Clive James has been predicting his own passing for five years. He did it so often P. J. O’Rourke told him to put a plug in it or the public would get impatient. When it comes, James’s death will be a great loss to non-fiction readers. No-one surpassed James in the 20th century as a writer who was simultaneously so clever and so funny.
If you haven’t sampled James start with “Cultural Amnesia”, a series of mini-biographies of famous figures, or “Always Unreliable”, three volumes of memoirs in one.
In 2010 Clive James was diagnosed with leukaemia, later too emphysema and kidney failure. Recently he writes he is embarrassed to find he is still here. James has written about 50 books and collections of poems and is a widely known Ozzie expat TV commentator in England.
After his daughter gave him a maple tree, he wrote a piece that went viral. Here are the last two verses:
My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.
Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.
What I must do
Is live to see that. That will end the game
For me, though life continues all the same.
Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes
A final flood of colours will live on
As my mind dies,
Burned by a vision of a world that shone
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.
“Always Unreliable” is a book you can keep going back to. Dip in anywhere and you will find prose that sparkles. My habit when I wake in the middle of the night is to read until sleep comes again. Reading James, the wife complains about 2am laughter. Night after night.
Here’s a sample. James tell the story of a fellow student at Cambridge who was adept at pulling girls. The Dean was a noted geologist who had his office stuffed with rocks.
“Ambramovitz toured school in Station Road where foreign girls came to learn English, picked himself a strapping German with paradigmatically chiselled Aryan features, brought her back to his rooms and gave her English lessons.
The fee was not in cash but in kind. Through Ambramovitz’s frequently sported oak, the squeals of his guest penetrated with ease. What was he doing to her in there? When I met him in the gyp room he would explain trembling with repletion, that he was doing his bit for historic justice. “I’ve enslaved her, dear boy. It’s the guilt. She’s putty in my hands.” I think he taunted her during the throes of need. Anyway there was a big scandal when the ancient bedder (lady who made the beds) — the same Mrs Blades who was my bedder too — tottered into his bedroom one morning and found half a dozen loosely knotted, awesomely heavy condoms festooned all over the decor. The one draped over the lampshade had started to fry. Presumably Mrs Blades had seen one or two of those things before, back around the time of the Battle of Jutland, because when she eyeballed six of them at once, the shock of recognition drove her backwards all the way down the stairs and across the Dean’s office, where she had hysterics among the haematite. Convulsions amid the chrysoprase. She passed out into the porphyry.”