Clive James is obsessed with dragons. Well, that may not be strictly true, but he told the audience at the inaugural Australia & New Zealand Festival of Literature & Arts in London today that he had spent his whole life avoiding them — and then he discovered Game of Thrones.
In a 45-minute soliloquy, spanning everything from his Australian roots to his passion for Dante, James explained that his wife and children had encouraged him to watch the show and he was surprised by how much he liked it, probably because it was "so primitive" and dealt with "real life".
"The first series had dragon eggs in it, but I was prepared to go with it. And by the second series the eggs had hatched, so I broke my rule about never watching anything with dragons in it," he said.
James who is terminally ill — he was diagnosed with leukaemia, kidney failure and lung disease in 2010 — said his ambition was "to stay alive long enough to watch series 4 when it comes out on boxed set". (He doesn't watch Sky; he can't figure out how to use the buttons.)
This afternoon's session may well be the expat Australian's last ever time on stage. "Ah well, another farewell appearance," he announced when he shuffled onto the floor at the theatre at King's College to warm applause.
Later he admitted that he was in the "last stretch" of his life but feels lucky because he's not in pain and "can still function as a writer, as a human being". "I want my last poems to be about luck, not about grief or sadness," he said.
During his session in front of a packed audience he read several poems: his own moving In Town for the March (about Anzac Day), Maori poet Hone Tuwhare's eloquent Deep River Talk and U.A. Fanthorpe's deeply funny Not My Best Side about St George and the dragon. Dragons, once again, featured in his reading of Dante's Inferno (canto 16 to 17), which he has recently translated.
"The dragon is a mode of transport in Dante's Inferno — it's like Game of Thrones," he laughed. But on a more serious note he pointed out that interest in Dante had survived because his work is "sensationally, linguistically, alive".
He ended his performance with a reading of his latest poem, Sentence to Life, which reflects on life, death and "my foolishness and incredible ability to make mistakes".
And after taking several audience questions, he quietly packed up his books in a calico shopping bag and bade farewell to rousing applause and a standing ovation.