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Unreliable Memoirs

(Unreliable Memoirs #1)

3.89  ·  Rating details ·  2,727 ratings  ·  173 reviews
'I was born in 1939. The other big event of that year was the outbreak of the Second World War, but for the moment, that did not affect me.' In the first instalment of Clive James's memoirs, we meet the young Clive, dressed in short trousers, and wrestling with the demands of school, various relatives and the occasional snake, in the suburbs of post-war Sydney.
Paperback, 175 pages
Published 1981 by Pan Books (first published 1980)
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Average rating 3.89  · 
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A slightly drawn out autobiography describing a boy growing into a man in Australia in the 50s. It’s mildly interesting and sporadically funny, but nowhere near as hilarious as the reviews imply. Perhaps I’m just too far removed (geographically and age wise) from the subject matter.
Lyn Elliott
I was one of those who suggested that our book club read this, in our elaborate democratic process of choosing books from the library group reading list, but once I started in I couldn’t stand it. Given encouragement from others who said they had laughed out loud reading it, I persisted, sort of, which means that I skipped and sampled enough to a) learn more than I needed to know about Clive’s childhood and adolescence and b) could contribute to the discussion.
I’ve summarised our discussion
Robbie Clark
Jun 22, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I first read this when I was a young teenager and it's a book I've returned to time and time again.

The strength of the novel is Clive James's self deprecating humour, that has you cringing and laughing at the same time. He's fearless in recounting stories that anyone else would have happily oppressed and forgotten about.

I recommend this book to everyone I know and keep having to buy myself new copies because of the one's I give away.

Read it and enjoy.
I don’t normally read the introduction to a book until after I have finished it as I like to make up my own mind about what I’m reading.
This time I started off with P.J. O’Rourke singing the praises of „Unreliable Memoirs“, which we‘re told is not only „every thinking persons’memoir“, „something new that no one has done before or will do again“ but „the best memoir in the world“ by „the best-read person he’s ever known“. (In order to find more things to praise, even the town name of Kogarah
I quite enjoyed this memoir from one of Australia's best loved writers, the irrepressible Clive James. Almost from the opening pages you can tell this book was written a long time ago, when the structures of books were different and chapters were long and involved multiple ideas. Even the look and feel of the book is different from today's publications - issued in 1980, the text is small and tightly packed onto the page, resulting in a book of 175 pages only. I actually found it quite hard to ...more
Lauren Albert
Mar 01, 2010 rated it really liked it
James is on my short list of people I envy terribly. Brilliant, extravagantly well-read, and funny to boot. I've read his criticism but never his other nonfiction so I didn't know what to expect. Unreliable Memoirs is his affectionate book-length mockery of himself as a child and young man. From spider bites to go cart crashes, it's a wonder that his mother didn't have a nervous breakdown. "The only thing I liked about school was skipping around in circles until the music stopped, then lying ...more
Aug 24, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: memoirs
Guaranteed by a bold commendation under the title on the front cover: 'Do not read this book in public. You will risk severe internal injuries from trying to suppress your laughter . . . , this memoir looked interestingly challenging to me at first sight when I came across it in the DASA Book Café a few months ago. Till early last July I decided to buy one to read after reading his Wikipedia biography. (

I found reading this paperback amazingly funny and,
John of Canada
Feb 15, 2018 rated it it was ok
Clive has a wonderful way with words.Interesting history,but too much of what I thought was a little too personal.He was kind of a nasty kid.
Deborah Ideiosepius
This charmingly written, addictively funny book is the first I have read by the well known CLive James. The first in his series of memoirs he claims that they are often fictionised and highly unreliable. I have my doubts that anyone could imagine many of the events described here, so I am going to credit it with greater truth than it claims for itself.

