Sunday, December 27, 2009

Another Year, Another Decade 12/27/2009

As 1999 moved towards the new Millennium, I was sitting down for a New Year’s dinner with my mother and brother in the St David’s Hotel in Cardiff.

This year, I will be spending it in LA with a whole new set of friends that I didn’t even know at the start of the decade. Heck, I didn’t even know them at the start of the year.

Isn’t life strange?

I’m still not sure what I’ll be doing on Thursday night. I’ve always found New Year’s Eve a bit depressing, but if there is one thing worse than paying over-the-top prices for a bad meal and clinging to strangers as the chimes strike, it’s sitting alone watching people do the same on TV – especially if the post-midnight revelry is taking place in Scotland to the tune of bagpipes.

Was there ever a more hideous sounding musical instrument? I swear that the bagpipes are the suicide watch of the musical world, and I am just praying that LA will be a bagpipe-free zone for the festivities.

I suspect that I may not be able to escape them if I go to Ye Olde King’s Head in Santa Monica. This is a British pub that, at 4pm, is celebrating the UK New Year, which will be followed at midnight by the LA one.

I quite fancy celebrating the New Year in daylight, which might make it marginally less depressing than it normally is, although if they have bagpipes on the telly, I might be reaching for that razor blade and not even make it to my first US New Year.

I mustn’t be too horrible about Scotland’s national instrument, because a man called Jim from Scotland saved me from the razor blade on Christmas Eve.

I arrived back in the UK to discover that my Sky Plus box had gone kaput. Now, for a TV critic to be without TV at all is bad enough, but at Christmas, with several couch potatoes to keep happy, it is an event of monumental devastation.

I phoned Sky – no one was available until well after the New Year. I wailed, I cried, all to no avail. Despite having paid for a special plan in case of breakdown (my own, in addition to the equipment, I had presumed), there was just no one around.

Hurumph! The Sky’s the limitations I screamed at my family, munching peanuts and staring hopefully at the blank screen in the corner of the room.

I tracked down Sky’s VIP service, on whose list I had once been, but they couldn’t help because I didn’t have a special code from the “plan” department. So it was back to them. Back to VIP with the code, only to discover I am no longer a VIP.

“You’re going to lose a very good customer,” I whimpered.

“I’m very sorry about that,” said Scottish Jim.

Then Scottish Jim rang me back. He was going to see what he could do. Suddenly, I wanted to marry Scottish Jim; then I wanted to marry Welsh Kevin, who was on my door within half an hour, taking away the defunct box and replacing it amid such screams of delight that have not been heard since the Wise Men delivered their gold, frankincense and myrrh to a woman who, a couple of hours before, didn’t have a Marriott Reward point to her name.

Fair play, that was great service. Having constantly praised LA service as being infinitely superior to its UK counterparts, I have to say that Sky surpassed itself. I might even take up the bagpipes as a tribute to Scottish Jim.

For the most part, my LA life allows me to stay in the UK loop. Rolling news on the internet, and also Facebook, mean that I am never out of touch with anything or anyone for very long. Oh, yes – and Sky! Lovely, lovely Sky!

But ten hours on a plane is a long time out of the loop, as I discovered when I arrived back home for Christmas and was instantly told by my uncle that: “Gareth Edwards has come out as being gay.” Apparently, he said, it had broken up his marriage, and he had also contemplated suicide.

‘GARETH EDWARDS?!” I screamed. The great Welsh rugby scrum half of the Eighties? “No wonder he never fancied me.”

I reached for my phone to text Gareth, offer support, blah blah, while trying to conceal my delight at hearing the most exciting news to have come out of Wales since . . . Well, Henry VII’s ascension to the throne, to be honest.

I rang my brother with the bulletin. “No,” he said. “Gareth Thomas.”

Oh, good grief. That wasn’t news. The ex-Welsh captain? Those of us in the rugby world had known that for years. Still, I was pleased for Gareth and thought his coming out in the macho world of rugby, and also Wales, was an incredibly brave move on his part.

So much so, that I went up to him in my local club, the Cameo, to tell him when I saw him there before Christmas. All well and good – had it not been his lookalike team-mate (well, both balding) Tom Shanklin.

Apparently, in the bus on the way back from Cardiff Blues’ match against Toulouse before Christmas, Gareth received a call from Elton John. The team celebrated by singing Candle in the Wind for the remainder of the journey.

Much as I am looking forward to celebrating my first New Year in LA, there are some things about home that you just can’t beat.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Christmas Treat For Your Cervix 12/20/09

Christmas shopping in LA promised to be a darn sight cheaper than it has been in Paris the last couple of years.

Where the exchange rate between the pound and the euro just gets worse and worse, the dollar against the pound has been pretty solid around the $1.60 mark for some time (and even higher). With consistently falling prices in the US now reflecting the depth of the recession, I was looking forward to a bit of a spree.

US TV commercials have been full of gift suggestions, although not many that really appealed to me.

“Give her a gift that even Santa can’t deliver,” said one, presented by a man in a suit. “Give her a pap smear.”

How does that work? I don’t know about you, but a pap smear isn’t something that would have me rushing down the stairs on Christmas morning, checking to see whether Santa’s reindeer had drunk their saucer of milk, and squealing: “Oh, I really hope this is the year there’s a pap smear in my stocking!"

Breast enlargements, yes; a tummy-tuck too (you might as well be sliced for a sheep as a lamb, if you’re having the general anaesthetic anyway); but I ask you, a pap smear?

For men not in the know and really, really stuck for a present for the lady in their life (or ladies – I’m sure they could run to a discount for a bulk purchase), pap is short for Papanicolaou, and is a screening test in gynaecology to detect abnormal cells in the cervix.

I didn’t check out the details, so have no idea whether the gift is just the appointment with a doctor, or a DIY kit to conduct your own test while the turkey’s browning; but either way, any man who bought me a pap test for Christmas wouldn’t live to taste the pudding.

Williams Sonoma e-mailed about yet another set of pointless holiday-themed gadgets and foodstuffs, none of which I want but suddenly feel I cannot live without. Having missed out on their mandolin chipper, I was thrilled to see a mandolin dicer, before remembering that I buy everything ready-chopped, sliced and diced these days (I suspect it is only a matter of time before I start buying “ready-eaten” to save time).

I also resisted buying their gingerbread house – a snip at just under $60. I’ve always associated gingerbread houses with paedophiles, after a child-devouring witch lured Hansel and Gretel to one (child-eater my arse; we know what that was all about). I could no more eat a gingerbread house than . . . well, do my own pap smear.

The American Tea Room has taken over from Williams Sonoma as my favourite gadget shop, even though tea-pots and kettles are the main gadgets on offer. But oh, what pots and kettles.

Exquisite sculptures from China, ultra-modern electric kettles that keep water at different temperatures, according to what tea you are making; a tea-pot and kettle in one, that you can keep boiling on the stove.

And dozens upon dozens of teas – my current favourite being the fruity Martinique (it is actually a bark) that I drink hot, but also make by the gallon and keep chilled in the fridge.

The ATR is not a shop, it’s a shrine to the best drink in the world. I’m not quite at the stage when I can give up my three mugs of PG Tips in the morning, but I now have an entire cupboard containing nothing but exotic leaves.

The only problem with doing my Christmas shopping there was that I ended up keeping everything for myself.

The Beverly Hills branch of the Taschen bookshop kindly provides me with PG Tips when I am out and about, but this week there was champagne, as Hugh Hefner (whom I interviewed a few weeks ago) launched his six-volume autobiography.

It was the only Christmas party I went to and was rather jolly. Centrefolds Stacey and Deanna, dressed as Bunny Girls, greeted me, and Beautiful Barmaids had provided waiting staff for the night – all women well over six feet tall.

I even met Benedict Taschen, the man behind the great bookshop, and stacked up on several Christmas presents, which, like the teas, are sitting on a shelf in my apartment.

I took respite from this exhausting gift-buying for myself in the Montage Hotel, where a man sidled up to me and said: “Is that your perfume I can smell?” It was Estee Lauder’s White Linen, which I told him women really like, should he be looking for Christmas present ideas.

“Yes,” he said. “It smells . . . oily. Would that be right?” I wasn’t sure whether he meant oil as in aromatherapy, or oil as in Castrol GTX, but it just didn’t have quite the ring of compliment I normally hope for from a man.

But then the kind of men I meet generally aren’t the complimenting sort; they’re the kind who’d buy me a pap smear for Christmas, but check on Amazon before ordering from the TV, in case they could get it just that little bit cheaper.

And if you do happen to be one of the unfortunate women who gets given one on Friday, worry not.

Remember, a pappy is only for Christmas, not for life.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Campaign For Hug A Martini Day 12/9/09

Each time I go back to the UK, it takes me a while to get back into the spiritual groove I have been establishing since I moved here.

It’s tough, when you’re surrounded by a hundred Welshmen, spilling their pints of Stella over you, while drowning their sorrows at another Welsh rugby loss, to stay calm.

So when I come back, I have to re-group, as they say, and have to immerse myself back in the culture that seems such a far remove from home.

My bookshelves here are packed with self-help books of various sorts. My latest read was Eat, Pray, Love, a rather earnest quest by US journalist Elizabeth Gilbert to “find herself” in Italy, India and Indonesia.

It all sounded a bit energetic for me, and I specially wasn’t drawn to the India bit, where she rose every day at 3am to meditate.

Good grief: I’m hardly ever in bed by 3am.

I’m a bigger fan of Andrew Gottlieb’s take on it – Drink, Play, F@*k – although having no hash key on my Apple computer keyboard (as I have just discovered), I have had to insert a star where a hash should be. Life’s never easy, is it?

Outside my local grocery store, I picked up a magazine called Awareness, billed as “California’s premier bi-monthly holistic magazine”. It’s a rather unprepossessing publication – all muted colours and men who look like aliens on the cover – but I thought it might serve as a pick-me-up for my dilapidated spirit.

The cover provided information about forthcoming events, including a “Raw Spirit Festival” (rustic 100% proof Russian vodka, I wondered? Somehow, I doubted it). There was also an “Alchemy Conference”.

The only thing that would draw me to that would be if it were to alchemise into a Jimmy Choo "all shoes ten cents" sale before I got there.

