Clive James announced in 2012 that he was about to die. He had already survived leukaemia for two years and yet he lived on – to the surprise of his doctors and the delight of his family and friends - for another seven, all the while pouring out books and poems from his sick bed. It is a mark of his extraordinary willpower that he reached the age of 80.
He was probably the best-known of all the journalists I employed on The Observer. Clive virtually invented the television column in his ten years on the paper and then went on to star in the very medium he had mocked so brilliantly. He was also a song-writer, a novelist, an essayist, a book reviewer, an autobiographer, a documentary film-maker – and, above all, a poet.
Clive attributed his obsessive creative energy to the early trauma he suffered when his father, just released from a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp at the end of the Second World War, died in an air crash on his way home to Australia in 1945. He believed that was the defining event in his life: “That’s when I found out the world was arbitrary. At the age of six.”
He reflected on this experience in a poem describing a pilgrimage he made to 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.” The effect, as someone said, was to make him “drive himself to the limit of what it is possible to achieve in one lifetime.”
Even for those who knew him well, Clive was a hard man to read. Was he really the shy individual, hapless and gauche, he describes in his autobiography, or was that a clever disguise for a man with a giant ego?
He viewed himself as an outsider, awkward and misplaced, and once said he felt “equally homeless in Britain and Australia.” He attributed his success on TV to the fact that he couldn’t be pinned down to a place in the British class system - “I counted as coming from nowhere.”
It was his jokes that that made him addictive, both in print and on TV. His other great strength was his vast range of interests – “from ice-skating to Beethoven quartets”, as he once put it – and the exactness of his descriptions of performers. Two examples: “Twin miracles of mascara, Barbara Cartland’s eyes looked like the corpses of two small crows that had crashed into a chalk cliff”; and “Perry Como gave his usual impersonation of a man who has simultaneously been told to say ‘Cheese’ and shot in the back by a poisoned arrow.”
Here are some more samples of the wit and wisdom of Clive James, applied to his contemporaries:
- “I was wrong to suppose that Peter Sellers thought the world revolved around him. He thought the cosmos did too, and history, and the fates. Like every egomaniac, he behaved as if everybody else spent their day being as interested in him as he was.”
- “I quite like talking myself, but when Peter Ustinov was in the room there wasn’t much point, you just had to listen.He was unimaginably, overwhelmingly gifted. You had to imagine a cross between Dr Johnson, Isaiah Berlin, Peter Sellers, and don’t forget Charlie Chaplin – because Peter was a great mime too. He was inexhaustible. It was like talking to Europe, talking to history.”
- “As far as talent goes, Marilyn Monroe was so minimally gifted as to be almost unemployable, and anyone who holds to the opinion that she was a great natural comedian identifies himself immediately as a dunce…She was good at being inarticulately abstracted for the same reason that midgets are short.”
- “Mrs Thatcher started quoting St Francis within minutes of becoming elected, and scarcely an hour had gone by before she was sounding like the Book of Revelations read out over a railway station public address system by a headmistress of a certain age wearing calico knickers."
- "To me, Sydney Opera House looks like a portable typewriter full of oyster shells, and to the contention that it echoes the sails of yachts on the harbour, I can only point out that the yachts on the harbour don’t waste any time echoing opera houses.”
The cook and the polymath
Two other people who died on Wednesday caused me special sadness: Gary Rhodes and Jonathan Miller. Rhodes, whose quiff and cheeky manner on TV caused him to be called “the rock star of cooking,” was a great champion of British food. He was only 59 when he died of a stroke in Dubai.
Gary gave a dinner recently in Dubai in honour of my son-in-law, Tom Egerton, himself a prizewinning chef. Tom and my daughter Laura, along with two of my grand-daughters, are on a round-the-world trip back to the UK after ten years in the Emirates. Tom put Gary’s early death down to stress, which he said was a common feature in the lives of many chefs – but not, I hope, in his.
Jonathan Miller was a polymath, neuro-surgeon, theatre director, photographer, entertainer, and one of the cleverest men I ever met. He is the third to die of that marvellous satirical quartet in Beyond the Fringe, leaving only the 85-year-old Alan Bennett, the same age as Miller when he died.
Peter Cook, who had a house in Majorca, drank himself to death at the age of 57 in 1995. Dudley Moore died at 62 in 2002. Their Dud and Pete conversations are still hilarious after half a century.
Clive James caught Cook’s talent perfectly: Peter Cook wasn’t just a genius, he had the genius’s impatience with the whole idea of doing something again. He reinvented an art form, exhausted its possibilities, and just left it. He didn’t lose his powers. He just lost interest in proving that he possessed them.
Those four special men are a great loss to the world.