It’ll be a tragedy when Clive James finally dies. Although it seems like his illness has been prolonged, as indeed it often is when one receives excellent care, I know that I will wake up one day soon to hear that he is to be mourned. He has been, and continues to be, one of the greatest intellectual talents that Australia has thrown up, even though we were too stupid as a country to recognise it in the 1960s.
I never liked him at first. I saw a number of his TV shows and specials in the 1980s as a child, where he delivered smarmy one-liners about television or visited exotic locales to make smarmy one-liners about the locals. My parents loved him and I never understood why. It took me decades to realise that what I took as a talent for cheap shots was actually a great sardonic wit. However I haven’t rewatched any of his TV because 80s production values cause me intense psychic pain.
To me, his TV work, and even his writing about it for the newspapers was a sideshow. His real genius lay in his essays, to which I was first exposed in the form of a thoughtful gift. His perception for wide-ranging and insightful comment is impressive; even more impressive is the fact that his comments are usually hugely entertaining and terribly witty. Again, any perception that he is out for a cheap shot is shattered by the clear love that he has for literature and his deep learning in virtually all fields of culture and history. His knowledge shines through and his judgements are wise.
His most recent collection of essays, Latest Readings comprise a series of short documents discussing the books that he is reading or re-reading at the end of his life. Reflections on Australian poets are interleaved with reflections on the tedium of treatment for oncology. He is rushing to read as many great works as he can before his death, working on the principle that if one is going to die, one might as well die happy. As one might expect, there is a deep vein of sadness that runs throughout the book.
In our age of disposable or downright manufactured media identities, and the decades-long hysteria surround the death of people such as Steve Irwin who represent the denser aspects of Australian culture, I fear that Clive James’ looming demise will attract little attention. It’s disappointing that one of Australia’s best minds is likely to be forgotten relatively quickly, but at least I can take comfort in the fact that I have a shelf full of his books.