Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Life is for the Living, Not the Dying

I grew up watching my grandmother go up and down flights of stairs all day long when she and Grandpa ran The Old Globe pub in Rogerstone, just outside Newport in South Wales.
   
Her stamina always amazed me. She carried crates, served behind the bar, and, the thing I remember most, rose at 5am every morning to make fresh Cornish pasties for pub lunches.
   
On the one occasion I stayed with her, when Grandpa was ill in hospital, we shared the same bed and I recall three things: the false teeth she put in the glass at her bedside before retiring (I was fascinated – I thought only dentists removed teeth); her kneeling on the floor at the side of the bed to say her prayers; and the early morning that was ‘pastie o’clock’. She had barely been in bed five minutes after cleaning up after last orders.
   
She had always been the same. At 14, she gave up her job as a photographer’s assistant to wash clothes for the huge family of nine. To me, knowing this when I was young, it was a slavish existence. She must have worked eighteen hours a day until she retired when Grandpa died in 1971. Fifty years. That’s well over 350,000 hours. At least.
   
I lay there one night, on a sleepover when Grandpa was in hospital, listening to the mixer (good old Kenwood) stir the potatoes and onions and, when I finally got out of bed, I marvelled at the rows of golden, ribbed Cornish pasties on their steel trays that Grandma carried down to the bar to put in the ‘snacks’ container that kept them warm on the counter. And at 64, when she retired, she was still bounding up and down those stairs like a youngster.
   
When we, as a family, visited every weekend (Mum helped out behind the bar), I collected tops from the Courage beer bottles – numerous bright colours (orange, blue, yellow) surrounding a cockerel in the middle – and was ecstatic when Grandma gave me an empty cigar box in which to put my collection of plastic jewellery. I still have the Babycham glass she gave me with Bambi prancing across the front.
   
On Bank Holidays, Dad would take us to the temporary fair in the field opposite the pub. Dad always won a coconut and, one afternoon, won two goldfish – one for my brother Nigel and one for me. Nigel’s fish, Fred, died, when Mum fed him eight oxygen tablets when he appeared to be struggling to breathe. In the end, I suspect it was the wind that killed him.
   
My fish, Horace, had an inauspicious start in life when the bag we carried him back in burst, and he spent a good few minutes drunk as we tried to scoop him up from the spilt Guinness on the pub floor. At least he lasted longer than Fred, so it must be true what they say about the benefits of stout.  
   
I remember every Saturday afternoon, when Nigel and I were deposited downstairs, emerging from the terror of the living room where we had to watch Dr Who in the dark (apparently, it saved electricity), to be offered our choice of chocolate from the sweet counter in the bar.
   
I have thought of Grandma so many times since her death in 1989, a short while after her eldest daughter, Audrey, and a short while before my beloved father in 1990. I recall never hear her once complain, though her life was non-stop work, morning till night, seven days a week. She brought up three daughters, including my mum, Val, the eldest, and the youngest, Barbara, through a war, looked after Grandpa when he was dying of cancer, and dealt with horrendous money problems not of her making, following his death.
   
When I started out in my late twenties in Fleet Street, writing five TV columns a week “live” (this was in the days before videos and DVDs), living on five hours’ sleep a night for four years, I always had at the forefront of my mind that to survive in life, you had to have a strong work ethic, and nowhere had I witnessed it more powerfully than in my grandmother. 
   
To this day, that work ethic, and her fortitude and spirit are central to what keeps me going when times get tough for me (and I work just as hard now as I did when I started out). She had it tougher; she really did. But she loved her work, loved her family, and, despite the hardship, loved life.

At her funeral, the minister said: ‘Some people live dying; others die living.’ Grandma was the latter. And, thanks to her, I will do that, too. 

Hopefully, not for a while yet.  









Saturday, January 3, 2015

It's Not Easy Being Green

New year, new fad. 

The papers and magazines are full of them and, as someone who has a Toad of Toad Hall approach to life (“Crazes. He always has crazes”), it was inevitable that I embarked on a couple more this year.
   
