What to make of Clive James, the polymath’s polymath who gave us Margarita Pracatan, the mould that they broke when they were making Stephen Fry? “I still don’t feel that I have Made It,” he tells us in his new memoir, North Face of Soho. “An onlooker might say that I have Done Something. But I’m still not entirely sure about the ‘something’, and not at all sure about the ‘I’.”
We can see where he’s coming from. The man is a great and erudite writer and entertainer, but where are the final achievements? The four novels are out of print. The collected poetry (“The book of my enemy has been remaindered / And I am glad”) sustains his soul (“Mentally I was still living from one poem to the next … as I still do today”) but can’t be earning much in royalties. Most of the books listed By the Same Author are collections of television reviews and previously published essays. And to most British people over 30 he is best known for poking fun at Scandinavian condom adverts on Sunday night TV.
As with other wits like Oscar Wilde, then, the life is the achievement; and the life is summed up in – the life is – the four volumes of autobiography – Unreliable Memoirs, Falling Towards England, May Week Was in June – of which this is the latest, and which surely will be read on and on, a permanent legacy (and “clearly another volume will be necessary”). This is the volume which deals with life after university: the world of work. And the answer to the question above is here too, because James (like many of us) did not plan his career, but fell into it. The falling was longer and bumpier than Alice’s down the rabbit hole, and he writes engagingly here of his inability to say no, and of how his addictive personality combined with effortful overwork and alcohol and dope overuse to leave him without regular income until his early 30s.
For most of this time, and beyond, James was a jobbing reviewer and critic, living on thin and irregular cheques until he simultaneously accepted two full time jobs hundreds of miles apart: as presenter and writer of Granada TV’s Cinema, and as the Observer newspaper’s TV critic. And so his twin loves of hearing his own voice and seeing his own words in print were firmly fused, never really to be parted.
It’s James’s wit as much as his erudition that he’s known for, and he still has the masterful way with capturing an image: Richard Burton’s head “was as big as a tea chest. You had to lean sideways to look past him.” Another actor is “possessed of features so finely chiselled that he appeared to be in profile even when viewed from front on.” A stuntman in a mishap “smashed his spine into a string of broken beads.”
And James is a fund of stories not only interesting but beautifully told about the infamous and unfamous, such as the secret desire of Jack Cardiff, Powell and Pressburger’s gifted cinematographer, to make a film out of an atrocious historical potboiler with what Cardiff considered “marvellous dialogue” (“Gadzooks! Fain would I not face thy glittering blade, Dinwiddie”). The reason for this was that Cardiff
was an interpretive artist, not a creative one, and the raw stuff of movies – the script – depended on a mystery he was not equipped to penetrate. … For Jack, the written word was magic …[He] thought that words, any words, had a numinous status simply because they had been written down.
We get a whole chapter of this story, including real marvellous dialogue and rich comedy, from a man who knows how to make the written word magic. Or there’s the account of interviewing Burt Lancaster on the exterior shoot of a Michael Winner film, when lunch is called:
The mess tent was in plain sight, about two hundred yards away. Lancaster stood up from his chair, but that was as far as he went by himself. He stared at Winner with a weary impatience. Winner took the cue and shouted, “A car for Mr Lancaster!” A black Mercedes 600 longer than a school bus loomed across the grass and stopped precisely so that the action hero could step directly into it after the back door had been opened by the assistant director, the PR attaché, and other members of the door-opening party that I could not identify. The Mercedes set off on its epic journey across two hundred yards of grass, arriving at the sacred tent only a short time before the rest of us arrived on foot. Lancaster’s door remained firmly closed until it was opened by the chauffeur, the assistant director, the PR attaché, the other members of the door-opening party, and Winner himself. Winner congratulated Lancaster on his successful voyage in terms which would have embarrassed Lindbergh after his arrival in Paris. It was a graphic demonstration of the perennial need for the institution of monarchy: because there is a total, ineradicable potential for subservient ceremonial bullshit in the universe and it all has to go somewhere.
Practically every line in the book is as quotable as this. Partly this is because James is never afraid to extrapolate a maxim from an experience, or to express himself in grand principles of truth which, because of his assurance and intelligence, we come to trust almost instinctively. Yet the overall tone of the book is companionable and self-deprecating, though he reminds us, “it may have self-aggrandisation as an underlying motive, just as conceit almost always underlies a show of modesty.” Nonetheless, for a man whose wide-ranging abilities still leave him wondering, “What could I be said to have achieved if I were taken now?,” well, this will do nicely to be going on with.