RIP Clive James

I first read Clive James, in barren suburban Australia, pre-teen, early seventies, when my dad would bring home piles of old copies of The Observer from the office. He’d bring them home to evoke homesickness, but soon there’d be a winner-takes-all fracas to be the first to read Clive’s 500 words on what had been on telly months ago in Britain. 

That’s quite a trick. 

Most of what Clive lovingly filleted in his columns would never appear on the Australian ‘crystal bucket’. But it didn’t matter. He wrote criticism that read like a Brodie’s Notes that was better and always funnier than the original. I can hear my dad whimpering as he read Clive’s take on Kung Fu (‘They are trained in the ancient art of speaking their dialogue as if each sentence had a full stop every few words’), The Six Million Dollar Man (‘Since either of them, in a careless moment, would be capable of pushing over a building with one hand, the question arises of how they manage their love life’) or a David Bellamy nature programme (‘The fish have giws fwew which vey bweave’).

Good writing makes you want to burp some of it at others in appreciation. Clive wrote like a Twitter god long before it had been invented. He could break the laws of physics in a sentence.

He had his famous lines about Schwarzenegger or Cartland, but his range was so enormous, and his care, both for what he was observing and what he said, was utterly consistent. His translation turned one of Dante’s most memorable lines into something staggeringly capacious and consequential. ‘Abandon all hope ye who enter here’, with Clive James as your guide, becomes ‘Forget your hopes. They are what brought you here.’ 

When I first read Clive, the Sontaran Space Warrior was appearing on Doctor Who. I’ve never been able to separate them since. When Linx the Sontaran took off his helmet to reveal his perfectly helmet-shaped head below, I saw Clive, with his already defoliating dome and his Australian verandah brow, shading the sunlight to get to the essential truth. He could write about anything, gild it, even in the dissection, and defy time and space like the Sontaran. When a critic can really explain what went wrong, it invites audience compassion for the components and the intention, and through it a better understanding. Saying it is bad, thanks to Clive, is no longer good enough.

He deserves posterity for many things, and for me, above all, for his reframing of our cultural repertoire. Clive can be thanked for gifting us permission to find metaphor and meaning in the most barren places. Melvyn Bragg said yesterday that he was both erudite and recondite. I don’t know about hidden; I think he was expansive and expository: he was a detectorist of meaning, scanning the cultural outback and often gently revealing what the original auteur might have hoped to say but hadn’t quite worked out how to put it.