The BBC world affairs editor on a charismatic wit and gifted poet who elevated British life with his televisual panache
He came into my life in the same way, I imagine, as he came into everyone elses: with a joke and a certain amount of bounce, but also with a degree of authority that meant you took him seriously, even while you were laughing. Jesus, what do you do here put on Wagner? It was Clives, and my, last year at Cambridge University, and I was living in a medieval room with a central wooden pillar which held the ceiling up. It really was like something out of Die Meistersinger von Nrnberg. I was the editor of the pretentious student magazine Granta, and hed got a sheaf of papers in his hand which he thrust at me: not aggressively, but certainly not with the timidity that most of us would feel if we offered our poems for publication. In fact, if anyone was timid it was me. Clive was five years older and physically imposing, even though he wasnt tall.
I said Id read them later. No, have a look now. The top one was called Together, Sleeping Sideways and it started:
Together, sleeping sideways,
Theres not much they demand:
A knee between her knees,
A place to put his hand.
Ive never seen the discomforts of young sexuality expressed better or more gently; and nowadays Im prouder of publishing Clives writing than of almost anything else I did at university. Are you going to try to get a job teaching here? I asked him in our last term. No, he said, I dont want to be a waiter, passing round other peoples cooking.
He was wonderfully, dangerously funny. Who was it that said you shouldnt read his stuff with a hot drink in your hand? Scared and desolate, I went to cover the insanely dangerous civil war in Lebanon only a day after Id been dumped by a girl I loved. But Id brought his Unreliable Memoirs with me, and as I sat on the plane, feeling pretty awful, I started reading about the outdoor lavatories and noxious insects and useless jerk-offs of his Australian childhood, and my fear and misery simply dropped away. That looks like a good book, said the stewardess when she saw me laughing; and she was right. I told him afterwards how hed cheered me up. Stick with your Uncle Clive, he replied, and youll never commit suicide again.
In the early 80s the BBC, going through one of its periodic convulsions, sacked the charming, avuncular ex-actors who presented the main television news and replaced them with a pair of rough journalists: John Humphrys and me. The nation was horrified, and the BBC was deluged with angry letters. The television critics were equally scathing except for Clive. Im not sure whether it was for old times sake, or whether he genuinely believed it, but in his unmissable television column for the Observer, he never joined the lynch mob, and even tossed out the occasional sentence of sympathy and support. You arent that bad, he said when I thanked him. And even if you are, critics like [he named our chief persecutor] know as much about television as I know about nuclear fission.
The fact is, Clive James was the greatest master of television in our time. Programmes like his Postcard series and Fame in the 20th Century set a standard which others tried and usually failed to emulate, even if the BBC didnt see fit to wheel them out again when he died. Could he have used his remarkable talents to grander effect? Possibly, but he lifted the mood of an entire nation, week after week. His poetry, from the satirical Peregrine Prykkes Pilgrimage Through the London Literary World to the deeply personal Sentenced to Life, reflected but also enhanced our time, and his biographical writing was masterly. The manner of his slow death, nine years after hed been warned to put his affairs in order, taught us how best to bring life to a close: with gentleness, courage, and a thorough awareness of what his death would mean to those around him. He died like a Roman Stoic, while characteristically apologising, like Charles II, for taking so long about it.