Monday, June 29, 2009

Not Quite Ready For My Close-Up 6/29/09

When did going to the cinema get so complicated? What happened to the moth-eaten curtains opening and closing before the film began? What happened to Kia Ora, Pearl and Dean commercials, and usherettes carrying melting choc-ices in their hanging baskets?

I admit to having gone to the cinema just three times in the past 20 years. Because I get everything sent to me on DVD and watch it, courtesy of Bafta, alone at home, I’ve become a bit of a recluse when it comes to leaving the house for my entertainment.

The last film I went out to see was nearly 10 years ago, and it was a press showing of The Matrix that I went to with my then boyfriend. I don’t know which was longer: the film or the seven-month relationship. But I know that I prayed with equal longing for both to end – with a bullet to my head, if needs be.

I went to see Sixth Sense round about the same time and didn’t enjoy that, either. People had told me there was a brilliant twist at the end, but as I had spent the whole film assuming that Dr Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) was dead (Oh, come on: anyone who had seen Ghost must have known that from then on, dead didn’t mean dead in movieland), I thought that the twist might be that he had been alive all along.

When a character spends two hours speaking to no-one but a child who sees dead people, even the dumbest person has to start asking why. My boyfriend didn’t, which is yet another reason why he’s an ex.

Before that, the last time I went to the cinema was in 1990, when I saw The Godfather III. That, too, turned out to be a rather chequered experience. I saw it in Cardiff’s Queen Street, in a venue that had just imposed a non-smoking policy. I took no time at all, therefore, in complaining about a man who lit up barely ten minutes into the film.

When he was asked to put out his cigarette out and refused, staff (clearly inspired by having spent the week seeing how the Mafia operated) called the cops, and, within the minute, three armed officers arrived to evict him. They didn’t mess around in Cardiff.

Living in the heart of movieland, and also now trying to write my own script, it seemed only logical to start hitting the cinema again.

Although I watched dozens of films before I did my writing course here, and have watched possibly more television over 20 years than anyone in the world, there is nothing quite like the experience of the lights going down in the cinema, knowing that your life is untouchable for the next couple of hours; and continuing to keep real life on hold when you emerge into daylight, carrying the fictional world with you and nursing it secretly, in the warmth of your heart, for hours afterwards.

Everywhere you look in LA is a reminder of the city’s great cinematic tradition. I can see the Hollywood sign on the hill from my apartment block; enormous billboards scream about the latest releases in all the shopping malls; everyone’s conversation on which you eavesdrop appears to be littered with the words “picture”, “deal”, “script”, or “contract”. “Tell Jerry/Sam/Steve to call me” is a familiar refrain that leaves you longing to know whether Jerry, Sam or Steve ever will, or whether they, too, are destined to enter the great ether of unknowns that is as vast as it is real.

I had wanted to see The Hangover for some weeks, but having walked to the Beverly Centre a couple of miles away and discovered that it was not showing, lost interest; but this week, after a long work-out and an even longer walk, I finally made it to Century City, where The Hangover was showing in not just one, but two cinemas. And, more to the point, two of 13 other cinemas, all housed under one roof.

“Next guest, please,” said a girl behind glass as I stood in line. Guest? I was a guest? Not just a punter whose money they were glad to take, before thankfully shutting up shop at the end of the night? Sure enough: a great big neon sign above her head indicated that this was the place for Guests to purchase their tickets. I already felt rather special. Heck, they know how to treat people in this country.

They know how to feed them, too. Outside the Guest ticketing area, there is an outdoor dining terrace that, during the summer, shows films. In the adjoining complex, there are loads of restaurants and cafes serving food from about 20 countries that you can – get this – TAKE INTO THE CINEMA WITH YOU.

In London, there are small cinemas that allow you to take in alcoholic drinks and that serve food while you sit around on sofas (the Electric in Notting Hill started this small revolution), but I don’t think that there are any larger complexes that have caught on to the idea of your being allowed in to eat your supper on your lap.

One of the reasons I have always hated the cinema is that I can’t abide the smell of popcorn, and am even more averse to people crunching it around me when I am trying to concentrate, so I wasn’t sure how I would feel about having to contend with the conflicting smells of burgers, pizza and noodles. But if there is one thing I have learned in life, it is that your irritation levels drop substantially if you do exactly the same as the very people who are setting off your irritation.

