Friday, July 31, 2015

Only Connect


Time goes slowly for the traveller. 

Every hour brings new places, people, experiences. Then, you return to your familiar surroundings, often a changed person, and find that you slot right back in as if you had never been away. Are you the same person – only different?
    
I’ve been away a lot over the past month – four countries in two weeks, at one point – and I haven’t enjoyed it that much, apart from a great week in Los Angeles, possibly my favourite city on Earth. I missed my sunrises and sunsets over the Hudson in New York; the fabulous welcoming staff at Mr Biggs, my local bar in Hell’s Kitchen; Suits and Mistresses on the telly. I always take a couple of days off upon my return to slob around on the sofa, catching up on my shows with a bowl of pasta and glass of Rioja before rejoining the human race. It’s the part of jetlag I adore: the best excuse not to have to sit at one’s desk.
    
The reasons for my lack of enthusiasm during this trip are various, and I’ll write about that in another blog. Today, however, all I can think of is my friend Lyn, who has had the devastating ordeal of waiting for her son’s body to arrive from Thailand, where he was killed in a road accident last week.
    
I have no children and cannot begin to imagine the pain of parents who lose them. My mother’s sister, Auntie Barbara, and my Uncle Brian lost their beloved daughter, Sarah, my cousin, and their never-ending pain is heart-wrenching to witness. It’s a clichéd phrase, but as Lyn wrote to me this week, the clichés are what come automatically; I wonder if, drained of everything, we rely on them to keep us going: a linguistic backbone when all else fails to compute.
    
A couple of weeks back, the writer Julie Burchill wrote about her son Jack, who committed suicide, aged 29. Although no longer with Jack’s father, Cosmo Landesman, it was clear they came together in grief; Julie wrote that she could not bear the pain of the funeral, but she reprinted and praised Cosmo’s breathtakingly poignant tribute to their son.
    
She also had the guts to reprint a piece she wrote many years ago in which she appeared to be unsympathetic to the victims of suicide. Easily the bravest (and probably the best and most influential) writer of her generation, she made important philosophical points that still hold true, even when revisiting them in the light of Jack’s death.
    
One Facebook “friend” admonished me for empathising, but it is clear that the social networking community provided Julie and Cosmo with immense support during this devastating time. It’s not the first time I have “unfriended” someone who has mistaken my empathy for a declaration of what they perceive to be my own misery. 

I am far from being an unhappy person, irrespective of whatever happens in my life, but I am affected by world events, personal tragedies, the minutiae of the pain a human being is forced to endure; and, after that, the incredible strength they are able to muster to pull through. If someone is incapable of empathy, then I don’t want that person as my friend anyway.
    
Lyn is someone I have come to know through Facebook. We share a mutual friend, Phillip Arran, a wonderful actor and amazingly kind, warm and hilarious man, who I met when I judged him in a talent show called Presenters 15 years ago. Phil has been working on cruise ships and he put me in touch with Lyn, who is a mega talented writer and musical performer and someone who I hope to work with. In recent months, she has been writing on Facebook about different shows she has been giving onboard, and the joy she gets from her job has been exhilarating to witness.
    
And then this. 

Her beloved son, Ross, who went back to Thailand to hand in his notice and change direction in his life, as he had done before. I never met him, but everything I am reading and hearing makes it clear that he is someone who lived life to the full and gave much laughter and love to everyone he met.
   
I am not a hijacker of grief, but, as with Julie’s loss, this has affected me deeply. I know it does not compare to what Lyn, Ross’s brother Scott, and his father, Alex, are going through; nor Ross’s many friends. But the comfort of strangers cannot be underestimated: people who, through social networking, reveal what it is simply to be human.
    
We have the capacity, and the need, to share; it’s in our DNA. 

As E M Forster said in Howards End: Only connect. 

It is our greatest gift to each other.
    
It’s a cliché, but my heart aches for you, Lyn. 

Rest in peace, dear Ross.
  
  
  

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Price of Love

From penultimate section of my book Broke: A Life of Small Change

40-50


THE PRICE OF LOVE

Why do women spend money on men? Why do they give them money they haven’t a hope in hell’s chance of getting back?
   
Take Alan, my Hungarian, Australian, Jewish dentist. We met when I was lying on my back (obviously) and he was doing x-rays for my new porcelain veneers. I’d gone in only for a check-up, but as he offered a special price of £500 for the cosmetic surgery and I fancied him, I readily agreed.
   
On our first date, we went for a pizza in Soho. It was the only thing he ever paid for.
   
Alan was recently separated and had two young sons, who lived with his ex. A month into our relationship, I spent £200 on an electronic chess set for his birthday. He loved his chess, but he specially liked his new toy; so much so, that he had far less time for me, as he was too busy playing with it.
   
