Clive James in Cambridge

By | July 6, 2017

I have been asked for my autograph once, when I travelled with a Worthing High School VII to Llanelli to participatre in a Sevens competition (we went out to a local team captained by Phil Bennett). I was embarrassed by the attention but managed a signature of sorts. I have however signed a few books as an author, mostly a textbook, Sociology as Applied to Medicine, which I edited rather than wrote myself. And once, after a drink or several, I scrawled my name in around twenty of so copies of this same book in the basement of ‘Dillons’ (now Waterstones), opposite UCL. It was in the basement and nobody I think noticed. I am sure that I perceived it at the time to be a generous gesture, but obviously I reappraised the whole adventure afterwards.

Clive James is of course more familiar with such exigencies by a factor of many hundreds. Perusing in Waterstones in Cambridge during the summer of 2016 I came across him perched in a gangway and ready to sign whichever of his recent works I fancied. I picked out three and we exchanged a few sentences. He apologised for still being alive, which he said had upset his agent no end: impossible to plan anything in the face of such uncertainty!

I have since read James’ Sentenced to Life and injury Time, both of which show fine technique as well as a brave and unsentimental poignancy. Dop read them if you can get hold of copies. The poem that follows is from Injury Time and picks up on the theme of signing with which I started


Apotheosis at the Signing Table

Looking ahead for places to sit down,

Come spring I might, one last time, limp downtown

And into Heffers, into Waterstones,

In either order, haul my creaking bones,

To stand, with a long-practised half-lost look,

Somewhere besside the stack of my new book

Until I’m asked to sign. As if surprised

I’ll sit down, slowly, seeming paralysed

By sheer humility as they bring stock

Of books that I forgot I wrote. I’ll sign

Each tempting title-page with my by-line

Like a machine for hours on end. The clock

Wil seem not to exist. My signature

Will grow, however, steadily less sure,

Until, the felt-tip quivering in my grasp,

I scrawl the hieroglyphs of my last gasp.

A final short sip from my cup of tea

And I will topple, croaking tragically.

Slumped on the carpet, I will look around,

And in the walls of books in the background,

More splendid even than they were before,

Will seem to hear my small voice from the floor.

‘Heffers or Waterstones, this is goodbye,

But I rejoice that I came here to die,

So one day those who know my books may say

That this is where he signed his life away.’


The day I met Clive James was not to be his last. And this is good news for us as well as for him. Read his poems to find out why. He will write, and read too, and voraciously, up to the very day he leaves. He is a much better poet than I realised until a year or so ago, so I’m playing catch-up.



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