Clive James: Dying by Inches

Clive James: Dying by Inches

Over recent months, I have been spending time in the company of Clive James, the writer, critic and poet. After a lifetime of heavy smoking and intemperate drinking, James was diagnosed with emphysema and kidney failure in 2010 as well as chronic leukemia and by June 2012 admitted on Radio 4 that the disease “had beaten him” and that he was “near the end.”

Three years on, he is still with us , still ‘dying by inches’ and in that time, as well as his chronic ill-health, he has also had to deal with the revelation of an eight year affair, first made public in 2012, that resulted in him being thrown out of the family home. Thankfully, the extra time afforded him since has given the opportunity for spending time with his daughters, something he had not been good at, and a gradual rapprochement with his wife, Prue Shaw.

Having read his ‘Poetry Notebook 2006-2014’ over the summer, (and thoroughly enjoyed his pertinent observations on a wide range of poets and poetry), I purchased the latest collection of his own poetry, ‘Sentenced to Life’ as well as a collection of short essay and observations, entitled ‘Latest Readings’ both published this year. While the latter was a disparate mixture of essays and reflections, uneven in quality and clearly rushed out in advance of his anticipated demise, his poems are rather more substantial and a record of James coming to terms with pending death and the remorse he felt over his betrayed marriage. The poetry is raw and bare as he struggles to deal with his guilt that was consuming him and his failure to have been a good husband and the consequences of his actions – and inaction:


‘My heart had spiritual duties too

and failed at all of them. Worse than a waste

Was how I hurt myself through hurting you.”

Balcony Scene


He is in no doubt of the damage he had caused, that what had brought him so low , and had wrecked his life, was his ‘gift for deceit.’

A sense of contrition runs through so many of the poems in the collection, you just want to offer a word of comfort, urge his betrayed wife to forgive him although he voices his fear, that her fear will be that his words are all very well (for he has always been a silver-penned wordsmith) and that ‘repentance comes too easily.’’

He beats himself up terribly as he reflects on the mistakes of his life and especially the fact that all his life, he had ‘put his labour first’ and didn’t show the generosity he should have. As he chastised himself in ‘Leçons de ténèbres:


“I should have been more kind. It is my fate

To find it out, but find it out too late.”


Some would no doubt feel uncomfortable reading of his waiting for death, others would find the poems mawkish and rather mawkish. I found them scarifying, unrelenting, a little embarrassing (as if I shouldn’t be reading this stuff which was strictly between James and his wife and / or creator), but I felt that his rawness was as close to honesty as any poet dares go. Poetry is extremely important to James and the closest we get to a window into his soul and regardless of the excess of emotion, his sense of contrition did get to me as did his confessional:


“I was born weak and always have been weak.”


What? Clive James? One of the messages that permeates the collection is that his bite, however acerbic or sharp it appears in print is a contrivance and that what he writes in the poems is the naked person out of disguise. He left his defence late, but by holding up his hands, he deserves his shot at redemption.

Clive James in Retreat

By Peter Tait

A retired teacher and head for 17 years, now focusing on writing, both on education and further fiction and non-fiction (previously having published two novels and a non-fiction book on Thomas Hardy's wives and other women, a biography, poetry and numerous articles on education).

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