Books: Current and Out-of-Print Books |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Introduction: “Current” and “Out-of-Print” Books — an obsolescent distinction

Archive Editor's Note

When I began to assemble this archive in the summer of 2019, as a way of ‘rescuing’ what was left of after the collapse of its hosting service, I intended it to be a frozen image of the website as it stood when Clive James last provided it with editorial input, perhaps some time in 2018. I persisted for a while with this model after my meeting with Clive in October 2019, just weeks before his death, a meeting at which he tasked me with developing the archive to fulfill his intentions for a multimedia website worthy of his name, as a true and permanent record of his work. Since then I have expanded this section to include most of his published work, including some more recent material not included on the old site. In doing this it has become apparent to me that, for this Books section at least, the distinction between “Current” and “Out-of-Print” does not fit comfortably with the concept of an archive, as the status of any title is subject to change over time, quite apart from the fact that electronic editions can remain available independently of the status of their print versions. Accordingly I have now eliminated those categories and present Clive’s books here without reference to their availability, though I have retained (below) Clive's comments for the ‘Home’ pages of these categories, as they serve as a static reminder of the situation as it stood in 2019. And they make informative reading.

It has also proved necessary to reorganise some of the Books content in order to place Clive's Poetry Collections in the perhaps more appropriate Poetry section, along with individual and guest poems; where some of the poems Clive chose to include there have since been collected into new publications, there may be duplication, but again in each case Clive's comments have been retained. Collections of essays currently appear here in Books although stand-alone essays remain in the Essays section. There will no doubt come a time, before too long (or is it here already?) when Clive's original ‘Section’ categories become logically unsustainable, at which point I might need reluctantly to abandon them and undertake a more complete reorganisation of the site. But for now you'll find all the current content accessible using the coloured ‘Section’ buttons at the top of every page, each of which brings up a new section menu at left, where all that section's content is listed.

— S J Birkill, September 2020

Clive's introduction to his “Books Out of Print” subsection

Half way between a scrap-yard and an open-air museum, this section of the site will be dedicated, in the first instance, to books of mine that can no longer be readily found in the first-hand book-shops, although sometimes my publisher magically manages to supply, for a literary festival, a crisp stack of some title that I had thought to be exhausted. But mainly those books are dealt with in the Current Books section. The books dealt with here are no longer commercially current, although I would like to think, of course, that they have a life apart from the market place. They are here represented, and sometimes entirely reproduced, by means of supplying a succession of links to the separate pieces from which they were first compiled. This, at any rate, is true of the essay collections and the books of television criticism. In the sub-section marked “Other Non-Fiction”, Fame in the 20th Century  was written in one piece in the first place, and is reprinted that way here, but chapter by chapter, so that it, too, can be read in fragments. Against what is held to be the usual rule of the web, however, the fragments are rather substantial. The idea that the web is essentially for the reader with a short attention span has never appealed to me enough to finish reading it when it is expressed.

Clive's introduction to his “Current Books” subsection

Poetry Notebook

After a conversation with Christian Wiman, who was editor of Poetry (Chicago) at the time, I wrote the first instalment of a "poetry notebook" in 2006, with only a vague idea that a collection of such instalments might one day add up to a full-sized book. I saw myself adding the occasional sheaf of notes more or less forever, as a kind of incidental activity. But after I fell ill in early 2010 it became clear to me that the note form I had chosen as a caprice had now become compulsory. Owing to a shortage of breath, extended critical pieces seemed no longer possible; but since I had more ideas than ever, the short critical piece, or even the mere paragraph, was a way of getting things said about the subject that has always mattered to me most. My main reason for getting them said was that I had been thinking about poetry all my life, and it was time to sum up. but one of the conclusions that I had long ago reached was that a poem should be something that could be spoken about clearly, even if it wasn't clear in itself. Poets might be abstruse if they wished, but their critics should not. So I worked hard to say things plainly, and I hope this little book reflects that aim. I also took care to be as entertaining as possible, but that was common courtesy. A poem, when it works, is the essence of verbal excitement. To be boring about it is inexcusable. One of the links below leads to the sheaf of chapters from Poetry (Chicago) that were already on this site, but there is a lot more in the book, including a swathe of linking material in which I do what I can to make coherent sense of a subject which necessarily exists only as a swarm of glittering fragments, like the stars.

The Blaze of Obscurity

Though it always courts tedium to be precise about numbers, in this case the statistics tell a story. The fifth volume of my unreliable memoirs, The Blaze of Obscurity, covering my years in television between 1982 and 2000, had a publication date (October 7, 2009) timed to coincide with my 70th birthday. It would have been a pretty good stratagem for saying “not dead yet” if the book had not been sent to join a full fifty other brand-new showbiz autobiographies released for the Christmas season. So there I was, toe to toe with Alan Titchmarsh, and neck and neck with Katie Price if I was very lucky. In fact the only advantages I had over the latter candidate were (a) I wrote my book myself, and (b) my breasts were real. But with the help, perhaps, of a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week serialisation, my latest offering escaped instant burial, and even attracted some serious reviews, which I proudly append – proudly because, against all likelihood, I actually try to make this apparently frivolous form a vehicle for what little wisdom I might have managed to acquire.

