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.

Clive Nettleton hadn’t had a real break from work since the marriage and she was a bundle of nerves and as thin as a rake, so seeing as they were tantamount to being friends of ours, through the Clissold girls, Beryl and I had a bit of a confab in the kitchen and we intimated to them that we were desirous to mind the youngsters for them over the Easter period while they had a bit of a breather down at her people’s home.

On stage, the word ‘home’ would, in Sandy’s mouth, die the sad death of an overparted substitute for ‘house’, and the duly hysterical audience might forget that the word ‘tantamount’ had made its struggling appearance, incongruous but naturally so, because Sandy’s higher brain centre collects incongruities. Even more than Aunt Edna, Sandy is linguistically a magpie. But he is a magpie in slow motion. Edna attacks, Sandy retreats. He is consequently better qualified than she as an emblem and paradigm of Australian English, which is less fascinating for its newly created slang – Humphries, per media Barry McKenzie, has created a lot of that himself – than for the way old formal utterances have been strangely preserved and may be used in all innocence.

By his original sure instinct, fine ear, and the formidable scholarship with which he later reinforced them, Humphries identified the pristine quality of everyday Australian English, a language which the self-consciousness of a literary culture had not yet dulled. Not having read Shakespeare is no guarantee that you will talk like him, but vividness of expression comes most easily to those who aren’t always mentally testing the way they speak against how someone else wrote. Sandy doesn’t just treasure words, he treasures detail. For him, the dissociation of sensibility has not set in. He is a neo-Elizabethan whose world picture, although restricted to the radius which can be attained without strife by the slowly cruising vehicle, is dazzling in its clarity. Everything is picked out as if seen with peeled eyes.

Beryl had cut some delicious sandwiches. Egg and lettuce. Peanut butter. Marmite and walnut. Cheese and apricot jam. And lots of bread and butter and hundreds and thousands – and one of her own specialties – a chocolate and banana log. She’d only baked it that morning and the kiddies were most intrigued. Beryl said if they promised to behave themselves at Wattle Park they could lick the beaters. We packed some of Beryl’s home-made ginger beer and a Thermos for ourselves but unfortunately Beryl forgot to put the greaseproof paper round the cork appertaining to the calamine lotion bottle we used for the milk with the resultant consequence that by the time we got off the bus the milk had soaked right through the sandwiches and half-way up the log.

The appertaining cork and the resultant consequence are verbose but superficial: deeper down, there is an imagist precision that can come only out of a full submission to the phenomenal world. Sandy is Ezra Pound with the power off. You feel that Humphries himself remembers what it was like to be allowed to lick the egg-beater and bowl. To the extent that Sandy exists on the intellectual plane at all, he is the kind of dimwit who takes anti-semitism for an impressively complicated political theory. ‘Personally speaking, I wouldn’t have any objection if they started up their own golf club.’ But Sandy would never risk the strife of translating his distaste into action, and has probably never heard about the same ideas creating a certain amount of disturbance elsewhere in the world. Hence the child-like vision, which on occasions can express itself with a purity that silences the theatre, as the audience is propelled helplessly backwards into time.

There’s a tennis club right next to the Repat outside my window and I can hear them playing right up until the light goes and the couples laughing when there’s nothing particularly funny and the sprinkler on the spare court and the couples saying thank you to the kiddies when a ball lobs over the fence and I can hear them shut the cyclone gate and the cicadas and the different cars going off into the distance.

The accepted wisdom is that Sandy Stone is Humphries’s most rounded character. If he is, it is partly because of his physical immobility: Humphries is a hypomanically physical actor who with his other characters gets a lot of effects from stage business, so with the catatonic Sandy he is obliged to put more into the writing. But the main reason for Sandy’s satisfying density of texture is that Humphries is not taking revenge on him. Humphries, for once feeling more complicity than contempt, is at his most poetic with Sandy because he is at his least satirical. To Sandy, and to Sandy alone, he is fair – and as Kurt Tucholsky once memorably insisted (in his 1919 essay ‘Was darf die Satire?’), satire is unfair in its deepest being: in satire the just shall suffer along with the unjust, as the Bible says.

