pocket money. He was too mean to give me the tuppence to get the bus home from Katoomba down to where we lived at Leura in the Blue Mountains. In the middle of winter I had to walk and it was freezing. You know the old thing where they say school days the best days of your life, what a load of rubbish that is. It was awful and I retreated and so I did very badly. I didn't work, was very nervous. It was an awful, awful time. I just went into myself which for someone who already is in himself, it's even more internal. I went to Perth in 1958 on the TSMP Duntroon and I was sick for ten days, the worst trip of my life. So I left school in '62 when I was 16. I worked on the farm which was great to be part of the cycle of things. I left that after a while and then I became an electrical fitter, and an electrical apprentice and then I worked for the PMG which is the precursor to Telecom. Then I left that. I worked with my father on a few occasions. I worked in dealing with mortgage broking, worked with my father conveyancing. Then the railways came up and I wanted to work on steam locomotives. They were the most marvellous things in the world and time was running out. Unfortunately I did do something wrong there for the medical (indistinct). While the doctor was out of the room, I memorised the last four lines of the eye chart. So I had the spectacles off, you see, "sorry about that, sorry about that", he said "you're very good" I said, "yeah right, where are you again?" So I got in the railways and I was known as a training engine man which meant cleaning the rods of motion, the lovely sides of locomotives, but I befriended a guy who let me drive locomotives and I was good. There's nothing quite like starting off with a full train with a steam locomotive. There's nothing in the world like that. I suppose we're all allowed to fantasise, and if I could - if I could make a fantasy about my life that could change it. I'd like to be born in 1935 which is ten years earlier, and then become a call boy which is not what you think it is, then become a trainee engineman and then shovel coal and steam locomotives and be driving locomotives until I die. That is, if I had been in control of my life. All I can do now is just wonder.

PETER THOMPSON: I think you've got a bit of explaining to do because not everyone understands steam train obsession.

CLIVE ROBERTSON: I find steam locomotives, especially and indeed diesel locomotives, the fantasy and the reality are the same. Now, there's not many things in life that are like that, are there? You're married are you? You understand that?

PETER THOMPSON: So you're happy to hold on to the fantasy. What are you doing by holding on to the fantasy about being an engine driver?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Well, for a start it's not a human being. It's actually a thing which human beings have created, one of the most magical devices, and it's just me and it, you see. No-one can say to me, "Gee, this is grimy", I just - in fact, I don't want anyone else around. So bliss for me would be me and a locomotive and no-one else.

PETER THOMPSON: Let's talk about smell because you remember - do you - you do remember smells going back to when you were 18 months of age?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Yes.

PETER THOMPSON: What do you remember smelling?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: I remember mum was doing the pruning. Now, she denies that she tried to kill me but she says I was - I wondered why my ear was bleeding one day and she said, "Well there you were and you crept up on me" - me crept up on her - and I turned around and the secateurs went through my ear. The police have left this case open. Likewise in a Katoomba street one day I was in a pusher. I should mention, Peter, that at the age of 9 months, being a bright little kid, I started to walk and fell over so I thought obviously it's not for me, you know, it was painful. So I waited another nine months. Mum was about to send me to the specialist, and in the meantime here is this large kid in a pusher, the largest kid in town and she says the brakes failed, you see, at the top of Katoomba Street which is very...

PETER THOMPSON: It was a long run down the mountain?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Yes. I went down there, I thought "Gee, mum's fit today" and I went roaring down the hill here. There's no mum behind me. And I survived as much - but she denies that she tried to kill me. I don't know. She's gone now.

PETER THOMPSON: You do have this sense of smell?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: I do.

PETER THOMPSON: And memory going back to what?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: At the age of 18 months, I realised I couldn't cope with human beings. Now, this is the irony. Mum never used baby talk. She'd say things, "You go and wash your hands, we're going to eat now." I understood that. Unfortunately, I went out into a world where people, adults spoke baby talk and I didn't understand them and I used to turn my little nose up like that, you'd you see I'd say, "What's wrong with her?" And she'd say, "oh, that's her way."

PETER THOMPSON: This is not psycho analysis, but I do feel like on the one hand you've got a figure who was frightening you as you relate it, your father, and on the other hand you've got a figure whom you love, your mother.