In LA, I embarked on them on a weekly, if not daily basis; on every street corner, there is someone offering you a better life, usually at a cost of thousands of dollars. In New York, it seems easier to set one’s own routine for considerably less. Maybe it’s because of the competition.
   
So, I began with cleansing my digestive system. I drink a reasonable amount of carrot juice anyway (I love it, but am careful not to overdose on Vitamin A – not good), and thought that Daily Greens sounded more aggressive. So it was spinach, kale, celery and lemon juice, accompanied by a banana and, my weakness, two cups of Tetley tea (my supermarket has run out of PG Tips; I am heartbroken and very shaky from withdrawal symptoms as a result).
   
It’s hard to say what Daily Greens tastes like, but lets just say that the barium meal I had 30 years ago when I was tested for an ulcer was better. I certainly heaved a lot less on it. Individually, I like all four components – spinach (in Delia’s spinach, rice and cheese bake), kale (stir fried), celery on its own or in my vegetarian Bolognese sauce) and lemon (gin and tonic). Together, however, it tasted like a frog that had overdosed on . . . well, other frogs. Other frogs with bad very stomach upsets. It looked like Kermit after a severe road traffic accident.
   
I tried coconut water instead. This is the juice from young green coconuts (maybe the frog had overdosed on those, too?) that apparently aids digestion, helps weight loss, and lays claim to being the very elixir of life, alongside water. It tasted like cat’s pee, albeit sweet cat’s pee. I decided to stick to my carrot juice and what comes for free out of my tap.
   
My diet, however, is going well. Fresh fruit and veg, very little or no alcohol, and two fingers of Kit Kat if I fancy something sweet (which I rarely do, anyway; I am lucky in never having had a sweet tooth). But then I’ve always been quite a healthy eater. I used to spend all my pocket money on health magazines, which is why I now know everything about bowel movements but couldn’t name you a number one hit single from the past 50 years.
   
But now to exercise. Again, I’ve always been quite good on this front. I used to be a dancer, I walk everywhere, and I have frequented many gyms, where I do a good cardio workout and a bit of muscle training on machines. Last year, I also had a personal trainer twice a week, and this year I have added boxing cardio to my routine – something I did years ago before hurting my knee when trying to compete in “boxercise” classes with young lads who actually boxed for a living. Very foolish.
   
This year, I thought I’d try something different - yet another yoga class. My friends who do yoga look amazing and seem to have knocked years off their ages. Personally, I’ve never got on with it. No matter what class I attend, I always seem to be behind the person who, in Downward Facing Dog, has a veritable wind farm operating from his or her backside.
   
Yesterday, I decided to try yet another form of yoga. Although it has been around for some time, “hot yoga” is increasingly popular owing to the likes of Andy Murray and Gwyneth Paltrow doing it. As I don’t want to win Wimbledon, or be “consciously uncoupled”, the celebrity aspect of it wasn’t what appealed; instead, it was the fact that the exercise takes place in a room heated to over 105 degrees, which is supposedly better for muscles and makes you sweat more.
   
As with all yoga classes I have previously attended, I quickly dislocated my neck trying to see what the teacher was doing. Then I twisted my groin by being too competitive and trying to stretch further than people half my age. Then came the dreaded Downward Facing Dog. Over and over again. There was an “Up” dog, too, and something I have never experienced before – “Happy Baby”. This one I struggled with, so much so that the teacher had to come over to show me how to do it, and I still couldn’t master it. Come on. How was I supposed to know what a happy baby pose was? The last time I was in one, I was a baby for goodness’ sake!
   
For those not in the know, Happy Baby involves you lying on your back and cupping your right foot in your right hand; then your left; then both feet together. Small wonder I couldn’t get it. Happy baby pose to me was always, I am sure, stuffing my face and sleeping it off.
   
I have to say, though, that the lower back pain that has been plaguing me for months had completely gone this morning. I was able to leap out of bed without pain and there is not a hint of the soreness that has been making life so difficult. Maybe it was the Daily Greens, maybe the coconut milk, but I suspect it was the hot yoga.
   
