Obituary: Clive James, Australian author and poet whose TV criticism led to stardom in the UK

(Picture: MJ Kim/Getty Images)
(Picture: MJ Kim/Getty Images)
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Clive James AO CBE FRSL, writer, poet and broadcaster. Born: 7 October 1939 in Kogarah, Australia. Died: 24 November 2019, Cambridge, aged 80

Clive James, the Australian journalist, joker and intellectual who had a long career as a writer and broadcaster, has died. He was 80.

James’ representatives, United Agents, said he died on Sunday at his home in Cambridge.

James been diagnosed with leukemia and emphysema, and he suffered kidney failure in 2010. “I am a man who is approaching his terminus,” James said in 2012. He later assured well-wishers that he intended to live a few more years – and he did, continuing to write and broadcast until almost the end.

“Clive died almost ten years after his first terminal diagnosis, and one month after he laid down his pen for the last time,” United Agents said. “He endured his ever-multiplying illnesses with patience and good humour, knowing until the last moment that he had experienced more than his fair share of this ‘great, good world’.”

The poet, essayist, author and entertainer had a gift for tickling the divergent sensibilities of the readers of highbrow literary magazines and the audiences of TV in the UK, his adopted home.

James was treasured for his comic gift, such as describing Arnold Schwarzenegger as looking like “a brown condom stuffed with walnuts”.

In one of his best-remembered book reviews, James pronounced an official Soviet biography of President Leonid Brezhnev so dull that “if you were to recite even a single page in the open air, birds would fall out of the sky and dogs drop dead”.

James, in his self-deprecating way, once imagined an acquaintance describing him as “the boy from the bush who could quote [Ludwig] Wittgenstein,” the philosopher.

He was born in 1939 in the Sydney suburb of Kogorah. He was an only child whose father survived a Japanese Second World War prison camp only to die on the flight home, when his son was six.

Though James said he had no memory of his father, he looked back on his father’s death and his mother’s despair as the defining moment of his life. “I understood nothing except that I could not help,” he wrote in Unreliable Memoirs, the first of five autobiographical volumes.

“Eventually in my mid-30s I got a grip on myself,” he added. “But there can be no doubt that I had a tiresomely protracted adolescence, wasting a lot of other people’s time, patience and love.”

Christened Vivian after Australian tennis star Vivian McGrath, James won permission from his mother to choose an unequivocally masculine name. He picked Clive from the character played by Tyrone Power in the 1942 film This Above All.

A scholarship for war orphans paved his way to Sydney University, for which he claimed to be unprepared.

But he read hungrily, contributed to the school’s literary journal and became its editor.

After a stint at the Sydney Morning Herald, he decamped to Britain and Cambridge University. He was already bridging the worlds of academia and showbiz, and served as president in 1966-67 of the Footlights, the university club which spawned stars, including Peter Cook, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, Germaine Greer, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Sacha Baron Cohen and Jonathan Miller, whose death was announced the same day as James’s.

Despite academic success, he fell into depression in his twenties. “The proof that I was getting ready to jump off a cliff or stick my head in an oven – that I was serious – was that I was giving my books away,” he said in an interview in 2007. “It was largely because I was lost, I had no outlets, and I wasn’t expressing myself. I wasn’t doing what keeps me stable now, which is having a stage and a platform.”

James eventually found multiple platforms, writing poetry, contributing to the Times Literary Supplement and London Review of Books, writing books, reviewing TV for the Observer and hosting Saturday Night Clive, The Clive James Show, among others. He also formed a “fleeting friendship” with Princess Diana, an experience which left him with mixed feelings.

“Even before I met her, I had already guessed that she was a handful. After I met her, there was no doubt about it. Clearly on a hair-trigger, she was unstable at best, and when the squeeze was on she was a fruitcake on the rampage. But even while reaching this conclusion I was already smitten,” he wrote in The New Yorker magazine in 1997.

James’ best-selling book Cultural Amnesia celebrated 100 people whose lives he found inspirational. While the book was favorably reviewed, he disavowed any intention to reach the cultural elite.

“It is still my mission in life to write in a way so that anyone who can read will understand that I am talking about something,” he said. “My enemy is elevated language.”

During his long illness, James increasingly focused on writing poetry, including the poem “Japanese Maple,” which was published in The New Yorker in 2014 and became a viral sensation. He recently wrote Play All, a book about binge-watching TV shows, and last month released Somewhere Becoming Rain, a collection of writings about the work of poet Philip Larkin.

A final volume of poems, The Fire Of Joy, was finished a month before his death and is due to be published next year.

In 2012, James’ four-decade marriage to Prudence Shaw, a specialist in Dante and early Italian literature, was shaken by the revelation of his eight-year affair with a younger Australian woman – who compounded his embarrassment by ambushing the ailing James for an Australian TV show. James and Shaw had two daughters, Claerwen and Lucinda.

JILL LAWLESS