December 08, 2004


My family first visited Sydney in the early '80s. While my mother and sister headed for the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, I sought out the unremarkable suburb of Kogarah.

An aunt had earlier given me a copy of Clive James' Unreliable Memoirs, largely about his Kogarah childhood, and I'd read it about four times. It's a wonderful, funny, entrancing book; life-changing for a dull suburban teen who’d never read anything much besides comics and magazines. Anyway, James is now online:

Last year I rather grandly announced in this space that a multimedia personal website was on the way. The contraption took so much work to prepare - most of it done by young helpers talking a language I don't pretend to understand - that I never had time to ask myself whether it would be of any actual use. Now it's here, and I could well find out the hard way that nobody needs it.

Soon to be added to the blogroll. Please pay a visit.

Posted by Tim Blair at December 8, 2004 09:28 AM

A legend! I'll be bookmarking that.

Posted by: nic at December 8, 2004 at 09:42 AM

Long live the St. George Illawarra Dragons!

Although the typical Saints follower these days seems to be an ardent lefty. Dunno why.

Worse, the arch enemy, the Cronulla Sharks, are all conservatives. I have to agree with Scummers! Noooo.....

Posted by: Cheesie at December 8, 2004 at 09:50 AM

Good ol' Clive. Everyone loves him - lefties and righties and miscellaneous.

Posted by: TimT at December 8, 2004 at 09:56 AM

Clive James is the bee's knees. I discovered his "Crystal Bucket" collections on a trip to the UK in the halcyon Thatcher years and I've been a fan ever since...

Posted by: richard mcenroe at December 8, 2004 at 10:39 AM

Clive always used to be a bit of a failed hippy/lefty cohort of Germie, Dick Neville and assorted other ex-pat twats for ages, but has turned into a bit of a RWDB of late.
Better late than never. (My missus hails from Kogorah originally- her insane garannie used to live in the oldest house in the area, complete with coach-house etc until she karked it last year. The nature of the area has changed somewhat in the last twenty years- it's sort of a Baby Beruit these days).

Posted by: Habib at December 8, 2004 at 10:55 AM


you're right to say that he was a lefty who wised up to himself (but - ahem - who hasn't been through that?), but I think that happened quite a while ago, like in the 1970s. He's too intelligent, well-read and genuinely curious to be shackled by an ideology. During the 1983 British General Election campaign he wrote a devasting piece on the shambolic performace of Labour's leader Michael Foot.

Posted by: Ben P at December 8, 2004 at 11:19 AM

All rejoice, CLIVE IS LIVE.

Yes, I will begrundgingly admit that the kid from Kogarah has gone a bit "Monarchist" as age has wearied him.

This quote from Unreliable Memoirs (which I've typed straight out of my dog-eared copy) is probably Clive at his best ...well, it's a quote that has stuck with me for a very long time.

The human personality is a drama, not a monologue; sad tricks of the mind can be offset by sound feelings of the heart; and the facts say that I have always been revolted by the very idea of deliberately causing pain. Considering the amount of pain I have been able to cause without meaning to, I suppose this is not much of a defence, but to me it has always seemed an important point. I have burned a lot of sugar-ants with my magnifying glass, but if the sugar-ants had spoken to me as they might have spoken to St Francis, I would have desisted soon enough. Having a character that consists mainly of defects, I try to correct them one by one, but there are limits to the altitude that can be attained by hauling up one's boot-straps. One is what one is, and if one isn't very nice or good, then it brings some solace to remember that other men have been worse.

Posted by: Darp Hau at December 8, 2004 at 11:28 AM


I think it would be fairer to put Clive James in the George Orwell (WWII) camp, not a RWDB. Clive, like George Orwell, knows the consequences of failure of the war, he knows that the popular left solution is no solution at all, he knows that something must be done and that the right have the best solution, and he knows that the defeatists must be countered. It also helps that both men are/were immensely talented writers.

If you ever want to read the most scathing attacks on anti-war left wing intelligensia, I suggest that you find some of George Orwell's WWII essays, "My country right or left" is a classic.

Posted by: Pauly at December 8, 2004 at 11:30 AM

Incidently Clive James is an ideal jockey for a hobby-horse of mine, which is the massive superiority of the NSW State School system over Victoria's. The selective boys state schools of Sydney have produced, just for starters, Clive James, James McAuley and John Howard. I challenge anyone to name three intellectual/cultural or political acheivers of that stature educated to Matriculation in the Victorian State system. Bet it can't be done.

Here in Melbourne we have just one selective state boys high school. While the top independent and catholic schools did get a big head-start in Victoria, and have produced most of our eminent people, what really holds our state system back is its own ethos.

The same superiority will be noted when comparing the NSW HSC curriculum and exam system to Joan Kirner's greatest achievement, the VCE - an attempt to make a "one size fits all" final-year certificate that has happily unravelled significantly.

