Clive James in 2007PETERFOLEY/FLICKR

Most attempts to obituarise Clive James will flounder at the first basic hurdle of defining their subject - what was Clive James? On the ‘Also By’ page of his latest book, I count no fewer than thirty-nine previous forays into memoir, verse, fiction, criticism, travel writing and one into translation (of Dante what’s more). So ‘man of letters’ might seem crusty but appropriate, if this didn’t elide James’ unbelievably successful television career, fronting everything from chat shows to Formula One. Such breadth of interest and talent is unimaginable in a 21st century of ever-increasing specialization. Imagine if Dermot O’Leary was suddenly discovered to be an incredibly interesting amateur pointillist or Lorraine Kelly began collaborating with David Lynch on a surrealist film project. 

'A sense of humour is just common sense, dancing.’

James once remarked of his own gift, ‘All I can do is turn a phrase until it catches the light.’ Which is one way of putting it. Though his phrases, in print and on the air, do indeed catch the light, they also caught the attention and admiration of whoever they were intended for. If they were laid out in the New Yorker or the London Review of Books in the services of higher criticism then they invited the owlish nod of the Burgundy-pouring literary classes. Or, if spoken on television or radio in his languid antipodean drawl, they generally excited rapturous laughter from his audience of millions. 

James hit the top of the bestseller lists in 1980 with 'Unreliable Memoirs', the first in an autobiographical seriesFK333/FLICKR

Clive James died on Sunday, in Cambridge, the place where he studied for several years and lived for many more. The university is given one of its best literary treatments in his third volume of memoirs, May Week Was In June, in which he recalls ‘Large, boat-rowing types with low foreheads, thick necks and annoyingly pretty female companions’ as well as, at the Union, before the main attraction of a guest speaker, ‘the usual interminably facetious opening diatribes by the student politicians’. It is for the reader to decide if much has changed. But once read in this way, these images are indelible, all the more for being so recognisable. As he said in the same book, describing his writing: ‘My field is the self-evident. Everything I say is obvious, although I like to think that some of the obvious things I have said were not so obvious until I said them.’

Born in Australia in 1939, James fell towards England, as he put it, in 1962. After three years in London, he came to Pembroke College, Cambridge to study English Literature, followed by the beginning of research for a PhD on Shelley. But comedy and writing were his foci, becoming President of the Footlights and a contributor to all student publications. After this his path into literary bohemia was clear. His Observer television review became required reading, even as he published accomplished essays in Ian Hamilton’s New Review and established a literary set which included Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes. From there, his own career on the small-screen beckoned and Clive James on Television began in 1982.

James once remarked of his own gift, ‘All I can do is turn a phrase until it catches the light.’

Any account of this witty man can not resist his remark about Arnold Schwarzenegger in his body-building days, chiefly because few can match it (‘a brown condom full of walnuts’). But with that out the way, light-catching phrases are only one side of the life of this many-pointed star. In the 21st century, he found new plaudits for his doorstop of highly perceptive biographical essays, Cultural Amnesia, and his increasing output of poetry, stimulated, he confessed, by his diagnosis with leukaemia in 2010. Embracing the influence of Philip Larkin, whom he regarded as the greatest poet of modern times, James began to produce the highly moving, melancholic poetry which typified the work of his predecessor. A noted example was ‘Japanese Maple’ a poem written with reference to a tree in his Cambridge garden, and which closes with these lines: 

A final flood of colours will live on

As my mind dies,

Burned by my vision of a world that shone

So brightly at the last, and then was gone.


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Perhaps James’ best remark, his corpus providing stiff competition, is this one: ‘Common sense and a sense of humour are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humour is just common sense, dancing.’ I think this because it brings together the two great elements of his genius; the learned and erudite common sense which provided the pulse and argument of his work, and the humour which made it fizz and sparkle - which made it dance. Though his career was a polymathic one, this was its one constant, and is to be found across his work.  

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