‘An onlooker’, Clive James writes in North Face of Soho (2006), the fourth instalment of his memoirs, ‘might say that I have Done Something. But I’m still not entirely sure about the “something”, and not at all sure about the “I” … Who is this character?’ James’s CV takes a while to unpack even if you aren’t its owner, and it doesn’t help that people’s perceptions of him vary according to nationality and, above all, age. An Australian expatriate of Germaine Greer’s generation, he first began to claim the world’s notice as a student comedy impresario in late 1960s Cambridge before setting up shop as a pen for hire in London. Working chiefly for Karl Miller, Terence Kilmartin and Ian Hamilton, on the Listener, the Observer and the New Review, he quickly made a name for himself as a versatile, witty literary journalist with a non-waffling mode of address that was thought to be distinctively, and refreshingly, Australian. He also turned out comic verse – Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage through the London Literary World and ‘The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered’ – and wrote lyrics for Pete Atkin, a singer-songwriter friend. He has never completely kicked the Grub/Fleet Street habit and is probably best known to American audiences for his essays on literary and other topics in upmarket periodicals.
In the UK, and to some extent in Australia, however, his name evokes fame of a larger kind, and is strongly linked to television. Between 1972 and 1982, his TV column was one of the Observer’s star turns, bringing a sharp comic intelligence to bear on trash as well as quality broadcasts and generating four books of selected pieces. He also worked as a part-time TV performer, conducting interviews, doing self-scripted monologues, taking part in round-table discussions and generally making his presence felt on screen. In 1982, he got his own programme, Clive James on Television, and became a mass-market celebrity. Clip show presenter, chat-show host, star of a series of travel documentaries, essayist, lyricist: he was for a time a king of all media, even publishing a bestselling novel, Brilliant Creatures, in 1983. His shtick – part rough diamond, part name-dropping highbrow, part fast-talking joker, part self-delighting goon, with a dry, singsong Aussie delivery – was something you were expected to understand jokes about if you lived in Britain in the 1980s. A balding, slightly tubby man with a weightlifter’s neck and near invisible eyes, he also presented an end-of-year show in which his ritualistic efforts to flirt with the likes of Jerry Hall were a running gag.
His memoirs, which now run to five volumes, were another aspect of his king-of-all-media status at the height of his fame, though they stopped appearing for a while in the 1990s. An accepted fixture of the small-screen world, James continued to make his living on TV in that decade, appearing in the corners of living-rooms by night to interview the Spice Girls while animadverting by day on Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners in the New Yorker. For anyone born after, say, 1970, the Spice Girls side of his activities was what mostly stood out. When in 2001 he published Even as We Speak, the fifth collection of his literary journalism, he expected it to be reviewed, he writes, ‘as if it had been written by Bruce Forsyth’.
James’s memoirs sometimes present themselves as the serio-comic case history of a bizarre personality disorder that causes him to act, speak and write like Clive James. Twenty-nine years, so far, in the making, they operate on a double time-scheme. The figure who writes each book from a stance of increased wisdom with regard to his bungling younger self slowly changes his aims and methods, evolving in tandem with the figure he depicts. Unreliable Memoirs (1980), the first instalment, which tells the story of his childhood and youth in the Sydney suburbs, was written when he was 40, already well known but not yet a household name. ‘Someone who had done nothing writing a book about how he had prepared himself for not doing it’ was, as he puts it, the fundamental joke. When he wrote it, he adds, he was aware that he ‘could do things only a few people can do’, but also of being ‘a very ordinary person’, which was what he aimed to emphasise. (‘The self-deprecation is still sincerely meant.’) The writing came easily: ‘It would have been slower work if I had delved deeper into my psychological condition, but a cautionary instinct, which might well have been part of the condition, kept me safely on the surface.’ It was his first big seller, and a significant aid to his becoming a showbiz personality.
‘I was born in 1939,’ it begins. ‘The other big event of that year was the outbreak of the Second World War, but for the moment that did not affect me.’ This note of comic grandiosity, self-diminishing and self-magnifying in shifting proportions, is sustained throughout the book, as are the set-up/punchline rhythms and the aphoristic snap of James’s distinctive writing style. (You can sometimes almost hear him weighing the stresses in order to ensure that each full stop comes down with a gratifying thwack.) After a decade of living chiefly by the pen, James’s riff-making was as slick as it would ever be, and the set-pieces – involving, for instance, ‘the dunny man’, go-karts and blood-curdling injuries to his penis – don’t serve joke-killing notice that humour is about to occur. At the same time, the feelings swirling round his parents – his father died in a plane crash while being repatriated from a Japanese POW camp – come across the more effectively for being underplayed. If, for example, there’s more going on in the young James’s obsession with aeronautical engineering than a boyish interest in jet fighters, the memoir doesn’t say.
