I felt immeasurably old this morning in Sydney when a youth on a bicycle yelled at me in the street ‘I love your body of work!’ I returned the flattering salutation with the modest smile I keep for such occasions, but my fan had already pedalled into the traffic.
I felt immeasurably old this morning in Sydney when a youth on a bicycle yelled at me in the street ‘I love your body of work!’ I returned the flattering salutation with the modest smile I keep for such occasions, but my fan had already pedalled into the traffic. But it was the first time that my not inconsiderable achievements as a music-hall artiste had been publicly described as ‘a body of work’. Perhaps the sapient cyclist had intended to compliment me on my oeuvre, but had decided that the French word might not have been audible above all those cars and trucks and filthy white vans. Certainly ‘I love your work’ has been in popular currency for some time, usually rather sweetly bestowed by someone who thinks they recognise you from the telly. Having achieved a body of work, I suppose I can at last retire, not that I’ve ever thought of what I do as work. I am fundamentally slothful and my theatrical antics are just my way of filling in an idle hour or two on stage in Buffalo, New York, Melbourne, Florida or Bournemouth.
Painters now get told by their admirers ‘I love your practice’. A concupiscent girl in an art gallery recently accosted me with those words. Did she mistake me for a dentist, I wondered? It emerged later that evening that she had seen an exhibition of my exuberant landscapes and I learnt that what painters, sculptors and the creators of ‘installations’ do is now called their ‘practice’, usually where practice never makes perfect. These artists, or ‘Saatchists’ as we may whimsically call them, do not look at things, incidentally — they ‘reference’ them. Is there bullshit denser or more pungent than in the profitable world of contemporary art?
The Australian Chamber Orchestra of which I am a patron is soon giving four concerts of music I have chosen. I will be reciting the Edith Sitwell and William Walton ‘Façade’ which, I suppose, is a 1920s version of rap, though unlike rap it has wit, ingenuity and beauty. I am also conducting the orchestra in the first performance of Jazz Music by the Belgian composer Marcel Poot who wrote this brief but exciting work in 1929 and never anticipated an Australian performance. I first became interested in this composer and corresponded with him in the 1980s, attracted by his euphonious name. I am also trying to interest the Australian Chamber Orchestra in performing the neglected music of William Crotch (1775-1847).
In New York a couple of weeks ago, it was impossible to avoid parties for Nicholas Haslam: decorator, flâneur, un croquer d’oreiller formidable and most charming of men. The celebrations were in honour of his memoirs Redeeming Features, the only autobiography I’ve ever purchased without my own name in the index. Nicky seemed to know exactly how many copies he was selling on both sides of the Atlantic down to the last book. At a dinner at Terry Kramer’s Park Avenue penthouse, he described his hostess as a woman who was ‘like people used to be’. It was true, and if not food for thought, at least a canapé for thought. Along with much else, I learnt from his book that Nicky was an admirer of John Collier’s His Monkey Wife, a minor classic by an author unjustly overlooked.
In San Francisco for Thanksgiving again this year with Amy Tan, for whose friendship I am truly grateful. In her house high over Sausalito — the Positano of San Francisco — we always end the evening with karaoke, a million times more fun than charades. There are always a few musical types present and although I didn’t get to sing ‘Love Shack’ with Michael Tilson Thomas this year, but I sang ‘Over the Rainbow’ (and rather well) with Zheng Cao, that gorgeous and vibrant mezzo-soprano and star of Amy’s wonderful opera, The Bonesetter’s Daughter. The one thing about Thanksgiving which I dread is the pumpkin pie, which usually tastes like cardboard. Amy’s was the exception and it must have contained a secret transforming ingredient. I am told Splenda instead of sugar and a few egg whites make all the difference to this avoidably disappointing confection.
My friend Father Gerrard Irvine once told me that he had met an old man who had been More Adey’s gardener. Adey had been a loyal friend of Oscar Wilde’s and Gerrard asked the old man if he’d ever met Wilde and if so, what was he like? The dotard thought for a long while and then said, ‘A stout gentleman sir.’ That was all. Sadly, I too am becoming a candidate for the Biggest Loser, slightly stout myself but not for long since Amelia, my trainer, will be taking me on a jog in the Botanical Gardens, around the Opera House and across the bridge every day from now until Christmas. I managed to keep fit in New York by mountaineering, for it is often forgotten that Manhattan, in the language of its aborigines, means ‘island of many hills’ and I’ve climbed them all — Lennox, Carnegie, Washington, Sugar, Morningside, Hamilton — and attained their summits, often burdened with shopping bags. The city is not the same now that Tower Records has gone and this indispensable shop has also disappeared from Piccadilly Circus. It’s bookshops next for the chop, and gone forever will be the pleasures of browsing. It will be life online.
Oscar Wilde’s grandson Merlin emailed me yesterday asking if I had Oscar’s telephone book in my collection. Sadly, I didn’t, but there was certainly an instrument in the Wilde home in Tite Street and a box of Black Magic for the reader who can locate a reference to the telephone in Oscar’s body of work. Years ago, in Edinburgh, I foolishly declined to buy the telephone book of Amaryllis Hacon, formerly Edith Broadbent, music-hall cruiser, poet’s moll, beautiful hostess and wife of the rich lawyer and founder and publisher of the Vale Press. In the century-old leatherbound volume with a cover designed by Ricketts were the three-digit numbers of Bernard Shaw, Max Beerbohm, Arthur Symons and W.B. Yeats. At the back — crossed out — the phone number of Oscar Wilde. What aphoristic message might he have left on his answerphone? A Toblerone for the best suggestion. Merry Christmas.