Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 29, 2019

Ave Atque Vale, Clive James

In the U.S., we’ve just observed the annual Thanksgiving holiday.

On the day before Thanksgiving came the news that writer, critic, poet and raconteur, Clive James, had succumbed to the terminal leukemia and emphysema with which he’d been diagnosed nearly ten years earlier.

Only 80 at his death, he worked on until nearly the end.

Born in a suburb of Sydney, Australia, he moved to the UK in 1962 after completing a psychology degree from the University of Sydney and working a short stint at The Sydney Morning Herald. He lived in the UK for the rest of his life.

He earned a degree from Pembroke College, Cambridge. By every account, including his own, he invested little time on course material. Instead, he pursued his own autodidactic bent, while tirelessly producing poetry, criticism, essays and journalism.

Always, ceaselessly, there was reading. James taught himself to read several languages and developed a daunting command of the canon of western literature. His curiosity seems never to have failed him. He once wrote, “A cafe table stacked with books has been my university now for 40 years.”

Widely published as literary critic throughout his career, James became a television critic in 1972, a role he filled for 10 years at The Observer. His scathing wit and willingness to investigate every sort of televised programming was as relentless as he was with everything he essayed. He became a fixture on British television, himself, beginning in 1982 with “Clive James on Television,” then, in 1989, a travel program, “Clive James’ Postcard From,” and an 8-part documentary for BBC, “Fame in the 20th Century.”

Although he’s remembered by many viewers in the UK as an unfailingly captivating and perceptive television personality, there was a lot more to Clive James.

He was a songwriter and producer of six musical albums in the 1970s. He wrote four novels and, over the span of several decades, a 5-part autobiography. He never ceased writing poetry, essays and literary criticism.

Unfailingly, there was reading, and he read voraciously.

He was a stern critic of his own work, as well as that of others. Although he has been declared by some the greatest Australian poet of his day, his own assessment was that he wrote some good lines, surrounded by many bad lines, and his only goal was to reduce the number of bad lines. That was James being James, sparing no one, including himself.

I have not read nearly enough of Mr. James’ seemingly endless range of work, which reflects an impressive intellect coupled with a fierce dedication to clear and compelling writing.

He was merciless in his condemnation of superficial thinking or slipshod writing. He once rejected an editor’s suggested revisions to a piece by saying, “If I wrote like that, I’d be you.”

Cultural Amnesia

Nothing, in my opinion, will give you a clearer understanding of his far-reaching intellect than Cultural Amnesia, from 2007. In it he examines the work of more than a hundred 20th century artists, musicians, filmmakers and intellectuals, but, primarily, writers and poets.

Cultural Amnesia Brad Nixon 7013 680

If you’re familiar with the work of all the individuals Mr. James included in the book, I salute you. Many of the writers were entirely unknown to me, while others were merely names about whom I had a vague or general understanding, and had never read them. Many I thought I knew, but James shed new light on their work.

Once you’ve read the Introduction and the “Overture,” approach the book in any way you prefer. It’s organized alphabetically, so you may start with Anna Akhmatova and read through to Stefan Zweig. Alternatively, scan the table of contents for names you recognize — or names you do not — and start there.

James’ focus is the challenge of preserving culture — our shared humanism of artistic expression. To him, the history of the 20th century was one of wars, racism, pogroms and prejudice, directed to suppress the individual thinker. Many of his profiles describe lives of dire poverty pursued by artists outside whatever was the mainstream of their time or culture, often leaving behind only a few pieces of work.

If they are lost, goes his argument — if we fail to explore them — we suffer from a dire critical amnesia that will cost us dearly.

In a lifetime of determined searching through libraries, bookstalls or wherever he could find them, James tracked down the works of these writers and countless others, often long out of print, and often only available in German, Russian or French editions decades old. He read them, wrote notes in the ones he owned (a practice he heartily endorsed) and not only remembered what he read, but synthesized a great deal of it into Cultural Amnesia.

Throughout, he makes the case that there is more to be found in literature, art and music than we can ever grasp, but he sets a towering example of how far one might reach toward an understanding of it.

The book made a terrific impact on me. It’s inspired me to track down the work of some number of the writers he portrays, although I’ll never exhaust the list of what I’ve yet to read.

In the book, James said, “A painter can leave you with nothing to say. A writer leaves you with everything to say.”

I invite you not to mourn but — here at this time of giving thanks — celebrate what Mr. James left us, by reading what he wrote.

He once said, “If you don’t know the exact moment when the lights will go out, you might as well read until they do.”

Hail and farewell, Mr. James.

Have you read some of Clive James? What say you? Please leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2019

I collected the biographical details and quotations from obituaries and appreciations published on and the New York Times. All were published November 27, 2019 and retrieved November 28, 2019 from the following links:

BBC ObituaryBBC Announcement/Appreciation; BBC, “Clive James in His Own Words“; New York Times Obituary; New York Times: “Clive James, a Tireless Polymath Who Led with His Wit,” by Dwight Garner

Cover of Cultural Amnesia © Mcmillan Publishers Ltd., 2007. Photograph by Brad Nixon, 2019


  1. Great overview of a fascinating writer-scholar and personality. I love his tireless pursuit of learning and the “reading until the lights go out” quote. Inspired by your enthusiasm I’ve embarked on Cultural Amnesia and look forward to where it leads me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. I look forward to hearing from you about your reading of Cultural Amnesia.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The thing I liked most about Clive, was that you could always sense a larrikin like “twinkle in his eye” in just about everything he touched.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill, precisely. The man seemed to have that larrikin-like insouciance, unfailingly. I grateful to Sydney for sending him to the world.


  3. I first encountered Clive James on TV decades ago when I saw his travel series “Postcards from . . .” Not only informative and insightful, but utterly hilarious. I still have a videotaped copy of the show he did from Paris. (Do any of you still have VHS tapes? Now you have some idea how old I am!)

    “A painter can leave you with nothing to say?” I totally get that. Rothko and de Kooning come immediately to mind. Toss in the Nouvelle Vogue, too. If I thought about it for another five seconds, I could probably add a few more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, La Boheme. Let us remember.


  4. Somehow, I’ve missed him. If you’d asked me, “Who’s Clive James?” I’d have said he was a mystery writer. I’m clearly confusing him with someone; I just don’t know who. However: cultural amnesia’s real, and his book seems a way to stave off its progress, at least on an individual level.

    I love this: ““If I wrote like that, I’d be you.” It reminds me of Georgia O’Keeffe’s delightful response to a critic: “I still like the way I see things best.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, there’s P. D. James, but not much similarity other than last names.

      Liked by 1 person

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