Did I enjoy it? No. Do I want to go again? No. Will I go again? Yes. It’s worth it for the back relief alone. And in a New York City winter, I know I’m going to need all the 100 plus degrees I can get. 

Even if I do have to suffer a rectal wind farm to get it.

   

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

I Got By with a Little Help from my Friends

When I posted the blog earlier today about the past year and the year ahead, I said that when I thought about how much I had fitted in, the year seemed very long. It got me thinking about all the people who have passed through it in one way or another, and I just wanted to say thank you to them. I am sure there are people I’ve missed out and will add to the list as I remember. Please forgive me if you’re not on it, but I’m working with very bad jet-lag. They are, by the way, in alphabetical order! It puts a lot of things into perspective in writing such a list. I realise how truly blessed I am to have so many amazing people in it. So, I would like to thank my family and friends for/for being . . . . .

Paul ABBOTT and Larkin HALL – the kindest, most supportive and encouraging friends a girl could wish for
Maggie ALDERSON – one of my long-standing friends and always, always making me laugh and being such a support of my writing
Phillip ARRAN – there in oh, so many ways, and becoming a very close friend I love very much; and for understanding that there will be light
Alex BANNISTER – Daily Mail Managing Editor with a heart (albeit a tough one!)
Susan BOYD – an incredible person, as well as a dear friend. Your success is so deserved and I know how hard you have worked and how much support you have given to others, too, myself included. You should get that husband of yours William to do some writing, too
Lisa BOFFO – my new LA friend, whose unconditional support while going through very tough times herself, never ceases to amaze me
BUTCHER’S ARMS – always being there and just as welcoming when I return home
Richard BRANSON – always being an inspiration and providing the best airline travel in the world
CAMEO CLUB – a stalwart in my Cardiff life
John CHAPLIN – the most understanding man in finance in the Daily Mail (thanks for listening to the whingeing)
Simon COWELL – a friend, albeit one who never gave me a house
Sandy CUPP JAMESON – one of my favourite Twitter friends, whose intelligence and humour have brought me immense pleasure, even if she is a love rival for Judge Alex
Paul DACRE – the best editor, from whom I continue to learn 20+ years on (creepy of me? Probably, but still true)
Judge Alex FERRER – a great TV personality, legal brain, and a newish but great friend who tolerates, if doesn’t totally understand, Welsh insanity
Richie FRIENDLEY – making me feel welcome in Hell’s Kitchen
Stephen FRY – the kindness during the low times and the laughter during the good
Charles GARSIDE – Daily Mail Managing Editor, whose always sound advice stopped me from taking everyone to court when I felt wronged
Alex GAUTHIER – a friend, always
Matthew GRAHAM – a great support and a brilliant laugh from a long distance. Great writer, too
The GROUCHO CLUB – being you
Dany and Martin HAYMAN – the love and support during a very difficult year
Ian, Victoria, Emily and William HISLOP – my second family for many, many years, and for always including me in your lives (ps when are the next parties Emily and Will?)

Chris HARVEY – sorting out my insurance mess so efficiently
Carolyn HITT – a brilliant journalist and a sensitive, kind and supportive friend – and great company in New York
Chrissy ILEY – a dear friend, who knows what is right for me long before I know it; who is mega funny, bright, entertaining, even when she is going through tough times herself. Miss you every day!
Melissa IRWIN COYIER – one of my favourite Twitter friends who always makes me laugh – despite being yet another Judge Alex love rival (we’re all going to have to fight this out y’know!)
Tracey JACKSON and Paul WILLIAMS - writing Gratitude and Trust, and changing the way I see the world
Rhys JOHN – the friend I call my Life Coach, who has the ability to take my ramblings, sort them into a cohesive whole, and deliver the best advice possible, while still having the grace to laugh at all my jokes
Julia LEWIS – one of the funniest people I have ever met; always sensational company and have known for well over 50 years
Diana LJUNGAEUS – runs the LA Press Club with incredible verve and skill, and shows immense patience with my inability to fill in the forms properly
The MALIBU FISH GRILL – a fun, regular LA haunt with some fabulous staff
Barbara MARTIN – my always adored and adorable aunt, whose love I never doubt

