Friday, March 16, 2018


My three years living in Paris gave me a taste for life outside the UK, where the weather, for the first time in my life, started getting me down. fantasised about moving to Spain or Italy, where Brits were flocking to take advantage not only of the sun but the euro, which, three years after its inception, was still at an exchange rate that benefited us considerably more than the countries where it had become standard currency.
My trips to Paris had taken place exclusively on the Eurostar. I had not flown for nine years, a fear that had not been alleviated fn January 2005, that was all about to change, when I was invited by a PR company to attend the opening of a new television channel that was launching on the Costa del Sol in southern Spain. For legal reasons, let’s call it Costa TV, and also change the names and personal details of every single person involved in the entire venture (I might even include my own in this). Travelling by private jet, along with several journalists and TV executives hoping to get a slice of what seemed likely to be very lucrative action, we arrived in hot winter sunshine and prepared to meet the brains (and, more importantly, the money) behind the venture that we hoped would change all our lives.
The channel had been set up by a Russian called Mitya (I repeat: as I value my limbs, all personalities and details have been substantially changed, but Mitya, meaning “lover of earth”, captures the essence of this driven, but also very spiritual, individual – just as Karp, as I shall call him, meaning “profits”, captures the spirit of his financial sidekick).
Mitya, who had launched his own property company (let’s call it Sunkissed Villas) saw the television station largely as a means to advertise his properties. When we arrived at the station’s headquarters in Estepona, there was just one programme being aired on Costa, a truly dreadful magazine show featuring C List ex-celebs from the British entertainment scene, talking in monotones on golf courses about the joys of buying a place in the sun. Mitya had turned to the high-profile PR company to find the right people to run the station, which he wanted to use not only as a means to sell property, but as a vehicle to change the world. What Mitya wanted most of all was a channel that would convert the Western World to fasting, preferably for weeks at a time; what the people the PR firm brought in to run it wanted was hardcore show business (involving some of the talent the PR already had on its books). These managers therefore included an ex-soap producer, an ex-talent show producer, and people very close to top-notch showbiz personalities, who, it was hoped, would hop aboard and sprinkle their gold dust on the project.
They really were the top people in the world of television: award-winners, who had made their names on hugely successful shows and who clearly thought they were going to be able to repeat that success for Costa, with the added bonus of enjoying a great climate in which to do it. The Spanish company could not have wished for a better dream package, but in bringing in the best, it immediately showed up how weak the already resident incumbents actually were.
One major problem from the start was the confrontation between an American called Bill, who was the station boss, and the main PR man, Sam. Bill’s first problem was that he spoke millions upon millions of words, seemingly in one breath; his second was that not one of them meant anything. Sam, by contrast, seemed quiet, but was hugely successful and highly experienced in the art of subtle manipulation, and the two men hated each other. Bill flew everywhere First Class, having meetings with heaven knows who, about heaven knows what; nobody really knew, and he wasn’t going to start explaining it to Sam. There was still just one programme on the channel, and as a new workforce arrived each morning, usually beautiful young Russian girls whom Mitya had met in a bar the night before, it became increasingly unlikely that Costa and the great British entertainment establishment were ever going to join forces.
Mitya and I got on very well from the start; so much so, that he invited me back to talk more about TV – which would, of course, involve more drinking. We both enjoyed red wine, lots of it, and Mitya had the cash to pay a couple of hundred euros a bottle for it. Who was I to turn it down? I returned for another three weeks when, between bottles, Mitya tried to make sense of what was, to him, the nonsensical workings of British TV; but there was excitement in the air, as one of the ex-talent show producers was due to start work on a new “secret” show, and talk of other ideas was filling people with optimism. Or would have done, had Mitya known the first thing about TV or, more importantly, viewers. His pet project was a fasting show in which three Ukrainians went to live in a villa for six weeks and starved themselves. There, they would do yoga, meditate and drink water (apart from Olek, who had decided to go the first 11 days living just on air). Big Brother it wasn’t, but it was to this gem that the ex-talent show producer was assigned. Mitya was beside himself with joy: this, he was convinced, would be the show to make the world see how much healthier you could be if you stopped stuffing your body with toxins. This philosophy did not extend to his own rather excessive drinking habits, but making a programme about people stronger than he was in this respect was clearly his form of abstention. In order to enter into the same spirit of deprivation and give myself a much-needed two day break from alcohol, I suggested to Mitya that I join the Ukrainians in the villa for 48 hours and write a piece about the experience.
