Clive James, the Anglo-Australian essayist, cultural critic, poet, television host and bon vivant, was born in Sydney, Australia, on October 7, 1939. His first name at birth was Vivian but he says that after Vivian Leigh starred in Gone With the Wind, Vivian came to be considered a primarily female name and his parents let him change it to Clive.
He moved to England in 1962, going on to graduate from Cambridge University. He also became the TV critic for The Observer and wrote extensively for various newspapers and magazines. I first started reading him in the many published collections of his reviews and essays, which I always found witty, insightful and good natured.
Throughout the 1980s he presented several series of droll travel documentaries for British television, using his rumpled, hard-drinking, chain-smoking persona for self-deprecating laughs. I saw them when they were rebroadcast on PBS.
James is an accomplished poet and published a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy in 2013. He also write a highly successful (and very funny) series of memoirs about his life and career.
In 2011 James was diagnosed with leukemia and has been in declining health ever since. He has written candidly about his illness and impending death, but thanks to experimental drugs he has outlived his original prognosis.
True to his style, he wrote in 2015 “I am in the slightly embarrassing position where I write poems saying I’m about to die and then don’t.”