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Diary

Barry Humphries’s diary: The bookshop ruined by Harry Potter

Plus: Oscar Wilde’s birthday, loins for the loinless, and Dame Edna Everage’s latest campaign

8 November 2014

9:00 AM

8 November 2014

9:00 AM

Do fish have loins? Last Tuesday, in a pretentious restaurant, I ordered a ‘loin of sea trout’. It looked just like an ordinary piece of fish — a bit small, as is usual in pretentious restaurants — on a plate sprinkled and drizzled as though the chef had perhaps coughed over it rather violently or vigorously scratched his head before giving it to the waiter. In Australia, I was once offered a shoulder of some other fish, so I suppose one might even be able to enjoy a rump of whitebait or even a saddle of flounder. But generally speaking I don’t mind loin when applied to the loinless, and somehow a loin of fruitcake sounds appetising, or even a loin of sourdough bread. After all, a loaf of bread has a ‘heel’, which I always pluck out of the proffered basket. It’s crunchier.

I could never hold a candle to that parodist of genius, Craig Brown, but I have always been irritated by former Spectator diarists of the crassly ‘self-serving’ kind. You know the sort of thing: ‘Seated in my spacious and surprisingly comfortable economy seat on my British Airways flight to Los Angeles to see my publisher about my forthcoming collection of essays, Having Said That, I ordered a delicious brie and beetroot wrap from a courteous member of the inflight team. I travel very lightly with my stylish featherlight Marinetti wheelie and matching garment bag. My PA, Lexi, had emailed ahead to my favourite boutique hotel, Waves in Santa Monica, which those two brilliant Los Angeles ladies Fran Lutoslawski and her husband Trish Wong opened two years ago to stunning reviews in the always infallible Top Traveller magazine, which I subscribe to for its stunning full-page photographs of wrist watches. The new ‘Clooney’ Cartier is my favourite, if I could only afford it.’


Having said that, I went to a wonderful party last week at the Langham Hotel to celebrate the 160th birthday of Oscar Wilde. It was thrown by the hotel and Gyles Brandreth, with a speech by Wilde’s grandson, Merlin Holland, and a hilarious reading from The Picture of Dorian Gray by the great Sir Derek Jacobi, whose hand I sought to shake, but it meant pushing past Joanna Lumley (not easy or desirable) and Peter Bowles and Maureen Lipman and Craig Brown and Edward Fox and Steven Berkoff and Jeffrey and Mary Archer and Jonathan Aitken and Patricia Hodge, and, if you looked up, Stephen Fry. Because I am hardly ever in London but always on the road on some kind of farewell tour, my arm permanently raised in a valedictory gesture, I never get to nice London parties and I forget how pleased I am to see such people, and even remember their names as I help them to remember mine.

My occasional London lodgings, where St John’s Wood reluctantly meets Kilburn, are not far from the Abbey Road recording studios. Taxi drivers avoid the famous pedestrian crossing which features on an old Beatles album and attracts some of the youngest morons in the world, with faces, in Flaubert’s phrase, ‘ashine with idiocy’. They swarm back and forth and then inscribe their names on the front fence of the studios: a palimpsest regularly obliterated with a coat of white paint. In Porto last week, one of my favourite cities, along with Turin and Riga, I sought out the famous bookshop Livraria Lello, a beautiful example of Portuguese art nouveau. But why couldn’t I get in the front door? Who were all these people? None emerged carrying books other than tourist maps. None looked as though they could read. But I discovered this is the bookshop in the film of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,and the mob of ‘book lovers’ were all Harry Potter fans. Without disputing the merits of Rowling’s oeuvre, she has inadvertently wrecked a beautiful shop, which now only seems to sell paperbacks and guidebooks and presumably Lusitanian editions of the Potter books.

Melbourne is the third largest Greek city in the world, and my client, Dame Edna Everage, who is among other things an international civil rights lawyer (emeritus), is campaigning, on behalf of the Greek community, to get the Elgin Marbles for Australia before Mrs Clooney manages — heaven forbid — to get them repatriated to Athens where they will be immediately sold to the Chinese to relieve the nation’s debt. Perhaps soon, thanks to the Dame’s efforts, they may be known to posterity as the Melbourne Marbles.

Reviewing an anodyne West End show about a dance orchestra of yesteryear called the Kinks, the critic declared that the Kinks ‘defined the Sixties’. Good grief! Did the Sixties ever need definition? I prefer to remember that far-off epoque as a blur.


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