Mitya was ecstatic, as he always was during the first two minutes when anyone suggested a new idea to him. So, I was put on the case.
I’d been sent on better jobs than ones that involved my having to watch Ukrainian TV with three people who had not one word of English between them, but the camera crew showed me where the food was hidden in their Winnebago, should I falter.
I lasted 16 and a half hours before weakening and having two digestive biscuits. No food had ever tasted so good – well, apart from the crew’s leftover McDonald’s and fries I took from the rubbish bin in the Winnebago half an hour later. I left before clocking up 20 hours, but it was enough to endear me even more to Mitya, who suggested that I do some work for the company and spend more time in Spain. The company paid for an apartment overlooking the Mediterranean for me, and within weeks I was sitting in my own office, trying to come up with ideas for programmes that Mitya might like. He was particularly taken with Good Morning Marbella, which I saw as a kind of British This Morning, and, at Mitya’s insistence, he told me to bring in the people who could do it. “I like this programme!” he squealed, lying on his back on his couch in his office. “We go on air next week!”
Pre-production was not a concept that came easily to Mitya, but he was sufficiently enthused to listen to more ideas from two producer friends working in Wales. “I like this programme!” he squealed, when they flew over and shared their ideas about Good Morning Marbella. “You come back five o’clock, we talk more about programme.” Back we went at five o’clock, sat down and started to talk about the series we had spent the intervening eight hours discussing. “Stop!” said Mitya, holding up his hand. “I do not like this programme now.”
It was the same with every idea anyone took to him. Meanwhile, back at the villa, the Ukrainians battled on, and the production team was ready to show Mitya a first cut.
He was furious, claiming that the programme was not serious enough. Okay, the producer had once worked on Stars in Their Eyes, but Air in Their Bellies didn’t exactly have people jumping out from behind a screen and declaring: “Tonight, Matthew, I would kill for a steak and chips.” The producer had really done the best he could with, let’s be honest, shit subject matter.
Mitya was especially put out when Olek was on camera, coughing a lot and saying that he was very unwell, a situation explained by the English subtitles. “No, no, no!” said Mitya, “He is not ill; it is the toxins coming out of his system.” So, the finished product featured Olek coughing up his guts and declaring his sickness in Ukrainian, but accompanied by the English subtitle: “These are just the toxins coming out of my system.”
I met with Mitya every day, when he would question me about what I thought about his station. “Eet eess sheet!” he was fond of announcing, and I had to agree. Then there were dinners, huge events, at which more strange Russians appeared, said nothing, and left. We asked no questions and just kept drinking the generous supplies of wine.
Mitya decided I would make a very good spy and I was asked to keep an eye on proceedings and report back about where the money was going. So I did. I was stunned, for example, to see how much money Bill was spending. A local lad with the level of talent that wouldn’t top an eyebath was one day filming a couple of links for a new series, and there were 17 people on the set, including three holding sun umbrellas; there was even a catering truck. I told Mitya of my concerns and the unnecessary expense (I have always treated my employers’ money as if it were my own; it doesn’t always go down well with other employees, as I was about to discover).
“You are right!” said Mitya. “I went down there! It was like a fucking James Bond set!”
He nevertheless kept giving Bill the money he wanted, until one day I was called to a meeting in Mitya’s house. We sat around a table the size of a circus ring. Bill was sitting opposite me, and the latest set of Russian babes sat with their notebooks, poised to write down yet more details about the complex world of TV that Russian property magnates were having difficulty comprehending.
“So, Bill,” began Mitya. “Jaci tells me you spend too much of my money. Jaci. Begin.” All eyes turned to me. The newcomer. I had already upset Sue, the Head of Programmes, by my very arrival. Several of my reviews had been unfavourable to one of her previous projects in the UK, which was possibly one of the reasons she had fled to Spain to begin writing a new slate. And there I was again.
“Er,” I stammered, before going on to detail some of the appalling waste I had seen (naturally, this did not include the apartment overlooking the Mediterranean on a year’s lease for a short dark Welsh TV critic).
“What the fuck’s it got to do with her!” screamed Bill. And he didn’t stop screaming. Mitya, who had a tendency to switch sides with the flip of a coin, started empathising with Bill, even down to the three sun umbrellas, which were allegedly required props in the Spanish sun. Oh, for goodness sake, I wanted to cry, Poirot didn’t have three sun umbrellas in Murder on the Nile, but I kept my mouth shut, because now Mitya wanted us to hug, make up and join forces. “My channel will be great!” he said, delighted at the outcome of the meeting.
