Sunday, November 28, 2010

RIP Lester and Gavin 11/28/2010

I was walking back from the gym on Friday afternoon, when I received a call from a friend in the UK to tell me of the death of an old journalist friend, Lester Middlehurst.

I had known Lester for over 25 years, both at our time on Today newspaper and, later, the Daily Mail. He was always great fun to be around and a brilliant show business journalist; his interviews were second to none.

On Tuesday, Lester took an overdose and was found the next day. He died two days later.

The circumstances surrounding what led him to kill himself will doubtless emerge, but I remember Lester as someone who brought a great deal of colour to the world of journalism.

He was gay at a time when it was less easy to be openly so, and he was terrified when, in the week he started work on the Mail, Private Eye published a story about him. He had nothing to worry about, as his talent was far too great to tarnish, and he remained on the paper for many years.

It’s been a sad week, because on Wednesday I received a call from another friend to say that the producer of Emmerdale, Gavin Blyth, was very ill. His partner, Suzy, had posted on Facebook asking if anyone knew of a registrar who could get to Leeds infirmary within the hour to marry her and Gavin.

On Thursday, she announced that she was Mrs Blyth; on Friday, she was a widow and single mother.

Gavin, too, was an extremely talented man, who had risen through the ranks of press PR to running a hugely successful soap. Ratings went up with him at the helm after January 2009, and the brilliant storyline of young Aaron Livesy, struggling with his sexuality, was one of the highlights of the past year and recognised with awards.

Being 3000 miles away from home, it was again Facebook that made it possible for me to make contact with others grieving for these two men, dead at a relatively young age (Gavin was only 41, a father of three, the youngest being just one year old).

Suzy wrote beautifully on the site about her love for her husband, and the responses from friends and colleagues bore tribute to what was clearly an extraordinary and hugely liked man.

It’s again made me question the wisdom of spending time away from family and friends back in the UK, because, cliché though it is, we really don’t know what is around the next corner. But then again, to live one’s life in fear as to what might be, is no way to exist – or, rather, it is only existing; it is not living.

Better to die living than to live dying.

Hearing of suffering and death back home nevertheless reinforces feelings of helplessness. When my good friend Angharad committed suicide in January this year, I stood on Canon Drive in Beverly Hills, sobbing on the phone to one of her sisters, who assured me that nothing was to be gained by my leaping on a plane and going home. This week, it was Santa Monica Boulevard that bore witness to my tears when I heard about Lester, and the instinct to rush to the airport was as strong.

Through Facebook, however, I have reconnected with many friends whom I have not heard from in some time, all of them recalling this vibrant journalist who, I suspect, never really believed in just how good he was, nor how much he was loved.

Tributes have also been flooding in for Gavin on Facebook, friends and colleagues have been Tweeting about their loss, and the social network again embraces our respective grieving with a remarkable sense of sharing in the experience of what it is like simply to be human, irrespective of what life throws at us, good or bad.

Some people gain comfort from believing that there is a world after this, in which our departed loved ones are looking down on us, smiling, just like us, at better times that have gone before; others take refuge in memory, holding on in thoughts to their personal stories; Facebook is a democracy in which either viewpoint, or, indeed, any other, in relation to death, can be heard.

Who knows what is right or wrong; what unites us all, however, is how damned hard it is to lose the people we love, and, in that connection, we must find comfort.

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon.
Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted,
And human love will be seen at its height.
Live in fragments no longer.
Only connect…
~E.M. Forster, Howards End

Friday, November 19, 2010

Pier Pressure in Santa Monica 11/19/10

Life in Santa Monica could not be more different from my life in Beverly Hills.

One day, a couple of months back, I was looking in shop windows, fantasising about what I might be able to afford if ever I won three lotteries in a row; the next, I was on Santa Monica pier, wondering whether to waste my money having my name engraved on a grain of rice.

The carbohydrate name engraving is one of the highlights of the pier, although I have never seen anyone queuing up to have it done. As my name is Jacqueline Margaret Stephen, I want to put the promise of the billboard to the test, just for the hell of it, but 25 letters on one grain? Even if it’s an extra length grain of Basmati, I’m just not optimistic.

Watching the sun go down at the end of the pier, however, is one of the joys of living closer to the beach; in Beverly Hills, the only thing that makes your jaw drop at close of day is your bar bill after just two glasses of wine. But every day in SM, there is breathtaking beauty.

The Pacific boasts one of the most moving, exquisite sunsets in the world, and while there is always sadness when the orange disc quickly disappears at the sea’s horizon (as quickly as my cash used to do in Beverly Hills), there is pleasure in the knowledge that it will rise again, equally wonderfully, in just a few hours.

It’s a metaphor I need at the moment.

I’ve always loved seaside towns, and fairgrounds in particular. There are only a couple of rides on SM pier (and not very spectacular ones, at that), but the place still resurrects the childhood memories I have of going to Barry Island or Porthcawl in South Wales: the excitement of rotating lights on the Big Wheel, the pink crinolines of candy floss, the smell of salt, and the sound of the incoming tide as the excitement of the day turned to a slight chill and the promise of a warm bed to come.

My new best friend on the pier is Zoltar, a very strange character in a turban, who sits in a glass case, beckoning you from afar.

“YOU THERE!” he calls, a little too loudly and personally for my liking. Upon approaching the glass, his cold blue eyes spin a little wildly, and he invites you to find out what the future holds.

I have paid a dollar twice to get Zoltar’s advice, hoping that he would tell me that my current stresses could all be solved without my having to resort to buying dolls and sticking pins in bodily parts that will make mincemeat of my real life enemies.

His first piece of advice was that I needed to get up earlier in the morning. On the day of this revelation, I had been up since 3.30am, working, so the only way I am going to get up any earlier is if I just don’t go to bed at all. Zoltar foresaw “a turn of events that will give you a great deal of happiness”, so maybe that lottery win is in the offing after all.

On my second visit to Zoltar, he declared that I had recently had to balance work and friends. He had this to say: “Better a person of humble standing who works for himself than one who plays the great person but lacks food on the table.”

As I am having trouble paying for any food on the table at all at the moment, yet still working for myself and trying to be humble, I think his philosophy has gone a bit awry. Humility hasn’t put a bean in my mouth. So stuff humility and stuff that McDonald’s down my throat.

There was a lot of other talk about branches and trees, but Zoltar is no Socrates, believe me. So, I’ve been taking solace, instead, from “Creating True Peace” by the Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. He’s rather good, and when you learn to pity people rather than feel anger towards them, his philosophy really works. Then I see another doll and a pin-cushion and I just have to buy it.

I’m also seeing a wider variety of people on the bus to the beach. This week, a creature (I have no idea if it was man, woman or alien) got on the 704 bus from SM, covered head to toe in flowing garments and wearing a headband and dark sunglasses. He/she/it proceeded to put a newspaper on a seat, before deciding that It wanted the Chinese man’s seat opposite; so It usurped the poor man, who willingly gave it up, not wanting to argue with the bizarre spectre.

All very strange. Naturally, as It was carrying a small bag, I was convinced that we were all about to be blown up, but luckily the creature alighted at SM/Wilshire, to wreak whatever hell It was planning on people who could afford to clean up afterwards.

Despite warnings about SM not being as safe as Beverly Hills, I still haven’t been approached once by the kind of weirdos who used to confront me on a regular basis in the supposedly more upmarket area. On Tuesday, shortly after midnight, the publicist Ronni Chasen was also gunned down in her car in Beverly Hills, as she returned from the premiere of Burlesque, so it just goes to show: you never can tell.

But for a dollar’s ride on the Big Blue Bus and a $9 frozen margarita, there are times when you just have to sit and take in the wonder that is nature, and these are moments to realise that the dickwits in your life are no force for the glorious otherness of the sublime.

Who knows how long we’ll have any of it.

That’s something not even Zoltar will be able to predict.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Jet-Lagging Behind The Times 10/22/10

This jet-lag is a killer.

As I write, it is 7.30am in Spain, which means it is 10pm in LA. That is my excuse, anyway, for continuing to work my way through a giant pizza that I began about five hours ago, with the intention of consuming one small slice.

It is also my excuse for having watched two episodes of Murder She Wrote, one of Diagnosis Murder, and three episodes of Damages that I have already seen. Oh, yes, and a film called An Unexpected Love, in which a divorced woman falls for her lesbian boss. To be honest, the lesbian boss was a lot more attractive than the convertee, but I still had a cushion over my face when they hit the . . . well, it was the cushions, actually.

I have nothing against anyone being gay, but I’m just not keen on seeing full-on passion between anyone on TV. It’s not moral thing, it’s an artistic objection; I just don’t like the noises people make. It’s bad enough if you hook up with a slurper and grunter in your own life, without having to watch it all again in what should be the sanctity of your living room.

Since my arrival back in Europe, I’ve had a strange sensation of drifting in and out of consciousness. It’s been a very stressful few weeks in the US, which hasn’t helped, but after 11 hours in the sky, I feel like I did after the one and only time I had an anaesthetic: incredible highs, interspersed with mini comas. I fell asleep sitting upright at the computer last night. I wouldn’t have minded, had I awoken to find that my body had been taken over and I had composed the world’s greatest novel in my mental absence, but I didn’t; I came to, only to discover my chilli lodged in every orifice of my QWERTY and spent the next two hours picking it out with tweezers.