Posted by: Ben P at December 8, 2004 at 11:58 AM

Thanks for this superb link.
Watch the hilraious RUBY WAX interview!!
What happened to all the wit and intelligent dialogues on TV ??
And hey, they do not even have the rights to the BBC programmes they created !

Posted by: davo at December 8, 2004 at 12:06 PM

Well he's no James Wolcott, that's for sure. (For those who don't know, this is a good thing. Ask Tim to explain; I'm just too beat today.)

Posted by: Andrea Harris at December 8, 2004 at 01:32 PM

Gee. That's very exciting. I can see why you're winning the awards.

Posted by: Sherriff at December 8, 2004 at 01:41 PM


they've recently released his 3 autobiograpies in one volume, titled "Always Unreliable".

A great Chrissie present from or to Auntie.

Slightly related: the best autobiographies I've read is those of Arthur Koestler.

They will entertain you, will make you think; his life was very adventurous, he started out a Commie (which was pretty reasonable in a Hitlerite Europe) then gradually discarded all the false ideals and turned against the Left.

Posted by: Reliable at December 8, 2004 at 02:19 PM

Thanks for the map of Kograh. I don't think Clive would recognize the suburb.

Alighting at Kograh station and making your way down the station stairs toward the hospitals, medical centres or the schools, you will encounter junkies dealing their wares in front of the Food Court. Go down Montogomery Street to South Street and you will se the reason why; there's a methadone clinic there en route to the schools and the private hospital.

On the Princess Hwy - our Federal Hwy No. 1 - right outside the TAFE College and the high schools, is NSW's most lucrative speed camera, raking in millions of dollars every year due to the variable speed limit which operates at various times. It means traffic is forced to slow down from 60kph to 40 kph during peak hours to stop the little brats darlings from being squished. Fair enough you might say, except that this same stretch of road already has two sets of traffic lights, one of them soley for pedestrians, a pedestrian overpass and a pedestrian barrier running down the median strip.

I would love to read what Clive would make of the place now.

Posted by: Peter Ness at December 8, 2004 at 02:19 PM

On the upside he'd see lots of pretty Asian girls.

And the roads aren't half as bad as neighbouring Hurstville's tortuous network of one-way streets. Or Liverpool's, you can enter via Newbridge Road, but you can never leave.

Victoria's schools are worse than New South Wales... now that's scary.

Posted by: Peter at December 8, 2004 at 02:49 PM

Shame on me, but this Yank has never heard of Clive James. Any writer who elicits this much enthusiasm (and a comparison to Orwell) must be worth reading. So, where should I begin?

Posted by: Brown Line at December 8, 2004 at 02:49 PM

Brown Line — Try the Crystal Bucket collections of his arts reviews from The Observer, IIRC. You can probably score used copies thru Amazon or

Posted by: richard mcenroe at December 8, 2004 at 03:19 PM

However, he did have that painful 'shemale' Maria Pracatan on his last show as comic relief. Aiyyya

Posted by: nic at December 8, 2004 at 03:39 PM

Unless he was wearing a dishdasha or a a head scarf, Clive would be out of place in Kogarah today.

Architecturally, the place is totally charmless, being dominated by tacky highrise apartment buildings, all struggling for a view of Botany Bay, which owe much to a corrupt Council in bed with developers.

The focus of Kogarah is the St George Hospital complex - a pastiche of all the architectural excesses of the past two decades.

I'm afraid that none of Kogarah's 1950s working class sentiment remains - except in Clive's memories.

Posted by: mr magoo at December 8, 2004 at 03:40 PM

I must say that "Unreliable Memoirs" was an immensely enjoyable book except for all the advice about "squeezing the lizard" which I found completely unnecessary due to late pubescence. (Even at 16 it made little sense.) Or maye it did.

Posted by: Fluent Idiot at December 8, 2004 at 03:40 PM

Now there is a true national treasure. Clive leaves a thieving jackass like Philip Adams in the shade.

The main thing about Clive, and George Orwell, is that they are not polemicists (exception perhaps being Orwell's rant against capitalism in the second half of the otherwise haunting Road to Wigan Pier.). Clive cares primarily about people's happiness and has the brains to know that defending ideology for it own sake is crippling and limiting for writers.

And, as Pauly notes, Clive is one of the most gifted writers anywhere. His effortless mix of humor and serious messages is exemplary.

Posted by: Trojan at December 8, 2004 at 03:53 PM

Yo, cheesie, UP THE SHARKIES.
And now for something completely different...
WTF is the go with channel 9 not showing the cricket on tv? Bloody Price is right my ass.
Sorry for the OT post, i'm gonna go cry now.

Posted by: RhikoR at December 8, 2004 at 04:55 PM

Talking about Clive, does anybody else remember when Clive Robertson used to do the late night news, I think on Channel 9, back in the late Eighties. That was almost as good as Clive James on Parkinson.