Three weeks later, Bill was gone. Next came Danny. He was already in the office and had a strong background in design, which was even more unsuited to starving Ukrainians than Stars in Their Eyes had been. He didn’t last a fortnight. Then Mitya was leaving the car-park one evening and spotted another employee, Trevor, just getting into his car. “Trevor! You must run station for me!” Trevor, who was, in fact, a vastly experienced, brilliant editor, was caught unawares and accepted on the spot, but as with all people having power bestowed upon them unexpectedly, quickly turned into another monster. Despite my continuing good relationship with Mitya, I suspected that my days were numbered and, as more and more programmes failed to make it onto the channel, so, I suspected, were Trevor’s, the Russian babes’ and the PR’s. But Trevor was going to give it his best shot.
I wasn’t optimistic when he began his stint with the words: “I don’t give a fuck what Mitya wants; that’s not what the channel’s about.” Short of going to the local DIY store and buying his own rope and beam, it was hard to see how Trevor could have been better prepared for hanging himself.
He began by working closely with Karp to try to clear the detritus left by Bill’s management, but like everyone else Mitya put in charge, Trevor was way off Mitya’s radar. So were most people, but, at the end of the day, it was Mitya’s radar, Mitya’s planet, and you either signed up to it or cleared off. That’s not because Mitya was any kind of dictator - far from it. But you had to throw yourself into the craziness of his world and his bizarre ideas if you wanted to survive.
Trevor decided that he was going to buy Eldorado. This third rate soap, broadcast by the BBC between July 1992 and July 1993, was a piece of work as far off Mitya’s radar as it was possible to get. Mitya had the makings of a 19th century philosopher, a Romantic poet and a French aesthete (he spoke French, along with five other languages), with an Eastern European passion for looking into the recesses of man’s darkest moments and innermost soul. What Mitya was not, could never be, was an Eldorado viewer. Not in this millennium or the next. Not even when the last man on earth returned ashes to ashes, dust to dust, would Mitya and Eldorado ever share so much as a sangria if they were both dying of thirst. But Trevor wanted Eldorado. Worse, Trevor got it. Even worse, Mitya was coming round to the idea. He had clearly been pushed in this direction by the arrival of the very pretty Rosetta, a close friend of one of the executives on Eldorado when it first aired. Suddenly, Trevor, Rosetta and Mitya started to use my office for secret discussions, holed up like the witches of Eastwick day and night, while I was consigned to sitting on a bench outside, drinking copious amounts of rose, but now in my new role as cast-off. Rosetta slipped in under the wire when Mitya, tired of trying to convert the world to fasting, decided that Kung-Fu was the activity that would bring about spiritual enlightenment in the Western World. Before you could say “Haaa-yaaaagh!” or whatever it is Kung-Fu folk say, Rosetta was head of Kung-Fu DVDs, and my role was fast diminishing. When the Eastwick Three briefly vacated my office one afternoon, I sneaked in and saw my business cards a little closer to the wastepaper bin than I felt comfortable with. That was how you knew when Mitya had given someone the sack: you just looked in their bin in the morning and, if the contents of their office life were there, you knew that was that.
I went to Mitya’s office to talk about new projects (Good Morning Marbella having bitten the dust long before, when the producer I had brought in got outrageously drunk in front of him). He was whingeing about his new PA, who had not been able to find the right cherries at the market that morning. Every day, Mitya’s PA was dispatched to find several kinds of fruit that Mitya would consume throughout the day. On this particular one, she had been out for five sets of cherries that came back too ripe, too red, too yellow, too hard, not sweet enough. Mitya was talking to a friend in his office when Katarina came in with bag number six. She dropped them on the desk and turned to leave. As she reached the door, Mitya took a gun from his top drawer and aimed it at her back. “She is fucking useless.” I breathed a sigh of relief when she safely made it to the other side without a bullet in her back. “It’s all right,” said Mitya. “My friend, he is police officer.” Phew. That’s all right, then. After that, I dared not ask what my future held, but I was soon to discover that it wasn’t much when, after returning from two weeks’ holiday, I arrived at the office to find it full of Kung-Fu DVDs and my name removed from the door.
Costa was sold, amid mounting debts. I was paid a small amount, but left being owed a lot of money. People who had given up everything to work there lost even more. Thankfully, I had not given up my Daily Mail column and not listened to Sue, when she suggested a programme to Mitya that would begin with me handing in my notice at the paper (nice try, love) to begin a new, penniless life on the Costa del Sol. “I like this programme!” Mitya had said.
I never saw him again. He is currently an internationally wanted criminal – for money laundering through a pretend TV station in Spain, amid goodness knows what else. 

