Clive James

Clive James
Clive James
Born Vivian James
7 October 1939 (1939-10-07) (age 72)
Kogarah, Sydney, Australia
Occupation Essayist, poet, broadcaster
Nationality Australian
Notable work(s)

Cultural Amnesia

Unreliable Memoirs
Notable award(s) Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal for Literature
Spouse(s) Prue Shaw
Children Claerwen James
Lucinda James

Clive James, AM (born 7 October 1939) is an Australian author, critic, broadcaster, poet and memoirist, best known for his autobiographical series Unreliable Memoirs, for his chat shows and documentaries on British television and for his prolific journalism. He has lived and worked in the United Kingdom since the early 1960s.



Clive James was born Vivian James in Kogarah, Sydney. He was allowed to change his name as a child because "after Vivien Leigh played Scarlett O'Hara the name became irrevocably a girl's name no matter how you spelled it".[1]

His father was taken prisoner by the Japanese during World War II. Although he survived the POW camp, he died when the plane returning him to Australia crashed in Taiwan; he was buried in Hong Kong. James, who was an only child, was brought up by his mother in the Sydney suburb of Kogarah.

In Unreliable Memoirs, James says an IQ test taken in childhood put his IQ at 140.[2] He was educated at Sydney Technical High School (despite winning a bursary award to Sydney Boys High School) and the University of Sydney, where he studied Psychology and became associated with the Sydney Push, a libertarian, intellectual subculture. At the university, he edited the student newspaper, Honi Soit, and directed the annual Union Revue. After graduating, James worked for a year as an Assistant Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald.

In early 1962, James moved to England, where he made his home. During his first three years in London, he shared a flat with the Australian film director Bruce Beresford (disguised as Dave Dalziel in the first three volumes of James' memoirs), was a neighbour of Australian artist Brett Whiteley, became acquainted with Barry Humphries (disguised as Bruce Jennings), and had a variety of occasionally disastrous short-term jobs (sheet metal worker, library assistant, photo archivist, market researcher).

James later gained a place at Pembroke College, Cambridge, to read English literature. Whilst there, he contributed to all the undergraduate periodicals, was a member and later President of the Cambridge Footlights, and appeared on University Challenge as captain of the Pembroke team. During one summer vacation, he worked as a circus roustabout to save enough money to travel to Italy.[3] His contemporaries at Cambridge included Germaine Greer (known as Romaine Rand in the first three volumes of his memoirs) and Eric Idle. Having, he claims, scrupulously avoided reading any of the course material (but having read widely otherwise in English and foreign literature), James graduated with a 2:1—better than he had expected—and began a Ph.D. thesis on Percy Bysshe Shelley.


Critic and essayist

James worked as a television critic for The Observer (1972-82). Selections from the column were published in three books—Visions Before Midnight, The Crystal Bucket and Glued to the Box—and finally in a compendium, On Television.

He has written literary criticism extensively for newspapers, magazines and periodicals in Britain, Australia and America, including, among many others, The Australian Book Review, The Monthly, The Atlantic Monthly, the New York Review of Books, The Liberal and the Times Literary Supplement. John Gross included James's essay 'A Blizzard of Tiny Kisses' in the Oxford Book of Essays (1992, 1999).

The Metropolitan Critic (1974), his first collection of literary criticism, was followed by At the Pillars of Hercules (1979), From the Land of Shadows (1982), Snakecharmers in Texas (1988), The Dreaming Swimmer (1992), Even As We Speak (2004), The Meaning of Recognition (2005) and Cultural Amnesia (2007), a collection of mini-intellectual biographies of over 100 significant figures in modern culture, history and politics. A defence of humanism, liberal democracy and literary clarity, the book was listed among the best of 2007 by The Village Voice.

Another volume of essays, The Revolt of the Pendulum, was published in June 2009.

He has also published Flying Visits, a collection of travel writing for The Observer.

