I often wonder what became of Graham Truscott. A young Clive James had a fad for climbing to the top of his bedroom wardrobe and leaping onto the bed, which then “groaned satisfactorily”. His mates all wanted to do it, too, but “It was a mistake to let Graham Truscott* play. He had a double chin even at that age and a behind like a large bag of soil.”
When I first read that bit, a good thirty years ago, I laughed like a drain, and that delightfully bountiful visual image has made me laugh ever since. Yet, James’ first volume of memoir is so heart-stoppingly, pant-wettingly hilarious*, that almost every page in the section about his schooldays has a moment like that. For this reason alone it is one of my favourite books, but James’ sensual descriptions of growing up as a child of a war-widowed mother in post-war Sydney is so much more than that. Its a slice of social history, a reflection of growing up without a dad, the dawning of sex, and discovering that education is your way up, up and away, although James’ superhero of choice wasn’t Superman, but his own creation, the Flash of Lightning.
Unreliable Memoirs was reviewed as being: “Enormously funny…well up to best James standard. Buy it.” And that was by Cosmopolitan magazine. How things change. Back in the Eighties, Cosmo was still a serious women’s read, and James was a big star, thanks to his journalism (there’ll never be a TV critic like him), and shows like Clive James on Television, Saturday Night Clive and the Postcards series made him a fixture with both the chattering classes and those who only watched his shows to laugh at Margarita Pracatan or Endurance.
He’s been seriously ill for the best part of a decade, and whilst still writing poetry and prose, and occasionally popping up talking about his health, or on Radio 4’s superb A Point of View, James’ wit and intellect won’t be a thing that you’ll be much aware of if you’re under 30. So on World Book Day, I would implore you to read Unreliable Memoirs if you haven’t already, and if you have, buy it for someone of any age who hasn’t. It’s vivid and hilarious content has stayed with me for many decades, and led to me reading the rest of his memoir series; a witty, poignant memory of a swashbuckling world of journalism and media that doesn’t exist any more, and his novels, criticism, poetry and lyrics.
And yes, he is one of my heroes, and talent like his is barely seen in popular culture any more. When I interviewed him for The Scotsman in 1995, he talked about writing being at the heart of all he did. “What I do for television is writing, especially on the Postcards series. Journalism on television has been like a great wave receding. When I was a television critic, the screen was full of writers, men like James Cameron. It wasn’t so much that they knew how to get the story, they knew how to write it in an interesting way.”
So hurrah that Mr James is still around. Let’s celebrate him while he is.
*Graham’s sister Maureen had the same build. “…like Fatty Arbuckle, and no lovelier for being clad in black sandshoes, blue shorts and a singlet like a two-car garage.”
** At infants’ school, James says that “I piddled on the floor when it was my turn to sing. Conversely, I got caught drinking my daily bottle of milk on the lavatory.”