Clive James

Clive James is very ill. He has leukemia and emphysema and has little time left. It is a time filled with remorse and regret after the painful estrangement from his wife, pain that is etched into every word of his latest poetry that is almost too searing to read. Ironically this emotional nadir is at time of a professional zenith with the publication of his translation of Dante which has taken him more than twenty years and been received with universal applause.

He is an extraordinary polymath. Until recently I had only known him as a television personality, journalist and wit – he of the laconic phrase delivered with an Aussie accent and the appearance of a rugby forward. How wrong that was. With Robert Hughes and Germaine Greer he was one of the trio of stars that emerged from Australia in the sixties to leave their effervescent mark on the old world. He is fluent in numerous languages and immersed in the culture of Italy and Florence where he lived for some time. He is a poet of distinction. I read his Cultural Amnesia last year and it was a revelation. It takes the form of a series of twentieth century biographies – many on figures of which I had never heard. Each chapter starts with a biographical note of often only a page or two that then develops into a riff about something only vaguely connected – music, literature, politics, drama – all the human stage, delivered with erudition and style. It was the best thing I read all year and left me feeling like a flat-footed philistine.

It is the contrast between his appearance, voice and public persona, and the poet and academic that is so disconcerting. His daughter in an interview describes a workaholic recluse that is so at odds with the show-off that dominated the Cambridge Footlights of his generation. He, by his own admission, was an imperfect husband and an absent father. But his remorse now is truly terrible and his poetic coda as moving as anything I have read.

But are they lessons, all these things I learn
Through being so far gone in my decline?
The wages of experience I earn
Would service well a younger life than mine.
I should have been more kind. It is my fate
To find this out, but find it out too late.

The mirror holds the ruins of my face
Roughly together, thus reminding me
I should have played it straight in every case,
Not just when forced to. Far too casually
I broke faith when it suited me, and here
I am alone, and now the end is near.

All of my life I put my labour first.
I made my mark, but left no time between
The things achieved, so, at my heedless worst,
With no life, there was nothing I could mean.
But now I have slowed down. I breathe the air
As if there were not much more of it there

And write these poems, which are funeral songs
That have been taught to me by vanished time:
Not only to enumerate my wrongs
But to pay homage to the late sublime
That comes with seeing how the years have brought
A fitting end, if not the one I sought.


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