Former Observer TV critic defies cancer to wow an audience with wit and erudition
Clive James blew into London on Saturday with a quiver full of highly polished barbs, of the kind he deployed when he was the Observer's celebrated TV critic. Billed as a high noon, it was mainly a shootout with imminent mortality. Not that you'd have known it. "Ah, well," he began, with the sardonic smile of the old trouper, "another farewell appearance."
Why was he doing it? "Like any red-blooded Australian male," he said, in a joke designed to resonate in his home country, "I'm doing it to impress [prime minister] Tony Abbott's daughters."
After that, fully up and running, he wowed his audience at the Australia and New Zealand literature festival in the Strand in much the same old way, with a mix of exuberance, show-off allusion, topical wisecracks and Aussie irreverence.
Few critics and poets (Clive James, the polymath, is both) could bring off a monologue which effortlessly referenced "that great philosopher Kirk Douglas", the Renaissance artist Uccello, Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney, Game of Thrones, Pushkin, UA Fanthorpe, the pope, Japanese poetry, Jeffrey Archer and Meriam Ibrahim.
There was, inevitably, one big difference. The spirit of Clive James was as undimmed, and as witty as ever, but his tempo was rallentando, not rubato, conducted in a minor key of reflective and poignant sweetness.
"On the subject of dragons," he told a packed theatre, "it has been one of my rules of life to have nothing to do with any art form that has dragons in it." But then the irrepressible comic payoff: "It's one of my ambitions to live until Game of Thrones, box four." This was not a matinee, but a closing night. Young Clive was a TV idol, but vintage Clive is a 74-year-old exile racked with emphysema and leukaemia, whose inveterate frame is besieged by carcinomas. Basically, he says, "I've got the lot."
Wistful and patriotic, he recalled the Australian radio horseracing commentator Ken "Magic Eye" Howard, whose catchphrase ("As the field settles down for the run to the judge … ") expresses, he says, the eternal truth about life that we are always "on the run to the judge".
His circumstances in old age evoke a fate that Dante might plausibly have inflicted on a junior member of the damned in the antechamber to the first circle of hell.
His health has been so bad, he has had to deny rumours of his imminent demise. His marriage has been on, and off, the rocks after the disclosure of his long affair with a bottle-blonde Australian model. On Saturday, he spoke movingly about his wife and daughters, as if to scotch any rumours.
On top of his "incredible ability to make mistakes" (vide supra), his ailing body prevents him from returning to Australia, which is what he most longs to do. For a man whose lungs are "dust", it's too far to fly.
It is, however, an ill wind: here, in his adopted home, James has been "saying goodbye", as he puts it, in a succession of moving cameos, live and on radio. Whatever the outlook, he will entertain his fans until the curtain falls.
As a performer raised by the Cambridge Footlights, he knows about the risks of hogging the limelight, but believes he can pull it off. "I like to think I've hit a sort of Last Post, recessional tone," he told the Observer. "The trick is not to overdo it."
He confides that his friend, the humorist PJ O'Rourke, has advised him "to soft-pedal this death-door stuff, because people are going to get impatient".
There was, however, no sign of impatience among the capacity crowd that turned out to hear James read his own poetry, together with passages from his acclaimed translation of Dante's Divine Comedy. It was a bitter-sweet occasion with many memories. Packed into the hall for what was billed as a valedictory performance, there were Australian stars from Neighbours, numerous fellow countrymen and the writer Kathy Lette. There were also men and women, possibly Observer readers, who will have remembered the great days of James's TV criticism, a genre he more or less invented.
At his peak James was a master of the vertiginously comic, utterly quotable snap judgment. "Perry Como," he once wrote, "gave his usual impersonation of a man who has simultaneously been told to say 'cheese' and shot in the back by a poisoned arrow." He could skewer his targets with half a dozen words. Arnold Schwarzenegger in Pumping Ironwas like "a brown condom filled with walnuts". Murray Walker, the motor racing commentator, always broadcast "as if his trousers were on fire".
Prime-time James was funny, but rarely wounding. "I like to think," he says, "that I have a sunny nature." His appearance on Saturday was of a piece with that inimitable mid-season form. He can always make the words do what he wants, turning them to catch the light before his audience with a born showman's eye for magic. "My mind," he remarks in one of his greatest poems, Sentenced To Life, "basks in the light I never left behind."
He would, he concluded, with ironical laughter, "love to go on talking like this for the rest of my life". After a dazzling 90-minute solo, he got to his feet with the zest of a man who knows he has again postponed the exit to what he calls "the departure lounge". The audience also rose and cheered a man who, like his hero, the grand prix driver Jack Brabham, always "took the corners, at speed, before he got to them".