I am having trouble adjusting to what I can only call the RFE (Reverse Facebook Effect), too. Being eight hours behind in LA, I am used to making contact with my UK friends either at midnight when they are getting up for work in the morning, or at lunchtime my time, to coincide with their evening. In my mother’s case, that is more complicated, because I have to schedule my contact between her viewings of Home and Away, Neighbours, Emmerdale, Coronation Street and EastEnders during the week, and then X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing on Saturday and Sunday.

I finally managed to persuade her to get Sky Plus a couple of weeks ago, so that she could more easily record stuff and talk to me, or Facebook me at any time, without fear of missing anything. The problem is, she doesn’t trust it, terrified that every time she pauses a programme, she will miss out on the opportunity of seeing . . . Like I said, it’s just too complicated, and I fear that nothing short of moving back in with her after 35 years is going to solve the problem.

But I keep forgetting that I am now on European time and, because I have yet to adjust and am living my life in a semi-coma, I am contacting people at ridiculous hours. They’re just not very happy when I call at 6pm LA time, full of beans and thinking about my dinner, only to find that they have been asleep for at least two hours and now hate me for waking them up.

I don’t think I’m really helping myself on the readjustment, as my TV viewing remains pretty much as it is in the US; there really is nothing on UK TV, so I am just watching repeats of my favourite US shows on the cable channels – White Collar, Law and Order, CSI, Two and a Half Men etc. etc. – so it’s as if my brain is still telling me that I am in LA, because all the information associated with it is still being processed exactly as it was when I left.

Apart from my momentary coma lapses, I just can’t sleep. I’ve now been awake 24 hours, have written my Daily Mail column, plus an extra feature, and also started a new blog (which you should check out –, which I am hoping will attract advertising. It’s mainly out of necessity, having been landed in the deep financial shit in the US - which also isn’t helping with the sleeping – but writing has always, and continues to be a great purger.

Barely a day goes by now when I am not reminded of Edward Bulmer Lytton’s 19th century play, Richelieu, in which he asserts that the pen is mightier than the sword. Doubtless there will come a time when people won’t know what a pen is, and plays will be full of lines like “The Facebook is mightier than the Tweet”, but by then I will hopefully be long gone.

It really is strange, though, coming back to the UK news. When I left LA, all talk was about the campaigns in the race to be the next governor of California (from what I understood, the ugly, fat bird doesn’t stand a chance – that’s about the extent of my interest); in the UK, most people have been able to talk of nothing other than whether Wayne Rooney was going to stay at Manchester United, or defect to Manchester City.

Just when it looked as if the ugly, fat guy didn’t stand a chance, he appeared to give up the fight, but now all is apparently well, and the young, thick bloke, who sleeps with prostitutes, is staying on at a vastly increased salary.

There’s maybe hope for Meg Whitman in LA yet.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Cultural Light In The Tunnel 10/18/10

The cultural wasteland that is Beverly Hills has been manifesting itself this past week in the launch of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills (“Real” and “Beverly Hills” – not words you will often find together in the same sentence).

The TV series manages to bring together some of the worst, most vacuous women in various states across America (New Jersey is so far topping the list in terms of grossness), and this lot, like their predecessors, clearly have no idea about the face they are presenting to the world.

Well, I use the word “face” loosely; somewhere, beneath all the surgery and Botox, there probably lurks the semblance of a real face, but it hasn’t seen daylight for at least a decade.

It’s what Beverly Hills is all about – false features, false people, in a city of money-grabbing, intellectual dereliction. It’s a shallow, toxic environment: scratch the surface of the glamorous façade and the hollowness will swallow you up.

As friends had told me, there really is cultural life in LA beyond BH, and the relief at finally finding it has enriched my life here no end.

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre (whose resident home is London's South Bank) is in Santa Monica at the moment, and their production of The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Broadstage Theater is hilarious. My friend Gerard McCarthy, who I gave rave reviews to during his time in Hollyoaks is in it, and is now sporting luscious long blonde hair.

It was something of a talking point among some Americans in the audience. “Is it real?” they asked him at the after-show party. “Can we touch it?”

Clearly, there had been a busload in from Beverly Hills, because another man asked Gerard: “Why have you all got English accents?” Er, because the play is set in Windsor, knobhead.

Gerard is actually from Belfast, but does a very convincing English accent, and it’s great to see him playing a romantic male after his stint as a transsexual in Hollyoaks.

It’s been something of a cultural week, and yesterday I went to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion downtown, to a Dvorak recital (or Der-vorrack, as one American lady pronounced it). My new friend Francois Chouchan, an award-winning concert pianist, delivered a breathtakingly brilliant performance, and I was once again reminded that there really is nothing like great art to transcend the mundane and nastiness in life.

It was rather a special afternoon: a wonderful recital, followed by a champagne tea and “la conversation”. After the less than mediocre performances I am used to in Beverly Hills hostelries, it was, literally, music to my ears.

Friends had also informed me that if I could tear myself away from the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, there was a rich cultural life awaiting me in San Francisco.

Well, I finally managed to visit the city I had also been assured was “very European” - an observation that completely passed me by, as no matter which way I walked, I always ended up in Chinatown. And as I was walking over ten miles every day, that was something of an achievement. Or maybe I had just reached Hong Kong.

San Francisco Bay isn’t anywhere near as vibrant as Cardiff Bay back home, to be honest, although a boat trip to Alcatraz was a tad more exciting than Cardiff’s hourly water service to Penarth. Having escaped the Alcatraz that was my Beverly Hills life, however, it felt a little too close for comfort.

It was also a pretty unfriendly city. At the Butterfly restaurant in the Bay, I was about to be given a table, until some couples arrived just behind me. I was then informed that there was room “only at the bar or outside” for one person. Alcatraz was the Ritz compared to Butterfly’s outside, and I would have had to lose two stone to cram myself in at the bar, so I left.

I later left a message on the restaurant’s answer-machine, informing them how appalling it was, being treated like a second class citizen just because I was alone, blah, blah, and I was a journalist writing about the city, more blah, blah, blah.

The manager phoned me the next morning, very apologetic and offering to make it up to me on my next visit. He assured me that this really was not their policy. Yeah, right. Too little, too late.

It’s something I am not used to in Europe, and in particular Paris, where women on their own are treated with respect, even reverence. The Parisians also know that a woman by herself is likely to treat herself to a really nice bottle of wine and stuff her face with three courses, thereby spending a lot more than the family who comes in, orders a mixed salad between four, and a jug of tap water.

The King’s Head in Santa Monica appear to know this, but then it is a traditional English pub, run by the Irish. This week alone, I’ve had their Cornish pasty, their chicken curry and, joy of joys, their bangers, mash and gravy. On Saturday, my French friends went for the pasties, the fish and chips, and the chicken pie. They loved them all.

So, all in all, it’s been something of an adventurous week, which is just as well, because the weather has been diabolical. I’ve been listening to the song Rain, from the brilliant Mika album, The Boy Who Knew Too Much (“When it rai rai rains, when it rai rai rains . . . I hate days like this”), as I look out at the permanently cloudy skies.

But while there’s music and moonlight and love and romance, it’s easy to face the music and dance.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Underbelly Of Life 10/9/10

The Irish sausages were great.

My mass stocking-up of familiar UK goods from the British Shop next door to the King’s Head, and the Tudor Shop opposite, in Santa Monica, reminded me of all the foodstuffs I missed from home.

I wolfed down the Heinz baked beans like a hog returning from boot camp; the chicken pie flew down my throat like a flying saucer; and the sausages . . . Oh, the sausages.

Until discovering this little corner of a foreign field that is forever England (at least, that’s what I’m hoping), I’ve been living pretty healthily here. The lack of accessible takeaways near my apartment in Beverly Hills ensured that I wasn’t going to bed monosodium glutamated up to the gills three times a week, and I regularly went to the gym and walked pretty much everywhere.

The healthy living looks set to continue in my new life in Santa Monica, with Sports Club LA’s sister gym (which also has a huge pool) in West LA, and the close proximity of several farmers’ markets. I also walk 30 blocks to the beach, a journey that takes only 40 minutes (two days and 40 minutes, if I call into an Irish pub en route).

But now there’s that Brit temptation threatening to put a spanner in my good works when I finally reach the ocean.

I know how to watch what I eat, though, and what I put into my stomach has always been something I have been able to control. But the presence of home food in my cupboards has once more made me aware of just how very differently we eat back in the UK, compared to US folk, who seem to fall into two camps: basically, greedy buggers and nibblers, and it’s not hard to spot the difference.

The greedy buggers flock to chain restaurants such as the Cheesecake Factory or Il Pastaio, and order way too much, but eat it all anyway, for fear of not getting their money’s worth.

The nibblers can be seen hanging out in healthy sandwich/salad hostelries where, upon ordering the Caesar salad, they will add: “ . . . but no cheese, no anchovies, no dressing, and easy on the leaves.”