Inside the magazine, there were even more treats – a tree-hugging day in Santa Monica, for instance. I’ve never quite got tree-hugging. Why would you hug a tree while there are still men in the world? And why is there not a Martini-Hugging Day?

People have told me that tree-hugging is a very rewarding experience – well, not people I hang out with, you understand, just people who don’t wash their hair much and prefer Glastonbury digs to a Marriott. Weird people.

The magazine is very big on angels (and disturbingly, I really do know people who claim to hang out with their angels), and there is even a website on which you can “Listen to Archangelic Messages”.

I don’t think that Christmas is the time to tune in, to be honest, a time when archangels have a habit of delivering messages along the lines of: “Lo, you will become pregnant without having sex and not be able to find a Marriott within walking distance.”

If you’re not keen on chatting to angels, guess what: you can “Get in touch with your personal gatekeeper”. Should you be as ignorant as I am on this, your gatekeeper is “The producer/director of the play your soul wrote before you came into this lifetime.”

Having just had possibly the worst year of my entire life, here’s a message, gatekeeper: you should have done a re-write of the middle act; it’s shit.

Despite some strange practices described within, Awareness is quite encouraging about money and does not rule out material riches going hand in hand with spiritual ones (just as well, the packet these people must be making on the back of the gullible and/or stupid).

Niurka, for instance, is a glamorous businesswoman and author of Supreme Influence; she offers techniques on how to become aligned with your true nature in order to increase prosperity and yet stay true to your spiritual self.

I am quite drawn to this you can have the penny and the bun philosophy, and Niurka has a strong background in NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming), of which I am already a strong advocate.

“Make a decision to go deep within yourself,” advises Niurka. “Focus on the essential nature of your being and everything around you will change.”

My bank balance, in particular, I hoped, although I suspect my damned gatekeeper wrote: “No money. Ever” into my script in his/her first draft.

I already meditate twice a day, but decided to up it a bit, in the hope of changing a few things.

When I first learned Transcendental Meditation, I found that it lowered my blood pressure and made me generally less anxious and depressed – well, apart from on the day when I went for my initiation ceremony, couldn’t find anywhere to buy the required handkerchief on Oxford Street, and nearly went under a double-decker bus in my rush to get there.

It’s a powerful tool, though. Within an hour of upping my 20 minutes to 40, I was in Sports Club LA spa, asking for more information about the Four Seasons Amex special massage offer.

“We’re not the Four Seasons,” explained the receptionist. “Yes, you are,” I insisted. “The Beverly Hills Hotel is, and you, the Beverly Wilshire, are part of the same group.”

“But we’re not the Beverly Wilshire,” she said.

Oh, no, you’re the gym. Silly me.

It’s all very well diving into your psyche in search of greater awareness, but nobody ever tells you that it can make you mad.

Barking mad, if you’re a tree-hugger.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Keeping A Welcome In The Welsh Beverly Hillsides 12/2/09

Hiraeth.

It’s a word I used on my Facebook page this week, saying that I was suffering from a rather severe bout of it. It is a Welsh word that, as far as I can gather, doesn’t have an English equivalent, and it means, quite simply, a deep longing for home.

It’s not a longing for your house or any specific individual, and the only way I can explain it is in terms of its being a longing for one’s homeland: the place where you left your heart.

No matter how far you travel and how much you enjoy every new experience and people that you meet, hiraeth is the rhythm of your innermost being, always reminding you of the place from which you came and gave you life.

There is also, in my case at least, the inevitability of its returning there.

It came upon me suddenly this week, and although I described my sudden feelings of isolation in terms of homesickness to my non-Welsh friends, I could say “hiraeth” to my countrymen and know that they would know exactly what I meant.

I love LA. I love the sun, the easier pace of life, the lower utility bills, the great service in bars, restaurants, and at the end of the phone. I love the fact that you can eat out at a really good restaurant without having to take out a second mortgage; and I love being able to go to the gym and eat healthily with such ease and without being considered a bit of a freak.

In contrast, there is very little I miss about the UK. Appalling train services, expensive gas, electric and phone, rudeness pretty much everywhere you turn – on a point by point chart, LA would win over the UK every time.

But then there is that little corner of a foreign field that is, to me, forever Wales, and I am as attached to it now as the day I came out of the womb at Glossop Maternity Home in Cardiff in 1958.

I know how lucky I am to be living in Beverly Hills, where the sun rises in my living room and sets in my office. I know that for many people, this would be the trip of a lifetime, and that even to see the Hollywood sign on the hills just once, let alone every day, would be one of life’s great joys.

And I know that I am blessed to have a job that enables me to travel and meet new people all the time, and that I have been equally blessed to have the good health that enables me to do that.

All of this I know in my head. But then there’s hiraeth. That aching, longing, tugging of the heart that, this week, has seen me sobbing uncontrollably to go home – to my family, my friends, my homeland. To where I belong.

I’ve been looking at the languages of other cultures to see if they contain a word that conveys the same sentiment.

Arabic has the word “ghurba”, which is a derivative of the word for stranger, and in the Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic is explained as: "absence from the homeland: separation from one’s native country, banishment, exile; life or place away from home.” it is also often translated as “Diaspora”.

Like hiraeth, “ghurba” also carries with it an intense, melancholic feeling of longing, nostalgia, homesickness and separation: of, according to the Canadian newspaper columnist Ghada Al Atrash Janbey (thank you, yet again, Google), “a severe patriotic yearning for a place where one’s heart was not only living, but . . . to a place where one’s heart danced to the silence of a homeland’s soul.”

There is a word for it in Portuguese, too – saudade – and it expresses a feeling of nostalgic longing for something or someone that one loved but is now gone.

It also carries fatalist undertones and the repressed knowledge that the object of longing might never return – or even, as one translation puts it: “a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist.”

Apparently, this state of mind has subsequently become pretty much part of the Portuguese way of life – a feeling of absence, something missing, and yet a desire for presence rather than absence – or, as they say in Portuguese, a strong desire to “matar as sauddasa” (literally, to kill the saudades).

I don’t know about you, but that kind of thinking isn’t going to put Lisbon top of my must-see holiday destinations next year.

My favourite word so far to describe my 6000 miles away from home hiraeth is the Dutch one, “weemoed”, which is apparently a “fuzzy form” of nostagia. Being Dutch, their definition means that we don’t have to guess for very long quite why it might be regarded as fuzzy, but I like the word.

The Fins have “kaiho” – a state of involuntary solitude, in which the subject feels incompleteness and yearns for something unobtainable or extremely difficult and tedious to attain (I tell you: my Welsh hiraeth buddies and I are a veritable choir of laughing policemen among this lot).

In Korean, “keurium” is the closest to saudade, and reflects a yearning for anything that has left a deep impression on the heart – a memory, place, person etc. The Japanese word for a longing of the heart is “natsukashii”. While in Armenian, the word “karot” describes the deep feeling of missing something or somebody.

Different words, same emotion, but to me there is something about just saying the Welsh word hiraeth that pulls at exactly the part of your body from which the longing comes.

It’s the part I feel when seeing my friends’ names on Facebook late at night, and the pictures of my close friends Mary and Liam's first grandchild.

It’s my Mum’s voice, 6000 miles away on the phone, telling me about Maddie the bichon frise’s latest crimes (breaking into my old bedroom and opening the M & S biscuits, an aunt’s Christmas present).

It’s knowing that there’s a rugby game being played just a couple of miles from my house, and my brother calling me from my home to tell me who was asking after me.

I want to know how Sioned and Gareth’s wedding plans are going.

I want to see Leisha who, for my birthday when I went back home, decorated my table with flowers, bought a cake with candles, and reduced me to tears with her thoughtfulness.

I want to know what Liz and Ronw are filming and share with them the hysterical laughter than never fails to leave me uplifted.

I want to go to the Robin Hood pub, chat to Dave, and hear Gwerfyl and Heulwen's latest adventures.

I want to see the Tuesday lunchtime rugby blokes in Llandaff's Butchers Arms, still reminiscing about the Lions tour 30 years ago.

Although "hiraeth" is a word not linked to specifics, all of these people are inherently linked to the home I love. And each brings extraordinary qualities and joys to a life that, even as I look to the sun setting on Beverly Hills, fills me with a longing I haven't felt in many years.

It’s a longing for the warmth of the Welsh, the humour and laughter (oh, God, how I miss the laughter here), Sunday roast in the Cameo Club, the wet leaves in autumn – yes, the rain. I never thought I’d say it: but I really miss the rain.

I miss being among people who "get" me. The rugby team were shit against Australia, but I don't care. I miss being Welsh.

Whatever you want to call it in any language, it’s a longing for home. Like most clichés, "Home is Where the Heart Is" didn’t earn its cliché status for nothing.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Poem For McDonald's At Thanksgiving 11/23/09

Now the dads and mums
with fatty bums
and kids with zits
and endless shits
were just passing by

And the lazy cooks
who can’t read books
and can’t bake lean
and don’t like green
were just passing by

And the poor old tramps
with four legged scamps
on scruffy rope
and losing hope
were just passing by

And the money guys
with gleaming eyes
in disbelief
what passed for beef
were just passing by

And anyone with any sense
or even just a few more pence
or sense of smell
and taste as well
were just passing by

On the other side

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Thanks at Thanksgiving 11/22/09

Independence Day, Darwin Day, Veterans Day, Columbus Day, Halloween – there is no person or event too big or too small that the Americans will not commemorate.

And on Thursday, it’s the real biggie - Thanksgiving.

It was in this very month last year that I came to LA for only the second time in my life and decided that I wanted to live here. I was enjoying my 50th birthday treat to myself and staying at the five-star Beverly Wilshire at the bottom of Rodeo Drive, the outside of which features in the film Pretty Woman (the interior was filmed on a set, as I disappointingly discovered).

I also discovered that Thanksgiving is no time to be alone in the US. The few people I knew had either gone away for the holiday or were entertaining family and, like Christmas, it seemed a time only for nearest and dearest.

So I decided to have my Thanksgiving dinner in the hotel, surrounded by families and couples too lazy to cook their own turkey. One problem: my dinner never arrived. I waited. And waited. But it never came. The hotel is my favourite in the world and they rarely get things wrong, but being the only person in America who didn’t get to nibble a bit of turkey on Thanksgiving was rather galling.

