Getting the hearse before the horse – Clive James on premature obituaries

I’ve always enjoyed the acerbic wit of Australian-born critic and writer Clive James, so it saddened me when I recently read that he is soon likely to write no more. Various newspapers reported on James’s struggle with leukemia, quoting directly from an interview he recently gave BBC Radio 4 program Meeting Myself Coming Back, and it seemed the outlook for him is very grim.

“I’m getting near the end. I don’t want to cast a gloom, an air of doom, over the program but I’m a man who is approaching his terminus… I’ve been really ill for two and a half years. I was diagnosed with leukaemia, then I had COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease], which is a fancy name for emphysema, and my immune system packed up. And that’s just the start. I almost died four times.” Particulary poignant were his wistful comments that he might never see Australia again. “I’ve been so sick since January 2010, especially my lung disease, that I’m not allowed to fly,” he said. “You couldn’t get enough oxygen aboard a plane for me to get me to Sydney.”

Clive has been a prolific writer with a penchant for stressing humour over accuracy; his first almost-autobiogrpahy  Unreliable Memoirs was published in 1979 and followed by four other volumes of autobiography, several books of poetry, four novels and literary criticism and essays spanning over the last 40 years. It was a surprise to me to discover that his pen might be so soon and abrubtly halted and apparently it was a bit of a surprise for Clive too, who woke up to discover that rumours of his impending demise were being greatly exagerated.

Apparently the Daily Mirror cherry-picked out quotes from an interview he did with the BBC. And that Daily Mirror story, picked up around the world by news outlets, soon had readers convinced that Clive James was at death’s door.

Not so, says the man himself. “On Thursday morning the Daily Mirror carried an interview with me. It was harrowing. You would have thought that I had only a few hours to live. The strange thing, though, was that I never gave the interview to the Mirror. The newspaper had got hold of a transcript of the BBC radio show Meeting Myself Coming Back and selected a few dozen quotes so that I seemed to be practically expiring in the arms of the journalist assigned to register my dying breath.”

The Daily Mirror journalist took his verbal comments out of context and deliberately played up the worst. “In the radio interview I say that I am getting near the end of my life. Well, at my age everybody is. But if you put the statement as baldly as he did, it sounds as if I am passing out in the journalist’s lap. To be the kind of newspaper writer who doctors fiction until it sounds like fact is to work a confidence trick. I admit that everything attributed to me by the Mirror journalist I did actually say in my BBC show, but he shifted the context by leaving out when and in what circumstances I said it. He thus turned one kind of fact into another kind of fact, which means he turned it into a fiction.”

Clive isn’t the first writer to have his obituary penned obscenely early.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge was pronounced hanged while still very much alive. Ernest Hemingway had a scrapbook of his obituries, when after a plane crash he was erroneously reported dead. Rudyard Kipling‘s death was incorrectly announced in a magazine, to which he wrote, “I’ve just read that I am dead. Don’t forget to delete me from your list of subscribers.”

Most famous of all is Mark Twain who was placed dead or close to it on two occasions, who gave us the sentence that all other would respond with from there on it – “The report of my death was an exaggeration” (which is usually misquoted as “The rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated”). Let’s hope that in James’s case the reports are as ridiculously early and there’s plenty of life left in him – and his pen.

Published by

Sadhbh Warren

Sadhbh Warren is a freelance writer and proud booklover. Her name is pronounced Sive - like five – an Irish name, easier to say than spell! She lives in Sydney, writing travel and humour articles, and is always on the lookout for a great new book.