This Glistening Illuminates the Air

Clive James, as he himself admitted, took longer than expected to leave us, but that doesn’t make waving goodbye to him at the corporeal departure gate any less poignant. There aren’t many writers who feature on my shelves as heavily as he does: when I heard the news on Wednesday I counted twenty volumes, a couple of them omnibuses, which have survived my purges of recent years where books by other once-favoured writers haven’t. Several of those have appeared since he was diagnosed with leukemia in the early 2010s, filled with ruminative poems on mortality and memory that sparkle in the sun like the Sydney Harbour he loved.

James’s Unreliable Memoirs is one of the funniest memoirs ever written, and timeless in its account of boyhood; even as a youngster almost thirty years his junior it spoke to me and my much more recent memories of being a kid in Australia. But its sequels spoke to me as well: Falling Towards England chimed with the stories my parents told me of the years they spent in London in the early 1960s, and May Week Was in June appeared a few years after I had first fallen in love with Cambridge as a visitor and one year before I ended up there myself as a student. His ghostly presence loomed around its streets, which was odd, as he was still living there—but I never bumped into him, sparing us both the embarassment of a callow Aussie youth gushing to him about what an inspiration he had been. Instead I had to imagine his youthful incarnation lurking in the background, propping up the bar at the ADC or lazing on the lawns of the Backs.

His career after Cambridge was even more of an inspiration, with its TV shows, shelves of books and endless column inches; that’s what I wanted to do one day. It hasn’t worked out that way, but at least I can look at the dozens of books and scores of poems he wrote in his final three decades and know that there’s time yet to chase after him. All of that, and he had a pretty decent personal website, as well. I hope it’ll still be maintained.

I’ll never forget the good humour of his 1980s and 1990s television work, or the sharp wit of his TV criticism, or a string of his best poems. I’ll never forget his description of childhood sinus surgery as like having a wardrobe crammed up his nose; or his account of using a giant padded envelope as a sleeping bag in London; or any number of other phrases that he’d turned until they “catch the light”, as he once put it. I didn’t agree with his every opinion, but the way he expressed them meant that disagreeing never felt annoying. Of that clutch of Aussies who moved to Britain in the sixties and made brilliant careers here, he was the one who mattered to me the most, and the longest.

Goodbye, Clive. Or as an Aussie should say: see you later.

29 November 2019 · People