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Happy 87th Birthday, Barry Humphries

Arts | By Barry Humphries

As Barry Humphries turns 87, he praises the objects on his bedside table

‘What’s on my bedside table?’ I hear you ask.

Well, it’s the kind of question desperate journalettes with names like Emma and Marina ask, and your answers make up their column in some illustrated periodical or supplement.

‘In the event of an earthquake, what precious thing would you save and why?’ That, or a variation, is another regular question from Emma or Marina. When you’ve written their copy for them, you have to make an appointment for their heavily masked and socially-distancing photographer to come to your place and take your picture, holding or caressing the precious object, which may range from a Fabergé egg to your late mother’s denture.

My answer will, with any luck, save their writing anything at all. Pre-empting a call from Queen or Nova (or their modern equivalents), I’ll reveal to you now what’s on my nightstand (American for bedside table).

There's my sleep-apnoea apparatus, with mask and flexible ducting. Most people my age wrestle, like Laocoon, with a lot more ducting than I do; so far, I’m a lucky, single-duct senior citizen.

Beside this susurrating machine is a silver, framed photograph of the late Juliette Gréco, affectionately inscribed*.

Behind it is a teetering pile of books: all the ones I intended to read during lockdown. Well, I have dipped into a few of them but I’m not past page seven of Musil’s A Man Without Qualities (three vols, approximately 1,500 pages each) which I’ve been meaning to read all my life, and I haven’t even started Barbara Amiel’s autobiography, which generously mentions me. I have no doubt that it is very well written, as might be expected, and contains some charmingly salacious episodes but, for the moment, I feel the covers might be a little too far apart.

I can, it seems, manage only effortless literature.

Soon, perhaps, I’ll need to have my books puréed, the way other seniors have their dinners.

But I have read, and loved, Selina Hastings’s biography of Sybille Bedford. It’s so good, so full of naughty detail, evocation and grudging affection that you can enjoy it without ever having to read the works of Sybille Bedford. Isn’t Selina Hastings the best literary biographer you can think of?

And I have read William Boyd’s newish book Trio, and it’s Boyd better than ever. He is my favourite teller of tales.

Somehow I missed Beatlemania; I was very busy during the Beatles’ heyday. Busy and not seldom drunk, and there is no man busier than a drunk. It’s true that the Beatles’ cheerful refrains provided a soundtrack to my life throughout the sorrows of the sixties, but I maintained a snobbish attitude to the personalities of that famous ensemble.

That was until I read One, Two Three, Four by Craig Brown. I have a shelf in my book room entirely devoted to the works of Mr Brown and he never lets us down.

He has even invented a new form of biography, demonstrated most impressively by his book about Princess Margaret; half factual life story and half imaginative speculation, related with a droll solemnity from which none of her follies is omitted, but from which a sympathetic portrait nonetheless emerges.

None can deny that Craig Brown is our funniest and most prodigious writer. Thanks to him, I have even ordered every available gramophone record by the Beatles Orchestra, and the book is printed on decent paper, so that you can see the faces in the illustrations, not just black blobs, as is usual in so many dismally printed, modern books.

In the pile of books, there’s only one poetry book. It’s Shadows on the Down by Alfred Noyes, an English poet who once occupied a place of great affection in the hearts of English readers; equalled in our time only by John Betjeman.

Betjeman was by far the greater and more enduring poet. But as well as The Highwayman, which we can all recite, Noyes wrote some fine First World War verse as good as poems by Rosenberg, Gurney and Edward Thomas:

The Midnight Wood by Alfred Noyes

The padre held communion in the wood

That night. Two candles on a soap-box made

His altar. Bayonets, bandages and blood

Flickered around him.

Then I grew afraid.

He broke the Bread. He poured the Wine. He spoke

The one true word that, if our souls could hear,

Mountains and woods and seas

would pass like smoke,

And only leave His infinite presence there.

The stars between the dark thorns overhead

Paled. Like a ghost, He lifted up his hand.

The low wind brought the sour stench

of the dead –

The Body of Our Lord – from No Man’s Land.

We should reread the now unfashionable Noyes, Newbolt and Masefield with unprejudiced pleasure.

And I’m a huge fan of John Cooper Clarke, our greatest contemporary poet.

* To someone else

This story was from February 2021 issue. Subscribe Now