The Enduring Prose and Poetry of Clive James

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s pumped body was like “a brown condom full of walnuts”. Damon Hill’s Formula 1 car was “a modern sculpture propelled by burning money”. Television was “the haunted fish tank”, a sense of humour was merely “common sense, dancing” and a luxury liner was nothing but “a bad play surrounded by water”. Sydney’s Opera House looked like “a portable typewriter full of oyster shells”.

You didn’t need to read Clive James’s books or poems to feel the impact he made on the English language. You only had to watch television or read the papers.

No one could launch a ringing phrase with such effortless ease. No one was so sharp, so quotable and so available. There are throwaway lines from his Observer television column, his F1 shows and his Postcard from … travel documentaries that are gleefully repeated on Twitter decades after they were first minted.

A limp BBC classic serial was branded “Wuth­ering Depths”, Dallas’s J.R. Ewing had “a hat-band composed of crushed budgerigars” and the romantic novelist Barbara Cartland’s maquillage became the most famous make-up in town: “Twin miracles of mascara, her eyes looked like the corpses of two small crows that had crashed into a chalk cliff.”

This essay appears in the current Quadrant.
Click here to subscribe

No other writer could capture the popular imagination like this. But this generous, glittering shrapnel of unforgettable imagery all fell outside the realms of Clive’s formal literary career, leaving him with an unfair reputation as a brilliant lightweight who never quite fulfilled his dazzling potential.

The antidote to this is simple. Forget the image; read his work. If Clive James had not been such a popular and familiar figure, it would be even clearer now that we should be mourning the loss, a year ago, of a literary giant. 

Immortality was important to Clive. For nearly a decade before his death, staying alive was a constant struggle.

After the discovery in 2010 that he faced at least three life-threatening problems, including leukaemia, severe emphysema and partial kidney failure, Clive and his doctors fought a long, attritional battle to keep him going. A few months before the end, when I took Clive the first proofs of my book about his poems, his elder daughter, Claerwen, made it clear that things had taken a turn for the worse. “Dad’s up to seven now,” she said. “They’re trying to juggle seven separate conditions, but he’s still working, of course. That’s what he does.”

Temporary immortality was needed to write the things he wanted to get written. But permanent immortality was what he craved. He was immensely proud of his best stuff—the weighty Cultural Amnesia, the million-selling Unreliable Memoirs and poems such as “The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered” and “Japanese Maple”—but he was always driven by the feeling that he should be leaving more behind when he finally bowed out.

The last projects he completed were his collection of writings on Larkin, Somewhere Becoming Rain, and the highly personal poetry anthology The Fire of Joy. Neither of these was even conceived until February 2019. Clive had been in hospital for eight hours of ominously complex cancer surgery that initially left him barely able to see or speak. But as he started his recovery, the two ideas began to gel in his restless brain.

The Larkin book could be done quickly—it was mainly a matter of pulling together all the pieces he’d written on his poetic hero over nearly half a century and adding some introductory notes. 

The other last-gasp project, The Fire of Joy, would be a personal selection of English poems, with a good-humoured commentary on each, that would provide a welcoming way in for non-specialists and people coming to poetry for the first time. “This is something I’ve done with the next generation in mind,” he told me. “This is me doing my duty to the kids who are to come.”

The Fire of Joy was originally planned to include 100 poems, rather than the eighty-four that appear in the final volume. You can spot the gaps. There’s no Spenser or Sidney and nothing for a hundred years between Marvell’s “Definition of Love” and Burns’s “Tam o’ Shanter”—so no Dryden, no Pope and no Gray’s “Elegy”.

There are also modern poets Clive loved who would almost certainly have been included if time had allowed. There would surely have been spaces reserved for his compatriots Philip Hodgins and Peter Goldsworthy, for two contrasting Americans, Michael Donaghy and John Updike, and for the utterly English John Betjeman.

With these gaps filled, his rosary of poems would have seemed less idiosyncratic. But it would still have reflected his specific tastes and prejudices.

