Approximately in the vicinity of Barry Humphries
Snails in the letterbox. It is a surrealist image which might have been cooked up by Dali in the presence of Buñuel, by André Breton in the presence of Eluard. But the words were said by Barry Humphries in the persona of the ruminating convalescent Sandy Stone, and in the Australian context they are not surreal. They are real. Every Australian, even if he lives in Sydney’s Point Piper or Melbourne’s Toorak, has at some time or other found snails in the letterbox. When you step outside on a dark and dewy night, the snails crunch under your slippered feet like liqueur chocolates. Snails in Australia are thick on the ground. Nothing could be less remarkable than a cluster of them in your letterbox.
But Humphries, through Sandy’s comatose vision, remarked them, and his countrymen shouted with recognition. In Australia the familiar is seen to be bizarre as soon as it is said. Or else the English language, fatigued by twelve thousand miles of travel, cracks up under the strain of what it is forced to connote. There is a discrepancy between fact and phrase, a discrepancy which Humphries, linguistically more sensitive than any Australian poet before him, was the first to spot.
Laughter at his discovery was immediate, but honour came slowly. The man who makes people laugh is rarely given quick credit, even in those fully-developed countries which realise that serious writing can take a comic form. In Australia, whose literary journalism has sometimes attained vigour but rarely subtlety, the possibility that Humphries might be some kind of poet has been raised more often than analysed, and most often it has been laughed out of court. Even as a man of the theatre, he has usually been put in that category where freakish spontaneity is held to outweigh craft, and where the word ‘effortless’, if not pejorative, is not laudatory either. His popular success has served only to reinforce this early interpretation. Australia was the country in which the swimming performances of Dawn Fraser, who went faster than anybody else and with less training, were belittled on the grounds that she was a natural athlete.
Yet a detailed appreciation of Humphries’s poetic gift is a prerequisite for criticism of his work. Otherwise approval becomes indiscriminate gush, and disapproval, which it is sometimes hard not to feel, degenerates quickly into the cutting down to size of someone who, beyond a certain point, can’t be cut down to size: as a pioneer in Australia’s sense of its own vernacular he must be allowed his stature even if his theatrical creations are found unsatisfactory either individually or all together. Humphries, for reasons of his own, seems determined to present at least one alter ego during the evening who will offend you whoever you are. As it happens, I can stand Les Patterson even when he belches while dribbling on his loud tie, but to sit there with your eyes closed is sometimes to wonder at the price of the ticket. Other people find the trade-union con-man Lance Boyle hard to take – offended in their radical beliefs or having decided (correctly, by his creator’s own confession) that Lance has set out to bore them rigid.
No matter how rebarbative the preliminary acts, Aunt Edna saves the night in the second half, but not even she has escaped worried objections or been guiltless of deliberately provoking them. There is a self-mortifying element in Humphries’s theatre which is all the more striking because the selves are multiple, and which goes all the way back to the beginning of his career. But so does his extraordinary sense of language, best studied in the monologues of Sandy Stone, a character so enduring that he has proved unkillable. Like Conan Doyle precipitating Sherlock Holmes over the Reichenbach Falls, Humphries at one stage compelled Sandy to drop off the twig, but he came back from the dead more talkative than ever.
Talkative but torpid. You have to have seen the shows, or at least listened to the records, to realise that the Sandy transcripts collected in A Nice Night’s Entertainment[*] falsify the character by moving as fast as you can read, whereas the sentences should produce themselves the way Sandy speaks, glacially. A valetudinarian Returned Serviceman – not even Humphries is sure which of the two world wars Sandy returned from – he has always been laid up. Twenty-five years ago he was tottering around the house: the famous Kia Ora, 36 Gallipoli Crescent, Glen Iris. Later on he graduated to a repatriation hospital and eventually to the beyond, back from which he rolled in the same hospital bed. On stage, he has always been mainly a face in soft limelight, thus betokening the acknowledged influence of Samuel Beckett on his creator. Combine the Beckettian talking head with the pebble-collecting word-play of Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives, cross the result with The Diary of a Nobody and you’ve got the beginning of Sandy, but you have to slow it all down even further from 33⅓ rpm to the rarely used 16⅔. Sandy in his own mind is a dynamo. ‘I got home in time for a bit of lunch and then I had to whiz out again to the football.’ But on record you can hear the effort it takes him to say the word ‘whiz’ and on stage you can actually see it – a little heave of the shapeless body as he evokes the memory of his dizzy speed.
