In the early 1940s, as soldiers scrambled across foreign soil, a small caped figure darted down a driveway in the humble suburb of Kogarah, New South Wales. Ducking behind cars and through fences strung with passionfruit vines, the figure zigzagged up to the front door of one of the houses, its small hand reaching towards the doorbell. Seconds later, a loud trill ripped through the dreams of the house and set the dogs along the street barking. But before the inhabitants could reach the door the caped crusader had already scurried back down the driveway and through the fence, disappearing into the blackout. His name was Flash of Lightning, but by day the people of Kogarah knew him simply as Clive James.

In fact Clive wasn’t his real name either. He had been christened Vivian after a popular Davis Cup tennis player, Vivian McGrath. But the name became unshakeably feminine when Vivien Leigh starred in Gone with the Wind, released the same year James was born. James’ mother allowed him to change his name, and he chose Clive, the name of the hero from one of his favourite films, This Above All. That he should have drawn inspiration from the screen for his name is portentous in two ways. Firstly, he would go on to make his name as a television critic, among other things. And secondly, he would, in some ways, always be acting out a role. ‘I know now’, he writes in his memoirs, ‘that until very recent years I was never quite all there – that I was playacting instead of living.’

Perhaps it was naïve of me to expect to discover the true life story of Clive James when I read his memoirs. Apart from my established understanding that truth in nonfiction is a prickly issue, I should have been prepared for James’s tongue-in-cheek approach. Some authors hermit themselves away and are unknowable to the public except through their writing. Clive James, on the other hand, carries his own spotlight. He has sought an audience in every genre he could justifiably attempt: novelist, poet, memoirist, essayist, documentary film maker, chat show host, lyricist, journalist, and scholar. He has been described as a ‘media tart,’ ‘the busiest man on television,’ and a ‘one-man writers’ festival’. Despite this, the “real” James is a mystery. On the screen and on the page, James never tells the complete truth about himself. Even in memoir, a genre whose strength is its claim to truth, James toys with his life story, exaggerating and colouring facts, ‘playacting instead of living.’

From the outset of his five volumes of memoirs James warns that ‘the whole thing is a figment got up to sound like truth.’ Even the title, Unreliable Memoirs, invites distrust. The Clive James on the page is ‘something like my real self’, he admits in the preface. But the other figures, his friends and family, ‘have been run through the scrambler or else left out completely’. He does, however, make some claims to truth: ‘My memoirs have a core of truth – they’re emotionally true.’

What is emotionally true about James then? Seeking to answer this question, I looked to his childhood – for, as James says, ‘you don’t ever get over that early vision of yourself.’ Mischievous and imaginative, the young Clive James was a compulsive entertainer. He was the fatherless boy who, on the weekends, could be spotted at the movies with his mother and, on lazy Sundays, causing trouble around the neighbourhood. At school he ‘cultivated a knack of exaggeration’. Kids would congregate in the playground at lunchtime to hear him spin a yarn from rumour and hearsay. It didn’t matter that his story of the Okinawa kamikazes had been pinched from a movie, his audience understood that ‘what Jamesie said wasn’t meant to be true – only entertaining.’ In a sense I think James has never grown out of this childhood self. He is still the caped crusader, the Flash of Lightning, roaming the streets of Kogarah in disguise.

While echoes of the young larrikin can be seen in James today, he is adept at playing a role. In the second and third instalments of his memoirs, Falling Towards England and May Week Was In June, I encountered another version of Clive. This time he was the ‘Aussie abroad’. It is a role that has been in equal parts created for him by the Australian press ­– most recently in the ABC documentary series Brilliant Creatures – and also cultivated by James himself. Like Barry Humphries before him with the character of Barry McKenzie, a parody of the straightforward, crude Aussie aboard, James discovered that playing the role of the Aussie in Britain could work in his favour. In an article in the Times Literary Supplement, republished in The Dreaming Swimmer, James suggests that ‘the Australian expatriate [enjoys a] privileged status as a barbarian’. To maintain this ‘privileged status’ James flaunted his ‘childish or adolescent Australian self’ as he built his career in Britain. ‘It has always been a rewarding role to play,’ he confides.

These multiple roles and disguises make it difficult to pinpoint any definitive version of Clive James. Of course, James intends it to be difficult – he presents a plethora of versions of himself, toying with that prickly problem of truth in memoir.

But there is a sense that even James feels the fragmentation and tension between his various selves. In his first volume of memoir, he observes with some concern: ‘On the one hand, I was a petty bourgeois student, on the other a libertarian bohemian. I could feel my own personality coming apart like the original continental plates.’ In May Week Was In June, he tells how the philosophy of Wittgenstein helped him identify a self among the jumble of disguises. ‘There must have been a self there of some kind, or I wouldn’t have been able to register these comings and goings. I luxuriated, however, in the awareness of an undiscovered country in the mind. Every man his own terra incognita.’

Reading this, I felt as though James had finally given me a clue. After playing with my expectations as a reader of nonfiction and distracting me with exaggerated caricatures, here, finally, was the key to understanding him – Clive James does not even know who Clive James is. His real self is undiscovered; he is his own terra incognita. This, I believe, is as close as we as readers can get to what is “real” and “true”. It isn’t exactly a conclusive or satisfying place to land when trying to pinpoint the real Clive James. We’ll just have to take comfort in knowing, as his schoolmates did when they gathered in the playground to hear his wild stories, that what Jamesie says isn’t ‘meant to be true – only entertaining’.


Image credit: Frantzesco Kangaris