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A CLEVER BOY
on 15 July 2004
Clive James should be 65 by now, if the arithmetic of the years works in the same way for him as for me. This volume of his memoirs, the second, was issued in 1985, but presumably it calls on diaries kept in his 20's, the period the book covers, so one can't really gauge how it reflects his maturation.
His greatest strength and his main weakness are one and the same thing. He produces some brilliant one-liners, but so many of them, and so similar in style, that they become just a little wearisome over the length of even a shortish book. I became familiar with him first as the BBC film pundit and then as the television critic of The Observer on Sundays. Within the scale of a half-hour programme or a Sunday review he was absolutely unsurpassable for wit and originality. He did various other tv programmes over the years, and I remember in particular a series on a tour he had made in eastern Europe, at the time still the Evil Empire of fond memory. There was a clip of a rock band consisting of various balding 40ish gents in dull suits, on which James commented in his flat Australian accent 'They don't just look like secret policemen, they sing like secret policemen'. Does that have you rolling in the aisles? It did me. It still does, and this book rarely goes two pages in succession without something of the kind. As a writer of English he is a consummate workman on his own terms. The tone is studiously light and informal, but the expression is never careless or cheap. Indeed his other fault as a stylist is a kind of demotic pretentiousness. The relaxed and plain-Joe paragraphs are liberally larded with obscure literary and cultural allusions, and it would serve him right if some readers find this patronising. What do you make of a chapter-heading 'Solvitur acris James', for instance? I happen to recognise the reference to the ode of Horace starting 'Solvitur acris hiems' (Sharp winter melts) but not only will it totally escape many, perhaps most, it doesn't have all that much point anyway in its context.
The period narrated is from his arrival in England in 1962 until just before he went up to Cambridge. As a document of an impoverished, chaotic, Hogarthian gin-lane existence it is simply brilliant. It would be hard to describe the feel of his account as precisely introspective - Rabelaisian might be nearer the mark. In saying that, I begin to suspect that James's manner is beginning to infect me too - the style of Rabelais is nothing like what you might expect from its English dictionary definition or the common usage of the word insofar as it has a common usage. Towards the end I thought I detected a distinctly deeper tone. I wonder what he could really do if he really tried.