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Clive James, Writer, TV Host And Cultural Critic, Dies At 80

Nov 28, 2019
Originally published on November 28, 2019 7:25 pm

"Fiction is life with the dull bits left out." That is just one of the many clever observations of the writer, TV host and cultural critic Clive James, who died at his home in Cambridge, England, on Sunday. James suffered from multiple illnesses in recent years, including leukemia. He was 80 years old.

James was one of Britain and Australia's best-known wits, a playfully erudite and prolific writer whose body of work includes novels, memoirs, criticism and poetry.

"Here is a book so dull that a whirling dervish could read himself to sleep with it," he wrote in his review of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev's memoirs.

His friend and fellow satirist P.J. O'Rourke marvels at James' way with a phrase, no matter what he was writing.

"He was that rare person who could do any kind of writing," O'Rourke said. "His memoirs ... are wonderful and very un-self-indulgent, unlike the modern version of that genre. He was a good novelist. Brrm! Brrm! is lots of fun. He's an excellent poet, one of the best living poets in the English language. And of course, he was a critic."

O'Rourke — who is not a regular TV viewer — even delighted in James' reviews of that medium.

"His television criticism was so good that I have read all of it, even though I haven't the likeliest idea what he's talking about, because I've never seen any of the shows," jokes O'Rourke.

Among the flood of tributes to James, Veep creator and movie director Armando Iannucci tweeted: "I used to practically hug The Observer in spasms of laughter reading Clive James' TV reviews; 'The Crystal Bucket' is one of the funniest books around. And 'Cultural Amnesia' is an amazing book for reminding you that thinking can be joyful. His influence is incalculable."

James didn't just observe from the sidelines. He spent plenty of time in front of the camera, hosting variety shows and interviewing fellow writers and other artists on Talking In The Library.

Clive James' childhood in Sydney was rooted in tragedy. His father was a prisoner in a Japanese war camp. When he was finally released, he was killed when the plane carrying him home crashed.

"That was the cruelty of it," James told NPR in 2009. "My mother had waited all that time, then she'd received notification he was alive after all, then all that was taken away from her when the plane crashed on the way back."

James was five years old at the time. "I just didn't know what was going on. I just knew that my mother was unhappy, and that's always unsettling." James told NPR it was "remarkable that I did not become first a delinquent, then a felon, and then a prisoner." He said his "gift for the English language" is what saved him.

"Telling stories was crucial to my existence and indeed to my survival," he said. "I was actually the kind of boy who was born to be picked on. I was snotty and know-it-all and I was ganged up on and chased and ragged until I hit on the scheme when I was being chased of suddenly sitting down and organizing a discussion group and telling stories."

The death of James' father haunted him. According to The Guardian, James was inspired to write the poem My Father Before Me after visiting his father's grave at the Sai Wan war cemetery in Hong Kong.

O'Rourke says he could talk to James about anything. "Absolutely anything. I mean ... It could be pocket lint. And Clive would have something insightful to say about it."

In 2010, James was diagnosed with leukemia. He also suffered from emphysema and kidney failure. A statement from his agent reads that James "endured his ever multiplying illnesses with patience and good humor, knowing ... that he had experienced more than his fair share of this 'great, good world.' "

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Fiction is life with the dull bits left out - that's just one of the many clever observations of the writer, TV host and cultural critic Clive James. James died at his home in Cambridge, England, on Sunday. He suffered multiple illnesses in recent years, including leukemia. He was 80 years old. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this appreciation.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Here's another scorching gem from a Clive James review of a politician's memoir - here is a book so dull that a whirling dervish could read himself to sleep with it.

P J O'ROURKE: The man had a way with a phrase.

BLAIR: Satirist and writer P.J. O'Rourke was a friend of Clive James. He says he was that rare person who could do any kind of writing, from memoirs to poetry to satire.

O'ROURKE: And often a critic of sort of trivial things.

BLAIR: Here's Clive James from his days as a TV host. He's coming out of a "Saturday Night Live"-style mock commercial that ends with a close-up of a man eating a lemon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLIVE JAMES: If that made you feel like a defenseless oyster, it did so in just 15 seconds.

BLAIR: And then James delivers his thoughts about TV commercials.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES: In Britain, commercials interrupt the programs; in America, programs interrupt the commercials.

(LAUGHTER)

BLAIR: Erudite but playful, Clive James did not seem to take himself too seriously introducing guests on his variety show.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES: And now to end the show and probably my career, will you once again put your seats in the upright position and your head between your knees for Margarita Pracatan.

(APPLAUSE)

BLAIR: Clive James was one of Britain and Australia's best-known wits. He loved language and read everything. P.J. O'Rourke, who is not a regular TV viewer, even delighted in his writing about that.

O'ROURKE: His television criticism was so good that I have read all of it, even though I haven't the likeliest idea what he's talking about...

BLAIR: (Laughter).

O'ROURKE: ...Because I've never seen any of the shows.

BLAIR: Clive James' childhood in Sydney, Australia, was rooted in tragedy. His father was a prisoner in a Japanese war camp. When he was finally released, he was killed when the plane carrying him home crashed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JAMES: That was the cruelty of it because my mother had waited all that time and she'd received notification he was alive after all, then all that was taken away from her when the plane crashed on the way back.

BLAIR: This is James talking to NPR's Renee Montagne in 2009.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JAMES: But I didn't know any of that, you know. Five-year-old boys know nothing, and I just didn't know what was going on. I just knew that my mother was unhappy, and that's always unsettling.

RENEE MONTAGNE, BYLINE: Well, as it turns out, she was in some senses unprepared to be - to take you on as a project.

JAMES: It's quite remarkable that I did not become, first, a delinquent, then a felon and then a prisoner because I had absolutely no qualifications for ordinary life, except, luckily, I had a certain gift for the English language, a knack But without that, I would have been a real problem.

BLAIR: That gift for the English language, he said, is what saved him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JAMES: Telling stories was crucial to my existence and, indeed, to my survival. I was actually the kind of boy who was born to be picked on. I was snotty, know-it-all, and I was ganged up on and chased and ragged, until I hit on the scheme of, when I was being chased, I was suddenly sitting down and organizing a discussion group and telling stories.

BLAIR: In 2010, Clive James was diagnosed with leukemia. He also suffered from emphysema and kidney failure. A statement from his agent reads that he endured his ever-multiplying illnesses with patience and good humor, knowing that he had experienced more than his fair share of this great, good world.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TESLA BOY'S "GLOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.