So, off I went to purchase my burger and fries takeaway. Having been on a vegetarian diet and drinking copious amounts of carrot juice for three months, I figured that after my strenuous day’s exercise and no other food, it wouldn’t hit the waistline too hard.

“Buffalo?” said the sales assistant.
“No, beefburger,” I said.
“Yeah, but you want buffalo?”

My Welsh accent makes it difficult for people to understand me in LA, and so I resort to doing what Brits do when they go to Europe and can’t speak the language: I speak very loudly and very slowly.

“I – DO – NOT – WANT – A – BUFFALO – BURGER - I – WOULD – LIKE – A – NORMAL – BEEFBURGER.”
“Yeah, I get yer. But yer want buffalo?”
What was it with this damned buffalo? Had they had a job lot delivered by mistake? “BEEF! I – WANT – BEEF. YOU – GOT – ANY – BEEF?”
“Sure we got beef. We got beefburgers. But we only got buffalo size.”
“Oh, I see!” I finally twigged and therefore resumed normal speech patterns. “It’s beef, but buffalo size. Er, how big is buffalo?”
“It’s about this size,” she said, making a gesture that seemed as if she would have to acquire arm extensions to give the buffalo full credit for its enormity.”
“Okay! I’ll have the burger, buffalo size.” Finally, we were getting somewhere. “And I’ll have fries with that.”
“You want the combo meal, with a drink, too?”

Oh, why the hell not. By now I was losing the will to live, let alone eat, and praying that the film would not be (a) this long, or (b) this complicated.
“Yes, please. Why not.”
“How you want your meat cooked?” Eh? I get the choice of how I want my meat cooked? At a burger bar? I figured the buffalo might take some cooking, so said: “Well done.”

I was there another 20 minutes and had finished my Diet Coke by the time the buffalo arrived. They re-filled my cup to say sorry (they are also incredibly efficient at putting things right when they go wrong here). I don’t normally drink fizzy, sugary drinks, even low calorie ones – especially low calorie ones, as I am ever mindful of the observation that only fat people drink Diet Coke, but as it was free I gratefully took it.

Once I had added all the freebies from the salad bar to the buffalo (onions, two kinds of chilli peppers, salsa, jalapeno cheese, ketchup, tomatoes), I looked as if I was going on vacation when I finally made it into the cinema.

There was a big warning beforehand, on a soundtrack that included mobile phones and babies crying: it instructed people not to bring their own soundtrack with them, and I opened my case of beef as quietly as I could, only saying “Shit!” out loud once, as the juice from a chilli spurted all over my clothes when I bit into it.

My first job as a teenager was as a cinema usherette. I was paid £4 an hour in Bridgend’s Embassy Cinema, and was instructed to add a couple of pence onto each sale and keep quiet about it, because the manager was creaming the profit off the management.

The enormous basket hurt my neck, and although I thought this would be a small price to pay in return for being able to watch films for free, I discovered that there was no pleasure in seeing anything in instalments over one or two weeks. I saw The Towering Inferno 22 times, and by the end of it would happily have set fire to the Embassy cinema, had I the means.

The Hangover was considerably more pleasurable, and I would willingly see it 22 times; in fact, I think I might. Hilarious, beautifully and tightly written, I thought that sitting there, stuffing my face with buffalo and chilli, I was the happiest I had been in years.

Unlike British audiences, who talk throughout whole movies, the Americans were totally gripped throughout. Maybe it was because their mouths were too crammed with their supper to be able to talk, but they made great company. They went “Ahh” when a character was being treated badly; they laughed at every single funny line; they had their hands clasped to their mouths during a hair-raising car-chase. They had clearly gone to the movie to watch the movie, and that’s what they did.

I left the movie theater having acquired, amongst much else, the ability to say (and spell) “movie” and “movie theater” – essential tools, given that people had looked at me blankly when I asked where the films or cinema were on my way there. I also felt totally exhilarated and high on the whole experience and wondered why on Earth it had taken me so many years to get back to watching movies on the big screen.

Now, I think I really am ready for my close-up.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Jeff Goldblum - My Part In His Resurrection

Giant black poodles do not make the best guide dogs for the blind. That was what I learned this week as the world came to terms with the death of Michael Jackson. A strange combination of events, you have to admit, but life does get increasingly more strange here.

The Jackson news came when I was on the treadmill at the gym, where I had been watching it on NBC, Fox and CNN. When I managed to find a channel that wasn’t showing the event, I managed to tune in to a commercial that just so happened to have Jackson singing I’ll Be There on it. Well, not anymore he wasn’t.

