Monday, July 23, 2018

SOOTY AT 70 - WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN (THEY CALLED IT PUPPET LOVE)


Sooty and I fell out big time in the late Eighties. 

I was trying to make my name as a writer in London and managed to secure a gig at Chessington Zoo, where the orange glove puppet was filming his new TV show.
   
I was very excited. My boyfriend at the time, an Australian Hungarian Jewish dentist (we bonded over a veneers consultation – don’t ask) wanted to introduce me to his children. I arranged for them to be on set and, for the occasion, bought a gorgeous white suit so that I would be at my pristine best.
   
Sooty was not on his best behaviour. While the photographer for the Evening Standard was taking pictures for the piece I was writing, Matthew Corbett (inheritor of the puppet, which had been a gift from his father, Harry, in 1948) seemed in control. Then, he said, Sooty thought I looked a bit hot. Very hot. Next thing I knew, Sooty had his water pistol out and was spraying my beautifully made-up face that quickly descended like liquid faeces onto my beautiful white suit.
  
“Isn’t Sooty a funny bear!” I cried to the hysterical laughing children around me, while thinking “You are SO DEAD, you orange piece of fluff.” I never wrote another good word about him.
   
Prior to my soaking, Matthew had told me how he had tried to sell the Sooty and Sweep concept to the United States, but had got nowhere with it.

“WHAAAAT? You gotta bear that don’t speak and a dog that squeaks an’ you gotta TV show?” the incredulous US executive had asked.
   
I was upset at my parting of the ways from one of my childhood crushes. Magic was never my thing, but, being a very well behaved child, I was able to be mildly mischievous by proxy through the bear. The floppy eared dog Sweep was a very bad boy indeed, but although Sooty was always being led astray by him, he was able to put everything right with a wave of his magic wand. 

Everything apart from Miss Soo, the black and white matriarch of the group and a really irritating killjoy. I also always felt uneasy about her bursting in on Sooty and Sweep when they were having a bath.

In fact, the hashtag #HerToo springs to mind.

As I approach my 60th birthday in November, I’ve been thinking a lot about Sooty, who has just celebrated the big 7-O. I wonder what he has learned in those seven decades? 

Maybe that he should have gone to the ear, nose and throat hospital when he discovered he was, literally, dumb? 

Maybe that if you need two hands to hold a magic wand, you ain’t that smart after all? 

Or maybe that if you really could do magic, you would have sawn Miss Soo in half at least two decades ago.
   
I regret the loss of our relationship, but you can’t water-board someone at a zoo and expect to get away with it, no matter what your bear credentials are.
   
I didn’t have the same grieving process with other characters. For example, I didn’t mourn my moving on from Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men because Little Weed, between the pair, always, quite frankly, got on my tits. What was it about the shows in the early Sixties that required there to be a really irritating matriarch who spoiled everyone else’s fun?
   
I wouldn’t have minded if every animal from Tales of the Riverbank had drowned, either. Much as I loved and still love animals, they were a self-righteous bunch of fur and fluff whose superiority complex made them insufferable, even to an eight year old.
   
The only person who was a real rival for Sooty’s affections in my life was Basil Brush. Clearly a gay man trapped in a fox’s body, he was a well-dressed, quick off the cuff raconteur with a great sense of humour: the Stephen Fry of the omnivorous mammal world. The only thing he lacked was a penis (Basil, not Stephen), but I was not to know such things would come to matter in years to come; heck, Sooty had nothing from the waist down apart from a guy’s hand, and that wasn’t a big worry; why should a possibly transsexual fox put me off?
   
So, when it all went horribly wrong, I grieved and, on both our momentous birthdays, I mourn for what might have been. 

Sooty, my first love. You couldn’t speak a word. 

If only, in the rest of my life, I had met more men like you.
  

Sunday, July 22, 2018

LOSING MY VIRGINITY


This has not been a good week for Virgin Atlantic and me. 

Having spent many years praising their Heathrow Upper Class lounge and cabin crews, it’s all come tumbling down. 

First, I discovered that the Virgin Atlantic credit card I have is no more and has been replaced by one that no longer gives me my treasured Air Miles for every £ spent (you have to re-apply for their new one, which they’ve already told me I can’t have). Next, they have magically removed 20,000 Air Miles from my account (swearing that they haven’t, but their absurd website gives them different information from what it tells me). 

