Clive James, poet, broadcaster, presenter, critic, and columnist has died at eighty years old. He leaves the world a much smarter and happy place than he was born in to, in the Sydney suburb of Kogarah.
Born Leopold Vivian James, his mother allowed him to pick Clive when Vivian Leigh forever claimed Vivian for the female gender. His autobiography Unreliable Memoirs chronicled his early years as a primary school child that stretched from outright nonconformity, praying for the bush fires to burn his school down, to academic achievement going into secondary school. He would attend Sydney Technical High School and later Sydney University. The broad curriculum of the University gave him a wide-ranging approach to education, but it was the literary magazine Honi Soit that drew him into writing and developed his love of literature. The editorial team’s eclectic mindset and devoutly contrarian approach to literature helped him view the world with an open mind and as a result, he critiqued all art on a level playing field. He developed a line of criticism that meant that everything was relevant from Shakespeare to Dynasty. His quick wit, developed as a deflection device in his youth, enabled him to add some humour to some rather taught subjects, but he never saw himself as a comedian, the laughs were the bonus to the commentary, not the point.
Everyone began to move to London, and looking to broaden his horizons he followed. A generation of Australian artists found their home in Tufnell Park; Germain Greer and Bruce Beresford were not just fellow exiles, they would form the backbone of an artistic community. After moving from job to job in his first years of existence in England, he would apply, and to his surprise be accepted at Cambridge University to study English. Once again he would shine as a writer, playwright, and stage producer but not necessarily academically. Being a mature student gave him a level of authority his younger colleagues lacked and so he dominated the literary and poetry publications of the University. President of Footlights he would develop his comedy voice alongside his serious academic writing.
Upon graduation, he would move into literary criticism full time whilst developing a Radio review column for The Listener before being politely asked to move over to TV when it was clear he had a knack for it. The TV column at the Listener would eventually lead to a TV column at The Observer which would, in turn, become the ballast to his writing career. Both academic and irreverent at the same time he could laud and dismiss with equal measure. Blisteringly caustic, his reverence for what constituted good TV was very clear and really what mattered. He loved the medium and extolled its virtues at a time when the whole country watched everything. He had the best subject in journalism. Everybody wanted to know what he thought and argue about it. Falling in with the literary crowd of the London scene became a touchstone of cultural importance. The ivory towers of the academy had trained him but he was quite willing to discard its more fundamentalist tendencies.
He would also soon become a TV star himself, firstly for LWT and then more successfully for Granada with Cinema taking over Michael Parkinson’s film review show. It would give him some big-name interviews but most importantly burnish his presenting credentials. In demand on TV and with a well-established writing career he began his widely beloved Unreliable Memoirs autobiographical series in the early eighties as well as his novels. His first book, The Metropolitan Critic, republished all of his critical work in 1974 and further volumes would follow. He would also make his mark with his collective work of television criticism.
As his stint at Cinema came to a close, he started working in broader comedy presentation roles and would find one of two formats that would bring him the most success. Clive James on Television for ITV, later developing into Saturday Night Clive for the BBC and also the Postcard series. Based on his Observer travel column. Postcards enabled Clive to give a snapshot view of a city and its biggest characters, either famous or work a day. The level playing field occurred with people too, if you were interesting you were worth talking too. He would remain a television mainstay into the nineties before choosing a less public life as his friends in his production company reached retirement.
He was diagnosed with Leukemia in 2009 and went back to where he started in Fleet Street journalism, The Observer. Writing a weekly column about his life living with a terminal disease. He often said he lived a charmed life, and those last years he worked constantly at a greatly reduced pace, but what was remarkable about his work was that he just got so much done. When he quit alcohol in the early seventies he was an already productive worker, it roughly coincided with his incredibly productive period. He is survived by his wife and two daughters. Always protective of their privacy, because they didn’t choose to be famous, he kept his family together despite an affair that resulted in their separation. However, the family remained close, living in Cambridge until his death.
On a personal level, Clive James gave commentary on the popular culture of the late twentieth century that guided me in my taste and discourse. I started my writing career with one thing in mind; I wanted to write about my chosen subject, pro wrestling, the same way James wrote about everything, with love, care, and an open mind. It was a rule that stood me in good stead. I wrote about everything I could until I found my tone. Like James in his early literary career “I was a gift horse that runs off at the mouth.”, but it was the best way to find out what you know and what you can be convincing about. I also learned that if you want to reach a mass audience you should make your text sound like speech. His books are a training manual in how to disseminate a narrative with a clear and passive tone, his words run like water. His legacy is that popular culture commentary thrives in the world, without him, it is hard to see websites like this one existing.
He is forever quotable, but his most fitting epitaph sums up his life and his humble thoughts of his career. “All I can do is turn a phrase ‘till it catches the light.”. A brilliant mind that enlightened so many.