Huge though the differences are between Marvell and Sylvia Plath or Eliot and Kipling, Clive was always listening out, ear cocked and attentive, for the sound of poetry, the compressed music of language turned and tuned to carry a weight beyond its normal meaning. His phrase “poems to get by heart and say aloud”, which became the subtitle to The Fire of Joy, defined a private aesthetic that was flexible and open to surprises, but pitilessly hard on pretension or failure.

Clive liked and admired William Empson, for example. He called him “a genius”. He is happy to include Empson’s “Missing Dates” in The Fire of Joy, because he likes the overall effect. But he is scathing about the first line (“Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills”), which, he says, “sounds like a translation from one of those Germanic languages which the verb at the end of the sentence place”.

At the other extreme, there is Lowell. Clive detested the “prodigiously gifted and ambitious” Robert Lowell—and the feeling was mutual. Lowell’s “Will Not Come Back” is included in The Fire of Joy because it insisted on being there, for its sumptuous richness, its sonorous music and its daring imagery. The poem has an integrity the man lacked. The poet’s dark swallows “stopped full flight to see your beauty”, which, as Clive points out, is a startling aerodynamic feat. In Lowell’s “magic land”, though, these things can happen without straining credibility: “He could make a surrealist landscape feel like a real one.”

Clive’s own poetry could rise to dizzy heights of inventive energy (“The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered”) or tread the narrow border between raw emotion and indulgent sentimentality (“Japanese Maple”, “My Father Before Me”, “Use of Space”). But he could also shoot himself in the foot.

By common consent, he was a better critic than poet. But he was a great critic and, at his best, a very considerable poet.

A year ago, in a shrewd obituary piece for Quadrant, Stephen McInerney argued that what the poetry needed now was a fierce, discriminating editor who would sift through Clive’s 300 poems and sort out the single volume of twenty unassailably brilliant gems that would establish his poetic reputation for the ages. McInerney was right. There are scores of lines where the audacious phrasemaking creates moments of beauty and wonder, but they are followed, every now and then, by the thud of small banalities and awkward discords.

This deafness to his own bum notes is odd in a writer with such critical skills and such a passionate concern for the sounds, senses, rhythms, associations and etymologies of our mongrel tongue’s vast lexicon. But the truth is that Clive, like all truly creative writers, wrote largely by instinct.

Images like the “brown condom full of walnuts” and the “haunted fish tank” arrived fully formed, out of nowhere. There might be some checking afterwards—Does this mean what I want it to mean? Are there unfortunate jingles or echoes of something else? Can I push the idea a step further?—but these coinages were not consciously pieced together from the building blocks of language. That’s not to say that he didn’t work hard and methodically to shape and refine what he called his “zingers”. But the initial, inspired impulse was almost always a bolt from the blue—and the bolt sometimes misfired.

One instance of this occurs in “Use of Space”, a fine poem from his last slim volume, Injury Time. This starts off talking about his granddaughter’s Modern Dance Certificate exam and the high mark she has gained in the Use of Space category. The girl appears to be some sort of quantum grandchild:

                                                                … I’ve seen
Her switch to different corners of the room
Without, it seems, crossing the space between

This is a fresh and potent image, and the poem goes on to develop the use-of-space theme, building to a hauntingly memorable ending:

The old ones disappear, the young dance on;
They use the space we make by being gone.

But the effect is undoubtedly marred by the two lines before this, which seem just too easy, too pat, too glibly convenient in their dogged Victorian rhythm:

And you are for the wind and waves, my friend,
And all of this is timely, true and just.

Picking this apart, it seems likely that both “ands”, the gratuitously chummy “my friend” and even the phrase “all of this” are simply there to fill out the lines. Elsewhere in the poem, the shifting rhythmic subtleties within the pentameter form are exploited with care and ingenuity. Here, as we approach the climax, Clive fumbles the ball.

