Streams of tributes to the life and work of Clive James flooded the internet yesterday after the comic writer appeared to say that he was close to death. Yet coming from a man who had just seconds earlier admitted that his memoirs are not only unreliable but "a pack of lies from start to finish", perhaps the world should have known better than to take his words too seriously.
After saying in an interview that he was "getting near the end" and was worried that he would never see his native Australia again – having suffered from leukaemia, kidney failure and lung disease since 2010 – James, 72, prompted a flurry of accolades to his writing and wit from other authors and comedians.
The chat-show host Julian Clary declared him a "brilliant, funny, twinkly-eyed man", the journalist Boyd Hilton called him the "Best TV critic ever", while the writer and broadcaster Charlie Brooker said that James, "made me want to write for print and do TV about TV".
Yet his spokeswoman later issued a statement denying that James was about to die, even saying that he was, "in fact in reasonable shape". "On air today the interview which Clive James gave to the BBC sounded much less doom-laden than it does when transcribed," she said, adding that he was, "looking forward to years of working".
Yet the quotes from the widely admired comic writer, critic and television presenter seemed clear enough. "I've been really ill for two-and-a-half years," he said in the radio interview. "I'm getting near the end... I'm a man who is approaching his terminus."
He continued: "I was diagnosed with leukaemia then I had COPD – which is the fancy name for emphysema – and my immune system packed up. And that's just the start... I almost died four times and I swore to myself if I could just get through this winter, I'd feel better. And I've got through the winter and here it is, a lovely sunny day – and guess what? I don't feel better." That wasn't all. "My tragedy now is that I'm so ill I can't get out so I'm a bit of a recluse," James told Radio 4's Meeting Myself Coming Back programme.
"I used to be in Australia for five or six times a year but now I can't go. I'm facing the possibility I might never see Sydney again."
The ensuing headlines were bleak. "Clive James: I've lost my battle with cancer," read one. "Cancer-stricken Clive James: I will never see Australia again", said another, with a torrent of tributes from figures across the media following. The comedian Chris Addison said on Twitter: "Clive James is the best kind of intellectual – one who doesn't let you know that's what he is. A genius and a one-off." While the Irish comedian Sean Hughes wrote: "Sad news about Clive James. Thank you for making our lives richer and may you continue to do so for a while yet."
Despite the insistence of James's spokeswoman that his death is not imminent, concern about his health is likely to remain given his comments and the popularity he has gained since moving to the UK in 1961. Achieving prominence through television reviews for The Observer in the 1970s, his first autobiography, Unreliable Memoirs, received rapturous reviews and was followed by four volumes. His talent has yielded four novels and several collections of poetry. But it was TV that gave him his mainstream appeal, through his travel show Clive James in... and Clive James on Television.Reuse content