The Whole Secret of Clive James

Karl Miller

  • Unreliable Memoirs by Clive James
    Cape, 171 pp, £5.50, May 1980, ISBN 0 224 01825 6

A little over a year ago, a very good play was screened on BBC Television, Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills. A troupe of adult actors climbed into shorts and re-enacted the days of Potter’s youth – fights, ordeals, boasts, burnings, with an Indian file of girls manoeuvring in relation to the Indian file of boys, each brave or squaw as solemn as Sioux. It made eerie watching. You were taken back to your own youth, and the very awkwardness of those miming, patently impersonating full-bottomed adults seemed to contribute a frame to the experience, serving as the walls of the well at the bottom of which were your origins. You could taste what child’s play used to be like in the semi-countryside just beyond the boundaries of suburban settlement.

This was surely one of the most interesting programmes that Clive James could have seen in the course of his duties as the Observer’s television critic, but he did not have much to say about it on the Sunday in question, preferring – with his usual outrageous critical severity – to lay into Lindsay Anderson for his direction of a work by someone else. All the same, it is possible to wonder whether the Potter work may not have got through to him, for these Unreliable Memoirs play a similar game. While keeping you aware of what he has since become in journalism and in show business, Clive James climbs back into his shorts and re-enacts the experience of being an outsiderish boy just outside Sydney, hardly a stone’s throw and he threw a large number of stones from Botany Bay, where the English outcasts of a previous time were disembarked. The Kid from Kogarah, the cape-whisking Flash of Lightning, and other aliases, ride again. The memoirs end when the days of his youth end – with graduation from Sydney University and a fairly prompt departure for the fresh fields of England on board a creaking ship. Its timbers were shivered by the love-making of passengers and crew, from which, as he passed into exile, Clive James was excluded.

His book is like other memoirs of modern times in assuming and acknowledging that while fiction may be treated as a form of autobiography, autobiography may be practised as a form of fiction. It is ‘a figment got up to sound like truth’. The spirit of his early life may be here; the letter is not. The reader is left to work out for himself what processes of elision, deletion and addition this may have inspired, and to ask whether they may be meant to still the cries, down under, of the offended. ‘Nothing I have said is factual,’ he concludes, ‘except the bits that sound like fiction.’ The reader isn’t always able to tell which bits are which, but he may feel that the conclusion itself sounds fictional, and there’s a fiction in the preface which is easy enough to identify: ‘I had an absurdly carefree upbringing.’ On the contrary, the book is full of grief and fear, as well as fun. Australia’s insects, to a mandible, are on the hunt for Clive James. Each chapter is a chapter of accidents. ‘Death, & Poverty, & Shame, & Pain’ – the list is that of the philosopher Hume – are all here. And so are some other ‘Calamities of Life’ which Hume would have been too shy to mention.

In turning his memoirs into fiction, while explaining that he has done his best ‘to tell the truth about what it was like’, Clive James has also turned them into romance. He speaks of a ‘confessional urge’, and he parades his ‘failings’. This is his romantic clean breast. He knows that the confessional bad light in which so many autobiographers bathe themselves is suspect, and he refers to Santayana’s opinion of Rousseau’s Confessions: according to Santayana, he points out, the book demonstrates, ‘in equal measure, candour and ignorance of self’. But he later announces that his own character ‘consists mainly of defects’, and the literary provenance of his book is, in part, Rousseauesque. Powered by the humour with which he learnt to defend his forlornness, the self-portrait is a roaring success; it will certainly do no harm whatever to his status as a media star of the Western world. At the same time, it is, in a sense, the portrait of a failure. The James who steps forward is solitary, bereaved, badly-behaved; not very far away there can nevertheless be seen an alarmed and cherishing mother.

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