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Yeah, I loved dad too but when he was frightening, he was frightening. Mum was a lost soul but she was the closest person I know to be like me. We got on well. I couldn't understand why anyone would want to be a mother. I thought that was a strange thing to do. And I felt sorry for her, a woman with no confidence. She really should have married someone else. She admitted that, perhaps she admitted it to dad, I don't know, never really had an occupation. She came from an era where you didn't - home duties was meant to be fulfilling. Well, what if it wasn't? What did you do then?

PETER THOMPSON: Were you happy, were you happy as an adolescent?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: No; is anyone?

PETER THOMPSON: Some are.

CLIVE ROBERTSON: No, no, I mean, the silliest thing they ever say is "School is the happiest time of your life." Well, the logic of that is you have a rotten time at school, you may as well go and top yourself, you know, when you leave school. I had an awful time in the teenage years.

PETER THOMPSON: So you had this obsession of jobs, did you enjoy any of them? PMG linesman, you used - - -

CLIVE ROBERTSON: I was good at that, oh I was good at that. Oh, I've got to tell you about that. In the old days of biomotional switches, they used to get - they'd get caught up and catch on fire. So the bloke who was looking after the exchange, every morning at 8.30 would grab me because I had the best smell he'd ever come across and I'd walk up and down the aisle saying "That one there, that one there", no-one else could do it. I enjoyed that. I mean, we all want to be unique in one thing and I was unique in that.

PETER THOMPSON: And you were, it's fair to say, you were unique in broadcasting. Why did you fall into that? Why did that become - - -

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Oh, in the old days I'd go to bed with the radio on. I just thought it was terrific that someone ought to be there, they'd announce a record, it would come on and they could say what they like and I thought gee, that's nice power. I didn't intellectualise it much more than that. I just thought I'd like to do it. And then I applied, you know, we always apply for the city, we don't understand how these things work, and then one day someone accepted me which I was quite amazed at.

PETER THOMPSON: Well further down the track, of course, you joined the ABC which is where you really came to public attention. Let's have a look at that.


CLIVE ROBERTSON: Now, this building you're looking at here is all that remains of what was the ABC. ABC Upper Ford Street in Sydney, the fabulous ABC of the '70s in which I enjoyed myself. This is one of the Triple J studios and I seem to remember once a woman who couldn't cope, threw a typewriter out the window and the ABC thought about it and thought what can we do for this woman? We'll put bars on the window. And I thought gee, that's the government at work, the government at work. So there I was up in the studios up there and each morning I had the privilege which everyone reminds me of talking to two ladies over different years. One was Caroline Jones and the other was Margaret Throsby. I wonder where they are now. Anyway, I was up there, they weren't there. They were over here.

SPEAKER: We have the gripe session today at half past 10.

CLIVE ROBERTSON: I didn't understand that.

SPEAKER: Didn't you?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: No.

SPEAKER: Thousands did.

SPEAKER: H'mm-h'mm.

CLIVE ROBERTSON: You're being dirty again.

SPEAKER: No, I'm not.

CLIVE ROBERTSON: You know men like it when you talk dirty. They get quite excited. One morning, a bloke came down and said "Look, a the bloke who does the 2BL breakfast who's a contract guy, is not in yet. Would you come and fill in?" And as I walked down the passageway, he said, "Just do your own thing" and I thought, I'll do my own thing. If they don't like it, they can say he's only filling in, and if they do like it it's good. Came off air and the boss said, "We have got a wonderfully good response for you this morning. Jolly well done." I said "Oh, good." He said "Did you enjoy it?" I said "not really". I mean, I'd done all this sort of stuff in the commercial world. I mean, it wasn't as though I had never - I was a complete novice. I'd been around for a few years. And during that time, I did other things. I did ABC Television news. Good afternoon, Clive Robertson in Sydney with the 1 o'clock national news from the ABC. I can do it straight, anyone can do it straight. Today warned the six state premiers that Commonwealth funds for government schools would be cut by next year. I can't blame taxi drivers for driving taxis but I think the aspects of personal freshness has to come into it a bit.

SPEAKER: Clive never stops working. Clive - people say to me, "What's he like?" And I say "Clive off the air is exactly the same as Clive on the air. The brain is going all the time. He's being funny."

CLIVE ROBERTSON: He's in fact saying "Welcome to my cab." And if you want to welcome someone to your house, would you have it smelling like the dog has lived in it all year and never been let outside?