They made up for it by giving me a complimentary meal on my return in March this year, but by that time I was heavily into my new healthy lifestyle, and a leaf is no substitute for a juicy chunk of ugly animal.

This year, I’ve been invited to Santa Monica for my dinner, but don’t want to have to worry about transport, so have had to pass up the offer. The group Brits in LA have a dinner for waifs and strays at the Hudson club and restaurant; and the Beverly has its usual spectacular menu (or so I understand, according to the people who have had the privilege of tasting it).

I was considering all my options, when it suddenly hit me: Thanksgiving isn’t a big deal to me, but it must be to the many homeless in the city; and in the UK, there are so many organisations begging for volunteers to make Christmas just a little bit special for people less fortunate than themselves, it was probably the same for Thanksgiving in the States.

So I went online and, sure enough, discovered that Thanksgiving is a really dreadful time for the homeless. Of course, every single day is a bad one if you have no home, but there is something about festive occasions that reinforces the desperation with added poignancy.

So I decided to sign up to do volunteer work, serving food and beverages down on Skid Row.

It was a place I had heard about only in movies and on TV; in the musical Little Shop of Horrors, there is a song called Skid Row, which is a rather jolly little number that has me tapping my hands on the gym treadmill when I exercise to it. Yes, Skid Row was where I would spend Thanksgiving.

After all, the books I had been reading to further my emotional and spiritual “journey” as they are wont to call it here, kept emphasising the importance of being of service to others, and what better opportunity was I going to get than being precisely that, on one of the most special days of the year.

I went online and saw Ally McBeal/Brothers and Sisters star Calista Flockhart in an apron and brandishing a spoon at a dinner for the homeless last Thanksgiving; and the web was full of stories of other stars who did their bit for the downtrodden.

I was about to join them and started to make calls. But guess what . . . I couldn’t get in! Be a volunteer at Thanksgiving? You have to be bloody joking, was the general riposte. Join the bloody queue.

The queue to be a volunteer helping the homeless in LA at Thanksgiving turned out to be longer than the one of people in the queue for their dinner. In fact, I had even missed the boat for Christmas and was looking to next year’s Thanksgiving if I stood a snowball’s chance of doing my bit.

How far we have come since Mary, Joseph and Jesus couldn’t find any room at the inn? I was trying to be an innkeeper and they still wouldn’t let me in. How weird was that? Too many celebrities looking for a photo opportunity, I reckoned.

Is the volunteer list as long in the UK? I have no idea, but it warms the heart to know that there are so many people who will give up their time, rather than just open their wallets, to make their fellow beings’ lives more comfortable. And it made me want to get on that list and do something for real.

A homeless person isn’t just for Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

BA - Bugger All Again 11/17/09

Air New Zealand came through spectacularly in giving me my upgrade as a reward for my having given up my favourite seat last month to La Toya Jackson.

British Airways, meanwhile, aren’t budging on the £3.60 for a flight I wasn’t able to take. Their view is that as I didn’t turn up at the check-in desk, they are not responsible for my not having taken the flight.

Never mind that I had to re-schedule an entire week’s worth of meetings and go to Paris on the Eurostar (hence my not “turning up” at their check-in desk), after they left my luggage in London when I flew to Toulouse; nor that in 19 months of correspondence, sending them everything they asked for three times, they never once said they would not refund the flight.

It is, I now learn, their policy not to (pity they hadn't thought to mention it 19 months ago), but guess what? In addition to my £3.60, they have credited me with thousands of Air Miles.

When I told them I would never be flying with them again, they said that if I did, I could have an upgrade. Fair play to the press office, they really have tried their best, but their hands are clearly tied, and something tells me that upgrade won’t be from Business to First, London/LA.

I have yet to talk to anyone who has a good word to say about BA at the moment. Rude onboard staff, dreadful food, lost luggage, general inefficiency.

Last month, a friend of mine turned up at Heathrow with her family to fly to LA, after checking in online. It transpired the computer hadn’t worked, and, 40 minutes before take-off, she was told the plane was then full and she couldn’t go on it. She had to wait another five hours to catch a Virgin flight.

Following the company’s recent merger with Iberia, BA’s Chief Executive Willie Walsh has just said that BA’s services are not going to be affected. Blimey. That can only be bad news for all of us.

Dealing with BA hasn’t been my only travel stress. The Atlantic haul that I have been doing quite regularly is starting to take its toll. Having just come back from visiting the UK and Paris, I am fairly wiped out after having my French mobile stolen on the Eurostar and then, I thought, my US/UK wallet, complete with every card, stolen from my hotel room.

I spent well over an hour in the police station, reporting every detail, and another hour cancelling various cards – only to remember that I had left it at home for fear of losing it.

Even buying a train ticket at Paddington brought stress, when an elderly couple admonished me for going to the First Class window to buy a First Class ticket, instead of standing in the long Standard ticket queue.

I had to shout at the guy to get his hands off me when he started grabbing my shoulder. When I told him to go away, he kept repeating: “Oh yes, I’m just a pathetic Englishman.” It saved me from having to say it, anyway.

Road rage and air rage have clearly extended to rail rage now in the UK, a country in which people seem to be more and more angry every time I return. The States has its problems, but the Californian sun really does seem to put people in better spirits for much of the time.

The only pleasure in UK travel is getting into a London black cab; they really are the most amiable taxi drivers in the world. The French don’t want to drive anywhere, the LA drivers can’t understand a word you say, even if they do want to take you, and in Wales you can never get a taxi of any sort if it’s raining – which is most of the time. There are some rotten apples in the black cab barrel, true, and some of the drivers’ views are a tad extreme, but they are courteous, knowledgeable, and, on the whole, pretty honest.

But it’s good to know I’m going to be car/train/plane free again for a few weeks, returning to my LA routine of white tea/gym/fresh fruit, after eating bread and cheese in a small French hotel room because the British pound is now about as appealing as a stale baguette.

Four euros for a cup of tea – that’s nearly £4 now. Next time I go, I’m taking a travel kettle and a box of PG Tips; actually, on second thoughts, I think I might just stay at home and look at the Eiffel Tower on the Internet.

Paris is still the most beautiful city on Earth, and it’s always good to go to the UK, too, and touch base with friends and family. I also loved doing another stint with the great people on ITV1’s Alan Titchmarsh Show – and this week I was able to say that I sang on the same show as Ronan Keating. Not in the same item, unfortunately, and my contribution was only one line from the Welsh national anthem, but it was still the same show.

I also enjoyed broadcasting again about I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here! which has returned to ITV1 in its ninth series.

And with my last Air New Zealand flight from LA to London taking just a little over nine hours - and certainly the way my First Great Western journeys by rail are going - ANZ will soon be the fastest – and probably the cheapest – way to travel.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

You Say Tomato, I Say What The Hell's That? 11/15/09

Will I ever taste a real tomato again?

Will I ever again taste a tomato that is distinguishable from a sprout?

These are some of the questions I find myself asking every week as I dive among the bruised supermarket pulp here and try, in vain, to find just one ripe, full, firm fruit that smells and tastes as a tomato should.

The smell that greets you in your greenhouse when those first tomato plants start to grow; the smell of summer when you pick the fruits for your first salad; the smell that comes upon you suddenly, after the fish, the freshly-baked bread and the mouldy cheese in a Paris market.

The smell that is unmistakably, gloriously, sweet, earthy and beckoningly, nothing but tomato.

Everyone warned me that Californian fruit and veg tastes of nothing, and they were right. And I never feel more homesick than on a Sunday morning, when I remember my weekend routine in Paris, where I lived for eight years before coming to LA: waking to the sun climbing between ancient rooftops, walking along the Seine to the Bastille, drinking coffee while listening to the debate in the philosophical café, and wandering the length of the market where sea salt, Indian spices, chicken cooking on a spit, wine and lettuce compete for attention.

And tomatoes. Yes, real tomatoes. Baby tomatoes. Plum tomatoes. Tomatoes on the vine. Tomatoes as big as pumpkins (okay: small pumpkins). Red, green, purple, yellow, white.

The only Sunday market in Beverly Hills features a few over-priced stalls next to the busy Santa Monica freeway, where you might as well buy a cabbage as a peach, for all the difference in taste.

So, last weekend, it was a joy to re-experience my old routine when I returned to the City of Light that is my favourite place on Earth.

Well, it is my favourite place on Earth for tomatoes, but, as I discovered this time round, there are ways in which California spoils you that make Europe, and in particular France, feel as if you have been sent to Coventry by entire nations – a bit like getting nul points in the Eurovision Song Contest.

When I lived in Paris, I was never someone who complained about the service, which I always found so much better than in the UK I felt blessed if a waiter so much as acknowledged me within the first ten minutes of sitting down. On Saturday afternoon, however, I left four restaurants after being seated and then ignored for well over ten minutes in each one.

I went to Orange to sort out a problem with my French phone, and despite speaking French throughout, could not have endured less communication than if I had tried to make a trunk call by holding an elephant to my ear.

The problem with France’s service industry is that wherever employees are on the ladder, they know that they are pretty much going to stay there; that’s why some restaurants have staff who have been there for decades.

In the States, the spirit of optimism that infects the nation makes service staff always feel as if they are en route to something bigger and better. That optimism might often be misplaced, but it is as if the whole country is in permanent audition mode, knowing that if they tread the boards just that little bit longer, they will hit the big time.

As a middle-aged woman who regularly dines alone, I am never made to feel like a second-class citizen in LA. I am not shunted off to a dark corner of the bar if I express a preference to sitting at a table, and the best staff also remember their customers, irrespective of how often those customers frequent the establishment.

Take Greg of the Beverly Hills Hotel Polo Lounge. Greg hasn’t seen me since last November, but still remembered that I had been there before. Greg is the happiest barman in the world and possibly the only one in LA who doesn’t want to be an actor.

The staff at the Beverly Wilshire, where I last stayed in March, continue to address me by my name and treat me as if I were a fully paid-up guest.

