Clive James – still not dead

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About fifteen months ago The New Yorker published a poem by Clive James called ‘Japanese Maple’. It was, and is, a beautiful farewell to the world from a fine writer.

We were sad.

We waited for the inevitable news of his death.

And waited.

And waited.

After a while it occurred to me that “When is Clive James actually going to die?” might be an apposite, if not entirely tactful, question.

The same thought obviously struck James himself. He resurfaced this autumn (in my purview, at least – closer followers will no doubt have been tracking his every move), talking, in his admirably droll and self-deprecating way, about “the embarrassment of still being alive.”

Terminal illness hasn’t rendered him idle. The last couple of years have seen the publication of two volumes of verse, a translation of The Divine Comedy (the epic poem, not the band, who sound fine in the original language), a book of notes on poetry, and a volume of short essays.

More, then, than some people manage in a lifetime.

And now a weekly Guardian column, pithy, witty, wise and touching, more so for the underlying knowledge that each one might be the last.

Obviously the shadow of death affects people in different ways.

I remember first reading James. My parents thought he was the funniest writer around. In this, as in so much, they were right on the money.

I was fifteen or so. Disaffected. Lazy. The cause of parental perturbation and despair. But if anything redeemed me in their eyes it was that I read Clive James. A teenager capable of emerging from apparently permanent torpor to laugh himself sick at James’s thoughts on Mrs Thatcher’s tone (“she sounded like a cat sliding down a blackboard”), George Melly (“gave his usual impersonation of a man whose body, while he talks, is being slowly devoured by tiny fish”), and Billie Whitelaw (“plays Josephine with the effortless desperation of Arthur Rubinstein playing Chopsticks”) might not be so irredeemable as they’d thought.

Then Unreliable Memoirs, his first volume of autobiography, which had me retching with laughter almost throughout. And another volume, Falling Towards England.

And so on.

I don’t think I got the serious points he was making in amongst the funny, or even that he was making serious points. I just loved the funny. And I recognised, even then, that he seemed to need fewer words than other people to say what he wanted.

He’s a poet, see. They’re good at that.

Clive James – Reports of my Death can be found here.

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  1. I think you probably picked up some of the serious along the way, oh wise one. Lovely piece. Did you use just the right number of words?

  2. In 1984, “Unreliable Memoirs” made bearable for me a 24-hour stay in Gatwick Airport (long story). I’ve re-read Clive’s 3 volumes of TV criticism until they’re threadbare. “Realism, one is convinced, is still the stuff to cling to while ideologists on both sides act out their fantasies.” How lucky we’ve been to have him, and how lucky to have him still.

  3. Ah yes, Clive James….he is/was just as funny in real life in a tent full of people on a sweltering hot day at a writers’ event. Don’t know how he did it.

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