One of Australia’s most acclaimed cultural exports, Clive James, has died in England aged 80.
He had been diagnosed with leukaemia and emphysema in 2010 and since then, had been telling the world of his impending death.
A statement on his website confirmed he died at home in Cambridge on Sunday (local time) and a funeral was held on Wednesday.
The ‘Kid from Kogarah’, a prolific wordsmith with an acerbic intellect, colossal vocabulary and passion for poetry, always retained a fondness for his Australian heritage, despite five decades of British residency.
Australia’s High Commissioner to the UK, George Brandis, paid tribute to “an intellectual giant”.
“He was unquestionably the greatest Australian poet of his time; as well as being a witty and incisive critic and a hugely gifted man of letters,” Mr Brandis said in a statement.
“He combined a true scholar’s erudition with a good-natured scepticism that was very Australian. Mr James was a good friend of Australia House and he will be missed by Australians and British people alike.”
‘A showman and a recluse at the same time’
James’s sharp wit infiltrated households throughout the world as he entertained thousands with his newspaper columns and multiple radio and television programs.
In a career spanning 50 years, James also published poems and essays, memoirs, literature and song lyrics.
New Republic once observed that when James died, it would be as if a plane had crashed with five or six of England’s best writers aboard.
His daughter Claerwen referred to him a “a showman and a recluse at the same time”.
James will quite likely be best remembered for his hilarious and insightful first autobiography, Unreliable Memoirs, which he described as “a dream of Australia which shows Australia as a dream”.
However, as death approached, James’s offerings became those of a man reconciling his fate.
Rather than fade away, his illness seemed to inspire within him an urgency to capture every idea and thought.
Since 2010, he published eight books, including a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy and Sentenced to Life, a collection of poems described by the New York Times as “harrowing” and “gravid with meaning”.
Until mid 2017, he was penning a weekly column for The Guardian called Reports of My Death in which he wrote about “life, death and everything in between” in an amusing deadpan style.
Writing almost to the end, an autobiographical anthology called The Fire of Joy was finished a month ago and will be published in 2020, according to his website.
Poetry was first and lasting love
Of all his contributions to literature, James’s greatest passion was for poetry.
He published five collections of verse and wrote lyrics for musician and close friend Pete Atkin.
“Writing song lyrics is my favourite form of writing anything,” he told The Guardian in 2008.
He and Atkin collaborated for 40 years, with James making his vocal debut in 1975 singing a rendition of the Telly Savalas hit, If.
In an interview in The Australian in early 2015, James described how his fertile mind worked.
“An idea comes in the head like a tiny meteorite that’s been roaming about in space,” he said.
“It comes in and hits you right in the head. The idea!
“The word needs capital letters all the way through! The IDEA is everything.”
Japanese Maple, a heartfelt poem released in 2014 and based on the tree given to him by his daughter, detailed his revelations about life and death.
As expected, he treated the subject with dignity, elegance and grace.
His last poetry collection, Sentenced to Life, published in April 2015 was described by The Independent as “essentially, a love letter to Australia”.
James was working on a collection of literary reflections, to be entitled Latest Readings, at the time of his death.
In 2013, motivated by his declining health, he finally published a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, a project which had been a decade in the making.
Kogarah kid’s childhood of hijinks
Born Vivian Leopold James on October 7, 1939 in Kogarah, a suburb of Sydney, his mother later gave him the choice of a new first name.
He settled on Clive after watching a Tyrone Power movie at the Saturday matinee.
An only child, James never knew his father, who survived imprisonment in a Japanese POW camp only to be killed in a plane crash on his way home from World War II.
The death of his father and its effect on his mother’s happiness had an immense impact on James, who regularly referred to his father’s tragic demise.
“I was witness to the full force of human grief, and I was six years old and there was nothing I could do about it. And I think that probably marked me for life,” he said in a 2007 interview.
In the first volume of his memoirs, James wrote about his lack of paternal guidance and his subsequent amusing but hair-raising childhood escapades.
He not only detailed the antics of his fatherless youth but the subsequent stress inflicted on his widowed mother, and admitted to a self-destructive streak in a 2012 interview.
