Clive James  

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"If your creed is all or nothing, the man you hate most is not the man who offers nothing but the man who offers something. Suppose you accept the premise that Vietnamese children are frying in their own fat because of something intrinsically murderous in the American capitalist `system'; and accept further premise that the British 'system' bolsters the American; and the further premise that the overthrow of our 'system' is a required gesture against the American `system' and on behalf of those children. Then the man you hate is likely to be the man who tries to break down this chain of consequence — the man who says that the continuity of British society has an absolute virtue independent of the welfare of the Vietnamese children and that to contend otherwise is simply to be rhetorical."--"Wind Up Black Dwarfs" (1969) by Clive James

"One insults the memory of the victims of Nazism if one uses them to bury the memory of the victims of communism."--La Grande Parade (2000) by Jean-François Revel cited in Cultural Amnesia (2007) by Clive James

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Clive James (1939 – 2019) was an Australian author, critic, broadcaster, poet, translator and memoirist. He lived and worked in the United Kingdom from 1961 until his death in 2019.

He began his career specialising in literary criticism before becoming television critic for the The Observer in 1972, where he made his name for his wry, deadpan humour. During this period, he earned an independent reputation as a poet and satirist. He achieved mainstream success in the UK first as a writer for television, and eventually as the lead in his own programs, including ...on Television (1982-88) and Clive James's Postcard from... (1989-95).

His best known poem is probably "Japanese Maple".


Political views

James's political views were prominent in much of his later writing. While critical of communism for its tendency towards totalitarianism, he still identified with the left. In a 2006 interview in The Sunday Times, James said of himself: "I was brought up on the proletarian left, and I remain there. The fair go for the workers is fundamental, and I don't believe the free market has a mind." In a speech given in 1991, he criticised privatisation: "The idea that Britain's broadcasting system—for all its drawbacks one of the country's greatest institutions—was bound to be improved by being subjected to the conditions of a free market: there was no difficulty in recognising that notion as politically illiterate. But for some reason people did have difficulty in realising that it was economically illiterate too."

Overall, James identified as a liberal social democrat. He strongly supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq, saying in 2007 that "the war only lasted a few days" and that the continuing conflict in Iraq was "the Iraq peace". He also wrote that it was "official policy to rape a woman in front of her family" during Saddam Hussein's regime and that women have enjoyed more rights since the invasion. He was also a patron of the Burma Campaign UK, an organisation that campaigns for human rights and democracy in Burma.

Describing religions as "advertising agencies for a product that doesn't exist", James was an atheist and saw it as the default and obvious position.


Critic and essayist

James became the television critic for The Observer in 1972, remaining in the role until 1982. Mark Lawson described a James' review as "so funny it was dangerous to read while holding a hot drink". Selections from the column were published in three books — Visions Before Midnight, The Crystal Bucket and Glued to the Box – and finally in a compendium, On Television. He wrote literary criticism for newspapers, magazines and periodicals in Britain, Australia and the United States, including, among many others, The Australian Book Review, The Monthly, The Atlantic Monthly, the New York Review of Books, The Liberal and the Times Literary Supplement. John Gross included James's essay "A Blizzard of Tiny Kisses" in the Oxford Book of Essays (1992, 1999).

The Metropolitan Critic (1974), his first collection of literary criticism, was followed by At the Pillars of Hercules (1979), From the Land of Shadows (1982), Snakecharmers in Texas (1988), The Dreaming Swimmer (1992), Even As We Speak (2004), The Meaning of Recognition (2005) and Cultural Amnesia (2007), a collection of miniature intellectual biographies of over 100 significant figures in modern culture, history and politics. A defence of humanism, liberal democracy and literary clarity, the book was listed among the best of 2007 by The Village Voice. Another volume of essays, The Revolt of the Pendulum, was published in June 2009.

He also published Flying Visits, a collection of travel writing for The Observer. For many years, until mid-2014, he wrote the weekly television critique page in the "Review" section of the Saturday edition of The Daily Telegraph.

Poet and lyricist

James published several books of poetry, including Poem of the Year (1983), a verse-diary, Other Passports: Poems 1958–1985, a first collection, and The Book of My Enemy (2003), a volume that takes its title from his poem "The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered".

