Life during death; The last words of Clive James keep lasting
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 4 August 2015)

By neatly deploying several of his many talents, Clive James has managed to treat his imminent death in a way that's at least mildly amusing and characteristically charming. In 75 years of life, most of them spent in Britain, James has been a poet, a TV broadcaster, a critic and the best-selling author of memoirs. He's done all of these things exceptionally well, so no one should be surprised that he's now dying in an exuberant and altogether literary manner.

In 2010 he was diagnosed with both leukemia and emphysema, the latter related to the 80 cigarettes a day he consumed at the height of his nicotine addiction. Immediately upon hearing the bad news, which seemed a death sentence, he began writing his last words.

But as time passed the last words kept lasting. Nobody complained, because the poems he was writing were the best he had written, which is saying a lot.

In 2011 the London Daily Mail quoted his words, "I'm battling leukemia." In 2012, the Belfast Telegraph reported the latest bulletin: "I am dying, I am near the end." In an interview with BBC radio that same year, he said the disease had beaten him. A few months ago the BBC interviewed him again, finding him "near to death but thankful for life." James has confessed that he's embarrassed to be alive. "I write poems saying I am about to die and I don't." One of the poems, "Japanese Maple," lets the red of that tree symbolize the brilliance and vividness of the life he's soon leaving:

A final flood of colours will live on
As my mind dies.
Burned by my vision of a word that shone
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.

An Australian, born in a suburb of Sydney in 1939, James went to Britain in 1962 and made it his home, emerging as the most prolific literary man on the island, perhaps also the most entertaining.

He studied English literature at Cambridge University. For 10 years he wrote about television for the London Observer and was often called the most perceptive TV critic in the business. He was always a generous and grateful reviewer. He once said, "Anyone afraid of what he thinks television does to the world is probably just afraid of the world." His columns turned into three much-praised books, the last called Glued to the Box.

That was only the start. He wrote literary criticism, travel articles, four novels, and a series of memoirs, the first volume being a best-seller, Unreliable Memoirs. A later volume in the series, making a joke of his fame, is called The Blaze of Obscurity.

Altogether he's written more than 30 books. He's learned to read in six foreign languages. As lyricist he collaborated with the musician Pete Atkin on six albums of songs. In 2008 James appeared on stage at the Edinburgh Comedy Festival in shows called Clive James in Conversation and Clive James in the Evening.

All this time, as he blanketed Britain with words, he considered himself first a poet. In 2013, he brought forth his translation of Dante's Divine Comedy. He wrote four long mock-heroic poems, each a satire of contemporary British culture. His shorter poems, often the best light verse of his day, show an ingenious and richly original appreciation of poetry's possibilities. His 2003 collection of poems is called The Book of My Enemy includes an oftenquoted piece, "The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered/And I Am Pleased."

Those few words illustrate the wit he brought to the subject of professional bitterness and the absurd self-importance of competitive writers. His experience in television naturally fed into his writing. At one point he served as copresenter on Granada's pop music show, the episode on which the Sex Pistols made their television debut.

He was given "the task of keeping the little bastards under control." He became omnipresent in British TV, often on shows bearing his name. He was host on Saturday Night Clive, which later became Saturday Night Clive on Sunday. Then came Clive James on the '80s and Clive James on the '90s, each a New Year's Eve special. There were travel programs called Clive James in Las Vegas and Clive James' Postcard from Miami. He made a series of eight documentaries, called Fame in the 20th Century, which explored fame as an idea that covered the world.

The fact that the TV networks and their audiences never tired of him suggests a Jamesian talent: He finds the crucial centre of any subject and then dances around it in always unexpected ways. In the middle of this intense busyness, he became a friend of Princess Diana. He wrote well of her and mourned her in delicate prose. His obituary for the New Yorker said his grief was so overwhelming that, as his title put it, "I Wish I'd Never Met Her."

This year he's brought out three more books -- one of poems, one of literary criticism, and, recently, Latest Readings (Yale University Press) in which he looks freshly at subjects that have concerned him in the past. He decided that "if you don't know the exact moment when the lights will go out, you might as well read until they do." So he read new books and reread old ones. His newest essays, easygoing and beguiling, carry no hint of self-pity or fatigue. He decides that Hemingway may not last, as everyone thought he would. He discovers that Philip Larkin is even better than he believed during his first 40 years reading him.

Recently James allowed himself a boastful moment. "I've got a lot done since my death," he said. Quite true.

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