Blimey. Ever realise you’ve been had? 

Still, the Rioja was real.  

Wednesday, February 7, 2018


Actors die all the time, but none has left me with such a feeling of overwhelming sadness as that of the passing of John Mahoney, who died on Sunday at the age of 77.
Blackpool born Mahoney was a distinguished movie and TV actor who is best known for playing Frasier Crane’s father, Marty Crane, in the TV sitcom Frasier, which ran from 1993 to 2004 on NBC. Once asked, in my role as critic, what my favourite TV shows of all time were, Frasier topped my list; it still does. Never a week goes by without my watching at least half a dozen episodes, and I still regard it as the most perfect TV show ever. Writing, storytelling, acting, laugh aloud comedy, timing, production – it ticks every box at the highest level.
Mahoney was central to the success of the show. As executive producer and writer Joe Keenan wrote upon hearing of Mahoney’s death, Marty was the “moral center” of the piece. He was. From the very first episode, when Marty disrupted not only Frasier’s social life but his aesthetic space (with his hideous chair), he was the fulcrum around which his dysfunctional sons balanced their chaotic lives. As Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) and Niles (David Hyde Pierce) competed as siblings for social and professional one-upmanship, Marty was forever the bemused voice of reason with his feet always firmly on the ground.
There are so many episodes that spring quickly to mind. One is when an overdressed Frasier and Niles are forced to go to their father’s favourite steak house, where, upon entering, their ties are instantly cut in half. They make fun of the service, the d├ęcor, the food, and Marty’s irrepressible joy at being totally at home in the environment is in stark contrast. His hurt at his sons’ reaction, citing how ashamed their mother would have been, brings me to tears even just writing about it. If ever there was a moment in acting where the adage less is more holds absolutely true, this is it.
They behave equally snobbishly when their father hooks up with Sherrie, a brash brunette whom the boys find embarrassing to be around. It is another example of Marty’s connection to the real world that is anathema to his sons. It his influence that enables them to learn from their mistakes . . . until they go out and make a whole lot of different mistakes.
Mahoney brought immense poignancy to the role. In one episode, Frasier and Niles turn against Marty, believing that he once had an affair. It transpires that it was their mother who had been unfaithful, but out of respect for her, Marty had not wanted to taint the boys’ memory of her. Protecting his sons from harsh realities that might hurt them – the role of a fine father – is another aspect of this rich character.
Then there is Eddie, Marty’s constant companion, a dog with whom he shares a secret language. They understand one another, comfort one another, and theirs is the strongest relationship in the show. I like to think of Moose (who played Eddie) being reunited with his owner in a galaxy far away. Call me an old softie.
Frasier regularly fulfils one of the traditional fundamentals of British theatre – every individual must be alone with each character at some point during the play (I have no idea if this still holds true). In Frasier, those moments often take place in the kitchen (stage left), which provides a conspiratorial backdrop to the action taking place in the living room. 

“Dad/Niles/Frasier, can I see you in the kitchen” is a familiar refrain – my favourite being when Frasier invites station manager Tom over for dinner as a blind date for his father’s live-in physio, Daphne (Jane Leeves). Tom gets the wrong end of the stick and thinks Frasier wants him for himself, and Niles and Marty (as is the audience) are in on the misunderstanding in the kitchen. The genius of the episode (written by Joe Keenan, a master of the farcical) is that you just hear Marty’s uproarious laugh in the distance.
It’s good to hear that John was also a joy to work with and, according to all the tributes, a wonderful man who was greatly loved by all who had the good fortune to cross his path. I never met him, but he will always have a place in my heart as one of the true greats.


Tuesday, January 16, 2018


There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens. 

Ecclesiastes 3 comes back to me today following two weeks of non-stop sobbing, trying to decide whether it is time to have dear Maddie put to sleep.
Maddie is my mother’s Bichon Frise. I have known her since she was a puppy, when I drove to West Wales with Mum to pick her up. She was so tiny, she could have fitted into a beer glass, and she spent the journey back to Cardiff, where I was living, trying to escape through the back car window.
She was terrified by her new surroundings and kept retreating behind the rubbish bin in my house. She had to take an early visit to the vet to be treated for stress.
For the past 12 years, she has lived with Mum in Bristol, and a more adorable, friendly and good-natured dog you could not hope to find. True, she had a penchant for opening the airing cupboard door and building up a supply of bras and pants in her basket, and house-training was pretty much anathema to her. She also devoured several of Mum’s hearing aids; but she was a wonderful companion to Mum, who worshiped her with every fibre of her being.
I, too, have had a lot of contact with Maddie throughout her entire life. When she visited me in Cardiff, she was exemplary in her urinary habits, going instantly into the garden when she arrived because she knew there was the reward of a chicken dinner if she did so. She loved the big open space, taking great delight in hiding in the bushes and sending me into hysterical panic, thinking she had escaped (Escape from Alcatraz had been in her blood from the off).
In October, Mum had an accident and was admitted to hospital with a fractured kneecap, and Maddie became my full-time companion. Because the dog suffers from severe separation anxiety, she really can’t be left alone. I would see her face outside the shower door, and when I emerged she would frantically lick my wet legs as if I had just survived the Titanic. 