“Use of Space” still has a lot to recommend it. But Clive, or his poetry editor and collaborator for more than twenty years, Don Paterson, could surely have made these lines work harder. (Like Ezra Pound vetoing the opening fifty-four lines of “The Waste Land”, Paterson often made quite drastic interventions. There was one poem, “Visitation of the Dove”, where he insisted, even after first publication, that the fourth and final stanza should be scrapped. Clive strongly disagreed, argued, tried several rewrites and eventually gave way. “The annoying thing,” he told me, “is that Don was dead right.”) 

When I met Clive, in 1970, he was a jobbing journo and literary critic, writing for the Listener and the Times Literary Supplement. But his ambitions were focused mainly on the lyrics he wrote for his musical partner, Pete Atkin. These songs—funny, sharp, tender and, as it turns out, timeless—were meant to make their fortune, but this was never going to happen. They were too knowing, too wordy and too demanding for the pop charts. But the partnership worked well, in its own terms. It survived for nearly fifty years, delivering 200 original songs and ten albums, right up to The Colours of the Night in 2015.

The words made audiences work for their pleasures, with Clive’s lyrics introducing a typically extravagant range of styles and references. One song on the first LP included offhand mentions of Petrarch and Ronsard and blithely hijacked a familiar line from a Shakespeare sonnet (“They never said ‘Farewell’, They said ‘So long,’ / So long lives this and this gives life to thee”). The delicate “Touch Has a Memory” stole a phrase from Keats as its title and starting point, while “Have You Got a Biro I Can Borrow?” was firmly grounded in the everyday.

The album’s title track, “Beware of the Beautiful Stranger”, was ostensibly a comedy number, the tale of a sceptical youth who peers into the gypsy’s crystal ball and finds he is actually seeing the dangerous beautiful stranger he has yet to meet—followed by the next, and the next, and the next, in an endless succession: “For the damned, there is always a stranger / There is always a Beautiful Stranger.” Even today, the piled-up punchlines draw yelps of laughter from unsuspecting audiences. But the writing is not just funny. It is shrewd, intelligent and beautifully crafted, passing itself off as mere entertainment while nudging close to the status of poetry.

“You live in a dream and the dream is a cage,”
Said the girl, “And the bars nestle closer with age.
Your shadow burned white by invisible fire,
You will learn how it rankles to die of desire,
As you long for the Beautiful Stranger,”
Said the vanishing Beautiful Stranger.

Over the years, the range of subjects proliferated. Clive wrote about love, death and music, but also about space flight, alcoholism, Elvis in Vegas, the US in Vietnam and the children of Auschwitz (“A Hill of Little Shoes”). “Nothing should be out of bounds,” he said. “I’ve always felt you can write a song about anything.”

The duo’s bid for glory was happening in a Britain that was finally shaking off its post-war torpor and discovering intriguing novelties like duvets and avocados, cunnilingus and credit cards, showers and stereo, cannabis and central heating, four-letter words and fondues, seatbelts and colour television. The Beatles, Joni Mitchell and Dylan were pushing the boundaries of popular song, moving their audiences forward with them, album by album. The Atkin/James recordings didn’t do this. The tracks on each album were so different from each other, in subject, sound and musical genre, that people found it hard to keep up.

Clive and Pete had teamed up at Cambridge, where they both wrote and performed for the Footlights. Clive had arrived at the university via a circuitous route, having spent his first years in London bouncing around between jobs in a sheet metal factory, a market research company and the Penguin Books photo library. At Cambridge, he read English, though, as he pointed out, that, for him, meant reading everything except what was on the syllabus.

By the time he left, clutching an unexpectedly generous 2:1 and the first few pages of a never-to-be-completed PhD thesis on Shelley, the Atkin/James partnership had written dozens of songs. Their future was written in the stars, but it wasn’t what anyone had predicted. Over the next few years, Pete played in folk clubs and colleges, recorded six albums and built up a cult following, the loyal remnants of which still turn up for his gigs half a century later. New songs were being written every year, but Clive’s other career was gathering pace and the launch of his bracingly original television column in the Observer, in 1972, sent him off on a wholly new trajectory. 