Then I financed a trip for us to take his kids to see Sooty, who was shooting on location in Chiswick Park, where I was to be granted a one on one interview with the famous glove puppet. As this was the first time I would be meeting the boys, I bought a lovely white linen suit, which, on the beautiful sunny day in question, made me look rather glamorous.
   
The four of us arrived at the park at 8am, when the photographer suggested that I get the photos out of the way before filming began. So, over I went to Matthew Corbett (who was Sooty’s owner until 1998), who was chatting to Sooty in a black box in his hand.
   
I had my notebook out and was engaging with the puppet (absurdly excited to meet him at long last), when Matthew started to talk about the weather.
  
“It’s such a hot day, isn’t it? Sooty thinks it’s a hot day, Sooty’s very hot, Sooty thinks Jaci looks really, really hot . . . “ (I thought I was looking rather hot myself that day). “What’s that, Sooty . . . You think she needs cooling down?”
   
Sooty’s paw reached into the box, pulled out his familiar water pistol and squirted me all over my face. Round and round and round. My perfectly blow dried hair was drenched. The exquisite make-up I had spent two hours doing that morning was ruined; black mascara dripped onto my white suit. I wanted to cry. The small group of children who had gathered to watch thought it hilarious. 

“Isn’t Sooty a funny bear!” I squealed, while thinking: “I’m going to rip your sodding head off, you stupid piece of inanimate fluff.”
   
The dentist finished with me shortly after that. One day, he said: “I’m falling for you in a big way.” The next morning he woke up with a facial rash and said we were over.
   
Alan was positively on the poverty line of my generosity compared to Dick (yes, let’s call him Dick). I met him at the 1999 Bafta Awards, where he had won a craft/technical award and gave what was possibly the worst, incompetent, rambling speech in the history of the Awards; in fact, any awards. Ever.
   
I was living in something like my tenth Soho apartment in as many years, even though most of the pine had now migrated to Bath, where I moved after my Dad died to be nearer Mum. Having made a loss of £8k on my Belsize Park flat, I did very well in Bath, catching the market at the right time to purchase a six bedroom detached house for £250,000. It was on for £275,000 and I had set my limit at £225,000, but it was the only house I have ever owned that I felt I couldn’t live without.
   
Conversation among my friends had taken a dramatic turn. Having spent our twenties bemoaning the lack of potential partners on the market (although men never seemed to have a problem finding women as women did men), by our late thirties we spoke of little but the property market: how we had bought at the bottom and sold at the top, moved quickly to accumulate more equity, bought a second property as an investment, bought overseas because the euro was strong and we needed a place to escape the British weather. We were high on the seemingly easy means of getting rich quickly and couldn’t wait to tell our stories, forever engaged in a property one-upmanship that seemed the only real barometer of our success.
   
By comparison, Dick had very little. Divorced, he had a small house in Kent and was struggling to keep his business afloat. I quickly discovered that he had very expensive tastes but no money to satisfy them  - or so he said. At this point, I had the Bath house, the London rental, and had, yet again, rented a place in Cardiff, all financed by several jobs in print and on TV. I felt sorry for him and met up with him every day in Soho near his office, and gave him emotional support by treating him to drinks and lavish lunches, not only for him but for the increasing number of friends he started to bring along. 

One lunch in Signor Zilli’s in Brewer Street cost me £650. Dick even ordered a bottle of Bollinger (on my tab) to send over to some attractive women sitting at another table.
  
Then he asked if he could borrow money as he needed to keep his French bank account in credit. I remember crossing Oxford Street to go to my bank and feeling sick, as I would have to go overdrawn in my UK account to help him out. But I did it anyway. Five months down the line, I was already in excess of three grand down. 

In addition to meals and the free loan, I took him to Paris and the south of France, and pretty much kept him in a manner to which he had never become accustomed. In retrospect, the high living was really only a smokescreen to hide the reality. 

I had hit 40 and thought I was in the last chance saloon of love. 

“He’s not funny, interesting, or articulate. He’s boring, overweight, and he’s got ginger hair. He’s mean; he keeps me waiting for hours. He’s raiding my bank account, and the sex is awful,” I told my friend Simon. 

“Then dump him,” he said. 

“But he’s 34 and single,” I wailed.

Simon: “But it doesn’t mean he’s the right 34 and single.”


Monday, July 13, 2015

Belongingness - a Human Need

Belongingness. 

Until today, I had never heard the word. To me, “belonging” has always been sufficient: the longing to be. To be part of a group, the “in” crowd, the social or professional people from whom you feel excluded; anyone who says No, you’re not part of our gang. Acceptance gives us validation; refusal makes us doubt ourselves. Feeling like the outsider always looking in on others’ lives seems like a betrayal of what life promised us – free entry into the human race. Why would we not all get on? We’re all the same. Human. Yes, belongingness, I suppose.
   