The Revolt of the Pendulum

My seventh collection of miscellaneous essays, The Revolt of the Pendulum, came out from Picador in May 2009. Its constituent pieces were mainly written to meet commissions from various periodicals in the UK, the US and Australia after I published Cultural Amnesia in 2007, although some of them were written while that book was still in the works. Apart from the out-and-out cultural essays on such figures as Karl Kraus, Kingsley Amis, Camille Paglia, Philip Roth, A.D. Hope and Leni Riefenstahl, there are sheaves of much smaller pieces arising from my activities in show business and the web. One of two of the book's early critics took exception to these reports from my workshop, and managed to convince themselves that self-agrandisement was the book's main emphasis. I don't think  they were right, but I have included their reviews in the list of accompanying links, just in case they know better than I do..

Angels Over Elsinore

The follow-up collection to The Book of My Enemy (Collected Verse 1958-2003), the relatively slim volume Angels over Elsinore (Collected Verse 2003-2008) was published in Britain in late 2008 by Picador. The volume contains all the poems I published in various periodicals between 2003 and 2008. I was grateful to have the advice of Picador’s poetry editor, Don Paterson, who chose the running order. The book received some thoughtful reviews, which can be reached here through the links provided. What gratified me most, however, was that it provided a handy text for stand-up performance, thereby helping to express my conviction that a poem should be something that can be recited in the first instance, and have its general drift understood even if the readers want to go back later and check on the details. Since they might buy the book in order to do so, the lucky author can win twice.

Opal Sunset

My first book of verse to be published in America, Opal Sunset is a selection from poems written during the fifty years between 1958 and 2008. About half the poems in the book previously appeared in The Book of My Enemy: Collected Verse 1958-2003. The other half had not yet appeared in volume form when Opal Sunset was published in New York by Norton in September 2008, although some of them were already scheduled to appear in a new collection, Angels Over Elsinore, to be published in Britain in November 2008 by Picador. The American poetry market is very resistant to invasion by foreigners from unknown countries, so I was glad to find that Opal Sunset was noticed by such publications as The New York Times Book Review and The Village Voice. A British edition of Opal Sunset is scheduled to be published by Picador in 2009.

Cultural Amnesia

In April 2007, Cultural Amnesia was published in the USA, and since May 2007 it has been available in the UK, Australia and the Republic of Ireland. Four years of work went into the text — basically it is what I was doing after I vanished from the small screen in 2001 — so I was glad to see that bits and pieces of the finished product were being published in the UK, in the US and in my homeland, Australia. Finalising the manuscript would not have been possible without my editors at Norton. It might seem a pity to break pieces off their finished work, but I think the integrity of their concentrated effort can only stand revealed more clearly. The most comprehensive set of excerpts was run by Slate online magazine, based in New York. (See link on right). Under the guiding hand of Meghan O'Rourke, the first excerpt appeared in the afternoon of February 5, EST, marked with the name of the subject, the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. 24 more excerpts followed — a sumptuous aggregate which will still represent only a small fraction of a large book.

London, July 2007


Most of the books described below are still in print, or else, if the presses have stopped, the stock is not yet exhausted. The American selection As of This Writing is all the way out of print at the moment, but it can be found fairly easily at discount prices.

North Face of Soho

Covering my role in the sweep of history from the late sixties to the early eighties, the fourth volume of my unreliable memoirs, North Face of Soho, came out in hardback from Picador in late 2006. For the first time, I went on the road with a one-man show based on a specific book, and I did 32 one-night stands around England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, reading less and less from the book all the way as I piled on more and more incidental commentary. But something like the full text was read out for a Picador talking book on CDs and I also recited extensive excerpts for a BBC radio serialisation. There will be a paperback in June 2007. At the moment I have one more volume of autobiography planned, to cover my television years from 1982 to the millennium, but if I don't get the chance to complete that one, there are enough valedictory notes in North Face to provide suitable texts at the funeral.

The Meaning of Recognition

My sixth collection of essays, The Meaning of Recognition came out from Picador in hardback in 2005, and in paperback in late 2006. The opening title essay began its life as a lecture given in response to my being awarded the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal for Literature in 2003, and the long closing essay "Save Us from Celebrity" was first delivered as a lecture to the Australian Commercial Radio Conference in 2004. Sandwiched in between, the numerical majority of pieces in the book were, however, commissioned as magazine and newspaper articles in the normal way, and even today I continue to accept such work with a view to putting it all together in book form when the time is ripe.

The Book of My Enemy

Following Other Passports, published in 1986, The Book of My Enemy was the second, much-expanded version of my Collected Verse, comprising all the work that I wished to keep from 1958 right through until 2003, including the complete text of Peregrine Prykke's Pilgrimage. Usually it is wise to cultivate an aversion to blowing one's own trumpet, but when it comes to verse, the occasional unsolicited bugle solo from oneself is sometimes the only supporting music available, so I don't mind saying that this volume did quite good business for a book of poetry. It was a Poetry Book Society choice and got some heart-warming reviews — as a lady of a certain age might be congratulated on her pose for a nude calendar — but even more unusual were the statistics. It ran through five printings in hardback and is still going in paperback, both in Britain and Australia. I gave a performance from the book at the Cheltenham Festival. All the poems I have written since this book was published can be found under the "Poems" link on the Text homepage.