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t fat nibblers, too; there are. They just don’t like to be seen to be eating. They therefore manage a soupcon of kobe beef and take the rest home in a box to stuff during the Letterman Show.

Thin or fat, they all appear to be obsessed with food, and it plays the most enormous part in their lives, even while on the move - driving, walking, even on the treadmill at the gym. As someone who was brought up to eat two good meals a day and nothing in between, I just cannot get used to the snacking culture. I tell you: their mouths are never empty.

Crisps, nuts, olives, breadsticks . . . Their supermarket trolleys are piled high with junk food, which also turns up on every bar counter and restaurant table, and is consumed by the bucket-load in advance of the main meal.

And when the irritating crunch of their salty orchestra briefly pauses for an intermission, their teeth are chomping on gum, which they eat with mouths wide open, saliva dripping onto their lips. It’s like being on the set of Jaws.

It’s easy to see why 72 million Americans are obese (according to the latest statistics), but nobody seems to be doing anything about it. In the UK, the Food Standards agency has come under criticism for not providing sufficient guidelines regarding healthy eating, but there is still general knowledge, and let’s not forget Jamie Oliver, who heightened awareness among schoolchildren and their parents. But it’s just not as big a deal in the US.

I suspect that the main reason is that fast food is cheap, and with 13% to 17% of Americans living below the federal poverty line at any one time, fast food is going to be high on their limited shopping list.

But what of the percentage that does have money? Why aren’t they eating more healthily? One simple reason: the country’s indulgence of one of the seven deadly sins: Gluttony.

The way they eat in the US is a physical manifestation of the greed in so may other areas of life: the money-grabbing, selfish, mean-spiritedness among the Haves that are the very things that keep so large a percentage - the Have Nots - of the population down; it’s the word of capitalism made flesh, and it is sickening to see.

I have met some really great Americans here, and some absolute monsters; but I find the general greed, both literal and metaphorical, that I witness on a daily basis, increasingly disturbing.

In Britain, we blame the division between the Haves and the Have Nots on our class culture; it’s not called class culture in the US, but it is the same thing.

This week, a report stated that racism under Obama is worse than it was before this first black President came to power. I don’t doubt it, and in Beverly Hills in particular, I was appalled to witness the racism towards anyone who wasn’t white, upper middle strata (“class”, as we know it).

It’s disgusting. It’s inhuman. And in a country in which 92% of the population believes in God, it is utterly hypocritical.

They say that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Not in the blocked arteries of American gluttony it’s not.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Life's A Beach 9/28/10

A month is a long time in Hollywood.

There I was, all set to go home, waxing lyrical on September 6th about my family and friends, while declaring my LA life over, and yet here I am. Still. And, what’s more, in a different apartment, with another signed lease, engaged in an enormous writing project.

I can’t divulge the details just yet, but it is hugely exciting and, as I need regular access to the subjects, whose biography I am writing, have decided to stay on, rather than conduct the whole thing via e-mail and phone from back home.

No, I have not emigrated, and will still be back in the UK on two extended trips before Christmas, for all the reasons I detailed in my last blog. But I am yet again going to be an East/West commuter and sharing nights out with my flight crew chums from Virgin and Air New Zealand.

My mother in particular is being incredibly understanding. She knows what a tough year it has been, and this project could really transform my life. She is used to my changes of fortune and also my changes of address, and I could not wish for better support. My friends, also, while probably thinking I am insane, are excited for me.

But I have moved. After 18 months of living in Beverly Hills, I decided to try a different area. In recent months, I have been going to Santa Monica’s ocean front several times a week on the bus: a journey that took over half an hour. Much as I have enjoyed the exclusivity of Beverly Hills, it can hardly be called real life. The nearest supermarket was over a mile away; buying a pint of milk at night was harder than keeping a cow in the bathroom. Although there was a Whole Foods two miles away, I could no longer afford their prices. My screams at the checkout were beginning to frighten the locals.

Having looked at some dire places near the sea front, I decided upon a very high spec, modern apartment about a five-minute drive away from the coast. My new landlord owns the spectacular kitchen store below, so I now have the appliances I have always dreamed of. My fridge is like a second home. I could take in a couple of lodgers in the oven and never bump into them.

Close by and within walking distance, is the store Smart and Final, which is cheap, cheap, cheap; and, a few doors from that, the Star Market, an Oriental store with hundreds of spices and exotic fruits. The Wine Expo one block away has as good a selection of European wines as I ever saw when living in France; on Saturday, they are opening their very nice wine bar. And, opposite, there is Busby’s Sports Bar.

I’m not sure whether I will be a regular in Busby’s, which is a real All Guys Together sort of place - the kind you see in movies, before reaching for the remote to see if there is a rom com on another channel.

The clientele is very tall, they shout at screens showing games that, to me, have incomprehensible rules; they high five each other when someone scores (which appears to be often); they wear baseball hats and drink beer, while wolfing down plates of chicken wings the size of small poultry farms.

Luckily, I don’t hear any of the noise from Busby’s in my apartment, which, being far set back from the road, is unbelievably quiet, and I already feel very settled. I had everything unpacked and in its place within 48 hours, including my alphabetically ordered books – and spices. And I have already been to a cheese and wine evening at an apartment, where my new neighbour was introducing a line of beauty products.

I have also been to the fabulous Wine Lounge at the top of the new Santa Monica shopping mall, and again to my regular haunt the King’s Head, the British pub close to the front.

And who should I see in the King’s Head, but David Beckham. Sitting at the opposite table, in his baseball cap and vest, having lunch with his three kids. I could barely swallow my fries.

It was all rather sweet. David cut up the younger boy’s food and was openly affectionate with them, like any normal doting dad. And what well behaved children. Polite, friendly to the staff, they were adorable and stood patiently by as other diners, clocking the star, moved in for photos and autographs as the party stood up to leave.

Okay, yes, I was one of them. Having seen David in my gym, where Victoria regularly works out, too, I was playing it cool. And then couldn’t. So there he is, on my Blackberry, in a very blurred photo (the female fan taking it was so excited, she was shaking uncontrollably), with me looking like a Lilliputian tucked under David’s well muscled arm.

They were all going next door to the Tudor shop where, joy of joys this week, I was able to buy Heinz baked beans. And proper Irish sausages. And a chicken and mushroom pie. Real British food. You can take the girl out of Wales, but . . .

It is still easy to get around on the bus, which goes from right outside my apartment block, and yesterday I went to West Hollywood, where I saw yet another sports superstar - Mike Tyson, sitting right across from me in a hostelry. I decided not to venture forth in quite the same manner as I had with David. I value my ears. Not to mention my . . . Well, we all know the boxer’s history. He was laughing uproariously with some friends, with his mouth wide open and baring his teeth. All he was missing was a lion tamer.

So, another chapter begins, and the roller-coaster at the end of Santa Monica pier beckons. It’s an appropriate metaphor for the fortunes of my strangely ever-changing life.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Tony Blair - My Part In His Book's Downfall 9/6/10

Technical failure, terrorism, another BA strike – we are beset by so many fears in the age of modern flying; and yesterday, I was able to add another to my list. The low-flying book.

I’d been reading extracts from Tony Blair’s memoirs on the train on my way to Heathrow. Leaving his sniping about Gordon Brown aside, his excessive use of the exclamation mark and the awful title, A Journey (living in LA, I am so sick of everybody’s bloody emotional and spiritual journeys), I thought there was enough of interest to warrant my buying a copy for the long flight back to LA.

The problem was, that as it is number one on the WH Smith bestseller list, it was on the top shelf. Not being one for girlie mags, and being a semi-dwarf, I have never been over- familiar with the top shelf, so I took what seemed like the easiest route, stretched up with a kind of little hop, too, and tried to grab a copy.

Big mistake. The book I grappled with flew off the shelf, crashed onto my face, cut my cheek open and left me with a whacking great bruise and in rather a lot of pain.

It’s a big book. Well, it’s a big book for a small cheek and rather delicate cheekbone. It was a veritable weapon of mass destruction, to be honest, and an attack that left me having to fill out a personal injury form while pressing an ice-pack to my face.

I really wish I’d paid more attention to those TV ads fronted by Billy Murray, who used to be in The Bill and EastEnders; he’s now on screen telling you how to get a lawyer to sue the arse off people who piss you off. I vaguely recall that his ads are for criminal lawyers, and I’m not entirely sure whether a book would technically qualify as an assailant, but I’m sure it’s worth a call.

In the Star Alliance lounge, where I went to recover from my attack, John from WH Smith and Susan from Air New Zealand administered to my needs, and the staff on board ANZ checked on my wellbeing throughout the flight.

As for Tony’s book, I never even opened it. It stayed in the overhead locker for the entire 12 hours, as there was no way I was going to risk another mid-air collision with the thing.

I can never decide what to do for entertainment on the plane. I usually buy half a dozen books but never get to read them, because most passengers pull down the window blinds within minutes of being airborne, and leave the cabin in relative darkness.

I’m running out of films, too, as I have made the journey so often (that’s journey with a small “j”, Tony! And that’s the way to use an exclamation mark, by the way!! And that's not.).

