The Sunday Magazine

Remembering Clive James and Sir Jonathan Miller, two intellectual polymaths

Clive James and Sir Jonathan Miller can best be described as true polymaths. Among their many achievements, they were writers, humorists, scholars and cultural commentators. We remember two intellectual giants.
Sir Jonathan Miller died on November 27th and Clive James died on November 24th, 2019. (Associated Press/CBC)

Clive James, 1939 — 2019

Clive James once wrote of his own writing, "all I can do is turn a phrase until it catches the light." 

For half a century, James turned phrases like an Olympic gymnast turns cartwheels. He had a precision and energy that make you feel like applauding at the end of a sentence. 

With penetrating wit and light-footed prose, he captured entire personalities. Of George W. Bush's verbal misadventures, he wrote, "Every sentence he manages to utter scatters its component parts like pond water from a verb chasing its own tail." 

Stop worrying. Nobody gets out of this world alive. -  Clive James

He summed up the superstar Beyoncé and her doomed counterpart Amy Winehouse like this: "Beyoncé and pathos are strangers. Amy Winehouse and pathos are flatmates, and you should see the kitchen."

Clive James has been a man for all seasons and pretty much all media. His television column in The Observer newspaper was a must-read through the 1970s. He hosted several television shows and was the author of more than 30 books, a body of work comprising poetry, novels, memoirs and acclaimed volumes of cultural criticism.

In this April 24, 1997 file photo, Clive James arrives at the Royal Albert Hall for the BAFTA ceremony. (Fiona Hansen/The Associated Press)

In 2013, he published a new translation of Dante's Divine Comedy and was made a Commander of the British Empire. Clive James always had a gift for the epigrammatic, but one of his most famous one liners has taken on an added sting. 

"Stop worrying," he wrote. "Nobody gets out of this world alive." Clive James died on November 24th, at the age of 80. 

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

Sir Jonathan Miller, 1934 — 2019

Sir Jonathan Miller was an actor, a writer, a satirist, a cultural commentator and a trained neurologist. (Peter Kramer/Getty Images)

The world lost another polymath of wit, erudition and wide-ranging intellect. 

This week Jonathan Miller died at his home in London, U.K. on Wednesday at the age of 85. He was in no particular order an actor, a writer, a satirist, a cultural commentator and a trained neurologist.

Miller was perhaps best known as one of the founding partners — along with Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore and Peter Cook of Beyond the Fringe the comedy troupe at the vanguard of a wave of British satire that led to Monty Python's Flying Circus

Gaining instant international fame for Beyond the Fringe, Miller then gained wider recognition in the theatre and opera communities respectively. 

In the early 70s, he became one of the directors to watch of Laurence Olivier's National Theatre. Meanwhile, his fresh take on Rigoletto made him a bona-fide star of the English National Opera. 

Jonathan Miller later became a fellow of St. John's College, University of Cambridge his alma mater. He also wrote extensively on culture, including a crique of the late Canadian media professor Marshall McLuhan. 

Miller died on November 27th at the age of 85. 

Click 'listen' above to hear our tributes to Clive James and Sir Jonathan Miller. 

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