Journalist, critic and broadcaster

Born: October 7, 1939;

Died: November 25, 2019

BORN and raised in Australia, Clive James, who has died aged 80, spent most of his life and career in the UK as a journalist, author, broadcaster, TV critic, presenter, documentary maker, chat show host, travel writer and, latterly, literary translator. He was the first to admit that he saw himself more as a writer and humourist than an artist. He also recognised that not everyone took to his delivery – variously described as snide, sneering, gently satirical or savage, but sleek – and his nasal Aussie accent was considered grating by many.

And yet James could out-write most of his journalistic peers and outwit most of his political or celebrity interviewees. Those who read Private Eye loved him, many others did not understand his satire, and many more outside the UK or Australia may never have heard of him. In his heyday, he was one of the UK’s best-known Aussie imports, along with Dame Edna Everage (Barry Humphries, an old pal of James in London), and Germaine Greer.

James was best-known in his native Australia for his autobiographical series, Unreliable Memoirs. In his adopted UK, he was probably better-known for his postcard-format TV travel programmes. To fellow-journalists, he was most admired for the acerbic wit of his books and newspaper columns, latterly in the Daily Telegraph.

Never a shrinking violet, James virtually wrote his own obituary on his website, “in case I drop off the twig,” once he knew his illness was terminal. “There are no copyright problems, so this piece, or part of it, will serve as a cheaper obituary than anything most newspapers are likely to have in the freezer,” he wrote. “I will keep updating it until they carry me to the slab.” In the self-penned obit, he did not quite suggest he was the best thing since sliced bread but anyone reading his site was less-than-subtly nudged towards forming that impression.

“Clive James rapidly established himself as one of the most influential metropolitan critics of his generation,” he wrote in his own obit. “For ten years, his weekly column (in The Observer) was one of the most famous regular features in Fleet Street journalism, setting a style which was later copied. He lives in London, Cambridge and various airports.” To James, humility was little more than a four-syllable word. “I’m not humble enough, and the capacity for ordinary work is not in me,” he once said.

Vivian Leopold James was born in the southern Sydney suburb of Kogarah on October 7, 1939, a month after the outbreak of war in faraway Europe. Many years later, speaking of his birth, he said “the other big event of that year was the outbreak of the Second World War.” When recently reminded of this, he smiled and said: “dramatising myself is what I do.”

As a boy, he was teased by friends because his Christian name was almost the same as the female star of the popular movie Gone with the Wind, Vivien Leigh (playing Scarlett O’Hara). His father had named him after a famous Australian tennis player of the 1930s, Vivian McGrath.

“Because I had a girl’s name, I got chased by other boys and beaten up,” he said in an interview later in life. After he and his mother saw the movie This Above All, starring Tyrone Power, he adopted the Christian name of Power’s character, Clive. “(But) I was the only Clive in Australia, so I got chased and beaten up again.”

Eventually, after he was famous, the Australian media dubbed him The Kogarah Kid. He was raised by his mother, a factory worker, after his father, who had survived a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, was killed on his way home when his plane crashed into Manila Bay. Later in life, James visited his father’s grave in Hong Kong, where he shed what he called authentic tears, two words which said more about James than thousands of other autobiographical sentences he had written.

He attended Sydney Technical High School, where his IQ was rated 140, and Sydney University, where he studied psychology and was literary editor of the student newspaper Honi Soit. It was in the winter of 1961-62 that James sailed to England with, he said, “10 quid in my pocket,” and spent a somewhat bohemian three years in London, working variously as a sheet metal worker, library assistant, photo archivist and circus roustabout before gaining a place at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he met his compatriot Germaine Greer and future Python Eric Idle.

He read English literature, wrote for university periodicals and became president of the Cambridge Footlights, the university’s amateur theatrical club. He captained the Pembroke team on University Challenge, with Bamber Gascoigne in the chair, eventually losing to Balliol College, Oxford. His literary ability at university soon won him work on Fleet Street.

His first big break was as TV critic at The Observer, a job that would shape his career since he used it to analyse British culture as a whole, from a foreigner’s point of view. He did most of his writing, with inspiration only a glass away, in the legendary Pillars of Hercules pub in Greek Street in London’s Soho, a favourite haunt of the good, the bad and the ugly of would-be writers. In the early 1970s, he collaborated with the singer and musician Pete Atkin, writing lyrics for six albums. The two men reunited with three more albums in the new millennium, appearing as a two-man show at the Edinburgh fringe in 2001 before touring the UK, Australia and Hong Kong. Most recently, James translated Dante’s Divine Comedy from Italian to English, to fine reviews, yet another string to his prolific bow.

Ironically, after he had been diagnosed with leukaemia and worldwide sympathy encompassed him, Australian TV alleged in 2012 that he had had an eight-year affair with a former model, Leanne Edelsten. His wife of 45 years, Prue Shaw, herself a scholar of Dante, promptly kicked him out of the family home. Public reaction towards James was harsh. Although devastated by the news of their father’s affair, his two daughters reportedly forgave him and became close to him once again before his death.

James himself always said during his illness that he would love nothing more than to see Australia again but that he had to stay close to Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge for his treatment. His comments led to countless blogs from fans suggesting ways he might still be safe on a plane, with private oxygen bottles, but he reluctantly said he would die in the UK.

He was made a member of the Order of Australia in 1992 and received numerous honorary degrees, including Honorary Doctorate of Letters at the University of East Anglia and an Honorary Fellowship of Pembroke College, Cambridge.

He died in Cambridge and is survived by his wife Prudence (Prue) and their daughters Claerwen and Lucinda.