Thursday, 12 January 2012

North Face of Soho: Unreliable Memoirs Volume IV by Clive James book review in The Daily Yomiuri on 9th December 2006

James as unreliable as ever and that's a good thing
By Stephen Taylor / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

North Face of Soho: Unreliable Memoirs Volume IV
By Clive James
Picador, 264 pp, 17.99 pounds

North Face of Soho is the latest volume in broadcaster and journalist Clive James' series of Unreliable Memoirs. The first volume chronicled his childhood years in Australia, while the second part, Falling Towards England, was an account of his move to Britain in the 1960s.

May Week Was in June covered his time at Cambridge University up to his marriage in 1968, which is where North Face of Soho takes up the story.

The 67-year-old Sydneysider says in the introduction that: "Each of those [earlier] volumes was an instalment in a serial confession of how I learned to do the right thing only by doing all the wrong things first. This volume will work the same way."

And James is not afraid to share the bad times as well as the good with the reader, such as his failure to transfer the Cambridge University Footlights revue that he had successfully directed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to London's West End.

Having managed to take the show to a small theater in the capital, union restrictions block its chances of reaching a wider audience and, to console himself, James drinks several beers before going on stage.

His inept performance prompts him to fire himself after the show, "since I had previously threatened to fire any of them [the cast] who turned up drunk."

Drinking, and the drinking culture that existed around London's Fleet Street journalists, is never far away during the next phase of his life and he even offers a historical reference to give it a certain legitimacy: "In the times of Swift and Dr Johnson, the gathering places were the coffee houses. In my time, they were the pubs."

And James liked to gather. Unfortunately for him, his capacity for gathering was lower than some of his peers and his, "light head and frequent visits to the toilet soon became notorious."

Nevertheless, his regular haunt, the Pillars of Hercules pub, was aptly named as it was through drinking contacts he met there that he found work at two pillars of the British literary establishment--The Times Literary Supplement and The Listener, reviewing books and radio programs, respectively.

And the Australian is not afraid to admit to other indulgences, with one chapter, "Night of the Killer Joint," revealing an addictive personality which means that, "Even today, I can't buy a roll of Extra Strong peppermints...without swallowing them all one after the other after chewing each no more than twice."

In the early 1970s, he started writing a TV column for The Observer newspaper, while at the same time presenting a program about movies on British TV, called Cinema, allowing him to introduce that most important element of celebrity autobiographies--famous names.

On his TV show, he interviewed some of the big screen's top stars, such as Richard Burton, Burt Lancaster and Peter Sellers. The account of his meeting with Sellers may have been written with the benefit of hindsight, but it is one of the most entertaining parts of the book, as the former Goon lives up to his eccentric reputation by behaving like an "egomaniac," as James puts it.

And he even clears up any argument over his often misquoted description of Arnold Schwarzenegger as "a brown condom full of walnuts," by pointing out that other journalists' "most common mistake was to leave out the word 'brown', thereby fatally depleting the visual information."

In December 1976, James shared the green room at the studio in Manchester where the Sex Pistols were interviewed by Bill Grundy on a live TV show that shot the group to infamy across a shocked nation. He was less than impressed with the punk movement, claiming it "did so much to make Britain a nastier, uglier, and more unsettling place."

Despite his assertion that he is penning a "confession" to the reader, he maintains a confident attitude that some people might find a little arrogant, particularly when he states "the knack [of phrase-making] is in my life's blood."

The Antipodean's anecdotes are humorous without being too lightweight or frothy and, though an index would have been useful, North Face of Soho is a fascinating journey through the British media and literary world from the late '60s to the early 1980s.

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