Here to take Karl Stead to lunch

C.K. Stead

  • Dame Edna Everage and the Rise of Western Civilisation by John Lahr
    Bloomsbury, 242 pp, £14.99, October 1991, ISBN 0 7475 1021 0

I first saw Barry Humphries on stage in the Phillip Street Theatre in Sydney in 1956 or 57, and got to know him in Auckland in the early Sixties after we had both come back from our first visits to London. Barry’s second wife, Rosalind Tong, a dancer, was an Aucklander. Sometimes Barry would put on a lunch-hour show at the University, which was where I first encountered the then rather down-market but already very funny Edna Everage. There was an evening when Barry and Rosalind took my wife and me to a sort of teen-club under the street where there was a band and dancing. We were all aged about thirty and felt out of place; my inclination was to be inconspicuous, but with Barry Humphries for company it was impossible. The Beatles hadn’t yet begun the fashion that allowed men to grow their hair long; and in Australia and New Zealand the short-back-and-sides was almost a moral obligation, as was the jacket and tie. Barry’s hair was long, partly as a protest (his headmaster in Melbourne was given to saying, ‘Long hair is dirty hair’), and partly because at that time this was the hair that came out from under Edna’s hat. He wore an overcoat and no tie, and looked rather like a tramp, and we hadn’t been long at our table before he had made everyone aware of his presence. When the band began something with a strong beat he suddenly launched himself backwards into the crowd.

His dance was extraordinary, jerky, almost spastic, yet perfectly rhythmical, with something of that physicality with which Dame Edna still reminds her audience that she’s really a big energetic male. Someone shouted angrily at Barry, calling him ‘Jesus’; there was a precarious moment in which the mood might have turned hostile; and then by some magic of facial expression he swung it entirely in his favour. The crowd pressed around him clapping rhythmically and cheering him on, while Barry, still leaning backward in his dance and with the bewildered expression of someone not quite sane, but benign, danced with prodigious vigour. When he sat down I felt as if I’d watched someone go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive.

Not long after, I wrote a fantasy called ‘A Fitting Tribute’ about a character I called Julian Harp, who solves the problem of engineless flight. He recognises that when a man lies on his stomach and flaps his arms, the wing-tips point forward instead of back like a bird’s: so he must contrive the means to fly lying on his back, and he succeeds, constructing models, and then his final set of wings, out of the struts of umbrellas which he steals, or has his girlfriend steal, from public places. He takes off from the Auckland domain during a gymkhana, watched by a huge crowd, and vanishes out over the Pacific, never to be seen again. His success in flying is soon hailed around the world, and in his absence, presumed dead, Harp becomes a New Zealand hero. Statues and monuments are erected, works of art commissioned, even a religion founded, around the figure of the first man to fly. The story is told by his girlfriend, who has had a child by him. She knows what he was really like and that the sanitised hero who is becoming a national icon bears no resemblance to the real Julian: but when she tries to tell the true story she’s not believed.

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