Wednesday 7 October 2020


It would have been Clive James’s eighty-first birthday today. 

Lots of people have October birthdays; friends of mine, a goddaughter of mine. But the birthday of a friend you can never meet again, a friend who also, now, has a death day, imbues the month with even more autumnal poignancy than usual. 


He was, after all, the one who went viral with his Japanese maple leaf farewell. The death of the tree preceding his own was just the sort of joke the kid from Kogarah lived for. In his absence, it is harder to find the jokes, here, on the ward we shared. 

Clive’s yawns were leonine. He turned the infusion bay into his drawing room by holding no measure of that sound in discretion. He always fell asleep at a certain point during the drip of immunoglobulins into his vein, something I have never been able to do in my ten years of intravenous therapies. Aside from his genuine sleeps, the famous critic was also able to drop into utterly phoney narcoleptic faints when approached by an undesirable fan. One eager gentleman in particular acted extraordinarily upon Clive’s ability to stay conscious in the face of a bore. Poor dude, I tried to think, the milk of my human kindness attempting to overcome the bald truth: the gentleman in question really is an unstoppable torrent of opinion. 

There are many lonely people shepherded by ill fate into this place. Clive was not a philanthropist.


Sometimes, in his eagerness to skedaddle home, Clive would forget some portion of his garments. His cardigan. A scarf. But also, his slippers. Shuffling off in his socks, I ahoyed him back. (His drawing room, remember.) I was as unimpressed by his fashion as he was entertained by mine. His was sixties French philosopher, black, with crumbs. Mine was, is, anything to brighten the spirit. My soft, olive green beret had been eyed covetously so many times, that when the latest carcinoma had been shelled out of his skull, I offered it up. He swiped it without a hesitant beat. Goodbye, beret. I miss you, still.

It is only the start of autumn, mizzling days. The fire of joy is yet to come. We are seven months into a pandemic some of us are better suited to. (To or for? Clive would know.) My rabbit warren between home and Addenbrooke’s is traversed less because those three weekly infusions Clive and I shared are now weekly subcutaneous injections I attend to in my own home. Occasionally, I sit out in the garden, but the bees investigate the sticky serum too closely and drive me back indoors. No sub cut for Clive. No surgical masks or social distancing from his beloved granddaughter. No, just the freedom of a poet unbound. 


We were always joking about the spectre. And then one of us would look seriously at the other. Don’t die, said the look. The trouble is, I believed him when his look promised he wouldn’t. Or when he wrote, ‘my infusions have been stopped temporarily, hence my absence from class’ or, ‘I’ve had an op and it went quite well, so I’m coming alert again.’ 

Think about death all you like. It doesn’t help you prepare. Not really. Every poem is a brushstroke, feathering death away. Does it come mightily or lightly? Neither, I think, for Clive. Eighty he may have been in grown up years, but when it came, surely it cradled him softly, like the hug of a tree. No more thorns. The bark didn’t bite. He left the fire for us, and a deep impression in the blue vinyl armchairs, of joy.

All images via The Guardian website article 'Clive James: A Life in Pictures'


Sherry Blue Sky said...

I so adore your writing, and your worldview - your PEOPLE-view. In your words, Clive lives on. I can SEE him: that look "dont die", the covetous looks at your beret (typical of you to have gifted him with it), the wonderful photo of the poet at home, in his comfy chair, laughing, despite all the illness. Thank you for sharing him with us. I am thinking of you, my friend. October 2020. Dare we even TRY to imagine what January 2021 might look like? I am putting my vote on : better!

Kriti said...

Such a beautiful tribute.

Valerie Massey (Windflower) said...

I have fallen in love with your courage and bravery. You are simply amazing.

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