As Of This Writing  (2003, reissued 2013 as Cultural Cohesion)

The first American "best of" selection from my critical writings, First Reactions, was published by Knopf in 1980, at the kind invitation of Robert Gottlieb, before he moved on to edit the New Yorker. But this second anthology, having a much longer span of work to choose from, is the more substantial volume. Published in 2003, As of This Writing is billed as "The Essential Essays, 1968-2002", a subtitle which some critics thought a bit steep. The selection of articles was undertaken by my editor at Norton, Robert Weil, but specially written postscripts were added at my own discretion. The complete manuscript was given all the care and resources of a distinguished publishing house, whose technicians were particularly lavish in supplying the plush thin paper that only the Americans can nowadays seem to get hold of. The result was a book which even today I can't open without experiencing all over again the thrill of being published for the first time.

Reliable Essays

A British version of the "best of" format, Reliable Essays came out in hardback from Picador in 2001, and in paperback a year later. The selection was done by Picador's then chief editor, Peter Straus, with my approval, although it was my own idea to include the two pieces yoked under the title "Mrs T in China", because I thought the prevailing solemnity could use some gingering up. Some of the postscripts were written specially for the occasion: my first excursion in a form which was later to become habitual. The introduction was kindly supplied by Julian Barnes.

Even As We Speak

Along with my "best of" Reliable Essays, Picador honoured me in 2001 by publishing a fifth collection of recent essays, Even As We Speak. This book showed the immediate benefits of a drastic scaling down of my television production activities after the sale of our Watchmaker company. I had more time to undertake such long pieces as a review of Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners. The piece, commissioned by Tina Brown for the New Yorker, was one of several ideas on her part that I was glad about in retrospect, although the work was taxing at the time. I had also begun to pay far more attention to Australian literature and politics, in an effort, as it were, to see where I had been. This book, which still shows up in first-hand bookshops, is looked upon fondly by it author as a representative work of his immediate pre-retirement period, in which the vigour of a barely contained late midlife crisis is tamed by the wisdom of early decrepitude.

Always Unreliable

Again the offspring of Picador's generosity, Always Unreliable came out as a hefty paperback in 2001, and in the smaller format the following year. Small was something the book had to work hard at being, because it combined all of the first three volumes of my autobiography, Unreliable Memoirs, Falling Towards England and May Week Was in June. The same assemblage had been tried before, by Jonathan Cape, in a cardboard-covered compendium that I didn't much like the look of. The Picador version got it right, and for a book of 500 plus pages it has had a surprising success on the beach in summer. The first volume of the trilogy, Unreliable Memoirs, remains in print as a separate book, having gone through, in the course of a quarter of a century, more than sixty-five printings in its paperback format alone. Doing a lot to pay for the groceries, that one little book has thus validated the advice of the grizzled record company executive to all his aspiring writers of serious songs: Get a hit if you can.



— That was how Clive left his "Current Books" page at its last edit in 2015. Since then some of the above have joined the "Out of Print" list, but several new titles have been published. These are summarised briefly below. — Archive Ed., March 2020.

A Point of View (Picador, 2011)

"The BBC Radio 4 series A Point of View — a ten-minute weekly reflection on a topical issue — has been on the air since 2007. Clive was one of the inaugural contributors, and recorded two series of ten pieces in each of the years 2007, 2008 and 2009. The entire set of sixty transcripts, together with new postscripts, was published in book form, under the title A Point Of View, in 2011. You can listen to a selection of the original broadcasts in the 'Radio' section of this site." [ — from ]

Nefertiti in the Flak Tower (Picador, 2012)

In 2010, when I fell ill, I had no means of knowing that there would ever be a volume of my recent verse called Nefertiti in the Flak Tower, or called anything. All I had was a handful of poems. But I found myself writing more of them even when I was in hospital. “Vertical Envelopment” was written while I was having my life saved in Addenbrooke’s hospital, Cambridge, UK; and “Whitman and the Moth” was written while I was having my life saved all over again in Mount Sinai hospital, New York. Eventually, in 2012, it was time for a volume, and I picked Nefertiti for the title because I have always liked the idea of her imperturbable gaze quivering only slightly as the guns of her latest tomb all went off at once. As a symbol of unshakeable purpose it seemed too good to miss.

Divine Comedy (Picador, 2013)

Ever since, in Florence in the mid-1960s, my wife introduced me to the miracle of Dante's versification in the Divine Comedy, I wondered how an English translation might get near transmitting the momentum of the original. There were hundreds of different translations that transmitted the historical details, but the way the verse danced inexorably forward was, in my view, part of the subject. Decades went by and finally I thought I had found a way. The actual work took me several years before I fell ill in early 2010, and then afterwards it took several more years to prepare the manuscript for the presses both in New York and London. During that second, long period of reading proofs and fiddling with punctuation, I can remember thinking that it would be a pity to vanish before the book came out. So Dante joined a whole raft of pills and treatments in the task of keeping me alive.