The British staff at the Taschen bookshop provide me with cups of PG Tips when I am out shopping, I feel practically related to the staff at the kitchen store Williams Sonoma and my Chinese foot masseuse (yes, I have one) at the Eden salon, and I join in with my fluent Italian in my favourite local restaurant Il Pastaio (Well: I can say “Excuse me, is there a bank in the vicinity?” but if it isn’t second on the left after the church, as the book says, I will be totally lost).

My heart leapt when I arrived in Paris on Friday, coming up the steps at St Germain des Pres Metro, and meeting the smell of the Nutella stall at the top.

When I woke to the sun shining above the Paris rooftops on Saturday, I felt again that this was where I belonged. Then it pissed down. And when it takes you two hours to get a damned mediocre crepe placed in front of you, it’s enough to set you off California Dreamin' again.

As for the tomatoes: heck, I’ll buy a tin.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Earning My Ears At The Playboy Mansion 11/11/09

There wasn’t a moment in my childhood when I dreamt of being a princess.

Nor did I sit and daydream about the day I would walk down the aisle in a meringue with the man of my dreams. I didn’t want to be a beauty queen or a ballerina.

What I wanted to be, more than anything when I grew up, was a Bunny Girl.

I had always been keen to meet Hugh Hefner, the man behind these iconic creations and who was something of a hero to me on the sexual wasteland of my youth.

And now, living in Los Angeles, and the publication of my Hefner’s
6-volume, illustrated autobiography, I was finally going to get my chance.

Maybe it was not too late to fulfil my Bunny aspirations.

The Playboy Bunnies were waitresses at the Playboy Clubs between 1960 and 1988. A direct spin-off of the magazine of the same name, Hefner established the clubs and bunnies after he founded the men’s magazine Playboy in 1953, with just $8000. To earn their floppy ears, prospective bunnies had to undergo intense audition procedures and, if successful, adhere to strict guidelines.

They had to be able to identify 143 brands of liquor and know how to garnish 20 cocktail variations. They were not allowed to mingle with customers and had to perfect certain manoeuvres, including the “Bunny Dip”.

This required a Bunny to lean gracefully backwards while bending at the knees, with the left knee lifted and tucked behind the right leg. This allowed her to serve drinks, while keeping her low-cut costume in place.

Yes, the costume. Oh, the wonderful costume. That was what I really wanted. A pair of ears. A bow tie. And a pom pom on my arse.

I kid you not. If you were a young person growing up in Wales in the Sixties, your fantasies began and ended with dressing up as a druid and/or winning the “Chair” (heaven forbid; talk about crap prizes) for having written incomprehensible verses for the National Eisteddfod - and at that time, only men had been the recipients, anyway. So what were we girls left with?

Well, dressing up in black hats and pinafores every St David’s Day on March 1st, with a leek pinned to our chests, belting out Calon Lan in the school hall. The life of a Bunny seemed a world of sophistication and freedom a long way away.

The not so glamorous life of the Bunny Girls was exposed by the feminist writer Gloria Steinem in 1983, and also, most recently, by ex-girlfriend Izabella St James in her book Bunny Tales – Behind Closed Doors at the Playboy Mansion. Hefner has always had girls installed at his home, but St James writes as if she was little more than a slave, pandering to an old man with outdated sexual attitudes and sleeping with up to four girls a night – also adding that he’s not that hot a lover anyway.

Like others, though, she took the deal and writes that upon picking up the $1000 from Hef’s bedroom every morning (the time when he would discuss their failings), girls also received a $10,000 down payment on a car, and all the plastic surgery they wanted. Apparently, breast augmentation is the first and most urgent of Hef’s requirements in his girls and costs him over $70,000 a year.

It’s not the life that every woman would want, but one that St James, like many others, was quick enough to buy into, in her own quest for fame and fortune. And despite the bad press ex-girlfriends continue to heap upon their sugar daddy (but come on – nobody held a gun to their heads), there is a lot more to the story.

With the publication of Hugh Hefner’s 6-part autobiography on November 8th (at 6 volumes and over 3500 pages, it begins with childhood and covers Playboy’s first 25 years), a much fuller picture of this extraordinary man’s life emerges.

Artist, writer, dancer, businessman, husband, father, film buff, eternal romantic – it is a story of someone who undoubtedly changed the world, for better or worse, depending on your viewpoint.

For me, it is undoubtedly for the better. There is nothing we take for granted more than our freedom, and in particular where sexuality is concerned. In 1960, Penguin Books, which had published DH Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, was prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act; seven years earlier, on the other side of the pond, Hugh Hefner was refused the special rate postal permit to transport Playboy which, on the cover of its first edition, featured Marilyn Monroe.

In 1945, Esquire had also nearly lost its permit for the same reason – the publication of nude shots of women – and became more conservative as a result – but Hefner took his case through the Washington courts, and won.

Hefner reminds me a great deal of Lawrence, who is my literary hero. Both men stood up for the free expression of sexuality at a time when it was not only unfashionable to do so, but illegal.

Far from being a slap in the face to feminism, both men, it seemed to me, allowed women to celebrate their sexuality in the same way that men always had. In Playboy, that sexuality went hand in hand with other aspects of a traditionally male lifestyle – drinking, smoking, having fun – and far from being exploited, women were finally competing on the same terms as the men who had been doing the exploiting.

The Playboy Mansion is just up the road from me in central Los Angeles. Home to dozens of charity events (Hefner raises a lot, for many different charities), it is a Tudor style house, homely rather than ostentatious, and set in beautifully kept grounds that also house a waterfall and a zoo. Hefner is a big animal lover, and visitors must take heed of the sign on the road leading in, warning “Playmates at play”.

I don’t see any playmates, but know they are there. The new lot. Holly Madison, Kendra Wilkinson and Bridget Marquardt departed in October 2008, after starring in the TV series The Girls Next Door, about life for Hefner’s girlfriends living at the mansion.

In their place, Hefner has installed his new “Number One” girlfriend, 22 year old Crystal Harris, and identical 19 year old twin models, Karissa and Kristina Shannon, who are starring in the new series.

I know the twins are lurking somewhere, when a lady approaches the PR and whispers that the twins require assistance in the drawing room. Maybe they need help with pumpkin carving practice, a traditional Mansion Halloween activity that will feature in the series and about which Crystal wrote about on her blog. There are worse things women have been asked to do.

The house surprises me. St James’s description of a decrepit time-warp, old, stale, and with a stench of wee from Archie the house dog allegedly relieving himself on the curtains, isn’t what I find.

There is exquisitely calved wood in the hallway and up the staircase; stained glass looking out onto the magnificent grounds; and the tiniest dog that greets me like . . . Well, a new Playmate, though I may be jumping the gun.

I am placed in the library, next to the enormous viewing room where, on different nights of the week, Hefner holds film nights for his celebrity friends, complete with introduction and well-researched notes, which he delivers.

There are dozens of film books lining the shelves; the six-volume autobiography sits on a rather fine coffee table; the adjoining bathroom is a shiny black palace containing Listerine, aspirin and stomach soothing liquids (clearly, entertaining ladies can take its toll physically).

Hefner appears, in his trademark red smoking jacket and looks remarkably youthful for his 83 years. He is still undoubtedly good looking, and the years have given him a rugged charm.

He moves easily to the sofa, although it is clear that his hearing isn’t great, when he notes my accent and tells me that his “best girl”, Crystal, was conceived in England but born in Arizona, even though I have stressed I am from Wales.

But he is keen to put me at my ease, and he is gracious when I express my pleasure at meeting him. Even so, I suspect that my British connections won’t be enough to get my suitcase through the door. So, what qualities does he look for in women?

“Smart, sincere, funny . . . “ So far, so good. I feel I am several steps closer to gaining my ears. “What I look for by and large is somebody I’m physically attracted to, who has a sense of humour, common interests.”

Alas, judging by the photographs of girls dotted around, I can see, as Izabella St James said, that physical attraction also involves a whacking great pair of knockers, and no Bunny Dip in the world is going to give me those. In fact, I think I would probably take up about $68,000 worth of the 70 Hefner allegedly sets aside for these ops.

It is instantly clear that Hefner is used to giving interviews and that he is not going to be giving anything away that he doesn’t want you to know. His answers are articulate – some a little too well-honed, considered, and unlikely to stray into unchartered territory.

But when he laughs – which he frequently does – it is the most delightful guffaw, like a boy in cahoots with another behind the bike-shed, plotting, and taking delight in the misdemeanour they are about to commit.

I quickly discover that it is not overt sexuality that really turns Hefner on; it is love, a subject that he warms to with a longing in his voice that has the air of a life fulfilled rather than one of regret. Growing up during the Great Depression, his dreams and fantasies were fuelled by pop culture and the movies, and they were a world away from his Puritan home life.

“My younger brother and I were raised in a home in Chicago, with no real affection; we knew we were loved, but there was no display of affection. I think that my quest for romantic love and the adventure of romantic love was filling the space that was left because I didn’t get the affection when I was young.”

It did not, however, affect his own ability to show affection, much of which has been heavily documented in stories about his many conquests over many years. “I was very demonstrative, because I’d seen it in the movies. Most of us learned, in that time frame, how to be cool, sophisticated, whatever, from the films.”

The little boy looking for love is a far remove from the image of the playboy with a roving eye, so has he been engaged in a lifelong pursuit of female affection because he didn’t get it from his mother?

“I think so, yes. What I’m really saying is that my own conscious and unconscious, my own definition of love, has been an essentially romantic perception of love . . . I am romantically driven. If I’m not in love, if I don’t have a primary relationship, at minimum, I don’t really feel fulfilled or happy, no matter what else is going on. I’m a big fan of Dennis Potter, and in Pennies from Heaven – I’m paraphrasing – he says somewhere there must be a world where the words to the songs are true; and I think that my life has been a quest for – that impossible quest – for that perfect world of those old-fashioned songs.”

He nevertheless recognises that it is an illusion, and romantic love an invention and not part of nature: “But I’ve managed to dream impossible dreams and make most of them come true beyond anything I could possibly have imagined.”

There is still disbelief and incredulity in his voice.

The dreams that are rooted so firmly in childhood fantasies feature most heavily in volume one of the autobiography, the first half of which is Hefner’s favourite part of the work.

It reveals him to be an exceptional artist, heavily influenced by the likes of Flash Gordon: the male protector against bizarre interplanetary forces; heroes and monsters, fighting in an exclusively male world.