Posted by: Razor at December 8, 2004 at 05:03 PM

I seem to recall Clive James saying that meeting Joyce Grenfell was a big influence on his personal development. He was overcome by her niceness which took the wind out of his anti-establishment sails. That rather impressed me at the time from someone I had always thought of as a brash, if amusing, lefty. Presumably, it is recounted here

Posted by: rexie at December 8, 2004 at 05:26 PM

Hey RhikoR,

Any insight on why Sharkies fans are so politically intelligent despite their poor sporting preference?

Posted by: Cheesie at December 8, 2004 at 06:01 PM

Robbo was great on TV, Razor.

He now graces ABCFM on alternate mornings. Rather tamer, but still very urbane and witty.

Well I remember Sydney when the tallest building was the AWA Tower, and Kogerah and Leichardt were much of a muchness, and trams took you to 'town', but those days are gone gone gone...

Sydney selective schools? Doc Evatt was dux of Fort Street (as, I think, was my late uncle about the same time).

Bit of a mixed bag?

Posted by: Bruce at December 8, 2004 at 07:49 PM

Best news I've had all week.

When we first scouted Sydney in 2001 with a view to moving here a visit to Margaret St was undertaken just to put an "image" to the story...

Couldn't believe it when we made the move to Sydney - the first house we looked at to rent was only a couple of Ks from Margaret St. We're still there two years later...

If you haven't read his autobiography - its a must. Hysterical and great for pulling those memory strings if you're an Aussie or Kiwi who grew up around that time...

Posted by: RainDog at December 8, 2004 at 08:38 PM

Reliable mentions Koestler whom my older brother read, but who was snatched viciously from the curriculum before I could get to it when the cardiganned, drooling, Stalinist bureaucrats decided, in between cups of tea, that he (Koestler, not my brother) may not have been all that happy with Communism.

They replaced Koestler with some French fuckwit who defended Communism.

I read my bro's copy of Darkness at Noon, consigned to the wastebasket by those who found it offended their Stalinist sensibilities, if those two words can appear next to each other.

Posted by: ilibcc at December 8, 2004 at 08:42 PM

Robbo was on Seven, Graham Kennedy did the late night news on Nine.

Posted by: Peter at December 8, 2004 at 10:01 PM

One Clive James quote I remember is: "You're not world famous until you're famous in America". I also remember his comment about how Australia was so Anglophile that they served boiling hot Christmas dinners in the 100 degree heat of a Sydney December in the days before a/c. Incidentally, I opened a lecture of his at random, and he said that he couldn't buy more books because he lives on the 6th floor. Can't he just get an apartment on the ground floor, or rent a garage?

The best memoirs or autobiography I've ever read was The View from Number 11, by Nigel Lawson, the man who did so much privatisation, deregulation, tax reduction and union-bashing in Britain under Margaret Thatcher in the mid-80's, and then undid much of his good work by tying the pound to the D-mark. It should be compulsory reading for anybody who wants to express any sort of opinion on any topic of economic policy at any time anywhere. And, amazingly, because he was a journalist, it's written in a very lively style. This is merciful because it's about 1,000 pages long.

Posted by: PJ at December 9, 2004 at 12:26 AM

I like the bit where he describes the "dunny lanes". That was hilarious.

Posted by: Jonny at December 9, 2004 at 02:00 AM

I must have read Unreliable Memoirs half a dozen times and dipped into it countless more. It's one of those few books that has had me laughing so hard I started to see spots in front of my eyes. It's impossible to read it on a train - you'll have the whole compartment glaring at you.

Clive James is very good on TV as well. He's donw quite a few end-of-the-year shows on UK TV which were hysterical. One particular bit that sticks in my mind was his year-in-review section, where he'd always refer to Yasser Arafat as 'the beautiful Yasmin Arafat' while showing pictures of the plug-ugly old murderer getting up to no good at conferences and the like.

Posted by: David Gillies at December 9, 2004 at 06:39 AM
There comes a time in your life when most of the places you go to you will never go back to, and nearly all the books in your shelves you will never read again.

-- Clive James, Knight, Death, the Devil and Peter Porter .

That line happened to hit me like a brick between the eyes.
Thank you, Tim. I am truly grateful to you. I must admit that I'd never heard of Clive James until you mentioned him, but he will be one of the authors I will read again.

Posted by: Mary in LA at December 9, 2004 at 08:23 AM

There is a particularly good essay of Clive's from just after the Bali bombing.
Its great to have a collection of his writings under one roof

Posted by: Del at December 9, 2004 at 09:26 AM

Ben P- Nacker Lacker is a graduate of a NSW selective school; they're obviously not without failures.

Posted by: Habib at December 9, 2004 at 11:03 AM