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Clive James AM (born Vivian James, on 7 October 1939 in Kogarah, New South Walesmarker) is an expatriate Australian critic, novelist, TV presenter, poet and essayist.


James was born in Sydneymarker, Australia. He was allowed to change his name as a child because "after Vivien Leigh played Scarlett O'Hara the name became irrevocably a girl's name no matter how you spelled it".

His father was taken prisoner by the Japanesemarker during the Second World War, and although he survived the POW camp, he died when the plane returning him to Australia crashed in Taiwanmarker, and he was buried in Hong Kong. James, who was an only child, was brought up by his mother in the Sydneymarker suburb of Kogarahmarker.

An IQ test taken in childhood put his IQ at 140. He was educated at Sydney Technical High Schoolmarker (despite winning a bursary to Sydney Boys High School) and the University of Sydney, where he studied psychology and became associated with the Sydney Push, a libertarian, intellectual sub-culture. At the university he edited the student newspaper Honi Soit and directed the annual Union Revue. After graduating, James worked for a year as an assistant editor for The Sydney Morning Herald.

In early 1962, James moved to Englandmarker, where he has now made his home. During his first three years spent in Londonmarker he shared a flat with the Australian film director Bruce Beresford (disguised as Dave Dalziel in the first three volumes of James' memoirs), was a neighbour of Australian artist Brett Whiteley, became acquainted with Barry Humphries (disguised as Bruce Jennings), and had a variety of occasionally disastrous short term jobs (sheet metal worker, library assistant, photo archivist, market researcher).

After this, he was able to gain a place at Pembroke College, Cambridgemarker to read English literature. Whilst there he contributed to all the undergraduate periodicals, was a member, and later the President of the Cambridge Footlights, and also appeared on University Challenge as captain of the Pembroke team. During one of the summer vacations, he worked as a circus roustabout in order to save enough money to travel to Italy. His contemporaries at Cambridge included Germaine Greer (known as Romaine Rand in the first three volumes of his memoirs) and Eric Idle. Having, he claims, scrupulously avoided reading any of the course material (but having read widely otherwise in English and foreign literature), James graduated with a 2:1—better than he had expected—and began a PhD on Percy Bysshe Shelley.


Critic and essayist

He worked as a television critic for The Observer between 1972 and 1982.

Selections from the column were published in three books — Visions Before Midnight, The Crystal Bucket and Glued to the Box — and finally in a compendium, On Television.

He has written literary criticism extensively for newspapers, magazines and periodicals in Britainmarker, Australia and Americamarker, including, amongst many others, The Australian Book Review, The Monthly, The Atlantic Monthly, the New York Review of Books, The Liberal and the Times Literary Supplement.

The Metropolitan Critic, his first collection of literary criticism and other essays was published in 1974, followed by At the Pillars of Hercules (1979), From the Land of Shadows (1982), Snakecharmers in Texas (1988), The Dreaming Swimmer (1992), Even As We Speak (2004), The Meaning of Recognition (2005) and Cultural Amnesia (2007), an intellectual autobiography based around over 100 significant figures in modern culture, history and politics. A powerful defence of humanism, liberal democracy and literary clarity, the book has been seen as the fruition of 40 years of James' learning and experience. A further volume of essays, The Revolt of the Pendulum, was published in June 2009.

He has also published Flying Visits, a collection of travel writing written for The Observer.

Poet and lyricist

James has always been active as a poet, regularly publishing in periodicals all over the English-speaking world. He has published several books of poetry, including Poem of the Year (1983), a verse-diary, Other Passports: poems 1958-1985, a first collection, and The Book of My Enemy (2003), a volume including lyrics that takes its title from arguably James's most famous poem, The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered.

He has published four mock-heroic poems: The Fate of Felicity Fark in the Land of the Media: a moral poem (1975), Peregrine Prykke's Pilgrimage Through the London Literary World (1976), Britannia Bright's Bewilderment in the Wilderness of Westminster (1976) and Charles Charming's Challenges on the Pathway to the Throne (1981), the second of which is notable in particular.

During the seventies he also collaborated on six albums of songs with Pete Atkin:
  • Beware Of The Beautiful Stranger (1970),
  • Driving Through Mythical America (1971),
  • A King At Nightfall (1973),
  • The Road Of Silk (1974),
  • Secret Drinker (1974), and
  • Live Libel (1975).

A revival of interest in the songs in the late 1990s, triggered largely by the creation by Steve Birkill of an internet mailing list "Midnight Voices" in 1997, led to the reissue of the six albums on CD between 1997 and 2001, as well as live performances by the pair. A double-album of previously-unrecorded songs written in the seventies and entitled The Lakeside Sessions: Volumes 1 and 2 was released in 2002 and "Winter Spring", an album of new material written by James and Atkin was released in 2003.

