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Goodbye, Clive James – Every word was meant, every image was meaningful

A big name in the world of literature, Clive James, died on November 24, 2019, in Cambridge, UK. He was known for being extraordinarily witty and clever, and the sharpest cultural commentator and critic around. He was 80 years old and died from leukaemia after having been ill for many years. James, who was born in Australia, had a wonderful knack for words and some of his expressions have taken on a life of their own: “Fiction is life with the dull bits left out”, “Stop worrying, nobody gets out of this world alive” and “Common sense and a sense of humour are the same thing, moving at different speeds.” He famously described Arnold Schwarzenegger as “a brown condom full of walnuts” and said about the romantic noverlist Dame Barbara Cartland, that her eyes “looked like the corpses of two small crows that had crashed into a chalk cliff”. (Well, they did!)

His poems were often funny as well, like this one:

“Windows Is Shutting Down – By Clive James, Sat. 30 Apr., 2005 

“Windows is shutting down, and grammar are
On their last leg. So what am we to do?
A letter of complaint go just so far,
Proving the only one in step are you.

Better, perhaps, to simply let it goes.
A sentence have to be screwed pretty bad
Before they gets to where you doesnt knows
The meaning what it must of meant to had.

The meteor have hit. Extinction spread,
But evolution do not stop for that.
A mutant languages rise from the dead
And all them rules is suddenly old hat.

Too bad for we, us what has had so long
The best seat from the only game in town.
But there it am, and whom can say its wrong?
Those are the break. Windows is shutting down.”

Ah, he had the gift of the gab all right.

His critiques of poetry are as easy and entertaining to read as his columns about films, books and culture in The Guardian. Here he is talking about product placement in poetry (?!): “You do get the sense, however, that Milton, though he could stuff a verse paragraph full of classical furniture until it groaned, wouldn’t have raided a supply of contemporary proper names, had such a thing existed.”

Of his website,, he wrote:

“Newcomers to this site will soon discover, I hope, that it is meant to be rather more than an archive of my own work. It started out that way, but merciful Providence intervened to remind me that my belated brain-wave might be more useful if I could put a lifetime’s experience as a cultural critic to a new use, and so offer a critical guide, through the next medium, to works of thought and art by other people, and sometimes in other eras.

The only criterion for inclusion would be intensity of expression, with the aim of creating, in this latterday Babelic flux we call the web, an island of quality where every word is meant, and every image meaningful.

Where there was music, it would be music I responded to because I couldn’t help it, and not because I thought I should. Clearly such a scope, even allowing for my prejudices, is without theoretical limit, so I shall be a doddering cot-case before the thing barely gets started, but I am very glad to have been in on its beginnings.”

A “doddering cot-case” he might have been in his last years in body, but definitely not in mind. He was sharp as a nail and kept writing, mostly poetry, right until the end. But it was not for his humour and acuity that I counted Clive James amongst my memorable authors. He wrote heaps of non-fiction, fiction, essays, poems, anthologies, even lyrics. It is for one of his less famous novels, The Silver Castle.

The Silver Castle, by Clive James (Hardcover; Publisher: Random House Value Publishing; July 21, 1998)

Have you ever found that you’d go through your bookcase and pick out those books you can get rid of to make space for more, and then you come across a particular novel that you haven’t picked up for years, and yet you put it on the “to keep” heap, because somewhere in that novel is a certain something, an idea, a feeling, that you would like to revisit? So it is with The Silver Castle, which I’ve kept through house moves and shifts to new continents since I bought it in 1998.

It is the story of a terribly poor boy living on the streets of Bombay, now Mumbai, called “Sanjay”, who gets lucky and finds himself working in Bollywood, the Indian Hindi-language film industry. He seems to get everything he wants, and yet, his fate is preordained because he is desperate, uneducated, illiterate and does not understand anything of the world he has got himself into. Until I read it, I did not know what Bollywood was. My impression of India had been formed by films and books about the Raj and the British military in India. I had Rudyard Kipling on the brain. I had never read a novel about such absolute, abject poverty. It was an unforgettable experience. Some people called it funny and others called it a fairytale. I did not think it was either. It is very well observed and sharp – almost in a journalistic way – and yet it made me feel great sympathy for the hapless Sanjay, with his terrible attempts at “Babu English” and his vulnerability and naivety.

James writes that most of us realize that “the things we know do not form a complete picture” –

“But the young Sanjay, even at his brightest, could see no edges. For him there was no picture. The pieces of the puzzle were never together on the table in front of him. They were never in the same room, or even in the same house. They were scattered through time and space, never to be joined even potentially. In view of that cruel fact, he did well, and his story, though sad, should give us cause for hope.”

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