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Lunches and lost sleep on the road to fame
on 5 November 2006
Some commentators seem to tend to the view that Clive James has an over-high opinion of his own qualities. My own view is that these same commentators ought to belt up until they have written an article with anything like the clout of the introduction to From the Land of Shadows, to pick just one from a wide range of alternatives. North Face of Soho is the fourth volume in the Unreliable Memoirs series and it has been a long time since the third, May Week was in June, published back in 1990. Since then we have seen a lot less of James on the television and it is unlikely viewers under thirty will appreciate how much of a peak-time feature he was not so long ago.
There is no evidence in this book that James misses those times, and overall he appears to think that he is well out of it. Readers will find that North Face is generally darker in tone than the earlier volumes in the series, which had an embarrassing tendency to leave one spluttering with laughter whilst travelling on public transport, but there are still plenty of eye widening episodes included. Some of these relate to the author's copious consumption of booze and cannabis, both of which he gave up completely during the period covered, and the extent of his addictive tendencies is surprising, given the discipline that seems to have powered his creative output over the years.
A theme of slowly acquiring a greater sense of responsibility runs through this book. It begins shortly after James's marriage, with children on the way, and the future wellbeing of the family depending on his contribution to household income. The earlier sections tell of an endless round of poorly paid freelance pieces and deadlines that James could only meet by working through the night. The stress of these early days was eventually mitigated through regular slots on television and the TV review column for the Observer that started in 1972. An interesting sub-plot to this memoir relates to James's work as a lyricist. Given his standing as a critic and TV presenter, relatively few of James's fans may be aware that during the early 1970s he was expecting fortune, if not necessarily fame, to come from the music industry. The songs that he wrote with his old Cambridge colleague, the guitarist, singer and composer Pete Atkin, have become cult classics and deserve a much wider audience (you can widen it yourself now on Amazon), but at the time did not attract enough attention, despite the efforts of Kenny Everett.
Covering a period when media and literary giants were moving into the ascendancy, Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens, James Fenton and Julian Barnes and many others pass through the book as part of the crowd at the famous London Literary lunches, but one of the most touching portraits is of Ian Hamilton, who James recalls: "... really did remove the lighted cigarette from his mouth only to replace it with the rim of a glass of Scotch...". Hamilton appears to have played an important part in James's life at this time, providing guidance at critical points along the way.
In his own Introduction James states that he has increasingly taken to wishing he had done things differently. This book does not make it entirely clear why this is the case, although poetry has always been the author's first passion, and perhaps he hoped to either achieve more or gain greater recognition for his work in that area. If this is the problem, then to some extent it belies James's own belief in the importance of the popular media. But perhaps the sense of disappointment is a result of the decline in the quality of television and newspaper offerings, both failing to live up to the promise they once had. If this is the reason then James has every right to feel proud that his contributions remain among the very best that the popular arts had to offer when that promise seemed real.