I’ve never made any secret of having spent chunks of my life feeling isolated, but then I think most people do. We have to live external lives, owing to the commitments of work, family, or social mores that are regularly at odds with what we feel internally. If we wore our hearts on our sleeves on a daily basis, not only would be intolerable to be around, we would be intolerable to ourselves.

At the moment, I have never felt such a complete sense of un-belongingness. I don’t fit in the US where I have spent so much of the past seven years, because the humour really is too different. People take offence at me; I take offence at them. We are, as Oscar Wilde or George Bernard Shaw said (depending on your source), two countries separated by the same language. For the most part, irony does not travel oceans heading west.
   
And then I don’t feel I belong when I return to Europe. I am so passionate about the many things I have seen in the United States, and I have met some extraordinary people from whom I learn new things on a daily basis. I love the optimism and passion; the patriotism; the incredible commitment on the parts of individuals to try to make the world a better place. Europeans are far more dismissive of Americans than they are of us, and, yes, most US citizens don’t travel outside their country; but neither do a lot of people in the UK – and there is far less on offer here.
   
So I’m feeling a little bit lost and tearful these days but wondering whether any of us ever really feels that we were truly anything other than individuals treading water, rather than somebody onboard helping to steer the boat.
   
As a young kid, I was never part of the “in” crowd. No matter how well I did in sport, no matter how many goals I scored in hockey, I was still bottom of the barrel next time when the captains cherry-picked their teams.

But it started way before that. In infants’ school, I could see that the “in” crowd was made up of girls who were tenants of the gem of the play area, the Wendy House, not ones like me, who had to queue outside it, angling for an invitation, only to be told at the end of break that there was no room at the inn. The Wendy House, by the way, was supposed to be a protected area for Wendy after she was shot by the "bad boys" in J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan. I don't remember that kind of solace. The Wendy House tenants were tall, quiet and blonde; I was short, brunette and very talkative. People like me had to be content with the sandpit, which didn’t hold the same excitement of secrecy, because everyone could see what you were doing.

Nevertheless, I loved the smell of seaside and plastic, the yellow bucket bright under the artificial light of a dim winter classroom. I loved the dry grains running through my fingers, the light trickle as they hit my palms, the fists of tightly clenched roughness. Unless somebody hit you over the head with a spade, or threw sand in your eyes, it was a happy place to be. You could play with others, building dams and moats and mountains, or you could sit quietly, imagining the ringing of an ice-cream van in the distance, or a dog running to meet the tide.

But I would have given up the whole sandpit world for the secrets I imagined being shared in the Wendy House. The enormous square of hard, red canvas held all sorts of mysteries for those of us excluded from it. Once inside, the playmates would stay there for hours, emerging only occasionally to invite another to join them as an exclusive guest, or to play servant and fill the plastic kettle with water for a tea party. They had cakes, too: purple plasticine buns with yellow blobs on top; long, brown fingers; orange sponges. They made them in the art section of the classroom and took them spitefully away when they relocated to the house. 
   
I thought that making a glamorous collection of plasticine cakes and biscuits would make me a welcome visitor in the house, so I set to work on the long, ribbed sticks, determined, as I would be throughout the rest of my life, to do the work better than anyone else. I was, as yet, too young to know that the only thing that guarantees universal popularity is failure, and I began my creation with only the thought that my cake-making was the quickest way to win friends, influence people and scrounge an invite to the tea party.
   
How I wanted to be among them. I saw the plasticine cakes as my ticket to a better life. As I ran my fingers down each strip, still perfect in its see-through wrapping, I was already anticipating the cries of delight and warm, open arms that would greet my offering when I arrived at the Wendy House front door.  
   
When you pulled the cellophane off a new pack of plasticine, it felt criminal to disturb the perfect keyboard of strips. If you touched just one with the tip of your finger, the smell stretched all over your hand; you could still smell it in your nostrils when you went to bed at night. I liked the blue and orange the best. Sometimes, I rolled a piece of each together and made a marble pillar, even though our teachers warned us not to mix the colours.
   
I made cup cakes: blue bowls with orange filling, orange bowls with tiny, rounded balls of blue filling.  I made pancakes, alternating layers with every colour from the pack - green, yellow, blue, brown, orange, pink. I made eclairs: yellow tubes of cream wrapped in brown, light folds of pastry. There were sweets, too: yellow bon bons, brown toffees, pink chewing gum. I took my hamper of goodies to the Wendy House door but always received the same negative reception. Next time, I vowed, I would make an even more impressive batch of cakes.
   
When the door flap was pulled aside to welcome new guests, the rejects in the sand pit could catch a brief glimpse of the house’s inviting interior. Everything was red in there, including the faces of the residents, who looked as if they had been sitting too close to an open fire. Their heads were always bent conspiratorially together, their voices hushed. The tea set was placed like an altar in the middle of the floor, along with the plasticine cakes; hands circled the air dramatically, raising sweetmeats to mouths; and, accompanying all, the mmming and aaahing that was the taste of the mock feast.
   
