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Clive James (1939-2019): his final Late Reading column

The author Clive James has died aged 80. In his final Prospect piece written earlier this month, he mused on the joy of an M&S pudding—and on the joyful courage of the morbid joke

By Clive James   December 2019


How is it possible that Marks & Spencer, with whom I have shopped for almost my entire adult life, has managed to fall out of the FTSE 100? When I was still mobile, I was in and out of its store here in Cambridge all the time. Now that I can’t physically get downtown to visit the actual shop any more, I have spies and agents who drop in to re-stock me with my favourite dessert: the M&S Individual Bread and Butter Pudding.

It seems that you or your factotums can purchase only a certain number of these little tubs of deliciousness before the latest palette-load of them is exhausted. You could say that the problem thus presented would be less acute if you were ready to settle for an arrangement of parcelling less miniaturised than “individual,” but you would be overlooking the late Victoria Wood’s observation that the word “individual” is, in itself, delicious: the very key-note of the forthcoming symphonic blow-out. (In her case, the focus of desire might have been on the M&S Individual Spotted Dick, rather than on the Individual Bread and Butter Pudding: but anyway it was in that ball-park, as it were.) One of the qualities that made her a great comic writer was that she could taste words. She could burst joy’s grape against her palate fine. And yes, she would have noticed that I managed to get both “palette” and “palate” into the same flight of sonic fancy. There was very little that she didn’t notice, in fact.


Re-upping on The Wire

It seems like only a few months ago, but in fact it was more like years, that every-one in our family was watching every available instalment of The Wire. It affected our vocabularies. Even now, years later, we don’t restore our principal supply of desserts, we “re-up.” Everyone had a personal hero in the show: mine was Idris Elba, an English actor built and clad like a multi-storey car park erected inside a sports jacket but a born literary type if I ever saw one. In his character as the thoughtful Stringer Bell he was able, while studying an economics textbook, to suggest by his powerfully furrowed brow that, given time and a few breaks, he himself might one day have written an equation-strewn masterpiece on the subject, up there with Keynes. As a possible title for Stringer’s ground-breaking work on neo-post-colonial capitalism I myself favoured Hills of White Powder.

But one of the strengths of The Wire was the dreadful casualness with which, after years of being built up and fleshed out in fine detail, your on-screen hero could get himself obliterated. Just such a fall from high degree was exemplified by my hero Stringer. He was set fair to inherit his area of the earth, but suddenly it all went sideways, like my left eye after corrective surgery.

This pitiless demise seemed especially outrageous in the case of Stringer, since, in Elba’s towering incarnation, he was so obviously the leading candidate for the title of Supreme Drug Lord of the Future, and was therefore, perhaps, on his way to the White House. (In those days it was not yet so evident that somebody utterly unsuitable might get the job.) But one of the strengths of the show was the precision with which it took account of fate’s spinning coin. Eventually, in Stringer’s case, the coin crossed the mighty bloke’s hulking path and proved itself capable of crushing the life out of him.

His downfall looked as sudden as that. As the mastermind of the drug district of Baltimore (you have to imagine a whole industrial city that produces almost nothing else but poisoned bliss) he was twice as subtle as us and 10 times as handsome. I personally had less time for his nemesis Omar Little, though many viewers disagreed. But it might have been Stringer’s very sensitivity of mind that allowed him to avoid, for a few deadly moments, the evidence that Omar was on the loose, armed, and out to take back control.

Whack: and there went Idris on his way to other towering careers as a lord of crime, a lord of a language, but always a lord of something. We all would have loved him to stay on in Baltimore, but those are the breaks, and we ourselves must eventually acknowledge that though we are built like Sean Connery and Muhammad Ali stacked side by side, time must have a stop.

Since then I’ve made a point of tracking Elba as he lopes, prowls and murmurs dangerously through every show he’s been in. He’s up there limned by a cloud of glory, like Denzel Washington in any role you can think of. In fact there is no real reason why Denzel should not play George Washington himself, or even Washington DC itself; and I am more than ready for Idris as anything. The mere sight of him floors my critical capacities. Able was I ere I saw Elba: a palindrome the size of the Houston Astrodome.


Wittgenstein’s tears

Sometimes you have to be there to really understand something
: it’s a proposition that becomes more vivid when you are forced to face the fact that soon you won’t be there at all. Like many Cambridge students of my generation, I was proud to tread the same flag-stone courtyards that had been trodden by Ludwig Wittgenstein; but my admiration for his historical understanding was far less than my admiration for other aspects of his philosophy. Why, after the Second World War, had he said so little about the fate of his fellow European Jews? Years after I graduated, I got into conversation with a don at St John’s, the dandified humanist George Watson, who had known Wittgenstein. When I raised the subject, Watson quietly confounded me by raising the possibility that Wittgenstein said so little about the Holocaust because he had felt too much. He recalled a time when he saw Wittgenstein in the college library of St John’s weeping over a copy of the Illustrated London News that had pictures of the aftermath in the German concentration camps.

The thought of the great philosopher’s tears put a gloss on his seemingly confident assurance that we should be silent about that of which we cannot speak. If there is enough silence, of course, then eventually it will always fit. To credit Watson’s anecdote about Wittgenstein, we have to believe that he could tell real tears from the falling water of a bad eye. I have an eye right now that cries all by itself. And we have to believe that it was really Wittgenstein sitting there in the library, and that it was Watson watching him, and that it was Watson who told us about that, and not some other don with the same urge to dress like a dandy and pop out of a cloister with a sudden burst of information.

Wherever there is quiet ivy, there are raving nutters. I suppose I should be more careful to avoid being remembered as one of them, now that I, too, am getting set for the last flight home. Some readers may remember my plan, which is for my unbreathing corpse—“not an event in Life,” Wittgenstein famously said about death—to be flown back to Sydney and dumped into the Harbour just near the Overseas Terminal from which I once left on my search for adventure. Sometimes I would wonder where the adventure was, until I realised that the wondering was it.


Midnight voices

The West Wing Weekly podcast is a great success, I hear. The spontaneous West Wing seminars that can happen over breakfast on my garden terrace leave it far behind. Only this morning we were all busy remembering not just the physical action but the actual words of an encounter between Donna Moss and Josh Lyman, with Donna looking wildly lovely and Josh being a bit of a dork as usual. The time stream is like a jet stream: you would like to get into it and be carried along. For any writer, it’s the only immortality that matters: to become one of the midnight voices, the echoes of always.


Still time yet

On this sunny morning, possibly one of the last I will ever see, one of the volumes of the diary that Ernst Jünger kept in Paris during the Second World War has at last been published in English translation. The first reviews say that the job of translation and annotation is a terrible mess. I’ve had the original German publication on my shelves for years and I would like to check for myself, but I’ve left it a bit late. On the other hand, I’ve gone on for several years now of being nearly dead so there might be still time yet. And for all I know, conking out shows up first as a set of semi-conscious verbal compulsions. “Suddenly it all went sideways.” Would that expression have occurred to me if my face were not falling off? But you’ve guessed right if you think that I make such cracks only to keep my courage up. To make your analysis more comprehensive, however, you might have to add that nobody ever makes a morbid joke for any other reason.

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