Debbie MATTHEWS and ARCHYTAS for saving me from financial ruin and giving me the best advice
Beth MCDONALD – a great Daily Mail Weekend sub-editor (the best) on my column and someone I can also have a laugh with along the way
Heather MCGLONE – my editor on Weekend for a long time, and for the advice and support
Zoe MCINTYRE – the best press officer on the planet and a dear friend with whom hysterical laughter is never off the agenda
MR BIGGS – my favourite New York haunt, with lovely staff who always make me feel welcome
Cynth and Terry MURPHY – my “adopted” aunt and uncle who have known me since childhood, and who I see but once a year, but always love it
Maggie O’RIORDAN – an editor beyond compare (Daily Mail, Femail) with the biggest heart in the world, whose support this year has given me not only a new friend but a whole new outlook on life
Leisha O’SHEA – always the best friend anyone could wish for. Smart, hilarious, perceptive, and a brilliant mother of three year-old twin boys

Theo PAPHITIS – giving the best comfort and advice, both practical and emotional, when I was at my very lowest

Steve and Penny PARSONS – great, supportive friends and the best company, long after we departed our seats at Cardiff’’s Millennium Stadium
Karen PRICE – a fantastic arts journalist and wonderful company in LA
Liz and Ronw PROTHERO – friends who are always there and with whom I laugh non-stop. Fantastic in their TV work, too, as I know, having had the privilege of working with them – and hope to again
Nick PYKE – one of my contacts on the Mail on Sunday and always a joy to work with
Tim RICE – for still being a friend whose voice I never get tired of hearing (talking, not singing)
Susan ROBERTS – the hardest working PA (on Daily Mail Weekend)
SOHO HOUSE – your many brilliant houses around the world that always make me feel welcome, wherever I am
Robbie SAVIN and Ace HOOD – the most entertaining gay duo in New York
Val, Nigel and Kim STEPHEN – my wonderful family: Mum, brother and sister-in-law. Always there for me
Mary and Liam SULLIVAN – friends I know I could call at any hour, from anywhere in the world. Always there with love and wise words. Wonderful parents and grandparents, too
Nadia SWANWICK – still great fun and a great friend, despite the gaps in time between meetings
Shelley THOMAS – my oldest school-friend, who, despite our disparate paths, is still there as we see each other through good and bad, just as we used to
Elizabeth TIMMS – still there and a dear, loved friend, despite the long gaps
Janie and Mike TOMLINSON – the most amazing friends who look after many aspects of my life practically as well as emotionally
Laura TOPHAM – on Daily Mail Femail, and being such a support since your arrival. You instilled in me new confidence
Bradley TUCK – a good friend when I am in LA. I miss you

TWITTER/FACEBOOK -  all the friendship and kindness I received on social networking from people who don’t even know me
Mark WAREHAM – such fun to work with on the Mail on Sunday when I do my TV reviews
Jon WORSNOP – a colleague on Daily Mail Weekend, and having such an astute eye when I get things wrong
VAUCLUSE – my favourite place in West Hollywood. You’ve worked hard, and continue to do so, to make this a success. I just know it will go from strength to strength

VIRGIN – the best airlines (Virgin Atlantic and Virgin America) and the best credit cards. Between the lot of you, I face certain penury. But it’s been fun while it lasted

A New Year - the Same, Only Different

Another year over, a new one just begun, as John Lennon sang. 

I can’t believe 12 months have, yet again, flown by; and yet, looking back and seeing what I’ve managed to fit in, the year seems to have been very slow and long. That’s one of the contradictions of time: feeling versus fact.
   
It was a year that saw me spend most of my time in New York, where I had always wanted to live. Before I moved to LA, it had been a toss-up between the two places. LA won over because of its concentration on the TV and film industries, but I saw that gradually dwindle as producers and stars took the financial opportunities offered elsewhere (not least, in Canada) to move filming. Even New York has benefited from the LA exodus.
   
