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Farewell to a literary colossus

Those of us who make a living out of stringing words together in pretty patterns, those of us who do so from compulsion, or those of us who are somewhere in between (that’ll be me, then) usually read as much as we write – and we all have our favourites. As a 57-year-old middle-class male mine are, I suppose, the usual suspects: the writers I read – we all read – in our late teens and through our 20s and 30s. John Updike. Ian McEwan (though I always found him a bit hit-and-miss). Martin Amis (up to and including London Fields). John Irving (A Prayer for Owen Meany remains my go-to novel). Julian Barnes. And others.

But bestriding this pantheon of literary gods is one whose talent really did make me want to chuck it all in and go get a job in a ball-bearing factory.

Clive James.

Is? Was. That polymath’s polymath died last Sunday, aged 80, after a nine-year battle with leukaemia and, latterly, kidney failure and lung disease.

From the age of about 13 (me, not him), James was firmly on my radar thanks to his peerless television reviews for the Observer newspaper, written over a 10-year period between 1972 and 1982, which redefined the genre. They were, and still are, some of the funniest pieces I’ve ever read – and eminently quotable. Of (then-bodybuilder) Arnold Schwarzenegger’s physique: “a brown condom full of walnuts”. Of romantic novelist Barbara Cartland’s eye make-up: “twin miracles of mascara, her eyes looked like the corpses of two small crows that had crashed into a chalk cliff”. Of Formula 1 commentator Murray Walker: “even in moments of tranquillity, [he] sounds like a man whose trousers are on fire”. The TV shows and/or personalities he wrote about are mostly long gone; but the writing is timeless. The articles were quickly anthologised, and as far as I’m aware are still in print – and to anyone casting about for inspiration regarding Christmas gifts this year, I urge you to pick up a copy of The Crystal Bucket, or Glued to the Box. The recipient will thank you for it.

In the late 1970s James started to pop up on the other side of the TV cameras, thanks to a short-lived show called Saturday Night People, made by London Weekend Television and broadcast (as you may have guessed) on a Saturday night, at around 11pm. Along with host Russell Harty and fellow regular guest Janet Street-Porter, James would opine on pop culture, the decline of western civilisation, the latest Hockney exhibition… you get the drift. To an 18-year-old living in the sticks it was all terribly metropolitan and groovy, though I don’t suppose it was actually very good. Hence the short run.

But perhaps it gave James a taste for fame. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he was a fixture on British TV screens, with shows such as Saturday Night Clive and Clive James on Television attracting an audience in the millions.

In truth (and yes, I’m aware there’s rather too much of “me” creeping into this) I never liked him much on the box. To my mind he didn’t look comfortable, and his interviews with studio guests occasionally tended towards sycophancy. There’s more than a smidgen of snobbery on my part about this too. Surely that willingness to show off, to make lowest-common-denominator telly programmes… surely pap such as this risked eclipsing his singular way with the written word? Risked masking his astonishing erudition? But James, to his credit, saw as much to celebrate in the lowbrow as the scholarly.

And actually, nothing in James’s multifaceted career really eclipsed anything else. Launched in the early noughties his website, www.clivejames.com, showcased not just his own work as an essayist, a literary critic, a memoirist and more; but generously gave space to others whose writing he admired. Though the web was surely the only place where he could be so magnanimous; so prolific was James that no other medium would leave room for anyone else.

In 2010 I contacted James, seeking information about a quote he’d included in an earlier piece of TV criticism: who said it, and of whom. I received a prompt reply. Thus encouraged – the lines of communication were open, surely – I wrote a longer email; a fan letter, really, in which I attempted to explain what his writing meant to me, and that while I would never be much more than a paid-by-the-word hack, I could at least aspire to something more. Again he replied, with great grace, kindness and words of encouragement, while at the same time elegantly indicating that we would not become regular pen-pals. I would like to think the reason was simply that, having been recently diagnosed with a terminal illness, he had other priorities; though it’s rather more likely that he didn’t relish the thought of a protracted email exchange with a scrote such as me.

As his life (and terminal illness) progressed, James maintained an amazing work rate. To my mind his later work, while enjoyable, didn’t quite match his earlier stuff. Various encomia I’ve read in the past few days by people who knew him well give the impression of a man who had always put a lot of effort into making it appear effortless; and having to divert at least some of his attention away from his writing and towards staying alive possibly led to a slight drop in standards.

But his verse took flight, in particular the poems which made up Sentenced to Life. Published in 2015, it was intended to be a valedictory volume – in fact James himself was slightly embarrassed not to turn up his toes shortly afterwards. But the poems have lost none of their power for all that; and one in particular floors me every time I read it. I reproduce it here:

Japanese Maple

Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.

So slow a fading out brings no real pain.

Breath growing short

Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain

Of energy, but thought and sight remain:

Enhanced, in fact. When did you ever see

So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls

On that small tree

And saturates your brick back garden walls,

So many Amber Rooms and mirror halls?

Ever more lavish as the dusk descends

This glistening illuminates the air.

It never ends.

Whenever the rain comes it will be there,

Beyond my time, but now I take my share.

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 my vision of a world that shone

So brightly at the last, and then was gone.

RIP, Clive James.

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