Review: My Life as Me by Barry Humphries

George Melly is pleased to discover that Barry Humphries writes beautifully of his 'real' life in his memoir, My Life as Me

My Life As Me: A Memoir
by Barry Humphries
384pp, Michael Joseph £16.99

Barry Humphries is too canny to fall into the Chaplin trap; the brilliant early chapters describing the south London childhood and the Edwardian music hall, which, once universal fame beckons, degenerate into bathos, name-dropping and simplistic moralising.

Humphries is well aware of the dangers. Inevitably his social circle has become more dazzling since his youth in a lower middle-class suburb of Melbourne. The index incorporates all the usual suspects from Betjeman to Spender (whose daughter Lizzie is now Mrs Humphries) and they all have speaking parts, but the author evades the charge of simple name-dropping by citing the late John "Do-you-know-who-I-mean-by" Wells, whom Humphries believes was being, in part at any rate, ironic.

Nevertheless, a fair number of the intellectual A-list stroll on in the second half of this book, although in fairness most of them have a point, and were also the heroes of Humphries' Anglophile youth in Melbourne and Sydney.

As to his feelings towards Australia, love/hate is the only adequate description. He is not alone there. I had a late friend, a jazz pianist who lived over here for many years, who would tell puzzled and sometimes aggressive compatriots demanding an explanation that it was as far from Australia as he could get; yet he eventually fell in love with it all over again and, in his last years, returned. Humphries, too, wavers. He offers a confusing mix of nostalgia for the Melbourne of his youth, and a great deal of grumbling about the encroachment of new suburbs on his old suburb (no architectural gem from his own account) to a scornful attack on the hideously limited cuisine of that time; everything over-cooked and largely genuflecting towards the lamb chop. In the end, the smug philistinism of his immediate family caused him to run screaming towards a culture as extreme and esoteric as possible.

His father and mother? Dad, physically large and with a ginger moustache, was a successful building contractor, offering several styles: Spanish Mission, Tudor, Georgian or Jazz Moderne according to taste. He seems to have been under his wife's puritanical thumb. "If you must have the occasional glass, Eric," little Barry heard his mother whisper to his father, "please not in front of the children." Despite his disappointment at his son's total disinterest in sport (Barry preferred painting), he didn't strike me as entirely unsympathetic, despite his belief in the judgment of the local golf club as moral arbitrator.

But Barry's mother! She comes across as a rigid, unimaginative gorgon of received opinion ex-pressed through an absurdly genteel and limited vocabulary. For her, "nice" enclosed the acceptable; "not called for" anything outside her narrow moral boundaries.

In 1949 the young Humphries painted in what he called his "Cézanne style" a picturesque old convent in Mornington. As his mother showed no enthusiasm for this work, he eventually asked her why. "'Barry, your father and I have been quite worried for some time,' my mother invoked my father, usually without his knowledge, in all matters of grave moral import. 'I hope you know that place you're always painting is a Roman Catholic convent. Why can't you paint something nice?'" (the author's italics). This, while especially illuminating, is only one of a series of such judgments. Her son hints at a less ossified potential, an occasional memory of happiness, but the evidence he provides is sparse.

Luckily for Barry, he was clever. But he was also a natural rebel. His father's early nick-name for him, "Sonny Sam", had long gone. His mother found reason during his adolescence to ask what had happened to her "nice" little boy. He had begun to collect books. One day, returning from Melbourne Grammar, he discovered his mother had given them all away to the Salvation Army. She could in no way understand why he was so upset. "But you've read them, Barry," she laughed. From that traumatic moment he became a passionate bibliophile, specialising in the Gothic novelists of the 1820s and the esoteric decadence of the poets and illustrators of the 1890s.

He did nothing to reassure his parents. When they were away he held a louche party in their "home"; but they returned early, just like the recent TV advert, only to be confronted, not by a moustache painted on the mother's portrait, but by a drunken middle-aged woman, warm from their bed and wearing one of Humphries senior's shirts which, because of her large bosom, was far too short.

