Clive James dies at 80; a last poetry book will come next year

Clive James dies at 80; a last poetry book will come next year

Picador has announced "with great sadness" news of the death of Clive James, who passed away peacefully at home on Sunday 24th November after a long illness, aged 80.

James was a Picador author for 40 years and was the longest continuously published author on the list, with some 40 titles in all. The first Picador James title was Unreliable Memoirs; it was an immediate bestseller and went on to sell over a million copies, according to Pan Macmillan, and remained with the imprint ever since. 

In a statement, Picador said: "Clive James was ‘a brilliant bunch of guys’ as the New Yorker said: critic, essayist, star of television and radio, memoirist, novelist and – especially in his final decade – poet. Poetry was the art form that mattered most to James. During his final decade, he published several bestselling books of verse, including Sentenced to Life and his translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, both of which were critically acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic.

"Picador published his most recent book, Somewhere Becoming Rain: Collected Writings on Philip Larkin, in September. It is the record of a lifetime’s appreciation of Larkin’s poetry and prose. Shortly before his death he completed work on The Fire of Joy: Roughly 80 Poems to Get by Heart and Say Aloud. This final book, scheduled for publication in the autumn of 2020, a paean to English poets and poetry, from Chaucer to the present day, specifically celebrates what James considered true poetry: those words that get into your head no matter."

Picador poetry editor Don Paterson said: "While James had always written poetry, it became his principal focus in his last decade; this unexpected late blossoming produced book after book of effortlessly-turned, moving and memorable verse, which saw several of his poems – among them the celebrated ‘Japanese Maple’ – shared around the world. It was however typical of James’s immense generosity that the last book he’d finish – The Fire of Joy, a reader’s guide to his favourite poems from the English canon – was a work of pure enthusiasm. James was always prized for his superhuman learning (he really had read all those books) and one of the greatest turns of phrase in contemporary English; but he also possessed the rarest and most valuable skill we find in the critic: the language of praise. Any encounter with James, either in print or in person, left you desperate to go and open a book, watch a film or a TV show, or hunt down a recording. With Clive’s passing we lose the wisest and funniest of writers, a loyal and kind friend, and the most finely-stocked mind we will ever have the fortune to encounter.’'

James was born in Sydney, Australia in 1939 and was educated at the University of Sydney and Pembroke College, Cambridge. He first shot to fame in the early 1970s as the Observer’s television critic, later becoming a television performer and presenter himself and appearing regularly on both the BBC and ITV, notably with travel documentaries and as the host of a number of chat shows. 

As well as verse and novels, he published numerous collections of essays, literary and television criticism, travel writing and five volumes of memoir: Unreliable Memoirs, Falling Towards England, May Week Was in June, North Face of Soho and The Blaze of Obscurity. In 1992 he was made a Member of the Order of Australia and in 2003 he was awarded the Philip Hodgins memorial medal for literature. He holds honorary doctorates from Sydney University and the University of East Anglia. In 2012 he was appointed CBE and in 2013 an Officer of the Order of Australia.

Jacqui Graham, his publicist throughout his time at Picador, said: "Clive was the consummate professional. He never, ever let his publisher, his publicist or his public down. Even when terminally ill, he still 'turned a phrase until it caught the light'. He was never late to an interview or an event, he never turned in less than a stellar performance, he was unfailingly courteous – and always, always so clever and so funny."

A statement from James' family said he died at his home, and a private funeral attended by family and a private funeral attended by family and close friends took place in the chapel at Pembroke College, Cambridge earlier today (Wednesday 27th November).

The statement said: "Clive died almost 10 years after his first terminal diagnosis, and one month after he laid down his pen for the last time. He endured his ever-multiplying illnesses with patience and good humour, knowing until the last moment that he had experienced more than his fair share of this ‘great, good world’. He was grateful to the staff at Addenbrooke’s Hospital for their care and kindness, which unexpectedly allowed him so much extra time. His family would like to thank the nurses of the Arthur Rank Hospice at Home team for their help in his last days, which allowed him to die peacefully and at home, surrounded by his family and his books."