I have loved the move. It is much easier to make friends in New York, and Manhattan is beautiful. I love the architecture, the pure blue skies between buildings, sunsets over the Hudson. And, as a single older woman, I do not feel, as I am often made to do in the UK, on the scrapheap of life. Everywhere I go, there are dozens of women at ease with themselves sitting alone, often working, and, unlike most of the ones I saw out and about in smart places in LA, they are not on the game.
   
This year saw my finances shrink considerably, for reasons I have already detailed, but I learned the value of friendship in the support I received and many offers of practical help, as well as emotional. I have faith that it will change (although not necessarily in my lifetime!). But it’s tough for most people out there at the moment; I learned that I was not alone.
   
It was a great year for law on TV, with Law and Order: SVU, The Good Wife and Suits being the highlights of my viewing schedule. It was also a traumatic year for law when Judge Alex came off the TV, thereby ruining not only my lunchtime schedule of pasta, red wine and hot guy, but the handcuff fantasies I had enjoyed for so many years. Judge Judy just doesn’t do it for me in the same way.
   
Like anyone’s year, mine featured the usual run of births, marriages and deaths – although I didn’t give birth, avoided marriage (not hard in New York) and didn’t die, which always has to be a bonus.
   
And so, to 2015. I wish my friends and family a happy, prosperous, safe New Year. We’ll have laughter, we’ll have tears, but remember, in the words of the song Smile: when there are clouds in the sky, we’ll get by. The rain will fall (as the Bee Gees sang), but the sun always rises.
   
Here, then, are my thoughts looking back at 2014, and those for 2015. 
   
20 THINGS I LEARNED IN 2014

1.       Money doesn’t grow on trees.
2.       Being closer to 60 is much scarier than being closer to 50.
3.       Almost everyone I know is dead.
4.       New York DOES sleep – between 4am and 6am, goddammit.
5.       There are way more people worse off than myself than I had realised.
6.       There is always a Macy’s sale on. No need to rush for that bargain.
7.       I would be lost without my circle of wonderful friends.
8.       Every man in New York is gay.
9.       When you grow your hair, lesbians stop trying to pick you up.
10.    They are making episodes of Law and Order SVU at a faster rate than I can watch them.
11.    The NoNo does not remove facial hair; it is nothing more than an electric chair for the face.
12.    Suits, Law and Order: SVU, and The Good Wife are the best programmes on TV.
13.    I should have been a lawyer.
14.    I would not be safe carrying a gun.
15.    One should never be too proud or ashamed to ask for help, either financial or emotional.
16.    Bricks and mortar are meaningless compared to people.
17.    Britain and America really are two countries separated by the same language.
18.    You have to run very fast to stand still in rip-off Britain.
19.    I will never marry George Clooney.
20.    The only thing that explains my lifestyle is that I am, unbeknown to me, working for the CIA.

AND 20 THINGS I’M GOING TO CHANGE IN 2015

1.       Become a CIA agent – WikiHow has told me how to do it.
2.       Make buying toilet rolls a priority.
3.       Find a straight man in New York.
4.       Get therapy for my addiction to Law and Order: SVU.
5.       Spend less time on Twitter and Facebook.
6.       Write my way out of my financial mess (I doubt my CIA salary alone will get me out of it).
7.       See more of my friends.
8.       Exercise more (yeah, right).
9.       Refresh my French and learn Spanish.
10.    Learn Mandarin. China is apparently the future.
11.    Consume more Chinese food when the Mandarin is going nowhere.
12.    Have at least one day without reading about a Kardashian.
13.    Smile though my heart is aching, smile when my heart is breaking . . . There may be a song in that.
14.    Stop checking online in the hope that people who tortured me in my youth have become fat and unhappy.
15.    Stop stalking federal judges (yeah, right again).
16.    Get that Green Card application in (maybe the CIA will give me one automatically? Did I mention my new job?).
17.    Stop hoping that a UK rugby team will win the 2015 World Cup. They won’t.
18.    Seriously start to consider plastic surgery.
19.    Try to live in one residence for the whole year.
20.    Write a best selling book about my work with the CIA.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

I'm Dreaming of a Wet Christmas

Let’s get this clear at the start. I love dogs. 

