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 happened 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.