I was never enough of a recluse to be pushed into the Wendy House by a teacher encouraging better communication among her pupils; nor was I enough of a joiner-inner ever to be invited to become a member of the exclusive clique. I therefore had to be content with imagining what took place among the shadows behind closed doors: the sound of pouring water, the clearing of dishes, and the dreams of those who, after feasting, were allowed to lie down and take a nap.
   
And now, whether I am in LA looking at the Hollywood sign, in the UK among the people who know me the best and understand me the most, or in New York watching sunrise and sunset over the Hudson, I feel grateful for all of it, and still know I have a better life than most people in the world. But at 56, I’m still outside the Wendy House. 
   
And still, that ache to belong. 

The need for belongingness.
   
   

   

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Champagne Dreams, Beer Money

Extract from my book, Broke - A Life of Small Change

CHAMPAGNE DREAMS

“Think champagne and you’ll drink champagne; think beer and you’ll drink beer.”

That’s what my mother told me. So I blame her for my champagne expenditure on a beer income. 

Nowhere did the advice prove more lethal than in Puerto Banus, just outside Marbella in southern Spain, where I had just bought an apartment. Sunkissed Villas might not have paid me, but I had fallen in love with that part of the Spanish coast. Although I had moved out of my beloved Paris apartment, my finances were stretched as I had purchased a much bigger house in Cardiff, but I figured that with two salaries from two newspapers, I could afford it.
   
It was the summer of 2006, and, holidaying with my friend Elizabeth in Puerto Banus, I hooked up with top businessman and Dragons’ Den TV star Theo Paphitis and his family, who had become friends.
   
Not only did Theo have an apartment close by, he was buying a boat that was going to be moored almost right below my terrace. I calculated that I would pretty much be able to get from there to Theo’s deck in a short hop, skip and jump. Then Theo decided to buy boat number two, which was even bigger than boat number one. He signed the deal with the boatyard representative over a pizza at Picasso’s in the port, and I was impressed with Theo’s negotiating skills, which quickly made me see why he was very, very rich, and I was comparatively very, very poor. Alas, my admiration did not extend to my developing the foresight to see that I was about to become a great deal poorer.
   
Elizabeth and I took up Theo’s invitation to join him on the boat, and as we left the port behind and took to the waves of the Mediterranean, I started to feel a tincy bit rich myself. With the wind in my hair, I was enjoying a millionaire lifestyle and it wasn’t costing me a penny. When we said our goodbyes at the end of the trip, Elizabeth and I decided to celebrate our new lifestyle over supper.
   
That’s when it happened.
   
I didn’t even want to go on a shopping spree. Walking along the port, I happily passed Dolce and Gabbana with barely a glance; likewise, Versace and Jean Paul Gauthier.
   
Then I saw IT.
   
Love at first sight. I had never believed it existed, but here it was, in the window of Chloe: an exquisite, Sixties style, cream, silk shift dress laden with glittering discs, beads and baubles that caught the sun, drawing me uncontrollably towards it. Simple, yet beautiful, the shiny silver and gold reminding me of my ballroom dancing youth and the 10,000 sequins my mother sewed on my dress prior to my partner and I becoming Old Tyme juvenile champions at Butlin’s Minehead. Suddenly, I was Lulu, Sandie Shaw and Cilla Black, all rolled into one.
   
I doubted they had it in my size, but upon entering the shop and enquiring, the assistant Claudia headed for the dummy in the window quicker than you could say Boom Bang-a-Bang. When I saw the price tag of 10,722 euros, I decided that it should stay in the window. Too late. Claudia had it whipped off the dummy and onto me in less time than it takes a dragon in the Den to say the series’ catchphrase: “I’m out.” Which is what I should have been. Outa there. Would have been, had it not been for the drink.
   
They gave me a glass of champagne; it was what all the designer dress shops in the port did for potential customers/suckers. My glass was being topped up when I emerged from the dressing room in the Chloe dress. I thought I looked stunning in it. I thought I looked better than the model wearing it in the film at the Chloe fashion show that Claudia showed me on the computer. 

Gushing about my beauty, Claudia informed me that there were only six of these dresses in the world. That was what sealed the deal. I felt like a million dollars, which suddenly made 10,722 euros seem like a bargain. It made the cost of the shoes that I had to buy go with the dress look like cheapskate Primark. Then there was the bag, which cost almost as much as the shoes. I owned butter dishes that were bigger than the bag. But I whipped out my exclusive black French credit card and, while Claudia waited for her machine to devour it, I secretly prayed for the computer to say no.
   
Not a chance. I left the shop carrying my designer frock, bag and shoes and kept telling myself I was really, really pleased with my purchase. After another drink, I had convinced myself. In fact, I was delirious with excitement.
   
