The Blaze of Obscurity
Though it always courts tedium to be precise about numbers, in this case the statistics tell a story. The fifth volume of my unreliable memoirs, The Blaze of Obscurity, covering my years in television between 1982 and 2000, had a publication date (October 7, 2009) timed to coincide with my 70th birthday. It would have been a pretty good stratagem for saying “not dead yet” if the book had not been sent to join a full fifty other brand-new showbiz autobiographies released for the Christmas season. So there I was, toe to toe with Alan Titchmarsh, and neck and neck with Katie Price if I was very lucky. In fact the only advantages I had over the latter candidate were (a) I wrote my book myself, and (b) my breasts were real. But with the help, perhaps, of a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week serialisation, my latest offering escaped instant burial, and even attracted some serious reviews, which I proudly append – proudly because, against all likelihood, I actually try to make this apparently frivolous form a vehicle for what little wisdom I might have managed to acquire.
Like a tour of duty as entertainments officer in a nuclear submarine, filming got me away from home, but home was waiting for me when I got back. Leading a balanced life got harder all the time. The first hazard was the fame factor, which seemed to consist entirely of drawbacks even when they were construed, by others, as privileges. Straightforward irritations were relatively easy to handle. In the streets, large tattooed artisans whom one would not ordinarily have wanted to meet shouted, “’Ere! Ain’t you Clive Jenkins?” The temptation to say, “Go screw yourself, my good man,” had to be resisted. Even the nicest version of this instant familiarity involved a lot of autograph-signing and dozens of involuntary conversations every day. It didn’t happen in Australia, where my programmes, because they had been made in Britain, were resolutely kept from the screen by an ABC executive who took pride in protecting the Australian public from my disloyal voice. As a result, Australia was a reality check: when I went there on literary business, I got the mildly enthusiastic reaction appropriate to someone whose books have been read, or at any rate heard about. These bursts of normality served to underline the sheer weirdness of what happened when I got back to Britain and found myself shouted at by a whole building site full of workmen if I failed to stop and answer their questions about “them Chinese”. (After several aborted interchanges I deduced that by “them Chinese” they meant the Japanese game-show contestants.) Walking on, instead of stopping, was the only way to save something from the day, but the penalty was to be followed for half a block by loud shouts of “Aren’t we good enough for you any more, Clive?” In Soho one afternoon, Martin Amis was walking beside me when that question came raining down from above and he was fascinated. He still tells the story now, and I remain convinced that the hellish atmosphere of his middle-period novels was partly generated by that momentary revelation of mediatized insanity. One of the most unsettling aspects of being public property on that scale is that you are always addressed by your first name even when the message is abusive. “Clive, you’re a tosser.” At such moments I felt bound to agree, but if I had stopped to discuss the matter I would not have been able to call my life my own.