Beautiful beyond life... Clive James's poetry
Unsurprisingly, in Clive James's latest poetry collection, the spectre of death looms large
Death has been a rich reference in Clive James's writing. Back in 2004, in his essay 'Save Us From Celebrity', he thought about his perfect demise: "I want to be knifed to death in an Elle McPherson lingerie commercial."
It's for that deadpan, Antipodean wit that most of us know James. Now, the resurrection of his literary work is taking centre stage. Since being diagnosed with terminal leukaemia and emphysema five years ago, James continues to frustrate the obituary writers, and is becoming startlingly productive as his time runs out. He has chosen poetry to best express a heightened awareness of the bittersweet beauty of life as he lingers in that last ante-chamber.
2013 saw the publication of his translation of Dante's epic poem 'The Divine Comedy, followed by his series of essays', Poetry Notebook: 2006 - 2014. His latest book further re-establishes the reputation he has always craved as a serious, literary writer. Sentenced to Life, James's volume of poems from 2011-2014, speaks of the intensity of emotions before life's end. He writes with what George Eliot described as the "acute consciousness" of "a man looking into the eyes of death:. It's there in the book's title poem:
"Once, I would not have noticed; nor have known
The name for Japanese anemones,
So pale, so frail. But now I catch the tone
Of leaves. No birds can touch down in the trees
Without my seeing them. I count the bees."
The constant changes in nature, echoing human experience, are observed in 'Japanese Maple', James's now famous and moving ode to the little tree bought for him by his daughter Claerwen when he became ill.
"That poem was tweeted all over the world. Whatever 'tweeting' is," he said in a recent BBC Radio Four interview.
If social media had been around during his 1970s to 1990s heyday, analysing the lunacy of celebrity as a television critic and talk-show host, James would surely have been a master of the hilarious hashtag comment. While that work paid the household bills, and gave him a field of material to draw on in his writing, it also made it harder in terms of literary acceptance. He enjoyed all of the attention and fame brought by the box, but there were consequences. In his poem Landfall, he speaks of "the false freedom of excess".
These new works, and the dedication, are for his wife, Prue Shaw, but also for himself, he has said. They have been married almost 50 years. James has been described as "the Dante scholar who attracts the tabloid headlines", those headlines relating to his eight-year, extra-marital affair, revealed in 2012. That was the catalyst for his own circle of hell when Shaw insisted he move out of the family home.
A reconciliation has been alluded to more recently, as his wife, two daughters and grand-daughter all now live next to him in Cambridge. James has been reluctant to elaborate publicly on this, letting the poems express emotions instead.
"My heart alone is what it always was.
The ultrasound shows nothing wrong with it,
And if we smile at that, then it's because
We both know that its physical remit
Was only half the task the poor thing faced.
My heart had spiritual duties too,
And failed at all of them. Worse than a waste
Was how I hurt myself through hurting you"
(from 'Balcony Scene')
There is a sense of a process of healing going on. At 75, it is memory, above all, that inspires, says James: "Especially childhood memories which are more acute."
He was born in the Sydney suburb of Kogarah in 1939 and, as he puts it in the first volume of his five autobiographies, Unreliable Memoirs, "the other big event of that year was the outbreak of the Second World War". Young Vivian Leopold became the less girlishly named 'Clive', elbowing into the limelight from the start.
"I won the spelling bee in Kogarah Infants School, but Laurie Ryan was still given the first early mark just because he had kacked his pants earlier in the day."
He graduated from Sydney University and into writing for the Sydney Morning Herald. But his restless and lively intelligence yearned for a different stage. James was one of that quartet of creative Aussies, along with Robert Hughes, Germaine Greer and Barry Humphries, who arrived in London just as the 1960s started to swing. He came in January 1963, as documented in his second memoir, Falling Towards England. For days he trudged around the city, freezing in his Aussie summer clothes, carrying his cardboard suitcase and wondering when 'the Singapore suit' would arrive, until finally finding sanctuary in Kangaroo Valley (Earls Court).
He developed a fondness for "brown water" (British beer) and was on the way to being an 80-a-day man - "I used the wheel hub of a Bedford van for an ashtray."
They were tough times, he was penniless with no outlet for his writing, and at one stage contemplated suicide. Then came a place reading English at Cambridge as a mature student, which included an appearance on University Challenge, and rising to presidency of the famous Footlights revue.
His writing was receiving attention, too, and his byline began showing up in The Listener and the New Statesmen. Then, in 1972, he was offered what was then the novel post of television critic for The Observer, before becoming a star on the box himself.
His chat-shows were unlike any other: viewers were introduced to the hilarious stoicism of Japanese game-show contestants one minute, a serious interview with Yasser Arafat the next. His stock-in-trade was witty observation. Arnold Schwarzenegger was likened to a brown condom filled with walnuts; motor-racing commentator Murray Walker sounded "like a man whose trousers are on fire". Andy Warhol's smile was "a computer-generated rearrangement of crumbling tissue".
His buddies included Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and the late Christopher Hitchens. But not everyone was in thrall to his seamless mixing of the high-brow and low-brow in his writing. A sniffy review in The Spectator in 2005 accused him of being "direly vulgar" and displaying an "intellectual exhibitionism that he should get over".
For James, there is no division; the arts are one big field where he roams freely. As the author of numerous books, as well as poems, essays, memoirs, literary criticism and reviews, he does not yearn for any defined title, just simply to be known as a writer. His illness makes him tired, but he is not in pain, and remains alert to all that life can yet bring.
"I'm so interested in everything. I do a lot of reading, and listening to music. The afterlife is here, here on earth. We are going nowhere. But it's not bleak."
And the flashes of humour, maybe a little darker than before, are still there. He would like his ashes to be thrown over the harbour wall in Sydney, but says he fears they could be blown back over his mourners. As life is ending, the yearning for home grows stronger:
"Here in the English autumn, but my mind
Basks in the light I never left behind"
While he writes, and waits, there is always contemplation of the changing beauty of that Japanese Maple, just beyond his window, bringing the simplest of joys.
"It is beautiful beyond life. But so is life."
Sentenced to Life
Picador, hbk, £10.49, 80p,
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350