THE LIFE OF CLIVE
Author, poet, critic, TV host and occasional toady: the expat legend of letters who charmed generations
CLIVE James, who has died aged 80, was a poet, essayist, critic and lyricist who in middle age gave hope to bald overweight men everywhere, by becoming an improbable TV star in Britain and in his native Australia.
“To speak naturally and still be immediately recognisable is a rare thing,” he once wrote of the poetry of Kingsley Amis, but he might have been speaking of himself.
Opening any page in the stack of Clive James books in front of me is to chance upon a sentence that most of us could never hope to pull off, were we to sit at our keyboards until the Rapture.
Of his first novel: “It even hung up there near the top of the bestseller list for a little while, like a parachute flare with delusions of stardom.”
That’s classic James: a clever and memorably selfdeprecating image deployed in a not-quite-successful attempt to distract the reader from the fact he’s boasting.
But to invert a line from Churchill, Clive James was an immodest man who had much to be immodest about.
Start with his mastery of languages. He read German and French, had a go at Japanese in his 60s and learned Russian because he “could no longer bear not to know something about how Pushkin sounded”.
Oh, and in 2014 he pulled off the supremely difficult job of translating Dante’s Divine Comedy from medieval Italian into 21st century English.
It’s hard to remember from the vantage point of 2019 — when nothing on television is that popular — just how big his TV shows were.
At the height of his fame on commercial British TV in the 1980s, his Clive James On Television show was pulling in 10 million viewers out of a total population of 60 million.
It’s hard, too, to remember how original his programs were. Clip shows have since become a staple of light entertainment schedules, as has the fish-out-of-water travel documentary. But back then no one had done them before — just as before James no one in UK journalism had taken TV criticism seriously.
For 10 years until 1982, his column for The Observer, a “posh Sunday” paper in the jargon of Fleet Street, was a staple of the middle-class Sunday morning. It made his name in the Britain.
It wasn’t until 1980 and the publication of the first volume of his semi-fictionalised autobiography, Unreliable Memoirs, that he became famous in Australia.
Described 35 years later by P.J. O’Rourke “as the best memoir in the world”, it was a book that as a boy I remember adults excitedly telling each other that they just had to read. A vivid and hilarious account of his childhood in Kogarah, ending with his departure from Australia, it was easy to miss how artfully constructed it is.
“Most first novels are disguised autobiographies,” it begins. “This autobiography is a disguised novel.” If this is so, it was a novel that began with a lesson for its hero in how capricious fate can be.
Born Vivian Leopold James, a month after the outbreak of World War II — he gave himself the name “Clive” because Gone With The Wind actor Vivien Leigh had, in his opinion, forever feminised his Christian name — his father Albert was sent overseas almost immediately.
He was reported missing after the fall of Singapore in 1942, and for three years young Clive’s mother had no idea of her husband’s fate.
Then after Japan’s surrender came the news that Albert had survived captivity and was coming home. It was not to be. He was killed when the plane carrying him back to Australia crashed in Taiwan. Clive’s mother suffered a nervous breakdown.
The effect on the young Clive can only be imagined, but you don’t have to be Dr Freud to suspect it lay behind the relentless energy that drove him throughout his life. Few writers’ output picks up in the decade after they are diagnosed with a mortal illness, as he was in 2010.
Ambition like his was never going to be contained by Australia, not in 1962, the year he sailed to England. And if we are being honest, probably not in 2019 either.
The difference is these days he’d set his sights on taking Manhattan, but as with his contemporaries Barry Humphries and Germaine Greer, it was England that claimed him.
And while he might have triumphed professionally, he was not universally loved.
The Poms can spot a climber a mile away. Auberon Waugh dismissed him as “a professional Australian”.
The satirical magazine Private Eye, which always referred to him as “Jaws”, mocked Unreliable Memoirs as The Day I Wanged My Donger In The Kedgeree.
The distaste wasn’t just the distaste of the metropolitan for the colonial. It was also a reflection of the observation that James always seemed to be licking or kicking.
Throughout his collected essays, there is a noticeable absence of attacks on any writer capable of kicking back. Dismembering the abominable prose of the bestselling Judith Krantz is a feat of sorts, but taking apart the abominable prose of Martin Amis would have been a more impressive one.
He could also be a bit of a toady. One of his Cambridge contemporaries — an Australian, I should add — was still laughing 50 years later at the way James hung around the gate of Trinity College on the off-chance of running into Prince Charles.
Years later, he penned a toe-curlingly embarrassing “comic” poem — Charles Charming’s Challenges On The Pathway To The Throne — in what some suspected was an attempt to get himself invited
to Charles’s 1981 wedding to Diana. It was unsuccessful.
“Such a blunder helps to demonstrate that if he calculated, he did not calculate very well,” he once observed of Evelyn Waugh’s failure to accept a proffered honour, though he might have been speaking of himself, going on to add a possibly hard-won piece of wisdom: “In this he differed from the true climber, whose whole ability is never to put a foot wrong.”
If he had stayed home, would he have had such an obsession with climbing the greasy pole and that boastful insecurity that marks the outsider? Probably not.
Would he have achieved what he did? Obviously not.
Clive James in his TV prime with (from top left) another legendary expat, Kylie Minogue; Welsh actor Catherine Zeta-Jones; at the Adelaide Grand Prix; with Jana Wendt and Ray Martin; and back in his beloved Sydney.