Tag Archives: Clive James

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.

Critiquing basics for armchair critics

SINCE the dawn of blogging, a full spectrum of critics, from armchair experts to celebrities, has flocked to the free platforms allowing free-rein to quite publicly appraise, rate and critique popular culture.

But it’s a singular form of writing, the role of the critic, one in which angels should fear to dabble.

If anyone’s of a mind to heed a few tips on how to critique (and I am really not anticipating there are too many who will pause before hitting the publish button on their thoughts) here are my ideas on what makes good criticism.

If you don’t have anything nice to say…

Mother said it best – be nice. The best way to give something zero stars is to give it no oxygen whatsoever, but so often snippy critics will revel in blasting something which has every right to take its place in cultural history. Unless life (via some bizarre cultural Interpol) forces you to review something you don’t like, just forget it and move on to something you are more keen on.

Artists who can, do, artists who can’t, critique

Whilst an audience is an essential part of any creative process (art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, right?), being a reader or viewer does not necessarily qualify anyone to be a critic. Like cleaners, who routinely get the blame for office thefts, so critics are blasted for being amateurs who never ‘made it’. The smart critics know this and critique accordingly – either as an extension of their own arts practice (think Clive James) or from decades of experience in the field they’re critiquing (think David Stratton).  The first time I was required to review a play, the knowledge of the passion, time and energy required to ‘raise the curtain’ every night made me look for positives. Anything else would be hypocritical (note the appearance of ‘critic’ in that word).

Watch for spoilers

Critics need to adhere to this maxim more than the average punter. You might have loved the third-act turning point in the latest movie, but if you tell everyone the outcome, they ain’t gonna get a surprise when they go, are they now? If you’re a critic and you’re not sure what a third-act turning point is, read my post about the storytelling basics.

It’s not about liking it

So you didn’t like the play, the movie, the book, the whatever, that doesn’t mean others won’t love it. It’s my assertion that if you put your cultural dislikes into print, you’re only going to end up looking snippy and unhappy. To critique something means to put it in context, to observe what came before it, to attempt to see what makes it unique, even if it doesn’t succeed as a piece of art in your estimation.

They’re not hanging on your opinion

It’s tempting to emulate the great critics – those who could ‘close the show’ on Broadway. But that world is long gone, subsumed by the international opening weekend for new movies, the lack of geographic boundaries on the internet, and the end of paid work in the mainstream media for all but the big-name critics. The social media is where word of mouth, the oldest form of criticism, is happening. It’s free, fast and beyond the control of artists. If you get any attention in that mass of distraction, don’t flatter yourself that your opinion means anything. Try to leave the medium better than you found it, even just a little.

Critics also get rated

WRITE REGARDLESSBritish actress Diana Rigg compiled a collection of the most famous reviews given to actors, as far back as Ancient Greece, in her book No Turn Unstoned, which she subsequently turned into a one-woman show. Critic beware – you’re not immune from getting slated yourself.

An extract from Write, Regardless!

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.