The next thing I remember was waking up: Oh, my God: WHAT HAVE I DONE? I wasn’t Theo! He acquired his riches by buying up flailing companies and turning their fortunes around. He had just sold La Senza for £100 million, which was a lot of Chloe dresses (9,326, to be precise), but my bank balance was showing that I could barely afford a bead.
  
Why didn’t you stop me? I asked Elizabeth. I can’t afford it! I have no money! I’ve just bought a new house and wouldn’t pay three grand for fitted bookcases that I needed and now I’m out buying a curtain with beads on that will be soaked in red wine within three minutes of my wearing it! Oh, God, what am I going to do!
   
Depression set in. And I don’t mean just a bit down. I mean black, terrible, suicidal despair. The only words that came to mind were Conrad’s from Heart of Darkness: The horror, the horror. Now I knew what he meant. I felt physically sick. The dress had to go back. The problem was whether they would take it. I spent the morning on the net, reading up about statutory rights and credit card rules and regulations. In the UK, I noted, there was a five-day cooling off period following a credit card transaction, but was that for online purchases or in-store, and would it apply to other European countries? I rang my cousin Simon, who had lived in Switzerland for 15 years and would probably know about European trading laws. He said to be sure that this was what I wanted: what if Chloe accepted the dress as a returned item and then I wanted it back again and had to tell them that the deal was back on?
   
I took the dress back to the shop, trembling with terror. I couldn’t stop shaking. Then I started crying, telling them that I had made a terrible, terrible mistake. Leo, who had plied me with the champagne the day before, looked crestfallen. Danielle, the manager, said she could probably offer a credit note, but that Marie’s policy was a non-refundable one. I cried some more, spouted some things about credit card law, and Claudia said she would call the Paris main office to see what she could do.
   
In the meantime, I called the credit card company and, having used my euro French card, spoke to a very nice man called Jean Luc, who sounded thrilled to be talking to a lunatic who had 11,000 euros to throw around on frocks.
   
He rang back to say that the shop was under no obligation to refund my money and that French credit law was different from that in the UK; Claudia rang back to say that Spanish credit law was not the same as in France or the UK. I felt like the United Kingdom entry in the Eurovision Song Contest, as neighbouring states closed ranks and ganged up to award us nul points.
   
I was again offered a credit note but worked out that I would be dead by the time I found enough things that I liked to cover the cost. I rang Theo to ask his advice. “Find a rich husband before the IOU comes in,” he said. So I texted Theo’s co-panellist Peter Jones, but he never texted back, and I wasn’t sure whether his divorce would come through by the time the bailiffs came to take away my new bookcases (I had decided I was going to have them, after all: they suddenly seemed a snip compared to the dress).
   
I pondered throwing the dress into the Med and claiming on the credit card insurance. One friend thought I could try to claw some of the money back by doing a game show, the climax of which would be a studio audience having to decide “Take the credit!” or “Take the dress!” Another friend told me to wear it in a dodgy part of south London, where it would be ripped off my back within seconds and then I could claim on the insurance genuinely. I decided that the best thing to do would be to write about it and exploit it, until I earned enough to cover the cost. 

One article would be tracking down the other five people in the world who owned the thing. I thought I might contact Okay! Magazine and throw a party for the dress, at which stars of stage and screen would be queuing up, eager to touch the hemline of my garment in the hope of its greatness rubbing off on them. Or a competition to name it, the proceeds from which would go to paying off my credit card bill, or posting my bail when I was thrown into the debtors’ prison. And when I was done with it, I could sell it to the Victoria and Albert Museum.
   
It was my mother’s reaction I dreaded the most, but she was quite philosophical. She told me how, when she was newly married, she and Dad went out to buy a fridge and made the mistake of stopping off at a hostelry for a sherry or two and came back with a stereo system the size of a coffin. Other reactions to my purchase varied from the “How shallow” to the “How stupid”, to the “Good on you” (Simon Cowell said “We’ve all done it”, but I felt that doing it in his income bracket wasn’t quite the same thing). 

My own vacillated between all three, breaking out into a cold sweat of “Please God, don’t let it be true” one minute, to “What’s done is done” the next. When I published an article about my purchase, news of my insanity quickly spread. I started to get calls from people enquiring not after my health, but after the dress. It was as if they had struck up a relationship with the thing, and I pondered writing a regular column about my own feelings towards it, like those women do who are always banging on about their latest marriage or divorce. I was stuck with it so decided to show it off at a big charity ball at the five-star Puento Romano hotel in Marbella.
   