SPEAKER: It always puzzles me when people say that Clive is difficult. Clive is not difficult. Clive is just clever. You know what I think it is. I think some people are frightened by clever.

CLIVE ROBERTSON: I'm not suggesting they should wash more often, I'm just suggesting regardless of their cultural background, they should do something to make their little mobile home presentable to us, the paying person. You can only take so much of the ABC. Anyone who's been at the ABC for more than about, oh, five or six years does need some form of repatriation. Anyway, so I left on good terms of course and went and worked for Channel 7 doing News World, a late night straight news bulletin. Sydney's Royal Botannic - no, which are we on now? See, they know what they're doing and I don't. Thank goodness the contract's not due this month. We do not live alone in this world. There are people we should care about even if they are a little bit of a worry. Canberra has its share of problems and there's one in particular. In an art gallery is a restaurant, in the restaurant is a man. The man is unusual.

PETER THOMPSON: How did you get away with that News World persona?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: That's funny that. I've made a few errors in my life, Peter, I think this might be one of them. But I was doing 11 am which I enjoyed which was on 11 am in the morning except in Perth when it was 1 in the afternoon. They still called it 11 am. Anyway.

PETER THOMPSON: Perth has to get used to those sort of adjustments.

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Yeah. Anyway, Phil Davis who was in charge of Terry Willesees and all that sort of stuff, an old newspaper journalist from way back when, kept saying, "We want you to do News World" and I say "I don't want to do it" and they said, "I want you to do it." "I don't want to do it." This went on for a few weeks so finally I said yes. So about 1985 I did it and I thought I'll muck around and then they'll take me off it, you see. And it didn't work that way.

PETER THOMPSON: Because you mucked around and they kept you on it.

CLIVE ROBERTSON: And the ratings just went up amazingly.

PETER THOMPSON: What are you interested in? Did you say want to say something through all of this?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Um, I'd have to say the order of things especially at Channel 9, the order of news items. And if I said, "Look, this is really important", I'd look at the camera and say, "This is a really important story" and set it up, and if it was an important story, then the audience think, "Oh this guy's a good filter." If you said, "Look, this is a silly item, I don't know why we're running it" and you run it and it is a silly item, you've got them. And it's not a con. What that program did is different from most news programs is gave things what they really were worth.

PETER THOMPSON: But you were also by playing this role, undercutting the artifice what it is a lot of television.

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Oh, yeah, and did that go down well with the journalists? Have a guess Peter. "He's ruling our station" and all that rubbish. I mean, we get a new item in at, say, 10.30 at night and I'd say, "By the way, you'll see this at 6 o'clock tomorrow night" and they'll say it's the latest, "you know better". "You can't say things like that." Well, you know, come on, so journalists are a bit thick as you know, Peter, you've worked with a few, they really are thick. I mean, they really should be sterilised.

PETER THOMPSON: Relationships?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Yes.

PETER THOMPSON: Some marriages?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Yeah.

PETER THOMPSON: One to Jillian which was very short?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Yes.

PETER THOMPSON: Right and then to Penny Cook?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Yes.

PETER THOMPSON: For five years?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Yes.

PETER THOMPSON: Quite a long time?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: More or less from go to woe. Yeah, I shouldn't have married. I mean, I really shouldn't have but I mean, you can't not have had a relationship at my age, you end up weird. But I really fancy women. My problem was that I probably shouldn't have wanted to keep them at home. You know, I'm disqualified from relationships with women and I've got to say, every woman I've been involved with I really question your taste in men and I'm serious. I really wouldn't recommend me to anyone.

PETER THOMPSON: But in relationships, there's the usual give and take.

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Oh, is there?

PETER THOMPSON: The sort of to make a relationship viable?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Yes.

PETER THOMPSON: I mean, are you too uncompromising?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: No, no, no.

PETER THOMPSON: You reflected on ...

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Actually, no. Actually, I'm very easy to run. Very committed. I didn't want to divorce either of the ladies. Very committed. Whether I triggered things in them they didn't want triggered in them, I don't know.

PETER THOMPSON: So do you idealise women?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Oh, yes.

PETER THOMPSON: Because ...

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Wouldn't you? I know we're at the ABC but we still recognise women are attractive, don't we, Peter?

PETER THOMPSON: There's a separation between woman as ideal?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: No.