Poet and lyricist

James has published poetry in periodicals all over the English-speaking world. He has published several books of poetry, including Poem of the Year (1983), a verse-diary, Other Passports: poems 1958–1985, a first collection, and The Book of My Enemy (2003), a volume that takes its title from James' poem, The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered.

He has published four mock-heroic poems: The Fate of Felicity Fark in the Land of the Media: a moral poem (1975), Peregrine Prykke's Pilgrimage Through the London Literary World (1976), Britannia Bright's Bewilderment in the Wilderness of Westminster (1976) and Charles Charming's Challenges on the Pathway to the Throne (1981).

During the seventies he also collaborated on six albums of songs with Pete Atkin:

  • Beware Of The Beautiful Stranger (1970),
  • Driving Through Mythical America (1971),
  • A King At Nightfall (1973),
  • The Road Of Silk (1974),
  • Secret Drinker (1974), and
  • Live Libel (1975).

A revival of interest in the songs in the late 1990s, triggered largely by the creation by Steve Birkill of an Internet mailing list "Midnight Voices" in 1997, led to the reissue of the six albums on CD between 1997 and 2001, as well as live performances by the pair. A double-album of previously-unrecorded songs written in the seventies and entitled The Lakeside Sessions: Volumes 1 and 2 was released in 2002 and "Winter Spring", an album of new material written by James and Atkin was released in 2003.

James acknowledged the importance of the "Midnight Voices" group in bringing to wider attention the lyric-writing aspect of his career. He wrote in November 1997 that, "one of the midnight voices of my own fate should be [that] the music of Pete Atkin continues to rank high among the blessings of my life, and on my behalf as well as his I bless you all for your attention".

Novelist and memoirist

In 1979 James published his first book of autobiography, Unreliable Memoirs, which recounted his early life in Australia and extended to over a hundred reprintings. It was followed by four other volumes of autobiography: Falling Towards England (1985), which covered his London years; May Week Was in June (1990), which dealt with his time at Cambridge; North Face of Soho (2006), and The Blaze of Obscurity (2009), concerning his subsequent career. An omnibus edition of the first three volumes was published under the generic title of Always Unreliable.

James has also written four novels: Brilliant Creatures (1983), The Remake (1987), Brrm! Brrm! (1991), published in the United States as The Man from Japan, and The Silver Castle (1996).

In 1999, John Gross included an excerpt from Unreliable Memoirs in The New Oxford Book of English Prose. John Carey chose Unreliable Memoirs as one of the fifty most enjoyable books of the twentieth century in his book Pure Pleasure (2000).


James developed his television career as a guest commentator on various shows, including as an occasional co-presenter with Tony Wilson on the first series of So It Goes, the Granada Television pop music show. On the show when the Sex Pistols made their TV debut, James commented: "During the recording, the task of keeping the little bastards under control was given to me. With the aid of a radio microphone, I was able to shout them down, but it was a near thing...they attacked everything around them and had difficulty in being polite even to each other."[4]..

James subsequently hosted the ITV show Clive James on Television, in which he showcased unusual or (often unintentionally) amusing television programmes from around the world, notably the Japanese TV show Endurance. After his defection to the BBC in 1989, he hosted a similarly-formatted programme called Saturday Night Clive (1988–1990) which initially screened on Saturday evening, returning as Saturday Night Clive on Sunday in its second series when it changed screening day and then Sunday Night Clive in its third and final series. In 1995 he set up Watchmaker Productions to produce The Clive James Show for ITV, and a subsequent series launched the British career of singer and comedienne Margarita Pracatan. James hosted one of the early chat shows on Channel 4 and fronted the BBC's Review of the Year programmes in the late 1980s (Clive James on the '80s) and 1990s (Clive James on the '90s), which formed part of the channel's New Year's Eve celebrations.

