Look, I’d love one!

John Bayley

  • Stephen Spender: A Portrait with Background by Hugh David
    Heinemann, 308 pp, £17.50, October 1992, ISBN 0 434 17506 4
  • More Please: An Autobiography by Barry Humphries
    Viking, 331 pp, £16.99, September 1992, ISBN 0 670 84008 4

In a slight but revealing sketch, written well after his Soldiers Three tales and never published in his collected works, the soldiers Kipling invented are imagined discussing their author, and pointing out with tolerant contempt that he has simply got them all wrong. Kipling was well aware of the fact, and no doubt aware, too, that it was precisely because they were so well ‘done’ that Mulvaney, Ortheris and Learoyd – the three contemporary musketeers whose sentiments and background seemed so unflinchingly realistic – were in fact totally bogus. If they were not bogus his bedazzled readers would never have accepted them, as they did, as being completely convincing.

Henry James, who admired the bogusness of his brilliant young friend, had long since spotted the paradox involved, and often comically sighed over it. It made him distrust biography as well as the graphic sort of fiction, and by implication relate the two. He embarked on his own biography of the sculptor William Wetmore Story in a spirit of pure cynicism. Duty and piety required it, and he would supply the goods accordingly. The modern biographer is apt to construct a persona for his reader in a much more pretentious spirit. Instead of the ‘felt life’ with which James strove obliquely to endow character and personality the biographer pre-forms an image and assembles the requisites around it. Thus in Auden’s phrase ‘a shilling life will give you all the facts,’ but the person inside remains unreachable, except to himself and in some degree to those who knew him. And if he embarks on a memoir of himself, or they on a biography, the falsity of presentation may once again begin.

If this is the case when the ‘facts’ are right, how much more so when they are wrong? Hugh David’s book about Stephen Spender misleads in every way, factually as well as aesthetically, although in the general welter of disinformation it is barely possible to distinguish fact from treatment. As David’s previous studies of the period reveal, he has a rather engagingly naive idea of the charms of Fitzrovia and of Bohemian circles between the wars, a period for him as distant and exotic as that of Shelley and Byron. Unfortunately he is also determined to present it as a series of ‘stories’, as in a newspaper interview; and since for this book he apparently had no access to the subject of his ‘portrait’, both portrait and background are generalised to the point of imbecility. This is how they all behaved, and weren’t they a lot of weirdies, fascinating but absurd? For together with his undoubted interest in the period and his book knowledge of it there is an air of slightly incredulous patronage: how much better we are at all this today. At least Kipling wanted to put his soldiers on the map, though knowing that they themselves would have rejected the way he did so.

Modern biographies often give a disturbing impression of powerlessness: the powerlessness of the subject, whether alive or not, to detach him or her self from the simulacrum that is being produced. Sometimes Hugh David loses confidence in his own process, and has to reassure himself and the reader by repeating a catchphrase of the period at the end of a paragraph. Today the Struggle ... or, rather anachronistically one would have thought, Is there honey still for tea? Cyril Connolly makes routine appearances, as if Falstaff had been told to play it in blackface with a Southern accent: indeed, the book resembles those Shakespeare productions which seek to arrest attention by making a travesty of a well-known part – except that the author here seems to have no idea that he is producing a travesty. None the less a writer, like a director, has the power to do it; and perhaps the indulgence of such power is the real reason people write books like this. They are the literary equivalent of a hostile takeover, which the victim firm or celebrity can do nothing to resist.

The apparent innocence of having no idea goes with complete lack of humour. Time and again Hugh David quotes a diary of the period – for he has done that sort of homework – without realising that it fizzes with humour. While he laboriously tries to present them as absurd on his own terms, the people involved were in fact overcome with laughter at their own kinds and degrees of absurdity – absurdities of the moment which, like all true humour, cannot be resurrected afterwards in the form of ‘stories’. Thus it is clear that Spender was himself highly entertained by what the painter William Coldstream describes in his diary as a ‘slightly sticky’ party given by Benjamin Britten in Hallam Street. Present as well as the Coldstreams, and Spender and his then wife Inez, were Auden and Isherwood, their new boyfriends, and Peter Pears as co-host with Britten. The stickiness – clearly a source of great amusement to Coldstream and Spender – lay in the tensions between the lifestyles of the people concerned, and the frustration felt by Auden and Isherwood – naturally dominant upholders of that lifestyle – in the presence of those who did not take it on their terms. ‘Benjamin does not like Stephen and Inez very much because he most likely knows that they don’t like his music. Also the presence of two anti-boy women ... complicated the atmosphere, because Benjamin likes to be with Christopher and Wystan, all boys together without disturbing foreign elements such as slightly hostile ladies and gentlemen hostile to gay music.’ Pears sang a song which Britten had made from one of Spender’s poems, ‘a very Stephenish one full of slightly embarrassing and very strong feelings’. Clearly the point was the incongruity of all this, and the overwhelming desire which Spender and Coldstream had to start laughing. The point is a crucial one for the tone of any biography, and particularly for one of this sort; for the biographer is showing off his exhibits to us in what seem to him characteristic poses, unconscious of the fact they were fully conscious of themselves, of their ‘felt life’, and highly amused both by themselves and in Spender’s case by the impression he made on others.