Vivian Leopold James was born to working-class parents in the Sydney suburb of Kogarah in October 1939, weeks after the beginning of the Second World War. He never knew his father, Albert, a mechanic, who went off to fight and was captured by the Japanese when Singapore fell. Albert survived imprisonment, beatings and forced labour in Japan, but was killed, after the war was over, when an American B-24 bringing Australian POWs home crashed in a typhoon.

Clive had spent the war years with his mother, Minora, at his aunt’s home in Jannali. When the shattering news of her husband’s death arrived, the boy was there with her. The curt military telegram plunged her into inconsolable grief, leaving her six-year-old son largely uncomprehending but painfully conscious of his inability to fill the gap and help her cope with her loss. They moved back to their own home, the little two-bedroomed house in Kogarah, a mile from the sea and ten miles south of Sydney, and Clive had to start again, with a new school, new friends and a new life. Part of this new life was the adoption of the name Clive. His mother allowed him to choose it himself, after he complained that Vivian was an embarrassment, because it sounded like a girl’s name. It didn’t matter how you spelt it; Vivien Leigh’s success in Gone with the Wind had made the name too much of a cross for a young boy to bear.

Kogarah forms the backdrop to Clive’s best-known book, Unreliable Memoirs. This tells the story of his life up to the age of twenty-two, when he set sail for England, and has a lasting reputation for incontinence-inducing humour. Unreliable Memoirs is regularly cited when people are asked to name their favourite book and there are several scenes—in particular, the billycart racing sequence and the story about the dunny man, who collected the waste every week from Margaret Street’s unsewered outside toilets—that are fondly remembered by every reader.

What is strange about these passages is that the situations are not especially funny. The long train of connected billycarts eventually crashes in a shower of big kids, younger siblings, bits of wood, ball bearings, stuffed koalas and dummies. The hard-working dunny man, running with the brimming waste can on his back, trips over a bike and disappears under a wave of excrement and a cloud of a million enthusiastic houseflies. In each case, there is a single moment of classic slapstick. But, as with Keaton and Chaplin, it is the build-up, the anticipation, the overall pacing of the sequence, that stretches the joke and transforms routine comedy into something special.

Pete Atkin remembers touring with Clive in the UK and Australia and watching audiences reduced to helpless hilarity. “It was the timing,” he says. “Clive had honed these stories meticulously, word by word, beat by beat. The expectation built up with an irresistible momentum. Every night there would be people crying with laughter and literally gasping for breath. I would just sit there at the piano and watch in awe, marvelling at the power of his words.”

The actual texture of the narrative style in Unreliable Memoirs depends on a combination of minutely observed detail—Clive is particularly good at sounds—and mock heroic phrasing. The vocabulary is sometimes wilfully obscure, as when “a gravid hum in the air” heralds the imminent arrival of the flies, and the imagery often has an exaggerated comic grandeur: “Millions of flies were on their way towards us. They were coming from all over Australia. For them, it was a Durbar, a moot, a gathering of the clans.”

But if the book is renowned for making people laugh, it also contains moments of acute psychological insight. When he’s studying psychology at Sydney University, he decides Freud’s theories are too inflexible to accommodate real life: “Undoubtedly, my father having been mysteriously killed, I had inherited exclusive rights to my mother’s favours. But to suggest that either of the two survivors had in any way desired such an outcome was patently ludicrous.” The tone is light, mock heroic in a slightly different way, but you can see the bright intelligence at work in the background. And when the moment’s right, he is not afraid to spin off into richly poetic lyricism: “In Sydney Harbour, 12,000 miles away and ten hours from now, the yachts will be racing on the crushed diamond water under a sky the texture of powdered sapphires.”

The secret of the continuing popularity of Unreliable Memoirs is its child’s-eye view of the complexity and ambiguity of so much that happens to us as we grow towards adulthood. But the title itself wrecked its chances in America, where the New York Times and others piled in to argue, with po-faced gravity, that any memoir that was unreliable was simply not worth having.

“That was enough to finish it off in the US,” Clive told me. “I had three publishers there in as many years. America’s got a world to dominate. It can’t waste time fooling around with writers who say: ‘What I’m telling you here might not be true.’”

