Oscar Humphries

Diary - 5 April 2008

Oscar Humphries faces call centres and dinner parties

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My dinner parties are an exercise in patience. People used to tell me how much money they’d made buying in Islington when they did. ‘Good for you,’ I’d say, hating them just a little. I’ve noticed that recently my friends have stopped telling me how much equity they’d managed to suck out and try to change the subject whenever I bring house prices up — which I do with increasing pleasure and regularity.

The other day I woke up to shouting. ‘Sorry isn’t good enough.’ Her voice was shrill with hurt, anger and profound disappointment. ‘What good is saying sorry? You’re not sorry. Not as sorry as I am.’ Sara, my fiancée, is normally a kind and forgiving person. I wondered who had so grievously wronged her. Had she been disinherited? Fired? Was I to blame? Normally I assume I’m in the wrong unless there is evidence to the contrary — it’s safer that way. She was on the phone to a call centre. Call centres are both victims and perpetrators — the abuser and the punching bag of England. She was verbally abusing — I reminded her of this throughout the day — an innocent nine-to-fiver. The dispute involved a direct debit that didn’t work, a broken modem and something to do with an Asian movie channel. I kept thinking how much Sara had changed but that on the brighter side of things I could ‘use’ this at my next dinner party.

Weeks ago we had ordered an ‘indie’ movie channel — we meant ‘indie’ in the arty film sense, something with subtitles. ‘Oh, you like Bollywood movies.’ ‘Yes, very much,’ I said, not wanting to offend the call-centre man. ‘Which ones?’ I couldn’t answer him. It is just like when classical buffs ask me which composers I like. I should be honest and say ‘Whatever’s on the radio’ or ‘Italian’. Instead I pretend and claim Mahler as my favourite. To which the unusual response is, ‘Which piece?’ I don’t know what they’re all called and I say something like, ‘It’s all pretty cracking,’ before slinking off to find someone who thinks Puccini is a pizza.

America is a customer service utopia. The dollar may be in freefall and the man at the helm might be one aria short of an opera but order an ice tea and you’ll get one — with a smile. In the UK you’d get something tepid — with a frown. I was in Palm Beach recently, which is just a few miles away from Florida’s subprime heartland, but a world away. Palm Beach makes you feel both young and old. Young because everyone else is pushing or in some cases already has pushed 100. Old because if you spend enough time there, you start moving slowly and mumbling your words — old age is contagious. Palm Beach is a strange place and best avoided unless extreme senility or wealth forces you there.

I was there for an art fair. Palm Beach, uni-quely, has yet to embrace the contemporary. They still love the classics there. The art world equivalent of ‘whatever’s on the radio’. I obsess about my small-scale collecting. So I often ask people — after they’ve asked me whether I prefer Wagner’s Ring cycle to his earlier work — what they collect. The answers vary. Wives. Houses. One man told me he was a ‘serious collector’. I wondered what he meant. ‘As opposed to a comic collector?’ This confused him. Another couple told me that they ‘had all their antiques made in California’. It was one of those sad moments when you realise that the person you are talking to, who you were beginning to warm to, is either insane, a Scientologist, or very stupid. My own collecting has come to an end. Taxidermy monkeys are hard enough to sell in a booming economy but in a recession they become like anthrax — no one, including me, wants them. When things improve I can resume my very unserious collecting.

My last night in Palm Beach was spent in the palatial home of a couple who had made their money in shoes. The house looked like the mausoleum of a dictator with particularly bad taste — all white marble and gilded ceilings. On entering, we were asked to remove our shoes — ironic given the source of the fortune that had paid for all this. Throughout the house ‘soft rock’ was piped from unseen speakers. The art was roped off. Our very generous host guided us around his rather magnificent collection. We saw very good French furniture and Impressionists galore. Our hostess kept reminding us that she hadn’t used a decorator and that she’d done all this herself — as she pointed to the leopard-print curtain and boasted how it matched the cushions so perfectly. Over dinner it emerged that my guest and I were the only ones in the party who weren’t Republicans. I heard how wrong I was to admire Hillary Clinton and that Obama was — they were sober — a secret Muslim. With a straight face, the man to my right told me that Obama would be sworn in on the Koran not the Bible. Word got round that I thought their wacko ideas about Obama weren’t quite kosher and they labelled me a liberal. Something I didn’t know I was. I tried to explain that I favoured the Tory party — a party they had never been to, they told me. ‘If I’m a liberal,’ I asked, ‘then what are you?’ Despite all their talk of bombing Iran and Hillary Clinton’s covert lesbianism they claimed to be ‘moderates’. ‘How about those call centres?’ I asked, hoping to diffuse things a little. I admired the Meissen dinner service from which we ate diet food. These people were serious collectors but were, with Ricky Martin wailing throughout a very good dinner, impossible to take seriously.