I prepared for it as I would a first date. Legs and underarms shaved, hair cut and coloured, new Clinique make-up, expensive tights – nothing was too much trouble for the great work of art (it didn’t seem so expensive when looked at in that light) I had purchased. When the moment came to put the dress on, I held my breath. I had to. The bloody thing got stuck. I kid you not. Every bead and bauble tangled with another and I was wandering around my apartment trying to find my way to the mirror by radar. It took me half an hour to manoeuvre my way back out of it, by which time hair and make-up both needed re-doing. I finally managed to get my top half into the dress, but then the bottom became tangled in my 25 euro tights, a rip-off that had to become literally that, when the beads massacred them, too. I made it to the ball feeling like Cinderella a minute before midnight and with my dress already looking like hers did a minute after.
   
“Your hem’s come down,” was one guest’s first reaction, before calling for safety pins. We went to the rest room to begin the reconstruction, and I decided to use the toilet while I was there. Another big mistake. I had to call for help when, in pulling down my pants, the beads became all tangled again. Doubled over, with my chest hooked to my thighs, after I relieved myself I had to ask a woman to pull my pants back up. Then began the long process of untangling again.
   
I returned to the ball, where I was afraid to eat a morsel or drink a drop, for fear of causing any more damage. The jewels and beads were falling like sweat every time I moved. Surely this wasn’t right. You couldn’t sell someone a dress for seven and a half grand and have it fall apart on its first outing.
   
I returned to Chloe the next day, where the best I was offered was a repair job. “But it’s unwearable!” I shrieked, only to be told that this was “not a practical dress” and, as haute couture (it wasn’t; they clearly did not even know the meaning of the phrase), was not meant to be worn to parties. Besides, Kylie Minogue had no trouble wearing hers, they said. “She can afford to throw it away after wearing it once!” I yelled. But they had sold “lots of this dress” and no one else had brought it back. “Eh? What do you mean, lots? I thought there were only six in the world!”
   
My depression following the day of purchase had turned to hysteria and anger. I shouted. I screamed. I sobbed. I employed a French lawyer. Finally, they agreed to give me a credit note.
   
Getting my designer dress might have given me a few hours’ pleasure, but only when it was in the bag. Never was it more true to say that all that glisters is not gold. My Chloe dress may have come with a gold price-tag, but frankly it wasn’t worth its weight in tissue paper.


OTHER THINGS I LIKE TO BUY

1. Saxophone. £1200. Reasoning:-
   a) I used to play the recorder and clarinet and fancied something bigger.
   b) I thought I would look cool, like Lisa Simpson.
   c) I had half an hour before my train was due to leave and decided it was fate’s way of telling me to go to the music store.
   Times played: every day for three weeks. Twice in subsequent 15 years.
   Tunes learned: first line of Italian love song, Arrivederci Roma.

2. Upright Clavinova. £3500. Reasoning:-
   a) Went out to buy £60 keyboard as aid to singing Arrivederci Roma. Seemed silly not to stretch to whole keyboard.
   b) Seemed even sillier, having stretched finances to purchase whole keyboard, not to stretch to in-built hard drive, complete with 66 instruments.
   c) Delivery was free with Clavinovas, but not keyboards.
   Times played: 8 hours a day for 1 week. Never, during subsequent 15 years.
   Recordings made on hard drive: 4, by pianist friend.
   Tunes learned: I Dreamed a Dream, miming fingers to friend’s recording.

3. Spanish apartment. 595,000 euros. Deposit placed on credit card: 7000 euros. Reasoning:-
   a) It would be cheaper to buy an apartment than pay for a 5 star Spanish hotel every week for the next 55 years.
   b) There are very good flights from Cardiff to Malaga, and I had a Priority Pass to the VIP lounge at each end.
   c) You can never go wrong with property.
   Times visited: 8 times during the first six months, quickly reduced to three times a year.
   Lessons learned: property is a dud investment when the market crashes and the pound goes into freefall against the euro. And they stop flights from Cardiff to Malaga.

4. Diamond tennis bracelet. 11,000 euros. Reasoning:
   a) Turkish fortune-teller told me I was going to come into a lot of money.
   b) Turkish fortune-teller told me I would spend a lot of money before due inheritance arrived.
   c) I deserved to buy myself something special for my 50th birthday.
   Times worn: constantly, apart from day lost in waste paper basket and, subsequently, stolen.
   Lessons learned: don’t believe everything you read in the stars, and wait until your birthday comes around or you will ruin your mother’s surprise gift of a tennis bracelet.

5. Ballantyne’s Christmas wine selection. £2200. Reasoning:-
   a) It would be rude not to buy a case of everything tried at the store’s festive tasting.
   b) I saved £100 by buying in bulk.
   c) 50 people might drop by unannounced on Christmas Eve.
   Number of bottles consumed between Christmas Eve and Boxing Day: 10.
   New Year’s Resolution: drink 12 boxes of wine in garage to make room for car currently on driveway.

6. Paris rental apartment. 12,000 euros – one month’s deposit, one month’s rent. 36,000 euros – 6 months’ bank bond required by landlord. Reasoning:-
   a) The bank offered me a £40,000 overdraft.
   b) I had lived in Paris in another life.
   c) The central heating was making a funny humming noise in my Cardiff house.
   Time spent in apartment: 7 months.
   Time spent trying to claw back money from French bank and utilities companies: terminal.

