November 2006

Arts & Letters

‘North Face of Soho: Unreliable Memoirs Volume IV’ by Clive James

By Chris Middendorp

Near the conclusion of the third volume of his memoirs, May Week Was in June, Clive James argued memorably that constructing a decent sentence in English is "at the foundation of our democracy". Given this, James's linguistic acuity as a poet, essayist, novelist, songwriter, TV presenter and online oracle makes him a one-man bulwark against tyranny.

In his latest volume, James continues to assemble sentences the way Mozart assembled melodies. The style feels effortless, concise, joyful. The book is stuffed full of uproarious anecdotes, some of them - James's encounters with big names such as Peter Sellers and Burt Lancaster - so exquisitely structured that you'll want to read them aloud to friends.

But James's humour is rarely intended just for laughs; he employs mirth to make his psychological or cultural insights more engaging. While the foibles of the famous provide undeniable comic opportunities, James's vignettes invariably steer you to one of his central themes: how fame can lead to psychological corruption, fanaticism and loneliness.

James is courageous enough to turn his analytical gifts on himself, recounting how his attention-seeking tendencies were tempered by the recognition that one can learn more from mistakes and blunders than from applause. At their core, all four memoirs chronicle how Clive James narrowly avoided becoming an overweening prat. The man ultimately revealed in North Face of Soho is as ordinary as he is extraordinary. What saves James from fatal self-love is his more profound romance with people and ideas, with culture in all its guises.

There's an elegiac tone to this instalment. That's probably because as the ticking of the clock grows louder, James seems increasingly conscious that he is one of the few pundits left from a halcyon era in which big ideas could be explored in the mainstream media.

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