Sunday, November 27, 2016
BARRY HUMPHRIES ASKS FOR WILLIAM PLOMER
Barry Humphries enters the Shop through the bead curtain. 'ello, I say, casual London style I've taken on this morning. He knows the Shop of course, began visiting during our Flinders Way Arcade years. His friend Neil Munro introduced him. Every year or so he pops in. One time in the Nicholas Building he was accompanied by a film-crew; photos & article duly appeared in the paper. He sat in the black painted bamboo chair, fitted with Cathy O'Brien's embroidered green cushions (--the chair the late Dr Norman Saffin always sat in, commandeered it --one time totally put out when, as a joke, Kris Coad saw him coming up the corridor & beat him to it! --poor Dr Saffin stood at the door non-plussed, had to be convinced to enter & take up his usual position), --the famous chair, therefore, which Barry pulled away from the eccentric & eclectic 'Shire' shelf over to the Irish section that suited the photographer far better. Next visit he enquired whether we'd benefited from his plug for the Shop, and we had. Funnily enough, on this occasion I'm not entirely sure it is him! As he shuffles the chapbooks in front of me at the counter, I formulate a comment which'll confirm one way or t'other : I saw you recently in Ballarat, I say. Oh? he says, what was I doing? You were hanging, I said (Louise Hearman's 2016 winning Archibald Prize portrait). Oh yes, and he chuckles, they're touring me around now!
He asks for William Plomer. Would I have anything? I look; we have Celebrations, a first edition. South African you know, he says. Yes, I enjoyed his memoir… I had a South African friend too, I say, the poet Frank Prince, lived in Southampton… Don't know him, Barry says. Died a few years ago, aged 92. Everyone's dying, he said. Frank's famous WW2 poem was Soldiers Bathing… Oh yes, I know, he says --speculatively…
Taking the Plomer down from its high shelf I also remove Ruth Pitter. Ah, he says, Ruth Pitter --I spoke to her on the phone just before she died… Flicking through the Plomer he says, read The Planes of Bedford Square --beautiful poem --note the internal rhymes, brilliant. "Never were the plane trees loftier, leafier, / the planes of Bedford Square, / and of all that summer foliage motionless / not one leaf / had fallen yet, one afternoon / warm in the last world-peace before / the First World War."
Anna Wickham, he plucks out of the air… Same generation I say (Prince, Plomer, Pitter, Ridler et al)… Do you have any? No, but you know there's a collected Wickham due next year from the University of West Australia Press… young chap Nathaniel O'Reilly's scholarship. Because of the Australian connection, Barry muses, she published two collections in Australia you know… He wonders whether any of these older poets is remembered now? What can one say? To oneself, "that's our job".
At the counter again, before leaving, he looks around him. It's good to be back, he says, back in an older Melbourne… I like old, he says. We're not really a part of that, I say, not historically --the Shop's only existed since 1984 though I personally remember mid '60s Melbourne.... but temperamentally of course... How old were you when you arrived? 19 as a sailor in '65, 20 as a migrant the next year…
A couple of times you've been here & I've had English classics on the stereo, and I've asked you to guess who… one time not Rubbra or Bax or Howells or Finzi… Finzi, Barry echoes… none of them --it was E G Moeran! Oh yes, he says, smiling. Glazed look, peering through the maze of memory? We shake hands, say goodbye till next time. His companion has the Plomer in a paper bag. Their voices trail away en route the lifts.
[from Journal, 19th November, '16]