06 November 2018

Clive James - eventual death, Sydney beaches and poetry

Born in Sydney, Clive James (1939- ) aka the Kid from Kogarah, remembered his childhood fondly. He grew up in an ordinary suburb near the beaches in Sydney. Buses from Kogarah serviced surrounding beaches like Monterey (2ks), allowing young Clive and his friends to swim and surf without parental supervision.

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.

The Sydney Writers Walk plaques run from the edge of The Rocks, around Circular Quay, and on to the Sydney Opera House. Clive James' plaque has text taken from his 1980 book Unreliable Memoirs: "In Sydney Harbour, the yachts will be racing on the crushed diamond water under a sky the texture of powdered sapphires. It would be churlish not to concede that the same abundance of natural blessings which gave us the energy to leave has every right to call us back".


Andrew said...

Rumours of his death have been exaggerated for years. I loved his tv shows and I've read much of his writing. Who could forget the base cruelty of Japanese tv game shows. When we used to brunch at Prahran Market and the trio of music performers would start to play, we would say to each other, time to go. The Mariachi band has arrived. And who could forget the 'wonderful' singer who Clive introduced us to, Margarita Pracatan.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - yes he's certainly bright and lively ... as have other Australians. He's being treated with a special drug I see ... which presumably will help research a lot - thanks for this ... cheers Hilary

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, As an expatriate, I can certainly understand the appeal of returning home to visit, or even permanently, although one does create a new life in the adopted country, which is important also.

Joseph said...

I also grew up on Sydney's surf beaches and swam in summer without my parents even knowing where I was. Couldn't do it now, but like Clive James, I can still dream. The trouble for Clive is ... he is 17,000 ks away.

Hels said...


me too ... particularly "Saturday Night Clive". I didn't ever read poetry and wouldn't have published any in this blog, but I recently found a book of Clive James' poetry in a beach resort second-hand bookshop.

Fortunately my memories of living in and near London are intact!

Hels said...


I sincerely hope the drugs work. Living a long way from home, and separated from his wife, must be very depressing. No wonder his writing is so introspective, these days.

Hels said...


that is the thing about dreams... they don't have to be realistic. Clive James lived only 23 years in Australia and has since lived for 55 years in the UK, so home refers to a VERY long time ago. But as much as a person loves his more recent country, a few winters in the bitterly cold weather will focus the mind on the surf and suntans.

Hels said...


I think the late 1950s and all the 1960s were so different in Sydney, it is inevitable that you and your Sydney school and uni friends look back on your single days so fondly. But there is another thing that Clive James stressed - approaching death focused his mind on the important things in life, especially his childhood memories.

bazza said...

James is a literary polymath and always hugely entertaining. I am happy for him that he was able to return and appreciate the riches of his homeland.
Recently an old school friend turned up with a photo of our class as ten-year-olds. To my shock/horror/surprise I was able to name about 25 of the 35 kids!
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s habile Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


going back over family and school photos is an enlightening experience, filled with both pleasure and shock *nod*. I remembered who was clever, who was pretty, who loved sport and who was treated badly by their parents. And because 90% of them still live in Melbourne, I regularly bump into old school mates in coffee shops and cinemas, 60 years later!

As we move towards older age, we too are going to be reliving Clive James' retrospective and prospective practices. But perhaps with fewer skills.