After his much-loathed national service, he entered, and didn't much like either, Melbourne University. Here he resurrected the Dada movement (1916-24); his alter ego was one Dr Aaron Azimuth, a shabby and terrifying figure looking like a ghoul in a German Expressionist film. With his converts he carried through all kinds of subversive jokes but, while they appalled the Melbourne bourgeoisie of the 1950s, they were entirely derivative of the serious antics of Tzara and his crew more than 30 years before.

Barry had become hooked on the stage and joined a travelling repertory company. This rejection of an academic career and his joining a profession that was certainly not "nice" and involved "drawing attention to himself" (another of his mother's taboos) rubbed salt in his parents' wounds, as did a very young marriage which, like several later cracks at matrimony, predictably failed.

They despaired of him, but were entirely reassured when a review sketch in which he had appeared, as a Melbourne housewife called Edna Everage, formed part of Australia's first evening of television. Then, as now, fame of whatever nature reassures most people. And so, already known in Australia and something of a cult, but also suspected of holding his native land up to ridicule, he set off, like so many of his talented generation, for Britain - to a mixed reception to start with, but eventual triumph.

I can remember an early television series in which Mrs Everage, no honours then, visited places of cultural interest. In Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare wrote "all those wonderful shows", she walked round Anne Hathaway's cottage and banged her head on a low beam. "This must have been the cottage of a cripple," she snapped, revealing for the first time, as far as I was concerned, the vicious bitch behind the beaming façade. If anything, with her "paupers" in the gallery and her "little tinted people" sweeping up the rubbish, she has become nastier as she has risen in the social firmament.

She is cruel, too. Her treatment of her one-time bridesmaid, Madge, has an edge of impatient contempt that can prove as disturbing yet funny as the late Hilda Baker's dismissive references to her tall and dim stooge. And as for the public - she can destroy her selected victims, likewise the "celebrities" on her recent and brilliant chat shows.

But of course the dame is not alone. That gross drunk, Sir Les Patterson - he of the spittle, the projecting teeth, and priapic bulge in the stained trousers - is a hysterical cultural addition to the Court of St James.

And yet my favourite is a figure of pure pathos, Sandy Stone, a harmless old man slipping towards, and indeed beyond, death's door, giving vent to an endless stream of consciousness involving domestic products no longer in production, long-gone fashions (the ukulele, for example) and the happy, harmless years he spent with his wife Beryl behind the façade of "Kiora", their home. Sandy seems to me to sum up all the doubts and regrets of the clever, cosmopolitan author. He has something too of the dark pessimism of Philip Larkin. Let the dame wave her "gladdies" and the cultural attaché dribble and spit ad lib, Sandy is a nonentity of dignity, a bore of integrity.

Humphries has had a personal life of many ups and downs. He became a formidable drunk and brushed with death through it, but is now in AA, although he has worked out that Sir Les Patterson drinks "for him". He has been married and divorced a number of times, although Lizzie Spender seems to have calmed him down and anyway his libido is probably less insistent than it was. He has always had a deep need to succeed. He is a kind of theatrical Caesar. His "characters", whom he builds up using the "method" system, are not his sole means of expression. He invented the ingenuous actor, Barry McKenzie, first as a cartoon strip in Private Eye, then as the hero of two films, a modern Candide in what was then contemporary Britain. There are novels, too.

This book is, in the main, beautifully written, but it finishes on a dying fall. Humphries finds himself echoing his parents, shocked to discover a young girl doesn't know the meaning of the word "dusk". In short, he's growing old.

His last sentences are memorable: "And so I set these things down before the onset of the first of a thousand small physical degradations as, in a still-distant suburb, Death strides whistling towards me."

· George Melly's Owning Up: The Trilogy is published by Penguin


George Melly

The GuardianTramp

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