Archive for the ‘Clive James’ Category

Morten Høi Jensen on Clive James (1939-2019)

December 10, 2019

In a 2015 piece for the LARB (Los Angeles Review of Books) Morten Høi Jensen had this to say of the late Clive James (1939-2019)

James can be mercilessly (and sometimes wearily) impatient with his more dutiful elders (usually literary academics and theorists). “You can’t help wondering why it is thought to be good that the study of literature should so tax the patience,” he once wrote in an essay on the literary scholar Wayne C. Booth. “After all, literature doesn’t. Boring you rigid is just what literature sets out not to do.”

In this tribute, published in in The American Interest (AI), a bimonthly magazine focusing primarily on foreign policy, international affairs, global economics, and military matters, Høi Jensen explains why it was that James so rarely taxed the patience.

Ever a student at heart, he gave the impression that literary criticism at its core was an enlightened process of discovery and recommendation. 

“[To] serve literature entails self-denial,” he wrote in the introduction to his 1979 essay collection At the Pillars of Hercules. “Self-display can only go so far.”

I’ve always thought of his [James’s] presence on the page as being almost physical. He was there next to you when you read his essays on W. H. Auden or Philip Larkin, an intimacy he achieved by remarking on where he’d first bought a given writer’s book, or by suddenly interjecting that a galley proof of so-and-so’s poem is folded into his copy of that book. The life of a literary critic, in James’s world, is just that: a life, something to be lived, experienced, day after day. 

At least one of the literary values embodied by James’s criticism is the elevation of literary criticism to a way of life, a way of being open to and curious about the world, of observing and engaging and arguing with it.

Morten Høi Jensen was born in Copenhagen, Denmark and has contributed to the New York Review of Books, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the American Interest. He is the author of A Difficult Death: The Life and Work of Jens Peter Jacobsen (Yale University Press, 2017) which was awarded the J. P. Jacobsen Literary Prize. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.


November 27, 2019


Clive James was ‘a brilliant bunch of guys’ as the New Yorker said.

If he there is a legacy – and I believe there is – it is that with all his work, he gave those of us who thought there was nothing in culture that’s off limits the confidence to say so loud and clear.


This is an important aspect of his drive into popular culture: not just to enjoy the warmth of a wider appreciation and so avoid the inward-looking aridity of much experimental art, but to join in with and even improve on a world of visible virtuosity. It is a James axiom that we look for the finest demonstration of this virtuosity today in performance art (a Tynan-like love of tightrope-walking artists – comedians, gymnasts, racing drivers, and cultural commentators like Gore Vidal) rather than in high art. Modernism has ruined high art for him, largely because it has abandoned its appeal to popular recognition in favour of a kind of self-sealing historicism. ….


Many a reader must have rubbed his eyes when settling down with a Clive James feature in a colour mag to find himself confronted by names such as Contini, Croce, Dante and Hofmannsthal. This is not to say that James’s popular and populist side is not important to him: only that he has never seen any reason why a chat-show host and TV annotator should not also be a serious essayist,……..

Peter Porter

22 January 1987

Clive James December 2011

December 9, 2011

Clives James takes stock of life and literary output

by: David Free
From: The Australian

December 10, 2011 12:00AM
LET’S start with the good news. Clive James’s leukemia, whose diagnosis was widely reported earlier this year, is officially in remission.
Moreover, his COPD – the chronic lung condition that has had him in and out of hospital during the past 18 months – is “under control” .

“On the downside,” James tells me, “my right eye has almost packed up and I have cataracts in both.” He is scheduled for an eye operation early next year.

James’s Job-like run of health disasters during the past two years – he also has suffered a kidney failure and a near-fatal blood clot – hasn’t stopped him from writing. Indeed, he seems to have taken these scares as a cue to hurry up, not slow down. But they have imposed some drastic restrictions on the 72-year-old’s social life. He isn’t allowed to fly, for instance.

