Barry Humphries

Diary - 29 November 2003

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I keep forgetting where I am. A different American city every week makes it hard to remember where the light switch is on the bedside table. Is it up or down, do you push it or twiddle it or is it connected to a more complicated system that you have to get out of bed to operate? The ‘turn-down service’ also seems to be a turn-on service: that’s to say, you come home from the theatre to music, or ‘Mozak’, leaking into the room from an invisible source. Finding where it’s coming from reminds me of the old days, looking for the bug in Prague hotel rooms, but it’s not so much fun. Stopping the music, or calling for someone to stop it, usually takes about half an hour. I have given up telling housekeeping to stop putting those poisonous chocolates on my pillow. But they keep coming, so I hoard them and unobtrusively drop them back on the housekeeping trolley on my way to the lift when the maid isn’t looking.

The joy of performing nightly to ecstatic Seppo audiences (Australian rhyming slang: Septic tanks — Yanks) is punished by the daily search, increasingly desperate as the tour wears on, for food that tastes of something. Everything in the ‘good restaurants’ is glazed or drizzled or ‘finished’ with something shiny and flavourless. It looks like food but it isn’t, and it arrives on the table only after I have been seated by a young woman who feels compelled to share her Christian name with me, and my glass has been filled with a crashing avalanche of cube-clogged water that tastes as if someone has squeezed their chlorinated bathing costume into it. I’ve given up on the ‘no ice, please’ as well. The colder the weather, the more they give you. The waiters like to be called ‘servers’ because, paradoxically, it’s meant to make them sound less servile, and the waitresses are ‘servers’ as well, presumably to make them sound less like women. They are all very nice, by the way, or mostly, and unlike British waiters and waitresses they don’t carry around a nimbus of BO and cigarette smoke. The ‘servers’, often thinking that you have finished a meal when you are just wondering if you can face another mouthful, come out with a rather blunt phrase, ‘Are you still working on that?’ Work it often is.

Apart from grateful audiences, the chief pleasure of visiting these cities is the local museum of art, where you invariably stop dead in front of a canvas and say, ‘Ah, this is where that is!’ Even in the Carnegie Institute of Pittsburgh, where the walls are painted hideous pastel shades, and every decent if second-rank European painting is surrounded by a cluster of kitschy American stuff, I found a few treasures that I would gladly have slipped under my Burberry. ‘Ah, that’s where it is!’ took on a new and poignant meaning in the Carnegie when I came upon a beautiful drawing that had once hung in my Hampstead bedroom — precious wrack swept away years ago on the tidal wave of divorce. I never go into the contemporary wing; they are all exactly the same, and there are even a few established modernists of the old school that I could do without: Mir