His autobiographical series Unreliable Memoirs , written later, documented his early life in Sydney, including the death of his father while returning from a prisoner of war camp at the end of WW2.
At Sydney University, the bright young things joined the Sydney Push intellectual movement. In 1963 aged 23, he moved to Britain with clothes and a £10 note. He was in a generation of young graduates who wanted to tackle the world, including art critic Robert Hughes from Sydney, feminist author Germaine Greer from Melbourne and performer Barry Humphries from Melbourne. All of them left Australia in the mid 1960s and found success in the UK.
Clive James back in Sydney, 1991
There James became well known as an “Australian” novelist, critic, journalist and poet, best remembered for his tv chat shows in Britain. He was the Renaissance man with a grin who went from a Kogarah lad to Cambridge-based fame.
Go Back to the Opal Sunset (late 1980s) referred to Australia. The poem evoked a list of Australia's richest-hued charms and contrasted them with the stark drawbacks of Britain, James’ adopted home.
Go back to the opal sunset, where the wine
Costs peanuts, and the avocado mousse
Is thick and strong as cream from a jade cow.
Make your escape
To where the prawns assume a size and shape
Less like a newborn baby's little toe.
James was diagnosed with leukaemia and emphysema in 2010. Facing death, he expressed in verse his intense longing to return to Sydney and bask in the light he never left behind. He continued to write poetry throughout his cancer treatments, which he acknowledged would prevent him returning to Sydney before claiming his life.
In 2014, James wrote of being “sentenced to life” with “lungs of dust”, sleeping face up “lest I should cough the night away”, and walking as if “wading through deep clay”. Mortality narrowed his focus.
In Collected Poems he wrote: “If I should fail to survive this year of feebleness, send my ashes home, where they can fall In their own sweet time from the harbour wall”.
The poet agreed that the prospect of death beautifully concentrated the mind. However he recently returned to the significance of childhood memories as a stage for his creativity. I agree! After 45 years of marriage, I started going over my primary school photos, telling my beloved (who did not grow up in Melbourne) who each pupil and teacher was, what happened to them, what subjects we studied, what sports we played, what the uniforms looked like and what foods our parents made. The early memories remain.
Once again James’ memories were filled with aching for his homeland. His body was weak, he said; the sky was overcast, and he was far from Australia. In his poem Sentenced to Life (2014), he wrote
The Pacific sunset, heaven sent
In glowing colours and in sharp relief
Painting the white clouds when the day is spent
As if it were my will and testament.
But my mind
Basks in the light I never left behind.
During the last few years his poetry continued well. The poems became richly autobiographical, emotional and circling back to his old themes. “Return of the Kogarah Kid” was written by Clive James and published in Injury Time, by Picador, 2017 . Still death-related but filled with references to the sun, beach, fresh air and sea gulls.
Sea gulls on a Sydney beach
Here I began and here I reach the end.
From here my ashes go back to the sea
And take my memories of every friend
And love, and anything still dear to me,
Down to the darkness out of which the sun
Will rise again, this splendour never less:
Fated to be, when all is said, and done,
For others to recall and curse or bless
The way that time runs out but still comes in,
The new tide always ready to begin.
Do the gulls cry in triumph, or distress?
In neither, for they cry because they must,
Not knowing this is glory, unaware
Their time will come to leave it. It is just
That we, who learned to breathe the brilliant air,
And first were told that we were made of dust
Here in this city, yet went out across
The globe to find fame, should return one day
To trade our gains against a certain loss –
And sink from sight where once we sailed away.
Clive James also noted that “In my will I have left instructions that my ashes should be scattered into Sydney Harbour from Dawes Point, presuming that a box of ashes is allowed on the aircraft, that the customs officers at Sydney Airport do not rate ashes as organic matter. In the event of a small bronze plaque seeming possible and appropriate, the above poem is meant as a suggested wording for an inscription”. But why would Dawes Point be the site for his memorial plaque, being on the NW point of Sydney’s central business district instead of near Kogarah.