Then, in 2013, the book was published in the US, Australia and the UK. On the whole I can't complain about its critical reception. I thought one or two of the critics were too keen to demonstrate that they, too, knew something about Dante, but I couldn't blame them for feeling proprietorial. Dante is a gigantically great poet but everyone who reads him feels that he is writing for them alone. My only real problem with the book's reception was that I felt anxious about whether or not my publishers would make a return on their investment. Nobody knows how many copies a book consisting of more than fourteen thousand lines of English verse is supposed to sell. One's best hope, surely, was to catch the next generation of students. Failing that,however, there was still the satisfaction of having done one's utmost. I can only hope that my translation has some of Dante's best writing in it, but I am fairly sure that it has some of the best of mine.

Sentenced to Life (Picador, 2015)

I never expected to see Sentenced to Life published in my time. I didn't even expect that there would be enough poems to fill a thin pamphlet. When I got sick in 2010, I wrote some poems while I lay in hospital in either Cambridge or New York — a few of those poems were done in time for the publication of Nefertiti in the Flak Tower — but when I got out of hospital I thought that my energy would keep on draining away; and to complete a poem takes plenty of energy. When its first fragments arrive in your head like benevolent shrapnel, they demand to be assembled: and the process is the mental equivalent of heavy lifting. It's a big ask if you aren't breathing properly. But time went by, I was breathing better, and the drugs got on top of my ailments; so there was no excuse to down tools. Besides, I had too many ideas. Most of the results went into the section still marked Recent Poems, but from that section I have now subtracted the poems that went to form this book, and mounted them here instead, under the heading Extracts. Also there are some of the reviews that the book has already attracted at the time of its publication. (It became, I'm glad to say, the No 1 book on's Poetry list even before it was published.) I have been careful to include any literate review even if luke-warm, although there was one effort I felt justified in leaving out because its author is such a vulgarian that his praise hurts worse than his blame. In these and all other respects — links to the relevant broadcasts are here too — I shall try to make this page the gateway to a complete record of what might well be my last book of poems, although I am informed by some commentators, apparently well qualified in medicine, that my version of leukaemia is no great thing, and that I might live forever. I would dearly like to, so as to get a few more things written: but wishful thinking is no more wise for being ambitious, and as I write I am back on chemo for keeps. Well, it's another subject for verse. Meanwhile, as I write, the gratifying ripples raised by this little book continue to spread. I would be churlish not to enjoy the fuss.

Latest Readings (Yale University Press, 2015)

After I fell ill in early 2010 I surprised myself by getting the urge to read more books than ever. But I didn't have a reading programme. I just wanted to read all the good books I had never read before, and also read again some of the books that I knew were good but had forgotten why. This plan, or non-plan, was much aided by the existence of Hugh Hardinge's famous bookstall in the Market Square of Cambridge. From my house to the stall wasn't even a mile by but in my condition it was a slow walk, and the walk back was even slower because I was carrying bags full of books. Even paperbacks weigh something: a full twelve-volume set of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, for example, proved to weigh as much as the beautiful 1936 buckram-bound edition of Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides. Being a critic by nature as well as by profession, I had a hankering to write about what I was reading, so when Ben Schwarz of Yale University Press got in touch to ask what I had been reading lately and whether I could care to write a short book about it, I knew just how to answer. Ben had been literary editor at the Atlantic Monthly, where he had published some of my longer pieces in the days when I still had strength. I trusted him completely, so I wrote the book, not expecting so slight a thing to do great business. In blessed fact, it has done quite well: perhaps because it gets back to the original thrill of reading. It's been more than 70 years now, but I still feel the rush. I have appended some of the reviews the book received in the UK, Ireland, the US, Australia and New Zealand. The only point I would add to what the critics have said is that I wasn't really trying to cover the waterfront, but it was kind of people to assume, from its style, that my book might have a greater scope of intention than it actually has.

Reviews of Latest Readings:

Michael Dirda, The Washington Post
Rosemary Goring, The Herald (Scotland)
Mark Colvin, ABC Radio
Craig Morgan Teicher, NPR
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, The Irish Times
Publishers Weekly (USA)
Matthew Kassel, New York Observer
Tim Adams, The Guardian
FT Review
James Kidd, Independent
Hans Rollmann, Popmatters (Chicago)
Robert Fulford, National Post (Canada)
Peter Craven, The Sydney Morning Herald
The Australian
Mini Kapoor, The Hindu
William Leith, Evening Standard
Collected Poems (Picador, 2016)

For this collection I have chosen, from a lifetime's work in verse, only those poems and lyrics that I believe might stand alone. Previous selections — Other Passports, The Book of My Enemy and Opal Sunset — were already winnowings, and this volume makes even more of a point out of setting things aside that once cost many nights of labour. At the time, I thought that anything I wrote was indispensable, but eventually, sometimes after only a decade or so, a sense of proportion came to the rescue. With a few exceptions, my longer poems have been left out on the grounds that they were tied to their time; although one day Peregrine Prykke's Pilgrimage might return in a book of its own, because its picture of the London Literary World still strikes me as true even if most of its cast have by now been carried from the stage. The excitement of that clueless young man as he took his place among the poets and the critics was still with him as he met his doom.

