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Vale Clive James: A lightning before death

A former University of Sydney student pays tribute to an icon.

I’m generally not the self-appointed obituarist type, but in this case, I can only swallow my grief like wine and say farewell to my subject, along with my inhibitions. Clive James, the kid from Kogarah, has died at his home in Cambridge, aged 80. 

I have been dreading this day for years, not only because Clive was sick for so long, but because I didn’t have the opportunity to tell him I would endeavour to pick up where he left off. Perhaps he fought to keep his flame alight in the hope of seeing another.

Clive was a man who felt life deeply, a man who explored the oceans of human experience by the prow of his sharpened senses. I know he must’ve felt his death in much the same sensibility; led, no doubt, by his sense of humour. Clive reached the end like he would a sentence, with an inflection. 

As I write this obituary, I am somewhere high above the Asian continent flying toward China. Beyond China lies the Pacific, and its darling, Sydney, that city submerged in sunlight, with its tight streets trickling through sandstone to the sea. Quite a bit different to Northern Europe from which Clive, and I, departed, a place where the sun puts about as much effort in to showing up as Godot with a hangover. 

Clive, we’ve been unreliably informed, was raised on those sunny Sydney streets by his mother on a widow’s pension. His father, who had managed to survive the Second World War in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, perished when the plane carrying him home went down in a typhoon. He was given no choice but to be a precocious student to the capriciousness of chance, not just a lesson on luck, but on the inheritance of it. As Clive put it in a poem penned whilst visiting his father’s grave in Hong Kong: 

“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.”

Like his memories of childhood, Clive was bright from the beginning. Nevertheless, as he made sure we knew, it was Sydney University which formed him, or, at least, gave him the time and space to form himself. By the end of his time at Sydney Uni he was editing Honi Soit, and writing at least half of it every week. The letters section was full of protestations about Clive’s pieces. The letters, of course, were written by him too. 

Clive fell toward England in the early 1960s, where he landed like a cat on cocaine, eventually finding his way to Cambridge. I fell away from Australia too, though I fell less like a cat and more like a watermelon. Clive entitled this period Falling Toward England. Mine might be called Falling Down an Escalator. 

Yet Clive showed us that it could be done, that an Australian life of the mind isn’t as absurd as it sounds. Clive gave Australia a new authenticity,  courage to read broadly, think deeply, pursue truth and find a way out of isolation. To paraphrase Clive from an incandescent essay on Lichtenberg, the person without a range of reference is not more authentic, just more alone. 

Clive was original, be it that vocal style which lilts like the wry smile we wear when reading him, or his ability to talk about everything at once. Fundamentally, Clive understood what most undervalue; our senses can betray us, but our sense of humour can only betray who we are. 

Clives’ humour, like an Ali punch or a Brando character, hits the reader as if by an extension of mood. Humour is the key because humour is everywhere. It ensures that even when we are unable to see the light, we can, at least, still feel light-hearted. Edgar came to the same conclusion in King Lear: “The worst returns to laughter.” 

I could pursue Clive down all his alleys of knowledge and passion, but as Clive himself said in an essay on Sainte-Beuve in Cultural Amnesia: You would need to “be very mad about an author…because you will be spending time on his minutiae that you could be devoting to someone else’s main event.” 

Clive wasn’t wrong of course, but we should remember he was speaking of the correspondence of Voltaire, a man with enough minutiae to fertilize an entire planet at the bacterial level and bring it up to the stature of giants. I’m tempted to call the effect Micromegas. Clive was similarly green-thumbed, only his gardens were not in the rationally predictable patterns of Versailles, but always surprising, one is as likely to meet a Bird of Paradise as a Gum-Tree or a Japanese Maple.  

In life, Clive did as he said, he tried to turn a phrase until it caught the light, only his phrases didn’t so much as turn as pirouette, and in so doing he turned our blind eyes to a world of technicolour. Clive now belongs to our memory, that palace of all poetry, where he will remain as vividly as he was in the living language, although actually, it is we who will remain, for his light will only intensify. 

For the epigraph of Poetry Notebook: Reflections on the Intensity of Language, Clive borrowed words from Romeo: 

“How oft when men are at the point of death
Have they been merry! Which their keepers call
A lightning before death…”

Like lightning, Clive illuminated the world around him for the time he was here. Unlike lightning, he found a way to describe that light, and for that, we will remember him. 

Upon landing in Sydney, I’ll trickle down to the harbour to gaze into its “crushed diamond water under a sky the texture of powdered sapphires.” For though Clive’s light went out in England, he is once again basking in that Pacific light he never left behind. Now that he has been heaven sent, it is up to us to see the light as he did — that is his will and testament. 

I can’t wait to begin reading him again; not for the first time and I hope not the last. After all, as Clive put it: “If you don’t know the exact moment the lights will go out, you might as well read until they do.” 

Vale Clive James.