Clive James: North Face of Soho

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.


  1. Thanks for dropping by Kevin. Yes, James himself certainly talks a lot about his work with Atkin. The difficulty is that coming from someone renowned for his sardonic way of expressing himself, it’s hard to tell from the book how serious he (now) is about it. Thanks for the link.

  2. His notes for a Compilation – Touch Has a Memory ( – that was issued in 1990

    “Aiming at a minority in a market that catered exclusively to majorities, we were doomed, Pete Atkin and I, but it took us almost ten years to admit it, and in that time we wrote these songs. Even at this distance, I wouldn’t claim to be objective about their quality. Subjectively, though, I have always thought of them as the most intense creative endeavour I was ever mixed up in. Writing the words for Pete’s music, I had that feeling every writer gets when he is on to a good thing. I suppose carpenters get it too, when they are planing with the grain. It was the way to go. Since those days I have written books that got more attention than my lyrics, and TV shows that made more money, but nothing else has generated quite that euphoria.
    Unfortunately you can’t eat euphoria. Like good reviews, which we also had plenty of, it nourishes only the soul. In those days the magic adjective was “commercial”. If a song wasn’t commercial, it aroused grave doubts among music business executives. These latter were usually even younger than we were and always incomparably more hip. Pete and I had flared trousers too, but the music business executives had hair styles which indicated many hours of rapt communication with the blow-drier. Through long lunches they explained to us, in widely spaced words of one syllable, why things would be so much simpler if we could take a more commercial approach. (The word “commercial”, of course, has three syllables, but not the way they said it.)

    They were right. Things would have been simpler. But we had stuck ourselves with the most uncommercial approach possible. A fiercely loyal, highly intelligent audience who understood every nuance and subtlety — and from whom we both still get letters — would purchase every album Pete put out. Alas, commercial success depended on roping in a tangible percentage of all those other people as well.

    Perhaps we were behind the times. I like to think that we were ahead of them, and that the era our work really fits into is beginning now. What we were up to — as far as I can tell as a participant — was a sort of post-modern synthesis. At that time you couldn’t be post-modern because everyone was modern. People were young in those days, and very sure of themselves. In the sixties and early seventies, the past began in the fifties. If you said you respected Tin Pan Alley, you were thought of as a throwback. Today, and not just because nostalgia has become an industry, there is a greater willingness to rummage in an older dressing-up box than the one that holds the loon pants, the tie-dyed T-shirts, the headbands and the beads.

    When Pete and I began to write together for the Cambridge Footlights popular music was already providing some brilliantly witty work. On the whole, then as now, the popular song was dedicated either to saying something mindless memorably or else to embalming an alleged profundity in semi-literate bathos. But there were exceptions, and how they shone. Pete used to buy the Mamas and Papas albums as they came out, and I still own everything by Randy Newman. John Sebastian’s songs for the Lovin’ Spoonful were among our touchstones. The Holland-Dozier-Holland hits for Motown showed how strokes of seeming simplicity could build into a perfectly satisfactory pattern. We kept in touch with all these developments. I wrote long, ponderous articles for Cream about Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. But what really drove us was the achievement of the previous generation and the generation before that. Before the singer-songwriters, there were the song-writers.

    Before I met Pete, I already knew my way around the lyrics of Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart, lra Gershwin and Johnny Mercer. Pete knew all that and more. On the Footlights stage, at a quarter to three, with no-one in the place except him and me, he would take me through those pages of the Mercer-Arlen song-book that had been stuck together with coffee-stains and bitter tears. There was a song by Tadd Dameron I had never heard before. From the very first, we wanted to write songs that got all those possibilities in.

    My own particular urge was to use all the words in a song that I might possibly use in any other medium, including the scholarly footnote. This occasionally led to excess. Later on we were sometimes accused of wordiness, and sometimes it was true. Usually, though, we were pushing things to the limit in full confidence that the limit lay a good way beyond where it was supposed to be. After all, our heroes of days gone by had done the same.”

    For some of the songs I wrote the words first and then Pete wrote the music. For others Pete wrote the music first and then I wrote the words. In the majority of cases, as I remember, we worked together at the same time, repeatedly meeting and mutually modifying. “As I remember”, however, is a phrase that by now belongs in a song itself, because the truth is that I would be hard pressed to describe exactly how we did it. We wrote songs in Footlights and in the kitchen of the communal flat we inhabited at the Edinburgh Festival; and then in our walk-up flat in Swiss Cottage, and later on in Islington; and between studio dates for our London Weekend song-show series The Party’s Moving On, which has no doubt all been wiped; and even at Morgan Sound Studios, where Pete recorded his albums on budgets that wouldn’t have paid for the sandwiches the members of Yes ate while they clumped around on built-up clogs, we would be writing new songs in the bar.

    Year after year, every song we wrote resolutely declined to be commercial. Val Doonican’s cover version of The Flowers And The Wine made more money than all our other efforts put together. Eventually we had to stop. But our songs, it turned out, had what we always hoped for them to have — a life of their own. Those marvellous people who bought them hung on to them, and now here they are again.”

    He has had a few changes of mind about why the partnership never had success, but none of them suggest that he was less than serious about feeling that the songs were some of his best work.

    Try and get hold of some of them. Live Libel is to be avoided, not because it is especially bad but because it is not serious in the way the other albums are.

    Kevin Cryan

  3. Thanks again Kevin. What I was getting at above is that in the first half of the book, the songs with Atkin become a sort of comic motif, where James frequently refers (definitely sardonically) to how he was expecting to make his first million from their music any day now. However he does treat it with more reverence later on. I don’t have the book to hand but his explanation toward the end for the lack of success is essentially that the words were too literary to be widely popular, whereas he now thinks that music should come in “at the knees” and only work its way up to your head later, rather than starting out there. But you probably knew all that anyway.

    I will certainly keep an eye out for them. North Face of Soho has made me keen to revisit a lot of James’s material in all media.

  4. Have you checked out his website? It’s delightful — and jam-packed with heaps of interesting stuff.

    I still think the best thing he ever did was the book and TV series on Fame in the 20th Century. It was brilliant — and way before its time. I often wonder what he thinks about our current obsession with no-talent celebrities.

  5. Ooh, do you know what? I narrowly retrieved my copy of Fame in the 20th Century – the book – from a clearout pile when I was moving books from my bachelor apartment to our marital home recently. Glad I did now!

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