Excitement and poetry ought never to be alien to one another, but there is always a tendency, in the homeland of poetry in English, to look on the fabulously rich literary heritage as an established church. The privilege of the American, Irish and Australian poets — not to mention poets from Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, India and the Caribbean, and there might be one from Belize — is to provide fresh reminders that the tradition is not a litany, but a permanent upheaval, not to say a carnival. As an Australian in England for more than half a century, I have never felt cause to stop setting some of my poems in my homeland. The British readership likes hearing about it, and nowadays even the Americans can make a fair stab at guessing where Australia is. As for the critics, guardians of the ramparts, eventually they have to listen to the readers: and anyway the jokes about Australian culture being a contradiction in terms are by now so out of date that only a politician would use them, out of his head on Australian wine as he does so. There are quite a few poems about Australia here, even more of them near the end than near the beginning; but really they are all about the English language, which is the powerhouse at the heart of the subject. Even a poem about nothing would have to be about that.

Poems about nothing can be useful to anyone who wants to combine cult status with academic respectability, but that combination always struck me as something dependent on an abstract concept of literature, instead of arising from the sung lyricism of the English lyric before Shakespeare — the same sung lyricism that my daughters heard when they bopped around with Abba's greatest hits blasting in their headphones, and that is heard today by my granddaughter, aged ten, as she contemplates on YouTube the enthralling intricacies of Taylor Swift singing 'We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together'. When the poem strays too far from the song it risks death by refinement. Luckily, from my Cambridge Footlights days onward, I was in a position to test this idea through my working partnership with Pete Atkin. Some of the lyrics I wrote for him are here. The music is on his albums, and shows what the form and its punctuation are meant to be like: but the lyric on the page still has the phrasing, which, for me, is the bedrock of the whole thing. If a poem or a lyric does not end up studded with turns of phrase that I had no idea were going to happen, I should not have begun it.

But it's easy to lay down the law no, when the light is fading. The trick is to follow your creative principles in the long years before you even know how to define them. I hope that younger readers, especially, will find this book to be a progression from one clarity to the next, even when it seems like one mystery after another. That's just how it was for me.

Cambridge 2016
Gate of Lilacs (Picador, 2016)

“Over a period of fifteen years Clive James learned French by almost no other method than reading À la recherche du temps perdu. Then he spent half a century trying to get up to speed with Proust's great novel in two different languages. Gate of Lilacs is the unique product of James's love and engagement with Proust's eternal masterpiece.

With À la recherche du temps perdu, Proust, in James's words, ‘followed his creative instinct all the way until his breath gave out’; and now James has done the same. In Gate of Lilacs, James, a brilliant critical essayist and poet, has blended the two forms into one.

‘I had always thought the critical essay and the poem were closely related forms ... If I wanted to talk about Proust's poetry beyond the basic level of talking about his language — if I wanted to talk about the poetry of his thought — then the best way to do it might be to write a poem. There is nothing like a poem for transmitting a mental flavour. Instead of trying to describe it, you can evoke it.’

In the end, if À la recherche du temps perdu is a book devoted almost entirely to its author's gratitude for life, for love, and for art, this much smaller book is devoted to its author's gratitude for Proust.”

Reviews of Gate of Lilacs:

Lindesay Irvine, The Guardian
Lucy Raitz, Standpoint
Patrick McGuinness, New Statesman
Play All: A Bingewatcher's Notebook (Yale University Press, 2016)

Apart from a few paragraphs of a piece about Mad Men which first appeared in the Weekend Australian Review in 2009, and perhaps a few opinions from a piece about The Pacific that appeared in the Times Literary Supplement in 2010, everything in the book was written in these recent years of my illness, while it went on happily refraining from being fatal. With memories in my head of how Twin Peaks had once held my attention with its long story even though I could barely understand its briefest episode, I sat down with my younger daughter Lucinda to watch a big box of NYPD Blue right through. We had seen it all before, but as in a glass, darkly. Our recurring discussion of the magnificence of Andy Sipowicz set a tone that struck me with its potential for one day becoming a useful critical style. This tone was abetted by reports of water-cooler conversations that Lucinda brought home from her work as civil servant, and from dinner table conversations in my elder daughter Claerwen's kitchen, where I found myself matching her admiration for Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica with mine for Wilma Deering in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. It occurred to me, perhaps because of my medicated state, that a new critical language was developing itself to deal with the onrush of creativity coming to us in the form of box sets: a system of distribution that still strikes me as something new, even though it is already being overtaken by systems that download material directly into the computer. By the time this book is published, the DVD might be as obsolete as the dodo. But the number of shows, if not their quality, can only go on increasing: and the way we talk about them can only become more compulsively attentive than it was a few years back, when I first noticed that Allison Janney in The West Wing was getting the kind of detailed analytical praise that Maria Callas used to get when she sang in Tosca at Covent Garden. I could hear the same fluent critical inventiveness from the discussion groups of writers on Slate when they talked about the first few episodes of Orange is the New Black: some of the writers sounded as if they were having at least as much fun talking as they did writing.

