Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Home Alone 5/5/09

I’ve just returned from the UK after my first visit there since de-camping to LA at the beginning of April. I get very emotional when I fly. For nine years, fear of terrorist attack stopped me from going near a plane, and then, ironically, along came September 11th 2001 and I thought: what the hell.

Now, I love flying, especially long haul between the UK and LA, where I am guaranteed 11 hours without my phone ringing and where, yesterday, I managed to get 5000 words written of my new book that I am convinced will make me very rich indeed.

I had the idea on the treadmill at the Marriott Hotel in Swiss Cottage (or the Regent’s Park Marriott, as they cleverly call it – trust me, there’s a difference). Most of my good ideas come on the treadmill these days, in pretty much the same way that they used to come to me in bars, when I was drinking. The difference is that when I leave the treadmill, I can remember them.

I was in London for Blake Snyder’s fantastic Beats course (any budding screenwriter should take it – you will leave a different person from the one who went in, I guarantee it), which I had taken in LA, albeit in a different form. In LA, a group of 12 worked on their individual projects; in London we worked in groups and, by the end of the two days, had five workable screenplays between us.

It’s a long time since I worked in any sort of group, and they are fascinating: a place where everyone exposes their strengths and weaknesses in unison; and what usually happens is that you see that people’s weaknesses are their strengths pushed to the extreme. My strength, for instance, is that I have loads of ideas; my weakness is my passion for them and, as a result, my reluctance to let them go (or, heaven forbid, allow other people to develop them and try to claim half the credit).

I loved meeting Kim, a fiction editor with Mills and Boon, who, I think, will be a lifelong friend. As I am 20 years older than her, “life” won’t be quite as long in her case, but at least it’s someone else who can say nice things about me at my funeral. I was revealing my innermost secrets to her by the end of Sunday afternoon and, as happens among women, we were soon laughing hysterically about rather painful issues of the heart.

Of course, I don’t want my funeral to take place for a long time and, God willing, it won’t. I don’t think much about dying these days, whereas when I was drinking it was on my mind pretty much every minute of every day. I suspect that was because I knew, deep down, that every drop of alcohol propels you two steps towards the grave, and one is already too quick in my book.

It may be a tiny drop you imbibe (and I am not critical of anyone who chooses to drink – it’s your funeral, as they say); it may be a lot; and, of course, many people are able to drink in moderation. But it’s still a poison and, while life is often undoubtedly more difficult without it, it’s better – or, if not always better, different, and exciting for being so.

But I’ve been thinking about drinking a lot the past few days: not because I want to revert to it, but because of all the places you expect to be able to avoid it – ie on a plane, over the Atlantic – this proved to the place where I was most exposed to it.

On the way to the UK, I flew Air New Zealand Business Class, where if I had been given a pound for every time I was offered a glass of wine, I could have paid for another return flight. It was the same on Virgin on the way back. Luckily, I detest New Zealand wines, and Mr Branson’s selection, as I learned last year, is no better, so temptation was never an option. But even had they had a Petrus, I would still have been able to say no.

I have gone from someone who says “I’m not drinking at the moment” to someone who says “I don’t drink”, and I genuinely don’t think about it – most of the time. But when someone is waving a bottle of champagne in your face and saying “Are you sure you don’t want a glass”, it’s hard to avoid the subject.

What not drinking does is leave you more time: thinking time, and because exercise has replaced the time I used to spend chatting in bars, I do a lot more thinking these days. The Marriott pool at Swiss Cottage has to be the most stupidly designed of any in the world. At its deepest, it is one metre; the shallow end is 0.5 metres. What they don’t tell you is how dangerous this can be when you’re swimming a length and suddenly your arm goes over in a crawl in the deep end, only to crash down on the bottom of the pool in the shallow end.

Luckily, I am a bad swimmer and keep my head above water, so I always know what’s coming, be it a shark or the shallow end; my friend was not so lucky and, with head below the surface, first knew of the change when he cracked his skull.

There is nothing quite like running or swimming to give you thinking time (squash, for example, doesn’t work on this front), and on Sunday morning, I sat in the shallow end of the pool (it was good for some things) and just cried and cried. Tears like I haven’t shed in years (although had I been in Cardiff on Saturday and watched my team the Blues lose out in the semi-final of the Heineken Cup on the first ever penalty kick-off against Leicester, I think I would have cried then).

The intensity of the creative process on a writing weekend inevitably brings things to the surface (a bit like the Marriott pool, really) – good and bad – and resurrects old wounds, alongside the formation of new friendships and ties. And, flying across continents, I think I was crying not for home, but because I’m not sure where home is anymore.

Having spent the last few years between the UK, Paris and Spain, and now being based in the States, there is nothing like sitting alone in the middle of an empty pool to reinforce the metaphor of aloneness.

Feeling a bit vulnerable, before boarding I became terrified again that I would never land and started texting my friends. Now, one of the pieces of advice everyone gives you when you’re pissed is: Don’t drink and text. I think that one of the biggest surprises to me when I gave up is that being sober doesn’t stop you. It’s not alcohol that drives you to bare your soul on your mobile; it’s just you!

It’s another reason why I, and my friends, are happy when I embark on another 11 hour flight. In space, nobody can hear me text.

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