Obituary, Poetry

Clive James’s Ape-Call

When I was growing up in the 1980s, my brothers and I were occasionally allowed to stay up late to watch Saturday Night Clive. This was The Daily Show before The Daily Show existed, where the host offered comedic commentary on current events. Although the humor was often relatively adult, my parents’ morality policing was relaxed for once because Clive James had a quality that my parents prized highly: Wit. In that unmistakable nasal sing-song drawl, he cast off crafty one-liners and launched into metaphorical flights of fancy. His sarcastic references to Thatcher, Reagan, Gorbachev and the Royals piqued my interest in world news by revealing that important adults could be devious, ridiculous and weak – i.e. human.



“On the world scene, President of the United States Mr. Ronald Reagan has reacted angrily to suggestions that he might not really have forgotten being told about the Iran affair. ‘I can clearly remember forgetting,’ he says. ‘I’ve even forgotten whose finger this is.’” (bit from The Clive James Show in 1987)


What I didn’t know then was that Clive James wrote poetry. When he retired from show business, he gradually shifted to full-time versifying. The first I knew of his interest was when I also started writing poetry as a teenager and saw one of his poems in an anthology, a kind of obituary titled “Johnny Weissmuller Dead in Acapulco”. Despite scoffing at the idea that a TV celebrity had what it took to be a poet, I had to admit that this one wasn’t all bad, especially the final stanza:


There was a chimpanzee at his funeral,

Which must have been someone’s idea of a smart promotion,

And you might say that dignity had fled,

But when Tarzan dropped from the tall tree and swam out of the splash

Like an otter with an outboard to save Boy from the waterfall

It looked like poetry to me,

And at home in the bath I would surface giving the ape-call.


So news of Clive James’s death, though long anticipated, was unsettling. I felt I’d neglected him, as if he were a great-uncle or an old teacher. I looked back at clips from those TV shows of the 1980s, but they only increased my unease. The jokes seemed stale, naturally enough, because humor doesn’t travel very well in time or across borders. But even allowing for inevitable verdigris, his witticisms seemed labored and his face alarmingly unexpressive: eyes so deep-set they were like two black holes over a spuddy nose and a slightly off-kilter smirk.




Knowing he was a poetry enthusiast, I wondered if he’d be more appealing on the page and decided to mark the occasion of his death by buying his Collected Poems. In a 2003 interview with Michael Parkinson, Clive James warbled about why poetry is different to other forms of writing for him:


…[It] is a way of staying in childhood, it’s a way of staying obsessed with language, as children are. There’s a beautiful couple of lines by Dylan Thomas in one of the poems he wrote towards the end of his troubled and confused life, and he was talking about being a kid and playing in the park in Swansea, and he said, “the ball I threw when playing in the park/has not yet reached the ground.” I think it’s wonderful, that’s the way he felt about his life. And when I read that, I thought, “I’ll never forget that,” and I never have. It’s one of the things that made me want to be a poet, to try and say something memorable and I think that is really what poets do, they try to put it together out of this tremendous sense of everything coming apart, which I’ve always felt.


As plausible as all this sounds, it’s not the whole story. Poetry for him was, at least partly, a way of getting hot women to pay attention to him, especially once his TV airtime had dried up. The reason I venture to say this is that he frequently says so in his poems (“Obscurity, in my view, is rarely a tolerable aim in the arts” he pontificates in a footnote to “Funnelweb”). “Publisher’s Party”, for example, is an admirably clear poem about a beautiful woman at a publisher’s party who chooses to seduce someone other than Clive James:


Lacking in social skills, licensed to bore,

He was the kind of bloke

A girl like her would normally ignore,

Unless, of course, he’d won the Booker Prize.

Alas, he had. I can’t think of a joke –

Only of how she lingered there until

He woke up to the full force of her looks;

Of how we rippled with a jealous thrill,

All those of us who’d also written books

Out of an inner need;

And now a panel-game of hacks and crooks

Had staked him out for her to stalk and kill –

As if the man could write, and she could read.


In “Literary Lunch” from Angels Over Elsinore, he delivers an old man’s gentle lament. No longer can he take the lithe young would-be in his arms; all he can do is pay humble homage to her beauty through sophisticated academic whiffling:


Reciting poetry by those you prize—

Auden, MacNiece, Yeats, Stevens, Charlotte Mew –

I trust my memory and watch your eyes

To see if you know I am wooing you

With all these stolen goods. Of course you do.


Of course she knew he was trying to get into her pants; she probably needed a publishing connection and had heard he’d shag a fire-hydrant if it wore a dress. This old-man shtick is, of course, disingenuous too. In an obsequious obituary to James in the Financial Post, Luke Slatterly recalls that at age 62 Clive danced the night away at a Sydney dance club, and boasted about making a bee-line for tango wherever he jetted to. Even when this Casanova of Kogarah ends up cadging a ride with ‘an attractive middle-aged blonde,’ Slatterly refuses to admit that James was a horny old goat, but rather a Higher Being whose nature was best expressed in the artistic medium of Dance:


James’s passion for the tango speaks, I think, to some of the qualities of the man. Not only the tango intense, languid, sexy, and intoxicating, it is also tragic, poetic, lyrical, abstruse, elegiac and melancholy, and has been described as a “sad thought that dances”.