He published four mock-heroic poems — The Fate of Felicity Fark in the Land of the Media: a moral poem (1975), Peregrine Prykke's Pilgrimage Through the London Literary World (1976), Britannia Bright's Bewilderment in the Wilderness of Westminster (1976) and Charles Charming's Challenges on the Pathway to the Throne (1981) — and one long autobiographical epic, The River in the Sky (2018).

During the 1970s he also collaborated on six albums of songs with Pete Atkin:

  • Beware of the Beautiful Stranger (1970)
  • Driving Through Mythical America (1971)
  • A King at Nightfall (1973)
  • The Road of Silk (1974)
  • Secret Drinker (1974)
  • Live Libel (1975).

A revival of interest in the songs in the late 1990s, triggered largely by the creation by Steve Birkill of an Internet mailing list "Midnight Voices" in 1997, led to the reissue of the six albums on CD between 1997 and 2001, as well as live performances by the pair. A double album of previously unrecorded songs written in the seventies and entitled The Lakeside Sessions: Volumes 1 and 2 was released in 2002 and Winter Spring, an album of new material written by James and Atkin was released in 2003. This was followed by Midnight Voices, an album of remakes of the best Atkin/James songs from the early albums, and, in 2015, by The Colours of the Night, which included several newly completed songs.

James acknowledged the importance of the Midnight Voices group in bringing to wider attention the lyric-writing aspect of his career. He wrote in November 1997, "That one of the midnight voices of my own fate should be the music of Pete Atkin continues to rank high among the blessings of my life".

In 2013, he issued his translation of Dante's Divine Comedy. The work, adopting quatrains to translate the original's terza rima, was well received by Australian critics. Writing for The New York Times, Joseph Luzzi thought it often fails to capture the more dramatic moments of the Inferno, but that it is more successful where Dante slows down, in the more theological and deliberative cantos of the Purgatorio and Paradiso.

Novelist and memoirist

In 1980 James published his first book of autobiography, Unreliable Memoirs, which recounted his early life in Australia and extended to over 100 reprintings. It was followed by four other volumes of autobiography: Falling Towards England (1985), which covered his London years; May Week Was in June (1990), which dealt with his time at Cambridge; North Face of Soho (2006); and The Blaze of Obscurity (2009), concerning his subsequent career as a television presenter. An omnibus edition of the first three volumes was published under the generic title of Always Unreliable. James wrote four other novels: Brilliant Creatures (1983); The Remake (1987); Brrm! Brrm! (1991), published in the United States as The Man from Japan; and The Silver Castle (1996).

In 1999, John Gross included an excerpt from Unreliable Memoirs in The New Oxford Book of English Prose. John Carey chose Unreliable Memoirs as one of the 50 most enjoyable books of the 20th century in his book Pure Pleasure (2000).


James developed his television career as a guest commentator on various shows, including as an occasional co-presenter with Tony Wilson on the first series of So It Goes, the Granada Television pop music show. On the show when the Sex Pistols made their TV debut, James commented: "During the recording, the task of keeping the little bastards under control was given to me. With the aid of a radio microphone, I was able to shout them down, but it was a near thing ... they attacked everything around them and had difficulty in being polite even to each other".

James subsequently hosted the ITV show Clive James on Television, in which he showcased unusual or (often unintentionally) amusing television programmes from around the world, notably the Japanese TV show Endurance. After his defection to the BBC in 1988, he hosted a similarly-formatted programme called Saturday Night Clive (1988–1990) which initially screened on Saturday evening, returning as Saturday Night Clive on Sunday in its second series when it changed screening day and then Sunday Night Clive in its third and final series. In 1995 he set up Watchmaker Productions to produce The Clive James Show for ITV, and a subsequent series launched the British career of singer and comedian Margarita Pracatan. James hosted one of the early chat shows on Channel 4 and fronted the BBC's Review of the Year programmes in the late 1980s (Clive James on the '80s) and 1990s (Clive James on the '90s), which formed part of the channel's New Year's Eve celebrations.

In the mid-1980s, James featured in a travel programme called Clive James in... (beginning with Clive James in Las Vegas) for LWT (now ITV) and later switched to BBC, where he continued producing travel programmes, this time called Clive James's Postcard from... (beginning with Clive James's Postcard from Miami) – these also eventually transferred to ITV. He was also one of the original team of presenters of the BBC's The Late Show, hosting a round-table discussion on Friday nights.

