Books

Australian journalist and writer Clive James dead at 80

James wrote poetry, contributed to the Times Literary Supplement and London Review of Books, wrote books and hosted several TV shows.
In this April 24, 1997 file photo, Clive James arrives at the Royal Albert Hall for the BAFTA ceremony. (Fiona Hansen/The Associated Press)

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

His representatives, United Agents, said he died Sunday (Nov. 24)  at his home in Cambridge, north of London, and a private funeral was held Wednesday.

James had 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 10 years after his first terminal diagnosis and one month after he laid down his pen for the last time," United Agents said in a statement. "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 Saturday night TV in Britain, his adopted country.

The Australian-born poet, memoirist, broadcaster and critic spoke to Eleanor Wachtel in 2008 about his best-selling book, Cultural Amnesia. James died on November 24, 2019. He was 80. 54:01

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 as 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 World War II 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 the 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, Jonathan Miller, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, Germaine Greer, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle and Sacha Baron Cohen.

Despite academic success, he fell into depression in his 20s. 

"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 with the Financial Times 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 television for The Daily Telegraph and hosting Saturday Night CliveThe Clive James Show and other TV programs.

James' bestselling book Cultural Amnesia celebrated 100 people whose lives he found inspirational. While the book was
favourably 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 on a U.S. television show. "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' more than 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 television program.

James and Shaw had two daughters, Claerwen and Lucinda.

The late Associated Press writer Robert Barr contributed to this obituary.


 

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