PETER THOMPSON: And woman in reality?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: No, (indistinct) no, I can't. I look at these amazing creatures with all the bits and pieces and my IQ drops. I have interviewed women as close as you, gorgeous women, and my brain says all right, we're going to just forget about this and my IQ drops. It's like a graph. I mean seriously. I mean, not only is the packaging utterly amazing, they put - wear perfume, they look their best and they look at you and smile and you go, "uh-uh" and that's true. A real difficulty, any man who's not mesmerised by women is not straight, Peter.

PETER THOMPSON: So does that mean you go without?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Oh, yes, you can go without. I do observe them. I have noticed when they walk by especially in summer, Peter, I haven't exactly died yet.

PETER THOMPSON: Let's go to your latest incarnation as a broadcaster as a presenter on classic FM breakfast.

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Yes.

PETER THOMPSON: Now, it's suggested that you polarised the audience. You've probably always polarised audiences?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Yes.

PETER THOMPSON: Some love you ...

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Yeah, but I ...

PETER THOMPSON: Very hard not to notice you, some love you, some hate you, can't stand you, you're disruptive.

CLIVE ROBERTSON: But that's life. What's the alternative, grey, a graph with no movement, like a dead person. You are what you are. I mean, polarising the audience, it's their fault; it's not my fault. I am what I am and we did a good program. I've worked out when you broadcast, if you broadcast with somebody who's on the same wave length, you've got to assume that, and someone who is having a slightly crappy day. Can I use the word "day" on this program, can I? Slightly crappy day and you're just going to jolly them along. I mean, after all, it's just radio.

PETER THOMPSON: So why do you think ABC let you go?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: The contract was expired, there was a year to go, and they have every right legally to say, "We don't want you any more" and they said, "Would you like to know why?" I said "No, it doesn't matter" and we're friends as far as I know.

PETER THOMPSON: So do you feel reconciled to leaving it?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: No.

PETER THOMPSON: Kind of came as a shock, didn't it?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Yeah, I mean, I really - every job I do, I put my heart and soul into. It takes a lot out of me. I don't miss that aspect but I miss the classical records but I can always put them on at home.

PETER THOMPSON: Let's see how things are going right now.

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Well, for everything there was a season. There's a time to stay, there's a time to move. And thanks to the ABC and their impolite behaviour in dispensing with me, I've decided to downsize from this gorgeous place to something somewhat smaller. Well, I spent, you know, 50 or 60 years of my life in this place. The paint scheme was really a bit approximate. Once again, thanks to the generous ABC, the fact is I have to move on because they told me to move on. C'est la vie. Well, I suppose, I do have some regrets. I had, past tense, thanks to the ABC, downstairs the best darkroom Australia has ever seen but like me and the ABC, it is no longer.
With regards music, I like what I like. I know that sounds like a real out. Except for country music I think, that probably pushes my patience just a bit but I like what I like, for example, Machine Head. I should mention that most people clean up their house before they set the hi-fi up. Their priorities are completely wrong. As well as listening to music, I like Peter Sellers in Being There. I like to watch. I do like a good "f'lum" and a good "f'lum" is actually hard to find. Well, my primary passage has gone and I have a relationship with God and I would be lost without God, absolutely lost.

SPEAKER: The beloved son in his kingdom we now live.

CLIVE ROBERTSON: There will be Jensen brothers at the cathedral, all go and buy what the bible says. They say the bible is sufficient, you don't need to add or take away. And I relate so well to that, so I never saw it. I'm totally - I'm meant to be obsessed with God and I am. So my number one passion is God. Oh, you are still here. Well, could I now show you some of the things I do when I know I'm absolutely alone. Of course, these passions of mine do require equipment which I carry. And I carry two lots of equipment, photographic, if the weather's fine and the wind is up too high, and recording gear for when the wind isn't too high and I can record things. What you do is you start off with headphones, so you actually can tell what's going on, right. The headphones are plugged into the DAT machine, the DAT records the best quality. However, what are you going to record with? Might I introduce this rare creature you will not see again in your lifetime. It has human-like ears, a the microphones are built in and it hears as though we had microphones in our head if used the same way. And you hear back on the headphones and you hear wonderful, wonderful music. For example, to my left is a whip bird. It's a male whip bird. It goes "whit". The females go "whit whit", and if she doesn't do it quickly, the male bird does it instead of her, but they have fights sometimes because he does it very quickly and she says "wait for me, wait for me". This is bliss. This is wonderful. Terrific. She has left, oh.