After ten years of writing the UK’s most eagerly-read newspaper column, and with a best-seller under his belt, Clive had the world at his feet.

New opportunities were opening up and, being Clive, he set off in several directions at once. He moved in front of the television cameras and became, for two decades, one of the best-known faces on Britain’s screens. He wrote a successful novel, Brilliant Creatures, which was later followed by three more before he decided that was a field best left to his friends, the McEwans, Amises and Barneses. And he wrote fourteen spiky and evocative travel pieces for the Observer—he dubbed them “postcards”—from various cities around the globe, which were collected and published by Picador under the title Flying Visits and became an unexpected hit.

Looking back, it’s not hard to see why. These articles, direct ancestors of his much-loved Postcard television documentaries, were dashed off as deadline journalism, but they contain some extraordinary writing. The description of “riding down out of the sky into Massachusetts” is genuinely poetic prose. Set it out like verse and it could easily be part of a poem:

As we let down into Boston, I watched
The magic suitcase of the Boeing wing unpack itself,
The flaps jacking out
And curving down
To turn the aerofoil into a parasol

The movement, the angular “jacking out” followed by the smooth “curving down” and the slowing rhythm as the dynamic aerofoil is transformed and settles into a sedate and static parasol, directly mirrors the action as the plane prepares for landing. How much time or effort Clive put into this one sentence we will never know. In the book, it comes and goes unheralded in mid-paragraph, but this is writing powered by a rare combination of sublime instinct and supreme technical skill. On the same page, he lobs in a one-line insight others might write whole books about, when he remarks that “People have always destroyed each other on as grand a scale as the prevailing technology allowed.” A couple of pages later, he is busy denying any superpowers—“All I do for a living is put words beside each other”—but the evidence is in front of us and the court is not likely to be convinced by such professions of modesty.

Right up to the end of the century, television took up most of Clive’s time and much of his energy. Clive James on Television introduced viewers to the notorious Japanese “torture TV” game show Endurance. It was followed by Saturday Night Clive, Sunday Night Clive, the eight-part Fame in the 20th Century and The Clive James Show, which brought us the singular talents of the Cuban novelty singer Margarita Pracatan (“She never lets the words or melody get in her way. She is us, without the fear of failure”). There were programs about Formula 1 racing and end-of-term reviews every New Year’s Eve. And there were the Postcard from … films, starting with Clive James’s Postcard from Rio and moving on to Bombay, London, Los Angeles, Paris, Sydney, Hong Kong and a dozen other cities.

The tone of the Postcards was generally light, with ingratiating celebrity interviews and many sequences that involved Clive shamelessly goofing it up for the camera. But there was sharp observation, too—of poverty, of the fatuity of the rich and famous and of political repression. Clive’s team was filming in China during the demonstrations leading up to the Tiananmen Square massacre and the atmosphere of fear and tension is duly documented in his Postcard from Shanghai.

The Postcard scripts have never been collected in print, so there are many deft satirical thrusts and gloriously vivid turns of phrase that have largely been lost. In the report from Los Angeles, for example, he takes a tour round the dream mansions of the ultra-rich and notes how they advertise their insecurities by trying to have everything, all there on show, all at once: “In Beverly Hills, you can see where all the world’s architectural styles come to cohabit and hatch their hybrids—the Austro-Hungarian hacienda, the neo-colonial baronial pagoda, the Kyoto rococo palazzo, the Tudor igloo.”

Throughout the television years, Clive’s admirers in literary circles couldn’t help feeling he was too keen on the limelight and too concerned with making money. Jealousy may have come into it, too, but there was a general feeling that he had talent to burn and should not ignite it so publicly. That’s not how he saw it.

“I believe in mass communication, not art for the few,” he said. “The short answer to why I’m wasting my talent is that I never heard much about this talent before I started wasting it.”

For all his frenetic globetrotting activity, Clive was still finding time to compose poems and songs, review books and write weighty essays on serious cultural and political topics.