It is a childhood that he still feels very much connected to, and when he talks about it, he does so with such passion, the years fall away from his face and you can see the little boy, still taking delight in, and living again, those youthful pleasures and touching base with his young self.

“I always felt, from a very early age, that I was a one-eyed man in a blind world. I see things in terms of human behaviour and the way of things that most people seem to miss. Most people live religious myths, superstitions, that confuse the way they live their lives, and I have always been fascinated with, from a very early age, why we hurt each other the way we do, and a lot of it has to do with sex.”

This fascination led him to major in psychology in the University of Illinois, where, as a post-graduate, he wrote a paper on sexual behaviour and US law. While he believes that the State has a place in legislating for sexuality on some issues – to protect children, for instance - its interference in the private activities of individuals mystified him, as it continues to do. Religion, he says, is largely to blame.

“The idea that the only purpose of sex is procreation is a ridiculous view. Think about the morality of that – no population control, when one of the major problems we have on this planet is the need for population control.”

Despite the sexual revolution, in which he played so significant a part, does he believe that with the rise of Right wing fundamentalism, that the US is as sexually repressed as ever?

“I don’t think we’re more sexually repressed, but I think we’re very screwed up. This is a very strange country, and in a curious way it’s become more apparent with the election of Obama. I’m a big fan and a supporter of Obama, but him becoming President has brought out from under the rocks this really dark, Right wing part of America. Once religion got really actively involved in politics in 1980, with Ronald Reagan, we were on our way down a very slippery slope. And what we had with Bush was really bizarre, because he was anti-science, he was anti-education, and his Presidency was based on a Right wing, religious view – very scary. Those views are scary if they’re in a Muslim country, they’re scary if they’re here.”

Hefner is an erudite man, with an innate sense of fairness and would have made a great lawyer – for the defence; the logic he applies to all subjects, which he expresses with great precision, makes it hard to disagree with his views, but there is nothing didactic about him; he would have made an effective politician. Politics, however, never attracted him – “not for a moment”. But that hasn’t stopped the State fearing him as a political animal with influence.

“The real problems I had, back in the Sixties and Seventies, had less to do with naked women than the fact I was trying to change the world. I had provided money to de-criminalise marijuana and they came up with a bogus drugs case that resulted in my secretary committing suicide, when they were trying to get something on me.”

Although never into drugs himself, he still believes they should be legalised and abhors a system that puts people in prison for taking them.

“You have to solve these problems in a social/medical way. What is the rational justification for these laws? Moral views based on what. Not on reason. These laws are truly hurtful to society. Prohibition gave us organised crime. Our laws in terms of drugs not only put all kinds of people who have drugs problems in prison, but in the process completely corrupt entire countries.”

He is also fearful of the wider international problems he sees his country at the forefront of creating, in particular since the Second World War.

“The last moral war America had to do with was World War II. The rest were for all the wrong reasons. World War II had two sides to it, and the same thing goes for Israel and Palestine. They should be solved amicably. You can’t force the rest of the world to live by your particular values - because some of your values are a little suspect. A lot of it has to do with oil – economic considerations. You have to be very suspicious of what really lies behind some political actions.”

It strikes me that Hefner is one of the most moral men I have ever met. Not hurting people, whether that be socially, politically or sexually, is always at the top of his agenda, and his sense of doing the right thing is clearly something that has influenced him both personally and professionally from childhood.

He was, for example, desperately hurt when his first wife was unfaithful to him when he was in the army for two years and remained faithful to her. Likewise, his second wife. He also says that he and his various girlfriends are faithful to one another – just not within a monogamous relationship.

How that apparent contradiction and sense of morality sits alongside his role as the founder of Playboy and its various spin-off enterprises is something that many might question, but the attacks still leave him as confused as they did when first aired.

“I was blindsided by it; I couldn’t make any sense out of it because as far as I was concerned, the women’s movement was part of something larger, which was the sexual revolution, and the major beneficiaries of the sexual revolution were women. It was women who were historically held in bondage by church and state.”

He began Playboy with funds raised by putting his furniture in hock; his mother also gave him $1000. While she disapproved of the venture, she said that she believed in her son, and of course her risk reaped huge financial dividends. His father even went on to work as an accountant in the organisation, and then treasurer. What gave Hefner the self-belief that the magazine would work?

“I think it was by and large a eureka moment that came immediately, but at the same time, in retrospect, I think I was in preparation for it all my life – doing cartoons, creating stories and doing mini-publishing. I did my first penny newspaper when I was nine years old. I remember a specific day when I stood on the Michigan Avenue Bridge and looked out at the lake and thought: Is this all there is to my life? I was working as a circulation manager for a children’s magazine and immediately I began making plans for this men’s magazine – what it seemed to me Esquire had been in the Thirties and then stopped.”

The autobiography is packed with fascinating material from the magazine’s first 25 years. All the great American writers are there – John Cheever, John Updike, Saul Bellow – and the six volumes are a slice of international history like no other.

There is a fascinating interview with Martin Luther King in 1965, at a time when the notion of a black President was almost laughable. There are hilarious adverts, in particular items featured in The Men’s Shop – a lampshade that is really a TV antenna, for instance. There are regular Drinks Quizzes and, of course, women: all of them what I would call classy broads.

“If you’re a man between the ages of 18 and 80,” the first issue reads, “Playboy is meant for you.” It points out that it is not a family magazine and comes with a warning: “If you’re somebody’s sister, wife or mother-in-law and picked us up by mistake, please pass us along to the men in your life and get back to your Ladies Home Companion.”

You can see why the feminists didn’t like it, but Hefner insists he wrote the introduction with his tongue firmly in his cheek. “We like our apartment,” it went on, “and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex”.

It was, it claimed, to be “a diversion from the anxieties of the Atomic Age.” It was certainly that.

Today, with the proliferation of internet porn, the Playboy empire does not appear to be as powerful or influential as it once was, and there have been whisperings of financial problems. But, says Hefner, “the brand itself has never been more popular.”

Far from finding a man poring over a salacious empire of exploitation, I left the Playboy mansion with a strong sense of the importance of Hefner not only within the sexual history of the world, but in history as a whole, a Renaissance man in the fullest sense of the word – and the brilliant autobiography confirms this.

It is the best history book the 21st century has so far produced, and the limited edition of 1500 copies also comes with a 7cm x 7cm piece of the man’s infamous silk pyjamas.

I realise, upon leaving, that it’s as close to them as I’m going to get. I will never be a Playmate – the “wholesome girl next door” that Hefner says is the number one criterion, and I didn’t earn my ears – or my breasts. And I’m a really crap pumpkin carver.

But that’s okay. I’ve been a girl at the Playboy Mansion, and that has to beat dressing up in Welsh national dress anyday.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Shrinking Violence 11/4/09

You don’t hear any references to midgets for years, and then three come along together.

I was re-watching Martin McDonagh’s brilliant In Bruges, which is one of my favourite films of all time, and which features a midget - Canadian actor Jordan Prentice – who gives rise to some of the funniest quotes from hit-man Ray (Colin Farrell).

Then I was reading American comedian Chelsea Handler’s book, My Horizontal Life, in which she describes the various men she has been to bed with – one of whom happens to be a midget.

And then, this week, I was trying to dodge the traffic to get to the Beverly Centre on La Cienega, and a motorist leaned out of his window and yelled: “Idiot midget!”

At first I was most offended by the “idiot” part of the abuse. Cars in Los Angeles are allowed to run anyone down at anytime, because although the white man on the sign is technically telling pedestrians to cross, motorists can ignore it at their leisure.

When four lanes and about half a dozen feeder roads choose to ignore it at the same time, making it to your destination without losing a limb becomes something of an achievement.

So I was not being an idiot. I was doing what the little white man was telling me to do (ie cross the road), and it was hardly my fault if the people in the cars chose to ignore the possibility that someone might wish to take up his offer.

Then the “midget” bit started to bother me. I haven’t been called a midget since my schooldays. When I was in my early teens, Bridget the Midget was in the charts, which was a disaster for small people everywhere.

I had survived my primary schooldays being called Titch, after the children’s ventriloquist show, Titch and Quackers (a small boy and his pet duck – how we laughed), and also Short Arse; but Bridget stuck with a few people, most notably Robin Davies.

I met him a couple of years ago and reprimanded him for ruining my youth, but, quelle surprise, he had no recollection of it.

In one fell swoop, “midget” brought back those painful years, and I felt quite tearful. Also, I am not a midget; I am five feet tall, which to a midget is a giant.

But I have discovered that LA is a very size-ist place – although not where men are concerned.

If you are a man with money and/or success, it doesn’t matter if you are two feet or ten feet tall; but all the women seem to be over six feet, which is just as well, given the gargantuan breasts they have to carry around.

I recently met Verne Troyer, the famous American actor (actually, that’s four recent midget connections – weird!) who appeared in the UK’s I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here! last year.

I was introduced to him by La Toya Jackson, to whom I had given up my seat on an Air New Zealand flight to LA. Verne is just two feet eight, and when I excitedly approached to introduce myself, he shrank to about 12 inches in terror, as if in an effort to disappear altogether at this strange giant’s advances.

Nobody, I suspect, calls Verne an idiot midget when he attempts to cross a road; but then maybe he has tall people to carry him.

As a small woman, however, I stand out as a bit of a freak – or so I keep being told, albeit couched in less offensive terms. I have been called “unique”, “interesting”, “sweet”, “different”, and when I went looking for a new apartment, all the potential landlords expressed worry over cupboard height and recommended stores where I might be able to purchase a set of steps to help me reach the top shelves.

I have been told that I can capitalise on this uniqueness, though so far I am finding it hard to see precisely how. I suppose I could put myself forward in Hollywood to play Verne’s tall girlfriend, but then from everything I’ve seen, he has a preference for women over six feet, too.

With Christmas coming up, there must be shortage of elves somewhere (unless Verne’s mates have already nabbed all the best jobs); and if Stephen Spielberg ever decides to do ET II, with the actor inside the prosthetics no longer with us I might be able to audition for that – although Verne will probably nab that one for himself.

