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Author and critic Clive James talks poetry, life and his terminal illness
Clive James has turned out three new books, including his collected poems, despite being terminally ill.
By Mark Broatch
27th September, 2016
|The grim shadow of mortality sometimes provokes in writers a kick-against-the-pricks productivity, though no one could ever have fairly accused Clive James of indolence. |
The arrival of leukaemia, emphysema – the result of decades of enthusiastic smoking – and kidney failure several years ago nearly did for him: he has by his own account almost died four times. But James is, thanks to the sorcery of modern medicine – and given his gloomy prognostications, slightly embarrassingly – still here. And still writing up a storm, having three new books appear in recent weeks, including his collected poetry, and at least three more coming, if he’s allowed the time.
You will remember James, now 76, from television shows such as Clive James on Television, in which he sat back and cracked wise on strange Japanese game shows, or Postcards from …,in which he rhapsodised about Rio and Rome and Berlin in those nasal Australian tones and with a can-you-believe-it grin. He’s a novelist, poet, journalist and Formula One fan, but it’s as a cultural critic that he’s best known, probably most notably for his decade-long run as a television reviewer, and for the broad-ranging essay collections The Meaning of Recognition and Cultural Amnesia.
James, who was born Vivian Leopold but opted for Clive after Vivien Leigh’s appearance in Gone with the Wind, moved to England in the 1960s and now can’t leave because of his health. Over the decades, he divided his time between a home in Cambridge and an apartment in central London, until 2012, when his wife, Italian scholar Prue Shaw, reportedly threw him out after it was disclosed he had been having an eight-year affair with Australian socialite and former model Leanne Edelsten. He now lives alone in Cambridge, but close to Shaw and his two daughters, Claerwen and Lucinda – and in easy reach of the top-flight Addenbrooke’s Hospital and the local bookshop. His wife thinks he should write the final volume of his memoirs, he says. “I guess she thinks that the story has improved lately.”
We have the memoirs, the criticism, the TV work, the novels, the poetry, and then there was a verse-rendering of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and now Gate of Lilacs. Taking on Dante is something, but is a verse commentary on Proust the most Clive Jamesian pursuit possible?
I was very ill at the time and the last thing I wanted popping into my head was a long poem. But it insisted on getting itself started. Throughout my weirdly capricious career, I’ve always followed my nose, and there I was, following it again with tubes sticking out of my arm. A tense few months, I assure you....
Clive James. Illustration/Weef