In the mid-1980s, James featured in a travel programme called Clive James in... (beginning with Clive James in Las Vegas) for LWT (now ITV) and later switched to BBC, where he continued producing travel programmes, this time called Clive James' Postcard from... (beginning with Clive James' Postcard from Miami) - these also eventually transferred to ITV. He was also one of the original team of presenters of the BBC's The Late Show, hosting a round-table discussion on Friday nights.

His major documentary series Fame in the 20th Century (1993) was broadcast in the United Kingdom by the BBC, in Australia by the ABC and in the United States by the PBS network. This series dealt with the concept of "fame" in the 20th century, following over a course of eight episodes (each one chronologically and roughly devoted to one decade of the century, from the 1900s to the 1980s) discussions about world famous people of the 20th century. Through the use of film footage, James presented a history of "fame" which explored its growth to today's global proportions. In his closing monologue he remarked, "Achievement without fame can be a rewarding life, while fame without achievement is no life at all."

James presented the 1982, 1984 and 1986 official Formula One season review videos. He also presented The Clive James Formula 1 Show for ITV to coincide with their Formula One coverage in 1997.

One of his most famous quotations concerning television is, "Anyone afraid of what he thinks television does to the world is probably just afraid of the world".


In 2007, James started presenting the BBC Radio 4 show A Point of View, with transcripts appearing in the "Magazine" section of BBC News Online. In this show James discussed various issues with a slightly humorous slant, similar to a newspaper op-ed. Topics covered included media portrayal of torture,[5] young black role models[6] and corporate rebranding.[7] Three of James's broadcasts in 2007 were shortlisted for the 2008 Orwell Prize.[8]

In October 2009 James read a radio version of his book The Blaze of Obscurity, on BBC Radio 4's Book of the Week programme.[9]

In December 2009 James talked about the P-51 Mustang and other American fighter aircraft of Word War II in The Museum of Curiosity on BBC Radio 4.[10]

In late 2009, James returned to presenting A Point of View for BBC Radio 4 with a series of thirteen talks:

  • Sheer Poetry: What the Poet Laureateship says about the British attitude to poetry.
  • Expensive Mistakes: Reflection on the MP's expenses row.
  • Feminism and Democracy: Examines the global responsibility of feminists in the west.
  • Newsflash from the Far East: Observes that while democracy is the right system for governing a country, it's the wrong system for choosing a professor of poetry.
  • The Golf Ball Potato Crisp: Criticises extreme reactions to those who are sceptical about man-made global warming.
  • On Strike: Reflects on the postal workers' dispute and gives his personal view of the modern history of labour relations.
  • High Road to Xanadu: Reflects on the seductive allure of illegal narcotics.
  • The Man on the Fourth Plinth: The honouring of Battle of Britain commander Sir Keith Park with a temporary statue on Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth
  • Blog du Jour: Reflects on the revelation of the identity of Belle du Jour, the author of The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl.
  • Spirit of the Game: The spirit in which the game is played determines whether James likes or loathes the sport.
  • Impact: Warns of the dangers that a new plan for calculating funding for British universities may pose to academic freedom.
  • Hermie's Ghost: Reflection on the media coverage of man-made global warming and the need for minds to be open.
  • Option Swamp: James vents his frustration at automated customer service systems.

He has posted vlog conversations from his internet show Talking in the Library, including conversations with Ian McEwan, Cate Blanchett, Julian Barnes, Jonathan Miller and Terry Gilliam. In addition to the poetry and prose of James himself, the site features the works of other literary figures such as Les Murray and Michael Frayn, as well as the works of painters, sculptors and photographers such as John Olsen and Jeffrey Smart.


In 2008 James performed in two self-titled shows at the Edinburgh Comedy Festival: Clive James in Conversation and Clive James in the Evening. He took the latter show on a limited tour of the UK in 2009.


