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On the last day of 2009 Clive James’s life changed for ever. By the time the strains of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ were ringing out to welcome in the new decade, he was transformed from the ebullient, non-stop, globetrotting, motormouth, motorbrain Aussie we had known for so many decades into a doomed and depleted invalid.

    ‘I had to go in because of sudden kidney failure,’ he says. ‘I couldn’t pee. I had a prostate problem and my urinary tract packed up on me. They had to operate straight away. I nearly died. And while I was there, I was diagnosed with everything else. 

    ‘In addition to emphysema, I also had a brand of leukaemia. I nearly croaked twice that year.’

    The diagnosis of B-cell chronic lymphocytic leukaemia was not a death sentence in itself but the outlook was not good. He might live for months, perhaps even years, but there was no prospect of recovery. Treatment would start immediately, but the news that he had three life-threatening conditions was devastating. The world had changed overnight, echoing Clive’s favourite line from W.H. Auden, ‘The earth turns over, our side feels the cold’, and bringing him up short against the hard truth of his own impermanence. 

    Ten years earlier to the day, Clive had hosted ITV’s three-hour millennium spectacular, A Night of a Thousand Years. He’d sung and danced his way into light entertainment history with a finale consisting of a gruesomely grandiose choreographed version of the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers classic ‘Pick Yourself Up’ that also starred, for various unlikely reasons, Magnus Magnusson, Christopher Lee and Leslie Phillips, Lionel Blair and Sacha Distel, ‘It Girl’ Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, Felicity Kendal and Helen Mirren. He had already sold his successful TV production company, Watchmaker, and had decided to make this his swansong, quitting television and turning over a new leaf for the next thousand years. No one on the outside knew it yet but ‘TV’s Clive’ was turning back to the written word. 

Following on from Loose Canon, his analysis of Clive James’s song lyrics, Ian Shircore now examines James’s growing commitment to poetry, especially in the face of his life-threatening illnesses and his fear of being remembered not for his intellectuality and observation but for his years as a TV game show host. The book reveals a poetic mind at work, placing James in the context of other poets going back via Auden and Pope to Donne and Marvell

The decade between these life-changing moments saw an outpouring of books, essays, journalism, song lyrics and poetry that fully justified the comment his friend Ian McEwan had made after reading a thoughtful, well-balanced New Yorker piece Clive had written a few years earlier about the degree to which the German nation, as a whole, had conspired with Hitler in his persecution of the Jews. ‘That is what you should be doing,’ McEwan had said, sternly. Like many of Clive’s friends, and enemies, he was convinced that the TV work that had made Britain’s least-disliked intellectual a household name was a distraction, a profligate waste of his prodigious talents. 

    ‘I knew he was right,’ he wrote in The Blaze of Obscurity, volume five of his Unreliable Memoirs. ‘The time was coming when I would have to get back to bedrock. I still believed my work in television was giving me a wider scope but here was a reminder that it would take concentration to go deep, and there was only so much of life left.’    

    How long that ‘only so much’ might be is, of course, something nobody can predict. Clive had just passed 60 when he pulled the plug on his television career. For ten years after turning away from the spotlight, his output was extraordinary, in volume, quality and scope. The poems ranged from an updating of Theocritus in ‘The Magic Wheel’ and the poignant elegy for Ian Hamilton to the mischievous and much-tweeted ‘Windows Is Shutting Down’ (‘Better, perhaps, to simply let it goes. / A sentence have to be screwed pretty bad / Before they gets to where you doesnt knows / The meaning what it must of meant to had’). The prose included the mighty (and weighty) Cultural Amnesia and the inside story of his days in the TV limelight, The Blaze of Obscurity. There were essays, journalism, songs written with Pete Atkin and 60 brilliantly lucid, argumentative and amusing ten-minute programmes for the Radio 4 series A Point of View.