…”Not being able to get to Australia without carrying my weight in oxygen is a depressing prospect, especially at a time when I might have to miss the Warne-Hurley wedding,” he says.

And even with his cancer in remission, James must pay regular visits to a clinic for blood infusions. “My immune system is being successfully replaced with an immunoglobulin drip-feed that encourages reading for at least a couple of hours a week.”

All this means that James, at the moment, can’t be interviewed except by email. This isn’t a bad arrangement when you’re interviewing one of the wittiest writers in the world. It will, however, make it hard for me to throw in the standard references to the man’s physical appearance, the firmness of his handshake and what kind of beverage he leans back to sip on while considering his answers.

Improvising, I offer James the chance to provide a scene-setting description of himself. “Surprisingly hale and hearty-looking for someone described in the newspapers as being at death’s door,” he replies. “Clive James gives few outward signs of feebleness to anyone who did not know him when his energy was unimpaired. When he sets the kitchen on fire, as old men are inclined to do, he is a little slow at getting to the blaze. His eyes are a bit screwed up, but he hopes to get that fixed.”

It hurts to think of James as an old man. If he is one, then those of us who grew up with his books and television shows must be growing old, too.

James sailed from Australia to Britain in 1962, age 22. While studying at Cambridge he wrote and performed for the Footlights, where his fellow thespians included future Python Eric Idle, future Goodie Graeme Garden and the eternal firebrand Germaine Greer, with whom he had attended the University of Sydney.

After graduating, James established himself as one of the most stylish and influential London literary critics of his time. When the young Martin Amis began publishing book reviews in the 1970s, his father Kingsley would read them back to him in an Australian accent, convinced his son had fallen under James’s stylistic spell. At the same time, James was attracting a broader audience with his weekly TV column for The Observer. He gave that up in the early 80s, when his booming career as a TV performer began to present a conflict of interest.

In Unreliable Memoirs, his much-loved book about his Sydney childhood, James called himself the Kid from Kogarah. The name stuck, and even now it still suits him. Sick as he has been, James retains a boyish eagerness to take on new projects. An internet enthusiast, he runs his own multimedia site, which he is constantly restocking with fresh links and material. Earlier this year he went back to writing a weekly TV column, this time for Britain’s Daily Telegraph. When a nasty reflaring of illness put him flat on his back for much of the British summer, he continued to file the column from his hospital bed.

These days James is up and about again. He spends half of each week writing in his London apartment and the other half in Cambridge with his wife, their two married daughters and his young granddaughter, who has made several touching cameo appearances in his recent poetry.

“My routine used to be four days in London and three in Cambridge. Now things are more even because all my clinics are in Cambridge: eyes, lungs, oncology. So I write a bit more at home and get in everyone’s road. They are very nice about it.

“Illness has scrambled my timetable because there are some kinds of writing that are affected more than others. My TV column is fun to do and pays for the groceries, which is important to me because I don’t like living on my pension if I can avoid it. A poem still, as always, puts in an appearance when it is good and ready. But between those two extremes there are the long critical pieces that I write for The Atlantic, and I can only say there was a time when they would have come more easily.”

As James pushes on with these ventures, a couple of bigger projects have just come to fruition. A book of his radio commentaries, A Point of View, appeared in November. Hot on that book’s heels, Australian company Madman Entertainment has just released The Clive James Collection, a three-DVD set of documentaries James made for Britain’s ITV during the 80s.

The DVD release comes at an important time for James. Having narrowly dodged death twice in two years, he has been intensifying his efforts to get his back catalogue in order. At his website, he and his cyber team are busy uploading the text of his out-of-print books, so that the oeuvre, when the time comes to leave it behind, will be as shapely and complete as possible.

“I do aim to get all my books on site before the pearly gates swing open before me, or swing shut behind me or whichever it is, and it would be satisfactory if I could do the same for any TV work I value. At my age you don’t really want to lose anything.”