The Lovely Bones and My Sister’s keeper had me sobbing so uncontrollably throughout, I though I would need paramedics to resuscitate me on arrival. Dying, or already dead young girls are not the stuff of in-flight entertainment, I have decided.

I loved Ricky Gervais’s The Invention of Lying, which has an immense profundity at its comic heart; and yesterday I really enjoyed Sex and the City II, along with The Juliet Letters.

Mind you, it was hard to concentrate on either, as the woman in the opposite aisle was laughing so much throughout the episodes of Only Fools and Horses she was watching, I thought she would have to be sedated.

I’ve been making the journey regularly for nearly two years now, and this one, the penultimate one before returning to the UK at the end of the month, was an emotional one.

I’ve made quite a few friends, both among passengers and staff. I’ve travelled with celebrities – Sharon Osborne, La Toya Jackson, Mel B – and chatted to many writers and producers.

I’ve eaten both great food (ANZ) and not so great (Virgin). I’ve travelled in a wheelchair to the plane when I did my back in, and I’ve lost a hugely expensive tennis bracelet that I still can’t bear to think about.

I’ve seen more films than I ever would have managed to do on dry land, and written thousands upon thousands of words of my book.

I’ve cried when travelling to or from a funeral or memorial service, and I’ve travelled with great excitement when knowing I am going to see family or friends and share in more joyous activities in their lives.

Most significantly, perhaps, the fear I once had of flying has completely disappeared. It certainly feels a lot safer than trying to cross the road in LA.

True, that fear has been replaced by a fear of low-flying books, but you can’t have everything.

I’ll miss the long haul flights, not least because I can’t imagine any other circumstances in which I would have the joyous experience of being forcibly separated from the non-stop ringing of my mobile phone for 12 hours.

But I can again look forward to nipping over to Paris on the Eurostar; the short flight to southern Spain, where I still have an apartment; the easy train access to London’s vast cultural experiences.

And as people keep telling me: LA’s not going anywhere and I can return anytime I like. In the words of Tony Blair . . . Well, I’m not sure I’ll ever find out what they are.

But as journeys go, mine’s been a great one.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Marijuana Or Martini? The Choice Is Yours 8/22/10

It’s a thin line between being laid back and being lazy, a fact to which several hundred people I have met here bear witness.

While there are many incredibly hard-working individuals who come to California in search of fame and fortune, there are even more who come in search of a lifestyle that allows them to be even more bone idle than they managed to be back in their home country.

Because the US is a country in which everything seems possible, and anyone can be anything they want to be, the spirit of optimism rides high; the problem is that the spirit of delusion rides equally high, and everyone thinks they are going to make it, irrespective of talent, and irrespective of their ability or desire to put their noses to the grindstone.

Personally, when I arrived, I worked very, very hard, often right through the night. I rediscovered a passion for writing that I had not experienced in some years, the toils of journalism having knocked out some of my creativity for different sorts of projects.

But as time has gone on, I have felt a slight lethargy creeping in, a desire to “chill out” more, which, while being beneficial in many ways to my health, has made me feel increasingly irritable and restless.

Excessive chilling out can be as frustrating as excessive stress, and it can smooth the rough edges of creativity – you only have to look at the crap that Hollywood turns out to know that.

The endless warm weather is undoubtedly a relaxant. In the UK, if the sun shines on a Bank Holiday, we rush to throw ourselves into vats of Stella in pub gardens and beachside bars; but if you drank every time the sun shone here, you would never be sober.

The misery of bad weather makes Brits drink a lot more, and their lifestyle is a lot more stressed. The cycle is one of stress at work/worry about money = drinking to forget and reduce stress = more stress, because nothing has fundamentally changed.

When the sun is permanently shining, it is actually very hard to keep drinking, because dehydration induces a craving for little else other than water or, in my case, gallons of PG Tips.

The vast open spaces of LA in particular, are also contributory to the emotional spaced-out-ness of its residents. You just don’t literally bump into anyone in the streets here; yes, people spend an inordinate amount of time in their cars, but when out and about, there is a feeling of spaciousness that, coupled with the ability to live so much of one’s life outdoors, cannot help but contribute to a feeling well-being. I walk miles every week and love the fact that I see so few people along the way (even if the police are a little suspicious of folk a pied).

When I recently returned to London, I felt like a marching ant in Oxford Street: being hurtled along, against my will, to whatever hell my body was being forced. I was terrified.

This week, however, I discovered another contributing factor in California’s laid-back state of mind: marijuana. Lots of it.

I know a handful of people in the UK who are prescribed marijuana for medical reasons, and others who have taken the drug recreationally. Among the first group, I have seen the benefits; among the latter, I have seen a few people who appeared to function perfectly well taking it.

But I have also witnessed that heavy marijuana use often goes hand in hand with unemployment (and yes, I appreciate that most people are unemployed for a whole host of other reasons) or, at best, under-achievement; I have seen it lead to usage of heavier drugs.

There have also been, sadly, a few in whom I have witnessed increasing use of the drug appearing to induce psychoses, with often tragic results.

As with all drugs, the goal-posts are ever shifting, according to medical research and our own experience, and in the case of marijuana I am no expert as to the short or long term physical effects.

But in California, it is synonymous with the laid back lifestyle, and it's everywhere. When I arrived, a few people told me that they could recommend some doctors where I could obtain “medicinal marijuana”, a phrase that apparently gets around the legalities. I politely declined and haven’t heard or seen much about it since.

Occasionally, it gets a mention in TV court shows, and in one recent People’s Court, a man was suing his ex, because he gave her marijuana, which she smoked but didn’t pay the full amount for – and she was counter-suing him, because it was allegedly inferior stuff. “California! Dontcha love it!” said Judge Milian.

This week, however, I went to Venice Beach, which might as well be called Marijuana Marina, for all the cannabis on offer there.

Every few steps, another man approached, pointing to a doorway, where, apparently, a highly reputable doctor was inside, handing out medicinal marijuana. The smell of the stuff was so intense along the board-walk, I felt I was getting enough already, without having to pay anything for it.

Gosh, it was bad. A really sickly, sweet smell, that seemed to permeate every pore in my body.

Venice is where the really, really lazy people hang out, I discovered. I hadn’t been there for 20 years and thought that maybe it had cleaned up its act, but nothing of the sort. It’s dirty, scruffy, a bit scary, and makes the Kiss Me Quick culture of Blackpool look like Key West.

There was only one place where you could have anything remotely decent to eat or drink along the front: the Sidewalk Café (apparently famous, though heaven knows why), barely better than a roadside caff, and with every table boasting a plastic bottle of Heinz tomato ketchup the size of a small baby.

I walked to nearby Santa Monica, roughly three miles away and a tad more civilised. It still has the air of a slightly downmarket UK seaside town, but at least you can breathe the air there.

But the edginess that inspired me when I first arrived and which sustained me for about six months has definitely diminished. Many of my reasons for leaving I wrote about two weeks ago; but another reason is my feeling increasingly out of kilter with this all too laid back lifestyle - and, in my case, that's nothing to do with the availability of marijuana. The drug is just one of a whole host of factors that keeps large sections of this city in a state bordering on rigor mortis.

As I said, it’s a thin line between laziness and being laid back, and I don’t want that line to get any thinner.

At the end of the day, there’s more to life than sunshine.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

That's Another Fine Mess . . . 8/21/10

Has there ever been a nation in the history of civilisation that opened its mouth so much and yet said so very little as the USA?

Yes, it’s been another nightmare week in the LA service industry that so enamoured me when I first arrived.

Having finally managed to sort out my ongoing saga too boring to detail with Best Buy, this week it was the turn of the grocery store, Vons.

As I do not have a car, I have been mostly using the store’s online delivery service. Vons, like its sister store, Pavilions, is, in fact, Safeway, and far cheaper than, say, Ralph’s or Wholefoods. Every few weeks, Vons will deliver your groceries for free, although this is usually dependent upon your purchasing five items from whatever their specials of the week happen to be.

So, for example, when they had a healthy options week, you could get a free delivery if you bought things such as vegetable juice, bran flakes, oatmeal bars – stuff you would never normally touch, let alone swallow, but, for the sake of saving $6.95, were prepared to spend three times that amount on the useless products.

I was having a party and therefore bought the wine in bulk, when I saw a special offer allowing you free delivery on an order over $150. So far, so good – well, almost. Apart from the defrosted pizzas, the bulk order of creamed corn instead of peas, and soft drinks clearly belonging to another order. Customer service ignored my complaining e-mail.

When the party came around some weeks later, two of the bottles of Pinto Grigio turned out to be corked, so I contacted the store to see how they might be replaced.

Now, you have to know this about every single American in LA (at least, the ones I have met): they know nothing, nada, zilch, about wine. Every restaurant, every bar, every snooty bloke sitting down once a month with his mates for a blind “tasting” (basically: rich, ignorant, old guys with nothing better to do - and you see them in many hostelries) – they wouldn’t know a decent wine if it spat at them.

On the few occasions when I have had to send back a corked bottle, the members of staff have examined the glass, declaring that they cannot see any cork floating in it; or they have just looked at me blankly.