Injury Time (Picador, 2017)

“This book finds James with more time on the clock than he had anticipated, and all the more determined to use it wisely — to capture the treasurable moment, and think about how best to live his remaining days while the sense of his own impending absence grows all the more powerfully acute. In a series of intimate poems — from childhood memories of his mother, to a vision of his granddaughter in graceful acrobatic flight — James declares ‘family’ to be our greatest blessing. He also writes beautifully of the Australia where he began his life, and where he hopes to ‘reach the end’. Throughout Injury Time, James weaves poems which reflect on the consolation and wisdom to be found in the art, music and books which have become ever more precious to him in his last years. The poems in this moving, inspirational and unsentimental book are as accomplished as any he has ever written; indeed the unexpected gift of James's Injury Time shows him to be in the form of his life.”

— Peter Craven, The Australian

Reviews of Injury Time:

Lindesay Irvine, The Guardian
John Greening, The Times Literary Supplement
Geoff Page, The Sydney Morning Herald
The River in the Sky (Picador, 2018)

“At the opening of The River in the Sky, a book-length poem, we find James in ill health but high spirits. Although his body traps him in his Cambridge house, his mind is free to roam. The River in the Sky takes us on a grand tour of ‘the fragile treasures of his life’. Animated by powerful recollections, James presents a flowing stream of vivid images. He moves from emotionally resonant personal moments, such as listening to jazz records with his future wife, to unforgettable encounters with all kinds of culture: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony sits alongside ‘YouTube’s vast cosmopolis’. As ever with James, he shares his passions with enormous generosity, making brilliant and original connections, and fearlessly tackling the biggest questions: the meaning of life and how to live it. In the end, what emerges from this autobiographical epic is a soaring work of exceptional depth and overwhelming feeling, a new marvel for the modern age.”

“Clive James’s book-length poem The River in the Sky is superb, an epic lament, written in late life, filled with exact and moving observations about life and culture. ‘If my ashes end up in an hour-glass,’ he wrote, ‘I can go on working.’ ”

— Dwight Garner, New York Times

About the poem, and an extract

Until a few days ago, I was a patient in Addenbrooke’s hospital, here in Cambridge, while a busload of nurses and doctors strove to persuade my temperature to stop acting like a wobbling yo-yo. Or anyway I assume they arrived by bus. I myself arrived by ambulance, strapped down against any tendency to slide on to the floor like a speeding custard.

It was a low moment in my recent me dical history, but once again the combined efforts of my family and the Addenbrooke’s crash-cart crew dug me out of the hole, so that I have emerged in time to witness the launch of my epic poem, The River In The Sky.

Beautiful title, isn’t it? I can ask that rhetorical question in all modesty because I didn’t think of it. It’s what the Japanese call the Milky Way and nobody in the west has ever heard the phrase without immediately starting to write a book.

I started writing my book the year before last, or I started to write a poem with that title. More precisely, I finally admitted to myself that a sheaf of unfinished poems belonged together. It’s conceivable that they belonged together in the wastepaper basket, and there might soon be critics who say so; but it seemed to me that a small stack of would-be poetic fragments were adding up to the same story, the story of a mind heading into oblivion.

I could imagine the cheer that would go up from my publishers when they heard what I was hatching. The cheer would be the sound of a sock-drawer full of baby mice being fed milk from an eye-dropper.

There hasn’t been, they might pipingly point out, a hit long poem since Tennyson’s Maud, and even Tennyson, a shrewd operator for a dreamy poet, tended to overestimate the initial appeal of any poem longer than a snappy lyric. Maud was a showcase for his technical virtuosity but it was still a whopper.

There is a true anecdote, which all would-be epic poets should bear in mind, about Ruskin’s wife fatally admitting to Tennyson at some social gathering that she had not yet read his poem Maud, which she had heard a lot about. (That last bit was probably the fatal trigger.) Generously keen that she be no longer deprived, Tennyson recited the whole thing to her from memory. Having detected signs of restless inattention on her part, he recited it to her again.

Reeling against the sceptical uproar of the sock-drawer mice, all I can say about my new, and perhaps terminal, poetic project is that it’s not your usual kind of epic. For one thing, it’s quite short. In that regard it’s bang up to date. The great scholar John Carey, the world expert on Paradise Lost, has tacitly conceded, by editing a trimmed version, that a bit more shortness was what Milton’s epic needed.

Christopher Ricks, Professor Carey’s only living rival for cleverness (how like Matthew Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum they are, dominating the horizon with mighty use of arms) has pointed out that when a poet makes an allusion to someone else’s poetry he should be offering a bonus, not demanding an entrance fee.

Mindful of this admonition, I have been careful in my own poem to keep everything mine, as it were — partly out of a conviction that if you aren’t ready to start again, you shouldn’t start. Hence my mini-epic spends almost none of its time proving that I have read Shakespeare. As somebody deservedly obscure once said: I tried him once, and he was full of quotations.