James, who retired from the TV industry in 2000, has always viewed his best TV stuff as continuous with his literary output. But there was a time when his TV fame threatened to compromise his reputation as a writer, and especially as a poet. “I can only wonder,” he wrote a few years ago, in an essay called The Velvet Shackles of a Reputation, “if my name as a poet might not have made quicker progress had I been less notorious for the other things.”

Some of the other things James was notorious for are on display in the new DVD. In one program he dons a tight red tracksuit to participate in a Japanese game show. In another he pulls on a pair of togs, jumps into Hugh Hefner’s swimming pool and interviews a trio of glistening playmates.

But there is plenty of serious stuff, too. There is a riveting hour-long interview with Roman Polanski, who is hair-raisingly frank about the sexual assault charges that made him flee the US. “I like girls of this age,” Polanski explains. (The girl was 13.)

James, who says that interviewing celebrities is “a soul-stealing activity to be good at”, believes his most valuable TV work came in his travel documentaries, known as the Postcards. “I think some of my best writing is in the Postcard programs. Practically every one of them has at least one paragraph of commentary that has me lounging around admiring myself.”

Certainly, James’s way with words is the unifying element of the documentaries. It keeps them fresh, even after 20-odd years. Consorting with various lethal beasts while on safari in Kenya, James says in voice-over: “It was time for breakfast, but we wanted to eat it, not be it.”

I ask James if some of his stunts for the TV camera, in Africa and other places, weren’t a bit rash. It would have been a shame, I suggest, if we’d missed out on his late poetry because he was too keen to get into a two-shot with a charging rhino.

“I’m glad to hear that some of the TV action work looks dangerous because we were fairly careful to make sure none of it was. If I’d had any Steve McQueen tendencies, they would have been quelled by the producers, whose closest connection was with the insurance company. Such was my concern with my own safety, indeed, that I would rejig even the mildest stunt so that I was scarcely even in it. My literary future was safe, believe me.”

Perhaps the key work in James’s literary future was the monumental Cultural Amnesia, published in 2007. Reading that book, one can understand why some critics think of James as a paradoxical figure, or even as two separate men. Can the James who wrote such a polymathic survey of the West’s high and low culture – a book J. M. Coetzee called “a crash course in civilisation” – really be the same man who jumped into Hefner’s pool, surfacing remarkably close to the awesome chest of Miss January?

Well, he is the same man. The paradox, when closely examined, isn’t a paradox at all. The plain fact is that James is a born performer. If he weren’t, his serious writing wouldn’t be so absorbing. He is constantly looking to entertain you with the texture of his language. Cultural Amnesia looks like a brick but it reads like a breeze because James’s prose is driven by the same crowd-pleasing instinct that animated him on the Footlights stage and on TV. With James, you can’t have one thing without the other. And what’s so bad about having both?

Does he miss performing? “I do indeed. I always tried to keep the volume level down, but basically I was the kind of restaurant guest who would perform for the waiter. “The cruellest deprivation, since I got sick, is that I can’t go on stage and do my 1 1/2 hours. Perhaps one day. Unfortunately it takes quite a lot of puff, which I’m short of.”

Sadly, this lack of puff has also taken the wind out of a couple of long-meditated books. For years he has spoken of writing a big novel about the war in the Pacific, the war in which his father died when James was five. This work, James now says, “is reconciling itself to never seeing the light of day”.

A sequel to Cultural Amnesia is a more realistic prospect, although at the moment, James says, the project is “mainly a pile of notes”.

There is better news for fans of the memoirs. To date, the original book has yielded four sequels. James now says that “a sixth volume, incorporating all my medical disasters, is such a potentially hilarious prospect that I don’t think I can much longer resist it”.

The original Unreliable Memoirs has gone through more than 100 printings and sold more than a million copies. Did James sense, while writing it, that he was in the process of striking gold?

“No, I never felt I was on to something special when I was writing Unreliable Memoirs. I was having so much fun I was on automatic pilot. Today, I tend to obsess about a dangling participle on the last page. Now that the book has become a school text I want it to set a good example.”

