James was born on April 23 (Shakespeare's birthday) in 1918 at South Shields on the River Tyne. He has lived most of his adult life abroad, in the Far East (Japan, Malaya mainly), the USA and Europe. At the moment he is a resident of Andorra, where the official language is Catalan. He can't speak it, but translates poetry from that tongue. His first book of poems, "The Drowned Sailor", was published in 1947, since when he has produced about thirty volumes from various publishers in Britain and abroad. His most famous poem is "A Correct Compassion" about an open-heart mitral stenosis valvulotomy operation he witnessed at Leeds General Infirmary while he held the Gregory Fellowship in Poetry at the local university. He has written novels ("The Love of Others"), travel books ("Tropic Temper", "One Man's Russia") and many translations from Japanese ("Burning Giraffes") and most European languages. Awarded the Scott Moncrieff Prize for Translation from French, the Japan P.E.N. Prize for International Poetry and the Japan Festival Prize for "A Book of Tanka".

Since 1962 James has been FRSL.

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