James has acknowledged the importance of the "Midnight Voices" group in bringing to wider attention the lyric-writing aspect of his career. He wrote in November 1997 that, "one of the midnight voices of my own fate should be [that] the music of Pete Atkin continues to rank high among the blessings of my life, and on my behalf as well as his I bless you all for your attention".

Novelist and memoirist

In 1979 he published his first book of autobiography, Unreliable Memoirs, which recounted his early life in Australia and was a tremendous publishing success which has by now extended to over a hundred reprintings. It was followed by four other volumes of autobiography: Falling Towards England (1985), which covered his London years; May Week Was in June (1990), which dealt with his time at Cambridgemarker; North Face of Soho (2006), and The Blaze of Obscurity (2009), concerning his subsequent career. An omnibus edition of the first three volumes was published under the generic title of Always Unreliable.

James has also written four novels: Brilliant Creatures (1983) which was a bestseller, The Remake (1987), Brmm! Brmm! (1991), published in the United Statesmarker as The Man from Japan, and The Silver Castle (1996).


He developed his television career as a guest commentator on various shows, including as an occasional co-presenter with Tony Wilson on the first series of So It Goes, the Granada Television pop music show. On the show when the Sex Pistols made their TV debut, James commented: "During the recording, the task of keeping the little bastards under control was given to me. With the aid of a radio microphone, I was able to shout them down, but it was a near thing...they attacked everything around them and had difficulty in being polite even to each other."..

James subsequently hosted the ITV show Clive James on Television, in which he showcased unusual or (often unintentionally) amusing television programmes from around the world, notably the Japanese TV show Endurance. After his defection to the BBC in 1989, he hosted a similarly-formatted programme called Saturday Night Clive which later became Sunday Night Clive. In 1995 he set up Watchmaker Productions to produce The Clive James Show for ITV, and a subsequent series of this launched the British career of singer and comedienne Margarita Pracatan. James hosted one of the early chat shows on Channel 4 and fronted the BBC's Review of the Year programmes in the late 1980s and 1990s, which formed part of the channel's New Year's Eve celebrations.

In the mid-1980s, James featured in a travel programme called Clive James in... (beginning with Clive James in Las Vegas) for LWT (now ITV) and later switched to BBC, where he continued producing travel programmes, this time called Clive James' Postcard from... (beginning with Clive James' Postcard from Miami). He was also one of the original team of presenters of the BBC's The Late Show, hosting a round-table discussion on Friday nights.

His major documentary series Fame in the 20th Century (1993) was broadcast in the United Kingdommarker by the BBC, in Australia by the ABCmarker and in the United Statesmarker by the PBS network. This series dealt with the concept of "fame" in the 20th century, following over a course of 8 episodes (each one chronologically and roughly devoted to one decade of the century, from the 1900s to the 1980s) discussions about world famous people of the 20th century (for example Charlie Chaplin, Al Capone, Clark Gable, Adolf Hitler, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Madonna,...). Through the use of famous and less famous film footage featuring famous things done by these celebrities, James presented a history of the phenomenon "fame" which explored its growth to today's global proportions. In his closing monologue he remarked, "Achievement without fame can be a rewarding life, while fame without achievement is no life at all."

James presented the 1982, 1984 and 1986 official Formula One season review videos. A keen motorsport enthusiast, his style of witty narration was popular with fans. He also presented The Clive James Formula 1 Show for ITV to coincide with their Formula One coverage in .

One of his most famous quotations concerning television is, "Anyone afraid of what he thinks television does to the world is probably just afraid of the world".


In 2007, James started presenting the BBC Radio 4 show A Point of View, with transcripts appearing in the "Magazine" section of BBC News Online. In this show James discusses various issues with a slightly humorous slant, not dissimilar to a newspaper op-ed. Topics covered included media portrayal of torture, young black role models and corporate rebranding. Three of James's broadcasts in 2007 were shortlisted for the 2008 Orwell Prize.

In October 2009 James read a radio version of volume 5 of his Unreliable Memoirs, The Blaze of Obscurity, on BBC Radio 4's Book of the Week programme.

He has posted vlog conversations from his internet show Talking in the Library, available via, with, amongst many others, such notable cultural figures as Ian McEwan, Cate Blanchett, Julian Barnes, Jonathan Miller and Terry Gilliam. In addition to the poetry and prose of Clive James himself, the site features the works of other literary figures such as Les Murray and Michael Frayn, as well as the works of painters, sculptors and photographers such as John Olsen and Jeffrey Smart.


