November 01, 1992

Collected Recollections

Filed under: Archive,Books


More Please

Barry Humphries


Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

In More Please, Barry Humphries’ fifteenth book, Australia’s most gifted theatre artiste drops his fourteenth veil. Those who thought that Humphries would Tell All and Name Names have him mixed up with that flaws in the glass bloke. These thoughts recollected in  tranquillity are anything but misanthropic. Instead they’re brim with the mellow fruitfulness of Camberwell in the 1930s. Even when his cosy childhood is overtaken by fractious maturity Humphries can look his life in the grapey eye, forgive and remember.

As the author is the first to say in his preface, Alzheimer Remembers, memoirs have a selective pathology.

“Yet as I begin this task aspiring to total candour, it is inevitable that I will rearrange the facts of my life in an attractive tableau, in much the same way as we arrange our features when we are about to be photographed.”

Humphries beams for the camera, confessing to the comforts of his early life in Melbourne. With Proustian precision he recalls cabbage moths around the bassinet, the scent of honeysuckle and the strains of Oh Mona on the wireless. The detail is lovingly confected by this Munchausen of nostalgia. In fact it is reminiscent of the gorgeous life of another Melbourne celebrity – the catalogues of brands, mnemonics of the buried life, could have come from the prodigious pen of Edna. Humphries describes the new housing project established by his father, a well-to-do builder-

“On the Golf Links Estate…the eucalypt was banished. A few, as I have said, lingered along the railway line, or survived in small parks -ghettos for gums- but in the gardens on the hill the vernacular, even the arboreal vernacular, was considered bad manners. The New Gentility demanded silver birches, liquid ambers, pin oaks, prunus plums and magnolias…”

The floral trope is given extended use when he describes the Wattle Tea Rooms in Little Collins Street-

“…the whole cafe resembled a conservatory. Women like stocks, in mauve and heliotrope, or puffed up in brighter speckled hues like calceolarias. Blue delphinium women nodded to each other across the room and there were old ladies too, like bunches of violets and boronia huddled behind their Denby ware tea sets, or sitting alone pecking at asparagus rolls. There was, of course, no shortage of snapdragons.”

Humphries is ever the miniaturist, whether as comic or belletrist, or both. His decade is the Nineties- the last ones not these ones. Beardsley, Mucha, Whistler, Wilde- aromatic, sinuous, purple to the eye and ear. More Please is dense with observation, the prose fruity with archaism and neologism. As he said of My Gorgeous Life, it is like pudding.

He moves in a world of frigidaires, mixmasters, radiolas, cataloguing the soaps and the porridge, re-enacting in archetypal detail a visit to McGrath the barber. Humphries evokes his life as a pampered first-born, incredulous at the very idea of siblings, adored by his mother and protected, forgiven and bankrolled by a bewildered father. School for Humphries was a close encounter with institutional philistinism. His Melbourne Grammar report for 1948 is presented in gleeful facsimile -“a tendency to exhibitionism.” As a schoolboy the precocious Humphries introduced himself to Percy Grainger and read copies of D.H. Laurence when his father wasn’t burning them.

The young Barry, let loose in his mater’s cream Austin A40 began to explore the larger Melbourne. Moving from mama to Dada he began to perpetrate his legendary public pranks – pouring distinctly anti-peristaltic looking Heinz Russian salad on the footpath and then eagerly eating it with a spoon, larking  on Melbourne transport, and constructing Forkscapes, Shoescapes and great escapes.

After the amusingly orotund account of childhood and schooling Humphries’ account of his early theatrical experience is plainer and more direct. It is vivid portrait of the times and his tangential relation to them. A mixed success as an actor, miscast, slapdash in preparation (he often dried on stage), he was nevertheless intrepidly presenting himself and his lank locks to all those audiences with Dobell faces, as he describes them. Ray Lawler encouraged his Edna, Peter O’Shaughnessy invited him to play Estragon in the first production of Godot seen in Australia.

In whatever demi-monde he could find in Melbourne after six o’clock the raffish Humphries embraced bohemia-

“On Friday evenings a whole group of painters would appear from the artists’ colony at Eltham with their girlfriends, to join the ‘Drift’, as those relentless evenings of gate-crashing and party-hopping came to be called. The noise was deafening, but the atmosphere was heady and as I stood in that packed throng of artists’ models, academics, alkies, radio actors, poofs and ratbags, drinking large quantities of agonisingly cold beer, I felt as though my True Personality was coming into focus.”

The Drift took him to London in the sixties, understudy in Oliver and hobnobbing with Peter Cook and Spike Milligan. Private Eye gave anxious blessing to Barrington Bradman Bing McKenzie, Humphries’ Ugly Australian, concocted in league with the cartoonist Nicholas Garland.

The latter half of the book gingerly describes Humphries’ chaotic and negligent response to his several wives, his children and some discreetly identified lovers- although in slightly less detail than he allocates to the drapes in Camberwell. But if he is tentative about the inter-personals, he begins to focus directly, sometimes with italicised confession, on his losing battle with the turps.

Confined to the Dymphna Ward at St Vincents Hospital, one of many attempts to dry out, the author is persuaded to take the first of a series of pledges-

“My experience in that smoke-filled hall that evening, where I saw a number of people that I had known years before whom I had assumed must be long dead, had a profound effect on me. Although I had never thought seriously about Alcoholics Anonymous, I had pictured the gathering in my mind… A grim prayer meeting of derelicts, probably all wearing army-surplus overcoats and thumping tambourines. Doom, gloom, ginger ale and Jesus. I was completely unprepared to find a large crowd of well-dressed people, many my own age, and younger, and women-some very pretty- and to hear laughter; gales of it.”

The binges and their frightful cost  make painful reading. In this Humphries is least adorned in rhetoric. Now clear, dry and successful he can absolve a past self. This is one time when all the veils drop. Another is in the tender final passage about his mother’s death, when he forgives her her suffocating gentility and in doing so resolves some of the imaginative misfortunes of a fortunate life.

At one point in the book Humphries notes Clive James having “the acumen to distribute his reminiscences over several volumes.” Effectively concluding his narrative in the late seventies he provides only scant information of the years since. Closing rather abruptly with some random Asides from Betjeman, White and C.K. Stead, this autobiography which opens in such a flourish of artifice ends almost inconsequentially. It is undoubtedly deliberate because the immediate response to such a splendid read is to want more. Please.

The Adelaide Review, No.108, November, 1992, pp.33-4.

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