7. Squash racket, balls, headband, skirt, top, 12 lessons. £700 of student grant. Reasoning:-
   a) Went to buy badminton racket, but everything was reduced in the squash section.
   b) The mature student selling the equipment and lessons was very attractive.
   c) I kept losing at badminton.
   Lessons taken: 1, following short-lived relationship with squash teacher.
   Squash games played in 30 years: 4.

8. Alfa Romeo. £4000. Reasoning:-
   a) I hadn’t owned a car in 25 years.
   b) I was contemplating giving up drinking and would finally be sober enough to get behind the wheel.
   c) The sellers were moving to Dubai and it was a bargain.
   Number of miles driven in 2 years: 327.
   Number of times battery charged owing to lack of use: 14.

9. Artist. £6000. Reasoning:-
   a) His workshop had been destroyed in a fire.
   b) I would see a return on my investment when the Tate Modern held his exhibition.
   c) I was making a valuable contribution to the arts.
   Time spent waiting to see artist’s new workshop: 7 years, and counting.
   Time spent regretting stupidity: daily.

10. Los Angeles. £100,000+. Reasoning:-
    a) I was nearly 50 and had never lived in the States.
    b) If I sat looking at the Hollywood sign long enough, that Oscar would be in my hand.
    c) It was where I belonged. That’s what the man running the writing course said. The man with whom I was completely obsessed.
    Time spent in Los Angeles: six years.
    Additional unforeseen costs of Los Angeles: additional rental, to stay on to sue ex-landlord over non-refunded deposit; trip to New Zealand for the rugby World Cup; flights home every three weeks owing to homesickness.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Trouble with Ice-Cream

This afternoon, I’ve been going mad. 

Every day, at lunchtime, the ice-cream van arrives close by and all I can hear is that damned jingle playing the same tune over and over. In my youth, it was Greensleeves; now, it’s something I don’t even recognise, but it’s certainly something that jolly little men called Mr Tonibell or Mr Softee or Mr Whippee don’t mind hearing a million times over. 

Every time I hear it, however, I want to run out and punch their lights out (why could they never spell their names properly, anyway? That was another thing that always bugged me).
   
I have a weird relationship with ice-cream. I know that my first was in the Kardomah café in South Wales in Cardiff, the closest city to Newport, where I spent my early childhood.
   
A trip to Cardiff was a big event. Mum used to buy coffee from the Kardomah and, having chosen her beans, would wait to have them ground to dust while my brother Nigel and I ate ice cream from a small steel tray and with a tiny metal spoon. I can still taste that metal and feel the joy of the wafer as it sculpted the perfect dome to a melting pulp. I remember the sadness of loss, swirling the last of the warm, liquid yellow, that meant it was time to go home.
   
Ice-cream was a big treat, but it came with its stresses. My parents couldn’t always afford to buy it, especially at the seaside, where everything was extortionate. On the rare occasions when they could, I craved the choc-ice but had to make do with an Orange Maid lollipop. When I had my first choc-ice, it was a bit of a letdown, anyway. 

First, the chocolate melted, and the crisp exterior was quickly ruined by the ice cream seeping through the cracks. Before you were halfway through, your hands were juggling chocolate, cream, sweat and sand – and, often, tears, when you dropped the whole thing onto the beach when the soggy mess slipped from your hand. 
   
As a child who used to constantly come in from the garden, holding out my grubby hands and moaning “Dirt, dirt” and demanding that I be washed, the whole choc-ice thing was never going to work for me.
   
I didn’t have money to spend on ice-cream during my school years. I could just about stretch to a Tip Top – a long piece of flavoured ice that was wrapped in such strong polythene, you had to bite the top off to get at the stick, often resulting in the whole thing then leaping out of its packaging and onto the pavement. 

My mum made me very healthy packed lunches (a Penguin chocolate biscuit was her only nod to junk food) and I used to look on with envy at my friends who could not only buy chips from the Ranch fish shop in Bridgend (where we had moved), but follow it up with a mountainous swirl of white ice cream on a lollipop. How I craved that disgusting brick.
   
The doyen of ice-cream, though, was the 99 – an ice cream cone with a flake of chocolate stuck in the top; or, even better, with two flakes. I bought my first one out of my student grant when I went to university (there were books as well, but I remember this as being the first moment I realised what it felt like to have your own money and do what you liked with it). They had to be Cadbury’s flakes, too.
   
What I liked about cones was that they were easy constructions. All the melting goo would seep nicely through the cone and you would never have to get your hands dirty. But they don’t make cones like they used to. In my youth, they were the size of buckets; then, along came posh people like Haagen-Dazs with their sugar cones, designer clothed cones et al, and wiped out another chunk of my childhood.
   
