Book review: North Face of Soho

North Face of Soho.North Face of Soho by Clive James.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars.

My plan to read all of Clive James’ Unreliable Memoirs volumes continues apace. It’s been a while since I read the first three, so this fourth is like an unexpected visit from an old mate.

In this volume, Clive is – in the polyester-and-beard ’70s – married and attempting to shift towards a more stable income. However, that’s not as simple as one would expect, and the pages detail epic poems, poet-bashing, too-smart songwriting and a dinner (with surprise trumpet interlude) with Spike Milligan.

The action, though it trots around the UK (and as far afield as the then-Soviet Union), is mostly based in London, in idea if not in actuality. There’s a sense of literary community and solidifying relationships, and James plays up his role as a Boswell of sorts, except with Fleet Street and a cadre of what would now be considered Important Authors (Amis, Hitchens, Barnes et al) as his Johnson.

Though he boozily congregates with famous poets, performers and pen-pushers, the author continues in his winningly self-deprecating mode, coupled with some pinpricks at apt junctures. Hollywood stars are treated as the rara avis they are, though with the acknowledgement that they, too, need to shit somewhere. (It’s just the accompanying staff that differentiate them, you see.)

I felt old when I was young, and feel young now I am old. I have never had a very well-developed sense of chronology. I just know that the dice roll and the river flows. I didn’t know, while the period recorded in this book was going by, that some of the best things in it were already on their way out, never to return.

There are two things that drive James through this instalment, though: a dedication to writing – whether poetry, prose, ribaldry or review – and a sense that life is getting on and that he should be getting a bit more done with his life. The curious state of being in a position to write his biography when, as his agent pointed out, he hadn’t done much yet, is covered in this episode of the author’s life, and it’s cheering to realise that he’s just like you or I: wondering when the fuck things start to feel like they’re worthy enough to be counted.

(The scene in which James visits his war-killed father’s grave is poignant: already, the writer was ten years older than his old man.)

There’s a continual drive to do things that are worthwhile, here, and though he doesn’t hit the mark every time, he’s got a pretty good aim. Throughout, there’s a lot of points on writing and editing that make particular sense to me, having worked at same for my adult life. I mean, there’s hardly anyone writing who wouldn’t benefit from this little nugget:

On a charitable view, faults of tone are the inevitable consequence of early exuberance: only a dullard is infallibly decorous from his first day. On a less charitable view, faults of tone are the deadly product of a tin ear working in combination with a loose mouth.

And that’s him writing about himself.


By the end of North Face of Soho, Clive James is famous, though not nearly as famous as he would become. We’re getting to that. He hints that Pavarotti turns up in the next book – a sonorous name-drop if ever there was – but I’m interested to see how he handles the transition from critic to one to be criticised.

It’ll be funny, however it goes.

My Goodreads profile is here.

One comment

  1. Probably the best review I’ve seen on Goodreads. Thank you. As the author of the only biography of Clive not written by the great man himself, I really enjoyed reading something about him that went beyond the usual oversimplifications.

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