That was my own private thought, shortly before jokes started clogging up my Blackberry. But this "humour" felt like something unreal taking place in a dreadful hole of incredible shock. Other jokes quickly followed. “And he looked so well” said one. “He’s re-releasing the Thriller video in six weeks’ time” said another. All inappropriate, but a reflex reaction.

I felt desperately sad. I grew up with Jackson at the centre of my pop world, and although Donny Osmond was my great love, no one can take away the huge impact Jackson's music, not to mention his influence regarding the recognition of black artists (or blacks in general, come to that), has had upon the world. Too young. Too soon.

I had moved to the stepper by the time the next bit of news arrived, again on a friend’s text: “And now Jeff Goldblum. Found him on his back with his legs in the air.”

I’m not a big fan of jokes about people who have only just touched down the wrong side of rigor mortis, but had let it pass with Jacko because when I was 14, my mother decided to give me an afro perm so that I would look like him.

His hairdo was, at the time (well, according to my mother), the height of fashion. I sat through double history in school (How could you, Mum? A schoolday, too?), with my duffle coat hood up, sobbing my heart out. At lunchtime I went home and made her take it out with the same level of peroxide that she had put the dastardly thing in with.

But Goldblum? What? Had he died? How? Had he been ill? And what was there to laugh about if he had? (I hadn’t ever seen him in The Fly, so didn’t get the joke anyway).

I met him a few months ago, when we both appeared on Richard and Judy, although not together, alas. He was on with Kevin Spacey to talk about Speed the Plow, in which they were starring at the Old Vic. I was on to talk about a highly destructive relationship I had once had with one of my school-teachers.

“So, you shagged a teacher!” the ever- sensitive Richard Madeley said, as I walked into the studio (Actually, I hadn't, and it was a lot more complicated than that, but heck, they who appear on daytime telly must die by its sword).

Jeff Goldblum putting his arm around me more than made up for it, and it was my knowing that he practised Transcendental Meditation that subsequently sent me back to it. I learned the technique years ago, but had let it lapse; the stress of trying to find 20 minutes to meditate at the end of each day nearly gave me a coronary; but now, in tandem with my new healthy lifestyle, I make sure I fit it in, and it has once more lowered my blood pressure to normal levels.

Of course, it rocketed to high heaven when I heard of Mr Goldblum’s “death”, so swings and roundabouts and all that.

On top of his being my inspiration to seek meditative calm, Mr Goldblum is the new face on Law and Order: Criminal Intent, and his comic timing and charisma have sent this series soaring to even greater heights.

In fact, I was in the process of writing him a fan letter, saying as such, last week. So news of his demise literally threw me off the stepper in tearful shock.

And yet no one could substantiate it. Google said that the New Zealand police had (at that point) confirmed the news (which they hadn’t); and every single US channel was still covering Jackson’s death.

In Britain, our broadcasters would have been among the crowd, just so happening to find the tallest, slimmest, blonde female mourner, to say what the star meant to her. They would instantly have started speculating about the amounts of medication that might have led to the death. In the US, they stuck to the facts – and it was boring as hell. Acres and acres of footage from concerts, and that Thriller video, over and over and over again.

When Britain woke up, my friends, who clearly have no conception of the size of Los Angeles, assumed I must be among the throng, if not already choosing my hat for the funeral. “It must be amazing there,” they texted. Er, pretty much like every day, actually, apart from not being able to find anything decent on the telly.

Others suggested it was a bit strange that since my arrival in LA, the showbiz world had lost Michael Jackson, Farah Fawcett and Jeff Goldblum.

They had not yet heard the confirmation that Mr Goldblum was very much alive and that the whole thing had been an internet hoax. Pretty damned sick, I call it. Also, Kevin Spacey had Twittered to put everyone straight and asked people to stop spreading rumours – the ultimate irony, on a site by its very nature designed to spread information as quickly as possible.

With my new best friend Jeff resurrected from the dead, I woke with a light heart on Friday, but that damned Thriller video was still on every channel. I tried to get away from it and went to the gym again, but it was still hogging the news channels on the equipment TVs, and it was also on the changing room telly, too. Yet it was still so hard to take it in.

At least you can always get a bit of peace in the pool, because they play classical music in there. But no sooner had I landed in the water than a blind lady arrived with her guide dog (a black poodle the size of a horse), plonked him by the side of the pool and left him there while she went in for some exercises.