When Daniel Goldhagen published Hitler’s Willing Executioners in 1996, alleging that ordinary Germans had gone along far too readily with the Nazis’ murderous anti-Semitism, Clive responded with a long and closely argued response, criticising Goldhagen for being “Hitler’s Unwitting Exculpator”. The essay was written in hotels, taxis and breaks in filming for the mariachi-and-sombreros froth of a disappointing Postcard from Mexico City. The show, the least successful in ten years of postcarding, lacked the surprises, insights and sense of discovery of the best Postcards. It seemed tired and clichéd, almost as if the sequences had been blocked out on the back of an envelope before the team even left London. But Clive’s late nights typing away in his hotel room were worth the effort. The piece evoked many strong reactions, but the one that meant most to him came from his friend Ian McEwan. “That,” he wrote, “is what you should be doing.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Clive agreed. He started extricating himself from his commitments, selling his production company, Watchmaker, in 1998 and pocketing enough money to secure his family’s future. He bowed out of television as the new millennium began and settled down to work independently, writing the essays, journalism and poetry that really mattered to him. His output was huge, and in 2006 he unleashed his non-fiction masterpiece, Cultural Amnesia.

This was an 850-page blockbuster, consisting of 106 brief essays, arranged in alphabetical order, on the characters he felt had determined the course of Western culture and liberal democracy’s fight for survival in the twentieth century. Most of those featured were Clive’s heroes—from Akhmatova to Stefan Zweig, by way of Camus and Dick Cavett, Fellini and W.C. Fields, Egon Friedell and Terry Gilliam, Kafka and Keats, Beatrix Potter and Marcel Proust, Tacitus, Waugh and Wittgenstein. Others were his villains—Hitler, Goebbels and Mao, but also Sartre (Stalin’s apologist, “a devil’s advocate worse than the devil himself, because the advocate was smarter”), Edward “Decline and Fall” Gibbon, Alexandra Kollontai and the “dismaying” Walter Benjamin.

First up is Anna Akhmatova, a femme fatale and major poet, savagely widowed and fighting a forty-year war against Soviet paranoia. Second, there is Peter Altenberg, a wit and a wastrel, littering the streets of pre-war Vienna with tiny shards of wisdom. Altenberg was revered by the writers and intellectuals of the city’s café society, but he never quite got round to writing anything as substantial as a book. Clive James wrote more than forty—eleven in his last, dying decade—yet he, too, may be fated to be remembered more for the swarms of detachable brilliancies he left us than for any single volume.

The third chapter of Cultural Amnesia begins with the assertion that Louis Armstrong died in 1971 having done “as much as anyone since Lincoln to change the history of the United States”. Clive guides us gently through the reasoning. Apart from being a musical trailblazer himself, Armstrong was a great fan of Bix Beiderbecke and said so loudly and often, helping to break down the prejudice that held that white musicians could not play jazz and to launch the idea that it was a genuinely all-American art form.

Throughout this chapter, Armstrong shares the honours with Bix, but Clive’s most interesting and closely examined subject, as so often, is himself. He uses the discussion about the two trumpeters as his platform to talk about the direct influence he feels this music had on how he wrote: “From the moment I learned to hear them in music, syncopation and rhythm were what I wanted to get into my writing.” Syncopation, rhythm, flaring invention, exuberant energy, unexpected harmonies and resonances, humour, melancholy and show-off virtuosity—they were all there in the music of these inspirational jazzmen. His ambition was to capture the same qualities in his words. If he sometimes tried and failed, it was worth it. He was a high-risk writer, which is why his best is so rewarding.

By the time he reaches Z for Zweig, we have heard, directly or indirectly, from many different voices, far more than the hundred or so individuals explicitly featured in the book. “I’ve not read everything, nor have I remembered everything I have read,” Clive protested. But he spanned an enormous range, across many languages and traditions, and his elephantine memory gave him access to most of it. He wears the learning lightly, most of the time, but he can always dig out the apt quote from his reading in German, French, Russian, Italian, Spanish and Latin, even, on occasion, Japanese.