Now, I have discovered, on a forthcoming flight, I have been moved from seat 6A in the middle of the plane to 10A, right next to the bar and the toilet, because the aircraft has been changed.
   
Listen. I know that in the grand scale of things, these are not major life problems. But I spend a lot of money with the airline and, after my sixth unanswered e-mail addressed to Customer Service about many other matters, am mightily fed up with the time and energy I constantly have to waste trying to get even a modicum of service at ground level.
   
Let’s look at the seat situation. I actually spend time at the bar on Virgin Atlantic Transatlantic flights; I’ve met some really interesting people there and it breaks up the journey. But I don’t want to be sitting practically on top of it. The only place closer to the bar than 10A is floating in the bottle of vodka. And I bet your bottom dollar that the reason I’ve been dumped there is very simple: I’m by myself.
   
Travel continues to favour couples, married or otherwise. If you are by yourself, you are top of the list when it comes to being shunted to the bottom of the queue in terms of service. Everyone assumes you’ll go along with it because . . . well . . . who do you have to complain to?
   
On a recent Delta flight, I was seated in my beloved 1B (front of the plane, aisle seat) and the man next to me asked if I would swap with his girlfriend who was in the row behind next to the window. I said no. Heck, I’d booked it two months previous, I don’t like window seats, don’t want anyone in front of me and if you can’t survive a two-hour flight without your partner, you shouldn’t be allowed on a plane in the first place.
   
The incredulity from other passengers and his girlfriend was palpable (he actually seemed a bit relieved, to be honest). I was made to feel mean and spent the rest of the flight apologising and explaining about my choice of seats. But why didn’t his girlfriend ask the guy next to her to swap with her boyfriend? Easy. I’m female, and a lone woman is always an easy target.
   
Virgin’s excuse is that they’ve had to change the plane and that everybody gets re-seated in the process. I know. I travel all the time. But I bet that everyone travelling in pairs has managed to get seats together; in fact, I’m tempted to do a tour of the plane before take-off to prove my theory. The same happened on a recent Eurostar journey – and I did actually check on who was in my seat. Guess what? Man in a suit.
   
Last year, I started writing a blog, The Solo Pound, about travelling as a single person. I spoke about never being able to have the Chateaubriand or paella in restaurants (because they are always for two); the humiliation of sitting down and having the waiter immediately remove everything in front of you, including the chair for your non-companion; the difficulty of going to the rest room and returning to find all your belongings gone, or taking your belongings with you and returning to find your table has been given away.
   
I have plans to turn the blog into a website that I hope will be of use to solo travellers and also encourage companies to stop treating singles like second-class citizens.
   
It saddens me hugely to keep knocking Virgin Atlantic, but their standards have undoubtedly slipped. American Airlines, by comparison, have upped their game so much, I have to be dragged kicking and screaming off their amazing new planes, where the booths in First are bigger than my New York apartment. Their recently added Flagship lounges, at selected airports, are like Five Star restaurants (Bollinger champagne, no less!). 

And before anyone starts screaming at me for the privilege of flying Upper or First, I can guarantee I have paid less than anyone travelling Economy. I buy Air Miles when they’re in the sale; I travel on the planes that get me the most miles; I break my journey between LA and New York to double my Tier points on Virgin Atlantic. Not that it’s anyone’s business - but I’m pre-empting the usual hysteria that accompanies my writing about anything that smacks of comfort.
   
In November, I will be 60 and it feels like a much bigger milestone than any before it, and I am undoubtedly more conscious of how people treat you differently with advancing years. This week, a 33 year-old man, who doubtless thought he was being kind, praised my ability to be texting. When I picked him up on it the following night, he apologised and said that it was only because he was comparing me to his 78 year-old grandmother (Mate! If you’re in a hole, stop digging!).
   
I’d just come off a Delta flight on which I was treated like an oversized, inconvenient piece of luggage. Delta, by the way, are now part of Virgin and, for the most part, have improved their service no end. However, I’ve learned that some of the smaller internal planes are for people not allowed on other flights – criminals, for example (and even traffic violations can instigate a travel ban) – and that the crews really resent having to man/woman them.
   