Because I am not allowed pets in my rented property in Bath, I had to live at Mum’s house in Oldland Common in Bristol, and Maddie and I became regulars in the nearby Crown and Horseshoe, where she became mega popular with locals and made friends with other dogs. She was less keen on karaoke nights, when she took refuge in my Robbie Williams hoodie.
She also made it in to Bath on the bus, to my favourite local, the Garrick’s Head, always emptying her bladder right outside Sainsbury’s Local – I have no idea why that was her favourite spot. Maybe she was reminding me that Nectar points would not convert to Virgin Air Miles as my Tesco points do.
It was Maddie’s first time on public transport, and the bus was also our means of getting to see Mum at the nursing home where she had been moved for rehab. Back in Oldland for just a short time, Mum was again rushed into hospital on New Year’s Eve with a raging temperature and chest infection. She is still there, waiting for a care package to be put in place.
Throughout this time, Maddie has been diagnosed with a heart condition; she has dislocated her legs attempting jumps she can no longer manage; and, two weeks ago, her tests came back to show she has Cushing’s Disease. It’s incurable and manageable, but, as the vet pointed out, with everything else going on, she is not a well dog.
Stephen Pullan at Oldland House Veterinary Surgery, has been extraordinary. Explaining every symptom and condition in easy to understand language, while displaying a sublime level of care, he has been as much a counsellor to me in my distress as he has been doctor to the dog – as has Helen, the wonderful receptionist.
And so came the options: keep her going a little bit longer on the heart tablets and start her on treatment for Cushing’s (which were likely to make her more sick), or have her euthanised. Mum was heartbroken, as was I. Never have I cried so much. After a very bad fall before Christmas, I am still nursing cracked ribs and am not very mobile. With little help, either practical or emotional, it’s sent me spiralling downwards, while my blood pressure rockets. Friends nearby have been supportive, as have so many people on Facebook, even complete strangers, one of whom sent me a beautiful bouquet of red roses. My friends Debbie and Theo Paphitis saved my lonely Christmas by sending me enough goodies to see me through to next year. 

I could no longer cope with the stress, and Maddie has been staying with Joan, a friend of a friend, who has shown her so much love and care. Twice, in the past week, I went to see Maddie to assess the situation.
She went wild when she saw me. Barking and barking to be picked up and sitting as close as she could to me on the sofa. I could see deterioration, but was she saying: “It’s okay, you can let me go”, or “Please don’t do this, I’m not ready”? Trying to interpret canine sign language tore me apart. It was the hardest decision I’ve ever tried to make.
She is a tired little dog. She struggles with breathing and, although still enjoying short walks and eating, she became less comfortable. I struggled and struggled with what was best for her. She was not going to recover, and when her “currant eyes” as we always called them looked up at me, I didn’t know if I would have the strength to lose her; the well was empty. I tried talking to her, explaining the situation. She licked my hand non-stop. Then she sighed, lay down and went to sleep again.
Last night, she took a severe turn for the worse. She was struggling badly with her breathing and spent most of the night in the corner of the room, scratching the carpet. She is in great distress, panting non-stop, and I know what I have to do. 100%. Mum has trusted me to make the right decision. I’m spending a few hours with Maddie this afternoon before her visit to the vet at 6pm. I have no idea how to say goodbye.
I am crying for Mum as much as I am for Maddie. Incarcerated and separated from her beloved pet, this is the most devastating time for her. I know that my brother, who also adores Maddie, will be distraught, too. The hospital offered Mum the chance to see her, but she thinks that would be worse. I agree.
There is a time to be born and a time to die. Dear Maddie’s time is up and I don’t want her to suffer. She has had a wonderful life, filled with lots of fun and so much love from so many people.
When I recently watched A Dog’s Purpose on a flight, I cried non-stop. Maddie has had a long, purposeful life in the love and pleasure she returned a million fold. This is one of the worst days of my life. I know I am not the first and won’t be the last to go through it. 

There is a time to weep and a time to laugh. Today, I weep for our darling girl.

