Book Review: Always Unreliable, Clive James (2001)

From these memoirs Clive James comes across as a dynamic and interesting guy, always in danger of becoming insufferable. Having only ever known of him previously from his TV work, the memoirs make clear that his is a serious mind, worth engaging with, even through the thick shell of often funny, but equally often wearyingly distracting and unnecessary, wit.

Always Unreliable is the omnibus edition of the first three volumes of Clive James’ memoirs (he has since written two more):

  • Unreliable Memoirs (1981)
  • Falling Towards England (1986)
  • May Week Was In June (1990)

This is a lot of James’ company to keep, and while largely fun and interesting, the faults magnify through repetition.  It makes it harder than it should be to say I really liked this book, or James as revealed within it.  He is though almost always interesting, generous to others in his assessments, and fundamentally honest, and for that I can forgive a lot.  James is amusing, even laugh out loud funny at times, but from the experience of reading this, I would say his style suits shorter forms, where his wit runs less danger of becoming monotonous.

Despite occasionally finding this a slog, I’ve ordered his collection of biographical essays, Cultural Amnesia, as it feels worth piercing the self-satisfied exterior to get to the meat of what he has to say.  Nonetheless, I’m anticipating progressing at a marathon pace, not a sprint.  If you’re thinking of venturing into these memoirs, I’d certainly not dissuade you.  The first in particular is very good.  I would suggest though that they are best not gorged on, as I did, by consuming all three memoirs here straight through.

The chief problem I found is that even for memoirs these tend to the onanistic – in the first volume, and more forgivably, even entertainingly, quite literally.  James is witty and well-read, and wants you to know it.  He’s relentlessly, and in parts almost mechanically, humorous.  In small doses this is entertaining. Over three volumes it starts to feel pathological.

James puts his finger on this problem himself in the new introduction to this collected edition of his memoirs, identifying the dilemma he fails to escape:

The fearful sweat of those occasions for a young man already convinced that if he could not be amusing nobody would put up with him, yet also aware that nobody puts up for long with the continually amusing.

Admitting faults, as James is always ready to do, does not fully excuse them. However, his honesty in admitting past faults is admirable, and the sense of looking back with flashes of revulsion at himself leavens a tone verging on the smug.  He is very good at conveying the terrible feeling that creeps over you as your memory gives you a sense of the reality of a situation that you did not perceive at the time. Of his humiliation at the hands of Colin MacInnes, he ‘didn’t recall the incident in its full horror until many years later’.  He notes that ‘[a]s I get older memories resurface or transform to my horror with the sudden realisation of what was really happening’ or how he really appeared (coupled with the sorrowful insight that it has taken this long to realise). 

He is also commendably free of excuses for past poor behaviour, offering in defence only his recognition of past monstrousness and a description of parts of the journey to a (somewhat) chastened state.  It is in this way, writing and reflecting, that James attempts to put the past behind him.

The first volume, Unreliable Memoirs, covers his childhood and youth in Australia, through to studying at the University of Sydney, until he leaves for England. This is the strongest, the most earthy and evocative, the most fun, and funniest of the three.  I’ll always be grateful to James for writing it as it kept me company, and kept my spirits and energy up while I watched over my baby son in intensive care during a recent illness (he’s now fully recovered!). 

The second volume, Falling Towards England, is less fun, detailing his failure after arrival in London.  Though James seems to have had a pretty good time despite it all, it was the most painful and cringeworthy to read; perhaps because its accuracy brought back my own memories of my inadequate character and beliefs as a dangerously callow youth: though, as for him, the danger was emotional, and principally to other people who involved themselves with me.  He wants to give a sense of how this failure felt on a day to day basis, the affect of quotidian coping, of ‘how the clothes slept in to keep one warm looked wrong the next day’.  The book is grottily effective in this, but more palatable, less monotonously grinding on the practical miseries of this kind of youthful poverty than Orwell’s’ Keep the Aspidistra Flying, previously the most tangible account of it I have read.

Completing this trilogy, May Week Was In June is an account of his time at Cambridge – where he finds himself, and it seems, never really leaves.  At times it feels the book’s principal contribution is to prove the truth of the academic variant of the old joke about Yorkshire pride: How do you know someone went to Cambridge (or Oxford)? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.  The book is an extended humblebrag, saved by the quality of his writing, the contained horror you can sometimes feel from him as he looks back at himself, and by the better part of his character: even at his most solipsistic he does remain active and interested in the world, and is interesting on what he finds. Still, if throughout the collection he is often teetering on the edge of pretentiousness, it is here he most often falls the wrong side.

An obsidian scarab.

An early description of a Freddo Frog, one that I like a lot, nonetheless gives an idea of the often narrowly avoided danger of his being rather too keen to impress. The chocolate frog is: 

‘flattened as if by a truck and the outlines of his plump limbs were merely incised, as with an obsidian scarab or a soapstone cicada.

Elsewhere the weight of names dropped sinks the prose.

There is plenty going on throughout, this is not a Knausgaardian struggle; the drama is realised even if as he notes self-deprecatingly late on, that: ‘God help me, I fancied that what I had faced and conquered had been adversity, instead of just another self-set challenge, easily encompassed’. James seems never indolent or passive, even though often busy doing the ‘wrong’ things.  Anyone who has spent any time in academia or struggling to write will recognise his descriptions of the strange passionate energy for any topic or project but the one you are supposed to be working on, and the guilt and poorly suppressed sense of doom undercutting the pleasures of this procrastination. James does struggle to be funny about it, though that doesn’t stop him trying, and trying, and…

From these memoirs Clive James comes across as a dynamic and interesting guy, always in danger of becoming insufferable.  Having only ever known of him previously from his TV work, the memoirs make clear that his is a serious mind, worth engaging with, even through the thick shell of often funny, but equally often wearyingly distracting and unnecessary, wit.