Wed 27 November 2019
The writer and broadcaster Clive James, who has died aged 80, once wrote a poem about visiting his father’s grave at the Sai Wan war cemetery in Hong Kong. His father, Albert, who had survived a PoW camp and then forced labour in Japan, died when the plane bringing him home crashed in Taiwan, and James later described this as the “defining event” in his life. The poem, My Father Before Me, ends:
Back at the gate, I turn to face the hill,
Your headstone lost again among the rest.
I have no time to waste, much less to kill.
My life is yours; my curse, to be so blessed.
Photograph: Shannon StapletonJames claimed to have an “ungovernable ego” but was quite capable of uxoriousness. He was married to Prue Shaw, a Cambridge scholar, with whom he had two daughters: Claerwen and Lucinda. James protected all three from media intrusion, though he gave an insight into his admiration for his wife when he produced her book on Dante for an interviewer: “That’s the real McCoy. That will always be there. The kind of stuff I do is more conjectural. I am still trying to impress her.” He once said: “I think marriage civilised me. It may sound sexist, but it is one of the roles of women to civilise men.”
In his later years he worked harder than ever. He told one interviewer: “You get into what my friend Bruce Beresford calls the Departure Lounge, and two things happen: suddenly time really matters, you can hear the clock, and also you have all these freedoms, because you’ve got more of life to reflect on.”In January 2010, he was diagnosed with terminal leukaemia. One of the greatest annoyances his cancer and its treatment caused him was that he was not allowed to fly – thus stopping him visiting his beloved homeland. But he kept writing, including a weekly TV review for the Daily Telegraph for three years until 2014.
What is it worth, then, this insane last phase
When everything about you goes downhill?
This much: you get to see the cosmos blaze
And feel its grandeur, even against your will,
As it reminds you, just by being there,
That it is here we live, or else nowhere.