And it's not just a problem with corked wine. This week, I had to send back a 2007 Tavel because it had, quite simply, been kept too long in the wrong temperature and had turned to sherry; I know that Tavel is a dark rose, but honestly, I’ve seen more attractive diverticulitis.

The waiter was polite in removing the offending receptacle, but with the comment: “Well, if you don’t like it.” “No,” I said. “It’s not that I don’t like it; it’s bad.” More blank stares.

Bar, restaurant, or five star hotel, it’s been the same story every time, so I wasn’t holding out much hope for the Vons sommelier.

Sure enough, after being put through to various people on the phone, each claiming to be a different branch of Customer Service, I tracked down the store from which my wine had originated. But no. I could not return it, as it had been bought online. More calls. This time: no, any goods had to be returned within 48 hours; it was “company policy”.

So, I said, if I buy 20 bottles of wine, I have to taste them all within 48 hours, purely to ascertain whether they are corked, in order to be allowed to bring them back? Apparently, yes. But then, according to the small print, no; I discovered that it’s not even that easy. Once wine has been delivered for an online order, it cannot be returned – for any reason.

None of the people I spoke to knew what a corked wine was, anyway, so I have downloaded the Wikipedia definition, which I intend to show to everyone I meet who pleads ignorance on the matter.

It’s an awful lot of effort to go to for the presence of a bit of 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA) (that’s corked, for those of you still in the dark; and smell a wet dog, if you’re still confused as to what you should be sniffing for); but why should anyone lose their money because Vons has a policy on refusing to accept returns on what are, essentially, damaged goods?

So, my disillusionment with the service industry that so impressed me when I arrived, continues. The “Yes, ma’am, I can help you with that today” continues to mean “No chance” with every single company I am trying to wind up my affairs with.

I’m going to need more alcohol just to get me through it. I’m just not going to be buying it from Vons.

I’ll just head for the Napa Valley, hook myself up to a vine and cut out the middle man.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Amazing, Awesome, Aw, Just Shut The Hell Up 12th August 2010

There are only two words that Americans in LA use to express their enthusiasm: awesome and amazing.

Unlike Brits, for whom “quite good” and “enjoyable” are regarded as commendable expletives, nothing here is ever less than knocking your socks off, being blown away by, knocking you down with a feather, dog’s bollocks, et al – in other words (two, to be precise): awesome, or amazing.

Both words were much in evidence this week at the live shows in LA of America’s Got Talent, which for the first time featured acts hitherto known only on YouTube (which is where most of them should have stayed).

Inevitably, this resulted in a bunch of mediocrities taking to the stage with their dubious “talents”, but that didn’t stop them from expressing their delight at the awesomeness of the occasion.

Ten year-old Jackie Evancho, who wowed the crowd with her powerful rendition of O Mio Babino Caro, made it through to the semi-final in Las Vegas, and said the whole thing had so far been “amazing”. Okay, she’s a kid and can be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed by the occasion, but it was the same for everyone else.

Don’t they teach them any other adjectives in school here?

As a side point, was Jackie that awesome anyway? She was a very cute kid, with a powerful, pure voice, and youngsters invariably do well in these competitions. But in the UK version of the show, this really annoys me at times.

Go to the annual Eisteddfod in Wales every year, where young kids with AMAZING voices are two a penny. They never make it onto the UK version of Britain’s Got Talent, because they are, quite simply, too talented. One gifted child standing out on a freak show (which is what BGT increasingly is) can be regarded as a phenomenon; put him or her alongside another dozen talented kids, and the first one’s mediocrity will shine through.

Jackie Evancho has a very strong, melodic voice, but dreadful breathing technique, which resulted in poor phrasing (less pushing for power would have solved this, so there). She is still terrific, but there are still equally impressive youngsters of her age out there (Charlotte Church was brilliant beyond belief at this age). But hey, Jackie fits the bill of the TV show.

It has also been an amazing, awesome time for Ali Fedotowsky, who, in ABC’s reality show, The Bachelorette, this month, chose her husband, Roberto Martinez, from a cast of 25 hopefuls. Ali and Roberto Martinez got engaged at the end of the series, and have this week been walking hand in hand around LA, or seeking even more publicity in a sky blue metallic Volkswagen convertible, driving around San Diego.

Their first appearance after the show’s finale was on Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night talk show, where the host drew attention to the number of times the word “amazing” had been uttered throughout the series. Ali was amazing, said the guys; the guys were amazing, said Ali; Iceland was amazing (Ali); the experience was amazing (everyone). On and on and on.

Ali was amazingly irritating, with her nasally drawn out syllables every time she said “amaiiiirrrzing” or “Awwwwwsome”. I couldn’t help feeling that if Bart Simpson had turned up as one of her suitors, Ali would have expressed just as much amazingness towards him, and even towards his dysfunctional family (yes, all the families of the men she visited were amaiiiirrrzing, too).

When I first arrived here, I loved the enthusiasm that greeted me in every restaurant and shop. I liked the service at the end of the phone – “Yes, ma’am, I can help you with that today.” The irritating aspect of it now is not that it is deliberately false (they genuinely do go out of their way to help); it’s the monotony of the tone in which everything is said, and the fact that the promised help rarely brings about a satisfactory result.

I never know whether I am speaking to a machine or a human at the end of the line and now ask, just before I start detailing my problem, which it is, for fear of being given a star-key option at the end of my diatribe. And then, more often than not, the person who promises to help me at the start of the conversation can do nothing of the sort.

Take Best Buy. I think I must now have spoken to everyone in the organisation, each of whom turned out to be less helpful than the person before. I can only reiterate the slogan I adopted from day one with this dreadful store: Best Buy somewhere else.

Yesterday, I was talking on the phone to a woman from Time Warner Cable, who assured me she could help in my request to scale down my service in the weeks before I return to the UK. She told me she loved my English accent and always felt the need to compliment one when she heard it. I pointed out that it was Welsh and proceeded to give her a geography lesson regarding the four-country break-up of the United Kingdom.

In her excitement, she pressed all the wrong buttons and had to start the operation again. “I didn’t know that,” she went on. “But then how would I, if I’ve never been there.”

Duh! We are handcuffed to you on every battlefield! How about dipping into books, TV, the internet, newspapers? I’ve never been to the White House, but I still know it was occupied by an amazing nobhead before November 2008.

The LA Dictionary of Wonder is undoubtedly the smallest in the world. Once you’ve dispensed with the words awesome and amazing, there is little left for anyone to say. This inability to find suitable words has resulted in the “NoNoNoNoNo” culture, which you can find not only in everyday conversation, but in just about every TV show, whether it be reality, drama or comedy - and not just in LA.

Take a look at Friends again, and Rachel in particular. When she is not being amazed or over-awed, she is wagging her finger in a contradictory manner and saying “NoNoNoNoNo”, because she has already run out of words to express extreme emotion.

Yes, it’s nice to be treated courteously, instead of someone throwing you your burger and never looking you in the eye (you know who you are, Burger King on Paddington Station), and enthusiasm, encouragement and positivity can cheer up the most dreary of days; but after 18 months, it’s getting in my face.

The promise of helpful assistance is rarely forthcoming in the long term, and things that people profess to be awesome or amazing are invariably less than mediocre; in fact, if I’m being honest, they’re often crap.

Not everything in life has to be awesome or amazing, and throwing these words around willy nilly may give everyone a level playing field, but it’s a very hollow one.

Sometimes, in life, things are just okay.

And you know something? That’s okay.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Gotcha! LAPD's Finest Hour 8/8/10

Sitting on your sofa in front of the telly can be an exhausting experience in LA.

Despite having witnessed thousands of car chases in TV dramas over my twenty-odd years as a TV critic, I cannot believe the difference in emotions when you know that you are experiencing the real thing.

The last car chase (well, crawl, to be precise) I watched on TV was that involving OJ Simpson, whose white van was followed by cops, following the murder of his ex, Nicole Brown Simpson and her lover Ronald Goldman (a crime of which he was found not guilty – okay, so he just fancied a long drive that day).

But on Thursday afternoon this week, a man who had walked into the Southwest Los Angeles Police Department and threatened officers, took to the streets in what I can only describe as hara-kiri on wheels.

It was incredible. Breathtaking. I was shouting at the screen, as the man went the wrong way up and down streets, speeding at 70 mph as the cars around him trudged by at 30.

How did I know the speed? The Man in the Helicopter that was following the chase told me. I tell you: I learned more about the streets of Downtown LA during this half hour than a year of studying Google maps could have taught me.

Then the guy mounted the pavement – still speeding. Any human would have been mown down in his path, had they been in his way; a walking Chihuahua would have been mincemeat within seconds.

The cops almost caught him at one point, but their car bonnets ended up in a kind of romantic kiss as the man sped away once more. “NOOOOOOOOOOO!” I yelled, as the runaway car sped off yet again.

At one junction, he hit another vehicle; then he narrowly missed hitting three others. And then . . . Oh, yegods, this was far, far better than Hill Street Blues had ever been . . . One of the cop cars chasing him crashed into a palm tree.