Nor does my epic have an epic hero. Instead, it’s got me, going nowhere. In the text, apart from the occasional side-trip to the Great Barrier Reef, I don’t even get to Heaven, except to the extent that Heaven is here on Earth. But that’s something I’ve been convinced of since I was a child, and saw my mother weeping at the news of my father’s death: that Heaven and Hell are both here, with us.

Heaven is here in the way my granddaughter seems continually to pick up speed when she drives my wheelchair, as if she were heading for Andromeda, which is in the poem, too: zillions of light years away but on its way here, unless we’re on the way there. Scientists, I understand, are divided on the subject.

My poem also touches Heaven, or tries to, when dancers dance to its incidental music. The narrator dances the tango with a blind girl in Buenos Aires, on a stone terrace beneath the weeping stars. It really happened, or I think it did: there is always the possibility that I was dreaming even at the time, and only thought I was treading clouds of bliss.

But unless I miss my guess, even the best and most beautiful things about Heaven are here now, or were here just recently. In my text, the Everly Brothers are still singing harmony. But aren’t they doing that still, and won’t they always?

And Hell is here, too, but happening to other people, if you’re lucky. I’m still one of the lucky ones, and that’s the very thing that my quarrel with the Almighty is about. It’s all very well saving me from the killer microbes yet again, but what’s He doing giving a mishmash of a spine to that little girl down the corridor, the little girl whose mother is wearing out from anxiety right there before your eyes? What the devil is He thinking of? Perhaps He isn’t thinking of anything, which would kind of leave it with us. This is the main reason, in my view, that epic poems are bound to grow shorter: because the titanic war in the beyond will be continually rescaled as a crap-shoot in the back of a garage. Milton had rogue angels falling through space from crystal battlements. We will have dusty children bursting from hunger, and grown men behaving like smug maniacs because they honestly think that they are worth more than women.

But there will still be epic poems, because every human life contains one. It comes out of nowhere and goes somewhere on its way to everywhere — which is nowhere all over again, but leaves a trail of memories. There won’t be many future poets who don’t dip their spoons into all that, even if nobody buys the book. And anyway, who says it will be a book? Maybe it will just go bleep. There is a multi-wheeled camera running loose on Mars that doesn’t even know where it is, but it can still go bleep.

At which point, growing tired again now — I’m back in my office, but it takes an effort to walk from one end of it to the other — I should thank my elder daughter Claerwen for painting the book’s starry cover, and for pointing out to its dim-witted author that the reason the thermometer showed a higher reading back then was that his temperature really had gone up through the roof.

Now that I am home again, my wife has taken over the job of ramming the thermometer into my ear, and it seems to me that she is doing so with more finesse lately, perhaps partly because I have dedicated my epic to her. Try it boys, along with the bunch of roses.

‘All is not lost...’

The opening verses of The River In The Sky

All is not lost, despite the quietness
That comes like nightfall now as the last strength
Ebbs from my limbs, and feebleness of breath
Makes even focusing my eyes a task —
As when, before the merciful excision
Of my mist-generating cataracts,
The money-spiders dwindled in their webs
Between one iron spandrel and the next
On my flagstone verandah, each frail web
The intermittent image of a disc
That glittered like the Facel Vega’s wheel
Still spinning when Camus gave up his life,
Out past the journey’s edge. Just such a dish,
Set off with dew-drops like pin-points of chrome,
Monopolises my attention here
In Cambridge as I sit wrapped in the quiet,
Stock still and planning my last strategies
For how I will employ these closing hours.
But no complaints. Simply because enforced,
This pause is valuable. Few people read
Poetry any more but I still wish
To write its seedlings down, if only for the lull
Of gathering: no less a harvest season
For being the last time. The same frail wheel
Could decorate my father’s clean white headstone
In the cemetery at Sai Wan Bay, Hong Kong:
One of my gateways to the infinite
First built when I was just a little child
And flew a silver Spitfire through the flowers —
Clumps of nasturtiums sopping with their perfume —
As if they were low-lying, coloured clouds
There in Jannali, in the summer heat.
Now, one last time, my fragile treasures link
Together in review.
In ancient days
Men in my job prepared for endless travel
Across the sea of stars, where Pharaoh sailed
To immortality, but now we know
This is no journey. A long, aching pause
Is all the voyage there will ever be.
Already it is not like life. I shan’t
Caress the hetaerae of Naukrates,
Only their images: paint on a wall,
Not vivid like a bowl of porphyry,
But pale, chipped, always fading. Here forgive me
When you come kindly visiting, as both
Our daughters do, for you three built the start
Of this tomb when you helped me weed my books
And then arrange the ones left, walls of colour
The sunlight will titrate from spring to autumn.
Rich shelves of them, these lustrous codices,
Are the first walls I see now in the morning
After the trek downstairs, though when I walk
On further, painfully, I see much more —
Boats in the windows, treasures on the terrace,
As if I weren’t just Pharaoh’s tomb designer
But the living god in the departure lounge
Surrounded by his glistering aftermath —
Yet everything began in these few thousand
Pages of print and plates. Books are the anchors
Left by the ships that rot away. The mud
The anchors lie in is one’s recollection
Of what life was, and never, late or soon,
Will be again.

