Tuesday 6 December 2016

Over-achievement: Clive James at Cambridge

After finishing Adam Nicolson's The Mighty Dead, I found myself wondering what to follow it with as my main bedtime read - something more easeful, less substantial, less brilliant than Nicolson's great work. As so often, charity-shop serendipity came to my aid when I spotted May Week Was in June, the third volume of Clive James's Unreliable Memoirs, on the carousel in the Sue Ryder shop. Having read and enjoyed the first two volumes years ago, I thought this would be just the thing.
 In a way, I was right; it was certainly readable (James knows how to keep you turning the pages) and pretty undemanding. And it covers James's Cambridge years, though little about his frenetically active time there chimes with my own student experience (if I ever wrote a similarly themed memoir it would be called Stark Insensibility, or perhaps The Torpid Years, and it would be very slim). James had left, trailing clouds of glory, the year before I arrived, having written for or edited all the Cambridge magazines, virtually taken over Footlights, captained Pembroke on University Challenge, gained a 2:1 and embarked on a Ph.D, learnt several languages, written many poems, read everything (except, he claims, what was on the curriculum), watched all the worthwhile movies known to man (and worked on a film), kept a voluminous journal, spent a lot of time in Florence, wooed and wed, made himself known to everyone of any consequence, and had long pieces published in the New Statesman.
 In the face of all this over-achievement, James's compulsive self-deprecation can lose its charm - and indeed its credibility: you don't get to do all that if you're the kind of hopeless slacker and stumblebum arriviste James portrays himself as. Similarly the characteristic Jamesian mix of flip comedy and high seriousness here doesn't quite gel, making for a lumpy read - and the habit of mixing real names and pseudonyms ('Romaine Rand' for Germaine Greer, 'Dave Dalziel' for Bruce Beresford, etc) becomes tiresome, as do some of the supposedly comic characters (like the American who is forever saying 'Blow it out your ass'). At times the self-deprecation falters and James shows signs of believing rather too strongly in the merits of his - and others' - Footlights productions. Some passages even read like a stagestruck showbiz memoir - the last thing you'd expect, or want, from Clive James.
 However, for all that, May Week Was in June was a good bedside read, enjoyable enough (James is almost incapable of writing dully), with some genuinely funny moments and some acute observations. Even if the self-deprecation is laid on with a trowel, some of it shows genuine insight into his compulsions and shortcomings. Near the end, he looks back and observes himself as his Cambridge days come to a close: '... he sits writing in his journal. He has just told it that he is reasonably satisfied. The insistent suspicion that he has not yet begun, and has nothing to show, is too frightening to record. For someone who has good reason to believe that he doesn't exist apart from what he does, to doubt that he has done anything worthwhile is to gaze into the abyss.' A passage like that makes you glad that, for all his gifts and achievements and charm, you're not Clive James.

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