Covering James' early life, childhood, adolescence, university and national service it takes us up to the point at which James reaches England as
Rob Walter
Jun 18, 2012 rated it it was amazing
To me, this book is an absolute classic. There were parts where I was unable to read any further because of the tears of laughter in my eyes, but that probably prevented the more serious damage that could have resulted from reading on and laughing even more. However a great book needs more than humour, it needs to mean something, and this book addresses profound themes concerning family, love, confidence, life choices, regret and self-acceptance. I have read this book before, but I was ...more
Spencer Fancutt
Sep 20, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A frank, hilarious account of the writer's early life growing up in Sydney. James unfalteringly trapezes with grace between fart jokes and arcane literary references, poetic natural descriptions and angst-ridden teenage neuroses, in an admittedly half-fabricated journey through a youth that despite its hyperbole reveals a picture in which maybe everyone can see a part of their own childhood. Accomplished and absorbing. And very funny.
Andrew Cotterill
Jul 12, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
James can really write, and he is - of course - funny. He can be a bit hard on himself at times (probably with good reason) although difficult to know how much has been changed to protect people. Probably bad idea to read the whole book, which is a compendium of 3 books, all in one go; should've read other books between each.

Now I need to track down and read everything else he has written.
Feb 03, 2008 rated it liked it
James' memoir about growing up in Australia is often riotously funny -- worth reading for those passages alone. But to my eye, he sidesteps some of the deeper material he could've explored, including his relationship with his widowed mother. That lack makes the book a series of humorous childish adventures, but something less than it could have been in the hands of a writer as brilliant as James.
Suzy Maher
Sep 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Possibly my favorite book of all time. Beautifully written, I heard Clive James' voice throughout the entire book.
Gerald Sinstadt
Sep 21, 2011 rated it it was ok
Shelves: biography
Clive James has always seemed a man unsure whether he was a serious academic or a wannabe comedian. These recollections of childhood through school and university in mid-Century Australia reveal the dilemma in embryo.

From his early learning years James offers an account of himself as naturally gifted but inherently unenthusiastic. The selfishness of his relationship with his mother is viewed with ambivalent eyes - he did what he wanted, progressed with her support but seems to think he should
Jun 05, 2008 rated it really liked it
This book could have been subtitled "The Story of an Australian Penis" because a solid three-quarters of the book is focused rather narrowly on James' pre-pubescent and adolescent sex life. I was rather annoyed by this and also by James' alternately self-pitying and self-chastising tone. I also hated his rather inelegant way of ending nearly every paragraph with some high-minded literary allusion or another. However, despite these shortcomings I plowed through the book quickly and ...more
Geoffrey Gates
Nov 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Clive James has in recent years been serialising his struggles with leukaemia in a series he calls ‘Reports of My Death’, which such headlines as ‘My new wheelchair is a thing of beauty and precision’. This is Clive James to a T: beautiful phrasing, unending humour, and the temerity to put himself at the centre of every phase of his life, and assume that interest will follow. It does, because his sentences are that good.

Aug 31, 2014 rated it really liked it
Reading this reminded me of how much I enjoyed the television reviews written by Clive James in The Observer newspaper many years ago. I love his sense of humour, and it really doesn't matter whether the events described are fact or fiction.
May 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
Clive James is so wonderfully irreverent, an intellectual with a larikin heart. A delightful read!
Adam Johnson
Aug 23, 2011 rated it really liked it
will make you laugh out loud on the train, very funny, very much worth a read.
Nov 03, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: biography-memoir
Although there was a lot of interesting material and some humor, as well as good writing, there was quite a bit that I really didn't need to know about, and I also hope he didn't use the individuals' names in some cases, as I would have been mortified to have been outed like he did. I think I will have to see if he wrote about his later years, cause surely there will be famous people mentioned (and probably in less that favorable light).
Terry Clague
Sep 26, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A carefully written memoir that entertains in its depiction of the authors childhood in post-war Sydney. The author understands the pitfalls of the memoir - "most first novels are disguised autobiographies. This autobiography is a disguised novel," and all the better for his artistic exaggerations, usually at his own expense -

From the ridiculous:

"The whole secret of kacking your pants, incidentally, is to produce a rock-solid blob which will slide down your leg in one piece and can be rolled
Jun 16, 2015 rated it really liked it
Many years ago I remember being given this book for my birthday with the comment "thought you might like this, he's the sort of droll smart-arse commentator that should appeal to you". The presenter of this present knew me well, although I think that they did a massive disservice to Clive James.