(This article was published in The Guardian, September 1, 2018)

Reviews of The River in the Sky:

Peter Craven, The Sydney Morning Herald
The New Yorker
Tristram Fane Saunders, The Telegraph
Somewhere Becoming Rain — Collected Writings on Philip Larkin (Picador, October 3rd 2019)
‘To Claerwen, who saw that these pieces ought to be a book’
“To read a major critic on a major poet is one of the great pleasures. Clive James’s passion for the work of Philip Larkin, his intense scrutiny which reveals an extraordinary empathy makes Somewhere Becoming Rain: Collected Writings on Philip Larkin an outstanding book.”
— Melvyn Bragg, New Statesman, Books of the Year 2019
“In Somewhere Becoming Rain, Clive James’s collected essays on the poetry of Philip Larkin, the brilliance of James's analysis, his clear-sighted view of Larkin's solitude and humanity, and the fragile friendship between the two recorded in the book’s final pages, provide a monument to human connection and isolation together. It's a perfect example of the ‘almost instinct’ Larkin managed to prove ‘almost true’ (hedging his bets to the end) — that what will survive of us is love.”
— Andrew Hunter Murray, The Guardian, February 2020

Jacket Copy

“A love letter from one of the world’s best living writers to one of its most cherished poets.

Clive James is a life-long admirer of the work of Philip Larkin. Somewhere Becoming Rain gathers all of James’s writing on this towering literary figure of the twentieth century, together with extra material now published for the first time.

The greatness of Larkin’s poetry continues to be obscured by the opprobrium attaching to his personal life and his private opinions. James writes about Larkin’s poems, his novels, his jazz and literary criticism; he also considers the two major biographies, Larkin’s letters and even his portrayal on stage in order to chart the extreme and, he argues, largely misguided equivocations about Larkin’s reputation in the years since his death.

Through this joyous and perceptive book, Larkin’s genius is delineated and celebrated. James argues that Larkin’s poems, adored by discriminating readers for over half a century, could only have been the product of his reticent, diffident, flawed, and all-too-human personality.

Erudite and entertaining in equal measure, Somewhere Becoming Rain is a love letter from one of the world’s best living writers to one of its most cherished poets.”

Reviews of Somewhere Becoming Rain:

Philip Collins, The Times
Peter Calder, New Zealand Listener
Irish Independent
The Last Interview: Rachel Cooke in The Observer
Sunil Iyengar, The New Criterion
Neil McCarthy, Spiked Online


In whatever month of whatever year — anyway, about fifty years ago — Pete Atkin and I were doing what we thought would be our last tour of the country to promote our most recent album of songs, and one of the venues was the Student Union bar at Hull University. We didn't know at the time that our songs, mainly thanks to YouTube, would one day be back in business, so the occasion could have been funereal. But the joint was jammed. Among those jamming it, I eventually noticed, was a tall figure looming at the back of the room. Before the end of the show, I'd realised it was Philip Larkin, and wondered why a deaf man should have come to hear us perform. Among the students he looked like a plain-clothes policeman among vagrants.

After the lights came up, I asked him why he was there, and he told me that although he couldn't hear very well, he had been keen to find out what exactly I was doing. I think it was the idea of going public in such a blatant way that fascinated him, or perhaps appalled him. I can remember him saying that he didn't pretend to be interested in any sort of popular music except pre-modern jazz, but he was intrigued that I thought poetry could be popular entertainment. He couldn't imagine himself standing up to perform, while I couldn't imagine myself not doing so.

Later on, I realised that his attendance at our show had been one of the great compliments I'd been paid in my life. At the time, I was too young, and too obtuse, to understand that he was a busy man, with every hour of every day spoken for. I knew he was famous, and thought, even then, that he was deservedly so. He was, as yet, far from writing and publishing 'Aubade', but there was something about him that was already saying goodbye.

I was left with the impression of a generous and courteous man. This impression was confirmed several times by letters which were kindly interested in their recipient's welfare, even while he himself was ill, and, finally, dying. He was a gentleman, and his gentleness was something he was trying to offset when his poetry was savage.

This book is a gathering of all the times I felt compelled to register my admiration for his work. And even in the times between, his books were always within reach, especially when his detractors were closing in. The critical focus is, even now, so exclusively about his personal failings. I felt the need to add here, at the end, this reminiscence of his decency and politeness. Old-fashioned virtues indeed, as he would no doubt have been dryly aware.

1: October 29th, 1975

2: Clive misremembered here: it was the Smash Flops website and its associated discussion forum Midnight Voices which sparked the revival of interest in the James/Atkin canon in 1996, with Pete's first CD re-issue following in 1997, then Pete's concert at Buxton Opera House with Clive in 1998 and their international tour in 2003.

YouTube was not created until 2005 and the first videos of Pete Atkin appeared there around 2010
— Archive Ed.