On the page, it is impossible to savour Sandy’s eloquent silence.‘So, Beryl and I went to bed.’ On stage, his eyeballs slowly pop and then roll slightly upwards after that line, telling you all you need to know about the hectic love-life of Sandy and Beryl. (Not that a torrid romance is any longer on the cards, what with Beryl rarely feeling 100 per cent, although, as Sandy is always as quick as he can be to point out, there is nothing organically wrong.) But there is plenty to cherish in just reading the words, even if you have to fill in the timing and the facial movements as best you can. Sandy’s slowness of speech could be the fastidiousness of the connoisseur. He fondles words like a philologist. A polysyllable is a joy to him, and with luxuriating gradualness he bursts its grape against his palate fine. His circumlocutions – ‘the occasional odd glass’, ‘approximately in the vicinity’, ‘altogether it was a really nice night’s entertainment for us all’ – are a way of getting more to gustate into each sentence. The repetitions are not so much echolalia as a kind of epic verbal landmarking, in the same way that prepared phrases keep on coming back in Virgil and Homer. Sandy had ‘a bit of strife parking the vehicle’ on his first record, Wild Life in Suburbia, back in 1959. He has had a bit of strife parking the vehicle ever since, often several times in the same monologue, when the announcement that there was a bit of strife involved in parking the vehicle usually opens a new phase in his interminable account of a more or less recent nice night’s entertainment or at any rate indicates that the previous phase is over. A recurring figure of speech is thus more a punctuation mark than a sign of impoverished vocabulary. All the evidence suggests that Sandy is lexically acquisitive. The events in his life don’t leave him at a loss for words. The words are at a loss for events.
The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
[*] Granada, 224 pp., £1.95, 1982, 0 586 05601 7.
Vol. 5 No. 21 · 17 November 1983
SIR: Does Barry Humphries make Australians proud of their country, as Clive James believes? This conclusion is not warranted by the rest of his interesting article (LRB, 6 October), which rightly points out that all Humphries’s characters are unsympathetic, partly because they are mostly drawn from a past era. It is the unfairness of Humphries which now strikes many Australians, but it is not usually perceived by British audiences. When satire is wholly unfair it tends to lose its satirical value and becomes merely abuse. Satire can also help to create myths which in turn become socially-constitutive, the very opposite of the intended effect. For example, in the late Sixties and early Seventies in Australia a wave of ‘Ockerism’ (typified by Les Patterson and Barry McKenzie) swept the country, particularly in universities, consequent upon the widespread discovery of Barry McKenzie through the films about him. Far from prompting an embarrassment, those films promoted a cult. They licensed as ‘anti-establishment’ an uncouth, publicly trumpeted philistinism, which hitherto had been kept under much tighter control. It was as if Alf Garnett had given rise to and legitimised a widespread racism and jingoism in Britain. (Perhaps he did?) Fortunately, Ockerism has now considerably declined.
The Ocker phase was reminiscent of the earlier turn-of-the-century era when an urban-created legend of rural male mateship and egalitarian radicalism came to dominate, through the medium of magazines, cultural and political life, particularly on the left, to the detriment of the establishment of a more progressive and enlightened democratic socialist movement. These episodes point to the power of popular cultural media to form the very culture they are supposedly reflecting.
Barry Humphries, along with Clive James and Germaine Greer, has long had his main audience in Britain, where his shows have helped to constitute popular British attitudes towards Australia. (The fact that Humphries puts on his shows in Britain at all also indicates that his main purpose is entertainment, not satire.) These three have together produced a loosely defined but powerful set of myths about Australia which draw their power from their partly authentic but one-sided and shallow view. Humphries draws no contrasts in his stage shows between sympathetic and unsympathetic characters or between his interpretation of the present and a possible better future. All we get, as Clive James says, is one awful Australian after another. (Alf Garnett at least had some foils.) We look in vain to their work for analyses of the structure and origins of Australian society and culture, with its strengths and weaknesses, in a comparative and counterfactual mode. They have almost nothing good to say about Australia. Instead, as well as Humphries’s shows, we get such diatribes as Germaine Greer’s appallingly shallow and ignorant articles in the Observer of August last year, which, while in part masquerading as sociology, elevated the over-generalisation and cliché to new levels of heroism and completely failed to examine the reality of several pervasive myths about Australia. I am sure that I am not the only Australian who is constantly forced onto the defensive by English friends because my understanding of Australian history, society and culture is largely at odds with that presented in this country by Humphries, James and Greer. Australia has rich traditions in painting, architecture and literature (not to mention a democracy older and stronger than most). Artistic and intellectual life there is now relatively flourishing and constantly improving. But you would not know this from Humphries, James and Greer.
