Simon Kelner: A happy non-ending for the (continuing) life of Clive

Kelner's view


It must be the ultimate in voyeuristic pleasure, being able to read and hear all the nice things that people say about you when you're dead, without actually being dead.

The broadcaster and writer Clive James will have had a bittersweet few days, having to reassure the world that he was still alive, while being able to reflect upon the esteem in which he is held by those who knew him and his work.

At the weekend, he was the subject of a Radio 4 programme, Meeting Myself Coming Back, in which the guest's life and career are surveyed by means of audio clips. It is basically a more reflective version of This is Your Life, but instead of the subject being forced to meet his or her old music teacher and listen to a boring anecdote, the embarrassment takes the form of the principal having to listen to an ancient recording, in which he or she sounds like a jumped-up undergraduate.

Thus it was that James found himself applying a critical analysis to his own mock-serious deconstruction of "Baa Baa Black Sheep" from 1960. "The question 'Have you any wool?' is a penetrating one," he said back then. It was redolent of vested interests and of the small producer being squeezed, he explained. This was classic James, more mock than serious, but expressed with a writerly articulation that is rare these days. It is always a joy to listen to James,with whom I have had the pleasure and privilege of working several times, and the full range of the sardonic, the ironic and the self-deprecatory was on display here.

 I don't know what the audience figures are for such a show, but this particular programme attracted a great deal of attention because of comments James made right at the start. "I'm getting near the end," he said, in such a way that it sounded something like an announcement. "I don't want to cast an air of gloom over the programme but I am a man who is approaching his terminus."

He went on to detail his health struggles over the past few years, including leukaemia, emphysema and a failure of his immune system. "I almost died four times," he added. In order to drum up interest in the show, the BBC sent out a press release with these rather depressing sentiments, and this was enough for word to get out that the great man was on the point of death.

Cue a torrent of appreciative pieces: these days, it seems, you don't have to wait until someone dies to publish an obituary. James took to print himself to reassure everyone he wasn't about to croak. In fact, there had been a rather jolly tone to the conversation, although the comparison between James' strident Aussie tones of yesteryear and the reedy, slightly breathless voice he has now was something of a downer.

We are all, of course, nearing our terminus, only at different speeds. I hope that Clive James' bus goes very slowly indeed.

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