The MIH (Man In Helicopter) now had so much more to talk about. Not only was he instructing me in the intricacies of Downtown LA sidewalks and streets, he now had the job of filling me in on the state of the officer’s health.

Was he injured? If so, how severely? Oh no: surely the poor man hadn’t died (okay, MIH didn’t say this, but I was fearing the worst). And there he was again, the cop in the palm tree! All because our escapee was now going around the block.

I was exhausted. And then, at about 2.15pm, it all ended at 37th Street and Normandie Avenue (I tell you: I could be a tour guide after this), when the man hit a car and the cop cars blocked him in.

But even then, the drama didn’t end. Despite the fact that about a dozen armed cops surrounded the vehicle, the man wouldn’t budge. One cop started to smash in the rear windscreen; people in surrounding vehicles didn’t know whether to stay put or run (according to MIH – God, this guy was good); and then, back in the studio, MIH was interrupted.

A warning: we don’t know what’s going to happen next, so if there are small children watching or you were of a delicate persuasion (words to that effect), turn away now.

Ohyegods triplefold! They were going to blow the guy’s brains out! Even better, they were going to beat him to a pulp before our very eyes. And all because he had walked into a station and been a bit abusive.

Blimey. They should be in central Cardiff after a rugby international, then they’d know the meaning of abuse.

And our criminal STILL wasn’t getting out of the vehicle. Momentarily stunned (according to MIH), they finally got him out, but, when he came to, he was still resisting arrest.

Geez! How many LA cops does it take to nuke a light-bulb?

What impressed me the most about the chase was how considerate the cops were about other cars, pedestrians, small dogs (okay, my added colour again) et al, as they followed the guy – certainly a darn sight more considerate than he was being.

Unlike the cop cars in Hill Street Blues, where mowing people down got you promotion, the cops following this guy slowed down where they thought there was danger to Beverly Hills/Downtown Chihuahuas and their owners; and yet, incredibly, they still managed to keep up with the maniac.

My admiration of the LAPD remains resolute; it may have taken a dozen of them to nuke the light-bulb, but they got there in the end.

So gripped was I by the spectacle, however, that I realised I had missed Judge Alex, who is my Monday to Friday TV fix. Still, I had endured more than enough law, order, and assassinated palm trees for one day. As, I suspect, had our MIH.

What, though, he added, must the person driving the silver car that our baddie crashed into have been thinking?

How much money can I make from this on Fox News would be my guess.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Time To Go Home? 7/29/10

I once told Steven Spielberg that ET was the greatest film ever made.

I had managed to crash a post BAFTA Awards party by crawling through the legs of people queuing to get into the venue. Once inside, I hovered by the late, great Bill Cotton, who introduced me to the director, who had just won an award for Schindler’s List.

“I know you’ve just won an award for another film,” I said, “but I have to tell you that I think ET is the greatest film ever made.”

“Gee,” said Spielberg. “D’you know, I was thinking about that film last Friday, and I think you could well be right.”

I maintain that it is still the greatest. It has all the monumental themes: separation and loss; life, death and resurrection; survival, friendship, science versus the heart, and, in its final denouement, the need to belong: ET, phone home; ET, home, home, home.

“Come’” says ET to Elliott, as they stand beside the waiting to depart spaceship.

“Stay,” says Elliott. In those two words, you have it all: we want to hold on, we need to let go.

That scene remains, for me, in just two words, the greatest in cinematic history.

I’ve been thinking about it again this week, as the pull of home grows strong once more. I’ve been here 15 months, and each time I go back to the UK, it is harder to return. I see family and friends, spend time in my house, surrounded by my familiar things, and never does my identity feel so strong as it does when back in Wales.

Usually, my mother comes to stay with me when I return, but this time I visited her. She lives in the house in Bristol, where she and my father moved after my brother and I left school. My Dad died a little over 20 years ago, but there are still signs of him everywhere: photographs on the mantelpiece and the wall; the Capodimonte Romeo and Juliet his firm gave to Mum when he died; the G Plan dining room suite my parents were so excited to buy decades ago, and which still looks perfect.

Walking up the stairs is to climb the family tree. My brother and I are there in our university caps and gowns; the beautiful face of my dear cousin Sarah, who died at just 34 nearly five years ago, looks out with her mischievous smile; aged aunts and grandparents stain the wall in their sepia colours.

In my bedroom (we still call it “mine”), the oaky smell of the square wooden jewellery box in which I stored my first trinkets, still permeates the room; the white bedroom furniture that arrived over 40 years ago and thrilled me so much with its in-built electric light, is still standing (and operational).

In my mother’s office, there are the books I left behind. A Course in Miracles; a poetry compilation the size of two bricks and whose title I cannot see, as neither my mother nor I will ever be able to reach it; dog-eared cookery books.

Downstairs, I go through the LPs that I want to load onto a memory stick from the system Mum bought me for Christmas. Richard Burton reading Under Milk Wood; the Misa Criola and African Sanctus, which Mum played incessantly when she returned from a drama course at Barry Summer School; Elvis and the Beatles; Roy Orbison and Tom Jones; Shirley Bassey and Abba. Our family’s past, imprinted in vinyl.

Mum cooks me dinner (a “mam” dinner, as we call it – real food, with gravy) and we drink tea from two of the many mugs she used to buy from Ewenny pottery, always insisting that we stop off there on our way back from the beach (beach, two hours; pottery, four – that sort of thing).

It was a miracle there was even room for the purchases, given what she used to pack for our weekly trips to Southerndown, near Bridgend, where I grew up.

Beach chairs, table, Lilo, Floatina, wind-break, lounger, deck chairs, towel wraps, Tupperware containers of squash and sandwiches, flasks of tea – the tide was so far out by the time we reached the coast with our second home, we needed a compass to find it.

I think of the many dinners Mum used to cook – meat and two veg, plus a pudding every day – all of it coming back in the rise of the steam as she tips the potatoes into the colander. And I think how much I love my mother and the life she and Dad gave me and my wonderful brother Nigel.

And suddenly I know that much as I try, much as I am energised by my new life, I cannot start making a new history, especially in a country that barely has one of its own, and that I miss the history of which I am already a part: a history still in the making, with friends and family celebrating new ventures and achievements, and children (many of whom I have known since they were babies) growing into adults and just starting to make their way in the world.

But also people close to me, young and old, falling sick, suffering; some dying. I don’t want to regret not being there to spend whatever time any of us have left together.

There is so much to love about California. I admire the spirit of optimism, the belief that anything is possible and, of course, I adore the weather. As a writer, I try to cram in as many experiences as I can, and this, despite heartache along the way, has been one of the best. I have also completed two books here, one of which will be a compilation of these blogs.

I have made good friends and I do not rule out keeping on my apartment. But at the moment, the longing for the homeland that the Welsh call "hiraeth", tugs at my heart. Who knows, if I had crawled through enough legs, Hollywood might have held more allure, but I have found this small part of the city, with its detritus of mostly broken Hollywood dreams, a little sad.

Next week, it is a year since my good friend and mentor Blake Snyder, who was so instrumental in my coming here, suddenly died; and that, too, has been a salient reminder of how quickly everything can be snatched away.

I divide my life now into BB and AB – Before Blake and After Blake, and I am not the same person who came here in April 2009.

But in the words of the song about that great hero of my youth, Andy Pandy: Time to go home, Time to go home.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Is That A Truncheon In Your Pocket, Or . . . 7/20/10

You know you’re getting old when the policemen start getting hornier.

Maybe it’s the warmer weather, maybe it’s the fact that the LA cops just all seem to have walked out of the movies, but they really are a pretty hot bunch.

Until I came to LA, uniformed cops never really did it for me; I simply have too much of a terror of authority to be able to think of the police as anything other than people who will put me in chains for getting out of bed the wrong side (I once woke my parents up in the middle of the night, devastated that I had forgotten to pay my three-pence to Brown Owl in the weekly Brownies meeting, which gives you an idea of how law-abiding I have always felt the need to be).

Doctors, yes (love the white coats and any man in scrubs); firemen, yes (although mainly for their props – sliding pole, hoses, that sort of thing); but never coppers (despite their truncheons).

Well, unless you count actors who play coppers.

My first job as a TV critic coincided with the launch of the ITV show The Bill and, being in my twenties, it was hard not to be drawn to these rather fit young men who launched the series.

Now, the actors are 103, the show is being axed, and everyone wants to see real life coppers in reality shows, which to me isn’t the same thing at all.

But there is just something about the Beverly Hills cops, who will rush to your aid in about 30 seconds flat, no matter how small your problem.

Hilton Hotel too noisy? Call the cops. Nasty man in Vodafone shop, threatening to come back and shoot everyone because his SIM card doesn’t work? Call the cops.

They are pretty strict about road etiquette, which can be a bit scary (do not, and I mean do NOT cross unless the white man is showing on the lights), but their constant patrol, both on foot and in cars, makes you feel extra safe which, for a woman walking alone in a big city (yes, I am still the only person who walks in LA), is always a good thing.

I suspect, however, that the real reason I am fancying the cops is the ongoing absence of any decent men here. The arrogance and rudeness of most blokes I meet makes even the most misogynistic of Brits seem like groupies in the Germaine Greer Appreciation Society.