His major documentary series Fame in the 20th Century (1993) was broadcast in the United Kingdom by the BBC, in Australia by the ABC and in the United States by the PBS network. This series dealt with the concept of "fame" in the 20th century, following over a course of eight episodes (each one chronologically and roughly devoted to one decade of the century, from the 1900s to the 1980s) discussions about world-famous people of the 20th century. Through the use of film footage, James presented a history of "fame" which explored its growth to today's global proportions. In his closing monologue he remarked, "Achievement without fame can be a rewarding life, while fame without achievement is no life at all."

A well known fan of motor racing, James presented official Formula One season review videos produced by the Formula One Constructors Association, more commonly known as FOCA

He summed up the medium in the introduction to Glued to the Box: "Anyone afraid of what he thinks television does to the world is probably just afraid of the world."


In 2007, James started presenting the BBC Radio 4 series A Point of View, with transcripts appearing in the "Magazine" section of BBC News Online. In this programme James discussed various issues with a slightly humorous slant. Topics covered included media portrayal of torture, young black role models and corporate rebranding. Three of James's broadcasts in 2007 were shortlisted for the 2008 Orwell Prize.

In October 2009 James read a radio version of his book The Blaze of Obscurity, on BBC Radio 4's Book of the Week programme.

In May 2011 the BBC published a new podcast, A Point of View: Clive James, which features all sixty A Point of View programmes presented by James between 2007 and 2009.

He posted vlog conversations from his internet show Talking in the Library, including conversations with Ian McEwan, Cate Blanchett, Julian Barnes, Jonathan Miller and Terry Gilliam. In addition to the poetry and prose of James himself, the site featured the works of other literary figures such as Les Murray and Michael Frayn, as well as the works of painters, sculptors and photographers such as John Olsen and Jeffrey Smart.


In 2008 James performed in two self-titled shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe: Clive James in Conversation and Clive James in the Evening. He took the latter show on a limited tour of the UK in 2009.

Famous lines

He famously described Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his bodybuilding days, as looking like "a brown condom full of walnuts".

He described the romantic novelist Barbara Cartland as having "Twin miracles of mascara, her eyes looked like the corpses of two small crows that had crashed into the white cliffs of Dover." He also used to call the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat by the female name "Yasmin Arafat".

The origins of his famous remark "Whoever called snooker 'chess with balls' was rude but right" are set out by Edward Winter in his article "Clive James and Chess".

See also

Linking in in 2023

...on Television, A Girl in Winter, A. D. Hope, Adelaide Writers' Week, Alan Hodge, Alan Moorehead, Alastair Ross Goobey, Allen Jones (artist), Allen Jones (artist), Anatol Yusef, And God Created Woman (Father Ted), Anna Akhmatova, Annie Nightingale, Arna (publication), Arts in Australia, At Lady Molly's, Australia Live, Australian comedy, Australian literature, Australians in the United Kingdom, Australia–United Kingdom relations, Barbican Estate, Barry Humphries, Barry McKenzie Holds His Own, BBC Four Collections, BBC Jazz Awards, BBC Television Shakespeare, Be More Kind, Bea Ballard, Beachmaster, Ben Devlin, Bene't Street, Benjamin Schwarz (writer), Bill Crews (minister), Billie JD Porter, Billy Connolly's World Tour of Australia, Bjørge Lillelien, Blake's 7, Bob Ellis, Bob Wellings, Bon chic bon genre, Borgen (TV series), Brazil (1985 film), Brett Whiteley, Brilliant Creatures (2014 TV series), Bruce Beresford, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (TV series), Burma Campaign UK, Bush ballad, Camille Paglia, Carlton Television, Carrie Fisher filmography, Cedric Messina, Centennial (miniseries), Cheltenham Festivals, Cheltenham Literature Festival, Chris Spedding, Christie Davies, Christopher Hitchens, Christopher Martin-Jenkins, Citroën CX, Claerwen James, Clive James's Postcard from..., Colin Bostock-Smith, Cool It (TV series), Costa Book Award for Poetry, Critic's Choice: Top 200 Albums, Cuckoo (2009 film), Cultural Amnesia (book), Culture of Australia, David Coleman, David Copperfield (1974 TV serial), David O'Doherty, Deaths in November 2019, Denialism, Dick Cavett, Divine Comedy, Divorce His, Divorce Hers, Dusty Hughes (playwright), Edinburgh Comedy Festival, Edward Pygge, Egon Friedell, Elaine Bedell, Encounter (magazine), Evelyn Waugh, Even as We Speak, Ezra Pound, F. 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