I actually like Haagen-Dazs – but heck, it’s expensive. And sometimes, it’s too soft. I like my ice cream just so: not so hard that it looks as impenetrable as Iceland at Christmas; nor so soft that I might as well have bought it in a can and drunk it.
   
In fact, so fussy have I become about ice cream that I bought myself an ice cream maker. If anything stayed still long enough, I froze it. But now it lies in the back of a cupboard because, surely, the thing about ice cream is that it’s supposed to be a treat, not a chore: something that someone does for you. Your only task is to enjoy it - and not in that ghastly way that American TV characters do by diving into it head first every time a crisis beckons.
   
Like everything else, though, it melts into nothingness; it’s actually the one food that is the perfect metaphor for life. It looks promising and appetising at the start, but you don’t have to dig very far below the surface to know that it doesn’t take much for it to disappear.
   
But hey, folks, that’s okay. There will always be more ice-cream. Just as there will always be more life. 

Now, excuse me while I go to practise my Greensleeves jingle. 

Miss Jackee has a job to do.  

   

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Just Life

Yet another crisis week. 

The usual thing: a time in which I crawl into my shell, pull myself off all social networking sites, send texts and e-mails I don’t mean, throw the baby out with the bath water, because life just seems easier without having to deal with emotions. Or people.
   
A time in which I remember being nine years old and opening the cream tea-set I had been given as a birthday present and wishing that all my party guests would quickly go so that I could play with it.
   
A time in which we went to the sea-side as a family and the greatest joy was my first sighting of the slim silver of sea in the distance; the smell of salt; the rush of warm sand between my toes.
   
But, as Ecclesiastes 3 said much better than anyone ever did: There is a time for everything.
   
Not many people know that I was once a Baptist lay preacher. At one point in my life, I was going to enter the church full time. Now, I regard that period as an emotional stumbling block, as I do most religions (Buddhism remains, for me, the only logical belief), but especially Christianity. I wholeheartedly embrace the notion that people can believe whatever they want to believe to enable them to get by; the man in the sky is just not for me (do watch Ricky Gervais’s masterpiece The Invention of Lying; there is no better movie about the deception of belief).
   
So, where do you go in a crisis without religion as your backer? Ironically, there are still great lessons to be learned from the Bible (Be nice to people! DUH!), but to me they are philosophical ones, which is why I found myself turning again to the Book of Ecclesiastes after thinking that this was another moment that I like to call “just life”: There is a time to weep and a time to laugh, and this was just another weepy time.
   
It’s a bit of a strange passage, though, nonetheless. I’m not happy about the “time to kill and a time to heal” bit, nor the “time for war and a time for peace” – killing and war never having been high on my agenda. I also would never embrace the idea that there is “a time to search and a time to give up”, because I am not, nor will ever be, one of life’s giver-uppers.
   
The existential crisis of mankind (to me – you can choose your own) is the battle between what we want and what we can’t have: our expectations, versus those expectations not being met. Our expectations (personal or professional) come from our parenting and society at large; their not being met from our frustration at not being able to fulfil them, for whatever reason. Call me Socrates (without the beard; and the suicide bit, obviously).
   
Let’s look more closely at a few more of these statements. 

“There is a time to be born and a time to die”: the former is easy; the latter, horrendous (which is why people need the construct of religion and the notion of “everlasting life” to help them deal with the thing they cannot acknowledge as fact i.e. That’s it, mate. Its over. Nada).
   
A time to plant and a time to uproot. I have spent most of my adult life uprooting. For most people, their planting is marriage and children, and I would not deny anyone the joy that those two things can undoubtedly bring. I just never met the right seeds; just managed to purchase some awesome hoes.
   
A time to mourn and a time to dance. Yes, I get that. Just try telling that to the Irish at a wake.
   
A time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing. Nope. Throw your arms around that guy while you can.
   
A time to tear and a time to mend. I have a tendency to self-destruct. It’s really a time I could do without.
   
A time to be silent and a time to speak. Yep. Usually that moment when you say “What do you mean, the bar’s closing? It’s only 4am.” That’s when you really need to shut the eff up.
   
A time to love and a time to hate. No, there is never a time to hate.
   
One of the things I have learned during my weeks of existential crisis (excuse the melodrama; I’m a writer. Live with it) is that it is always a time to love. I have, as always, been overwhelmed by the outpourings of love and support, many of them from complete strangers, on social networking. I haven’t gone into the details of what brought the latest meltdown into being, and nobody probed me for the reasons why.
   
I don’t know myself. The actions I take during these times are symptoms, not causes. I don’t believe in the man in the sky, but maybe, as Ecclesiastes says, we are tested so that we may see we are “like the animals”. In the end: “Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.”
   
So, in that brief time we have from dust to dust, we might as well enjoy love. Yes, love. 

There is always a time to love.