No, unless they are planning on making Gulliver’s Travels starring Welsh midgets invading Lilliputia, it seems that I am going to have to be content to live my LA life out on a limb – or separated from it, if I keep encountering the drivers like the ones on La Cienega.

Idiot giants.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Exorcising the Exercises 10/21/09

Seven months after joining the Beverly Hills branch of Sports Club LA, I am no nearer to finding a group sport that I enjoy.

My daily workouts are undoubtedly enhanced and encouraged by seeing the exquisite form of Victoria Beckham on a nearby treadmill, and even more so last week when Mr Beckham also turned up in the gym, a sight that induced in me so severe a case of Beckhamitis, I swear I had two birthdays in the time it took the paramedics to bring me round.

Exercising by myself enables me to go at my own pace, and I have discovered that if I exercise to music rather than watching marathons of Law and Order or NCIS, I go a lot faster on the treadmill.

Musicals are particularly effective, and this week alone I have exercised my way out of prison (Les Miserables), shot my twin brother (Blood Brothers), and had plastic surgery to enable me to sing Tits and Ass with sufficient verve (A Chorus Line).

I gave Phantom of the Opera a miss because Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber was very offhand with me at Simon Cowell’s 50th birthday party. I can be mean like that.

But put me in a class, and all my concentration and good intentions go to pieces.

First, I tried boxing, because I have always been a huge fan of the sport. As a child, my brother and I were allowed to watch Mohammed Ali’s fights, which always began at 8pm – but only if we first went to bed at six and slept for two hours. Punching somebody’s lights out took on metaphorical as well as real significance in our household, and to this day I love watching boxing.

Before LA, I had tried it just once before, in the St David’s gym in Cardiff, where, in a class of young men, I felt I had to compete - despite being a 40-something woman.

I managed to push the enormous punch-bag on its stand more quickly to the other end of the room than they did (I am, and have always been, extremely competitive), but did in my knee in the process and couldn’t exercise again for six weeks.

My first and only boxing class in LA ended in similar disaster. When I entered the empty gym, I just wasn’t prepared for the rotating mechanical punch-bags zipping their way round as I waited in line for the class to start. Zap! The first one arrived and smacked me square on the gob.

After that, I found the class a little stressful. “I give you ten seconds, I give you nine seconds, I give you eight seconds . . . “ On and on and on. The teacher counted every damned second of the hour-long class to every single movement we made – all accompanied by ear-splitting disco music.

Having enquired at reception as to what might be a quieter, less dangerous class, I decided to try Anusara Yoga. It was very, very calming.

At the start, the teacher said she had been “talking” to a 16 month old child, with whom she had been sharing the youngster’s enthusiasm of the new world the little girl was experiencing.

Enthusiasm. That was the “intention” she asked us to focus upon over the next 75 minutes; or, failing that, any other intention (mine was ensuring that I record the last episode of Sunday’s My Antonio, a show for which I have immense enthusiasm, so I felt I was killing two – actually, I don’t think killing is a Yogic term, so let’s say I was anaesthetising two – birds/intentions with one stone).

It was all going well up until the Cobra position, lying on our stomachs with our chests stretched upwards and our backs in an arc. Then we had to move into an arch, passing a child/cat/dog/antelope position (I was losing concentration, if I’m being honest), with our backs in the air.

It was an exercise I had done in the past, when I taught myself a bit of yoga and needed to release trapped gas. I tell you: the class was the entire wind section of the LA Philharmonic.

If the point of yoga was to co-ordinate breathing with movement, I couldn’t see that having to hold my breath for the next five minutes to avoid the smell was going to do me any good at all.

I tried Power Yoga instead, in the hope that the speed of the thing might at least circulate any bad odours that might manage to permeate the room. This time I lasted just half an hour, when the teacher encouraged the class to make noises while they inhaled and exhaled – “like sea-shells”.

Somehow I found myself among the tidal wave contingent and just wanted to tell them all to shut the hell up.

My concentration also wasn’t helped by the teacher again telling us to focus on any “intention” we liked – world hunger, if we so wanted: something that, he added, was always on his mind . . . starving people the world over . . . and yet nothing was ever done about it . . .

Look, mate: I know, but you’ve just said that this is MY time, MY space, and MY body to do with what I like with MY intention. Now you’ve gone and blown My Antonio right out of my psyche. I rolled up my mat and skulked out.

I have decided that I am just not a group exercise sort of person and am therefore returning to the treadmill and the stepper with just my ear-phones and the TV on the machine for company. And Dave and Vic, of course. Now there’s a couple you won’t hear breaking wind in public.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

How To Kill A Pumpkin In 3000 Easy Moves 10/17/09

Before I moved to LA, I could think of no circumstances in which it would be necessary for me to purchase a Pumpkin Carving Kit.

But then before I moved to LA, I could think of no situation in adulthood (given that I don’t have kids) that would ever require me to go out and buy a pumpkin.

Pumpkins, like dolls, are something you grow out of. Every Halloween during my childhood, days would be spent hollowing out pumpkins with . . . Well, what did they use before Pumpkin Carving Kits came into being? Chisels, I suspect . . . and shopping for apples in readiness to stand around in the cold, choking to death in a bucket of water for an apple that you could just as easily have taken from the fruit bowl.

The work didn’t stop once you had removed the innards, either. Next, you had to make a mouth and two triangles for eyes (by which time you had usually made such a mess of it, you had to go out and buy another pumpkin).

On the one occasion my mother decided not to waste the insides of the beast and make pumpkin soup (not great – and she was an amazing cook; seriously bad product), I think we all decided that enough was enough. Too much work. Too old.

If, as Shirley Conran said, life was too short to stuff a mushroom, it was certainly too short to hollow out a pumpkin.

But this week, I found myself at a local store, Crate and Barrel, ardently trying to work out which tool did what in the Pumpkin Carving Kit (as I see it, you can prepare the thing in just marginally less time than it would take you to build a house) and contemplating Halloween.

It’s difficult to escape it here. My neighbour has a 20-foot shroud in her garden, complete with an iron chain of Alcatraz proportions, and topped with an all too realistic skull.

On the 1st of October, everyone put pumpkins out – on their lawns, in their windows, on their steps. They are there for any closet pumpkin kleptomaniac to steal at any time, yet nobody touches them; they have an air of the Holy relic about them, and people pass the best displays with reverent awe, almost bowing at the altar of pumpkin-ness they see before them.

For me, it is just an excuse to buy another appliance that I will use once and then put in a drawer and forget about.

Crate and Barrel is my second favourite kitchen/furniture store in Beverly Hills, surpassed only by Pottery Barn (I want to roll up in one of their bath towels and hibernate) and, for kitchen equipment alone, Williams Sonoma.

So regular are my appearances in Williams Sonoma, I dreamt that I had created a successful TV detective series, the hero of which was called William Sonoma. I think it’s not a bad idea: he could solve a series of murders that had been committed with kitchen implements alone . . . But I digress.

I love Williams Sonoma. I love the French, country-style pasta dishes with paintings of vegetables; I love the rows of shiny toasters as big as baking ovens; I love the $2000 dollar collections of saucepan craters that I pine for, as I contemplate the three egg-cup sized ones I bought from IKEA.

I specially love the e-mails they send me that have such an air of exotic mystery, I am back at the store within the hour to conduct further investigations on the latest pointless invention they have written to me about.

Take the ”mandolin chipper”. Was it a mandolin-shaped contraption that chipped potatoes, or a machine that cut potatoes into the shape of baby mandolins? Or was it a machine for those odd occasions in life when you find yourself with an excess of mandolins in your closet and you say: “Oh, if only I had a mandolin chipper to reduce these down to trashable size”?

Whatever it was, I wanted that mandolin chipper. No: I had to have that mandolin chipper. Unfortunately, I never made it to the store to see it, as I had to take back the pressure cooker I had bought from World Market because it didn’t work, and the mandolin chippers went like hot . . . er, chipped potatoes.

Why I suddenly thought I needed a pressure cooker when I haven’t had one since I was a student in the late seventies, I don’t quite know, but they didn’t work then and they don’t work now.

By the time I made it back to base, my detective was no longer featuring mandolin chippers as the definitive buy of the week. That will teach me to be nostalgic.

Williams Sonoma hasn’t been too hot in the pumpkin assassination department, though, hence my going to Crate and Barrel – although I have to confess to being slightly tempted by WS’s No-Bake Halloween Haunted House: an edible house, complete with icing “glue” and candy decorations of bats and ghosts. Maybe I’ve already been living here too long.

I am not going quite so far as to organise my own Halloween party, although I might just knock on the door of the Addams Family with the skeleton garden shroud on the actual night.

Or I might just buy a pastry case, open a can of ready pureed, ready-cooked pumpkin, bake a pie and watch Halloween on the telly. Who needs a Pumpkin Carving Kit when you have a tin-opener.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

My Role In The Jackson Five K 10/11/09

For ten minutes this week, I had more in common with La Toya Jackson than any other human being on the planet.

Waiting to board an Air New Zealand flight to Los Angeles, I was sitting in the Star Alliance lounge (more of that horror later), when an announcement came over the speaker: “Would passenger Stephen please come to the reception desk.”

Given the dreadful year I have so far had in every respect, I was expecting another bereavement, or at the very least a doctor standing by advising me not to travel, as I had less time to live than the flight took.

I was therefore shaking when I went up to the desk, where I was greeted by a lady speaking in hushed tones. “Miss Stephen?” “Yeeeeeees.” “We wondered whether you would be willing to change your seat on the airline.”

Now, whenever I travel, I am extremely particular about my seating arrangements. Eurostar: have to be travelling backwards, odd number in the aisle and near a toilet (73, 77, 11, 13), but not right next to the staff kitchen where they uproariously get the meals together (usually carriage 8).

Flying: next to the window, provided there is no one seated next to me, near an emergency exit, no upper levels, near a toilet (I have a very small bladder and drink at least three litres of water a day, hence the toilet obsession).

On Virgin Atlantic, I am less fussy, as I love their Upper Class lounge so much, I am so relaxed by boarding time, they could strap me to a wing and I wouldn’t care.

I have no idea about BA because I refuse to fly with them at the moment. I am still chasing a claim from 16 months ago, when they lost my luggage on a flight to Toulouse, and I had to re-schedule meetings, cancel the flight back, and take the Eurostar to Paris.