Cultural Amnesia had been brewing in Clive’s head for decades. He’d spent thirty-seven years thinking about it and three years writing it. Even at the very end of his life, he was still nursing the idea of a follow-up volume, Cultural Amnesia 2. He referred to this possibility in the introduction to the new edition in 2012, and he was still talking about it in conversations we had in the last years of his life, alongside his insistence that he was trying to hold on long enough to finish the final volume of his memoirs.

He was under contract to his publishers to deliver Unreliable Memoirs Vol. 6 and he used to joke that their secret agents were being sent to shoot him full of life-saving medicines while he slept, ruthlessly keeping him alive to ensure the manuscript was completed. “I know what’s going on,” he told me. “They’re stealing into my bedroom at night and shoving a needle in my arm.”

Even if there was time to write the story of his last years, he said, it would inevitably consist of “almost nothing except lying there being probed and squeezed” day after day: “An account of the proceedings would be like a book of pornography with the sex left out.”

The actual course of Clive’s illnesses was erratic and unpredictable. As he saw it, staying alive was easy—it was simply a matter of “throwing a double six, time after time”. Sometimes new and even untried therapies became available at the last moment. One of these new treatments for his chronic lymphocytic leukaemia became the subject of a jaunty poem, “Ibrutinib”, in his last collection of original verse, Injury Time.

And what comes next might not last very long.
But let’s see what Ibrutinib can do
To win the war whose battlefield is you.

Back in 2011, when his condition seemed relatively stable, he had travelled to America with his wife, Prue, for a major exhibition of Claerwen’s paintings. Flying would have been risky, so they went by sea. By the time the QE2 docked in New York, Clive was clearly unwell and he was rushed straight to hospital. The problem was a dangerous deep vein thrombosis, and he spent two weeks in intensive care in Manhattan’s Mount Sinai Hospital. While he was there, his friend Adam Gopnik, who wrote for the New Yorker, brought him a pile of books, including a biography of Walt Whitman. Day by day, Clive fought his way back from the brink, and he eventually left hospital with a new poem, “Whitman and the Moth”, which was one of the highlights of his 2012 collection, Nefertiti in the Flak Tower.

But the deep vein thrombosis drama was nothing compared with the crisis that struck a few months later, when an unexpected response to a routine dose of steroids derailed Clive’s mental equilibrium and plunged him into a severe psychotic reaction. Within hours, this uniquely witty, erudite, cerebral man found himself locked up in the secure psychiatric ward at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge. It was a nightmare. “I was nuts,” he told me. “I was bouncing off the walls.”

At the time, this devastating turn of events was a closely guarded secret. Only the family and a few friends knew what was happening to Clive. There were no leaks, no news stories, no cruel tabloid headlines shouting “Clever-clogs Clive locked up in funny farm”.

It was only when Injury Time was published, six years later, with two poems explicitly talking about this shattering experience, that anyone on the outside could know what he’d been through. Even then, the critics and reviewers failed to notice what was clearly spelt out in “Not Forgetting George Russell” and “Recollected in Tranquillity”. Clive never wrote about it or spoke about it in interviews. When he died, it wasn’t mentioned in any of the obituaries.

“It was unflattering that nobody noticed,” he told me. “You’d have thought that the press, who’d been quick enough to clamber over other aspects of my private life, would have spotted it and made something of it. I suppose you know, deep in your heart, that the people who dash into print with their reviews won’t have read all the poems, even in a slim volume like this. But I was surprised no one at all picked up on it.”

As the weeks went by, there was little sign of improvement. Worried doctors warned the family that Clive’s decline might prove irreversible. This might be the end. There were periods of lucidity, but most of the time he was confused, sedated and suffering.

“It was a tough time, the toughest I’ve ever had since I fell sick,” he said. “It was a bad few weeks—and it seemed like forever.”

Yet there was still one part of him, the writer inside, that was coldly aware of the way this harrowing ordeal could one day be mined for literary gold. The zombified patients, the woman who burbled the same song night and day and the man who stole other people’s clothes—they were so far outside the realms of normal experience that he knew he would eventually find himself writing about them.