But I’m not a criminal; I’m actually a model passenger. As far as I’m concerned, the second I’m through that gate, I’m in their hands and reliant on staff’s professionalism and skill. 

I sit down, shut up, eat, drink, read, or watch movies, until landing. 

Or sit at the bar. 

Or go to investigate who the hell has stolen seat 6A.
  

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

REMEMBERING GRANDPA


I remember my first drink very clearly.

Or, more clearly, I remember my brother’s first drink. 

Mine was a sip of beer my father gave me from his half pint glass when I was seven and complained that I wanted what he was drinking, rather than the orange squash that was the only other option ever on offer.

I thought the beer was disgusting and spat it out. My brother, at four, took the glass with all the firmness of a fly half catching a rugby ball and racing for the line, and downed it. Mum, Dad and my maternal grandparents thought it was hilarious. So did my younger sibling Nigel, who, thrilled with the attention this act of rebellion had brought him, tried to grab the glass for a second sitting.
   
My mother’s parents, Tom and Elsie (nee Culliford) Jones, had been publicans all their lives and were then managing the Old Globe pub in Rogerstone, just outside Newport. Situated between the main road and the railway line, it was an enormous, imposing building, with a large car-park which, despite the large numbers of pastie-eating customers (the staple snack of South Wales Saturday afternoon drinkers), rarely had any cars in it. Only my grandfather's Jaguar was permanently parked there. He never drove it anywhere, but every two days, he could be seen polishing it, buffing the silver blue to an almost transparent silver. 

I could understand why he never wanted to take it out onto the road and bring it into contact with all that dirt and grime. Years later, and long after his death, the tax office failed to understand why a man would have bills for the upkeep of a car and no petrol receipts, and my grandmother was stung badly for my grandfather's passion.
   
Despite the punishments that were an inevitable part of growing up, I was always happiest at home. When I was taken away from my familiar territory, I
was overwhelmed with sadness.

Irrespective of how much fun was anticipated in our visits to friends and relatives, after two hours I would begin to long for my own room: the white candlewick bedspread, my books, my cuddly toys. 

Most of all, my pens and paper. 

The strangeness of other people’s rooms and other people’s belongings oppressed me: ornaments which struck the air with their alien shapes and unfamiliar shadows.

What started out as a great adventure - packing thecar, locking up the house, driving past different fields and buildings - soon turned to sorrow, when the
constrictions of having to follow another family’s set of rules was imposed.
  
At my maternal grandparents’ pub, there were many rules, but my grandfather introduced an air of unpredictability to the place. He was a born entertainer. A natural musician, he played the mouthorgan and the banjo for customers, while my grandmother, between trips to the kitchen, looked on
admiringly. 

I remember him standing at the corner of the bar, cigarette in hand, chatting to the old men -so they seemed to me - who always surrounded him.  

I remember him most clearly on my 11th birthday, shortly before he was taken ill and two years before he died of lung cancer. My grandmother brought my wrapped present up the stairs from the living-room and set it on a small table just outside the bar. A satin shade was peeping out of the top, and a dangling plug at the bottom.

I quickly ascertained what the gift was, but Grandpa said: “Close your eyes.” “Don’t be soft, Tom,” said Grandma, “she can see what it is.” His face fell, and when I removed the wrapping I tried to look surprised, to save him in some small way from the knowledge that, in my grandmother’s eyes, he had made a fool of himself. But Grandma adored him and never stopped thinking or talking about him until the day she died, 15 years later.
   
We went to the Old Globe every week, and much as Ioved my grandparents, it was a place that frightened me in the little resemblance it bore to anywhere else in my life. It had two bars, one floor up from the kitchen. One was a lounge bar and, on the wall, there was a picture of my grandparents holding a large silver tray, which they won in Rogerstone’s annual competition to find the best kept garden. Grandma was smiling in the photograph, and her jet black hair was backcombed high like a mosque, and set as firm as bricks, for the big day of the presentation. 

Doubtless my mother, then a hairdresser, did it for her. Grandpa looked more tentative, guilty perhaps, that he had had nothing to do with the perfect flower-beds that won them the prize. I loved the photograph and marvelled in their small success, yet more smiling proof of the safety of my world.

