Saturday, May 19, 2007

Reviewing ‘North Face of Soho,’ by Clive James

North Face of Soho is the fourth of possibly five volumes in Clive James’ autobiographical series, Unreliable Memoirs.

This book is marked throughout by a self-deprecating style and is, according to its author, a further “instalment in a serial confession of how I learned to do the right thing only by doing all the wrong things first.”

Without much reserve James writes of his problems with alcohol (especially when he is seeking to perform on stage with clarity and precision), his inability to manage people, his difficulty in writing lines for anyone but himself and his default position of running away from conflict and disagreement.

Who is Clive James? It is difficult for the reader to hit this moving target who appears in the early pages with hairy sideboards, velvet jackets, flared trousers and paisley cravats but who becomes an actor in the theatre, a reviewer of books, plays and television, an author, travel writer, poet, song writer and television performer.

True to form James says “he is an ordinary person” who hates being over-billed and always feels that he “has not achieved anything substantial.”

Clive James has often been called an entertainer but he does not want to claim this title. He says, “Though the desire to entertain is not to be despised… the best an entertainer can hope to do is to be instructive.” Clive fulfils this role admirably. While this book is awash with witty one-liners that are sometimes showy or offered just for a belly laugh, most of his witticisms are intended to teach, provoke or prick a bubble of illusion. For instance, when writing about the lure of taking drugs James says, “Vice always finds it easy to make virtue look naïve.”

While this volume offers fascinating insights into the events of his life and his hopes and dreads, there is little light shed on Clive James the husband and father. He intentionally leaves his wife and two daughters in the background for fear that they “would combine to lynch me if I went into detail about their virtues.” He continues, “All three women in my immediate family are united in the belief that private life and publicity are incompatible, and I agree with them.”

The lack of family detail is compensated by the ample insights into the literary contemporaries of Clive James, including Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and Spike Milligan. Many celebrities that James encounters are described in the way a cartoonist exaggerates a certain characteristic. For example, after interviewing Burt Lancaster James wrote, “His teeth looked like tombstones any way, and when he bared them in a smile it looked like a carnival in a graveyard.”

Readers of this book will be treated to many tips on the difficult art of writing well. He says that his own style “works by packing stuff in, not stretching it out, and there is always a danger of trying to say too much at once.” He writes about his struggles with writing and speaks of the way that different editors have helped him. His sentences are substantial and never slack, colourful images abound and his stories are told with relish and gusto. James is often cited as the person with the gift of an apt phrase and this book contains many examples.

North of Soho is a treasure chest of information about writing humorously, becoming a good interviewer, seeking an agent and the knack of getting published.

Clive James admits he is getting better at learning from his mistakes. But, he says, “Without those big mistakes I would never have learned anything in the first place. The graph of your increasing profit from your own errors is the only authentic measure of progress.” It is this down-to-earth honesty, penetrating wisdom and ability to see the constructive contribution of failure that makes this book so valuable, especially for readers who crave the culture of success.

Clive James, North of Soho, Unreliable Memoirs Vol. IV (London: Picador, 2006).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 126.00.

Geoff Pound

Image: Front Cover of North of Soho.