At 64, this Sad Thought That Dances embarked on a torrid affair with ‘Ex-Model’ Leanne Edelsten (also an attractive middle-aged blonde), ‘ravishing’ her periodically until he was 71, leaving her breathlessly declaring, ‘The guy’s a legend…he’d leave men half his age for dead’. Edelsten may not be Emily Dickinson, but her evocative account of their trysts on Australia’s A Current Affair was arguably more memorable than Clive’s poetic oeuvre:


Edelston: We would always drink tea with a Cherry Ripe, so…

Martin King: A cup of tea? Before?

Edelston: Yes, always. With a Cherry Ripe. And after




Similarly indelible, like a diesel-stain on a doily, was the Daily Mail’s reference to a 2005 affair with opera singer Ann Howell:


She claimed that when he first ‘seduced’ her, he had been eating shortbread and invited her to ‘suck the crumbs from between my teeth’.


I’m sorry, but if I have to know about this, then you do too. Besides, it’s clear he wanted everyone to think about him doing such things. In his poem “The Nymph Calypso”, there’s a horrifying but all-too probable chance that he is casting himself as Odysseus, with Edelston, or some ringer, being Calypso begging him to stay on just one more night:


Old studs like you need youth to love. I’m it.

I’m always eager, and you’re still quite fit:

A last adventure to light up the sky.

I’ll tell my tale forever, don’t forget:

The greatest lover that I ever met.’

As for Penelope, he could depend

On her care for the time he had to live.


If Clive is Odysseus here, then ol’ dependable must be his wife, the Dante scholar Prue Shaw, who did indeed accord him a humane measure of care and companionship in his decade of dying–but only after throwing him out of her house. I imagine, even more than the incessant sexual boasting and humiliating tabloid stories, she was more offended by the sight of him daily tapping away at pretentious doggerel convinced he was writing himself into some sort of Celestial Syllabus. After 40 years of marriage to a giant literary ego, she can hardly have expected much, but that must have grated. He may be a fine essayist, I wouldn’t know, but his output in the poetry department resembles less that of Dante Alighieri than that of the hero of his poem “The Eternity Man”:


Before he died in 1967

At the age of eighty-eight

He had managed to write it five hundred thousand times,

And always in copperplate script.

Few streets or public places in the city of Sydney

Remained unmarked by the man with a single obsession—

Writing Eternity


One of James’s favorite tricks is to write about other more famous writers in order to siphon off a little of their fame, to derive some glory by association, like a dog covering up the pee of other poets with his own much smellier pee. One of his chosen dedicatees is Philip Larkin, and you can see him going through all the bullet-points: Things we all know about Larkin: stay-at-home, morose, vernacular, officially great. As a springboard into it, James describes the moment he heard of Larkin’s death, when he was touching down in Nairobi seeing all the wonderful sights. There are many, many stanzas about all the exotic things James sees and the implication seems to be that travel assists the imagination, so in this respect he definitely has the leg-up on Larkin, who was a sadsack who considered Hull the World:


In point of fact I swallowed Kenya whole,

A mill choked by a plenitude of grist.

Like anabolic steroids for the soul,

Every reagent was a catalyst –

So much to take in sent me round the twist.


He also mentions that he was filming a TV show, flying first-class and getting invited into the cockpit by the pilots. And yet, in spite of these obvious advantages, James is prepared to acknowledge that Larkin was a good poet. He magnanimously concedes defeat, though it’s a close call:


Yet even with your last great work ‘Aubade’

(To see death clearly, did you pull it close?)

The commentator must be on his guard

Lest he should overlook the virtuose

Technique which makes majestic the morose.

The truth is that you revelled in your craft.

Profound glee charged your sentences with wit.

You beat them into stanza form and laughed:

They didn’t sound like poetry one bit,

Except for being absolutely it.


The whole thing sounds like the sort of poem the town wag would read out at the local rugby club at a special anniversary piss-up. Archaic diction like ‘lest’ and ‘glee’, clunky thesaurus options like ‘virtuose’, the oxymorons like ‘profound glee’ and ‘majestic the morose’ – these signal Poetry with a Capital ‘P’, declamatory, public, pompous and amateur. It’s possible to argue that James was deliberately writing this way to emphasize his disadvantage, but I doubt it. I think he just didn’t notice details unless they wore high heels. Larkin deliberately spoke only for himself and did so as naturally as possible, saving any special effects not to say ‘Hey, look at me, I’m writing Poetry!’ but to draw attention to what he wanted to emphasize. You can see this in any of his poems, for example the first stanza of “Poetry of Departures”:


Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,

As epitaph:

He chucked up everything

And just cleared off,

And always the voice will sound

Certain you approve

This audacious, purifying,

Elemental move.


Larkin noticed the world around him all the time, James didn’t (unless she wore lipstick) …until he started dying. The poems he wrote after being diagnosed with cancer are different. They are slightly better, probably because he had more time to devote to writing them. They are also painful because they convey the physical and emotional suffering of someone completely unprepared for it. You can see a man used to having an adoring live audience having to deal with loneliness. You can see him floundering around trying to regain love, trying to appreciate little things and to show his family he cares about them. The poems are not very attractive–there is quite a lot of whinging and self-importance–but they are honest. 


The grand old man. Do I dare play that part?

Perhaps I am too frail. I don’t know how

To say exactly what is in my heart, 

Except I feel that I am nowhere now. 

But I have tempted providence too long:

It gives me life enough, and little pain. 

I should be grateful for this simple song,

No matter how it goes against the grain

To spend the best part of a winter’s day

Filing away at some reluctant rhyme

And go to bed with so much still to say

On how I came to have so little time. 


It turned out that he had more time than he thought he did, and he said a lot more than he thought he would. And as much as his poems get on my tits, I am glad about that.