Clive James has been well-known in Great Britain for the past decade as a book reviewer for several publications, television columnist for the Observer, and television personality. (A collection of his essays about literature and television, First Reactions, was published in the United States in 1980.) Unreliable Memoirs, perhaps only the first volume of James’s autobiography, does not deal with this aspect of his life, however, but with his first twenty-two years in his native Australia, ending as he leaves home to conquer England. He sees this book, in part, as an act of exorcism: “Sick of being a prisoner of my childhood, I want to get it behind me.” Unreliable Memoirs is almost an Australian Huckleberry Finn (1885) as its naïve, comic hero travels about Sydney, having misadventure after misadventure, resisting most efforts to civilize him, learning about human nature and about himself, finally lighting out for new territory. James calls the book a fictional autobiography in which people’s names and attributes have been changed, “a figment got up to sound like truth.”
James wants to explain what growing up in Australia in the 1940’s and 1950’s was like, to entertain with his comic exploits, but Unreliable Memoirs also has its serious side. James was born in Sydney in 1939, son of a mechanic and an upholsterer. His father joined the military not long afterward and spent most of the war in a Japanese prison camp. He survived the imprisonment only to die when the plane taking him home after the war crashed in a typhoon. Except for the occasional aunt and senile grandfather, James grew up with only his mother for company. Without using his father’s death to justify any of the numerous flaws in his character, James had a “tiresomely protracted adolescence” as a result. Perhaps the most important of the book’s themes is its hero’s search for a father, for a sense of family. Until he went to university, almost everyone he felt close to deserted him or died. He seems to think of Australia less as his fatherland than as a fatherless land.
James presents himself as a spoiled, undisciplined, careless, insensitive child, as someone who could not and still cannot deal with authority. A benefit of his loneliness was that he became a reader while quite young, reading and rereading old issues of Collier’s, Saturday Evening Post, and other popular magazines. (He did no “serious” reading before he went to Sydney University.)
James writes charmingly and amusingly about what is for the most part a rather ordinary childhood. Delightful are his accounts of constructing trenches, tunnels, and dams throughout the neighborhood, destroying an old lady’s cherished poppy beds when a huge train of carts he had devised whipped out of control while roaring down the hill, learning about and avoiding Australia’s numerous dangerous snakes and spiders, imitating his comic-book and movie-serial heroes by becoming the Flash of Lightning and leading a gang of masked-and-caped kids, falling in love with the young woman in charge of his Cub Scout troop. Then there is the hilarious story of the “dunny man,” one of those responsible for picking up a full privy tank each week and replacing it with an empty one, who tripped over James’s bicycle and was completely covered by excrement.
After scoring high on an IQ test in the fourth grade, James was sent to a school for “gifted” students. During this period he blamed his loneliness on his intellect but later decided that there was “nothing extraordinary” about his mind. (James’s modesty throughout the book is admirable but grows tiresome.) Because this progressive school allowed its students to devote half their school days to pursuing their special interests, James, a war and airplane buff, spent his afternoons building sand-pit battlefields full of lead soldiers and memorizing air-recognition charts. At eleven he could recognize photographs of every aircraft ever built but knew little else.
During this time he constantly fell in love with little girls he called Lacy Skirts and Pocket Venus, but until he went to the university, the painfully shy James had to worship the opposite sex from afar: “Wallflower was an insufficient word to describe me. I was a wallshadow, a wallstain.” After he got to high school, his first sexual...
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