Now, I have the utmost sympathy for anyone with any sort of disability getting some exercise; and I love dogs. But this damned poodle barked. And barked. And barked. And barked. I swam 50 lengths that took me 45 minutes, and still the creature was at it every time the water moved, which, with all eight lanes filled, you can imagine was pretty often.

I thought that after 24 hours of non-stop Thriller (and I really used to like it), the dying throes of a hyena would have been music to my ears, but a poodle is no golden labrador when it comes to guarding its blind.

Finally, I could stand it no more and ventured off to the steam room. After ten minutes, I thought I would rest for a bit in the Jacuzzi. No chance. The damned dog had moved to the Jacuzzi area and stood guarding it with Alcatraz-like enthusiasm. A naked woman started to go down the stops, but our curly friend was having none of it, barked wildly, and the breasts never even made it to the first bubble.

“They’ll be bringing in their tigers next,” moaned a woman in the dressing room, which just made me wonder what sort of company she kept of an evening.

Still, at least Jeff Goldblum was alive and well and living in Los Angeles, and, being awake while Britain slept, I was one of the first to be able to start telling everyone. I texted. I phoned. I e-mailed. It was the very opposite of that bizarre, secret pleasure one has, when breaking news of a death to people who are not yet in the know.

Jeff Goldblum is alive!

I could shout it from the rooftops. Best of all, nobody was singing about it.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Future's Not Bright Or Orange 6/23/09

What a lot of psychics there are in LA. You would think that they would have had the foresight to know that opening up three doors away from a rival isn’t going to be good business; but if you walk to West Hollywood or, as I did today, back from Melrose Avenue to Beverly Hills (think of the longest walk you have ever done and treble it), there are, literally, dozens.

No, I still don’t have a car, because I am trying to save money; hence my decision not to take a taxi, either. The one I took to Melrose cost me over $20, and I had to suffer yet another driver trying to get to grips with the fact that Wales is a country in its own right and not a city in England.

For some reason, this fascinates them; and today’s man also wanted to know which were the “friendly” people in the UK. That bit of the conversation was easy: everyone except the English.

The prospect of running out of money and having to return to the depressing British winter is already depressing me, so I thought I would drop in on a psychic to find out when my bumper pay cheque for the book I am writing was likely to arrive.

The Psychic Centre, on La Brea, promised much from the posters that lined the road on my way there; when I found it, a massive sign outside was promising a special $10 dollar reading which, at half the price of the taxi fare, seemed a good deal.

I went up the steps to find four women tucking into their Subway takeaway lunch around a crystal ball and a pile of Tarot cards with crumbs on them. Through a full mouth, the fattest one asked whether I was looking for a reading, and pretty much splattered me with the contents of said mouth when I said Yes.

They then could not decide who was going to do me, but called a scruffy girl of about 18 from the back, who looked pretty cheesed off at having her lunch break interrupted.

“What d’you want?”
“Well, what is there?”
“Tarot, palm, crystal ball, eye.”

I had had my eyeball read once before, when I was doing a health programme for Channel 4, and I hadn’t been very impressed. Did the eyeball of a junk food fanatic show spinning burgers in their depths?

Would my LA eyes now reveal the gallons of carrot juice I am drinking: and, just like the advert, would I be filled with optimism that my future was both bright and orange?

I wasn't really sure that my eyes were going to be the best predictors, as I was wearing some new mineral make-up that I bought at the weekend, and appeared to be suffering an allergic reaction to it; hence my eyes were very red with all the rubbing I had been doing to wipe away the constant torrent of water pouring from them.

“Have you had any of them before?”
“All of them,” I said.

A Tarot reader had once told me that I would have twins. Never happened. A crystal ball reader told me that I would marry someone whose name began with W. Never happened. The only W in my life was a William I once dated, who told me in a Paris café that I was the most intelligent, funny, fantastic woman he had ever met – he just didn’t fancy me. Stuff Paris as the City of Love.

Last year, passing through Turkey on a cruise, I had my Turkish coffee cup read, in the same way that people read tea-leaves. I was told that I spend money on big things (tell me about it – I spent 12,000 euros on a Chloe dress after one too many white wines a couple of years ago), that I would be very rich within three years (one down, two to go), and that a man whose name began with S was going to help my career big-time.

I tell you, if Simon Cowell doesn’t shift his backside quickly, I’m going to be on Skid Row.

