Clive James




book review



Clive James

THE CLIVE James of the written word is an altogether more acceptable kettle of egotism than that which appears with irregularity on our television screens. His ten years as The Observer's TV critic produced wonderfully humorous and astute columns and the travel pieces he penned for the same paper provide the content of Flying Visits.

In its introduction he outlines his penchant for air travel, his fascination with forward thrusts and retractable whatnots, and recalls his first ascent skywards in a vehicle piloted by a character "wearing an eye patch, (he) walked with a stiff leg and saluted the aircraft with what appeared to be an aluminium hand".

Those were the days.

James presents local history in jaunty dollops wherever he goes and takes illuminating, wit-soaked peeks at the present whether he's pretending to discuss economics with inscrutable Japanese economists or being moved to tears in Los Angeles by consuming whole the inferno-in-the-mouth pickle, the Jalapeño.

He also displays a seething mania for etching people into their current backdrop. Most memorably of Thatcher in China: "Nothing like that skin had been since the twin potters of Hopei produced the last piece of their white porcelain with the searing glaze ... and her eyes are two purple bolts from the Forbidden City's Gate Of Divine Prowess, an edifice which, it was clear from her manner, was just a hole in the wall compared to the front door of Downing Street."

Failing Towards England is the latest instalment of James' Unreliable Memoirs. It begins as he sets foot on Southampton docks, fresh faced and shivering in his Hawaiian shirt, off the boat from Australia (fare £60, inclusive of a week's b&b in Earl's Court).

James is in his element constructing one long anecdote out of a succession of smaller anecdotes with himself as the fulcrum. He roams London from dodgy dwellings in Earl's Court to dodgy dwellings in Tufnell Park ("the cutting edge of Bohemia") and, via a coal barge in Twickenham, almost back again.

Life is punctuated by a fat-filled vegetable-free diet, pints of "brown water" and a recurrent dental dilemma only resolved after chancing upon Barry, "the paradigm Australian dentist".

Curiously though, James' tone is one of confession. During these years he cadged money, fags, and sleeping space from friends, used women as washing machines and even refused to attend a kindly landlady's funeral.

It's as if he's owning up now to ease his burden at the last trumpet.


© mick sinclair

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