November saw the death of Clive James, a writer and showman who combined the highbrow pursuit of art (as both poet and critic) with the popular thrill of a career in television. Our current moment—saturated by pop culture, while “high” culture takes refuge in the Ivory Tower—could learn from James’s double life.
Born in 1939 in Kogarah, a suburb of Sydney, Australia, James made his name in England. In 1962 he moved to Cambridge for university. By 1972, he was working as a television critic for the Sunday Observer. The Metropolitan Critic, his first collection of criticism, appeared in 1974. Unreliable Memoirs (1980), his account of growing up in Australia in the wake of his father’s untimely death at the end of World War II, is his most popular work. Alongside these books are four more volumes of memoirs, four novels, nine poetry anthologies, seven epic poems, countless essay collections, and a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Then there was his television career. James was a witty media commentator and interviewer in shows like Clive James on Television (ITV, 1982–1988; 1997–98) and Saturday Night Clive (BBC, 1988–1990). His Fame in the 20th Century (1995), a BBC documentary series, explored fame and mass media. Clive James’ Postcard from… (1989–1995), a travel documentary program, was like a more literary version of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown.
James seemed to live two lives at once: there was the man who composed formal verse and wrote literary criticism for the Times Literary Supplement, and then there was the broadcaster who riffed on Japanese game shows and Formula 1 racing. James’s TV persona was light and breezy, but while he wrote some excellent comic verse, his poetry could also plumb the lowest depths. Toward the end of his life especially, he often wrote about death. “People we once loved will be with us there / And we not touch them, for it is nowhere” he wrote in “Event Horizon,” a 2014 poem comparing death to a black hole.
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