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But then the blow fell. The onset of his fatal illnesses seemed, at first, to signal the end of this golden period of literary productivity. Clive retreated back to Cambridge, to a little four-bedroomed end-of-terrace house close to his family and just north of Jesus Green and the River Cam. The house was adapted to Clive’s needs, with the long kitchen dining room converted into a kitchen study, lined on both sides with bookshelves, with his desk in the middle, lit from above by a broad skylight, and the double doors to his right opening out onto the small, secluded garden. In between painful and exhausting visits to Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Clive would spend most of his days reading and his weekends binge-watching box sets of American TV series (The SopranosMad MenGame of ThronesThe West WingBand of BrothersBreaking BadThe Wire, whatever) with his younger daughter, Lucinda. Yet still, in spite of it all, he still found himself driven by the urge to write. He completed the decade-long marathon of translating Dante’s Divine Comedy (2013), composed Gate of Lilacs (2016), an eccentric verse commentary on Proust, compiled two books of brief, energetic literary essays—Poetry Notebook (2014) and Latest Readings (2016)—and put the box set binges to good use in Play All: A Bingewatcher’s Notebook  (2016), as well as writing a popular series of articles for the Guardian under the title, ‘Reports of My Death’. 

    All the time, however, these activities were being interrupted by the need—felt as an insistent necessity—to write the short, powerful lyric poems that went into Sentenced to Life (2015) and Injury Time (2017). 

    A particular idea would force itself upon him, demanding to be released. He would often find himself driven by a pitiless combination of inspiration and insomnia into shuffling downstairs in the early hours of the morning and working on a poem till dawn broke and the thoughts had been captured and resolved. 

Ian Shircore is the author of Loose Canon: The Extraordinary Songs of Clive James and Pete Atkin. He has known Clive since 1970, when he originally mistook the hefty Australian standing next to Pete Atkin at a gig for the singer’s personal bodyguard. While working on So Brightly at the Last, he has enjoyed many sunny afternoons with Clive at his Cambridge home, discussing poetry, the art of writing and their shared love of Jimi Hendrix

The poem that gives the 2017 collection its name is ‘Injury Time’. This is realistic, rather than optimistic. There is no implication here that the plates can be kept spinning for ever as long as the dying man can keep on writing. Death has been deferred, but the final whistle will go at any minute. The tone of Clive’s poem is resigned and calm, tempered with a sense of bemused curiosity at the fact of his continued existence.

 

This is a pretty trick the fates have played
On me, to make me think that I might die
Tomorrow, and then grant me extra time.

 

Each night he goes to bed half-expecting to die in his sleep, slipping into the same modest dream of surviving, ‘still not dead’, to face the unexpected bonus of another day. While the rest of us toss and turn in nightly sequences of surreal danger and drama, lurid excitement and trouserless or food-splattered embarrassment, he just dreams of waking up alive. I was once married to someone, placid and easy-going by day, whose recurring nightmare involved running for her life across a ploughed field, pursued by a giant and grimly malevolent potato. Clive dreams only of coming downstairs and resuming his existence, until that final morning when his notebook, lying there untouched, will signal that the end has come. 

    The striking central image of the poem—the ‘Himalayan slog upstairs to bed’, which ‘might as well be straight into the sky’—brings with it biblical echoes of the ascension, as well as emphasising how laboured and precarious this everyday business of climbing the stairs is for a man in Clive’s condition. And the detail of having to place each foot so tentatively, as if treading ‘on rolling logs’, has its own nightmare quality. We can’t easily imagine how someone as weakened and ill as Clive feels inside, but these few lines give us a momentary glimpse of how it must be when your strength and coordination have been drained away. 

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In the late 1950s while he was meant to be studying for his first degree at Sydney University, Clive devoted a lot of his energy to his role as literary editor of the university’s student newspaper, Honi Soit. In 2015, shortly before the publication of Sentenced to Life, he gave the same paper an unusually frank interview about the poems he was writing and the new perspectives he’d gained from his long battle with terminal ill-health.

    ‘I am in the position of talking with the authority of someone who has been somewhere, like an astronaut who has been to the moon,’ he said. 

    ‘Apart from bravery, fitness, a science degree and the ability to fly, the main difference between the astronaut and myself is that he got back. I won’t be getting back from this. But I am glad to have made the voyage.’ 

 

Injury Time
        
This is a pretty trick the fates have played
On me, to make me think that I might die
Tomorrow, and then grant me extra time.
By now I feel that I have overstayed
My welcome. Every night I face the climb
Which might as well be straight into the sky:
The Himalayan slog upstairs to bed,
Placing my feet so carefully I seem
To tread on rolling logs, and there I dream
I come back down next morning, still not dead.
This nightly dream can turn out to be true
Only so long, and one day this notebook
Will lie untouched, to show how long it took

Silence to do what it was bound to do.

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