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My brush with the Grim Reaper - Barry Humphries

Blog | By Barry Humphries | Aug 16, 2022

Anatomy and melancholy: Barry Humphries in his north London home

An operation on an intimate part of his body reminds Barry Humphries of his mortality

The scrotum is very forgiving.

These comforting words were recently uttered by a distinguished surgeon before he deracinated a nasty excrescence in a dark part of my anatomy. I had the very rare extramammary Paget’s disease, first noticed under the shower – so it was a general anaesthetic and the knife. Ladies sometimes get Paget’s on their breasts but it rarely, if ever, assails a man’s front botty*.

I haven’t been in hospital for ages. Not since a burst appendix which was undiagnosed for ten days because my appendix was hiding on the wrong side. Most of my life-threatening ills are, it seems, unique.

On that occasion, a funny thing happened to me on the way to the operating theatre. Fear had made me rather chatty. As we trundled down a long corridor and descended in a very slow lift, I asked the kind, non-binary Executive Health Care Provider, or nurse, whether farming implements were allowed in the hospital. She said she didn’t think so, and why?

‘Because,’ I said, high as a kite on a pre-med, ‘I just saw a very tall man wearing a long, hooded robe and carrying a scythe walking past me.’

‘Oh him!’ said aptly named Florence without missing a beat. ‘I saw him too and I sent him down to the other ward to see old Mr Henderson. That old bastard has been giving us all a very hard time lately.’

In the Melbourne of my youth, a hospital visit on Sunday was a popular family outing. Large groups of people, admittedly from rather common suburbs, streamed into the city’s principal infirmaries to goggle at the human exhibits. It was just like Bedlam in 1750 at the height of its fame as a tourist attraction.

I remember reading in the Melbourne Sun News-Pictorial in the early fifties about an incident in intensive care when a woman tourist had been rebuked for eating a sedated patient’s grapes.

A very nice production team from the BBC arrived on my doorstep this morning to interview me for a documentary about a world-famous personage whom I happen to know. I am told that the finished programme, to which many others are contributing, will go to air only after its subject’s death. I pointed out, to myself actually, that I was bound to pre-decease this distinguished personage – so it would be the Dead extolling the Dead.

By the time the programme is transmitted, the finery I donned for the interview will have long since been snapped up at an Oxfam shop. The BBC might even be obliged to put up a subtitle explaining who I am … or was. When the time came to face my interlocutor, I got all my tenses muddled up and began to wonder if I was dead or alive.

Years ago, at a Hampstead party, I was importuned by a highly caffeinated young man who kept exclaiming, ‘I can’t believe it’s you! I can’t believe it’s really you!!’

When he’d calmed down, he explained that he was a journalist on a popular newspaper and that on that very day had been engaged in writing my obituary!

With fatuous self-satisfaction, I record my reply. ‘I hope there isn’t a deadline,’ said I, quick as a flash.

Do you, my dear perusers, think that the national broadcaster has already compiled a programme to be transmitted on that melancholy day in the distant future when the gladdie falls from my lifeless grasp? Who will be weeping crocodile tears on that show, do you suppose? Will there be a eulogy from Jeanette Winterson, a kaddish from Lady Gaga, and a heartfelt expression of regret from Lord (Boris) Johnson for not having given me the knighthood?

One of the horrible symptoms of encroaching age is not just forgetting names, although this is a serious vexation. A friend of mine, the late Bryan Moyne, bumped into Diana Mitford at a party when she was married to Sir Oswald Mosley. ‘I’m sure we’ve met before,’ said Bryan.

‘Yes,’ replied Diana. ‘I was your wife.’

Getting unreasonably irritated is another troubling infirmity when you have one foot in the grave and the other on a banana skin. I am one of the most reasonable of men, but I get very tetchy when a shopgirl – aka a non-binary retail executive – doesn’t understand my request, or is not listening, and says, ‘I’ll double-check with my colleague.’

Did they check once, I wonder? Of course they didn’t. But double-checking sounds diligent. And who the hell is this omniscient colleague anyway?

And when will the Mail and its competitors stop being furious? The word ‘fury’ occurs at least twice in every issue of the paper:


Now that The Oldie is the preferred reading of bright young people, there might still be a few readers who are old enough to get regularly irritated. There should be a forum in this periodical for us to let off steam.

When my operation was successfully over, and the anaesthetic began to ebb from my system, I started thinking rancid thoughts. Pathetically sorry for myself, I thought of the people in my past life who had done the dirty. Reluctant to let them live rent-free in my brain, I decided to take a positive – and even lucrative – approach to tackling these pygmies.

I have begun writing a book about them: all those lawyers, tax advisers, accountants, promoters, Sydney estate agents and producers who took me for a ride. When it’s finished and catharsis occurs, or doesn’t, I’ll drop it in the trash where such resentments belong. Or I might actually publish it.

Look out for They Pissed in My Soup (Billabong Press, 855pp). The people I will portray will be heavily disguised, but instantly recognisable.

Sometimes I wish I could be as forgiving as my scrotum.

*Front botty – an Australian medical term for the region of the pudenda