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RIP Clive James

The Australian journalist, poet, satirist and author left a rich canon of work, for which "all you can do with the talent is envy it."

Clive James outside BBC Broadcasting Nov 2008. (Photo by Jeff Overs/BBC News & Current Affairs via Getty Images)

“My God, how hard it is to die!” Thus murmured General Franco, amid his last excruciatingly protracted illness. But there must have been times when Clive James, diagnosed with leukemia a decade back, wanted to echo Franco’s words. He has now left us, aged 80, only a month after even he perforce called it quits on an authorial career which spanned more than half a century.

Having attempted to sum up Clive James’s achievement in TAC’s May-June 2013 issue, I can do no more now than hint at the overwhelming impact which James had on every young Australian who wanted to purvey serious journalism during the 20th century’s last quarter. We watched his verbal prestidigitation and we marveled, as children marvel at the conjuror who purports to saw in half his female assistant.

Every one of us longed, with almost unseemly desperation, to be Clive James. In my case that craving long ago eased. For me, the shortcomings of James’s Cultural Amnesia made it impossible to keep placing in his worldview the complete trust with which I had hitherto submitted to his didactic authority; and his cheerleading for the “liberation” of Iraq did not help. Yet the news of his demise at Cambridge, on November 24, finds me recollecting the comment with which Peter Townshend mourned the long-expected death of that maniacally self-destructive drummer Keith Moon: “When it happens you just can’t take it in.”

Rather than either repeat my own six-year-old musings or attempt to descant afresh on James’s wider literary significance, I wish here to proffer a small chrestomathy (James surely would have relished the Menckenesque grandiloquism) of his prose and verse at their most virtuosic. From the prose, James’s account (Falling Towards England) of how, amid a King Lear production at London’s Aldwych Theater, his torrential desire to urinate prompted him to reassess the wisdom of his binge-drinking. (Note that in Australian and British English, “piss-artist” means “drunkard” and “pissed” has no American-style connection with anger.)

In the exact center of a very long row of people, by the end of the first act I was ready for a pee. By the end of the second act I was ready for emergency surgery. When the third act followed without a break I knew that something would have to be done, possibly in situ. I held out as long as I could then started crawling across people’s knees. On stage, Gloucester was having his eyes put out. In the circle, there was a man struggling desperately sideways towards the exit through an entanglement of legs, like one of those American footballers in training who have to run very fast with knees high through piles of tires.

I made it to safety approximately in time, but as I stood there – or rather, reeled and swayed there like a man watering his lawn with a hose which had been unexpectedly connected to a powerful artesian well – it began to strike me that the capacity of my bladder was perhaps incompatible with the quantities of liquid I was attempting to put into it. Over the next decade I attempted to solve this problem by forcing even more liquid in, on the assumption that this would enlarge the receptacle. Commonsense, which might have suggested that this was the wrong approach, was vitiated by the method itself. When I finally embraced abstinence it was because of the simple urge to work a longer day. Thus, without joining Alcoholics Anonymous, I was at last able to leave Piss-Artists Notorious.

And from James’s verse, the following stanza, written in 1982 at the news of the Sabra-Shatila massacre, but with (alas) a piercing eloquence undimmed by the passage of 37 years:

The Jews won’t sit still twice for being slaughtered.
The Palestinians will fight to live.
Justice and mercy will be drawn and quartered.
Things will be done a saint could not forgive.
The towns and cities will be bombed and mortared
Until like hot sand they fall through a sieve,
And on the day that blood turns into wine
There will be peace again in Palestine.

R.I.P. Clive James. To cite Alistair Cooke’s exasperatedly affectionate 1969 encomium of Westbrook Pegler: “Those are the kind of opinions for which he is to be honored. All you can do with the talent is envy it.

J. Stove lives in Melbourne and has been a Contributing Editor at TAC since 2004.

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