Clive James: Terminally ill author and poet says he has ‘started saying goodbye’ in his work

The Australian writer's terminal health has prompted a new tone and outlook

Poet, broadcaster and journalist Clive James has said that his terminal medical condition has led him to “start saying goodbye” through his poetry.

Now 74, he was diagnosed with leukaemia and emphysema in 2010.

"Inevitably, you start saying goodbye and I like to think I hit a sort of plangent tone – a recessional tone," he said.

"But the trick is not to overdo it, and don’t do it too long. As my friend once said to me, 'You’re going to have to soft peddle this death stuff, Clive, because people are going to get impatient.'"

The Australia-born writer has come close to death a number of times, yet he refuses to yet his condition influence his impressively positive state of mind. If anything, his health has made him more grateful for what he has.

"It’s important not to be morbid and the secret there is to keep a sense of proportion," he said on a BBC Radio 4 interview this morning.

"I’m at the hospital two to three times a week and if you hang out at a hospital long enough you’ll see things that will remind that you had a lucky life. If you can see at all, you’ve had a lucky life. I don’t complain; I’m lucky.

"I’m getting near what my friend calls the ‘departure lounge’, but I’ve got a version of it that doesn’t hurt, so I may as well enjoy myself while I can."


He is still working on new material (including on a poetry book that he jokes will "help family finances" if he "drops off the twig", as he puts it) and will make a rare stage appearance on Saturday 31 May in London at the Australian and New Zealand literature festival, during which he will possibly recite a poem he wrote on Anzac Day and an extract from his translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

However, there is one activity that his health prevents him from doing – travelling home to his beloved Australia. There isn’t enough oxygen in the cabin air on an airliner and to go by ship would take too long as he needs transfusions every three weeks.

“On the other hand I have my memories of growing up in Australia and those memories become clearer all the time,” he said.

“The mind is quite a wonderful thing; it can translate experience into immediate experience. I practically hallucinate the sheer beauty of Sydney Harbour, it couldn’t be more beautiful in reality as it is in my mind. So no, I don’t despair.”

He describes himself as “content” and says that he considers himself fortunate, despite his ailing health.

“My disasters haven’t been that bad, even the personal ones,” he said.

“My family are still together, they’re all here in fact, in this town. Things could be worse. With my health, things could have been worse. It could have hurt for example, so I haven’t got all that to be miserable about. I like to think I’ve got a sunny nature but a sunny nature doesn’t last for long if you’re in real pain. I’ve just been lucky.”

Read more: Clive James: "I'd like to write a play before I die"
Book of the Week: James' Divine Comedy translation
Clive James 'very pleased' with Costa Award
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