I am a huge fan of Clive James, he made his name as a television critic, essayist and wit but he started as a poet and five years ago he was diagnosed with leukaemia, emphysema and kidney failure – he describes it as ‘the lot’ and he is ending as a poet.
There’s a particular story I remember reading about James, it goes like this…
One time he was going through a creative dry spell. He had written a play for the London stage and it bombed spectacularly. Not only did it ruin his family financially but it also cost him some dear friends. He fell into the deepest depression and shame. When the play closed, all he could do was sit on the sofa in his lounge and stare at the wall, mortified and humiliated. His wife held the family together, somehow. He did not feel he could ever write again. He stayed under this spell for a very long time. One day though, his young daughters interrupted his grieving process. They asked him if he could make their old scruffy secondhand bicycles look nicer. James obeyed, in a dutiful but not joyous manner. He carefully painted the girls bicycles in bright shades of red, frosted the wheel spokes with silver and when the paint dried he added tiny silver and gold stars all over the bicycles. ‘A field of exquisitely detailed constellations’. James couldn’t stop painting stars, the girls wanted their bicycles back and grew impatient. When at last he handed the bicycles back to the girls, they pedalled off up the road, on their magical ‘new’ bikes, completely thrilled and excited. The next day, his daughters brought home a little girl from school, who asked if he would paint stars on her bicycle. He did it. When that was done, another little girl turned up and soon there was a whole queue of little girls wanting him to paint stars on their bicycles.
James, one of the worlds greatest writers, spent weeks painting thousands of stars on little girls bicycles in his garage and as he did so, he began to recover. He realised that he really did want to keep on creating things and as he did so, he was healing, something was coming back to life within him. He thought, ‘I will write about this someday’, when he thought this he realised he was free and the creator had returned.
Source: Clive James Poetry
This week, I wanted to share this poem by James entitled ‘Sentenced to Life’. I have matched @CatMorris – Cat Morris’s image of mobile photography with this poem. You can follow her on Instagram here.
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Sentenced to life, I sleep face-up as though
Ice-bound, lest I should cough the night away,
And when I walk the mile to town, I show
The right technique for wading through deep clay.
A sad man, sorrier than he can say.
But surely not so guilty he should die
Each day from knowing that his race is run:
My sin was to be faithless. I would lie
As if I could be true to everyone
At once, and all the damage that was done
Was in the name of love, or so I thought.
I might have met my death believing this,
But no, there was a lesson to be taught.
Now, not just old, but ill, with much amiss,
I see things with a whole new emphasis.
My daughter’s garden has a goldfish pool
With six fish, each a little finger long.
I stand and watch them following their rule
Of never touching, never going wrong:
Trajectories as perfect as plain song.
Once, I would not have noticed; nor have known
The name for Japanese anemones,
So pale, so frail. But now I catch the tone
Of leaves. No birds can touch down in the trees
Without my seeing them. I count the bees.
Even my memories are clearly seen:
Whence comes the answer if I’m told I must
Be aching for my homeland. Had I been
Dulled in the brain to match my lungs of dust
There’d be no recollection I could trust.
Yet I, despite my guilt, despite my grief,
Watch the Pacific sunset, heaven sent,
In glowing colours and in sharp relief,
Painting the white clouds when the day is spent,
As if it were my will and testament –
As if my first impressions were my last,
And time had only made them more defined,
Now I am weak. The sky is overcast
Here in the English autumn, but my mind
Basks in the light I never left behind.
Image ©Cat Morris
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