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Monday, 5 October 2020

Clive James: Unreliable Memoirs

Clive James
Unreliable Memoirs (5*)

An extremely funny memoir, immensely enjoyable, but I had to overcome two obstacles.

The first was that Clive James was very learned. From the off he is throwing in references to far-flung writers like Rilke and Santanyana. At times I had no idea what he was on about. Take page 73, where he describes his first crush: 

my obsession was as transforming and exalting as whatever passed through the heart of Augustine Meaulnes in the brief time he spent with Yvonne de Galais

He says the object of his "visione amorosa" remained so vivid that her image outlasted that of the pain of falling into stinging nettles while suffering from ear ache, when “Pelion was piled on Odessa Ossa”.

Does he expect his readers to be well-versed in these things or is he just showing off? I am afraid my knowledge of European poetry, Alain-Fournier and Greek mythology are not up to it. My own cultural references are more humble, such as Tony Hancock’s ‘The Bedsit’ in which he tries to read Bertrand Russell’s ‘Human Knowledge’ but never gets past the first page because he has to keep looking up words in the dictionary. That was so very nearly my own experience here, but with lack of background knowledge rather than vocabulary. Well, you live, you learn, you google. What would I have done in 1980 when it was first published?

The second obstacle was my memory of Clive James’s television persona. Throughout the nineteen-eighties and -nineties he sat behind a desk like a greased potato in a tight blue suit, smirking his unctuous antipodean baritone, leering at the model Elle MacPherson, ridiculing weird Japanese game shows and mocking the heavily-accented Cuban singer Margarita Pracatan. Later, I cringed as he made embarrassingly improper remarks to the host Christine Bleakley on the early evening magazine programme ‘The One Show’. It took quite a few pages to expel these images from mind.  

It has been said that there were three Clive James: the accomplished poet and scholar, the television buffoon and the hilarious critic and memoir writer. Gradually, the wit and brilliance of this third Clive James won me over. It is in abundance here, such as at school when he became convinced he had an embarrassingly small penis:

Emerging from the shower with a towel draped casually around me, I had to put on my underpants before I took off the towel, but make it look as if I was taking off the towel before I put on my underpants. The result was a Gypsy Rose Lee routine of extraordinary subtlety. (p94)
Or in making model aeroplanes, not out of Airfix plastic but from parts cut out of sheets of balsa wood with a razor blade that sliced your thumb as readily as it carved the balsa:
If the result was recognizable as an aeroplane, you were an expert. If your thumb was recognisable as a thumb, you were a genius. (p69)

It goes on for page after page covering the misdemeanours of his unruly childhood, his sexual awakenings, his time at Sydney university and his move to England. Perhaps it just caught me in the right mood, but I would rate his account of military service amongst the funniest things I have ever seen in print.

This first of three volumes of memoir was published before he became widely-known. In self-justification he writes:

To wait until reminiscence is justified by achievement might mean to wait for ever.
It is tempting to pinch that as a blog by-line. I hope to read the other two volumes. On that basis it scores 5*, just. 
 

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Previous book reviews 

23 comments:

  1. Thank you for this very interesting and useful review. Useful certainly in that I am quite put off by what had you struggling with the book at first. We learned a lot of Greek Mythology back at school, but I am not familiar with much of European poetry. Also, I have no idea who the author is; to my knowledge, he has never appeared on German TV, and I can not remember ever having seen him on British TV during my annual Yorkshire holiday, either.
    I love it when a writer makes me laugh, and the quotes in your review are really funny, but that alone is not quite enough to make me want to read it.

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    1. You could look up Clive James quotations to see some of the other hilarious things he said. I have also read that his television criticism was extremely funny too.

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  2. No doubt he was witty and well-read but I always found him to be slightly creepy.

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    1. That was certainly how I saw him on television - obstacle 2 as mentioned. I wonder whether he had a degree of imposter syndrome, being from quite a poor background. He also says he was almost incapable of taking anything seriously.

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  3. His memoire should have been called, 'Long Goodbyes'. He milked his announcement of his imminent death for years. I felt the same about him as parts of you did. Do you remember when they made the mistake of allowing him into the models' dressing room during a fashion show? He gave Australians a bad name.

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    1. I might have cringed but would have been fascinated to see that.

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  4. I think he would be mortified for anyone to suggest he was showing off with his knowledge. He was simply very clever and didn't adjust this according to his audience. I preferred reading his newspaper columns to seeing him on tv although I did get more used to him and able to understand him on the tv the more I read his writings if that makes sense.

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    1. The TV personality has put me off reading anything but the occasional newspaper column I chanced upon until now, but I agree that to read him gives a different perspective. Probably he would indeed have been mortified. I wonder whether a lot of him was disguised sensitivity. I am also going to look out for his collected TV criticism.

