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Clive James: Return to the Opal Sunset


Home: Clive James in Sydney. Photo from the Mary Evans Picture Library

Clive James’s life story was one of exile. Born in Kograh, a working class suburb of Sydney, he moved to England in 1961 at the age of 22 where he remained until dying a week ago today.


James’s life is recorded in unsparing and hilarious detail in his Unreliable Memoir series, the wittiest and most entertaining autobiographies ever written by an Australian. These books struck a particular chord with me when I read them as a young expatriate born just a few suburbs over from James and by now living in England myself.


Throughout his long and glittering career, a recurrent theme of his writing was a sense of displacement on the one hand and the impossibility of repatriation on the other. This was initially due to the demands of his career and gregarious personality, but in the end his health prevented him from returning to see the Sydney sky one last time.


Send my ashes home, where they can fall / In their own sweet time from the harbour wall.

- Clive James, Procedure for Disposal.


But his work stands out most of all for its humour. I recall one anecdote where James describes jumping into the shower in the middle of the English winter and realising for the first time he was the same colour all over. Clive James had an intellect to match any, but never lost his knockabout Australian spirit.


Along with Greer, Humphries and Hughes, he was one of the golden generation of Australian public intellectuals of a kind the country has failed to reproduce since. He was equally accomplished as a scholar, critic, television personality, translator and poet, a man of intelligence, wit and humility we will not see the like of again.


May he go back the opal sunset which forever called him from the margins of his life in England, the final chapter of his story an end to departure and the beginning of a new, permanent arrival.


Go back to the opal sunset, where the wine Costs peanuts, and the avocado mousse Is thick and strong as cream from a jade cow. Before the passion fruit shrinks on the vine Go back to where the heat turns your limbs loose. You’ve worked your heart out and need no excuse. Knock out your too-tall tent pegs and go now.
It’s England, April, and it’s pissing down, So realise your assets and go back To the opal sunset. Even autumn there Will swathe you in a raw-silk dressing gown, And through the midnight harbour lacquered black The city lights strike like a heart attack While eucalyptus soothes the injured air.
Now London’s notion of a petty crime Is simple murder or straightforward rape And Oxford Street’s a bombing range, to go Back to the opal sunset while there’s time Seems only common sense. Make your escape To where the prawns assume a size and shape Less like a newborn baby’s little toe.
Your tender nose anointed with zinc cream, A sight for sore eyes will be brought to you. Bottoms bisected by a piece of string Will wobble through the heat-haze like a dream That summer afternoon you go back to The opal sunset, and it’s all as true As sandfly bite or jelly-blubber sting.
​What keeps you here? It is too late to tell? It might be something you can’t now define, Your nature altered as if by the moon. Yet out there at this moment, through the swell, The hydrofoil draws its triumphant line. Such powers of decision should be mine. Go back to the opal sunset. Do it soon.

- Clive James, Go Back to the Opal Sunset.


Clive James, Australian author, critic, poet. Born Sydney, Australia, 1939. Died, Cambridge, England, 2019.

© 2020 RJ Smith.