Clive’s reliable boy’s-own tales

A Writer’s review of Clive James’ Unreliable Memoirs.

“Insights into the raw appetites that drove an Aussie boy.”

CLIVE James’ first memoir is a time capsule bursting with relics from a suburban Australian childhood. Thirty-five years after its first publication,  it sits uneasily in a culture that may have evolved around it, yet it contains the seeds of our time in the author’s ‘bloggy’ voice.

Clive James is an icon and a cliché. The person who remains most shocked about the ease of his advancement into the box seat of popular culture is him, although Unreliable Memoirs gives several insights into the raw appetites that drove an Aussie boy who was always hungry for something tastier than he was getting.

9780330264631The classic first edition cover image (which places Clive and his mother right within the typography of the title) hints at storylines that James avoids, and which would be far more interesting to this reader than most of his ‘boy scout’ adventures.

I wanted to know a lot more about the ongoing emotional tussle he and his mother had in the wake of the untimely death of his father in the first chapter, at a time when Clive was a young child. I believe this conflict would shed light on the journey all Australian creatives take.

But to chart those waters would lead to very little of the schtick we have come to expect from Clive James, although he acknowledges that the reason he does not is because he didn’t pay much attention to the single parent who protected him through the years this first volume of his memoirs covers.

Very few young Aussie boys do, busy as they are seeking validation within the dominant male culture.

“Confessions of a same-sex ‘phase’ for young men would have been considered scandalous.”

James got a lot of critical flack for focussing on the sex lives of young teenagers, but these are the most honest passages of this book. At the time it was published, confessions of a same-sex ‘phase’ for young men would have been considered scandalous, yet even now this element of Unreliable Memoirs admit truths our culture does not want to.

James’ book recalls childhood freedoms, but it feels cloistered, and that quality is just right for evoking the sheltered culture he (and most of us) grew up in during the second half of the 20th century in Australia.

By the time the closing chapters see him off to England, his adopted ‘Mother Country’, James is busy evoking some kind of abortive ‘mother’ whose birth canal he escapes by emerging from Sydney Heads; and it’s not until visiting the Changi POW camp, where his father was imprisoned, that James engages in any kind of humour-free introspection.


The last page is the most powerful writing in this book, refreshingly devoid of James’ stock-in-trade send-ups.

I suspect he may have learned something of this emotional connection from his mother, if only he’d recalled that in as much detail as the boy’s own yarns.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.

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