Sunday, December 31, 2017


Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” 
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Was there ever a truer line than John Lennon’s “Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans” in Beautiful Boy? Its origin can be traced back to a 1957 Readers Digest article by the American writer and cartoonist Allen Saunders (thank you, Wikipedia), but the sentiment holds good, no matter who the author.
After four and a half years of stress trying to sell my Cardiff house, I made so many plans in the summer of 2016. With debts cleared, finally being mortgage free, I started to work on so many projects that had been on the back burner. A screenplay, TV series, a novel. I finished writing a book about being broke (heck, if it was going to happen, I might as well try to make money out of it).
Then, 2017 came. Life that happened while I was busy making other plans. It was a year in which I lost several people, one my oldest friend from school, Shelley. My mother had an accident and, while I was caring for her and rushing around, I had one, too; I am currently nursing cracked ribs and am unable to travel. All those Air Miles I planned to use sit languishing in my Virgin Atlantic account, where I log in, daily, dreaming of where they might take me, had life not interfered with those damned plans.
But I am lucky in that I am a writer. We need material; it’s our lifeblood. My childhood fantasies of sitting in an attic, producing masterpieces (between bouts of contemplating suicide, naturally) are long gone. You have to live. With that comes pain, anguish, suffering, fear – the things that every human endures, in different forms. But there is also joy, surprise, fulfilment, energy, happiness, contentment – so many truly great experiences to be had on a day-to-day, even hourly, basis.
This will go down as the year in which I discovered the extent of friendship. During my most difficult times, Facebook has been a godsend. I have been overwhelmed, moved beyond belief and genuinely surprised by people’s kindness: old and new friends, complete strangers, all expressing genuine concern and, regularly, offering practical help and support.
I have made new friends as a result: people I would probably never have met, were it not for the circumstances that brought us together. Relationships with old friends have strengthened as we have found ourselves sharing similar experiences. Those conversations we once had about how well the property market had served us have given way to ones about the difficulties of elderly parents; the days of wondering where we would buy our second home in warmer climes have been reduced to watching A Place on the Sun on Channel 4 Catch Up.
Seeing my mother struggle with growing older has made me fearful of the inevitable, but then I remember how depressed Mum was at reaching 40. I’ve always tried not to dwell on things I cannot change, and I have had – and continue to have – a better life than most people. I’ve been to so many places and lived in countries many simply dream of visiting for a couple of weeks holiday a year.

They are choices that have not come without a price, and dealing with problems without the support of a partner is, I have come to realise, tougher than it looks. When you are single and work from home, the onus is on you to do so much more than you actually can – physically and emotionally. That’s when accidents happen – as I’ve just discovered, to my cost.
The decision to rent a house back in Bath, where I once lived for 11 years, was taken in order to be closer to Mum, were anything to go wrong. It’s therefore ironic that she spent Christmas by herself in her house and I in mine, owing to our respective injuries. I still have my New York apartment (and will keep it – I still call New York home), but I can honestly say I’ve loved being back in the UK, too. I left Bath under a cloud in 2008 when I was burgled twice in one week and my neighbour was raped at knifepoint at 6pm, coming back from work.
I’ve now reconnected with old friends and made many new ones. Yesterday, by chance, I bumped into Nerys, my friend and neighbour from Coity, where I grew up. We hadn’t seen each other for 40 years and laughed non-stop. She reminded me of the plays I used to write and make them perform in our back garden (Mum tells me that making my brother be a dying swan was a particular favourite).

We talked of Auntie Mimi and Auntie Gwen, who we used to visit in order to get sweets, laughing hysterically at what we now realise was Auntie Gwen’s Alzheimer’s (“Those are nice socks, Nigel,” she persistently told my brother). We talked of collecting tadpoles; the horrid woman who, literally held the keys to the castle and would never let us have them (we learned how to scale the walls); the scary woman in the post office; Coity school, where the headmaster told us that we weren’t clever if we weren’t wearing glasses by the time we were seven.
I’ve rediscovered the Garrick’s Head, the theatre pub in which Keith Waterhouse and I shared so many happy times. I have a great local in the Pulteney Arms, which shows rugby and has a great quiz on Monday nights. Now, as a sidebar, can anyone explain why everyone, and I mean everyone, who says, “I’ve got Geography covered” in a team turns out to know absolutely zilch and couldn’t tell its Asia from its Elba. Just saying.
So, on this last day of the year, thank you to what I will call The Year of Friendship. Every word, every good deed, every offer of help, accommodation, holidays etc. etc. has been truly breathtaking; the milk of human kindness has been a veritable dairy farm, and I thank you from every fibre of my heart.
This year wasn’t what I had in my plans; but life happened. 

And living is always better than the alternative.
A very happy 2018 to you all.


Monday, July 24, 2017


It’s over 33 years since I stood the other side of a bar, serving customers rather than filling up the pub’s coffers.

My first attempt at bartending was when I was 18, at the Welcome to Town in Bridgend. I lasted two nights. I hated the smoke and, as a passionate, lifelong anti-smoking hysteric, could not bear emptying the ashtrays.

My second stint was when I first moved to London and, against fierce competition, landed a job behind the bar at the Palace Theatre in the West End. “I’ve had hundreds of people after this,” the manager told me, “but I’m giving it to you, because I like you.”

