The Blaze of Obscurity: The TV Years. By Clive James.

by John Boland

In the early 1980s, after a decade as Britain’s funniest and sharpest television reviewer, Clive James became an active participant in the medium that had so excercised his marvellous critical faculties. In doing so, as he relates in this fifth volume of his memoirs, he found himself inhabiting “the strange world where everybody knows your face while you hardly ever know theirs.”

He has addressed the notion of celebrity before – in his television series Fame in the 20th Century and in his essay collection The Meaning of Recognition – but here he embraces rather than examines the phenomenon and it makes for tiresome reading. Indeed, those who’ve long thought James the most bracingly no-nonsense observer of the cultural scene (as well as the best literary critic alive today) may find the book dismaying.

It’s all “Me, me, me,” which I suppose is inevitable in a personal memoir, though hardly to the extent of James’s self-infatuation. And when he’s not directly telling you how charismatic and gifted he is (even such a ratings failure as his Fame series was “simply ahead of its time”), the inference is there in his listing of the illustrious people with whom he hobnobs.

Indeed, the name-dropping sometimes become farcical – at Diana Phipps’s “glittering salon” he finds himself chatting with the likes of David Hockney, Philip Roth, Harold Pinter, Isaiah Berlin, Lord Weidenfeld and Alfred Brendel. And though he recognises that such occasions can be dangerous to the creative spirit (“Either you had a social life or you got things done”), he still can’t resist letting you know that he was there and you weren’t and that he was considered an intellectual and conversational equal at these meetings of great minds.

Not  everyone regards him as such, he concedes, but even when someone in the street shouts “Clive, you’re a tosser” he turns it to his own advantage, wearily observing that “one of the most unsettling aspects of being public property…is that you are always addressed by your first name even when the message is abusive.”

The message is seldom that, though he does worry about those friends and colleagues who can’t reconcile his new role as television celebrity chortling at insane Japanese game shows and schmoozing Hollywood stars with his more “serious” undertakings as critic and poet. But he doesn’t worry overmuch because he knows that his talent is too great and too various to be confined to any of its aspects – he can do it all and do it with aplomb.

The only problem with that is that it’s not true. James’s television achievements – as chat show host, city guide and New Year’s Night emcee – were often fun but they were of no consequence and would be as unwatchable today as are the vast majority of TV programmes from the past. And his recollections of the star names he encountered while making them aren’t especially interesting and sometimes reduce him to the kind of prose of which he should be incapable. This is especially noticeable in his descriptions of women – Jerry Hall is “a stunningly statuesque blonde,” his female producer has a “fetching form,” other women are “lookers,” while his doting recollections of Princess Diana are so embarrassing as to make you wish words had failed him.

The reader is promised one more book of memoirs. In the meantime it’s to be hoped that this brilliant man will continue to do what he does best – create essays of incomparable insight, elegance and urgency about the writers, thinkers, heroes and despots who have fashioned our world. You’ll find them all in Cultural Amnesia, published in 2007 and one of the key books of our time.

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