Driven to death by the Nazis, Tucholsky perhaps had occasion during his last days to wonder whether satirising bourgeois democracy, as opposed to merely criticising it, had ever been a particularly good idea. Golo Mann, writing after World War Two, usefully dared to suggest that post-World War One society in Germany and Austria got far more satire than it needed. This suspicion is not necessarily dispelled by an extended study of Karl Kraus, who in my experience becomes more disheartening as you read on through Die Fackel and its attendant works. His aggressive sensitivity to journalistic and political clichés – a critical propensity of which Humphries is a latterday incarnation – remains a thing for wonder, but we can legitimately doubt whether he had a proper estimation of the forces which held the society he castigated together. Other products of the Viennese cabaret world, most notably the polymath Egon Friedell and the essayist Alfred Polgar, seem in retrospect to have the deeper insight which comes from a greater range of sympathy. Their Kleinkunst, the little art of cabaret and intimate revue, gave rise to a thorough understanding of the modern world, but in the process they left satire behind them, having embraced fairness as a principle. Polgar, indeed, however toughened by the bitterness of exile, is the most heartening example imaginable of just how sweet reason can be.

The rich, doomed Vienna of these brilliant men might seem to constitute an over-mighty standard of comparison, but there can be no doubt that Humphries, by world standards already a master of Kleinkunst, also has a conscious mission to correct taste and criticise morals in the society of his birth. He would be the first to point out that Moonee Ponds is not Vienna. In fact, to disabuse the allegedly burgeoning Australia of its notions about a New Renaissance is one of his aims in life. But equally one of his aims in life is to mount a full-scale satirical critique of a whole culture, even if, especially if, it is a culture in which Beryl’s chocolate log counts as a work of art.

He has the required range of talents. As a writer-performer of one-man cabaret the natural figure to compare him with would have to be adduced not from Vienna but from Munich – Karl Valentin. Humphries’s own choice of an informing background would no doubt be Paris. In real life he dresses expensively as an English gentleman, but that broad-brimmed trilby, tending towards a sombrero, is worn at an angle reminiscent of Aristide Bruant. One night during the filming of the Paris location scenes for the second Barry McKenzie film – directed, like the first, by Bruce Beresford – Humphries led a party to see the cabaret at the Alcazar, which was then still in its full glory. As a bit player in the film, I was along for the ride. The Alcazar cabaret had visual effects which I had never known were even possible. There was a Zizi Jeanmaire impersonation in which Zizi’s head appeared from the top of an enormous feather boa while her feet pounded out a frantic flamenco underneath. Half-way through the number the boa underwent a sudden meiosis and there were two Zizis half the original size. One midget girl had been riding on the other’s shoulders.

Humphries drank the spectacle in as if he were lapping fresh water from the source. He is a dandy who has studied Europe’s history of style more intensely than any of its own dandies. But his hunger for this kind of knowledge has never been slavish. Grub Street literary reviewers who find something risible about how the Australian expatriates gulp at Europe often neglect the possibility that there is such a thing as an unjaded appetite. Humphries is among the most adventurously well-read people I have ever met. He has also spent a quarter of a century assiduously collecting Symbolist paintings. He was a pioneer in reestablishing the reputation of Charles Conder and at one time, before a divorce intervened, he had the most important collection of Conder’s paintings in private hands. He is so learned in the more arcane regions of late 19th and early 20th-century culture that there is scarcely anyone he can talk to about more than a part of what he has in his head. Most of us know of Marmaduke Pickthall, for example, only as someone who collaborated with Christopher Isherwood in the translation of the Upanishads. But Humphries has read all the works of Marmaduke Pickthall.

As so often happens with the Australian expatriates, however, Humphries discovered his Europe before he got there. When an undergraduate in Melbourne in the early Fifties he was already a Dadaist – the first Dadaist Australia had ever had, and the last thing it knew how to handle. The story has often been told of how in his first revue, Call Me Madman, the curtain went up only so that the cast could pelt the audience with fruit and vegetables, after which it went down again. Humphries also staged the first-ever Australian exhibition of Dadaist art works, all of them confected by himself. They included a pair of wellingtons full of custard (‘Pus in Boots’) and a large canvas empty except for three tiny newspaper clippings of the word ‘big’ centrally arranged (‘The Three Little Bigs’). If this came a long way after Tristan Tzara, it came a long way before Yoko Ono and was much funnier than either, but more prophetic was his knack for street theatre. Still a schoolboy in Sydney, I heard about these daring adventures only later, but everybody in Australia got to hear about them eventually. Apparently there was a progressive breakfast, in which Humphries, riding towards Melbourne University on a train, was handed a new course through the carriage window at each station by an accomplice. He particularly favoured public transport because of the captive audience. Having had his right leg specially immobilised in a large white plaster cast (the immense trouble he will take to get an effect has been a trademark throughout his career), he would sit in a crowded railway carriage with the glaringly encased leg sticking out into the aisle until everyone on board was aware of nothing else. Then an accomplice would come along and jump on it. Women accomplices were known as hoydens and doxies. He would dress them up as schoolgirls and passionately kiss them in the street until the police arrived, whereupon birth certificates would be produced.

