Unreliable Memoirs – Clive James

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.”

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Exposure: The Unusual Life and Violent Death of Bob Carlos Clarke – Simon Garfield

What does it take to be a successful artist or performer? You’ve got to be ruthless and selfish, I think. I read some Twitter criticism of Lesley-Ann Jones’ Bowie biography Hero, with readers complaining that they didn’t like some aspects of his character portrayed in the book, the ones which showed how he could use and then discard people on his way to the top. I had to laugh – do people really think that you get to be a massive star by being lovely, kind and self-effacing at all times?

Simon Garfield’s biography of acclaimed Irish photographer Bob Carlos Clarke, best known for his erotic photography and celebrity portraits, is a tremendous insight into what both makes and breaks an artist. Carlos Clarke was born into a shabby genteel Irish family and unhappily sent away to board at Wellington College. His mother gave birth to his brother Andrew when Bob was eight, and returned from school to find a cuckoo in the nest, and hated it. He never got over it, and in the book, Bob’s second wife Lindsay says: “He used to do terrible things to Andrew…terrible, tortuous things. You know, nail him into a box and roll him down a cliff. Wished he was dead.”

This, plus rebellious acts like trying to smuggle 200 condoms into Catholic Ireland, illustrates how Bob became both a difficult man and a lover of photographing women encased in rubber (as well as the Marco Pierre White book, White Heat, in which the chef was shot as an angelic yobbo). He became an immensely successful photographer, renowned for the quality of his photographic printing, and moved in all the right Chelsea circles.

It only made him happy to a degree. He wanted to be taken more seriously as an artist, felt hemmed in by the ‘erotic photographer’ tag. I had some sympathy for him – isn’t every artist nagged by some self-doubt? – but although Garfield tries to be scrupulously fair about his subject, I came away not liking Bob Carlos Clarke very much. The way he treated his little brother abominably (though they reconciled a little towards the end). The way he became obsessed with girlfriends and models and deeply offended when they went their own way, even if he hadn’t had an affair with them. His jealousy when his assistants, to whom he’d been kind when they were working for him, went on to be successful on their own terms.

The way he always had to be the centre of attention. The way he obviously adored his and Lindsey’s daughter Scarlett, but as she says: “He used to play practical jokes on me, always winding me up and I used to get really upset,” before going on to detail potentially fatal japes that her father set up for her. Bad enough to do that kind of thing to your brother, but to your own child?

Nevertheless, it’s a book that I’ve just raced through, despite not really liking the subject. I think I’ve read every book about Peter Cook, who fascinates me, yet whom I still don’t like very much. I came away from Burt Bacharach’s autobiography thinking: “What a nob”. Just goes to show, a book about a less than saintly subject makes for excellent reading.

Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde – Franny Moyle

Last week, Charles Dickens – who most of us already knew to be an odious shit towards his wife Catherine – was revealed to be even more of a bastard when letters discovered by University of York professor John Bowen revealed that Dickens had tried to get his wife placed in a lunatic asylum to get her out of his way.

It made me think of Franny Moyle’s superlative biography of Constance Wilde, wife of Oscar, and the spiral of loss she became involved in after her superficially ideal marriage publically collapsed after Oscar’s affair with Lord Alfred Douglas. Moyle, who previously detailed the lives and loves of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in Desperate Romantics, uses hundreds of Constance’s previously unseen letters to friends and family to show that she should be remembered as a remarkable woman, not simply a wronged wife.

She and Oscar had what he described as an “artistic marriage” creating a temple to all things aesthetic in their Tite Street home, where they threw gatherings for anyone that mattered, and dressed in extraordinary outfits, became celebrities. Moyle points out that “Mrs Oscar Wilde…had certainly become the brand extension that her husband had hoped.”

Constance was as much a star as Oscar. Though he had a magazine editorship (The Woman’s World) and his plays; she was also a published author, campaigner for rational dress for women (wool, mainly), a proto-feminist and liberal who supported Oscar in the dark days of his trial for gross indecency with men. She turned up at the premiere of The Importance of Being Earnest, stunningly dressed in white fur, and on the arms of both Oscar and Bosie.

She supported her husband whilst he was in prison, despite being humiliated by Victorian values and driven to live on the continent to bring up her sons away from their father’s humiliation. Constance only really gave up on him when, on leaving prison, he ran back into Bosie’s arms, rather than the bosom of his family. Constance died after a long illness (possibly multiple sclerosis) and a botched operation in Genoa, aged only 39.