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 has received honorary doctorates from the Universities of Sydney and the East Anglia. In April 2008, James was awarded a Special Award for Writing and Broadcasting by the judges of the Orwell Prize.[11]

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2010.[12]

Personal life

James is married to Prue Shaw, an academic in modern languages specialising in Italian and medieval romance philology. The couple have two daughters, Claerwen (a painter), and Lucinda (a civil servant). James divides his time between a converted warehouse flat in London and a house in Cambridge. He has a policy of not talking about his family publicly.

A friend of Diana, Princess of Wales, upon her death James wrote a piece for The New Yorker entitled "I Wish I'd Never Met Her", recording his overwhelming grief.[13] Since then he has declined to comment upon their friendship.

While a detractor of communism and socialism for their tendency towards totalitarianism, James still identifies himself with the left, endorsing some of the features sometimes observed under socialism, such as a planned economy and state-owned media, and eschewing the free market and privatisation associated with capitalism. In a 2006[14] interview in The Sunday Times, James states of himself: "I was brought up on the proletarian left, and I remain there. The fair go for the workers is fundamental, and I don't believe the free market has a mind".

In a speech given in 1991, he criticised privatisation: "The idea that Britain's broadcasting system—for all its drawbacks one of the country's greatest institutions—was bound to be improved by being subjected to the conditions of a free market: there was no difficulty in recognising that notion as politically illiterate. But for some reason people did have difficulty in realising that it was economically illiterate too".[15]

Overall, James identifies as a liberal social democrat.[16] He strongly supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq, saying in 2007 that "the war only lasted a few days" and that the continuing conflict in Iraq was "the Iraq peace."[17] He has also written that it was "official policy to rape a woman in front of her family" during Saddam Hussein's regime and that women have enjoyed more rights since the invasion.[18]

James has been noted for expressing views sympathetic to climate change skepticism.[19][20]

James is currently a Patron of the Burma Campaign UK an organisation that campaigns for human rights and democracy in Burma.[21]

Describing religions as "advertising agencies for a product that doesn't exist," James is an atheist and sees this as the default, obvious position.[22][23]

James is able to read, with varying fluency, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian and Japanese.[24] A tango enthusiast, he has traveled to Buenos Aires for dance lessons and has a dance floor in his house which allows him to practise.[22]

A former heavy drinker and smoker, who recorded in North Face of Soho his habit of filling a hubcap ashtray daily, James now drinks only socially and stopped smoking in 2005.[25] He admitted smoking 80 cigarettes a day for a number of years.[26]

In April 2011, after media speculation that he had suffered kidney failure,[27] James confirmed that he was suffering from B-cell chronic lymphocytic leukemia, and had been under treatment for 15 months at Addenbrooke's Hospital.[28]


Year Genre Title Notes
1974 Poetry The Metropolitan Critic
1975 Poetry The Fate of Felicity Fark in the Land of the Media: a moral poem
1976 Poetry Peregrine Prykke's Pilgrimage Through the London Literary World
1976 Poetry Britannia Bright's Bewilderment in the Wilderness of Westminster
1977 Poetry Fan-mail: seven verse letters
1977 Non-fiction Visions Before Midnight: television criticism from the Observer 1972-76
1979 Non-fiction At the Pillars of Hercules
1980 Autobiography Unreliable Memoirs
1981 Poetry Charles Charming's Challenges on the Pathway to the Throne
1981 Non-fiction The Crystal Bucket: television criticism from the Observer 1976-79
1982 Non-fiction From the Land of Shadows
1983 Fiction Brilliant Creatures
1983 Poetry Poem of the Year
1983 Non-fiction Glued to the Box: television criticism from the Observer 1979–82
1984 Non-fiction Flying Visits: Postcards from the Observer, 1976–83
1985 Autobiography Falling Towards England
1986 Poetry Other Passports: poems 1958–1985
1987 Fiction The Remake
1988 Non-fiction Snakecharmers in Texas: essays 1980–87
1990 Autobiography May Week Was in June
1991 Non-fiction Clive James On Television A one-volume edition of the television criticism books
1991 Fiction Brrm! Brrm! Released in the United States as The Man From Japan (1993)
1992 Non-fiction The Dreaming Swimmer: non-fiction, 1987–1992
1993 Non-fiction Fame in the 20th Century
1996 Fiction The Silver Castle
2003 Poetry The Book of My Enemy Poetry and lyrics
2004 Non-fiction Even as We Speak
2005 Non-fiction The Meaning of Recognition: New Essays 2001–2005
2006 Autobiography North Face of Soho
2007 Non-fiction Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts
2009 Autobiography The Blaze of Obscurity
2009 Poetry Opal Sunset: Selected Poems 1958–2009
2009 Non-Fiction The Revolt of the Pendulum: Essays 2005–2009
2011 Non-Fiction A Point of View Reproductions of sixty BBC Radio 4 10-minute segments from 2007 to 2009