I bought a dress from Etam (£17.99) for my new glamorous life. After the curtain went up on Les Miserables, the manager came to the bar to see how I was doing. I was drenched head to toe in mixers, the white collar on my dress a rainbow of orange and lemon. I’d been opening them the wrong way, creating a vacuum in the bottle that resulted in a fountain in my direction with every one I opened.

I lasted just two nights. The manager was very disappointed. He thought I had huge potential. I didn’t. Les Miserables had nothing on the misery etched on my poor little face as I stripped another lemonade from my previously perfectly coiffed Eighties perm.

That was the end of my landlady ambitions. As well as the smoke, I hated the rudeness, the clicking of fingers, the lack of the words “thank you” and “please”; most of all, I hated the exhaustion – physical and emotional.

Being on one’s feet for hours at an end is bad enough; coupled with the psychology of dealing with everyone on an individual basis, according to their drinking and personal needs, made this easily the most difficult job I’ve ever done. I think that to this day and admire anyone who does it – and, yes, as a customer I always say please and thank you.

On Saturday night, almost 33 years to the day since I departed the Palace Theatre, I found myself again serving behind a bar. My friend Saz, her sister Emma and their mother Heather have bought the Victoria pub in Oldfield Park in Bath. It’s been renamed the Victoria Bath and in addition to regulars is attracting a new clientele, some of whom haven’t been to the pub in years; some have never been there at all.

The weekend featured a local band, The Woods, who specialise in 50s and 60s music, and from the outset they had the place rocking. It was packed. When I arrived, people were standing four deep at the bar. Saz and Heather were serving and, when Heather waved, I enthusiastically waved back like the nonchalant Petunia in the Coastguard TV commercial, when her husband Joe shouts “LOVELY DAY, ISN’T IT?” to a drowning man.

Realising the imminent danger (thirsty people), I started to collect glasses but soon joined my friends behind the bar. I was dressed head to toe in Issey Miyake Pleats Please and wearing five inch heels; the till was still too high for me to see it without standing on my toes, and I could barely read the names of the drinks as I had only my cheap supermarket reading glasses on me.

The ale pints were hard to pull and initially I had too much froth (a lovely local told me what I was doing wrong). I also could not remember what they were called and have now re-named them all (Butcombe is now Buttocks; Doombar, Dumbo).

The Fosters lager was a dream to pour (I could have kissed everyone who ordered it), and I didn’t spill a drop of single and half measures on the shorts. Maybe all my years of saying “Could you fill it to the top, please?” paid off.

The other thing that paid off was my maths ‘O’ Level. I grew up in a time when mental arithmetic was de rigeur. I was doing complicated fractions at the age of seven (thank you, Durham Road Junior School, Newport) and can do calculations in my head. Even today, I use a calculator only to work out how much weight I have gained or lost by converting kilograms into pounds with the multiplication x2.20462 (I am nothing if not precise).

Punters were incredibly patient as I learned on the job – as were Saz and Heather, who had to keep showing me what was what on the till. There was so much to learn.

How big is a dash? Is it greater or smaller than a splash? Who wants head on the beer and who doesn’t? Where is the scoop for the ice kept? Actually, that last one was easy: it’s under that Everest of ice I just poured into the bucket without taking the scoop out first.

I begged to ring the bell and call “Time at the bar, ladies and gentlemen, please,” a phrase that one man told me he hadn’t heard for 30 years (yes, that would be about right; old habits die hard).
The next day, I could barely walk. I still can’t. Feet, back, calves – I feel as if I’ve run a marathon.

But here’s the thing: I really, really enjoyed it. I spend my life in front of a TV or computer screen and don’t get to talk to that many people during my working day. It was great to meet so many different folk and to see them having fun on what proved to be a very successful night. I’ve never been called “love” so many times in one day, and I enjoyed that, too (but don’t try it when I’m on the other side of the bar or you’ll get a smack in the gob).

There is something immensely satisfying in serving others, either literally or metaphorically. I loved engaging with new people and my work colleagues; I even liked wiping down the tables when everyone had gone and adored the post-match analysis with Saz and Heather.

I remain adamant that bar work is very, very tough: it looks easy, but it really isn’t. I have the injuries to prove it. When I come out of traction, I might try it again.

But for today at least, I’m calling my time at the bar.

Friday, July 21, 2017


I heard Slade’s Merry Christmas, Everybody yesterday. Twice. 

Two TVs were on in my house in different rooms and each tuned to a different channel (don’t ask; I’m weird like that). I wasn’t watching either as I was working in my office (even weirder, I know), so have no idea whether the song I loathe more than any other in history was being spewed out by the TV that has Sky or the one tuned only to the Mendip signal (again, don’t ask. I have an ongoing electrical nightmare, owing to the wiring in the house – more of that later. I bet you can’t wait).