The main bar was darker and full of the old men who made me nervous when they spoke. This was almost exclusively my grandfather’s side of the pub. Above  the bar was a photograph of him dressed in a strange hat and smoking a large cigar. He was also in uniform, and I learned that he had been something of a  performer among his soldier friends during the war.

When he came back from the war, he was different, my  mother says: it knocked something out of him. When I began to show an interest in music he gave me his mouthorgan. I heard him play it just once.
   
The bar smelt of spilt beer, the floor was sticky,and the rubber soles of my Clarks sandals stuck to it. I was uneasy in its strangeness, but before the pub opened at 11a.m., I loved the fullness of it all: the freshly made fire, packed with logs and paper; the full crates; the rows of clean glasses; the bags of bottle tops from the night before. Most of all, I loved the feeling that this was what it was like to be a grown-up.

Grandpa let me unpack the crates filled with bottles of Schweppes orange juice and load them onto the bar’s shelves. Sometimes, being an extraordinarily strong and well muscled child, I helped him carry them up from the cellar to the kitchen. He also let me keep the bottle tops. I collected hundreds and adored the intensity of their colours: the turquoise from the beer, the orange and yellow from the soft drinks, the “Courage” bottle-tops, with the finely drawn cockerel lording it over the corrugated edges. 

I loved the rattle of the tops when I carried them away in one bag, their sharp pointed dents where the bottle-opener had forced them off the bottles; the smells of orange, pineapple, stout and bitter brushing against each other. It was a world a hundred miles (although in reality, about five) miles away from my own: a world of weekend.

The pub was on five levels, each with its own distinctive smells and shades. The kitchen was at semi-basement level, between the cellar and the living-room, and had a stone floor and a window that overlooked the railway line. 

The pantry was packed with catering sized bags of flour and boxes of lard, and every morning, at 5.00a.m., my grandmother raided them to start making pasties. On public holidays, she rose even earlier than dawn to load the Kenwood chef, an enormous cement mixer of a thing, with the freshly
boiled potatoes for the hundreds of snacks she was sure of selling. 

When I stayed at the Globe, I woke to the smell of cooking pastry that travelled up every floor. Long before the sound of barrels being rolled
into the cellar began, Grandma was mixing the flour with the lard, boiling potatoes, and chopping meat and onions together. It was a hard life, but I never heard her complain. 

Still, though, I felt the slow passing of another life when I watched her carry the saucepan over to the sink and saw the thick blue veins on her legs: the blue ridges straining under her thick stockings as I helped her carry the trays of freshly cooked pasties up two flights of stairs from the kitchen to the bar. 

At opening time, when she took the first batch of pasties into the lounge bar, the previous night's stale beer was already a world away. Suddenly, the optics were trophies, multiplying in the mirror on which they were screwed; the red velvet chairs, tiny thrones.
   
I felt more at ease on the floors of activity: the kitchen, and my grandmother in her apron; the bar, and my grandfather’s hand, drawing on the three truncheons of beer pumps. But on the floors where they lived their private lives, I felt imprisoned and scared.

Nigel and I were left alone, in an alien world where, as strictly disciplined children, we were left undisciplined, without any fear of our wrecking anything or coming to harm. The potential for disaster was terrifying; the fact that we never fulfilled it, even more so. A lifetime of wrath from the God we feared could never have made up for our daring to switch on a light without asking permission first. So we sat in the dark as dusk fell, silent.

It was always dark because my grandmother reckoned that every unlit light-bulb was another year’s worth of free sewing machine use - or whatever the bizarre, logic-saving electrical device of the week was. When we were first deposited in the room on Saturday afternoons, the last of the afternoon sun was always leaving the piano (never played - “Too noisy”) in the corner; by the time Dr Who appeared on the TV, there was no light, and we were left in the sinister, quiet stillness of a forgotten room.
   
When the synthesised wooing of the Dr Who theme started up, I retreated to the safe and dark shadows behind the sofa. I hated the daleks. It was hard to
see how any child who wanted to sleep well at night could respond otherwise to them. I hated the way they slid quickly across the floor, swifter than any human. Their voices were threatening croaks that came from deep inside their impenetrable steel bodies; they possessed some human qualities, but each one was a distortion of the essential qualities of human behaviour: colour, fluidity, warmth. 