They are, like a great many others, essentially refugees from a despised culture, yet they cannot distance themselves from it, as most other refugees have done (e.g. Peter Porter). They proclaim their Europeanness almost as if they were the only Europeanised Australians, yet they have become professional Australians abroad – the cultured counterparts of the denizens of Kangaroo Valley who begin to act the grotesque part of ‘Australians abroad’ as soon as they arive but shed the role when they leave. The Humphries-James-Greer image of Australia has become both partly constitutive of their own roles and a source of income for them. If the word gets around too much in Britain that Australia is a different place, as it has already in Australia, then their position will be undermined. The real Australia has passed them by and they can only survive here in their present guise as long as they can maintain the niche they have constructed within those receptive parts of the declining English middle class which are eager for reassurance that there is still somewhere about which they can feel superior.
Humphries, James and Greer are essentially anachronistic in their attitudes, their memories and perceptions of Australia and their understanding of the structure of the world’s communications. There is a theory (propounded by Louis Hartz, amongst others, which Ian Hamilton mentions in regard to accents in the same issue of LRB) that Europe’s colonies became more or less frozen in their cultural/political ideologies at the time of their birth. Thus Australia supposedly encapsulated and preserved the early-to-mid-19th-century radicalism of Europe. Could this theory be adapted to account for the ideological outlook of Humphries et al.? That is, do their perceptions and memories of Australia and its relationship to the world betray the moment of their emigration: the 1950s and early 1960s? There is some evidence for this. For example, most of Humphries’s characters, their ways of life and attitudes, are drawn from that era; Clive James talks about the unjaded appetites of the newly arrived Australians in a manner that suggests that it was hardly possible to know anything of European culture if you remained in Australia, so you had to make the great journey, which was a huge and once-only undertaking in his time. The general tone and content of their writings about Australia show a tendency to understand it as if it had not changed since the Fifties. This was shown markedly in Greer’s Observer pieces. Even though they obviously now shuttle back and forth with great ease, they seem to be unable to grasp the extent of either the recent communications revolution (TV, magazines, books, films, publishing, air travel) which has dramatically shrunk the physical and psychological space, or the rapid social and cultural change that has occurred in Australia in the past decade. Young Australians now are much more part of a wider world and no longer feel isolated, yearning after the bright lights of a foreign metropolis. London and Paris are a day and a month’s wages away. Besides, the sources of culture are no longer mainly British, or even European.
So, the game is nearly up for the self-appointed professional Australians because now increasing numbers of British journalists (e.g. John Mortimer and Simon Hoggart), visiting Australia for the first time, find that their expectations, picked up in the London of Humphries and his friends, have been mistaken. Could the currently optimistic and improving cultural scene in Australia have something to do with the fact that the best artists and thinkers have not pyschologically turned their backs? Indeed, how else could it have been improved but through their struggles and influence? James gives the impression that little of the new confidence is justified. But compare the present situation with that of twenty or even ten years ago. It is now possible to have a full film, literary and scholarly career there, with international recognition.
Of course Australian cultural life is limited and boorish in many ways (although the editors that Ian Hamilton met seven years ago were obviously not representative of the writers). But how could it have been much better, given Australia’s very short history, population size and distribution, and world location? It could certainly have been much worse. The task is to build upon, expand and improve the existing good and unique aspects of Australian life. This is something that White, Keneally, Boyd, Hope, Helpmann, Sutherland, Weir and others are doing. The new Labor Government, despite its faults, is also generally moving in the right direction, as shown by its legislative programme – something Michael Davie completely failed to mention in his article in the same issue of LRB – which in most respects is the opposite to that of the British Government. And, contra Davie, Australia is less of an American colony than it used to be and is considerably less tied to American ‘defence’ than Europe and Japan, having no American missiles or military bases, apart from three communications bases. Britain is now more of a colony than Australia in this respect.
Wolfson College, Oxford