My LA psychic was clearly having an off day and seemed highly irritated that I had even deigned to enter the room, let alone demand anything once inside.

“Is it all right if I tape it?” I asked, producing my Blackberry. That was a definite no-no. “Can I take notes?” “No. We don’t like that. It’s supposed to be private. Why would you want to tape it?”

Honestly, this was like pulling teeth. I could have finished this life, gone to an after one, AND returned as a sub-species in the time it was taking her to predict the next . . . Well, how many years? Heck, I only wanted to know as far as September. At this rate, I would be lucky to know what I was going to have for dinner.

“So what d’you want?”
“Okay, I’ll have the eye.”
“You want me to read your eyeball?”
“Yes, let’s go for that.”
“That’s $45.”
“But your sign outside says that you’re doing a special deal for $10.”
“Yeah, that’s a palm reading.”
“Okay, I’ll have one of those.”
“To be honest, it’s not very accurate.”

Oh, for heaven’s sake. I read my friends’ palms all the time and am deadly accurate. I have told them about things in their pasts that they have not even shared with their closest family and friends. I have made grown men cry with the accuracy of my palm-reading.

I can even read my own. I’m going to be very successful, but there is going to be a clean break of some sorts before I achieve that ultimate success (could that 6000 miles across the Atlantic be it, I have wondered?).

I’m going to live a long life and I won’t have any kids (my 50 year old body fills in the gaps that my palm has left out on that one).

Clearly, there was going to be no such insight in LA, so I walked out of the centre without having spent a dollar and muttering something about it all being a bit of a con.

In fact, given my own skills in this area – certainly, compared to the La Brea ghoul - I think I could open up a psychic centre in LA and do very well out of it.

The way the money is going, together with Mr Cowell’s ongoing silence, it looks as if it might be my only option. Dollar for your thoughts, everyone. You know where I am.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Casting Pearls After Swine 6/14/09

Apparently, there are some women on the planet who will do anything to get the men in their life out of it. Given the amount of trouble I have getting them in there in the first place, not to mention acquiring enough chloroform, rope and chains to keep them there, I can’t see that it’s a problem I’m ever going to encounter.

So, I am completely mystified by a website called outofyourlife.com. As most things do these days, this came to my attention while exercising in the gym and watching the machines’ TVs, and I couldn’t wait to get home to find out more.

The TV commercial features a blonde woman handling various pieces of jewellery. They’re shiny, they’re chunky and, for the most part, fairly hideous. At one point, she examines a pair of un-matching ear-rings, as if trying to decide which she prefers, and we learn that each one relates to a man who, in real life, she was unable to decide between.

As she places each piece in jewellery in a special, lined box, the voiceover explains once you’re no longer with some man, the moment comes when: “It’s time to get his jewellery out of your life too.”

And how can you do this? You just let outofyourlife.com buy it all from you – and, yes, they even provide that special little box in which to place it all before you Fedex it off.

My first thought was that I would have dumped any guy who bought me such rotten jewellery to begin with; but then I remembered that apart from one brooch, no man has ever, ever bought me so much as a diamante hair-grip.

When I was 30, the man I was with bought me a china duck: a hideous, lime green and yellow, china duck vase whose only function I could foresee would be as something to smash over his head when the relationship ended (where were those websites supplying bubble wrap for packing up china ducks when I needed them, eh?).

In Wales, we have a custom of giving carved, wooden love spoons to the people we care for, not jewellery; but even in that respect I didn’t fare well. One Valentine’s Day, I opened up a gift that arrived in a love spoon box to find a pig’s trotter inside. Quite how that was supposed to woo me is another of life’s mysteries I have yet to fathom.

My last serious boyfriend gave me the single – not even the album, goddammit – of Mambo Number Five. You know the one – the guy who likes a bit of this woman here, a bit of that one on the side etc. etc. And I had to lend him the money to buy that.

Where on Earth are all these men who give jewellery in such abundance that it can be sent back in return for cash? I don’t have a lavish collection, but what I do have, I bought myself. Last year, for my 50th, I treated myself to a diamond tennis bracelet. It was something I had always wanted and, after a few drinks in Turkey, while covering a cruise for the Daily Mail, I saw a psychic in a hotel.

“You always spend money on big things,” she said. On the way back to the ship, after a few more drinks, I stopped off at a jeweller’s and bought the bracelet. I suspect that the minute I left the hotel, the psychic was on the phone to the shop, telling him: “There’s another one on her way.”