No matter how often I saw Dr Who defeat them, I never believed that, next time, he would emerge victor again. The long exterminator rod sticking out of the daleks’ foreheads, together with their cry of “Exterminate!

Exterminate!” was the most terrifying thing I had ever experienced, and I could never understand why we were left alone to endure it. We could not turn it off, because we had been told never to touch anything belonging to anyone, especially the piano and TV belonging to Grandma and Grandpa. One afternoon, after I sat sobbing and shaking behind the sofa, I disobeyed the order and turned off the TV. The fear of doing so was just marginally
less than the fear of falling victim to the daleks.
   ]
The worst floor was the one at the top of the building, where the bedrooms were. When I stayed over, I was put in a cold room in a bed with a dark wooden headboard, beneath which I barely slept. It was like a coffin lid just waiting for me to close my eyes before folding down and trapping me forever. 

Before she went to bed, my grandmother came into my room and knelt on
the floor, where we said our prayers together. When she went next door to sleep, I could hear her snoring and, every ten minutes, several snores would run= together, as if they were being poked with a stick to hurry them along. One night, when my grandfather was ill, Grandma shared the bed with me, and the snores woke me constantly right through the night. 

When I looked at Grandma’s face, I saw that her lips were folded in on themselves, and her teeth were in a glass on the bedside table. I wondered whether losing your teeth was the thing that made you snore, and feared losing my own. Eventually, I dropped off again and tried to smother my ears with the pillow; but it seemed I slept for less than an hour by the time the
smell of the baking pasties for bar lunches woke me .00a.m.
   
The room I disliked the most was my grandparents’ room. When Grandpa was ill, and, though I did not know it, dying, he was in bed all day. We visited him there, along with other relations, and we sat on the bed, trying to tempt him back to real life with our stories, much as I would do in later years with my own father. 

But at 13, I did not recognise in the sick room those details I would later come to know as the precursors to death: the pyjamas too big for the body, a face slowly sinking into shadow, the half-empty bottles of soft drinks. Grandpa always had Lucozade on his bedside table, and each time we visited there were more sticky rings on the dark, scratched wood. I stared at these, tracing their patterns with my eyes, rather than look at my grandfather’s shrinking features. His moustache, which had always been a tiny Hitler-type rectangle, suddenly seemed to be taking over his face.
  
There was never any light in that room, either. Whether it was my grandparents’ war-time experience that made them want to save electricity throughout the whole of their lives, or whether they just an aversion to light, I don’t know; but from the bottom of the house to the top, the light faded. 

The cellar was bright with bare bulbs; the living-room, in which no light was turned on until absolute darkness, flickered only with the TV playing its shadows; the bars were dimmer still, with the fire in one corner, and only glasses to catch the little light it threw; and then, at the top of the house, just wood. Dark, dark wood, relieved only by the fading white light of my
grandfather’s face.
   
It was always exhilharating to go outside. I would stand by the black fence beside the railway line and wait for trains to go by. Every movement was a welcome contrast to the stillness of the living-room and  bedrooms: the long grass sweeping towards me as the trains rushed past; the crunch of gravel in the car-park when a customer drove in or out. Indoors,  there were daleks and sickness; outside, a world that carried on, regardless: safety, and thoughts of home.
  
When Grandpa became too sick to stay at the Globe, he was moved to Cefn Mabley hospital near Newport. Every time we visited him, there was bright sunshine and the smell of cut grass. In the ward, he looked the same as he had done at home, and despite the bright, crisp whiteness of the hospital, the scent of dark wood still seemed to cling to him. “D’you think he’ll be all right?” I asked my mother, one day as we were leaving. “No, Jac” she said, “I don’t think he will.”
   
The sun heated the car, and I longed to be outside in the fresh air. Never again would I feel comfortable around dark furniture. I hate antiques, and every house and apartment I have ever lived in has been filled with pale, fresh wood, chrome, and everything modern. 

I would happily live in the Habitat shop window. 

Death made me a Conran girl.