“I could have hugged the Trouser Thief, because I knew he was going to be a future theme. It was as if he’d just been sent from Central Casting.”

The poem that came directly out of this, “Recollected in Tranquillity”, is unusual in its shifting, unpredictable rhyme scheme and graphically vivid in its content. It takes the raw material of Clive’s traumatic breakdown and transmutes it into art:

This peace, which will be perfect by and by
Came out of chaos. When the drugs went wrong
It almost seemed a burden not to die
As I shared that Babelic rumpus room
With the Trouser Thief and the lady with one song
She sang for ever

It was ten weeks before he was released from the locked ward. Steroids were banned from his treatment schedule and the psychosis did not return. But, as Clive admits in this poem, the “sad spell of frenzy” had changed him for ever. There was still “something ill-mended in my mind”, but he was soon back at his desk for an unlikely burst of sustained productivity that lasted until the final weeks of his life, despite alarms and excursions that took him back into Addenbrooke’s for repeated infusions, investigations and surgery.

The last time I saw Clive was in July 2019, four months before his death. Battered, bearded and tired, he was still sharp and thoughtful and eager to talk about The Fire of Joy.

“I wrote it backwards, really, because it comes round again in the last chapter so you end up in Sydney, where I began. I was surrounded there by young poets, who were all friends of mine.

“I made one important choice then—that I always wanted to be intelligible as a writer. That was the last thing any of my bunch did; they were terrific at being high-flown and obscure. But they were in the wrong place, because Australia was—and is—a democratic nation.

“I get mixed reviews in my home country. Some people like me and others can’t stand a bar of my stuff. That’s fair enough. But I’ve been true to the Australian tradition. I try to be clear and I try to be interesting. After that, people can make up their own minds.”

Ian Shircore lives in England. His most recent book is So Brightly at the Last: Clive James and the Passion for Poetry (Red Door Press, 2019). In 2018 Red Door published his book Loose Canon: The Extraordinary Songs of Clive James and Pete Atkin.


3 thoughts on “The Enduring Prose and Poetry of Clive James

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    Clive James and I are of a similar age and background. We spent much of our youths in he St George district and, in different circumstances, may well have been in the ame high school class. His Unreliable Memoirs resonate strongly with me. Amnesia is an amazing tour de force.

    His is a sad loss.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    Cultural Amnesia.

  • richard1 says:

    I am perplexed. Why no mention of Clive’s compelling and monumental ‘translation’ of Dante’s majestic poem – the “Divine Comedy”? Surely this is his greatest accomplishment: Over 14,000 lines of the finest Italian poetry translated with fresh syncopated rhythms, smooth diction and sharp images. All this, in a ‘vernacular’ of soft Aussie English that also sails well with other non Australian readers. See, for instance, the high praise from an acute US ‘ear’: D.B. Hart’s “Dante Decluttered” (in First Things, Nov. 2013).

    In some parts of the world – though not in Australia (for copyright restrictions) – Clive’s translation can also be heard rather than read via the exquisite timbre and diction of Edoardo Ballerini’s voice for It takes 14 hours to hear all 100 Canti! The selections from the poem can now be experienced immersively – while on walks, in bed, driving ….

    Dante’s many appropriations/reworkings of Hellenic, Judaic and Roman cultural references that he packs into the “Divine Comedy” offers a grand gateway into the dynamism of ‘the West’. Clive’s translation – especially when read aloud – offers individuals a way to participate in that dynamism while also developing a feel for, and practice in, a lively English idiom.

    While Clive has written many pieces – brimming with poetic delights, comic gags, repartie, surprising insights about people (especially in “Cultural Amnesia”) his translation of the “Divine Comedy” will, I believe, be his perduring cultural accomplishment. All the more so, once the full picture of its ‘labour pains’ become more visible over time. Some of his poems allude to the original creative imbroglio of this translation effort – read for instance, the poems: “Sweet Disaster“ and “Not Forgetting George Russell” in his “Injury Time” book.

Leave a Reply