Approximately in the vicinity of Barry Humphries

Clive James

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.

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[*] Granada, 224 pp., £1.95, 1982, 0 586 05601 7.