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Clive James

Much as I loved you in the snow and ice,
Side-slipping down the chute below Spinale –
It’s twenty years now since we saw Madonna
(Di Campiglio, not Ciconne)

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The sky is silent. All the planes must keep
Clear of the fine volcanic ash that drifts
Eastward from Iceland like a bad idea.
In your apartment building without lifts,
Not well myself, I find it a bit steep
To climb so many stairs but know I must
If I would see you still alive, still here.
The word is out from those you love and trust –
Time is so short that from your clever pen
No line of verse might ever flow again.
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Clive James has been at the business of writing now for so long that his literary activities have almost outlived the fame that used to get in the way of their apprehension. Twenty or so years ago, it was possible to think that the man who clowned around in those ‘Postcards’ travelogues on television, and who seemed to reach some apogee of self-satisfaction and self-definition chatting to celebrities on the box, was just slumming it when it came to literature; that he had bigger fish to fry than this diminished thing, even, if he was forever reminding us of the grandness of the refusal he had made.

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The wild White Nun, rarest and loveliest
Of all her kind, takes form in the green shade
Deep in the forest. Streams of filtered light
Are tapped, distilled, and lavishly expressed
As petals. Her sweet hunger is displayed
By the labellum, set for bees in flight
To land on. In her well, the viscin gleams:
Mesmeric nectar, sticky stuff of dreams. 

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Too many of my friends are dead, and others wrecked
By various diseases of the intellect
Or failing body. How am I still upright?
And even I sleep half the day, cough half the night.

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Most editors look forwards, not back. We have to: there are pages to fill, readers to court, deadlines to meet. But publication of a 300th issue of a literary review invites retrospection, if not undue nostalgia... ... (read more)

I won’t this time. Silent at last and shunted
Into its siding in the Victorian Arts Centre
The container train started its journey in Yugoslavia
Two years before it arrived in Gippsland
Among trees that echo Albert Namatjira.

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Conversation is the raison d’être of this monumental monologue. But you might not think so if you read only the reviews. Splenetic, greensick criticism – and there has been plenty of it – insists that what Clive James has built out of a life’s voracious reading and careful noticing – his ‘notes in the margin’ – is a platform for his ego. Not so. But how ruthlessly we skin our own ...

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Dear Editor,

Brian Matthews makes an eloquent defence of Manning Clark’s Kristallnacht fantasy, but I was surprised to find myself being drafted as a witness simply because I once said that autobiography is ‘a lying art’ (May 2007). Actually, I can’t remember ever having used quite those words, but, as Brian Matthews well argues, memory plays tricks.

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In the clear light of a cloudy summer morning
The idiot boy, holding his father’s hand,
Comes by me on the Quay where I sit writing.
His father spots me looking up, and I don’t want
To look as if I wished I hadn’t, so
Instead of turning straight back to my books
I look around, thus making it a general thing
That I do every so often –
To watch the ferries, to check out the crowd.

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