James describes his early experience of bereavement as giving him a certain self-protective coldness, an unwillingness to get too close to other people’s distress. Otherwise, his younger self is portrayed as a conventional performer-in-the-making: attention-hungry, insecure, a schoolyard clown and teller of tall stories (‘Gradually even the most scornful among my listeners came to accept that what Jamesie said wasn’t meant to be true – only entertaining’). This impression is reinforced by his accounts of such matters as ‘kacking’ his pants in public and exploring the art of masturbation with a boy named Gary. Though not cruel (‘the facts say that I have always been revolted by the very idea of deliberately causing pain’), the young James is feckless, thoughtless and inconstant, and his struggle to tone down these attributes to his advantage – along with his struggle to get his hands on sufficient numbers of women to try them out on – is the principal theme of the next two instalments, Falling towards England (1985) and May Week Was in June (1990). Written as his TV fame reached its peak, these books – scrappier than the first, and more ingratiatingly flip – get less enjoyable as qualities he’s prouder of start falling into place.
Part of the problem with instalments two and three is that the years spent scraping by in London and then doing a second undergraduate degree, in Cambridge, aren’t described with the wide-eyed immediacy of his postwar childhood, and the 1960s bring out the scold in him.
Cabinet ministers were disgraced for love, thugs robbed a mail-train and were hailed as heroes, unmasked traitors were admired for their complex personalities, the harlot’s cry from mews to mews had the exultant confidence of Callas singing ‘Casta diva’ and the Beatles mouthed and mimed to fame in screaming theatres whose seats had to be heat-dried afterwards because they were soaked with the love-juices of pubescent girls.
So much for Swinging Britain. (The last few words aren’t the only sudden outbreak of skeeziness; Unreliable Memoirs speaks of going home ‘with a throbbing crotch and a finger smelling like a fishing smack’.) And he solemnly unveils a growing self-conception as the Raymond Aron of light entertainment. ‘This was worthwhile,’ he writes of a sketch he directed for the Cambridge Footlights. ‘Sartre hailing the Chinese Cultural Revolution as an act of liberation: that was a waste of time.’
The sketch which James is proud of was called ‘Slow Motion Wrestling’. ‘It was a piece of sculpture extended into time,’ he says, ‘an elastic Laocoön, a brawl by Balanchine.’ Self-praise and out-of-scale comparisons of this kind are essential components of his act. ‘Like Themistocles linking Athens with Piraeus, I walled in the whole area. My designs assumed the proportions of Karnak or Speer’s Berlin.’ That’s Unreliable Memoirs on boyhood games with mud, and James is joking. Somewhere along the line, though, the comparisons become routine. James mentions Robert Lowell accusing himself, when mad, of being Hitler, and launches into a riff on the fact that few people accuse themselves of being anonymous small-time Nazis. His own idea of self-deprecation involves measuring himself against Hitler (twice), Napoleon (twice), Stalin, Dönitz, Speer, Leonardo, Turgenev, J.S. Mill, Shelley and – in his early appetite for experience – ‘a sperm whale feeding on a field of squid’. His backhanded self-disparagements are artful too: ‘I am very bad at what I am not good at,’ for example, or ‘Croce, in particular, played a vital role in making me feel better about being mentally undeveloped.’
There’s also a fair amount of straightforward bragging: ‘Nowadays, if I am learning to read a new language, I … ’ and so on. Quite a lot of it is concentrated in the third instalment, partly because James’s activities in Cambridge were a rehearsal for his subsequent career and also because, by the late 1980s, he seems to have come to feel that his TV work was obscuring his full reach. Either way, the ‘unreliable’ format was coming under strain. Composite characters and future celebrities couldn’t be concealed under jokey pseudonyms for much longer, and in the last chapter of May Week Was in June, James declares that his memoirs ‘must now come to an end’. On top of a concern for his family’s privacy (the story closes with his wedding and the end of his student days), he has plans for a kind of Japanese-Australian War and Peace that will take ‘a decade to prepare before I even begin to write’. If he succeeds, it will be ‘the book into which I finally disappear, having overcome an inordinate need for attention the only way I could, by reducing it to absurdity’:
The year before last, at the cemetery in Aoyama, when there was no hint of a breeze, and I saw the petals change their pattern as if driven by the sad cry of the chestnut vendor, I could already feel the texture of what I will one day write. It will be frail, but as the surface of the sea is frail. The transparency which is all I have ever been capable of will have at last justified itself, by joining up. Inside that opalescent bubble, I will be invisible at last … These three volumes are just the rattling the side of my cot made when I climbed over, on the first stage of that long, momentous journey across the carpet, towards the light of the open door.
