Remembering Clive James

Clive at his deadliest — in the Observer, March 7, 1976

From my tribute to him in today’s paper…

I was privileged to be his successor-but-one. (When he stood down from the paper in 1982, Julian Barnes took over, and I then succeeded Julian in 1987.) I knew when I accepted the job that it would be a tough assignment. Indeed, I had learned that lesson 10 years earlier, because occasionally – when Clive’s TV work took him abroad – I used to be called in by Terry Kilmartin, the Observer’s then literary editor and éminence grise.

On one such occasion, after labouring mightily on the column, I caught the London train on the Sunday morning. Two very grand middle-aged ladies got in and sat opposite me. One of them had a copy of the Observer, and I watched, entranced, as she immediately went to the back page and started to read. I saw her chuckle as the jokes detonated, and I felt a glow of quiet satisfaction: I had finally cracked it. And then, when she had finished reading, she handed the paper to her companion.

“Dorothy”, she said, “you really must read this. Clive James is very funny this morning!”

I may have stepped into his shoes. But they were too big for me. Which is why I miss him.