I really love diamonds, but if they are a girl’s best friend, where are all the men who know this and, more to the point, act upon it?

I have my eye on a rather exquisite, long chain of diamonds to match my tennis bracelet at the moment. I saw it while window-shopping on Rodeo Drive and went in to ask the price. “That would be $175,000, ma’am,” said the rather charming salesman. “It’s platinum.”

I kept a straight face. “Do you have it in white gold?”

“That would be $75,000, ma’am.”

Ever since the movie Pretty Woman, in which the assistants on Rodeo Drive treated Julia Roberts’ character Vivien with such contempt, all the stores are careful to behave towards everyone as if they have loads of money – even though, given my current financial circumstances, contempt would have been entirely justifiable.

But I didn’t see any man leaping out from behind a pillar, waving his cheque book, declaring: “No, no. Let me, Miss Stephen.” “Thank you, Mr Gere.”

In Spain and LA, I see women draped in jewels all the time; so what have they got that I haven’t? A lot of space between their ears, I suspect is the answer, and men with money (and the equivalent acreage in nothingness between their ears usually) appear to like that.

So, for all my being unable to fill that little satin box and receive my cheque in the post from outofyourlife.com, I’m grateful that I pretty much live by the intomylife.com premise, and that I don’t dislike anyone enough to hand back anything I’ve ever had from anyone.

And that includes the green and yellow china duck. At least it was given in love. The only exception is the pig’s trotter. I hope the guy who sent it caught swine flu.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Tarmac Orphan 6/10/09

Twelve inches is a long way in travel. The world may be getting smaller, but when you’re standing at A, desperate to get to B, and only twelve inches separates you from your destination, B might as well be on the moon.

The weird thing is: you wait all your life for a man in uniform with a powerful weapon to turn up, and then three come along together.

The details of my European trip have been eclipsed somewhat by the problems I had getting out of France and the subsequent problems I had getting back into the US. I feel as if I have lived most of the last 48 hours as a sort of Tarmac orphan, passport at the ready but unable to go anywhere.

My crime? A heavy suitcase packed with books and a couple of bags of loose change.

Nothing about me, I am sure, indicated that I was going to be Semtex catch of the week, as I arrived at the Eurostar Customs on Monday morning. I was loaded up because each time I return to the US, I ludicrously feel that I have to bring another section of my enormous library back home; I suppose it’s my comfort blanket.

I’ve been told by Eurostar in the past that women travelling alone are targeted because they tend to be the biggest drug traffickers, but apart from smuggling in a box of Oxo vegetarian stock cubes last time I returned to the US, my activities in this area are rather limited.

Personally, I blame the Alsation. I am quite at ease with small dogs, but when a very large one starts leaping around when your stuff is coming through on the conveyor belt, it can be a bit unnerving.

My terror was that it was going to eat my MacBook Air laptop, without my having had chance to back up the book and screenplay I am writing, so I was not really paying attention to the Customs man when he asked: “What’s in your case?”

As I had, in total, five bags, I couldn’t remember what was in the specific case to which he referred, so I said: “Things”. Wrong answer! “What things?” “Er, books, clothes . . . “ (and can’t you get that damned dog’s nose away from my computer).

Now, in my Linguaphone French language learning course, the Customs man – le douanier – is rather a nice chap. There is a family travelling together and he takes a shine to the daughter, Valerie. “Le douanier,” it says, “Il admire Valerie” (translation: he wouldn’t mind giving her one, there and then, over the conveyor belt).

I’ve always thought it was a bit sexist, but whatever it was that old Valerie had, I wished I now had it; but “Le douanier . . . Il deteste Jaci” was clearer much nearer the mark.

He told me to lift my case and put it on a table that seemed like double my body height. Not only was it too heavy to lift, I have a longstanding shoulder injury that would have made it impossible to do so anyway, and I told him so.

“You don’t lift it, you don’t travel.” I asked for help. “I’m not going to do it,” he said, and would not budge on the matter. I started to cry. “There is no point in crying, you are not going anywhere.” So, we were stuck: me, case, man with gun.

Eventually, a tiny female member of staff, even smaller than me, came over to lift the case, and I was almost on my way. The officer opened it, took out Dr Raj Persaud’s book, The Motivated Mind, threw it back, and told me I could go.