It’s a crazed passage but poignant too, and it helps to restore to human scale the narrator of the memoirs, who has started to seem monstrously glib and all-knowing. This is partly because it leaves at least some of his claims to hard-won self-knowledge deflated: as any reader of his fiction might have predicted, no such work has appeared. (Brrm! Brrm!, the Japanese-themed novel he published in 1991, isn’t it.) At the same time, his feeling that there’s a Tolstoy-sized gap among his multifarious enterprises might indicate equally sizeable worries about their weight and coherence. It can’t always be much fun for someone so strenuously cultivated to be unbudgeably fixed in the popular imagination as a dryly chuckling presenter with a thing about Japanese game shows. James makes jokes about his showman’s temperament and ‘ungovernable ego’, but perhaps for him it isn’t much of a joke at all. Even tramphood, he says, would be no protection from the call of mass entertainment: ‘The rags around my feet would be an invitation to do a soft-shoe shuffle. I would write a monologue, pull a crowd, get an agent, and it would all begin again.’
There’s no mention of the great novel, or of ending the memoirs for his family’s sake, when – after a 16-year pause – he picks up his life story in North Face of Soho (2006). There are, however, changes to the set-up. Now famous acquaintances from early on, such as the Australian feminist ‘Romaine Rand’, are stripped of their disguises, and the story starts to resemble a more conventional celebrity autobiography. In addition to detailing his character-shaping misadventures (the declared aim of the earlier instalments), James expresses a hope ‘that young people contemplating a career in the arts and the media might find guidance here, and those less young people who have run into difficulties might find consolation’. Boisterous tales of his sexual follies dry up, though he plainly kept an obsessive eye on his male peers’ success rates. Nicholas Tomalin scores highly among ‘well-connected and beautifully constructed young women’, but in the end it’s a straight-up contest between Martin Amis (‘He only had to stand there and he was in like Flynn’) and Ian Hamilton (who ‘never had to do anything to get a woman he wanted except fight off the ones he didn’t’), with the chronicler represented as sweating enviously yet chastely on the sidelines.
‘As I sink towards obscurity,’ James says, ‘I grow less inclined to have my few original moves forgotten.’ Much of the self-celebration in North Face of Soho shares this curatorial cast, which – along with some good material on 1970s literary London and his first steps in TV – helps the book to go down pretty easily. True, there are three or four earnest disquisitions on his becoming a man of the ‘radical centre’: a gift from his wife of the Orwell essays, letters and journalism had such an invigorating effect on him, he says, that the 3 Series BMW he bought her years later was merely ‘a partial return’ – and this in spite of the fact that ‘most of the essays I knew by heart already.’ But James is funny on such topics as his small, deep-set eyes: a career-advancing attribute, it turns out, since they concealed panicked glances during screen tests and helped him look shrewd when negotiating. He’s also straight-up about throwing the odd tantrum and being ‘cruelly rude’ to a punter who tried to talk to him. He cut back on booze mostly because, he admits, it was hampering his ability to show off in conversation; cocaine never appealed because, as far as he could see, its effects weren’t that different from the way he felt all the time.
The Blaze of Obscurity covers his TV years, meaning 1982 until 2001, when he announced his retirement from ‘mainstream television’. Endurance – the torture-based Japanese game show which became such a famous ingredient of his broadcasts that the first thing his friend Princess Diana ever said to him was ‘I do think it’s awful, what you do to those Japanese people in your programme’ – is dealt with early on, and James tells the story well. It was in a London Weekend Television office at Sea Containers House that he and his production team first got hold of the syndicated footage, assembled and posted by ‘our Japanese-speaking stringer in Tokyo’. Editors trimmed it down to an hour, ‘so that we could taste it. It was like tasting an electric light socket … One of the milder images I made notes on was of young men hanging near naked upside down over a well-populated snake-pit while their plastic underpants were shovelled full of live cockroaches.’ It was ‘sure-fire material’, sure enough. ‘Instantly’, though, James decoded the spectacle:
This was theatre, and it was formed on the ruins of a sadistic militarist tradition that had richly merited being ruined. As I made my first notes, I was forming something too: the beginnings of a theme that I would pursue for the rest of my career, even into the present day. Civilisation doesn’t eliminate human impulses: it tames them, through changing their means of expression. That, I decided straight away, would have to be the serious story under the paragraphs that tied the clips together: otherwise the commentary would be doomed never to rise above the level of condescension.