It certainly wasn’t coming from Alexa, whose idea of Christmas music is a Mexican carnival. I asked her: “Alexa, play Christmas music”, shortly followed by “Alexa, STOP!”

For those of you who have no idea what I am talking about, Amazon has brought out a device called the Echo. It’s a tube about eight inches long and it plays music, suggests wine, tells jokes – in fact, it does pretty much everything you ask it do, apart from wash the dishes.

It goes into action from the moment you say “Alexa”, although that causes problems when I’m watching TV in the same room and any character is called Alex, at which point Alexa springs into action with the response: “Hm. I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question.” It’s rather spooky.

Still, it’s the best relationship I’ve ever had.

So, back to Christmas. It’s hard to believe we are well over halfway through the year and harder to believe that I have done hardly anything other than move house (again). Having sold Cardiff last year and taken an LA rental, in May I moved out of LA and put my stuff into storage there. I then moved my Cardiff stuff out of storage and into a rented house in Bath, where I once lived for 11 years. I am still predominantly based in New York, but cannot bear the humidity of the summer months.

And so I’m doing a bit of nesting in Bath. I spend one third of my life ordering things on Amazon; another third sending faulty things back to Amazon; and the final third dealing with Sky TV.

Here’s the thing: Sky want to give me their super doper new system called Q, but they won’t go on the roof to do the relevant work that would enable me to have it with ease in every room (Elf ’n’ Safety blah blah). I said that I would get a third party installer, the brilliant Moss of Bath, who I have used for over 20 years. Oh, no, said Sky, only they can install Q.

Me: “So you are offering me something you won’t install yet won’t allow anyone else to install. You’re not really offering anything at all then, are you?”

Hence my having to stick with Sky Plus, but owing to the bizarre wiring in my new house, is taking forever to install. I don’t know how Moss have the patience to do it, but they are getting through it with the calmness of Trappist monks, while I run around them hysterically, shouting: “ALEXA! PLAY SOMETHING SOOTHING!”

Apart from the wiring, the nest is coming together nicely. Everything I sold at knockdown price or gave away when I left Cardiff, is having to be replaced. Microwave, kettle, toaster, bookshelves, rice cooker, Ninja smoothie maker . . . 

Okay, I tell a little lie. I didn’t actually have a rice cooker before, but the Amazon section in which it says “People who bought this item also looked at . . . “ has me buying all sorts of nonsense. 

I hardly ever eat rice. I don’t like gardening, either, because I am a person who can kill even plastic plants. But my new herb troughs look very nice filled with the 50 litres of soil and already dead herbs from Tesco.

My garden furniture arrives next week, along with the bay trees. The secateurs arrived yesterday, the leather gardening gloves are coming today, and the fork and trowel tomorrow. I already feel a return label coming on.

I’m giving the barbecue a miss, though, as the one I left in my shed in Cardiff saw the light of day just once in 10 years. Even I have my spending limits.

The Ninja is one of a trio, as I also have one in New York and another in storage in LA, along with the two Kitchen Aid mixers that also belong in those two places.

I’m therefore feeling a bit spread out again, all thanks to Brexit, which made it impossible to remain full time in the US. The rate of exchange is appalling, and whereas when I went to the US in 2008, exclaiming “That’s so cheap” everywhere I went, today I cry into the little wine I can afford during Happy Hour. Instead, I find myself back in Tesco, sobbing with relief that I can get three containers of Quorn for £5.

I’m down to my last six boxes of books to unpack now and I’m feeling very much at home back in Bath. It’s quieter than New York, obviously, and the seagulls are a bit possessive of their territory (the one nurturing her young chick on the roof is adamant that I am not having the top room as my office).

I’ll be back in New York soon and am also heading to LA in time for the Emmys in September. I really miss the US, and New York in particular, but there is no doubt that the Trump presidency has put a dampener on the spirits of the majority who did not vote for him. In the air still, there is a sense of disbelief.

This, for the moment, then, is my new life. I have enough Virgin Atlantic Air Miles to allow me to zip off at anytime; I have lovely neighbours and am thrilled to discover how European Bath has become since I left it in 2005. Service in bars and restaurants leaves a lot to be desired (you could consume a three course meal in a New York hostelry in the time it takes them to bring you the menu in Bath), but I’m doing a lot of home cooking and already feeding my friends. I’ve already had one house-guest, many visitors, and am loving seeing more of family and old friends.

After several difficult years and the chaos of so many moves, I’m taking time to sit back and smell the roses. 

Well, I would if I hadn’t already killed them.