Like most folk I was shocked to read of the death of Barry Humphries given the earlier report that he was in hospital wise-cracking away after breaking his hip. I confess I never found his Dame Edna skit funny but there’s no doubt it was immensely popular, particularly in Britain.
One Times obituary reported Humphries has circa 50,000 books in his Sydney and London libraries and described him as a bibliomaniac. I certainly related to that obsession and freely confess the same weakness, but 50,000 over two libraries seems improbable. I have half that number over four libraries in four countries and spend many hours each week browsing and buying in second-hand bookshops and on average, 10 hours daily reading. It’s my principal recreation and not hard given I sleep for about 5 hours thus allowing 19 hours daily for other activities. I am also pleased at the contagious effect on my adult children, all possessors of large libraries.
Humphries left a marked impression on me following an interview with Ian Fraser, from memory about 30 years ago. Ian had the unique knack of hitting interviewees with sharp accusations without ever appearing rude and thus drew out desired responses without causing a backlash. On this occasion Humphries was flogging what turned out to be a very good novel he’d written.
Ian accused Humphries of having a shocking reputation in Australian intellectual circles with whom he mixed for easily taking offence and falling out with everyone. Barry instantly confessed it was true, but only up until a couple of years back. He then recounted a fascinating story as to why he had changed and in particular learned never to carry grudges. He explained how as a schoolboy he had lived in fear of another boy who had terrorised him daily. For years thereafter he’d constantly thought about this daily, angry about the misery he’d suffered.
Then a couple years back he’d been fêted at a packed public meeting in Melbourne. From the stage he recognised his now adult childhood tormentor in the audience and afterwards made a point of speaking to him. It transpired this bloke’s life had been a total disaster. He’d amounted to nothing and was unemployed. Humphries realised how foolish he’d been carrying the life-long grudge and allowing this no-hoper daily space in his head thinking about him. Thereafter when he had a run-in with associates, he made it a policy to quickly forget about it and carry on with the otherwise friendly relationships.
I related to that, when I was six there was a little thug at school who terrorised us all. I lived in daily fear then, thinking about it all weekend I made a decision, albeit inwardly shivering in fear at the possible consequences. Nevertheless, on Monday morning at school I approached this bully and punched him on the nose. He melted away in shock and thereafter changed his behaviour.
That aside, the important lesson Barry made was the futility of carrying grudges and thus allowing headspace to someone who’d angered you.