The theatrical gift inspiring all this was unmistakable from an early date. So was the desire to shock. Humphries sprang from the bourgeoisie himself but never seems to have doubted the validity of his mission to shock it. Those of us who think that everyday life in the modern world can be relied upon to be unsettling enough on its own account sometimes find it hard to see why the bourgeoisie needs to be shocked in the theatre as well, but no doubt this attitude is complacent, not to say squeamish. Humphries has always had a strong stomach. One of his tricks as a junior Dadaist was to plant a chicken dinner in a public garbage bin during the night so that he could come along dressed as a tramp in the morning, search the bin and dine gluttonously off what he found. At a later stage, when he started commuting between Australia and Britain on the jet airliners, he would stuff the sick-bag with potato salad early in the flight so that he could conspicuously eat from it with a spoon later. Even today he is likely to fall with glee upon any medical textbook featuring deformities, abortions and disfiguring maladies. His first book, Bizarre, was a freak show that you had to be a pathologist to find funny.

Although his Ubu-esque taste for the manufactured atrocity gradually faded as he uncovered more of the truly grotesque in everyday Australian life, nevertheless his scope of apprehension has remained either bravely comprehensive or morbid, perhaps both. Perhaps he thinks we are not really revolted, just pretending to be. But there can be no question that in the theatre one of his ambitions is to put you off. Les Patterson is hard to watch even from a distance and in the front row you need a mackintosh. He is so excessive a reaction that you wonder at the provocation. Surely the worst thing about Australian official spokesmen for the Yartz since the Whitlam era has been not that they are totally ignorant but that they do know all the right names yet push them like commodities. I once heard Humphries fondly reminiscing about a mayor of Armidale, NSW, who shook hands, called him Brian and apologised for not having met him at the railway station ‘owing to the pressure of affairs of state’. Probably Les began from moments like that, but in the course of time he has grown into an ogre so colossal as to have lost his outline. Lance Boyle the careerist shop steward is perhaps closer to identifiable reality. One looks in vain for a redeeming feature, but no doubt one would have done the same with the original. Seeing, however, that Lance establishes himself as an unmitigated horror in the first five minutes on stage, when he goes on being horrible for 25 minutes more you can be excused for wondering about a point so obsessively made, even if his self-revealing speech patterns are never less than well caught. The same applies to Neil Singleton, the pretentious and vindictive grantsubsidised intellectual. He is accurately observed in detail, but he is a perfect monster rather than that more edifying occurrence, a human being gone wrong.

Humphries impersonates these incubi in solo playlets which are astonishing for their stagecraft. As a combination of writer, actor, singer and self-producer he is more plausibly compared with Noel Coward than with any of the cabaret stars. But Humphries, along with the right to shock, claims the right to bore. The originals of his satirised characters bore him, and he takes his revenge by making their simulacra boring in turn. They go on until the audience squirms. On the first night of one of his London shows I saw him nearly lose the audience by giving Les, Neil and a record-breakingly long-winded Lance one after the other in the first half. The second half belonged entirely to Edna but by the time she got on stage to save the night there wasn’t much of the night left – it was almost dawn. The remarkable thing was that Humphries, with his radar antennae for audience reaction, must have been well aware of the risk he was running. The Devil gets into him, and he seems to welcome the invasion.

Certainly Edna welcomes the invasion. She would, being a witch. Edna incarnates everything Humphries finds frightening about his homeland – which includes its raw energy. At her most philistine when she is interested in art, she breaks the balls of the whole world. She knackers Kerry Packer and she bollocks Jackson Pollock. She has a Balzacian gourmandise. She is a tiger shark wearing Opera House glasses. She is also the active principle in her author’s creative personality, just as Sandy is the passive principle. While Sandy Stone lies contemplatively stationary, Dame Edna Everage, Housewife Superstar, indulges that part of her creator’s nature which craves world fame. Once Humphries searched Australia for a town called Carnegie so that he could stand in front of its town hall with his body obliterating the word TOWN and be photographed for the cover of his album BARRY HUMPHRIES AT CARNEGIEHALL. Nowadays Edna satisfies that urge on his behalf. She punishes Australia for its vulgarity by personifying it for a startled world, and especially a startled Britain, where she is a bigger star than her inventor. But she could never have been so terrifying if the docile Sandy had not first gathered the banal information she purveys, and Sandy would not have had such a finely calibrated ear if the young Humphries had not first embraced the culture of far-off Europe in its most refined, preferably decadent forms. When Humphries writes in propria persona his prose can scarcely contain its freight of cultivated allusions. He writes the most nutritiously rococo English in Australia today, but nobody will be able to inherit it.

