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Slovenia Notebook

24 September 2011

12:00 AM

24 September 2011

12:00 AM

Last week I headed to Maribor in Slovenia for a music festival featuring the Australian Chamber Orchestra under the directorship of maestro Richard Tognetti, the virtuoso violinist. I even briefly performed a couple of Edith Sitwell poems to music by William Walton, but my efforts were at the beginning and end of a long programme featuring the New York avant-garde of the Sixties, including a work by John Cage which contained a long movement of complete silence disturbed only by the sound of the audience leaving. I think I once read that Cage believed there to be three different kinds of silence required by his music: the silence of expectation, the silence of appreciation and the silence of paralytic boredom. I’m not sure about the last.

•••

‘Enjoy the rest of your day,’ said the young woman behind the desk at my Slovenian hotel last night. It is a sad fact of modern life that everyone seems to speak the same language and the jargon of the Slovenian hospitality industry conflates with that of San Francisco, Brisbane and Reykjavik. I always preferred foreign hotels in which no English was spoken, where you had to hand in your passport on arrival and pretend that your female companion was your wife or in my case, not seldom, my niece. They were the days when the receptionist politely met your gaze and was not head down performing arpeggios on a computer keyboard. Real room keys hung on hooks in the background. No one tapped on your door wanting to read the mini-bar, and the lavatory seat was never sanitised for your protection.

•••

My fellow Australians, once so independent and inventive in their use of language, now do things 24/7 and ASAP, and when they’re not ‘high-fiving’ and ‘enjoying the rest of their day’ they’re ‘heading’ somewhere — it’s cowboy speak. Everyone is ‘heading’ somewhere these days, even when they’re not ‘heading for the last round-up’. Now mums head across the kitchen and head down to the shops, no, not shops anymore — ‘stores’. A subtle but insidious difference.


•••

Slovenia is very beautiful with forests, rivers you’ve never heard of, and acceptable-looking young people. At the railway station, or train station as Australians are forcing themselves to say in the new Esperanto, an acceptable young woman called Tina ran up to me immediately. ‘How did you know it was me?’ I asked her, since my notoriety has not yet spread to the Balkans. ‘Oh,’ she said. ‘it was easy, I was told to look for an older man.’ For a moment I felt the chill breath of the Reaper on the back of my neck. I have noticed lately that people have begun to assist me across roads and out of taxis — and when I have asked sotto voce at theatre box offices if there is a senior concession, no one has requested to look at my birth certificate.

•••

My name has always embarrassed me. ‘Barry’ dates me horribly and I know if I had been a girl I would have been Shirley. As for Humphries, it was with great hilarity spoonerised to Bumphries very early on by schoolboys who have since died. Someone typed me into their iphone the other day and the predictive text changed my name to Barry Humourless, a similar machine called me Barry Hungriest and another Batty Humphries. But I’m devoted to my little bottom-of-the-range mobile, unlike the Australian lady I met this morning at Waitrose, who said, ‘My husband doesn’t use a mobile, he’s a bit of a Luddite!’ That’s a word that’s come a long way from King Ludd in Sherwood Forest.

•••

I went to see Les Misérables last Friday for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century. The show has survived in the West End in immaculate condition and Matt Lucas, a great comic actor, brought the house down. Shaun Dalton, a singer with a Wagnerian presence, understudying the role of Javert, gave a spectacular performance.

•••

Last week my stars said I’d be going to a big party and would meet an acceptable woman and there would be a mutual desire for coition. ‘Take it slowly’ was the astral advice. As it happened, it was the day of Tom Stoppard’s annual party, so I was naturally on the prowl (in a nice way of course). By the end of the day, and being about the last person to leave, every reasonably acceptable young female present had heard about my horoscopic prediction and most had laughed incredulously. They had obviously been advised to take it very slowly as well, or not at all, because I left with my wife.

•••

A friend of mine from Los Angeles has been staying at the most expensive hotel in London and found a mouse in his room. He summoned the manager, who protested there were no mice in the bedrooms per se. ‘They tend to come up from the kitchen on the room-service trolleys,’ he explained by way of reassurance, adding, by way of valediction, ‘Enjoy the rest of your day.’

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