In a recent panic that my memory is failing as I grow older, I have been writing my memories down before they all fade away. Surprisingly, this has been an enjoyable exercise, as more and more of my childhood shenanigans have come back to me while writing others down. I certainly don’t have any plans to write a full memoir, but after dredging up my own memories, attempting to put them in some kind of order and render them with as much honest detail as I can muster, I’ve come to wonder how people DO write memoirs that include quoted conversations, like scenes from a movie. None of my memories (including those from last week) are so crisp as that, and there are startling gaps in the continuity. Sometimes I can piece together a timeline, when memories can be crosschecked with documentary evidence. Mostly however, I don’t have anything to moor my memories to, and they are floating around inside my head like slowly deflating balloons…
While pondering this mystery, I was inspired to track down the autobiographies of CLIVE JAMES, which I’d not read in 15 years or more but remembered as being the most entertaining autobiographies that I had ever read. He is perhaps not so well known in the USA, because his books were hard to find, so I ordered them from the UK where almost anyone could attest to the wit of Clive James. He first made a name for himself there as a television critic, but later he became a TV presenter himself, on a show called CLIVE JAMES ON TELEVISION, where he presented television clips from from around the world, famously including ENDURANCE, the hilariously punishing Japanese TV game show. (Our own “reality TV” shows now feature the worm-eating capers the Japanese were amusing westerners with 25 years ago. So who’s laughing now?) But the entertainment in his show wasn’t only from clips of Turkish soap operas or whacky game shows, it mainly came from Clive James’ eclectic tastes in popular culture and his particular style of witty critical commentary.
My first exposure to him was in the early 1980s when I read the first of his autobiographies, which had been recommended by my Dad. (He was born the same year as Clive James, so their experiences of growing up in Australia in the 1940s and 1950s, then going to university in the UK in the 1960s, were generally similar). The first book, called UNRELIABLE MEMOIRS, chronicles the period from Clive James’ birth up until he was 22 years old, about the age I was when I read it the first time. It is without a doubt one of the funniest books that I have ever read. The paperback version has a review printed on the cover, which warns not to read the book in public in case you embarrass yourself with laughter. This I took as mere “you’ll laugh out loud!” hyperbole, rather than realising it was actually the operating instructions for an extremely volatile device… I disgraced myself a few days later when Clive James’ account of a school gymnastics class caused me to honk like an egg-bound goose while riding a crowded train to work… precisely as warned.
The title “UNRELIABLE MEMOIRS” implies, and his introduction plainly states, that he has embellished the facts in their retelling (so THAT’s the secret!) but whether it’s fiction, non-fiction, or a hybrid of the two, it is ALL a delight to read. Besides, It is hard to know if he really has changed the facts to make them more entertaining, or if he has merely suggested this to put us off the scent of what is actually real, to avoid libel charges… Several other later-to-be-famous people appear in the books, with their names changed but their true identities not disguised, if you know who to look for. Robert Hughes, Bruce Beresford, Germaine Greer, Brett Whitely, Barry Humphries and other over-achievers feature as “supporting characters” in each of his autobiographies. Famous people not only hang-out together after they are famous but also even before they were famous… (This first struck me when reading books by or about Hemingway’s “lost generation” crowd of US expatriates in Paris in the 1920s).
The copy I am reading now is an omnibus version, called ALWAYS UNRELIABLE, and contains the first three volumes; UNRELIABLE MEMOIRS, FALLING TOWARDS ENGLAND and MAY WEEK WAS IN JUNE. One of the pleasures of re-reading these books 15-20 years later is finding resonance in some of what I didn’t “get” before. Initially, I didn’t fully appreciate the 2nd and 3rd books, finding them not so funny as the 1st. This time however, it is those later books that have made me hoot out loud. I just discovered that a fourth memoir, called THE NORTH FACE OF SOHO, was published last year and I look forward to reading it, having refreshed my memory by re-reading the first three.
Clive James is an ungainly-looking man in person, but as a communicator he is like a verbal Gene Kelly or Jackie Chan; graceful, quick, talented, a master at what he does and yet accessible to the rest of us poor slobs. After Jackie Chan busts out some amazing stunt that takes your breath away, he’ll set himself up for a prat-fall that invites you to laugh at him, even though that pratfall was every bit as hard to pull off as the earlier stunt that made you gasp. Likewise, Clive James dazzles with his wit, his handle on language and his education (I confess that I cannot keep up with his vast knowledge of fine art and popular culture) but then he’ll serve up some gags at his own expense, and even those dealing with compromising, vulgar situations, are delivered in sublimely hilarious prose. Some people say that this smart-guy playing-the-goof routine smacks of false-modesty (as if there is any other kind) but I think it is the mark of a great showman and communicator. Like watching Gene Kelly joyfully dancing in the rain, you wish you could do what he does, and part of his genius is that he somehow makes that level of ability inviting, rather than alienating.
For those of you unfamiliar with the man, I suggest you visit the CLIVE JAMES WEBSITE which contains a remarkable amount of his work. Not only essays and poetry but also a series of video conversations he has held with some famous guests. Just eavesdropping on a conversation can be very entertaining if they are the right participants (one of the most entertaining hours of TV that I ever saw was a conversation between CLIVE JAMES and JONATHAN MILLER).