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.

The book belongs to a tradition in which there are other clean breasts besides Rousseau’s, and in which candour can go with ignorance of self, but can also go with the cultivation of self, with the possession of more than one self, with aliases and impersonations, and with zeals and enthusiasms to which James has elsewhere, if I haven’t misunderstood him, applied a name from the romantic heritage – Einfühlung, by which he means ‘the intellectual love for the objects of experience’. To the extent that it entails a capacity to be engrossed, taken out of yourself in contemplation and at one with the objects of that contemplation, this last quality, or faculty, of mind might be thought to bear some resemblance to the condition known to another romantic as negative capability. Love does seem to enter into it, but this is not the love that friends feel for one another. Einfühlung is a quality which can sometimes inhibit personal or social relations, and prevent the self-knowledge which derives from a knowledge of other people. It is a state in which there can appear to be both an assertion and a suspension of self. In James’s case, it used to be associated with an addiction to the cartoon and feature films of the Forties.

In many cases, as I’ve implied, it is associated with a certain innocence or indifference concerning the other people that there are in the world, with the possible exception of a passionately-favoured few, and it is true that the other people of this self-portrait are scarcely ever portrayed except swiftly and impressionistically. They are objects of experience in the sense that they are rarely there for what they are in themselves. They are collected, rather as his cartoon films were collected, and indeed they tend to be presented in the manner of a cartoon. The collector’s confessional self and sensorium are what chiefly matter. This is not to deny that the animation of James’s acquaintance makes a great show, that his other people are shrewdly and vividly described, and that he can also be shrewd, and genuinely forthcoming, about his own distressed and defective character. He is not yet, he writes at the age of 41, ‘sufficiently at peace with himself’.

Tersely but unequivocally, the book conveys that his character was formed by bereavement. His main bereavement was the loss of his father, who was captured by the Japanese during the war, and killed in an air crash while being repatriated. The book takes as an epigraph the grieving of Andromache in the Iliad: ‘Husband, you are gone so young from life, and leave me in your home a widow. Our child is still but a little fellow, child of ill-fated parents, you and me. How can he grow up to manhood?’ And Clive James writes: ‘I have never ceased to feel orphaned.’ This rings both true and traditional. And what he goes on to say is traditional too: ‘nor have I ever felt less than lucky.’ The romantic orphan has often had to face the consequences of his pride and cheek, hutzpah and hubris: but he has also been entitled to a touch of magic, to lucky breaks and a charmed life. Eager and ambitious from the first, deterred by none of his disasters, Clive has done at least as well as Cinderella. Those tunnels he used to dig in the back-garden are very much in character – at once an escape, a fiasco and a famous feat.

A second loss which he sustained may have represented an imagination of the first: he speaks of ‘the kind of brother I would have liked to have, and I suppose miss even now’. His mother’s life was gravely wounded by her husband’s death, and it drew the two survivors together in a bond which is movingly evoked. She is characterised in terms of her proximity to the author, while becoming, on such terms, a leading presence in the book: boastfully pleased with her bright, impressionable, exhibitionist boy, delicately skilled at coping with the troubles that befell him. When he proposed to run away in traditional style, the threat was dealt with by the preparation of peanut-butter sandwiches and pyjamas. It’s no joke being an orphan’s mother. And it’s no joke being a joker’s mother.

I discover in the new revised edition of Ernest Mossner’s life of David Hume that the young philosopher was said to have been in a drawing-room when a dreadful smell broke out, and was blamed indignantly on the dog. But then Hume was heard to say: ‘Oh do not hurt the Beast. It is not Pod, it is Me!’ The story places the owner-up, the truth-teller, in a very good light. It reports the kind of accident which might have figured in a chapter by James, whose bad smells, however, are firmly placed in a bad light, or in the light which so often shines in autobiography, and which is both bad and good. Most of the cares commemorated in his chapters are more or less shameful. Throughout Clive James’s ‘it is Me!’ there are worries about his private parts, which are awarded a momentous publicity: the shocks to which they were heir are enough to suggest a further precedent for the book in Tristram Shandy. It was inevitable that his parts should eventually encounter the barbed-wire fence of the rude song, and this duly happens, at a youth camp in the bush. Other calamities approximate quite closely to the David Hume disgrace, which is very much the kind of thing which most people, and most traditions, have kept secret:

Next day when I answered my name at the morning assembly roll-call, the headmistress said, ‘Ah yes, that’s the little boy who ran away from his mother.’ Thanks a lot, witch. I kacked my pants on the spot.

One secret deserves another, and an orphan’s memoirs will generally have plenty to tell. The next paragraph proceeds:

  The whole secret of kacking your pants, incidentally, is to produce a rock-solid blob which will slide down your leg in one piece and can be rolled away into hiding at the point of the toe. That way, your moment of shame can be kept to the proportions of a strictly local disaster. But if you let go with anything soft, it takes two teachers to clean you up and the whole affair attracts nation-wide publicity. You get people interviewing you.

Thanks a lot, Clive. The Jamesian art of excretion is addressed to a readership which is bound to have something of its own to bring to the subject, while perhaps needing a bit of instruction. But the passage is not so much instruction as expression: these words are a way of communicating the enormity of the occasion, the dimensions of an ordeal.