The first of a series of books he's subsequently written as memoir there is nobody in these books that James picks on more than himself. He has a wonderful, dry way of commenting on the obvious, of
Robert Spencer
Sep 16, 2014 rated it really liked it
As a memoir, I think this really hits the spot: it's entertaining, rich in detail and (don't believe some of the other reviews, although I guess humour is a subjective thing) extremely funny. Clive James has been criticised for not providing a deep enough insight into himself, but what do you want? This is a memoir, not a piece of self psychoanalysis, so any view you form of the writer should be based on the events described and his own perception of his motivations. You need to come up with ...more
₵oincidental   Ðandy
While I've always enjoyed Mr. James's books (I appreciate his delicious brand of humour - which is the main reason for reading this one) & despite the admonishment of a critic from the Observer (printed on the back of the book) who warns the potential reader: " had better not read the book on the train, unless you are unselfconscious about shrieking and snorting in public..." I found myself neither shrieking nor snorting uncontrollably - in public or otherwise; Mr. James does, however, ...more
Feb 17, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: auto-biography
I do not usually read autobiography, but I fancied something light and humorous. This is certainly light and humorous.
I enjoyed it, and could hear James' Australian drawl throughout, but I did not enjoy it as much as The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson, which does a similar thing for that author's American childhood, but with better historical detail slipped in and more reflection on the passage of time.
I was reading a Folio Society edition which was, as ever, beautiful to
Lyn Ryan
Apr 23, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I read Clive James's Unreliable Memoirs when I was a young traveller in the UK (and then immediately reading the sequel Falling Towards England). I remember laughing out loud when reading it, possibly the first book that had ever prompted me to do so. Recently I re-read it, prompting only the occasional guffaw. It's still great fun. I'll never forget his metaphor - sailing through Sydney heads (towards England) was like being born again.
Jun 08, 2009 rated it it was ok
If the anecdotes/mentions of the narrator's penis had been reduced by 70%, this book would have gotten another star.

Aside from the infatuation with penile escapades, this book suffered from being a memoir which read like a collection of paragraphs the author read out loud at open mic night.

The best part was trying to figure out all the bizarre Australian slang.
Rob Adey
Dec 21, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Wonderful, funny book. A lot more like the Bash Street Kids than I expected. If like me you grew up seeing a lot of Clive James on TV, it's impossible not to imagine this in his voice (a good thing). It's a bonus if you imagine a middle-aged Clive James dressed in shorts, riding go-karts, getting caned by teachers etc. too.
Vincent Odhiambo
Jan 09, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: own
A quite funny coming of age book, thoroughly enjoyed Clive harking back to a past so rich. The tone of nostalgia, especially given the fact that Clive had spent the better part of his adult life away from Australia, certainly adds an original air and one can't help but love it.
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Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the GoodReads database with this name. See this thread for more information.

An expatriate Australian broadcast personality and author of cultural criticism, memoir, fiction, travelogue and poetry. Translator of Dante.

Other books in the series

Unreliable Memoirs (5 books)
  • Falling Towards England
  • May Week Was in June
  • North Face of Soho
  • The Blaze of Obscurity
“Rilke used to say that no poet would mind going to gaol, since he would at least have time to explore the treasure house of his memory. In many respects Rilke was a prick.” 10 likes
“and Cate Blanchett in the same kitchen, for a cup of tea and a chat. The post-war Australian expatriates were looked at with suspicion by their countrymen early on. Later, they got too much favour. My own view is that, of those among us who sailed away to England in the early 1960s, those who soon sailed back again did best. This especially applied to the theatre. In earlier times, a long and powerfully” 0 likes
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