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According to Harold Schechter in a New York Times editorial, father snorting is not such a far-fetched notion. It comes from a custom of funerary cannibalism, which “springs from a profound and very human impulse: the desire to incorporate the essence of a loved one into your own body…the belief that when someone close to us dies, the person lives on inside us – that he or she becomes an undying part of our own deepest selves.”

Maybe we should all partake of this form of inhalation. And often.

Breathe in what you love.

I was always a Rolling Stones man. It took me years to discover the Beatles‘ album Revolver, which finally convinced me that they weren’t all that bad, but give me the Stones every time. On a related note I always preferred Pearl Jam to Nirvana, Pulp to Oasis….I never go for the populist choice. At any rate the Stones were to my mind the quintessential rock band when I was growing up. They were so knitted to the grandeur and rock pomp of American music I had no idea they were English! Jagger’s mockney accent probably confused me.

Jessica Pallington West focuses on that other lead persona of the Stones, Keith Richards. Immortal junkie. Modern-day pirate. Self-appointed ambassador for the blues. With this book the author has collected a series of aphorisms from the mouth of ‘Keef’, assembled into a series of themed chapters.

The book begins with a series of Commandments, twenty-six to rival the paltry ten of Moses. West pitches Richards as being an indefatigable performer, street philosopher and practitioner of the Tao of Keith – living according to a hard-won set of moral principles. These Commandments are referred to consistently throughout the rest of the book, supported by selective Keithist quotes. This third chapter is followed up with a series of comparisons between Keith’s philosophy and classical thinkers from the Socratics all the way up to Nietzsche. In the fourth West considers the aesthetics of Keith, his sense of style and fashion. Then there is ‘The Wit and Wisdom of Keith Richards‘, a series of aphorisms on a series of topics, such as the afterlife, the blues and Mick.

Is this a must-read for Stones fans? Honestly, if you’re a fan most of this is familiar fare. Did you know Keith Richards used to be a heroin addict? And a doctor once told him he only had six months to live, only for Keith to find himself attended that same medic’s funeral some time later? Oh and he and Mick do not get along. Maybe this is a decent read for beginners, kids who are wondering what the fuss is about this old bloke in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. I don’t really know.

On another level there is something ridiculous about pitching Richards as an urban philosopher, who has Plato as a ‘soul-brother’, and big hair like Schopenhauer. Who would have guessed that a heroin-addled guitar player from the projects would end up as a twenty-first-century philosopher and urban street guru? He is practically the reincarnation of St. Augustine according to West, returning to us from the realms of depravity with wisdom into the mysteries of life.

A series of incongruous comparisons are unleashed, with Keith the working class rock star – none of that embarrassing disguising of accents as with Mick – having survived heroin, women and general falling down, established as a sharp-edged pragmatist.

Keith has lived quite the interesting life, but what has made it so memorable is his refusal to think twice (and surely that is the disease of the philosopher). What this book has made me appreciate is just how funny Keith can be.  I also liked how many of the quotes reveal just how much of a grumpy old man he has become, dismissing MTV, hip hop and the Sex Pistols. “Get off my lawn!” Plus he really doesn’t like Elton John.

However, for yet another ‘unauthorised’, book on a major celebrity, West does not introduce much criticism into the proceedings. At all points he is lauded throughout the book as a rakish man of the world, who simply won’t be tolerated by ‘the Man’. Of course this is a man worth hundreds of millions of dollars. One who can afford to walk away from debacles like the disaster of Altamont “It was just another gig where I had to leave fast.

This book is a trite overview of an entertaining personality, weakened by its comparisons to philosophers.

I had no idea, however, that it was a turning point in my career. You realize these things only later and I am a bit impatient with memoirists who claim to have foreseen their destiny. I have never been able to foresee very far beyond tomorrow. Even when I lay a long plan, it is never in the expectation that I will live to see it fulfilled.

Clive James’ talk shows and documentaries were as important a part of my childhood as TRON and the Queen soundtrack to Flash Gordon. My dad was a big fan and he had the remote. In earlier years, he simply commanded authority over the television channels by virtue of being the man of the house. Technology simplifies things.

North Face of Soho takes off from where James’ previous volume ended, with marriage behind him and the slow progress from Cambridge Footlights to a writing career begun. Wisely the focus of the biography is the early stages of a professional career, with little time for kiss and tell revelations. The confessional tone is left intact though, with indiscretions both alcoholic and narcotic the cause of much of his suffering. James’ rueful style of self-reflection is devoid of false modesty and he makes it clear that any success he’s enjoyed has been due to extraordinary luck in the people he has met on the way up.

There’s also name dropping aplenty, with various journalistic mentors providing opportunities to hobnob with celebrities and stars of the London literary scene. James’ brief tenure with the underground magazine Oz is briefly touched on, which I only just recently heard about for the first time in an essay by Alan Moore featured in Dodgem Logic. There’s his failed attempt at a biography of Louis MacNeice; the conclusion of his acting career and an astonishingly wrong-headed approach to negotiations with Equity; his first forays into criticism, moving from the anonymity of TLS, to radio and finally television, his true home; and lunching with the young literary turks of 1970’s London, Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens.

Peppered throughout are James’ own thoughts on criticism, writing and celebrity. He discusses his media profile as a member of the Australian wave that washed up in London, mentioning Barry Humphries and Germaine Greer. He even makes mention of how as his reputation as a critic grew, his name became shorthand for any particularly apt, or cutting description of a celebrity. In that regard his infamous quip on Arnold Schwarznegger a brown condom filled with walnuts’, manages to conjure up the perfect image, while also managing to be unusually prescient as to the sexual misadventures of the Governator.

I was surprised with how difficult I found reading this book. I’ve read James’ television criticism in the past and found it still very amusing. He had me fascinated to find out who killed JR! Part of the problem for me, one that James’ own mentors describe during his apprenticeship, is that he tries to fit too much into every sentence. It’s especially ironic that he reveres George Orwell so much, as he was a key exponent of the value of short, descriptive sentences. What’s more reading the book does feel like a deluge of cameos and asides on the styles of the time. There are wonderful thumbnail descriptions of Martin Amis, Ian McKellen and The Sex Pistols, but they are lost, adrift in the sea of James’ endless reminiscences. How can someone be so wonderfully knowledgeable and verbose, while at the same time boring? Reading the book felt like being stuck in that lift with Stephen Fry.

However, for me there was one personal high point, when James talks about Tony Wilson, acknowledging his fellow intellectual manqué who chose regional television programming over academic success. This book was published only a year before Wilson himself died and here he is credited with his endless efforts to bring culture to Manchester, singing its praises from the roof-tops.  

Tony Wilson was brilliant. Unfortunately there was no other word for him.

In two pithy phrases Clive James sums up the appeal of Tony Wilson, while also alluding to the root cause of his failure. And that manages to sum up the author himself – brilliant, but in short bursts.

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