This week, they wrote to say they had credited me with £3.60 and thanked me profusely for choosing my "preferred airline". I will strap myself to a pigeon before I fly with them again.

But on Air New Zealand, I am quite particular about my seat. Their LA service (where they break before travelling on to Australia and New Zealand) is second to none. Terrific food, wonderful staff onboard, and although they don’t have a great lounge, they know how to look after people.

At the LA end, I have the amazing Lounge Concierge, Thierry. He sees me on and off the aircraft, gets me through Customs, and looks after me so well I think he now even beats the Virgin lounge in terms of my priorities.

The problem for ANZ is the Star Alliance lounge in the UK, which they share with what seems to be 100 other airlines. Awful food, screaming kids, bad lighting and, this week, no internet.

And then the request: would you give up your seat, because . . . even more hushed tones: “We have a celebrity on board who would like it.”

Oh, for God’s sake: who is it? La Toya Jackson.

United, at last: she wants 7K; I have it. But I melted. I have a soft spot for her, after her appearance on I’m a Celebrity last year, and it is clear what terrible pain she has been going through since her brother’s death.

So I said, okay: suddenly, 7K was gone. My seat. My special, special seat, quiet, away from the throng. I had surrendered it in a rare act of martyrdom to someone not who I thought deserved it more than I, but who I thought really needed the privacy more.

“Okay,” I said, “as it’s her.”

“If it was a Royal, I’d have TOLD you to,” I was informed.

Then I saw red. Quite frankly, if it had been a Royal, I would have told them where to go. And it’s a darn sight further down under than even New Zealand is.

My friends are mystified as to why I did it, but I was quick to point out that I expect an upgrade next time I travel, as reward for my sacrifice.

I had also requested that La Toya thank me in person – which she did. I suspect that if the poor lamb had realised she was going to have to show grateful thanks for the entire 11 hour journey, she would have stayed in 5K.

Anyway, at least it got me talking to her wonderful business manager Jeffre (lost the card, J – please get in touch!), and in La Toya I found a person of such extraordinary gentleness, sweetness and charm, I was even more won over by her than ever.

Mind you, if I’d had the chance to spend 11 hours in 7K, I’d have been Miss Sweetness and Light when I landed, too. Thierry, poor man, ended up seeing what 5K can do to a girl.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Remembering Blake 9/30/09

Six months ago tomorrow, I was boarding a flight to come to LA, where, following Blake Snyder’s scriptwriting course in March, I had been sufficiently inspired to pursue my writing career 6000 miles away from home.

Last night, I attended Blake’s memorial. He died suddenly on August 4th, and the outpouring of grief on his website, together with the grateful thanks from those whose lives he had changed, made his death an all-consuming experience.

I heard about his death on Facebook; his longest-standing friend, Tracey, who had known Blake since they were two, heard about it on Twitter. Social networking is the new bearer of both good and bad tidings, and it is also the 21st century means by which the dead live on.

The many tributes to Blake that appeared on an hourly basis on Facebook extended the grieving process; tortuous as it is, I continue to dip into them; it helps me to feel that he is still among us. His words, and the encouragement and support he gave to so many, is, to me, the way he lives on.

Blake’s friends organised a wonderful tribute that, despite the sadness of the occasion, was full of laughter and happy memories. Colleagues and friends shared their thoughts at the Writers Theater in LA, and despite the air of disbelief that still hangs over his death (I still felt that electric shock when Tracey said: “When Blake died . . . "), the evening felt not like an ending but a new beginning.

Blake believed in the power of transformation; it is what informed his own work and his teaching. In his brilliant screenwriting book, Save the Cat, he addresses the Finale of his 15 part structure as the place where “we wrap it up”; the place where “the lessons are applied . . . " The Final Image, he says, “is your proof that change has occurred and that it’s real.”

When I left London six months ago, I was very unhappy. For financial reasons, I had been forced to leave Paris, where I had enjoyed a very happy eight years, and I was miserable being back in the city I have never liked since I first moved there 25 years ago.

I had hit 50, many friends were sick or had already died, and the recession was biting hard in the media industry, as it was (and still is) elsewhere.

Blake’s passion, energy, and support of my writing got me to LA, and in the short time I knew him I felt ensconced in his bubble; that’s the only way I can put it. I drank in every word he said, both professionally and personally, and began to regain much of the confidence I had lost in the UK.

Blake and I talked or e-mailed all the time, and when we met for lunch shortly before he died, we talked about where the “act three” of my story – the autobiographical one that is the subject of the book I am writing – might be heading.

I was expressing fear; Blake, in his eternal optimism, expressed excitement that I didn’t know. Who could have predicted this cruel twist in the narrative that, ironically, has led me into my act three, alone.

Blake spoke often of the mentor figure who, in screenplays, sometimes dies at the end of act two, the point at which the hero decides whether he or she puts the lessons learned into practice, or reverts to the place they were in before.

Over the past six months, I have learned many lessons: about people, writing, and myself. My mentor has gone, but his teachings live on, and fearful (even more so) as I am about where act three might be going, this is undoubtedly the start of it.

I feel that Blake came into my life for a reason: right time, right place. I am blessed to have known him and to have shared in his wisdom.

At the memorial, one of his writing partners, Sheldon Bull, said that we should ask ourselves whether, when we died, people would share in such an evening as we were doing for Blake. If not, he said, we were not living, and we should get out there and make some mistakes.

I don’t know what my act three holds, but of one thing I can be certain: there will be many more mistakes; and they, just like the things I learned from Blake, will be valuable lessons, too.

Nobody’s life is perfect, but despite the sadnesses, there is still enough good to make it worthwhile, and it is by our mistakes that we grow.

April 1st 2009. The day I came to LA. October 1st 2009. A new beginning, Blake. As you say in Chapter two: “The same thing . . . only different!” - thanks to you. Good-night, sweet prince.

Who Wants To Bag A Millionaire? 9/30/09

Who wants to bag a millionaire?

It’s the question that seems to occupy every single woman over 40 on this side of the ocean.

Forget what they say about people in LA not drinking.

From Friday night to Monday morning, every bar is packed with older women who seem to have just one aim in life: to get through the weekend without even touching the ten dollars they came out with after work on Friday, and get rich blokes to provide them with cocktails and copious amount of champagne until they (a) fall over, (b) fall into bed, (c) find themselves unexpectedly in Vegas, having tied a whacking great knot (marital, or literal, around their new spouse’s neck, depending on their luck).

Television has been quick to cash in on women seeking a fast route to snare a man and his fortune.

Megan Wants a Millionaire featured the proverbial blonde with large breasts looking for exactly what it said in the title. At the end of each episode, the unlucky reject/sad sap of the week was handed a card and informed: “I’m sorry, your credit has been declined”.

The show was pulled, when one of the former contestants was found dead, after being sought for the murder of his wife.

My current obsession is My Antonio, which features a group of women in Hawaii, all trying to pull the Hollywood actor Antonio Sabato, and it is hilarious.

This diverse group of women, which includes a NASA researcher, a nurse and a Playmate, really seem to care for nothing in life but getting this undoubtedly handsome man. Antonio’s mother Yvonne, who also stars, clearly hates them all.

Even Antonio’s ex-wife Tully is in the mix, and to me it’s pretty obvious that the pair got it together before the show began and then used this rather spurious means of making some cash out of it.

I thought I might stand a better chance with Millionaire Matchmaker, which is set in LA, and boasts a wider cultural diversity than the shows offering just one man or woman whom everyone else must fight over.

Why did I bother? Having seen the millionaires on offer, I can only assume that presenter Patti Stanger has bagged all the best ones for herself and her mates.

Patti runs an elite matchmaking service in LA, and in series one concentrated on wealthy men looking for women. In series 2, rich women and rich gay men were added to the mix (tough luck if were a lesbian with dosh), so there were more fruits for the picking, but, alas, a lot more fruit pickers.

It certainly appears to be a much-needed service in the city, where women constantly bemoan the lack of available men.

I am quick to reassure them that I have now lived in five different countries, and they may as well stay put, because it’s the same story the world over.

Millionaire Matchmaker was therefore the first place I turned to here for advice in my quest to pull a rich man who was more than just the wad in his pocket (size isn’t everything, after all).

I quickly learned from Patti that you can say goodbye to your inheritance when your rich man pops his clogs, if you slept with him on the first date (you have to hold out until they have opened a veritable MFI warehouse store of doors for you, apparently).

Oh, dear. From the guys on offer, I would sleep with them ONLY on the first date.

Take Hatch. He sounded a possibility, as he liked short women, and, in particular, women of 5 foot. Five foot exactly. Which is what I am.

My chances would have been quickly blown, because at the “Mixer” party he went straight for a woman who needed to duck when she entered the room.

Then there was Jimmy, who wanted to meet a cultured, Polish woman, who could speak Italian. Specific, or what? He blew her out when they went on a tour of LA and she declared: “I don’t know what’s in the Getty.”

That would have been fine, had she not also said that she was a tour guide. Serves your own right for being so fussy, Jimmy boy.

Patti employs date coaches, therapists and personal shoppers to try to match like with like, and claims to have a lot of luck with what she believes is her true vocation in life.

I am now re-grouping and going along with her main suggestion: that a man will get his act together quickly if he “senses another penis around”.

I’ve already started auditions.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Strim Low, Street Chariot 9/29/09

The US Strimming Championships taking place outside my front door can be the only explanation for why the sound of revving machinery woke me before 8am Monday morning.

And Sunday. And Saturday.

In fact, had I sent out an invitation to every strimmer enthusiast within a 300 mile radius, they could not have turned up in greater force than they have done in their own front gardens since I moved in last week.

It’s not so much a feeling of living in a flight path, as having relocated onto the runway itself.

When I moved here, I was excited to be living in the famous postcode, Beverly Hills 90210. My apartment was a smart but small, one-bedroom affair in a portered block that served me well enough for the first six months.

Well, ish. A woman on the balcony opposite sat for at least ten hours every day, shouting into her telephone. I became more familiar with the antics of her family than I am with those of my own.

At weekends, residents disappeared to the coast, but left their dogs behind, wailing and crying all day and night.