The guys with money treat you like dirt because they just want a piece of eye candy on their arms (which they know they can get); the high end business guys can’t bear it when you’re not impressed with their status; and the tough guys . . .

Well, I have to be careful what I say about them, for obvious reasons. I haven’t met many, but when I was told that “the real life Tony Soprano” had entered one establishment I frequent, naturally I was curious.

Tony Soprano? The guy looked as if he had eaten three Tony Sopranos for breakfast and still had enough room for three small cousins. Initially friendly, he and his mate then decided that sometimes guys just had to be guys and women got in the way.

As they high-fived each other in their mutual appreciation of each other’s wit (I use the world very loosely), I was yet again left wondering where the smart, creative men hang out.

Having now lived in five different countries (Wales, England, France, Spain and the US), it’s fairly safe to say that I’ve given the male species more than a good onceover.

I have really close male friends, so I don’t have an anti-man thing going on. But all those men were nabbed long ago, and even those who broke up with their partners were quickly snatched up the second or third time around.

Really, you have to start looking in August if you’re hoping to have a date on New Year’s Eve (take note: Windows 2011 is just around the corner), although I suspect that all the men I would really like to meet are so busy working, they have to schedule the pulling of a Christmas cracker three years in advance.

Meeting a man was never my aim here; I came to work and, having just about finished my book (writing, not reading), am pleased with the progress I have made. But some male company along the way would have been nice.

I have met some wonderful Europeans, all really into their work and loving the LA lifestyle. I have met great women, too, both American and European. But the American male is a species I just don’t understand.

People tell me that the East Coast is very different, so, who knows, maybe that’s where I’ll head next.

Or maybe I’ll just aim for a wild party in LA at the end of 2010, have the cops called in, and see in the New Year in handcuffs.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Cleanest Bottom In Hollywood 7/5/10

Wolfgang’s toilet.

They’re not two words I ever expected to write in the same sentence, but the receptacle of which I speak has to be one of the seven great wonders of modern technology (on a list that includes the Eurostar and the i-Pad).

Wolfgang’s Steakhouse is one of my favourite haunts in Beverly Hills: a large steak restaurant with a long bar down one side, and delightful staff that never make me feel less than hugely welcome.

It has the lovely Adolpho on the piano, some really good European wines (difficult to find in LA, with its excess of California plonk, which I loathe), and a sociable clientele who make it easy to make friends if you’re sitting by yourself.

But the toilet. Oh, the toilet.

The first thing that strikes you is how warm the seat is. It’s like going back to the womb; that in itself makes you reluctant to get off.

But then there are the various dials to your right on the wall: the first two say “REAR CLEANSING”, with five small vertical dots under the one, and four dots and the word "SOFT" written under the second button.

Next comes “FRONT CLEANSING”, with two sets of four dots in a diamond shape underneath. Then you have “PRESSURE” and “POSITION”, with a plus at the top and a minus below. I tell you: the place is a veritable theatre.

I didn’t know which bits to wash first, nor (not having entertained myself in this manner before), how much pressure to go for.

Was it like an Indian restaurant, where you ordered the Vindaloo and then realised, too late, that you had over-estimated how strong your constitution was?

Then there was position to consider. Did you have to take the size of your rear end into consideration when deciding whether to sit more towards the front or back of the seat? Or did the position button take care of all that for you?

In the time it was taking me to weigh up my options, a lengthy queue was doubtless forming outside the door, impatient customers who had yet to discover what an adventure the emptying of one’s bladder and bowels could be.

In the end, I tried all options. I could take the Vindaloo force on front wash, but had to take it easy on non-soft rear wash, which, on full pressure, made me feel as if an elephant had decided to empty its trunk into my back passage.

Front cleansing was an easier and far more pleasurable operation altogether, but then that was something I had already learned long ago.

The only thing I didn’t manage to do was flush the damned thing. When I put the lid down, the array of lights and paraphernalia turned the bowl into the Star Ship Enterprise. I pressed, I tapped, I looked in vain for a flush, but nothing.

When I questioned Ron the manager about this (adding my compliments to the plumber) upon my return to the restaurant (days later, it seemed, and a lot cleaner than when I had gone in), I was assured that even if you haven't managed to work out the logistics, it flushed automatically once you left the cubicle.

It wasn’t until I got back to my seat that I realised I hadn’t actually done the very thing I had gone in there for – namely, the evacuation of my supper; there were just too many other things to do.

Quite what governor Mr Schwarzenegger would think of it all is anybody’s guess. California has been suffering from a water shortage for some time now, and if the entertainment offered by Wolfgang’s toilet starts attracting bigger audiences than it already does, that shortage is only going to worsen.

I suppose they could try using the same water, recycling it and purifying it in some way, but I suspect that would probably negate the “cleaning” part of the operation.

I’m also curious as to what goes on in the men’s room at Wolfgang’s. Presumably, they have the same bowl and dials for longer performances, but I’m curious as to what their urinal is like.

Is there a small shower for testicle cleansing, a foreskin wash, added pressure for the less sensitive circumcised organ? Do men have to change position according to the size of their anatomy? Do very large penises have to be done in shifts?

There are so many unanswered questions about Wolfgang’s toilet, but at least I have information about the most important one – can I get one installed in my apartment?

Apparently, they only cost about $1500, which, when you compare it to the price of going to the theatre, is a really good deal, considering how many toilet performances you are going to attend in your lifetime.

I’m going to ask my landlady to look into it and try to convince her of the benefits of having the cleanest tenants on the block.

And when it’s installed, I might invite my 25 year old Italian next door neighbour to the premier. Maybe we can share a Cornetto in the interval.

Ready for my close-up? You bet. I already feel flushed with success.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Talking Sport Bollocks 6/23/10

If you had told me two years ago that I would be cheering for the USA in anything, other than its drowning in the sandwich of its two oceans, I would have laughed.

Not only laughed, I would have bet my house, my every worldly possession and even my entire family against it.

Yet last week found me yelling for the Lakers, who won the NBA Basketball, yesterday cheering as I watched their celebratory parade and, today, shouting for the USA soccer team in the World Cup.

Landon Donovan’s goal gave them 1-0 up against Algeria and put them top of Group C, the first time since 1930 and ahead of runners-up England (alas, they beat Slovenia, so the ghastly fans I wrote about in my last but one blog must have been particularly gross today).

Nine of the USA goals have been scored after the 86th minute, which is a tribute to the team’s incredible nerve.

You see what has happened to me? I can now talk sport bollocks with the best of them.

A year ago, I didn’t even know that the Lakers were basketball and the Dodgers baseball. I hated the “guy” culture, with men in my gym high-fiving each other, shouting at the TV screens on the treadmill when a player missed whatever ball he was trying to hit or land. I was constantly irritated by the non-stop talk about whatever game had been played the night before (and there always seemed to be one).

Every day, I was bemoaning this sports-obsessed nation and, in particular, its obsession with baseball and basketball. But I have come to love the latter. There is something incredibly beautiful about the 3-point shots that land so cleanly through the basket, and the energy that sustains itself throughout these fast games is breathtaking.

I love the squeak of rubber on hardwood, the intensity in foreheads pouring with sweat. And the muscles. Oh, the muscles of those players. I’m not sure my bones would emerge intact after a night in a dark hotel room with any of them, but these bodies are works of art.

“Go, Lakers, Go!” I posted on Facebook throughout the game, as my friends back in the UK wondered whether I had completely lost my sanity. I was in my favourite restaurant, Enoteca, in Beverly Hills, chatting to locals about individual players, and querying why the Lakers were taking so long to shoot.

“Shoot! Shoot! we chorused. It was an exhilarating three hours and, by the end, I was exhausted. I felt as if I had been up against the Boston Strangler, not to mention the Boston Celtics.

I have never been much into soccer, as I have always been a die-hard rugby fanatic, and English soccer in particular – the arrogance of its players, the thuggish fans - leaves me ice cold. But I’ve got into the World Cup purely as a result of the emotion the USA team has been generating.

Their soccer has been pretty impressive, and today I found myself welling up as Donovan spoke after the Algeria game about the “journey” he has been on the last four years.

They are very fond of their journeys, these Americans. If you haven’t been on one, you are an emotional retard, and in LA especially, you can find every kind of tool - emotional, spiritual, physical or mental - to help you on your way.

Worried about the future? See a psychic. Need physical enhancement? Join a gym or see a plastic surgeon. Looking for God? Join a church or give all your money to a nutter who reckons he/she can save your soul.

The city is a veritable Louis Vuitton warehouse, when it comes to things you need for your journey.

Now the soccer players are talking about their journeys. To date, only Donovan has appeared on the David Letterman Show, but you can bet your bottom dollar that many more will be on talk shows in the forthcoming weeks, regaling us of their respective journeys and the various means of emotional transport it took to get them there.

It’s not just the journey clichés that came out of the closet today; every cliché in the American constitution (with a small “c”) emerged after this surprise World Cup success. An outsider could be forgiven for thinking that the USA had already won the Cup.

