The dignity of Clive James is a lesson to us all

At 74-years-old and increasingly frail, he is focused on what he called the other day “the death door stuff”

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Recently, I have wondered how I will approach my own death (should, of course, I have a slow, conscious demise, and not die as a result of an accident with a domestic appliance). Will I rage against the dying of the light? Will I just feel horribly sorry for myself? Will I be cheerfully resigned to my fate, taking comfort in a life well lived? Probably a mixture of all three, but I have come to think that dying with dignity is as important as living with grace.

I have been particularly moved by the progress the great author, journalist and TV presenter Clive James is making towards his final resting place. James suffers from emphysema and leukaemia, and knows that, for him, the light will die in the relatively near future. He's not happy about it, but neither is he bashful, and the man who liked nothing more than a glamorous party and an evening of salsa dancing is studiously embracing the inevitable, bequeathing a beautiful running commentary on his own demise.

We had a false alarm a couple of years ago when James said in an interview that he was “approaching his terminus”. This prompted a flurry of encomia about James, who has been a colossal figure in British culture for the past 50 years, but thankfully journey's end proved to be a few stops further down the line.

This enabled James to have an Indian summer, doing the thing for which he will be most fondly remembered: TV criticism. So here he is, only a few weeks ago: “In The Trip to Italy, Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan took their competitive impersonation skills to a new level when one of them impersonated Saddam Hussein impersonating Frank Spencer, and the other impersonated Roger Moore impersonating Tony Blair. I lost track of who was which, but it was virtuoso stuff. Meanwhile, they were eating the greatest of Italian food while surrounded with British upmarket honey-blonde chalet girls”. The James back catalogue is replete with brilliant paragraphs like this: funny, perceptive and expressed with a characteristic economy of style.

But James the TV critic is no longer, unconscionably cast aside by his employer, and now, at 74-years-old and increasingly frail, he is focused on what he called the other day “the death door stuff”, and his latest offering - a poem called “Sentenced to Life” - is a terribly affecting piece of work. You can hear him recite it himself, the voice hesitant but still definably his, on his own website,, and it is essentially a love letter to his native Australia, which he will never see again.

He writes of his memory of “the Pacific sunset, heaven sent/In glowing colours and in sharp relief” and concludes the poem thus:

Now I am weak. The sky is overcast

Here in the English autumn, but my mind

Basks in the light I never left behind

Tomorrow James appears on stage in London at an Australian literature festival, talking for an hour about his life and work. It's what he calls “a last post”. Very, very few of us have the gift of articulacy that was bestowed on Clive James, but we can all learn from the manner of his farewell.