Consulting my own copy of the memoirs, I’m damned if I can find the dangler in question. Instead I find myself succumbing, yet again, to the ravishing cadences of the book’s conclusion. Dangler or no, those closing pages of James’s book contain some of the most lyrical writing about childhood ever done, anywhere.

“Secretly,” James admits, “when I give myself time, I am very pleased to have written a book that will undoubtedly outlast me, unless they cancel the latest print run on the day I croak.”

Emboldened by James’s candour on the mortality question, I ask him if he minds what posterity will think of him. Would it bother him, for example, if he was remembered more for his prose than his poetry?

“I’d be grateful to be remembered for anything,” he says. “By the way, who’s going to tell me?”

The Clive James Collection is available now via Madman Entertainment.

A Point of View (Picador) was reviewed in these pages last week.

A Hill of Little Shoes by Coope Boyes and Simpson

July 10, 2010

Recently, the marvellous vocal trio, Coope, Boyes and Simpson, released their latest album As If, on which they have included their version of the Pete Atkin and Clive James song, A Hill of Little Shoes,  a moving account of what it feels like to consider that one has grown up at a time when the children of the holocaust never got a chance to.

This song, which was written in the last decade of the twentieth century and which I first heard on the Pete Atkin album Winter Spring  gives lie to the to those who suggest that a song written in the popular idiom is generally at a loss do full justice to serious subject matter of this kind.

This YouTube ( “with”, I was reminded by an interested party,  “the last verse edited off for some reason”), gives the listener a good idea of what can be achieved when the composers are in the business of being serious about what they write, as James and Atkin are  and have always been.

Discovering Clive James – 40 years on.

June 9, 2010

I find it heartening to find that readers who are only now discovering the delights of reading Clive James are getting pretty much the same buzz from the man’s work that I did when I first discovered it over forty years ago.

This piece- which appeared in The New York Times just four days ago – could well be a summary  of how I was responding to James when I first encountered his work in the early 70s.

In a small bed-and-breakfast in Mexico, I found a copy of “Unreliable Memoirs” — the autobiography of the Australian critic, poet and novelist Clive James. I’d never heard of James before, but this battered, swollen, salt-stained, absolutely enchanting paperback sent me home with an assignment: to read everything he’d ever written. As it turned out, this was a huge task (it consumed pretty much all of 2008), especially considering that James’s writings include the great tome “Cultural Amnesia,” the reading of which is something like getting a master’s degree in 20th-century intellectual history. Elizabeth_Gilbert


I should say that the book which got me really excited was not Unreliable-Memoirs – it’d not been written yet – but a first edition of  The Metropolitan Critic which I borrowed so often from my local library that I lived in fear that it might discover my serial borrowing and penalise me for it.

Peter Porter (1929-2010)

May 14, 2010


© Image by Richard H Smith

Clive James pays tribute to his friend the poet Peter Porter (1929-2010) in an obituary that appears in the current Times Literary Supplement

The Blaze of Obscuity by Clive James

October 1, 2009

This self-explanatory email has just arrived from from those very nice people at Amazon.


Greetings from,

As someone who has purchased or rated books by Clive James, you might like to know that The Blaze of Obscurity: The TV Years will be released on 2 October 2009.  You can pre-order yours for just £12.59 (30% off the RRP) by following the link below.

The Blaze of Obscurity: The TV Years The Blaze of Obscurity: The TV Years
Clive James

RRP: £17.99
Price: £12.59
You Save: £5.40 (30%)

Release Date: 2 October 2009



Clive James for Oxford Professor of Poetry? 3

July 19, 2009

In the latest issue of Standpoint, in an article he wrote while the suggestion that he might be willing to put himself forward for the post of Oxford Professor of Poetry, Clive James seems to be insisting he was not interested in the post.

