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The White-Faced Clown

The White-Faced Clown is dead. Even White-Faced Clowns say so. That vulgar, yet elegant, figure with conical hat, ruff-and-sequined suit enchanted me as a child. I longed for his return as the Funny Clowns, with their red noses and baggy clothes, poured water down each other's trousers and threw custard pies. I was never amused and tried not to think how unpleasant it must be for them to run about in soaking clothing with custard trickling into their eyes. Even today I much prefer a Buster Keaton, who tries to rescue farce from chaos, than Charlie Chaplin who causes it.

On the afternoon of my fourth birthday I was taken as a treat for a ride in a rowboat on the Serpentine lake in Kensington Gardens. My favorite uncle, dressed in a gray flannel suit and a Buster Keaton boater, enthusiastically pushed the boat away from its moorings, slipped and fell flat into the water. His straw hat fell off and sank. My other relations thought this the funniest sight ever, but I, instead of laughing, burst into tears. My birthday was ruined, not only because I would now be deprived of my uncle's company for the rest of the afternoon, but I also knew that his suit would shrink.

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The popular phrase for humor at present is ''situation comedy.'' In my case this applies whenever I'm abroad. Terrible misunderstandings occur, keys won't open doors, taps won't turn off, and language confusions find me explaining to the front desk that my bed won't work when I really mean my bedside lamp. Even when nothing much goes wrong, the indigenous population contrive to make me feel the absurdity of my position. In Boston last July, on a particularly hot lunchtime, a taxi driver commented, as I revealed my accent, ''Mad dogs and Englishmen, eh?'' Much worse was on a visit to Hawaii where I was invited out to lunch by friends. I had gone to some trouble selecting my clothes, and when my host collected me I was relieved to see that I had got it right: cotton trousers , plain shirt and ascot. Although I was dressed exactly like her husband, my hostess took one look at me and exclaimed that I couldn't possibly go to the restaurant like that as I would be much too hot. Despite my protests she produced what she considered suitable attire, a shirt and shorts remarkable for their similarity to the cartoonists' view in the '50s of what an American tourist looked like. Was this revenge? Clad like this I was led into the restaurant, which fell silent as we approached our table. Then the murmurings began: ''Guess he's English.'' ''Crazy; must be English.'' And, ''What will the British be up to next?''

They are still good friends, but in recollecting that day they insist that I had arrived at their apartment in a three-piece suit. Perhaps that is what they had expected me to be wearing.

Entering the foyer of my hotel in Tokyo, I noticed a blown-up photograph of a Spanish dancer called Miguel who was appearing there in cabaret. He looked rather like a White-Faced Clown without the hat. Later, outside my room, I was accosted by a Japanese maid who addressed me as Miguel and asked for my autograph. She would not believe that I was not the dancer, despite my hurt assurances that he had to be at least twenty years older and was Spanish, not English. But there must have been some similarity for her to have been so certain. Maybe the reason why I mourn the passing of the White-Faced Clown is that I look a little like one myself.

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