In 2008 James performed in two self-titled shows at the Edinburgh Comedy Festival: Clive James in Conversation and Clive James in the Evening. He took the latter show on a limited tour of the UK in 2009.

Acclaim and criticism

In 1992, he was made a Member of the Order of Australia and in 2003 he was awarded the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal for Literature. He has received honorary doctorates from the University of Sydney and the University of East Angliamarker. John Gross included James's essay 'A Blizzard of Tiny Kisses' in the Oxford Book of Essays in 1992, and included an excerpt from Unreliable Memoirs in The New Oxford Book of English Prose in 1999. In April 2008, James was awarded a Special Award for Writing and Broadcasting by the Orwell Prize. His book, Cultural Amnesia, was listed among the best books of 2007 by The Village Voice. In Pure Pleasure, published in 2000, John Carey chose Unreliable Memoirs as one of the fifty most enjoyable books of the twentieth century.

In a review of The Revolt of the Pendulum, The Daily Telegraph's Lynn Barber wondered “why the distinguished polyglot Clive James blows his own trumpet so incessantly in The Revolt of the Pendulum... He needs you to know that he is a polymath and a polyglot... But what is the point of criticism that neither explains nor illuminates?". Reviewing North Face of Soho, The Spectator's James Delingpole found the book "false modest... smug... showing off", and castigated James' constant striving for effect and concluded "none of us gives a stuff how much you know about the minor films of Robert Mitchum".

Personal life

James is married to Prue Shaw, an academic in modern languages specialising in Italian and medieval romance philology. The couple have two daughters, Claerwen, a noted painter, and Lucinda, a civil servant. James divides his time between a converted warehouse flat in Londonmarker and a house in Cambridgemarker. James generally maintains a strict policy of not talking about his family publicly.

A friend of Diana, Princess of Wales, upon her death James wrote a piece for The New Yorker entitled "I Wish I'd Never Met Her", recording his overbearing grief. Since then he has declined to comment upon their friendship.

While a detractor of communism and socialism for their tendency towards totalitarianism, James still identifies himself with the Left, accepting socialism's planned economy and state-owned media and eschewing the free market and privatisation of capitalism. In a 2006 interview in The Sunday Times, James states of himself: "I was brought up on the proletarian left, and I remain there. The fair go for the workers is fundamental, and I don't believe the free market has a mind".

In a speech given in 1991, he criticises privatisation: "The idea that Britain's broadcasting system—for all its drawbacks one of the country's greatest institutions—was bound to be improved by being subjected to the conditions of a free market: there was no difficulty in recognising that notion as politically illiterate. But for some reason people did have difficulty in realising that it was economically illiterate too".

Ultimately he identifies himself as a liberal social democrat. He strongly supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq, claiming in 2007 that "the war only lasted a few days" and that the ongoing Iraq War is "the Iraq peace." He also claimed that it was "official policy to rape a woman in front of her family" during Saddam Hussein's regime and that women have enjoyed more rights since the invasion, directly contradicting reports by the United Nations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq.

James is currently a Patron of the Burma Campaign UK an organisation that campaigns for human rights and democracy in Burmamarker.

Describing religions as "advertising agencies for a product that doesn't exist," James is an atheist and sees this as the default, obvious position.

Though he has never displayed any linguistic talents to the public, James claims to be able to read, with varying fluency, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Latin, Ancient Greek, Russian and Japanese. A notable tango enthusiast, he has been known to travel to Buenos Airesmarker purely for dance lessons and has a dance floor in his house which allows him to practice.

A former heavy drinker and smoker, who records in North Face of Soho his habit of filling a hubcap ashtray daily, James now drinks only socially and stopped smoking in 2005.


  • Autobiography
    • Unreliable Memoirs (1980)
    • Falling Towards England (1985)
    • May Week Was in June (1990)
    • North Face of Soho (2006)
    • The Blaze of Obscurity (2009)
  • Fiction
    • Brilliant Creatures (1983)
    • The Remake (1987)
    • Brmm! Brmm! (1991), released in the United States as The Man From Japan (1993)
    • The Silver Castle (1996)
  • Poetry
    • The Fate of Felicity Fark in the Land of the Media: a moral poem (1975)
    • Peregrine Prykke's Pilgrimage Through the London Literary World (1976)
    • Britannia Bright's Bewilderment in the Wilderness of Westminster (1976)
    • Fan-mail: seven verse letters (1977)
    • Charles Charming's Challenges on the Pathway to the Throne (1981)
    • Poem of the Year (1983)
    • Other Passports: poems 1958-1985 (1986)
    • The Book of My Enemy (2003) (Poetry and lyrics)
    • Opal Sunset: Selected Poems 1958-2009 (2009)
  • Non-Fiction

See also


External links

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