Unreliable memoirs

james1Later, I stayed up and finished off Clive James’s Unreliable Memoirs, which I had picked up and started in St Pancras Station on Friday. As the blurb on the back quite accurately says, James writes exactly as he talks – in other words, very amusingly. The memoir, which is a great read, is also full of aphorisms and witty observations about the human condition: ‘the human personality is a drama, not a monologue’; ‘it often happens that we are most touched by what we are least capable of’; ‘people don’t want to be charmed, they want to charm’; nothing feels more like home than the place where the homeless gather’; and so on. The underlying plot certainly rang a few bells with me. The book ends with James getting his university degree and knowing, just knowing, that he has to leave Sydney for the sophistications and attractions of England. In a similar way after my first degree I just somehow knew that I had to leave London and Oxford for what I imagined were the sophistications and attractions of ‘Europe’. There is probably a sociological thesis out there somewhere about the way suburbs and small towns spawn diasporas. I think it’s no coincidence that I and my siblings, having grown up in suburban London, have ended up spread out all over Europe. In their tribute album to Andy Warhol, Songs for Drella, Lou Reed and John Cale penned one song, entitled ‘Smalltown’ which paraphrased Warhol’s observations about his youth in Pittsburgh:

There is only one good thing about a small town
There is only one good use for a small town
There is only one good thing about a small town
You know that you want to get out

When you’re growing up in a small town
You know you’ll grow down in a small town
There is only one good use for a small town
You hate it and you know you’ll have to leave

 I’m not sure I ever hated the places where I did my growing up but, just like Clive James, I knew that to get on I would have to get out.

1 Comment

  1. Jeannette

    “There is probably a sociological thesis out there somewhere about the way suburbs and small towns spawn diasporas.” — I think there is something to this, I would like to read that thesis!

    I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to “get out”. It was my primary motivation, through age 18.

    Part of any work on the subject of the suburban diaspora would also have to include the topic “never go back”/”you can’t go home again”.

    Studs Terkel, we need you!

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