For this reason diary entries like those of Coldstream or Virginia Woolf (‘a nice poetic youth; big nosed, bright eyed, like a giant thrush’) stand out sharply from the text, projecting the light of their time forward into ours. The spontaneity in Spender’s own book, World within World, which reads as freshly today as when it was written, is also everywhere present in his son-in-law Barry Humphries’s autobiography. Both are interested in themselves (Anthony Powell remarks in his memoirs that to be interested in oneself, as opposed to being merely egocentric, is one of the rarest of gifts) but neither takes himself very seriously. So little is Humphries concerned to present an image – the worst thing an autobiographer can do – that he fills in few personal details. We discover the relationship through a single reference to Spender’s daughter Lizzie, his fourth wife,

Both Shakespeare and Keats would have well understood the impulse which makes natural writers of Spender and Humphries. It is the impulse to be free, to be like Keats’s human or animal whose ‘eyes are bright with a purpose’, rather than end up in a museum, their own or anybody else’s. On the evidence of their own accounts neither has any wish ‘to discover who they are’, in the cant contemporary phrase, or to reveal a neglected childhood or parental shortcomings. Barry Humphries had an idyllic childhood near Melbourne in the days of what now seems the old innocent Australia, when there were pictures of King George in every living-room, and on winter nights ‘mallee roots’ were burnt in the open grate. Distant and unpeopled except by Aborigines, Mallee had become a desert owing to the extraction of these giant old eucalypts, and a dark red rain from its wilderness would fall every so often on the Melbourne suburbs, requiring meticulous work with chamois leathers on the windscreen of the car. Meanwhile Gene Autry would be singing ‘South of the border, down Mexico way’ on the gramophone. Later, in Hollywood, Humphries used to peer into the garden of the Gene Autry residence, in the hope of seeing his old idol.

Humphries has an especially sharp eye and memory not only for vivid detail but for the kind that doesn’t add up, for things that don’t follow from one another. His parents discouraged him from making friends with little Jewish boys, though not with much authority or conviction, and he admired his own mother’s olive skin and dark hair, exotic traits which in her case went with being impeccably and tediously Anglo-Saxon. His attachment, not so much to her as to her clothes and the atmosphere of her person, was not specially returned, although Barry as the eldest was a spoilt little boy, apt loftily to disregard the existence of his subsequent siblings. The history master at Melbourne Grammar, a Mr Olsen, was a dapper Englishman who wore the first double-vented sports jacket seen in the town; tucked his handkerchief into his sleeve and possessed a pair of suede shoes, ‘a sure sign in the Melbourne of this period of sexual ambivalence’. He had, however, ‘a rather vivid’ wife who knew all about Paul Klee. It was wartime, and the reading of the roll of honour included seven young men named Snowball, which started a giggle that swiftly died away. Having read about Lady Ottoline and Garsington young Barry decided to become a conscientious objector, which to his great surprise rather impressed the grim headmaster, Mr Sutcliffe, and resulted in our hero’s being able to stroll past rigid platoons of classmates, ‘their faces sullen with envy’. He would visit Mrs Bird’s bookshop, where the proprietor usually had a sherry-sipping priest on hand, but would turn to recommend him The Green Hat, South Wind, or M.G. Lewis’s The Monk. Then there was the Percy Grainger Museum, which housed an enormous collection of letters to and from the composer. A disdainful young female archivist cataloguing them was once observed holding an envelope at arm’s length and extracting from it ‘a fibrous tangle of pubic hair’: testimony to the maestro’s own exuberant collecting habits in the sexual field.

As may be gathered, the charm of More Please, well conveyed by its title, consists in a rather similar penchant for amassing detail of a one-damn-thing-after-another sort. There is a down-under breeziness about it all, nothing louche or self-pitying. Dame Edna arrived quite naturally, almost on the heels of Germaine Greer, with whom Humphries was briefly in contact in some university production. Edna was a moderate success with Melbourne audiences, ‘because it described their own homes (“Maroan’s my favourite colour”) and their own taste in something closely resembling their own dialect’. Offered a cup of tea, Edna, after a long pause and on a shrill note of ecstasy, says: ‘Look, I’d love one!’ ‘The phatic and redundant “Look” preceding a bald statement of fact or opinion (New Zealanders prefer to say “Listen” before almost everything) had not perhaps previously been brought to the attention of an Australian audience.’ It seems possible, too, that the male ego was in some deep way reassured by Edna, or at least confirmed in its view (corroborated, oddly enough, by Germaine Greer) that women over a certain age are indistinguishable from men in drag: certainly not female eunuchs. This comfortingly unisex thought might not appeal to Barry Humphries, all of whose wives appear to have been strictly feminine and notably beautiful. Nor did Edna at first go down well in Sydney. Instead of loving Edna they derided her as a symbol of refined Melbourne manners.

Meanwhile Humphries was embarking on several other careers, such as that of Modern Artist, making pictures and sculptures out of old boots and ‘forkscapes’ from bent cutlery found on a hospital refuse tip. His long-suffering father, a prosperous builder, ‘who was slowly becoming resigned to the presence of insanity in the family’, used to make the frames for him. Too much activity soon made him a devotee of the relaxation to be found in a bottle, and his book contains the least portentous and most revealing account I have met of what it means to be an alcoholic. Once, confident of being cured, he waved away the stewardess on a plane saying smugly that he ‘didn’t use the stuff’. ‘That’s funny,’ she said, ‘you’ve just had one,’ pointing to the empty brandy miniature on his tray. Fortunately this kind of amnesia does not affect his memories of childhood, Australia, the London scene, and much else besides.