Barry Humphries

Diary - 11 April 2013

Text settings

Whenever feminists have complained in my presence about neglect of female high-achievers, other than rock singers and courtesans, I always like to mention brilliant Margaret Thatcher. It always makes them furious. They can’t bear to think of her as one of the most successful women of the 20th century. I had afternoon tea with her and Denis once in their chintzy flat at No. 10, where she expressed a great interest in Rupert Murdoch, whom she rather admired. My father-in-law, Stephen Spender, was also a Maggie fan and once, after he had delivered a speech about Henry Moore at Westminster Abbey, she repeated the whole speech back to him at the party afterwards word for word. Tragically her prodigious memory failed her in the end.

Last night I went to see an engaging cabaret performance by Donna McKechnie at the Crazy Coqs, adjacent to the Brasserie Zédel, deep underground off Piccadilly Circus. To think that I have done three stage shows at the Piccadilly Theatre and never knew that these spectacular subterranean premises existed. Zédel, once the ballroom of the Regent Palace Hotel, fell into desuetude and was rescued by Christopher Corbin and Jeremy King, who have given London its best restaurants. I overheard a fellow diner ostentatiously demand ‘tap water’, which is the new thing apparently, although London water is only slightly healthier than a splash in the mouth from the Ganges — but isn’t that what we always drank before they invented overpriced and slightly dirtier water in bottles?

A couple of the press notices for the screamingly funny Book of Mormon have primly suggested that it is a childish, or at best an undergraduate effort. These are the same sort of people who like to say that pornography is boring, Los Angeles is ‘fake’ and Woody Allen isn’t the least bit funny (but they liked his early work). Mind you, it’s always impressive to say you like someone’s early work because it implies a comprehensive knowledge of their oeuvre. As a matter of fact, I prefer my own early work, and it is a sign of my maturity and self-knowledge that I believe it to be my best, having gone slowly off over the last 50 years.

It’s April, and it must be 25 years since that 20 April when I stayed at a hotel in Hamburg and asked the concierge why the restaurant had been closed to guests. ‘Private party’ was all I got, as I stood in the lobby and watched a sedate throng of elderly, distinguished-looking people in vicuna and Persian lamb filing into the chamber where I had hoped to enjoy lunch. Only when I told my German friends Wolf and Eva about it that evening did they laugh and explain: ‘Don’t you know what day it is? Hitler’s birthday of course!’

Under a false name, I have often tried to submit my own stuff to Pseud’s Corner in Private Eye but, surprisingly, with no success. The following ought to do the trick. Not seldom I ruminate upon missed opportunities, many of which have occurred in bars, parked cars, bookshops and salerooms. Although I do not think of myself as a ‘snowdropper’ (an Australian term for a man who habitually steals women’s underwear from clothes-lines), I once bought a pair of beautiful lace-trimmed knickers at Sotheby’s which had belonged to Heather Firbank, the sister of Ronald Firbank, a writer whose works I collect. I remember the author Patrick White examined Heather’s lingerie with more than a keen interest. However, my biggest disappointment was many years ago when, at an auction in Paris, I shirked the opportunity to acquire, for an extravagant price, the eau de nil panties of Mata Hari, which had been deaccessioned by the Musée de la Préfecture de Police after her execution.

On the way to a film location in far east London, I was dismayed to discover that my driver, a cockney and no longer young, didn’t know that Limehouse had been a Chinese enclave. However, in what is still a post-Blitz wasteland, I discovered in west Stratford the remarkable Cathedral of Sewage, the grandiose Abbey Mills pumping station, a cruciform folly which is a mixture of French gothic, Byzantine, Moorish, Russian Orthodox, Venetian, Flemish and Celtic styles built between 1865 and 1868. If only the men who had so swiftly built this wonder of the East End could have survived to speed up the construction of the Crossrail link.

Last night at a big shindig at Australia House promoting my favourite Australian city, Adelaide, a young journalist (intern?) claiming to work for the Daily Mail asked me if I had ever been to Australia. ‘Is the Pope a Catholic?’ I replied, to her mystification. ‘I thought he was Argentinian,’ responded the sheila as quick as a flash.