THE LIFE OF CLIVE

Au­thor, poet, critic, TV host and oc­ca­sional toady: the ex­pat le­gend of let­ters who charmed gen­er­a­tions

Herald Sun - - FRONT PAGE - JAMES CAMP­BELL james.camp­[email protected]

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.

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