PETER THOMPSON: There are no sounds in nature like those whip birds in the morning.

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Oh, they're gorgeous, just magic, just magic.

PETER THOMPSON: Now, God and nature seem to be the two things?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Oh, yes.

PETER THOMPSON: That sustain you both?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Yeah, Broken Hill, Broken Hill. Broken Hill, one of my favourite places in the world.

PETER THOMPSON: What's your vision of Broken Hill? What do you see when you go there?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: I see me. Funny, it's a place that's alone, probably no real reason for existence. All these wonderful little minors' huts, you can buy a house for 10 grand and you go three kilometres out of town and you just suddenly it's nothing. But it's not really nothing. It's just you and it which is like the relationship with God and at night the sky is so clear. I defy anyone to go to Broken Hill, go out at 10 o'clock at night on a clear night and say there isn't a God. It is just amazing.

PETER THOMPSON: I mean, your belief in God, I mean, it involves the whole heaven and hell bit, doesn't it?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: The whole thing, yes, yes.

PETER THOMPSON: Where does it come from?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Well, my father was a lay preacher which means he's allowed to preach in an Anglican Church but not just Anglican Church and so I was brought up that way. I don't know when it happened. I just grew up with it and now my relationship with God is the best relationship I've got and I'm glad my best relationship is with God.

PETER THOMPSON: There's an interesting tension here between on the one hand a certain cynicism about you, Clive.

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Yes.

PETER THOMPSON: Though leavened with humour, on the other hand, there's sort of faith in God.

CLIVE ROBERTSON: It just goes to show that God cares for lame people, doesn't it?

PETER THOMPSON: What was his plan for you?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Funnily enough, Peter, you should say that. It's not our business what God's plan is for us.

PETER THOMPSON: You want to find out though, don't you?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: No, no. He says "just deny yourself, forget about it, it's not about you." In fact, I've put a sign up in my room this very last few days, "it's not about me". Because we keep coming back, "I feel bad. God, why am I doing this?" It's not about you.

PETER THOMPSON: It's about?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Him and other people, right. And the people of this earth. It's not how I feel. He says "It's got nothing to do with how you feel." Like I might feel my faith is bad on Tuesday, God says, "I haven't changed, you're feeling off today, you're human, you're frail." It's not about me. That's the hardest bit in Christianity to learn. It's not about personal success as some people go on about and hands in the air and all that business. Nothing to do with yourself. And that's the hardest thing. And certainly, not having been employed for some months, Peter, I'm learning how to find a sandwich in a bin and to eat grass.

PETER THOMPSON: One thing's really struck me during this conversation and that is, something you said much earlier which is you've never really applied yourself. I find that intriguing.

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Yeah, I don't why either. It's bad, isn't it?

PETER THOMPSON: Well did you say that?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: It's true, I just haven't.

PETER THOMPSON: What might you have applied yourself towards, what, being a...

CLIVE ROBERTSON: I count I'm on-air I apply myself but I live on the edge.

PETER THOMPSON: Do you really think you've not applied intelligence?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Oh no, no, I'm actually very bright. When I did an IQ test last seven, they said "We can't judge you, you've got it all right." They can only ever work something out when it's less than 100. When I was five, I had the reading ability of a 17-year old, not 70-year old journalist, I had that ability when I was an embryo. I just - I have never applied myself, Peter. Perhaps you can help me here; you're a wise man.

PETER THOMPSON: Well, would you apply yourself to?

CLIVE ROBERTSON: I don't know. I'd like to live perhaps as long as methuselah did, 967 years. I'd be a carpenter. I'd play the violin. I'd play the piano. I'd become a surgeon. How many - see, if you live 500, 600 years, you could do it, couldn't you? Whereas if we try it now, we just screw it up.

PETER THOMPSON: And that would have allowed a few hundred years to drive trains.

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Oh, yes.

PETER THOMPSON: I understand the railways can't get enough drivers so you should put your name down.

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Oh, yes, look at me now. Would you - would you let me drive your locomotive? I am a good driver by the way.

PETER THOMPSON: You're a good driver on radio and television too.

CLIVE ROBERTSON: Yeah, I don't know about that. No-one wants me, Peter.

PETER THOMPSON: See you, Clive.