Maybe he thought that I was so motivated, it was not beyond the realms of possibility that I could grab his gun, shoot the lot of them, and still have time to eat the entire supply of croissants in the Frequent Traveller lounge.

I thought that would be an end to my day of Customs hell, but there was more to come when I reached the US some hours later. Although I have an I Visa that allows me to come and go freely, man number two with gun was having none of it.

They always ask you why you are entering the US, and they do so with such an air of “You so much as sniff our air without asking permission” that I am trembling so much, the paramedics almost have to be called in.

I was sent to another line, where man number three with gun awaited me. He wanted to see everything – and I mean everything – in both cases. Why were my cases so heavy? (There’s a dead Alsation in one of them; why do you think?). Why was I carrying so much loose change?

Was I carrying any food? Er, no. There were a couple of boxes of herbal tea for various digestive conditions that I thought best to keep to myself. Not that I would need them, as my bowels were now well and truly working without recourse to outside assistance.

But it was the books that really interested him. He too alighted upon The Motivated Mind, with Dr Raj Persaud’s picture on the cover. Now, Raj is a very handsome man, and someone I used to work with in TV, but suddenly he had the look of an accomplice about him. He is also of a non-white persuasion, which was something that had not even occurred to me before. Clearly, very dodgy indeed.

The official moved on to Save the Cat, Blake Snyder’s screenwriting book that is my Bible and that I carry everywhere while I am writing my movie. There is a very good picture of a cat clinging to a rope on the cover, the premise being that early in a movie, your hero should do something – such as saving a cat – that endears him or her to the audience.

But suddenly the cat didn’t look so clingy. In fact, it looked rather pained, as if someone had been trying to string it up two minutes before and it was in its last dying throes.

“If you want to write a movie it’s the best book,” I ventured. “It really is and most people do want to write one here don’t they and that’s why I came here and . . . “ Breathless, hopeless . . . If you’re in a hole, stop digging, but as if my spade were not doing an efficient enough job, I had brought in a JCB to help dig myself in still deeper.

Now, not only did I have a motivated mind, I tortured small animals. Quite clearly, it was going to be a small step from thereon in before I exercised my newly acquired killing skills on humans.

“Passport,” said my interrogator, and went off to a computer. All I could think of was the Little Britain sketch Computer Says No, as I awaited my fate. Had I done or said anything in the States that might warrant my not being allowed back in? I really didn’t think so. Apart from being born small and Welsh, of course, but it was only the English who ever had a problem with that.

Richard Curtis, the brilliant brain behind Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, had been on my flight, and he sailed through Customs. We had spent a brief time chatting on the plane, when I recalled a course he tutored many years ago, when he told me that all his movies were about the same thing: How do you find the right person to love?

Luckily for him, we had to return to our seats at the point where I had started to tell him that life wasn’t like the movies, that men suck, life sucks, Customs officials suck.

The last words he said to me as he left the plane were: “I’m sure you’ll find love eventually” (though you have to be honest: Love, Eventually as a movie title, as opposed to the movie he made - Love, Actually - doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

So, when I descended from the plane, I was dreaming of happy ever afters and Hugh Grant meeting me at the airport with a bunch of roses. Then the men with guns captured me. Like I said, Richard: life ain’t like the movies.

I am now safely back in the US, and at the moment can remember very little of my trip. I do, however, recall visiting a friend’s house in Paris and walking up the Champs Elysees, where I saw an old man holding a very small penis, urinating beside a tree. I confess to knowing the size because I stopped briefly, just to remind myself what a penis looked like (we’re talking a couple of years here, give or take a magazine or two).

It didn’t do much for me, I’m afraid. Twelve inches may be a long way in travel, but even a man with a gun couldn’t get me to hang around for two.

Friday, June 5, 2009

California Dreamin' 6/5/09

If I’m honest, there was always that little bit of Californian in me. When I was 14, I spent my pocket money on Here’s Health magazine and books about various kinds of spiritual awakening.

Religious, occult, astrological – I was always interested in the different means by which people found their way in the world and tried to make sense of it all. And I have always loathed smoking with a passion.

At university, I spent the money set aside for food buying all the different kinds of lentils from the only delicatessen in town (heck, I grew up in a village where nobody even knew what a delicatessen was, let alone know how to spell it, so finding a use for lentils was always going to be way left of field for most people).

Now that I am in LA, that little corner of a foreign field that was forever California has been unleashed in me with a vengeance.