Moyle’s book is fabulous on so many levels, not least because it rattles along with the pace of a novel. It brilliantly recreates the world of London’s aesthetes of the late 19th century with incredibly vivid prose; the difficulties of living in an unusual marriage (which is probably not so unusual to us today), and by the way it gives us a different view of Oscar Wilde himself.

Most importantly, it shows Constance as a remarkable woman in her own right, who deserves to come out of her husband’s shadow. She really didn’t need the words “Wife of Oscar Wilde” added to her Genovese grave in the Sixties.

 

Departures – Yojiro Takita

It’s a film about a Japanese funeral director-type. NO, COME BACK! I do keep recommending this film to people, but I bet that nobody has watched it because they think it will be awful. It isn’t; it’s lovely and life affirming and yes, a bit cheesy, but I like films like that.

Cellist Daigo has to give up his job in a Tokyo orchestra when it’s disbanded, and goes with wife Mika to live in his childhood home that was left to him by his late mother (Dad ran off ages ago). The only job Daigo gets offered is as one “assisting departures”. He, of course, thinks he’s going to be a travel agent; in fact the job is one of a ‘Nokanshi’ or ‘encoffineer’, the man who prepares the body for cremation by using elaborate ceremonies.

Well, of course his first body hasn’t been discovered for two weeks before it gets sent to the funeral director, so it leaves a bit of a whiff on him. To clear, it, he goes to the local bath house, where he meets Mrs Yamashita, the mother of one of his schoolmates, and they build a sweet friendship.

Mika doesn’t realise her husband has been working with dead bodies, and leaves him (bit harsh), but returns when she finds she’s pregnant – still hoping he’ll find a proper job. However, events happen – you can probably guess which ones – which give the film a most satisfying ending.

I really like Departures, as it shows us a traditional side of Japan not often seen by most people. And because I am quite morbid, I love the way we see the funeral ceremonies which are quiet, slow, dignified rituals where the whole family look on; we are so distanced from death nowadays that it’s quite primal to see the rituals of death played out.

Also – Departures is a slow-moving film which isn’t full of action, but of feeling. My idea of a very good time, and that of the Academy, which voted it the Best Foreign Film in 2008.

Station to Station – David Bowie

By means of introduction, I’m going to talk about an album that doesn’t really need one. When Bowie died, I realised I had a massive hole in his canon of work (vicar), as after I first got into him aged seven or eight, I’d been sidelined by being a teenybopper, and only dipped back in during the early Eighties.

The albums from Station to Station to Lodger were a complete mystery to me as I’d always presumed they were too ‘difficult’ and weirdy-electronic-y for my watered-down tastes, so, as one of the billions who swung by a record shop in a period of mourning, I bought them all from a very nice man in HMV, who also told me about some top places to visit in Berlin (because people in record shops are like that).

What a berk I was not to have given those albums a listen. Or maybe now I was finally old enough to get it all (just as I feel you have to have a few miles on the clock to get Steely Dan or Stephen Sondheim). I’d missed years of total adoration of Station to Station in particular, especially the the two-songs-for-the-price-of-one title track that’s a sonic masterpiece. The six tracks are a mix of art and emotion; slick plastic soul and heart-on-the-sleeve. I find it odd that I love the album so much, when it was made during an entirely crap period in Bowie’s life when the Thin White Duke was on a Big Fat Coke Trip and surviving on nothing but milk and peppers. How could he make an album like that, with a bizarre and wonderful range of songs, from the funky rump-shaker Stay to the romantic ballad Wild Is The Wind, when he was ripped to the tits on Class As? That’s a world-class artistic mind, I guess, making genius out of your own misery.

I feel a bit of a tit admitting that I’d not listened to Station to Station until fairly recently, especially as I’ve been the arts editor of a national newspaper and feel it should have been on my ‘tick list’ of stuff. But hell, you can’t keep up with every single cultural milestone, can you? In my job, I enjoyed pointing out great music, books, films and art to readers, but the paper being a mid-market tabloid, it couldn’t be exactly cutting-edge. Sharing the things we know and love with those of our kind, as the Dan put it, is an absolute joy, so in this blog I’m going to share all kinds of random arty stuff that I like, and I think that you might, too; some you might know well, some you might not. The great thing about arts is that they’re there for everyone, and there’s always something new to discover, whatever your jumping-on point is, and you don’t have to pretend you’ve read, seen or listened to everything.

And tell me what you like, too. And yes, I do know that senior Nazis didn’t come up with the phrase “When I hear the word ‘culture’, I reach for my revolver”.