Vice-Chancellor and Principal Dr Michael Spence AC paid tribute to the noted writer, critic and broadcaster and said he was one of Australia’s greatest cultural figures: "Clive James said of himself, ‘All I do for a living is put words beside each other.’ This modest statement gives no hint of his passion for language and his stylistic flair. These are the talents which made him widely known as a broadcaster, television personality, scriptwriter, poet, novelist and critic.
"They are also the talents with which he made an impact on the University of Sydney campus – as an arts student, member of the Sydney University Players and contributor to our long-running student newspaper Honi Soit".
Chair of the University's Department of English Dr Huw Griffiths also paid tribute to Clive James: "I grew up in the UK in the 1980s and, so, I only knew of Clive James as the sharp, and ridiculously funny presenter of Clive James on Television, the show that he hosted from 1982 to 1997. My sense of him, even as a teenager growing up in North Wales, was of somebody who brought a fierce intelligence to the important business of entertainment. I’m not sure that I was aware that he came from Sydney but now that I work here at the English department, I can see where at least some of that determined wit came from.
"In recent years, his defences of literature and art as essential aspects of our public lives were not just welcome; they were a necessary call to work, and to write, against the dying light. My favourite quotation: 'If you don't know the exact moment when the lights will go out, you might as well read until they do.'."
Clive James began studying in the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Arts in 1957 and he graduated with honours in English in 1961.
In his memoirs, Unreliable Memoirs, James described his University of Sydney's career as two parts – "one curricular, and the other not". He claimed to have been "always careful not to read anything on the course", and that only his ability "to conjure a fluent essay out of thin air" got him admitted to third year honours. Nonetheless, he acknowledged that much of what he read in his courses here remained with him "when all the theoretical blubber surrounding it had rotted away".
As recounted in Robyn Dalton and Dr Laura Ginter’s recently published book The Ripples before the New Wave: Drama at the University of Sydney 1957-63, James’s time at the University of Sydney coincided with that of a number of students who would also go on to become some of Australia’s leading figures in the culture and the arts, including budding critic Robert Hughes, columnist and festival director Leo Schofield, writer and academic Germaine Greer and filmmaker Bruce Beresford.
Along with many of these classmates, James contributed to university life beyond the classroom – namely as a contributor to the student newspaper Honi Soit and campus literary journal Hermes, director of the annual Union Revue and as a member of the dramatic group, the Sydney University Players.
After graduating, James worked for a short period at the Sydney Morning Herald, before moving to England to study at Cambridge University. A long, successful and varied career followed – beginning in literary criticism and television criticism, before moving into poetry, satire, memoir, television and radio presenting and more.
In recognition of his significant and lasting cultural contributions, James was awarded with a Doctor of Letters (honoris causa) from the University of Sydney in 1999.
In presenting James for admission to this honorary degree, the then Vice-Chancellor Professor Gavin Brown said: “James deploys his critical weapons too with the daring and confidence born of a remarkable range of reading, scholarship and linguistic skills. His style is subtle but unambiguous and he has no hesitation in passing judgments on his subjects. He reinstates criticism as an evaluative art, and in making it accessible, consciously swims against the fashionable tide of theoretical argument and narrow technical analysis. That takes courage as well as intelligence.”
Among the many other honours James received over his lifetime, he was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1992, which was enhanced to Officer level (AO) in 2013, for his “distinguished service to literature through contributions to cultural and intellectual heritage, particularly as a writer and poet.”
Top image: Clive James (second from left) appears in Honi Soit 1959 Issue 24. Courtesy: Sydney University Library.