See also


  1. ^ James, C., 'Unreliable Memoirs', Pan Books, 1981, p.29 .
  2. ^ James, C., 'Unreliable Memoirs', Pan Books, 1981, p.59 .
  3. ^ James, C.,'May Week Was In June', Jonathan Cape, 1990, p.49 .
  4. ^ "The Observer, November 1976". Retrieved 2007-12-24. 
  5. ^ James, Clive (2007-03-30). "The clock's ticking on torture". BBC News Magazine. Retrieved 2007-12-24. 
  6. ^ "Young, gifted and black". BBC News Magazine. 2007-03-23. Retrieved 2007-12-24. 
  7. ^ James, Clive (2007-02-16). "The name-changing fidgets". BBC News Magazine. Retrieved 2007-12-24. 
  8. ^ "Shortlist 2008", The Orwell Prize
  9. ^ "Book of the Week – The Blaze of Obscurity". BBC. 19 October 2009. Retrieved 19 October 2009. 
  10. ^ "Museum of Curiosity on Radio 4 web site". BBC. 25 December 2009. Retrieved 25 December 2009. 
  11. ^ Stephen Brook (2008-04-25). "Hari and James take Orwell prizes". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2008-04-25. 
  12. ^ "Royal Society of Literature All Fellows". Royal Society of Literature. Retrieved 9 August 2010. 
  13. ^ Clive James on Diana
  14. ^ Appleyard, Bryan (2006-11-12). "Interview Clive James". The Times (London).,,2101-2442961,00.html. Retrieved 2010-04-30. 
  15. ^ "On the Eve of Disaster"
  16. ^ Arts Today with Michael Cathcart 12/12/2001
  17. ^ "Bill Moyers talks with Cultural Critic, Clive James.". Retrieved 2009-05-07. 
  18. ^ "Still looking for the western feminists". BBC News. 2009-05-22. Retrieved 2009-05-23. 
  19. ^ "Programme 1: On Climate Change". Retrieved 2011-11-05. 
  20. ^ Monbiot, George. "Clive James isn't a climate change sceptic, he's a sucker - but this may be the reason". Retrieved 2011-11-05. 
  21. ^ "The Burma Campaign UK: AboutUs". Retrieved 2007-12-24. 
  22. ^ a b "Enough Rope with Andrew Denton – episode 84: Clive James (04/07/2005)". Retrieved 2008-09-16. 
  23. ^ "Discussion between Richard Dawkins and Clive James at the Edinburgh Book Festival". Retrieved 2010-08-27. 
  24. ^ Haynes, Deborah (2007-05-12). "Culture vulture". The Times (London). Retrieved 2010-04-30. 
  25. ^ Smoking the Memory |
  26. ^ "Smoking, my lost love". BBC News. 2007-08-03. 
  27. ^ "Clive James battles leukemia"
  28. ^ "I'm battling leukaemia, reveals broadcaster Clive James". London: Daily Mail. 30 April 2011. Retrieved 30 April 2011. 

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Preceded by
Andrew Mayer
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Succeeded by
Jonathan James-Moore

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