In London during the early Sixties, he stayed alive as an actor. Visiting Australians who knew his legend would go to see him improvising his way through Christmas pantomimes. (Bruce Beresford, who saw him as Captain Hook, once told me that his catch-phrase was ‘I’m going to take a peep around the poop’ and there were children saying it in the foyer during the interval.) His memory sharpened by absence and new experience, he became more conscious than ever of the all-pervading oddness into which he had been born. On every voyage home his ears were tuned more keenly, his eyes skinned another layer. If he had not had his Europe, he would never have completed his rediscovery of Australia. That is the saving grace to remember when his less sympathetic characters punish their birthplace by representing its pretensions and ignorance to the world, or when Edna shows an unlikely knowledge of minor German Expressionist painters. By bringing his country more understanding than it understands, he is acting out a conflict, living a problem. A thoroughly introspective artist, he is well aware of the anomaly.

The anomaly is resolved nowhere else but in language. Audiences will always leave the theatre wondering where Humphries stands, because to raise such questions and leave them unanswered is part of his purpose, which is in its turn a complex mixture of the worthy desire to raise consciousness and the incurably Mephistophelean urge to raise Hell. At school, so they say, when forced to attend a rugby match he sat facing away from the field, knitting; and as an army cadet he turned up on parade in immaculately blancoed webbing and polished brass, except that it was all put on over his pyjamas. He would have been a handful in any society. He is a misfit and fully conscious of it. The punctilio of his old-world manners, the dandified scrupulosity of his Savile Row suits, are compelled by an unsleeping awareness that he has no more business among ordinary human beings than a Venusian. But his language, at its best, is the language of unfeigned delight. As all his characters, but especially as Sandy, he makes long nominative lists in the way of those writers who are in on the historic moment of discovering the verbal tradition of their young country. Sandy’s diction, if not his aphasic voice, was heard before in the glossaries and prose poems which H.L. Mencken composed after World War One. ‘Pale druggists in remote towns of the hog and Christian Endeavour belts, endlessly wrapping up bottles of Peruna ...’

The rest of it is in Mencken’s little Book of Burlesques, published by Knopf in 1924. It is a chrestomathy of essays, sketches and wisecracks rather along the lines of the Peter Altenberg scrapbooks popular in the German-speaking countries right through World War One. A Nice Night’s Entertainment would have been more digestible if it had been compiled in the same way, with a few more of Humphries’s adroit lyrics and some of the captions, usually signed by Aunt Edna, which he throws away in soft-covered photo books – a bad genre because nobody reads them twice, whoever writes them. The tradition of the catch-all cabaret book sorely needs to be revived. But the mention of Mencken is a reminder to get things in proportion. He brought a cutting wit, hard sense and tireless word-collecting diligence to the business of educating a world power. Australia is, and is likely to remain, a less important place.

One of the most successful representatives of the new energy conferred by an immature country, Humphries has never lost sight of its immaturity. Instead of empty boosting, he has given it a sharp tongue. Australia has allegedly progressed from an inferiority complex to a sense of its own worth. Humphries is inclined by nature to question complacency of any kind but in this instance he has had special reason to be scathing, since so much of the new confidence has proved simple-minded. As a notable contributor to the resurgent Australian film industry he has a right to be sceptical about some aspects of the strong sense of story which is supposed to be its peculiar virtue. Some of the strong stories are simplifications: Gallipoli, for example, contributes seductively to the euphoria of the Australian present but denigrates Britain in a way that disowns the past. Sandy Stone lived and died at Gallipoli Crescent without ever being so cocksure on the subject either way. Humphries has the right idea about that sort of unearned assertiveness.

Beyond that, he has the right idea about popular culture. His instinct led him away from a respectable literary career and towards the people. Earlier, in the Thirties, Kenneth Slessor had felt and responded to the same compulsion, having realised that high art was a watched pot. His popular lyrics for Smith’s Weekly, later collected in Darlinghurst Nights and Backless Betty from Bondi, were an important step in his own work and in the brief history of Australian poetry should be regarded as one of those moments when an individual talent breaks through to a new set of possibilities that lie so close at hand they are hard to see. Humphries is another such talent, but with him the effort looks set to last a lifetime.

A difficult lifetime. For someone so clever there are no days off. Being him is obviously not easy. Like many people who know them both, I have always got on better with Edna. I suspect she is happier than he is. But peace of mind could never have produced such a quality of perception. He is original, not just for what he has created, but for how he has attuned himself to what created him. Hence the feeling of community which he arouses in his countrymen even when the night’s entertainment turns out to be not so nice. Bringing out the familiar in its full strangeness, he helps make them proud of their country in the only way that counts – by joining it to the world.

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