North Face of Soho by Clive James 2.

I have just finished reading Clive James’s North Face of Soho, and while I have not yet made up my mind about whether or not this fourth volume Unreliable Memoirs is up to the standard set by the of the previous three volumes, I am in full agreement with the Telegraph‘s Selina Hastings observation:

One of the most rewarding aspects of this exuberant work is the writer’s willingness to reveal the backstage mechanics of his professional life. Not only are we given the glamorous lunches with fashionable literati such as Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Martin Amis, but James shows, as it were, the engine-room in action. He takes the trouble to analyse exactly what it requires to be a television critic or write a book review, explains the necessity of precisely measuring the syllables in a line of poetry. With a shift of gear we witness the distressing experience of sharing a green room with the Sex Pistols (‘the little shits were genuine, you could say that for them’). And he shows us, too, how not to conduct an interview, quoting his first experience, on television with the lyricist Johnny Mercer, which was such a disaster it had to be scrapped. ‘I made the beginner’s classic mistake’, says James, ‘of including the answer in the question. This left my puzzled guest with little to say beyond “yes” and “no”.Those pieces about how James learned how to get things done certainly had me riveted.    

On the back dustcover of North Face of Soho, James says:

The best and entertainer can hope to do, when writing about what he does (and nobody asks him to do that; he decides to do it for his own reasons, is to be instructive). As a consequence, the book will be full of homilies about what to avoid. These homilies are sincerely meant; but with one proviso, which I hope is a saving grace; if I myself had avoided all these things, I would have probably got nothing done at all.

As they say, it does what it says on the cover. In fact, it does it so well that those parts of the book which deal with his learning how make television programmes, write short and long articles and so on should be required reading for all those thinking about going into the media, or taking media studies courses.


The man who learned – too late, as it happens – that the actor Robert Mitchum cared for language too much to give the same interview twice, because Mitchum was too fond of language to simply repeat himself over and over, has a lot pass on and he does it very entertainingly indeed.


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