An ardent smoker, he once filled a hub cap with cigarette butts in one day.
After leaving Sydney Technical High School, James studied psychology at Sydney University, where he edited the university’s student newspaper.
He soon became associated with the Sydney Push, a group of liberal-thinking intellectuals and, aged 22 and uncomfortably aware of his mother’s proximity, he fled to London.
The lure of swinging London
London in the 60s was a far cry from Sydney, and James lived a bohemian existence alongside fellow Australian émigrés Robert Hughes and Germaine Greer.
While studying at Cambridge University, he began contributing to various undergraduate periodicals and his writing soon came to the attention of London’s literary editors.
He also found himself president of Footlights, the university’s amateur theatrical club.
In 1972, The Observer newspaper hired James to write a weekly column of humorous and scathing television reviews, which ran for 10 years.
It was during this time that James first appeared before the cameras, gradually becoming a renowned television presenter while also writing and hosting numerous TV series and specials.
These included Clive James on Television, Fame in the 20th Century and the pioneering travel program series, Postcards From … .
Monty Python star Eric Idle called James his “pal at Cambridge” and said it was “savage news” to hear of James’s death, coupled with the death of theatre director Jonathan Miller, announced on the same day.
“To lose one friend is bad, but two reeks of carelessness,” he wrote on Twitter.
“It’s a f***ing rainy day in LA appropriate for tears.”
Another giant of UK comedy, Stephen Fry, paid tribute to James (as well as Miller), describing them as “heroes” of his.
James retired from television in 2001 to focus on his writing, and began presenting a weekly BBC Radio 4 broadcast, A Point of View.
It gave him the opportunity to deliver pithy reflections on issues ranging from politics to pop culture in a series of vocal “essays”.
“The secret of criticism is to know what your real feelings are before you try to express them,” he once said.
Declining health did not slow him down
Despite his declining health, James did not abandon his career — just redefined it on his terms, from the comfort of his home.
Most recently, he had focused his creative abilities on his personal website, a platform for his cultural critique of art, music, poetry and literature.
It was here also that James showcased his series Talking in the Library, a collection of interviews with charismatic individuals held in his home.
While maintaining his website and attending multiple medical appointments, he also continued to write a weekly television column for The Telegraph in London.
But it was not all literature for the multi-lingual James who was a fan of Game of Thrones, Formula One racing and art.
Tango dancing, another great love, led him to Buenos Aires to learn the technique before installing a dance floor in his flat in London.
An unlikely Lothario, James had a deep admiration for women, an interest which resulted in his being evicted from the family home in 2012 following revelations of an eight-year affair with a former model.
“I realised that being a married man was the centre of my existence and the anchor,” he told Kerry O’Brien in a 2013 interview.
“I’m not built for it. I’m built to be Ulysses — not physically perhaps!”
James addressed the affair in a poem titled Lecons des Tenebres (Lessons of Darkness) that was included in his 2015 book of poetry, Sentenced To Life.
“Far too casually I broke faith when it suited me, and here I am alone and now the end is near,” he wrote.
After the publication, he admitted to the BBC he “was a bad husband” and apologised for his mistakes.
“I mustn’t be too facile about it or actually talk too much because I have a pact with my family that they’ll execute me if I do,” he said.
“But yes, I could’ve behaved a lot better and (I’m) sorry I didn’t.”
James made his last stage appearance at London’s inaugural Australia & New Zealand Festival of Literature & Arts in June 2014, and shared his effusive wit and humour — and the true poet within — with his audience.
“The poetry I write now, I think, is quite a lot more penetrating and sensitive than my earlier work — because it needs to be,” he said.
“Inevitably you start saying goodbye. I like to think that I hit a sort of plangent tone of threnody, a sort of Last Post, a recessional tone.”
He joked about his frequent hospital visits, and said his illness provided “terrific material” for his poetry and allowed him to see that he had had a lucky life.
James was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 1992, a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2010 and an Officer in the Order of Australia (AO) in 2013.
He is survived by his wife Prue Shaw and two daughters, Claerwen and Lucinda.