New Yorkers are just more stylish

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The Independent Online
THIS IS a notion which I imagine will cause general outrage, but here goes: is it possible that Americans have better taste than we do? I ask because I went to New York last week to see the Matisse exhibition and was impressed by the stylishness I saw at every hand. First, the Christmas decorations in the shops and streets put our own Oxford Street tat to shame. Everything is very simple - strings of tiny white lights like beads of frost wrapped round the trees, and pine boughs and red ribbons in the shops - but all the more effective for its restraint. Second, the museum gift shops have things you actually want to buy, not the twee rubbish you get at the National Gallery or V & A. Third, American women, it must be faced, dress at least 20 times better than we do. Admittedly, their clothes are not very exciting, but then neither are they frumpy and hideous: the older women in particular look really chic.

And finally there is the MOMA Matisse exhibition itself, which surely must be one of the best exhibitions ever mounted. You reach it through mobs of ticket touts offering double price for your dollars 12 ticket - a phenomenon I've never encountered at an art gallery before and one that makes you feel smug and privileged as soon as you arrive. Then there is all the fun of the cloakroom where mink-coated matrons throw tantrums on discovering that the cloakroom refuses to accept fur (or even simulated fur) and attendants patiently explain that animals have rights. Then whizzing up the escalator, celebrity-spotting on the way (I saw Princess Michael of Kent, Alec McCowen, A S Byatt and Jeremy Isaacs - quite a good crop for one morning) and then finally to the paintings which are beautifully presented and hung, and with just the right amount of information, not too much. (English galleries, especially the National, have developed the habit of putting up great screeds of text alongside every picture so that there is almost more reading matter than paintings on the walls.)

It has such glamour, the Museum of Modern Art; it doesn't have the terrible bunker feel of the Hayward Gallery or the make-do-and-mend of the Tate. I know this is largely a factor of money, but there is something else: Americans seem to be excited by art, whereas English gallery-goers so often wear glum culture-duty faces and seem more keen on reading their catalogues than looking at the paintings. The Matisse exhibition has a real sense of occasion and fizz, like a great opera first night. It's mean of me to rave about it because you probably can't get tickets now, but if you can, do: I doubt there'll be an exhibition to match it this century.

MY NEW YORK hotel room contained a heavy leather-bound tome called The Goldbook. This is now replacing the Gideon Bible as standard hotel reading fare. What a bizarre read, though. It mainly consists of watch advertisements but eventually you come to some editorial pages which purport to be a guide to 'The Best in 50 Cities in the World'. One of the cities is London, where the visitor is recommended to see the Barbicam Center (sic) and to read Spy magazine (what that?) and the Manchester Guardian. Then there are the people: 'The Goldbook 900 Wealthiest, Classiest, Most Creative and Best-Dressed Men'. Most of the names are unfamiliar - Lord Rufus Albermarle, Prince Pierre D'Aremberg, Sir Michael Palliser, Earl David Rocksavage - but there is finally one that I recognise. He scores eight out of ten for wealth, eight for class, nine for creativity and nine for dress. You'll never guess so I'll tell you. Splash forward, Robert Maxwell.

MEANWHILE back home we are still in the grip of Squirrel Terror. Every time I see that BBC Wildlife film of a squirrel mastering a sort of SAS- assault-course-cum-crystal-maze to get the nuts in someone's suburban garden, I panic: it's bad enough that the buggers can practically fly without discovering that they can solve Mensa brainteasers as well. Some people claim that dolphins are more intelligent than we are but at least dolphins stay safely in the sea, they don't come bursting through the catflap. Our cats flee at the sight of them: even my sister-in-law's cat which is the size of an Alsatian won't put up a fight. I read that one attacked an adult woman the other week - latched on to her neck and just hung there while other people fought to pull it off. Their lifestyle bears no relation to the quaint pacific customs described by Beatrix Potter: in particular, the myth that they hibernate. London squirrels don't even sleep: they are frenzied workaholics who run around the garden night and day, checking that not one bulb or plant is left undisturbed. My sister-in-law says we need catapults; we can't find any in London (are they banned?) but we've put them at the top of our Christmas present list. This is war.

HAVE JUST received a letter headed 'Memo from Barry Humphries', thanking me for giving his book, More Please, a good review. But the bit I really like is the printed footnote: 'However trivial in content or stylistically ill-wrought this memorandum may seem, the recipient is warmly urged to preserve it until such time in the far distant future when Mr Humphries' Literary Executors solicit, in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement, examples of his correspondence for incorporation in a definitive work. At such time you will feel pathetically grateful that you had the wisdom and foresight to retain this valuable ephemera.' Will do, Barry, and, meanwhile, Happy Christmas everyone.

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