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James, Clive

Clive James

Elected: 2010

Year of birth: 1939

Year of death: 2019

Author of Obituary: Russell Davies

Obituary :

One Friday long ago, after a plenteous literary lunch near the old Observeroffices in Blackfriars, I found myself at the bottom of Ludgate Hill alongside Kingsley Amis. We had just said our goodbyes to Clive James, who was toddling westward through the stalled traffic towards Fleet Street. ‘Now there goes a bloke,’ said Amis, in a tone of appreciation I hadn’t heard from him before, ‘who knows a lot.’

It became Clive’s lifelong business to know a lot, and to pass on the delight of knowing it, a process from which I had already benefited. We first met in the Cambridge Footlights in late 1964, joining on the same day, along with Germaine Greer and others approved by the President, Eric Idle. Clive was a mature student, studying for a never-finished PhD at Pembroke, but his extensive formal education didn’t disguise that he was by nature an autodidact. When my generation (well, six years younger) got to know him better, we would sit in a semicircle in the clubroom, to be entertained by Clive’s knowledge of Hollywood history, militaria, poetry, jazz exiles in Paris, Australian culture and fear of culture – any number of topics, all with an autobiographical tinge. Occasionally, virtuoso spieler though he was, he might launch some opinion, or speculative factoid, with which a listener might inwardly disagree. But it seemed counterproductive to interrupt the flow, so we seldom did.

The Sixties eventually crunched the categories of high- and lowbrow, allowing all created things to share the possibilities of art. With Clive, that process appeared to have been worked through in advance. Possibly, it had among expat Australians in general, since one saw the same freedoms enjoyed by Clive’s self-exported friends, like the film director Bruce Beresford. Bruce’s very first film was a Goonish mini-short called Sign and Symbol in the Cinema of Raymond Fark, a torpedo aimed by Clive at fashionable schools of film theory. The BFI screened it, and I dare say this will be its last mention in print. But at much the same time, in the TLS, Clive’s huge, acclaimed (though unsigned) appreciation of the life work of Edmund Wilson was bringing him an instant and serious reputation as a ‘metropolitan critic’, his preferred name for the category-crunching tendency Wilson exemplified. 

Clive and his wife, Prue Shaw, had been rash enough to take me on as the lodger in their sunny Cambridge flat. One day Clive and I were taking a walk when a passing lorry clangorously discarded a huge hubcap, which spun to a halt on the pavement. This great bowl of metal became Clive’s ashtray, regrettably more than half full by the end of an average day. That he was living on his nerves was seldom apparent, though one production crisis involving a Footlights revue, a film crew and an obstinate co-director propelled him into a sudden collapse – a weeping breakdown so far from his usual buoyancy (‘Hello sport!’ or better still ‘Hello soldier!’) that it was distressing to witness. Less dramatic, but still anguishing, was a visit from his Sydney-dwelling mother, whose piercing letters he had sometimes shown me. She drove him nuts, he said, but leaving her alone on the other side of the world caused him much pain. She addressed him on the page as ‘Viv’ – Vivian being his original given name, borrowed from an Aussie tennis star called Viv McGrath. 

For a time, Viv and I presented a miniature tv arts programme, wincingly entitled Think Twice, and featuring our collected enthusiasms, from W.C. Fields to the poems of Randall Jarrell. Clive’s favourite was ‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner’, a grim five lines long, and surely connecting in his mind with the air crash that had ended his own father’s journey home from wartime captivity. In an utterly contrasting vein, Clive turned to writing mock-epic rhyming satires, which we toured around the university circuit. The author narrated while I did the ‘voices’ – eventually on the West End stage in the Royal Wedding year of 1981, with Charles Charming’s Challenges on the Pathway to the Throne. It was no great hit, though at one matinée peals of laughter from the Grand Circle came unmistakably from ‘Lady Di’, as she would still be for a few more days. Much later, Clive became her adviser, lunch companion, and finally encomiast, in his New Yorker piece ‘Mourning My Friend, Princess Diana’. ‘I feared for her as I loved her,’ ran the catchline, ‘and the fear intensified the love.’

Some literary friends found that besottable side of Clive ‘a bit tabloid’, as one of them said. It wasn’t envy – most of his chums themselves led enviable lives. It was just that there were things they wished he wouldn’t do. His ever-conspicuous TV output was deemed largely unpalatable: the Japanese Endurance show excerpts, the farcical singer Margarita Pracatan, the heavily underlined link material, the whole ho-ho. And yet, Clive’s TV travel pieces, and their allied prose, enjoyed moments of brilliance. His essays in the ‘Postcard From’ vein caused my old tutor, the eminent Czech-born Germanist J.P. Stern, to stop me in the street to say how perfectly he thought Clive had dissected the snobberies, historical and actual, of the cultures of Vienna and Prague. When the showman in his soul was quiet, Clive’s critiques were uplifting, or devastating, or genuinely both at once. 

I think he would have jettisoned all the gogglebox glory if the songs he’d written had met the public taste halfway. He treated the fashioning of lyrics as seriously as anything he wrote. His career-long composer-interpreter-in-residence, the fine craftsman Pete Atkin, gave their collaborations every chance, as did Julie Covington, vocally, in the early days. Fighting free of literary allusions did take Clive a while – one early song names Shakespeare, Petrarch and Ronsard in a single line – and in that perhaps he genuflected too much, as did his formidable friend and compatriot Peter Porter, to the old masters of Europe. But the songs are there, and they will live.

As the world knows, a cruelly simultaneous onset of serious illnesses shrank Clive’s public presence to a single bookroom, where pilgrim interviewers still found him the best value available in their trade. At last he could be categorised, though his particular niche – premature self-elegist – was his own rueful invention. The manuscript of his last book, The Fire of Joy, a collection of poems ‘to get by heart and say aloud’, lay on his desk on the day of his funeral. ‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner’ is in there. Like those little Footlights seminars, this valedictory book is the work of a celebrator, an encourager, right down to the ‘Rules on Reading Aloud’: ‘Go more slowly than you think you need to. It’s because you’re ahead of yourself that you stumble.’

More of our Fellows

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Fellowship Election Process​

Fellows are nominated by peers and elected by our Council of writers – our governing Board. Being elected a Fellow of the RSL is a lifetime honour. This role gives them the opportunity to support other writers, readers and the future of literature. The RSL connects writers in the Fellowship to one another, and to a wider readership.