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  5. What I liked about Clive James - and yes, I think he does show off a bit - is the combination of the erudite and the down to earth which in those days we Brits did not know how to do. He was very funny and I am surprised to hear about the inappropriate comments as I always pegged him as less chauvinist than many of his contemporaries

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    1. Some seem to think he did show off, others not. But I did think his TV show was made up of inappropriate comments.

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  6. Pelion was piled on Ossa. I'm guessing predictive text substituted Odessa when you weren't looking.
    Thank you for explaining who this person is. Talk about writers you've never heard of, for me, he's one. Your other references were fine! Not sure I'm interested in reading him further, but I enjoyed your post about him.

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    1. Thank you Boud - I'll correct that. You are letting me off too lightly. I said my knowledge was lacking.

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  7. I went to school with a boy called Clive James. He was as thick as pig shit. To communicate effectively with intelligent readers, I believe that writers should be watchful about flaunting clever references that many will simply not get. Too much of that is very off-putting and tiresome in my opinion. Like Jimi Hendrix, a writer should be in tune with his or her anticipated audience.

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    1. It seems to happen less often as the book goes on. I struggled mainly near the beginning. Perhaps I became more knowledgeable the more I read.
      I presume I was not in Jimi Hendrix's anticipated audience. Although he did address me directly when I left school to work in accountancy: "Hey, Mr. Businessman, you can't dress like me."

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  8. I miss Clive James. How can you not like someone to whom Arnold Schwarzenegger was “a brown condom full of walnuts”. Barbara Cartland’s eyes looked “like the corpses of two crows that had flown into a chalk cliff”

    Enjoyed Falling Towards England. His early days in London, serving his sentence before he can go up to Oxford. Has to live in London for three years before the LEA will give him a grant. He moves from job to job with apparent ease.

    His poetry is pretty good as well.

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    1. Vivid and accurate, but images I wouldn't want to dwell on for long. Falling Towards England was Volume 2 - it's on my list.

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  9. I appreciate your post as I was unfamiliar with Clive James. I don't think he was as well known in the U.S. The book sounds interesting and if you do read the other two volumes I hope you will review them here as well. Your description of his multi-faceted personality prompted me to look him up on Wikipedia. The sadness of how he lost his Father at an early age seems to have had quite an affect on his life which is understandable. I thought it interesting too that he chose his own name and had it legally changed while still young. Thank you for introducing me to Clive James. I think I will look up his poetry.

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    1. I suspect his TV manner would not have been very well received in the U.S. but his writings are very much worth looking at.

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    1. He started off by mocking her but in the end was regularly inviting her on to the show. It's not difficult to find clips on YouTube: https://youtu.be/adU0q7BDb2o She died earlier this year.

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  11. Interesting take, Tasker. I was/am very fond of Clive James. I also think it rather unfair to think of the clever/highly intelligent as (possibly) showing off. If you know certain things (be it mythology, the intricacies and origins of Indian curry or whatever) it's natural to you. Barely enters your orbit that some people haven't got a clue what you are talking about. Unless . . . you are a naturally born teacher. Which wasn't Clive James's aim.

    A teacher knows that pupils/students might benefit from dumbing it down a bit. Explaining sources etc. Like building a wall. One brick at a time. Which reminds me of one of my history teachers. He was a Jesuit. He was phenomenal. Not just in physical stature. That his brain didn't implode on entering the classroom is a miracle. Jesuits don't come more highly strung and knowledgeable than he was. Oh my god. There we were, age seventeen, eighteen. Faced with his brain and underhand sarcasm, full of disdain for his "audience". In an encouraging way. Though a few of my classmates did crack under the pressure.

    My whole life I have been surrounded by people who are in the higher echelons of literature, art, music, you name it. The well educated (by which I mean the classicists). They aren't aware how they come across to others. Or rather, even they are aware, they don't care.

    Fact is, going back to Clive James, we can't always cater to the lowest common denominator.

    Anyway, good on you, Tasker, that you see the merit of the man despite his shortcomings.

    U

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    1. It's not an objection to displays of knowledge. That's why we read. But, as Mr Pudding points out, writers need to know their audience. Writing as if readers know about, for example, Albrecht in Giselle, Zenos paradox about Achilles and the tortoise, Turgenev's letter to Bakunin and Leretsky's childhood makes me wonder who he thought his audience was. A little expansion or perhaps making his points in a different way would probably have improved rather than detracted from the impact of the book. It is not negligence, it is deliberate. He writes with care and consideration. To be fair, though, he does not do it throughout, but it can be annoying when he does.

      This is different from refusing to cater for the lowest denominator - writing books or blogs does that because the lowest common denominator don't read. Although, there again, including anecdotes such as how to get away with having a shit in the middle of a school lesson (do a hard one that drops straight out of your pants so you can kick it away with your foot, and whatever you do, don't do a sloppy one) is hardly catering for the high minded either.

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