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 in the Old Library a couple of years ago at one of his book launches. He wasn’t a fan of the newish buildings funded by a Japanese university, I recall. There was always something that needled Clive about Japan. He studied the language and respected the literature, but the war set up a barrier of suspicion he never quite overcame.
His double career as a TV personality and cultural critic didn’t endear him to everyone. Auberon Waugh mocked his love of Anthony Powell’s novels, attesting that only an arriviste Australian could fall for their fake Englishness. But it was exactly his boyish enthusiasm that endeared him to viewers and readers. Okay, so he showed off about teaching himself French by reading Proust; but to some this seemed aspirational rather than arrogant. (Shall I admit it? Following Clive’s example, I also started translating À la recherche du temps perdu word for word. I did the first volume: he did the lot.) And the high seriousness was always balanced by low comedy. When Clive went tango dancing in Buenos Aires, or preened himself with Kylie Minogue, he constructed the scene so that he was the butt of the joke. Like Falstaff, he was not only witty but the cause of wit in other men.
Fashions changed in the late 1990s and what television lost literature regained. He finished his career a 50-book man, one of the last of his kind. I asked him once how he had managed to be so productive. “Well, there was a lot to say,” he replied. There certainly was. His writing made everything seem fun: reading long books, learning hard languages, watching bad television—even the deathly drone of Formula 1. He had the same approach to his life as he did to his prose: leave out the boring bits.
There were more serious pratfalls. He was too susceptible to arguments made by beautiful women, he ruefully admitted. His politics embraced a tough muscular liberalism—he supported the Iraq war in 2003—perhaps because he cared so very much about the humanistic values that had afforded him so much pleasure. He once wrote that you should never trust an artist’s political opinions; he was right. Clive’s greatest subject was himself and his best writing was personal—either about his own life, or his personal responses to a work of art.
Over the years, Clive James wrote many wonderful essays for Prospect. In a piece commissioned by my predecessor David Wolf, he eviscerated Dan Brown’s Inferno with the acuity of man who had translated the whole of Dante. (A fact that he dropped into the review naturally: for Clive, all modesty was false.) Towards the end of his life, as what he called his “discreetly galloping cancer” approached full tilt, he responded best to my invitations to write about his dual passions: film and poetry. Each piece crackled with terrific one-liners: “In his speeches, Brando could make even the visuals mumble.” Or “as a poet and a man of letters, Larkin is bottled lightning: the man who can say it so that it stays said.”
Whenever his pieces landed in my inbox, I knew they would be word-perfect. He was a model professional who took as much care over a review of Mad Men (“Jon Hamm is the actor with everything, except the sense to change his name”) as a disquisition on Joseph Conrad. As a writer you could learn a lot from studying his late style. The short sentences. The sparing use of semi-colons. The playful directness.
After his review of Philip Larkin’s letters exactly a year ago, I went to see him in Cambridge to record a podcast. His voice had faded but his mind hadn’t. He took a broadcaster’s pride in getting his reading of “This Be the Verse” pitch-perfect. Afterwards he was happy to gossip. Philip Roth only ever wanted to talk baseball, he said, and did I know about a well-known spy novelist’s obsession with a hostess at the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem? He was good at presenting himself as the plain Aussie, overhearing other men’s wisdom and admiring other men’s women. In truth, he couldn’t claim to have been short-changed in life. But high-achievers often feel that way: it’s why they always want more.
I stayed too long that afternoon. “You did tire me out,” he emailed, “but like Mae West I command you to tire me out again soon.” He attached a piece that would later turn into his first “Late Reading” column. I said we’d love it to be a regular arrangement. He couldn’t promise anything. But every month he would deliver a perfect miscellany of anecdotes from his hospital bed (“Still recovering from an operation that has left me with what feels like a sofa stuffed into my left cheek”) or from a study piled with fresh books. His ear for rhythm was still superb. He loved Emily Wilson’s new translation of the Odyssey but was the only critic to point out that any time Odysseus’s name was used in the possessive, it was missing a syllable, thus depriving the line of a complete iambic pentameter. (His own ambition was to be remembered as a “major minor” poet—a typically self-deprecating boast.) When his eyesight failed, he had poems read out to him. Or scoured his memories for classic film scenes, usually starring Liz Taylor.
The columns stopped in the summer and we thought that was that. But then Tom Clark, the Editor, had the bright idea of asking him to write about The Crown. Clive had known Princess Diana and in 2015 published a poem in Prospect about her funeral. He said he should say no, but couldn’t resist the offer. He had watched each episode twice, he soon updated me, and was well on the way. Then his wife Prue told us we might need to make other arrangements.
Luckily, he left us with a final gift. “Even though officially retired,” he emailed, “I have actually written a column for you. Despatches from the brink.” We had only one query on his last Late Reading. He had mentioned his love of Victoria Wood’s comedy: hadn’t he once been her housemate? There is an old clip on YouTube where she reminisces about Clive being rubbed down by New Zealand nurses in their living room. But no, we were told, they never lived together. Perhaps it was all a delicious flight of fantasy?
About a week ago, I sent a hope-against-hope email to Prue about The Crown piece. (Editors are a heartless breed.) Then yesterday, when Jonathan Miller, another Cambridge polymath, left us, we heard that Clive had died on Sunday, and that a funeral had already been held in Pembroke’s Wren Chapel. It had been a source of embarrassed amusement to him that he had been crafting his own memorials for quite so long. His 2014 poem “Japanese Maple” would have worked beautifully as his last word: “A final flood of colours will live on / As my mind dies.” In Cambridge last December, I remember him telling me with a grin that he had outlived his garden’s maple tree. But the poem will outlive him.