Then, some new people moved in above me and immediately began chopping up bodies for the freezer (or showing horror movies while acting out the movies’ plots – whichever is the noisier).

I am very, very sensitive to noise. In the UK, I became convinced that there was a theatrical group of scaffolders who followed me wherever I moved, setting up their stuff and beginning their singing/shouting/Radio 1 performance the moment I unpacked my last box.

Finally having shaken them off by coming to the US, I discover that the entire human race is in cahoots with said scaffolders, and the hit squad are just coming up with new and more interesting ways to annoy me.

Hence the strimmers. You don’t get many strimmers in South Wales. In Cardiff, we have well over 200 days of rain a year, so strimming is never really top of anyone’s agenda.

On vaguely warm days that could, were you of a strimming mentality, spur you to don your dungarees and start up your motor, you are usually so excited by glimpsing sunlight that you rush to the pub, all thoughts of strimming set aside for another year.

I bought a gas barbecue two years ago, and it still sits in my shed, untouched.

There have been numerous half hours of sun within that time, during which I could have cooked a dozen sausages; but, alas, never the two hours it would take me to get the contraption out of the shed, try to light the gas, and then track down a neighbour - who would doubtless be at someone else’s barbecue – to do it for me.

Brits leave home in pursuit of the great outdoors. Spain used to be the number one choice, but the pound’s dreadful exchange rate against the euro has scuppered that idea.

It’s a little better against the dollar, and with utilities and petrol/gas so much cheaper than in the UK, more people are looking to the US, either to buy second homes, or to emigrate.

When I first arrived here, I could see the attraction of the outdoor life. I love not having to take an umbrella with me when I go out to dinner (heck: I like not having to take one down to the washing line).

I enjoy going to bed with all the windows open, rather than struggling to find another duvet when I am freezing in bed at 4am.

I like not having to charge the car battery every time I set out for my local Tesco if there's a frost.

But there are stresses to the outdoor Californian lifestyle that nobody tells you about, and the strimmers are just the start of it.

When the strimmers rev down at the end of the day, the crickets start up. Now, the trouble with crickets, is that they have only one topic of conversation; and, to boot, only one topic of conversation set at the same monotonous level.

Think of Morse Code with just two frequencies. Sung by Kate Bush.

Then there are the dog walkers.

Everyone in my new area, 90212 (which is the Beverly Hills Golden Triangle, though it does not feature in the TV series), has a dog that is a cross between a Bichon Frise and a poodle.

And they do not stop barking. I suspect they are the cousins of the dogs at my old apartment block.

Their owners stop on the street to talk – for up to an hour at a time. The dogs bark more loudly because they want their walk.

The owners speak more loudly to get above the dogs. Sometimes, I pray for a strimmer to come along and drown out the lot of them.

I’m going back to the UK this week and am praying for rain. Anything, just to keep people indoors and away from anything that might bark, rev, or spew sausage fat within a half mile radius of my house.

I bet those theatrical scaffolders are tuning up their spanners even as I write.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

How To Hurry A Curry 9/16/09

Everyone has at least one thing they have never done that seems to put them at odds with the entire world.

When I told some friends that I had never listened to an episode of The Archers, for instance, they pulled away suspiciously, as if I had approached a group of small children with a bag of sweets.

The same happens in LA when I say that I don’t have a car. I have lived six months without one now, and still walk or take the bus everywhere. This week, a friend visiting from Sydney, told me that he lived here for five years without a car. We huddled together in a Century City café, proudly giggling over this act of aberrant defiance.

Now for the real confession: until Sunday, I had never been in a Starbucks. The friend I was with nearly went under a car as we crossed the road and I made my announcement, as the dreaded green logo loomed ever closer.

I’ve passed them thousands of times, of course, in cities across the world, but have never been tempted to enter. I’m not a big fan of chains, and I don’t drink coffee, so it was always going to be hard to see the attraction.

I won’t be going to one again, either. The one on Melrose Avenue was filthy. Leftover dregs on the table, bits of food on the floor – it was less like feeding time at the zoo than post-prandial regurgitation.

It took ten minutes to establish that I wanted plain black tea, not Earl Grey (I have more trouble with English here than I did in eight years in Paris with my not very good French); another two minutes to get the cup filled up more than halfway; another five minutes to carry it, overflowing, to the milk trolley; 40 minutes to drink the worst hot drink I have ever had in my life. Star****s to that.

I think perhaps one of the main reasons I never tried one out was that it took me so long when they first arrived to know exactly what I would get, once inside.

I like places that deliver what they say on the tin, and Starbucks sounds more like a "saddle up yer horse and grab a Bourbon" kind of place (as well as not drinking coffee, I don’t have a horse and don’t drink Bourbon).

You don’t get the same ambiguity with, say Pizza Express or Bella Pasta. And this week, having inadvertently stumbled upon a Japanese quarter of LA, I was sure that Hurry Curry would deliver what it promised.

I quickly discovered that the trouble with Hurry Curry is that there are so many people in a hurry for their curry, you have to queue for a table. In fact, you have to queue so long, you could have gone to a restaurant, tucked into a three course lunch, and returned to Hurry Curry to find that you were still three people from the front of the queue.

It was rather impressive, though. I was immediately asked what I would like to drink (the five star SLS hotel took 20 minutes to ask me last week), and a waiter helpfully pointed me towards the “light” meal of half portions – clearly I looked way too slender at my new weight to be able to handle the bucket-sized portions of Vindaloo I used to consume in Cardiff at three in the morning.

The food was terrific; the clientele less so. People in a hurry wolf their food down so quickly, they belch a lot – at least, they do when that food is curry.

I sat among people who were hurrying their curry at such a pace, it was as if it had decided to bypass the throat on its route to the stomach. The evidence of its arrival repeated in the atmosphere like a space shuttle returning to earth and breaking the sound barrier (which I also had last week, funnily enough, so I know what I'm talking about here).

Barely had I finished the last grain of rice than my bill was on the table. I said that I wasn’t in that much of a hurry, an explanation that was greeted with much mirth, incredulity, and even gratefulness, when I asked for the menu back.

But I couldn’t be persuaded to stay for the lychee sake martini, as I had to get to the gym, which I had been putting off in favour of my curry lunch. I managed a few miles on the treadmill, plus 30 lengths in the pool and a three-mile walk back to my apartment. Hurrying a curry is easy; it’s the exercising it away from your hips afterwards that takes the time.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Credit Where Credit's Not Due 9/12/09

Here’s the dilemma. I can’t afford it, I don’t need it, and waving a bit of titanium around in Beverly Hills 90210 just because I can, won’t impress any of my friends.

So: do I shell out £1800 pa for the new, all-singing, all-dancing American Express titanium black card that I currently pay £650 pa (black plastic) for?

It’s a brilliant marketing ploy. Ever since I was promoted to be a holder of the exclusive black Centurion card over ten years ago, I have spent month after month whingeing that I don’t get my money’s worth from it.

Retailers in the UK don’t like Amex, anyway. Invariably, they charge customers 5% on top of what they purchase, as opposed to Mastercard’s 2%, because Amex charges them more in the first place.

When the Centurion book comes through every quarter, my friends and I spend hours on the phone, laughing about the dozens of things on which we have no intention of spending the hundred million points we have managed to accumulate.

The new deal arrived in a box the size of a multi-storey car-park, though a hundred times more beautiful. There were ribbons and recesses that kept me occupied for hours while I read through all the wonderful things that, as a Centurion card holder, Amex had decided to offer me.

Just off the top of my head: Gold membership to enable me to use the Virgin Atlantic lounge at Heathrow (which I get anyway, as I travel with them so much); Eurostar lounge access (which, again, I get anyway, with my Carte Blanche Eurostar card); Priority Pass membership to other lounges (which I get with my Coutts World card); travel insurance (ditto); Starwood Preferred Guest membership (free to anyone, online).

So many things I already had, or didn’t need, or want. And, here’s the rub: as a result of all these great new redundant services, Amex was putting up the price from £650 pa to £1800 pa. Disgraceful.

So, naturally, seeing no benefit whatsoever, but recognising that the card I didn’t want was suddenly even more exclusive than it had hitherto been (ie even fewer people wanted it than they did before), I had to have it.

I got in touch with some friends who had the old black card (plastic – so passé!) and discussed our options. We all spend a lot of time in the US, where you have to spend about a million dollars a year just to get a black Amex, so wouldn’t we be improving our social status on the other side of the Atlantic if we had the new one?

If we travelled Virgin Premium Economy, we could save about a grand a flight, and given that we only paid Upper Class in order to get the lounge benefits at Heathrow, wouldn’t the annual fee be cost-effective?

Then there was the automatic travel insurance: up to £5 million. So if you got too drunk in the lounge and wrecked it, injured a couple of passengers and hospitalised yourself in the process, the card would cover everything.

In southern California, the cards you carry mean far more than they do to people in the UK. I have it on good authority that Sir Richard Branson, for example, has only a green, no-fee Amex, but then he doesn’t have to lie awake at night worrying about whether he is going to make it past security into the Heathrow Virgin Upper Class lounge.

But when you produce any kind of credit card in LA (and the Centurion card isn’t even that – you pay up at the end of the month, or you’re out of the club), it is examined along with the rest of your attire.

Anything blue guarantees you mediocre service; gold means aspirational but unable to afford platinum (ie good service, but you are made aware of your relatively lowly status); platinum gets you terrific service, but is laughed at (everyone knows the benefits are no better than gold – except the platinum card holders, who live under the delusion they are going to the Oscars next year with 2000 points); and black gets you anything you want. In theory.

I am very grateful to the Centurion staff who have been counselling me through this difficult decision, and as I don't have to pay my new fee until March, they have managed to get me to book a flight that also provides a limo service from the airport the next time I fly into LA.

But will I have to tip the driver who, knowing he is picking up a TIT (Titanium Idiot Traveller), will be expecting ten times as much money in a tip as I would have paid in normal cab fare?

Who needs the stress. Who needs the card. Call me a TIT, but I do. The pain of knowing I wouldn’t have it is far worse than the pain of calculating how much I need to spend to make it pay its way. That’s why Mr Branson is rich – and green – and I’m not.

See you in the lounge, Richard. I'm the tit waving the £1800 bit of metal.