In Depth

Clive James, indefatigable writer, dies at 80

The Australian wit maintained a prolific writing output and an optimism in the face of almost a decade of terminal cancer

The esteemed and enthusiastic Australian writer, aphorist and performer Clive James has died at the age of 80.

James revealed he had terminal Leukemia in 2011, although initially got the better of the grim prognosis. However, he died on Sunday in Cambridge. His funeral was held in the chapel at Pembroke College in the city on Wednesday.

“Clive died almost 10 years after his first terminal diagnosis, and one month after he laid down his pen for the last time,” recounted his family in a statement posted to Twitter yesterday. “He endured his ever-multiplying illnesses with patience and good humour, knowing until the last moment that he had experienced more than his fair share of this ‘great, good world’.”

The family thanked medical staff who “allowed him to die peacefully and at home, surrounded by his family and his books”.

The poet was calmly resolved that nothing lies beyond death - “it’s all here,” he once reflected - and considered himself a lucky man. Even after he knew his cancer could not be overcome, he found joy and momentum in his writing. “I recommend imminent death for any writer. It concentrates the mind wonderfully,” James told Mary Beard in an interview for the BBC’s Front Row.

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In his final years he never stopped penning reflections on his life with the disease with humour and warmth - for example in his Reports of my Death column for The Guardian.

Born Vivian James in 1939 in Kogarah, a southern suburb of Sydney, he moved to the UK in 1961, attending Pembroke College at Cambridge University and becoming president of the Cambridge Footlights drama society.

In the decades following, the polymath emerged as a prominent feature of British media - a prolific literary and television critic, and eventually a TV personality in his own right. Despite settling in his adopted country, he retained huge affection for his homeland. To him, Australia was a “blessed” and “wonderful” place.

James found as much delight in binge-watching TV series as cultivated poetry and prose.

“Unlike his British counterparts, who tended to sneer at popular programming, Mr. James regarded the entirety of television as precious raw material waiting to be mined. He found the peculiar language of sports commentators and Barbara Woodhouse’s dog-training show just as fascinating as a plush historical drama from the BBC,” says The New York Times.

Don Paterson, James’s poetry editor at Picador, said: “Although it was hardly unexpected, it was still a shock to hear of Clive’s passing. Despite his frailty in his later years, his life-force seemed almost indestructible... he was unfailingly warm, kind and hilarious company right to the end, and we’ll miss him terribly.”

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