Clive's editor remembers a man who remained a consummate writer to the endby Sameer Rahim / November 28, 2019 / Leave a comment
Like many people of my generation, I first remember seeing Clive James wryly commenting on clips from crazy Japanese television shows—the kind of thing that now goes viral on Twitter. So my teenage self was somewhat surprised to see him in the New Yorker ruminating on the German responsibility for the Holocaust. It was like finding out Terry Wogan was a secret Hegel scholar. But Clive was never one to be pinned down by the artificial divisions of high and low culture. He practically invented the art of television criticism in the 1970s, and in the next decade reinvented television itself with his travel shows. Being Australian, he was immune to the class restrictions that plagued the London literary scene. He forged a unique career: celebrity, showman, poet, memoirist, talk-show host, novelist, raconteur and, of course, essayist. There was no subject—from Vladimir Nabokov to Torvill and Dean—that he couldn’t wrap up in 3,000 polished words.
His omnivorous tastes were shaped by his upbringing. As recounted in his Unreliable Memoirs, the Kid from Kogarah was pretty much allowed to do what he wanted in suburban Sydney. When he was six years old, his father had been killed in a plane crash on his way back from a Japanese PoW camp. From then on his mother indulged her only child. (This included allowing him to change his name from girly Vivien to manly Clive.) He relished being the class clown and never lost that naughty schoolboy grin. At Sydney University, he was literary editor of the student newspaper and therefore “well placed,” as he wrote in Prospect earlier this year, “to print my own contributions.” Then Les Murray’s poems started to arrive, and, he admitted, “an unfamiliar feeling of humility overwhelmed me.”
In the 1960s, he found himself down and out in Swiss Cottage trying and failing to become a poet. At Cambridge, he did everything but the thesis on Shelley he was supposed to be completing. Instead, he was drawn into the Footlights alongside Eric Idle and Germaine Greer. (As he recounts in the third volume of his memoirs, May Week Was in June, he once walked Greer home and stripped to the waist to show off his then muscular physique. She was having none of it.) Clive and I were both at Pembroke (40 years apart), and I remember chatting to him…