I haven’t written anything for months.
Last week, however, I felt compelled to because Britain and Australia – and the wider world – have lost a giant of culture. I can’t write obituaries. Admittedly I’ve never tried but I don’t have the patience to research someone’s life to the nth degree and send it out for publication before the morning. I also find that they tend to be more sombre than celebratory, and enough of those come out in the immediate aftermath of a death. I can only write what I know, hurriedly scribbling in a notebook I’ve found in the depths of the kitchen in handwriting that looks like a trained journalist’s shorthand.
“He could make you feel at home whether you were in Dallas, Texas with him or a Japanese karaoke bar”.
I first saw Clive James on television (not to be confused with Clive James on Television) in 2003 when I was 11. Postcard from… was being re-run every Saturday afternoon at the time, and my mother would put it on, saying “oh, you’ll like him, he’s funny”. Indeed, I did, and indeed he was. Between the Postcard re-runs and the occasional Alan Whicker documentary, my Saturday afternoons transported me away from the daily humdrum of suburban life. Clive James’ dry, witty and very British sense of humour were brought all the more to life by his laconic way of speaking and excellent delivery. More than that, though, was his ability to make you feel like he had just as little idea about what was going on as you did even though he was clearly very well educated on his subjects. It was as though you were in the passenger seat whilst he was driving, but you weren’t sure if he knew what the pedals were meant to do. Nevertheless, he could make you feel at home whether you were in Dallas, Texas with him or a Japanese karaoke bar. He inspired in me for the first time as an 11-year-old a thirst for travel along with a thirst to write, just as he did on Wednesday, even in death. Both of these have sustained me for the intervening years, and more often than not when I’m travelling, I tend to write about my experiences.
During my first shaky term at university, I turned to him again, this time in the form of the second instalment of his memoirs May Week was in June about his time as an undergraduate at Cambridge. During the beginning of what is now uselessly termed my “university career” he was an invaluable comrade, his gravely Australian voice coming through the pages just as clearly as it had on TV when I was growing up. Again, I was taken somewhere new: to his university, just as I’d taken him to mine. As an (allegedly) mature student at the age of 21 with somewhere between little and no friends, it was a great comfort to read that Clive had as little idea about university life as me – although he had considerably more fun than I did – and as an Aussie in Cambridge, stuck out even more than I thought I did.
A few years later at the Cheltenham Literature Festival there was a talk about James and his work, where I picked up his latest collection of poetry. At that point I was reminded yet again, as I have been watching the coverage of his death, just how much of a renaissance man he was. Broadcaster, TV critic, television presenter, lyricist, essayist, novelist and poet is a vast range for anybody, particularly someone who published a number of volumes whilst staring death in the face.
I often see obituaries and think ‘oh, and old man or woman’s died, we all saw it coming’ and, yes, we all saw this coming for a fair few years, but it makes it nonetheless sad. If you’re reading this but haven’t read any of James’ work, I’d recommend you do so. He’s still with me now as a fledgling writer, fifteen years after first sitting down to watch Postcard from…, taking me on a journey through his TV years in The Blaze of Obscurity, his fifth book of memoirs. It serves to remind us that although the writer has gone, the words live on.