Clive James, Australian journalist, author, memoirist, broadcaster, star of chat shows and documentaries on British television – oh, and poet. Photo courtesy of Clive James.

Writer Watch

The Poets

Clive James

Clive James CBE, AM was born Vivian Leopold James in Sydney, Australia on the 7th October 1939. Apparently, after Vivien Leigh played Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, the name was associated with girls only regardless of how it was spelled, and therefore being called Vivian became the equivalent of being a boy named Sue.

As a child, Vivian was allowed to change his name to Clive. One would have thought that this wouldn’t have improved his chances in the schoolyard any. Even so, Clive he became: presumably his schoolmates never found out about the Leopold.

During World War II James’s father had been taken prisoner by the Japanese but, although he managed to survive the POW camp, he died in a plane crash on his way back to Australia after the war and was buried in Hong Kong. As an only child, Clive was brought up by his mother in the Sydney suburb of Kogarah.

Clive won a bursary to Sydney Boys High School but decided to go to Sydney Technical High School instead, and then on to the University of Sydney to study Psychology. At that time he became associated with the intellectual subculture of the Sydney Push, as did his contemporary, Germaine Greer.

Editing the student newspaper Honi Soit and directing the annual Union Revue gave young Mr James a good grounding in both performance and journalism, and after he graduated he worked for a year as an assistant editor for The Sydney Morning Herald.

During the 1960s, Australia’s cultural cringe dictated that you couldn’t claim to have made it until you made it overseas and came home as a conquering hero. It was de rigueur to take off, usually by boat and usually to the UK, so in late 1961 Clive sailed to England to seek his fortune and further his education.

For many people this exciting adventure entailed going from being a reasonably big fish in a small pond to being a minnow in Loch Ness. It helped if you were surrounded by other creative and talented people. Clive shared a flat with Bruce Beresford, later to become well known as a respected film director. His neighbour was Australian artist Brett Whitely and he also met up with Barry Humphries.

Clive James’s talent didn’t extend to earning a reasonable living in the early days. Like many people finding his way, the road to stardom was paved with an unusual number of short-lived jobs where he failed spectacularly to make an impact as a market researcher, a library assistant and even a sheet metal worker.

Luckily for the short-term job market Clive gained a place at Pembroke College, Cambridge where he read English literature and contributed to undergraduate periodicals. He became President of the Cambridge Footlights, where he met Germaine Greer yet again, and also mucked about with Eric Idle.

Although he managed to avoid most of the course material, Clive was luckily well-read in other English and foreign literature and, much to his surprise, graduated with a better result than expected. So, instead of going out and getting a job he began a D. Phil. Thesis on Percy Bysshe Shelley.

It was his extracurricular activities rather than his academic achievements which alerted London literary editors to Clive’s talents and his by-line began appearing in the Listener, the New Statesman, and the Review to name just a few of the periodicals for which he wrote. His unsigned article about Edmund Wilson, written under the pseudonym of ‘The Metropolitan Critic’ for the Times Literary Supplement (which insisted on a traditional policy of strict anonymity), had people everywhere trying to guess the author.

Unmasked at last he became a television reviewer in 1972 for the Sunday newspaper The Observer and continued his weekly column over the next ten years. On the principle of getting involved with the material he reviewed, Clive then became a television performer himself and the rest is history. Over two decades we watched Clive James’s specials, interviews, and the ‘Postcard’ travel series and laughed ourselves silly.

Nevertheless, Clive James never forgot his literary roots as a critic, author, poet and lyricist. During 1974 he produced his satirical verse epic Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage, which became the talk of London literati due to the fact that many prominent people were featured in it and just as many were perturbed to find themselves left out.

In 1979 the first book of Clive James’s autobiography, the enormously popular Unreliable Memoirs (concerning his upbringing in Australia), hit the shelves and has now been reprinted more than sixty times. Falling Towards England and May Week Was in June followed and later all three editions were gathered together under the title Always Unreliable. There have been four novels and a collection of travel writings called Flying Visits. The United States of America by now had also embraced Clive James wholeheartedly.

A complete edition of poetry called The Book of My Enemy: collected verse 1958–2003 was published in Britain in 2003. This book won the Poetry Book Society’s Special Commendation. They wrote: ‘The reputation of Clive James as a poet was slow to form, perhaps because he was too famous as a star journalist and television entertainer. There was also the drawback that his poetry was so entertaining in itself, and therefore hard for many critics to take seriously... This collected edition, which includes the full text of his legendary satirical epic Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage, marks the fulfilment of a long dedication to poetry practised as a way of life, without benefit of clergy...the elusive real Clive James is in this dazzling book.

In the introduction to this collection of his poetry Clive James said: ‘The surest mark of the incurable poet, the lifer, is to fear, rather than hope, that the enemy might not attack again. By that measure, and for what it is worth to say so, this book is not a supplement to my writing life, but at the heart of it. Poetry as a career, perhaps not: but as a mental condition, certainly. What kind of treatment might be appropriate for the mental condition is for the reader to decide. There were critics who recommended a straightjacket, but I have heard less from them as time goes by. If he lives long enough, the patient takes over the asylum.’

Verse 2 of the Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered finds Clive happily unrepentant when his rival falls from grace.

The book of my enemy has been remaindered

And I rejoice.

It has gone with bowed head like a defeated legion

Beneath the yoke.

What avail him now his awards and prizes,

The praise expended upon his meticulous technique,

His individual new voice?

Knocked into the middle of next week

His brainchild now consorts with the bad buys,

The sinkers, clinkers, dogs and dregs,

The Edsels of the world of movable type,

The bummers that no amount of hype could shift,

The unbudgeable turkeys.


Ah Clive, Clive... Here are some more of Clive James’s books to look out for; I won’t include the criticism because there’s just too much of it – see Website Watch for Clive James’s website – it’s considered one of the best on the web and will tell you more.

Autobiography: Unreliable Memoirs, Falling Towards England, May Week Was in June, Always Unreliable; Fiction: Brilliant Creatures, The Remake, Brrm! Brrm!, The Silver Castle; Verse: Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage through the London Literary World, Other Passports: Poems 1958–1985; Travel: Flying Visits.

P.S. I picked up Clive James’s The Book of my Enemy from the remainder bin in a bookstore.

Website Watch

Clive James

This official site for Clive James is a great site. The Good Web Guide said: ‘ is a generous and wonderful delight: this is the future for cultural multi-media ought to be a spur to an artistic renaissance on the internet...beautifully designed. In audio there are fascinating dialogues. The (Video) archive is a treasure house of wit and insight.’ Wow! There are also brain training games you can play:  Intelligence, Memory, Attention, Focus, Speed, language, visual, spatial, math intelligence, stress, response, etc. Just the place to while away a few happy hours. Go to