“It was a long and cruel illness,” reflects Jennifer Byrne, host of the ABC’s The Book Club program. She met James in 1981 and they quickly became friends. “I saw him do an interview in London [after his diagnosis] and he delivered his patented, top-grade funny performance but afterwards, he was exhausted.”
Born Vivian James in the Sydney suburb of Kogarah in 1939, he was raised by his mother Minora, a factory worker, after his father Albert died in a plane crash during his return from a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. An only child, James attended Sydney Technical High School and the University of Sydney, and worked briefly as an assistant editor at The Sydney Morning Herald. In 1961 he moved to England and at the University of Cambridge started a PhD thesis on the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Instead of completing it, he threw himself into the university’s Footlights drama club and other extra-curricular activities.
Journalist and commentator Mungo MacCallum, who also attended the University of Sydney, says James had been “a golden boy” on campus.
“[He was] handsome, smart, witty, and hugely successful with women,” MacCallum says. “He wrote a lot for [Sydney University newspaper] Honi Soit (which, incidentally, he never edited) and for the university revues, and much of it was very good indeed but I always felt that he was more of a performer and a writer, and although much of his poetry was stimulating and provocative, I never regarded him as Les Murray’s equal. But I did think he was the most likely of all of us to succeed.”
Publisher Richard Walsh, who later famously co-founded Oz magazine, recalled James as the “reigning genius” at Honi Soit, where he usually wrote in collaboration with a fellow student by the name of Phillip Graham (known at university as “Chester”.)
James was a hit with the “attractive young freshettes”, Walsh recalls. He was also a colossus at the university theatre, where he and Graham wrote nearly all the scripts.
Things got a bit “scrappy”, Walsh says, when James moved to London and fellow Australians Martin Sharp and Richard Neville wanted him to contribute to the London edition of the determinedly anti-establishment Oz. “Clive gave them the cold shoulder,” says Walsh. “Clive was pursuing a more establishment route to cultural supremacy. And Clive was politically very conservative.
“He wasn’t interested in the underground movement or stuff like that. He was a sophisticated guy who was knocking around with actors and the writing establishment and the last thing he needed was to to be ‘contaminated’ with Oz magazine in London.”
Sydney cultural doyen Leo Schofield, who remained a life-long friend of James after the pair met at Sydney University, says it was clear from the beginning that he was “greedy for experience, and bloody bright.”
In later years James would occasionally dine with Schofield when in Australia. “I think he felt his duty was to be amusing,” Schofield recalls. “He was always ‘on'”.
James also had a liking for opera. “He used to babysit our eldest daughter in London,” Schofield says. “He found it very pleasurable not least because I had a fantastic collection of opera recordings, because of work I did at the time for a record company, and he managed to play them all and scratch most of them, as he replayed [favourite arias].”
In 1968, James married scholar Prue Shaw. They had two daughters: Claerwen, a molecular biologist and painter, and Lucinda, a civil servant.
James’ work spanned theatre (Clive James in Conversation, Clive James in the Evening), television (Saturday Night Clive, Clive James on Television) and radio (A Point of View); and his writing included essays, memoirs, poetry and novels. Among his most popular books are Unreliable Memoirs, an account of his early life in Australia, and the essay collection Cultural Amnesia.
In 1972, James began writing about television for The Observer – a bold move given his peers’ disdain for “the idiot box”.
“He hated that snobbery of serious art versus popular art,” Jen Byrne says. “As far as he was concerned, art was art and he helped a lot of people to see that.”
She believes James – and fellow expatriate intellectuals Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes – diminished a virulent form of cultural cringe that equated “the Australian mindset” with parochial insularity.
“He took what was a very Australian consciousness and incorporated it into a broad, international framework,” Byrne says. “He gave us this Australian larrikinism and an outsiders’ perspective but he did it in such an impressive and unique way.”
Crabb agrees. “There’s this misconception that Clive and his cohort abandoned Australia,” she says. “What they offered was something very particular: a style of writing and criticism from people who’ve grown up under the Australian sun. They sounded different, they looked for different things and they offered different perspectives.”
Peter Rose, editor of the Australian Book Review, recalls James as “one of the wittiest Australians who ever wrote”.
“He was the master of the paradox,” Rose says. “Even at his most poignant, in his poetry and elsewhere, you could always hear that stinger coming around the corner. His ability to weave the comic with the existential was one of his many, many gifts. He was appallingly talented.”
In a 2014 poem for The New Yorker called Japanese Maple, James contemplated his final years: “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?”
Though he longed to return to Australia, his health prevented him from flying. In his 2011 poem Procedure for Disposal, he wrote: “Send my ashes home, where they can fall / In their own sweet time from the harbour wall.”
While his poetry could be meditative, James was renowned for his wit. One of his more famous poems, The Book of my Enemy Has Been Remaindered, celebrates a rival author’s commercial failure: “Chill the champagne and polish the crystal goblets!”
Even among his closest friends, James rarely discussed his romantic life, which became tabloid fodder for A Current Affair in 2012. (A Current Affair is broadcast by Nine, the owner of this masthead.) In the now-infamous segment, Sydney socialite Leanne Edelsten, former wife of millionaire Geoffrey Edelsten, claimed she and James had an eight-year affair. The program’s cameras followed Edelsten to the UK where she confronted a frail James, then 72, in the street. At the time, Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes described the incident as “one of the more shameful pieces of television” he’d seen in years.
Well-known in his home country, James had an even bigger profile in Britain. Yet he retained his cultural connection to Australia.
“He was very engaged with the local poetry scene here and wrote very appreciatively of poets like Judith Beveridge and of painters such as Margaret Olley, too,” says Ian Britain, the author of Once an Australian: Journeys with Barry Humphries, Clive James, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes.
“He appeared at numerous literary festivals and would come back for those … There [was] a split in Clive between the populist clown who did these wacky TV shows and the very serious poet and critic.”
James’ seemingly “effortless” talents, Byrne says, were backed up by hard work: “It might have looked trouble-free and easy but you never saw the labour. He’d be charming and witty but he was also a deeply diligent and intellectual man.
“What we saw in his writing was just a fragment of that incredibly busy and brilliant mind.”
Michael Lallo is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
Broede Carmody is a culture reporter at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald
Deborah Snow is a senior writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.