Clive James on Writing

You might know that I have been reading the Complete Unreliable Memoirs (CUM) for a few weeks. I’ve been posting updates on Goodreads direct from my Kindle. This is a massive 1,120 pages of ebook-only compendium of all five volumes of Clive’s autobiography. According to Ian Shircore, Clive was writing book six, covering his final illness, but the topic was so dull and macabre that he gave up.

I remember Clive’s ‘review’ of Maria McKee’s Show Me Heaven. My sides split. I remember that he voiced the Formula One highlights videos for many years in the 1980s. He even made Formula One funny. Clive could make anything funny. Clive could make Margarita Pracatan look good. More even that that, he could make her sound good.

I just read a sentence in CUM that struck me as perfectly balanced. When I checked, I found that each of the two clauses, separated by a single comma, had the same number of syllables. Even his prose was poetic. Clive was that rare thing. A polymath with a gut as wide as his library and a head as shiny as the joy he found in everyday life. Clive James was a genius.

Even funnier on the page than he was on TV, he was never off it for the whole of the 1980s. He only threw in the towel around 2000 after his ordinary, but only by his own standards, end of the millennium show. His company, Watchmaker, was named by his friend and producer Richard Drewett, who was a collector of fine timepieces. But it was a clever name: the shows made you watch television.

Clive James taught the teenaged me a few things. He taught me that getting up at midnight on the final night of the year was an error. The only thing to do was watch the entire Clive James show for all the years I remember growing up. Others followed in his footsteps, but nobody was as good. His postcards had me in stitches. They worked because he appeared content to act the fool, but he always had the last laugh. I was a little young for his chat shows, but he got all of the biggest international stars.

Australians in Britain always seemed to do well. At least, the ones you have ever heard of all did well. Imagine how many thousands fell short. They were flying in by the boatload in the decades after the second world war. Clive dismisses the notion that there was an Australian mafia in operation in the British media. Many of the expats hated each other, he implies. Some of them left Australia just to get away from some of the others, who then immediately followed in their wake. There were rivalries and arguments, as you might expect if you thought about it. But we can’t get enough of the Australian accent. In Clive’s day, he describes the reception he invariably received as naked racism. A surprising suggestion for someone who grew up on Neighbours.

Yes, Clive was the real deal. I thought the poetry was by another Clive James, but once you read it, you know it’s the same guy. I can’t believe he wrote for the TLS in the days before it was Stig Abell’s hipster hangout du jour. I dream of getting into today’s TLS. Clive was never out of it. Clive ascended the north face of Soho before I knew what Soho was. When I worked in the office building adjoining Liberty’s, I was unwittingly following him once again. As I walked behind Russell Crowe one lunch time, nodding and smiling with my colleagues, Clive was hiding in a doorway.

You must read some Clive James. Find his shows on YouTube. He’s a one-off. Even his name has two perfectly balanced words of five letters each.