Clive James lost very little time in getting his act together, in developing into the type of ‘all-round entertainer’ who would one day be eligible, and available, for interview. The boy who kacked his pants went on to become an accomplished petomane – not an owner-up like Hume but a virtuoso. Here, too, he has a secret to impart: ‘The whole secret of raising a laugh with a fart in class is to make it sound as if it is punctuating, or commenting upon, what the teacher is saying.’ It seems that as soon as he could stand he began to seek immunity by being funny. ‘I suppose one of the reasons why I grew up feeling the need to cause laughter was perpetual fear of being its unwitting object.’ Such self-defence is a sizeable part of what the book chooses to commemorate. But then the whole book is, without intermission, humorous and entertaining, so that we view it as an extension of his act, and don’t need to be told that his early fears and uncertainties are still with him. Show business proved hard work at times, and brought its own calamities and consequences:

I cultivated a knack of exaggeration. Lying outrageously, I inflated rumour and hearsay into saga and legend. The price of fame was small but decisive. I had to incur the accusation of being a bull-artist – a charge that any Australian male of any age wants to avoid. But I wanted notoriety more. Rapidly I acquired it. From a small circle of listeners in class, I progressed to a large circle of listeners in the playground. Bigger boys came to mock and stayed to listen. Adapted from a recently seen film, my story of the Okinawa kamikazes lasted an entire lunchtime and drew an audience which, if it had not come equipped with its own sandwiches, would have had to be fed with loaves and fishes.

He then goes on to write: ‘Gradually even the most scornful among my listeners came to accept that what Jamesie said wasn’t meant to be true – only entertaining. If it wasn’t that, key figures drifted away, and soon everyone else was gone along with them, leaving me alone with my uneaten sandwiches.’

He pictures himself, convincingly, as a boy who caused a good deal of pain, but who shrank from consciously inflicting it. It is difficult, though, to be the kind of wit who specialises in satirical invective, like the later James, without causing, as well as feeling, pain. A dilemma opens up here which he does not confess but which can be inferred from his confession. You might say that the whole secret of human life is in this dilemma – one orphan biting another, like something out of Dante.

The book moves ahead by leaps and bounds, bravuras and exaggerations, and, as it admits, lies of a sort. When the infant satirist is nearly drowned at the bottom of the garden, where his tunnels were to be located, we get the following legend or saga:

Aunt Dot was attired in a pink corset but it didn’t slow her down. She covered the ground like Marjoric Jackson, the girl who later became famous as the Lithgow Flash. The earth shook. I was going down for the third time but I can distinctly remember the moment she launched herself into the air, describing a parabolic trajectory which involved, at one point, a total eclipse of the sun. She landed in the trench beside me. Suddenly we were sitting together in the mud. All the water was outside on the lawn.

This is no lie, but a manner of speaking, and of entertaining. It is a manner which extends widely into his critical writings, where I have no doubt that some of the mirthless bigger boys among his readers may disapprove of it as one in which it is impossible to tell the truth. James holds that humour can make sense, and that those without humour can’t be trusted. His own critical writings make sense of the first half of that claim, if only because their adversary humour is stronger than their lavish praise, and is hospitable to his best arguments. At the same time, they have their element of risk, as his performances have always had, even the least frantic of these, and it can be said without severity (or humour) that the exhibitions and exaggerations of his criticism, like the ‘unreliability’ of his memoirs, are both a pleasure and a problem.

At a time when the British must feel that nearly everything is unreliable, it is natural for some of them to exaggerate the problem posed by the unreliability of books or films. ‘Part fact, part fiction with invented dialogue, dramatised versions of events ... presumably attractive to audiences but can be both distressing to individuals and misleading to the public ...’ This is not from a review of Clive James’s book, or act. It is from a letter to the Times in which Sir Philip de Zulueta complains about the ATV film Death of a Princess, on the grounds that it uses ‘hearsay’ and mingles fact and fiction in a new mode ever more common on television these days. ‘Good taste’, Sir Philip believes, would shrink from ‘deeply distressing’ Saudi Arabia. He omits to say what facts the film got wrong, and to say that part of its point was to acknowledge the difficulty of getting such facts right. He does not deny that the authorities in that country executed a girl for committing adultery – an adultery which the Saudi system could reasonably be thought to have encouraged. In any case, the ominous new pseudo-documentary mode which he deplores is, in its essentials, aboriginally old, and all report, all expression, is an unreliable mixture of fact and fiction, including Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills, which was rightly offered as a work of the imagination.

The sad clown, the suffering delinquent, the joker’s wretched or hostile eye – these have long been features of a conventional wisdom in respect of the orphan state. The convention persists, though we sometimes behave as if it has been abandoned or forgotten. The tough egg who has written this romantic book has not forgotten the convention, and it looks as if he had every reason to apply it to his precocious autobiography. The Clive James Show is shown to have its roots in loneliness and desperation; a zest for the objects of experience serves to express a certain estrangement from the people around him. The book embodies an impulse to confess and records an impulse to aspire, and it depicts an elaborate experience of exile. It is written from the standpoint of exile from Australia, and you could say that it was written (high up in the Barbican block, in the rainy City of London) in order to declare a longing for the country which he’d once dreamed of leaving, and which he now calls – it is his last word – ‘home’. Meanwhile this longing has to be seen as inseparable from the longing for a country of the past, and of the mind, and for his own irrecoverable, and at the time highly insecure, childhood.

Critics will want to bite him for sticking out his neck, and hanging out his other parts. But few readers will fail to enjoy the result, and few British readers who are old enough to do so will fail to recognise in this account of the Australia in which he grew up – for all its exotica, strange predators, surfs, heats and Hollywood veneer – the same suburban semi-countryside, the same quarries and scrub, the same sprouting bungalows, as they remember from the outskirts of, say, Wolverhampton. For many people, in their early days at opposite ends of the British Empire, the late Thirties were a half-built house. They were a long stare at the churning guts of a cement mixer, a perching in rafters, a crouching in foundations, as in some chamber or passageway of the Great Pyramid. James’s cigarettes, cigarette cards, cartoons, records, back numbers of Flight and tinkering with machines, were all experienced by growers-up in Britain too. His way with such objects is among the attractions of a book which is, as it had to be, both attractive and abrasive. Not all of the objects were lethal.