 The suggestion that he was interested

… started happening a few days before the election, when I was being interviewed, nominally about my latest collection of essays, The Revolt of the Pendulum, a book I mention here because it wasn’t mentioned in the interview even once. My interviewer, Decca Aitkenhead of the Guardian, was charming, so when she asked me a question I did the thing I always do when asked a question by a charming woman. I opened my mouth to its full extent and put my foot in it up to the knee. The question was about the Oxford Poetry Professorship election debacle. “Would I like the job?” (Those might not have been her exact words, but that was the main thrust.) My answer (and these are far fewer than my exact words, but this is the thread) was: “I would love it, but not if I had to run in an election.” She used only the first bit — that I would love to have the job — and the Guardian editors flagged it as “Clive James throws his hat in the ring”. 

In reality, Clive James had already made it clear that he would rather throw himself off a cliff. But the thing had been said, the Australian papers had the story next day, a Spanish paper, bizarrely, had the story the day after that, and within a week my supposed candidature in the postponed election was being discussed, with at least two pundits in the British broadsheet weekend press allowing that I might not be a bad choice, in the absence of William McGonagall, E. J. Thribb or Baldur von von Schirach, the Nazi youth leader who wrote a terza rima encomium to Adolf Hitler.

But a Robert McCrum – a declared supporter of James for the post – shrewdly observes in today’s edition of The Observer, James has not gone so far as to rule himself out categorically.

And I do indeed find the Oxford Poetry Professorship just about the most attractive cup of its kind in existence. I would imagine that any poet who has spent his or her lifetime at the craft can only feel the same. The botched election might have made it a poisoned chalice, but what a chalice it is. You have only to think of the string of poets since the Second World War — Day Lewis, Auden, Graves, Blunden, Roy Fuller, John Wain, Heaney, Fenton, Muldoon — and think of how much you would have liked to hear them speak, summing up their knowledge, opening up whole fields of interest with the merest aside.

Having set out a very persuasive set of reasons for saying why the present system for choosing people for the post no longer works, and never really worked, James suggests that occupant should “agreed on by a panel of people whose chief concern is poetry, and who rank poets by their achievement and vocational wisdom”

How this board of experts should be constituted is beyond me. But before he was ever Oxford Professor, Seamus Heaney was a visiting professor at Harvard, an office to which he was not elected, but appointed, to the vast benefit of both Harvard and himself. So Harvard must know how to make a board system work. For the Oxford post, drafting all the surviving holders might not be a bad start, and then you could add in some critics and literary editors who know what they are talking about. Who those might be would itself be a matter of expert choice, so I can already see that there could be a welter of in-fighting and no clear course to a workable result. But we can be sure that the current system no longer works at all. Another election along the lines of the one we have just had will be a kamikaze convention, and we might as well have Ant and Dec presiding over the phone-in.

I myself have a a gut feeling that James himself would like to think he had a chance of being chosen by the kind of board he proposes, if not for his “achievement”, which he’s always had the good gracke to be modest about, the certainly for his “vocational wisdom” which I suspect he sees no good reason to be modest about.

Clive James’s big ego.

July 4, 2009

An anonymous writer for the Irish Independent, concluding his or her review, Clive James’ The Revolt of the Pendulum: Essays 2005-2008 (Picador, Stg£15.99) says that “we’ll forgive the ego and celebrate instead the insights and the elegance of one of the great prose writers of the age”.

It’s more or less what many of us have been doing for the last three or four decades.

Clive James for Oxford Professor of Poetry? 2a

July 2, 2009

In a recent posting, in which I discussed Clive James’s qualifications for the Oxford professor of poetry, I remarked that “if anybody has any doubt about  just how well James talks about poetry, then they should be  be on the lookout for the July issue of Poetry in which he discusses,  among other  topics, James Merrill,  free versus formal verse,  some of the things make poems last, and the work of the late Michael Donaghy, …”

This July issue of Poetry is now available from all good bookshops, and, if you can’t wait for the print version of James’s essay, The Necessary Minimum, the online version can be accessed from here.