I really, really, really love dogs. I love their big soppy eyes, their ridiculous wagging tails, and their unconditional love and affection that becomes even more unconditional the more you feed them.
   
But what I can’t stand about dogs is their inability to distinguish between grass (toilet) and cream carpet (not a toilet).
   
My mother and her Bichon Frisé, Maddie, came for Christmas, and it was wonderful to see them both after my having spent months away. Maddie has been very ill recently, and after fears for her health she has returned to her usual bouncy self. She wet herself with the usual excitement when she saw me (I wish I had the same effect on men), then raced around the living room, once again delighted to be in the home where she knows she gets a gravy dinner if she goes outside to empty her bladder.
   
Because of her recent illness, doggy gravy dinners were off the menu this year, and it was doubtless this change in routine that confused her, resulting in two puddles on my bedroom carpet, one on my dining room carpet, and a monster of a river in the hallway that I slipped on, sending me flying and injuring my hip.
   
That wasn’t the only injury I sustained. On Christmas Eve, after being let into the garden for her last ablution before bedtime, she decided to go walkabout – or, rather, hideabout. She gets very upset every time she sees a squirrel running across my wall, and the non-stop barking serves only to entertain said squirrel, who runs up and down in the knowledge that Maddie cannot climb walls.
   
But on Christmas Eve, Maddie decided to try another route and found a part of the garden that might gain her access to her new playmate. It took me half an hour to find her hidden amongst a clump of bushes where holly and nettles and all manner of wood and mud had somehow congregated to make a climbable mound.
   
Coaxing her out of there was the difficult part. I finally managed it by calling “Treat”, which she knows to be a reward in the form of a biscuit. When she emerged in the small clearing  and excitedly sniffed at my hand, she knew she had been tricked not treated, and was straight back into the forest. I returned to the house to get a real treat (a piece of ham) and a large umbrella to battle my way into the woods.
   
“Treat! Treat!” I called. No way. She had been caught on that ruse once and wasn’t going to be fooled again. As I beat about the bushes with the giant golf umbrella, I fell off the mound and injured my already bad back and started to bleed after being attacked by a holly bush.
   
“She’s back, she’s back!” called Mum from the house. Well, good for her, I mumbled, pulling branches from my ears.
   
Back on the sofa, she did everything a dog can do to try to apologise, but I ignored her. For all of five minutes. Then she blinked those big brown eyes with such pitiful love, I melted yet again.
   
Until the alien. You remember the scene? The one in which a gross creature leaps out from someone’s stomach? That was Maddie, except the alien emerged from her mouth.
   
I am not great with human vomit, but doggie vomit isn’t too bad. I had already cleaned up a yellow, frothy one from the cream carpet (how she loves that carpet) a couple of days earlier and, as she hasn’t been well, my only concern was for her health. But after her safari, she returned to project a veritable snake of a thing that bore no resemblance to anything I have ever seen come out of any mouth. Ever. And I know a lot about horrible things in mouths. You’ll just have to trust me on that one.
  
“No, don’t eat it!” yelled Mum, when Maddie started sniffing at her installation.
   
I made Mum clean it up. I really couldn’t. Turkey, gravy and grass. Solidified. I am heaving just thinking about it.
   
They both went home yesterday and I am resting my injured hip and back. I’m already missing them. The house is strangely quiet without the echo of my voice shouting “No, Maddie, NOOOOOOOO!” The squirrel looks a little bit lost without its companion. The installation is an empty space, as if the work of art that once stood there has been moved to another gallery.
   
Weeing and vomiting dogs are, I suspect, like childbirth. It’s hell when you’re going through it, but the long term benefits far outweigh the bad. Maddie is, at the end of the day, the cutest dog on the planet. 

And certainly a worthy successor to Alien: Resurrection.