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A change of pace
on 7 September 2007
It's been a long time since the last installment of Clive James' Unreliable Memoirs appeared in 1990; the previous one came out five years before then, and the original volume (from which the series takes its title) five years before that. So there's been a change of pace, and there's a change of style as well. Much of the appeal of the first three books came from the stories of how a well-respected, intelligent, prolific media figure started out in life; the contrast between his tough public persona and - say - the defecating, masturbating, over-consuming child depicted in the first volume was particularly striking. The air of self-deprecation (if not brutal honesty) hung over the second and third installments, as he sought to make his way to England, and established himself at Cambridge.
Although this installment follows on immediately from the end of the last one (where he was just about to leave Cambridge following his marriage), everything changes here. Being more an account of how he found his way into London's media scene (where he became preeminent), he's left out the self-deprecation, preferring to tell the story straight. Part of this appears to be a sharing of his experiences in an attempt to instruct any reader who has ideas about following in his footsteps. This is doubtless a worthy cause, but it has the effect of limiting the range of appeal for the book - certainly when compared to the original volume, which (as he acknowledges here) has become the most popular of all his books.
So lovers of his wit and humour won't find much to admire here. They also won't find many examples of his brilliantly coruscating style - indeed, parts of the writing appear to be somewhat rushed, as he makes promises to return to subjects in a way that's almost chatty, and certainly not up to his usual standards of construction. The hubris that he's sometimes accused of breaks through here and there as well, as when he attempts to excuse his poor listening skills by noting that "they used to accuse Scott Fitzgerald of the same thing". However, there are still memorable examples of his characteristic knack for finding exactly the right image, as on p150: "If all the accomplished but not especially interesting would-be writers became schoolteachers and taught grammar, the country would be on the road to recovery. The sky has more stars than it knows what to do with, but it can't do without gravity."