What Clive James taught us about living well when time is of the essence

Eleanor Newland, Staff Writer
Published Thursday, November 28, 2019

By Eleanor Newland

Writer and broadcaster Clive James received his first terminal diagnosis almost ten years before he died at the age of 80 this week. He had the time to ponder what it means to be mortal, to say his goodbyes and even to write his own obituary  – all with a touch of his characteristic dry wit and sense of humour.

His writing during that time beautifully articulates some profound realisations about life and the experience of being alive, touching on guilt and self-worth, among other subjects.

Clive James by © Robert Banks / The Age
© Robert Banks / The Age

But what comes out most strongly is that, despite having a diagnosis of leukaemia, emphysema and kidney failure, James was able to continue to pursue his passions.

What can his experience tell us about living well ourselves and having a good quality of life, even if that sense of an ending is still out of focus?

Enjoying every moment

The gift of a more focused perspective that comes from knowing you’ll die soon is a theme that comes up again and again in James’ writing after his diagnosis. He even referred to it as a “second sight”.

In an interview with Victoria Derbyshire in 2016  , James summarised the way being ill led him to a more mindful approach:

When the end is in sight you get a perspective on life you never had before. I was just too dumb, and too energetic. I was moving forward at the high speed of a thrown shoe. I wasn’t reflective. I’m much more reflective now.

You can see how the shoe has slowed down in his poems of that time. One from his 2015 collection Sentenced to Life  highlights the way having finite time focuses your attention on the details you might have missed before:

Once I would not have noticed; nor have known
The name for Japanese anemones,
So pale, so frail. But now I catch the tone
Of leaves. No birds can touch down in the trees
Without my seeing them. I count the bees.

This attention on the moment is also one of the three wisdoms about life that writer Robert McCrum – who was partially paralysed by a stroke in his forties – lands on in his book, Every Third Thought  . Like James, McCrum singles out living in the now as one of the best things we can do to live well. (In case you’re interested, the other two things are keeping fit and accepting your fate.)

You’ve got to see the funny side

Famed for his witty and at times devastating commentary on programmes, perspectives and people, James saw the funny side of the awkwardness of still being alive, having already said goodbye.

In his original swan song poem Japanese Maple  published in 2014, he shared, with heart-breaking candour, his expectation that he’d die that autumn. Having gone on to survive the season, he noted in a radio interview in 2014 that he was “in an embarrassing position here”.

Because I write a poem more or less promising to croak when autumn comes and the leaves turn to fire, and autumn has come and the leaves have turned to fire and I’m talking to you, I haven’t croaked at all, you see the problem.

Clive James by © Edd Westmacott / Alamy Stock
© Edd Westmacott / Alamy Stock

His experience highlights the difficulty of accurate prognosis when it comes to terminal illnesses. But more importantly it reminds us of the power of James’ wicked sense of humour, and how central it was to his perspective on life:

“Common sense and a sense of humour are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humour is just common sense, dancing.”

Being pain-free is simply an essential

At least in part, James attributed his positive perspective while being ill to being pain-free, recognising the huge impact this can have on anyone’s ability to live well – regardless of your personality or outlook.

At a London literary festival in 2014, he said:

I like to think I’ve got a sunny nature but a sunny nature doesn’t last for long if you’re in real pain. I’ve just been lucky.

A vital part of palliative medicine centres on managing pain for people. James’ experience highlights how this matters more than we might imagine, when it comes to living well in such circumstances. Getting the right professional care and support at the right time is just as important as – and perhaps integral to – our mental outlook.

Being honest with ourselves

Finally, after his diagnosis James is open and honest about his guilt for past misdemeanours.

When asked what he’s saying in Sentenced to Life  , he responded: “I’m saying that I was a bad husband. It’s true, I was […] I could have behaved a lot better. I’m sorry I didn’t.”

Perhaps this kind of self-reflection shows why it’s important to think and talk about what (and who) really matter, when it comes down to it – so we don’t end our lives with regrets.

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