Apart from my minimum two hour workout every day, I eat more healthily than I have done since my lentil and sandal university days, and my bookshelves are once more filled with titles beginning with the likes of How to, When to, and Give Up Now, You’re Doomed.

Returning back to the UK briefly, I felt more Californian than British. “When did everyone get so fat?” I screamed, as I squashed myself in between restaurant tables in Cardiff and looked down the menu, declaring that there was absolutely nothing on it that I could eat.

Just as well, really, because I wouldn’t have had the time. I spent the entire evening doing furniture removals around the enormous foursome at the next table, and had to re-arrange my own seating every time I wanted to move an elbow to grab a glass of water.

“Don’t lose any more,” people kept saying to me, noting how much weight I had lost. “Go on, have a real drink,” friends said in Spain.

When I was not being encouraged to eat and drink more, I found myself defending America as if I were the First Lady. It was easy, given the political mess that has been dominating the UK headlines over the past week.

If you had told me even a year ago that I would ever have had anything positive to say about America, let along feel a surge of pride every time I pass the stars and stripes flag (I kid you not: I think perhaps I have been abducted and that the real me is living on planet Zog somewhere), I would have said I was more likely to commit hara-kiri.

Like most Brits, my experience of the country and its citizens was of loud-mouthed travellers being rude to waiters in restaurants; I am sure that those Americans do still exist, but in my little bubble that is Beverly Hills, I am being treated to a different breed, and for the moment I am happy to enjoy it.

I even found myself getting a bit gobby when I didn’t get the service I have so quickly become used to. But really, listen to this.

Yesterday, I went into my local delicatessen (these days, you can’t move for them in Cardiff), where I tried to buy a pot of yoghurt for me and a pot of double cream for my mother (she thinks I should definitely not lose any more weight). When I took them to the counter to pay, I was greeted with: “I got naw change” (Welsh accent, for my new American friends).

Me: Why do you have no change?
Girl: Well, I just come on see an’ I dawn’t knaw why, but there’s no change in the till.
Me: So what are we going to do then?
Girl: Well, we’ll just 'ave to see 'ow much it is an’ you’ll 'ave to pay me the right money.
Me: Please could you ring them up then, and we’ll see.
Girl: (examining yoghurt pot). There’s naw price on this. (Calls to other girl, mesmerised at the cheese counter). Can you see 'ow much this is?
(Girl 2 takes yoghurt, goes to fridge, potters around for about a week, discovers that there is no other like it and disappears into back store-room for another week. Emerges, looking blank. Walks to till).
Girl 2: I dunno the price of it. I can’t find another one.
(Both girls stare: one, at the priceless yoghurt pot, the other at the changeless till).
Me: D’you know? I’ll leave it. Your loss.
(Storms out, amid much huffing and puffing and praising America’s gun licence laws).

Well, those are the words that came out inside the shop; outside, it was something more along the lines of: Bloody Welsh bloody Brits can’t get any service anymore and could you ever it wouldn’t happen in Beverly Hills what does a girl have to do to get a sodding pot of yoghurt around here . . . That kind of thing, with a few more expletives thrown in.

For once, I found myself bemoaning the fact that I was not paying $3.99 for a stock cube in my local Wholefoods in Beverly Hills and declaring that you do, in fact, get what you pay for in life (or are not able to pay for, in the case of the Cardiff delicatessen).

However, the weather has been great (for once, it wasn’t raining in Cardiff), it was good to see family and friends, and weird to watch all the episodes of my favourite TV series that I have already seen in the US.

But heck, I miss the gym and my plates of berries. I miss the gallons of fresh carrot juice I can buy as easily as getting water from the tap. I miss being able to buy anything at all, when faced with the problem of there being no change in the till.

I am returning to LA via Paris, which is my favourite city on Earth. It will be interesting to see whether it still is, on my first visit since decamping to LA.

I already hear myself moaning about the smoking: although it is banned indoors, it is allowed outside on café terraces, which have now been turned into giant ashtrays.

I hear myself whining about not being able to get any vegetarian food. And I specially hear myself giving the French a hard time about their inherent dislike of Americans, which has only intensified in the aftermath of the Iraq war.

On the other hand, I might just think, sod it: order a beef bourguignon, a pint of wine, pick up a Frenchman, have unprotected sex, smoke a Gitane afterwards and curse all Americans for being loud-mouthed, bigoted, war-mongerers.

It could go either way. Two continents await.