Strong anecdote potential, a flash of comic vim (especially in the placement of ‘plastic underpants’), a sudden swerve into high-level generalities and a note of special pleading: sad to say, a lot of the book goes like this. James pulls a bewildering number of costume changes, sometimes in the space of a few lines. Concerned that his clip show might be thought to have milked cheap laughs of the funny-foreigner type, he reaches for his indignant radical centrist outfit – ‘When in doubt, we left it out, and we didn’t need theories of imperialism to tell us to do so’ – before re-emerging as a relaxed showbiz grandee. Other roles include poet of the airwaves and chat-show host as commanding officer: TV studios are like ‘mechanised warfare. For ordinary human beings it’s as freaky as hell and you have to guide them through it, even at risk of your own skin.’ Yet another role, as he cheerfully says, is ‘self-glorifying pantaloon’: ‘At the same table as David Hockney, Philip Roth, Harold Pinter and Sir Isaiah Berlin, it was flattering to be treated like one of the boys.’
We sometimes meet the man who’s concerned to share unflattering truths about himself – admissions, mostly, of getting over-accustomed to having teams of assistants at hand to pour the coffee, and of being perhaps too ‘heavy-handed with the gallantry’ when dealing with attractive researchers. But the James who recounted his childhood so crisply, and more or less invented a style of comic writing in his Observer TV column, puts in few appearances. It’s not his fault that TV production tends to generate stories about waiting around and punchlines about not getting the shot you needed. And he’s gracious about his luck and the people he worked with, even if his compliments can take a bit of figuring out. Colleagues are often praised for being ‘smart enough to see the point’ of his directorial interventions; Jonathan Ross, ‘whose gifts I admired’, is said to ‘put a lot of emphasis on personal appearance, almost as if he had no talent’, though Terry Wogan and Harry Hill are commended more warmly. He signs off with a bulletin on his Pacific War novel: he might not live to write it, but ‘I would not be able to do the things I do now, and might do next, if I had not done those other things first.’
All the same, there’s a feeling that the real story – the story of a writer with a powerful sense of the ridiculous slowly turning into someone with only a vestigial one – is being simultaneously shirked and relived. The things James does now are characteristically wide-ranging, including as they do maintaining his extensive personal website and a reactivated musical career with Pete Atkin, but by 2001 the tendency to project himself as a sage in print had got out of hand. Whatever your take on his political opinions (roughly speaking, those of a Cold War liberal with a monarchist bent and a marked receptivity to right-wing talking points), it’s difficult not to wonder at the casual authority with which – in the 2001 postscript to Reliable Essays (subtitled ‘The Best of Clive James) – he reproves Edmund Wilson for failing to learn Spanish and Orwell for his defective notions of imperialism, while saying of his sprightly takedown of Malcolm Muggeridge: ‘If I can say it without sounding as conceited as Muggeridge, on the day I worked him over I was worth the money.’ Reducing prodigious amounts of reading and experience to a handful of insights and acres of punchily written fluff, The Blaze of Obscurity reinforces the impression that TV fame didn’t help.
Or is that too simplistic? After all, James could be pompous in his Observer days when he felt like it, and still knows a thing or two about timing a gag. Perhaps he just works less well outside the times he started out in, when pomp was more likely to be taken for granted, and the jokes and pop culture stuff were what stood out. Then there’s the mystery of his whole persona: is it a knowing comic turn, an ironic posture that’s stopped being fully ironic, something imponderably temperamental, or a mixture of all three? In North Face of Soho, he describes Alan Coren as ‘the most enigmatic man of his generation, because the sprawling palace of his attainments’ – sounds familiar – doesn’t show up in his work. ‘With that kind of writing, you keep yourself to yourself. Not my thing at all.’ Well, yes and no. What could be more enigmatic, as testimony to Princess Diana’s charm, than James’s ‘in two minutes she had convinced me that I was a clever chap’?