It was everything “we” Americans were about (I was even counting myself among them, so carried away was I by the occasion); it was the American dream; having President Clinton there to share this moment was surely everything any player could ever want – yes, it was even a moment to forget that Clinton is no longer President.

The Americans are constantly criticised by the Brits for their excessive emotion, but after yesterday’s emergency budget in the UK, and the promise of even tougher times ahead, the Brits could take a leaf out of the USA book.

There is nothing inherently wrong with your heart being touched and letting people know it. Donovan cried in front of the TV cameras and took several seconds before he was able to start his interview.

Moments like this are reminders that we are all human in a difficult world.

But remember Gazza’s World Cup tears in the UK? They were the subject of ridicule and even made it into a TV commercial. Well, he’s crying again, and it ain’t so funny anymore.

The Brits may think that the way to cope with diversity is by adopting the stiff upper lip. But with governments that keep punching them in the mouth, sooner or later that lip is going to crack, and it won’t be a moment too soon.

In the meantime, I’m behind the USA and praying for the dream journey’s end. I doubt that they will make it, but boy, am I enjoying their belief that they will.

One way ticket to Dreamland, please.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

That's Jaci With A "J", Not Liza With A Zee 6/13/10

I am Liza Minnelli. It’s official.

When I recently walked into a friend’s party, there was huge excitement generated in one corner when they believed that Liza Minnelli had just arrived.

Their delight quickly turned to disappointment upon discovering that no, it was just some short Welsh bird with a similar hairdo, but at least I had my moment in the LA spotlight.

The Liza thing has been following me for some years now. Apart from the fact that she looks about 104 (she’s actually 64, but the years and substances have taken their toll) and old enough to be my grandmother, it’s something of a compliment.

We are both small, we both have short, dark hair and brown eyes, and . . . Well, that’s it, really. I have also had my voice trained, and although I can’t confess to being as good as Ms Minnelli, I have a strong pair of lungs and can belt out New York New York quite convincingly.

On Saturday, a man in the King’s Head in Santa Monica told me that not only should I play Liza in a musical of her life, he could make it happen.

These People Who Can Make It Happen crop up all the time in LA. They know someone who knows someone who once met someone who made it happen for an extra in Star Wars – that kind of thing. They never carry business cards and don’t want to tell you who they really are (or they would have to kill you), but they insist that fame and fortune lurks just around the next corner for you.

Last month, a man at the bar in Mastro’s restaurant told me that he could get me into Days of Our Lives. This is a daytime soap opera featuring impossibly glamorous people on sets that look as if they will blow down if a character so much as whistles.

This man reckoned that Days of Our Lives was just waiting for a Welsh female character and promised to get in touch.

Sure enough, he rang the next day, giving me the number of Bill, who he said was waiting for my call “to do an interview”.

Eh? How did I go from being the new star of the show to interviewing Bill about his own stardom?

It reminded me of my demotion when I was an extra in Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein. I was cast as one of eight grieving widows in the church, but was quickly deemed too short to be a widow.

Despite my protests and querying whether there was a height restriction on grief in Dr Frankenstein’s day, I was sent out into the courtyard to be one of a hundred starving peasants.

The widows were in the nice warm church; I was in the minus four degree weather outside in a thermal vest, surrounded by people boasting about their moment of stardom in a Swiss cheese commercial; so I could see the way my debut on Days of Our Lives was going.

I think I stand more of a chance on the Liza front, even though my new manager hasn’t given me his name, doesn’t know where to contact me, and could only tell me that a planned film about Judy Garland’s life has just been cancelled.

He seems to think that this makes it more, not less, likely, that a Liza project would get the green light. I told him, however, that I don’t want to play the fat, drunken years, although quickly realised that this would probably limit my options.

One tiny thing on my side is that I once met Liza’s co-star Joel Gray, who played the MC in Cabaret. It’s not a huge claim to fame, but I have discovered in this town that you really have to talk up your part in every area of life, no matter how small or insignificant it might seem.

So, this morning, I’ve been standing in front of the mirror with my hairbrush in hand, belting out Maybe This Time, and, between verses, penning my Oscar acceptance speech.

I don’t think I’ll be getting the award for Days of Our Lives, and much as I love soap opera, even I am having difficulty seeing how the South Wales plot could easily be woven into the current storylines.

But Liza’s life story could be my way onto that podium. My only real worry is whether I would have to play the David Gest months and, more to the point, who they would get to play him.

I know that you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince, but even I have my standards.

Anyway, for the moment, I’m just going to practise getting into character. I’ve dyed my hair a darker shade of brown, endured sleep deprivation to get heavier bags under my eyes, and watched the Wizard of Oz, just to get something on the family background.

Now, where did I put that corkscrew?

'Ere We Go - And I Wish They Would 6/13/10

The Virgin Upper Class lounge at Heathrow has been turned into a discotheque.

At least, that’s what it seemed like as I waited to board my Los Angeles flight on Thursday afternoon.

As always, I arrived several hours ahead of schedule to get full benefit of the free goodies on offer (well, “free” once you have paid several thousand pounds to enjoy the benefits), and enjoy a period of calm before the long haul across the Atlantic.

But having told the staff at the reception desk how much I looked forward to this part of the journey, I was in for a great disappointment, when my ears were instantly bombarded with loud, banging music of the kind I had hoped never to hear again after the age of 14.

Three hours of the stuff. Incessant. Noisy. Gross. It even managed to penetrate the one allegedly “quiet” zone.

What have you done, Sir Richard?

There was worse to come. I used to enjoy a 15 minute massage before boarding. Now, you can pay and have a longer massage, which in theory sounds good, until you discover that along with the “upgraded service” comes a new kind of massage.

“What’s that noise?” I asked my masseur, as what seemed to be a herd of plastic bags descended on my ears.

“It’s a wheat bag,” she explained.

“A what?”

I turned around to see just that in her hand – a round lump of linen, packed with wheat grains, that she had been using to pummel me.

“Could I have the usual deep massage with fingers?” I asked politely, only to be sniffily told that this was the new massage, so no, I couldn’t.

Apparently, this new massage has been dictated by the powers that be at Gatwick, and it is truly dreadful.

My masseur then started to thwack said wheat bag up and down my back.

“It’s like being hit with a sack of Tesco shopping!” I squealed.

If it ain’t broke, why try to fix it? Being beaten up with a pile of shopping in the middle of a roaring disco is not my idea of relaxation before a long haul flight, and whoever these powers that be are at Gatwick, they need to get real, get off their wheat bags, and consult customers as to what works for them.

The flight itself was the usual joy that it always is on Virgin, and I heard a very interesting story about a well known English footballer who had pressed unwelcome kisses on a 16 year old girl on a flight a couple of years ago.

The American woman who told me the story had no idea who he was, but the girl’s parents wanted police to be standing by when the plane landed. The American woman made the footballer apologise, and the authorities were not called; but the name would come as no shock to any British person.

If the behaviour of some of our so-called national heroes comes as no shock, the behaviour of some of the people who idolise them should be no surprise either.

But on Saturday, I was genuinely horrified by England fans gathered in the King’s Head in Santa Monica to watch the England vs USA match.

I’m very fond of the King’s Head, but to say that there was standing room only is a gross understatement; there was barely any breathing room. Making it from one side of the bar to the toilet on the other required camping equipment, the journey was so long and arduous. Not even an ice-pick would have penetrated the wall of bodies next to the TV screens.

I have never felt so many men pressed against my groin, backside, thighs – in fact, I didn’t know that there were so many positions of which a man’s body is capable.

It was all very good-hearted, though – until the teams came out. At their first glimpse of the USA team, the English supporters started chanting: “You’re gay, you’re gay, you’re gay!” I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. And there was more. “You’ve got Aids, you’ve got Aids, you’ve got Aids!”

When the ex-Welsh rugby captain Gareth Thomas recently announced his homosexuality to the world, those of us who had known for years were surprised that it had taken him so long to go public. Although rugby supporters are a different breed from soccer supporters, I suddenly realised why, in the sporting world, players are reluctant to be open about their sexuality.

When I confessed my disgust to a couple of supporters, they told me that I was being “too serious” and that it was “just banter”.

The small number of Americans in the bar were as stunned as I was by the chanting, as, indeed, any civilised human being should be.

Alas, this so-called “banter” is just the tip of the very big iceberg that is the racism, homophobia and thuggery that is still central to the world of British soccer.

While there are, of course, many decent, good people who enjoy the sport, the collective hatred that can be generated and harnessed by the minority is fundamentally disturbing. You only have to look at Hitler’s Germany to know why.

It’s the main reason I am not supporting England. Yes, I’m Welsh, too, and as ours is the only flag not represented on the flag of the United Kingdom, I have no qualms about not sharing in the “united” part of the hysteria surrounding this lacklustre English team.

But it’s a secondary reason when placed alongside the main one: that there are a lot of thick, violent, nasty people among the English supporters who get their kicks from bullying and inciting hatred and intolerance.

And while other fans continue to condone it in the name of “banter”, British soccer will remain the national disgrace that it has always been.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Laugh? If Only ... 6/4/10

When your life is at the mercy of nature and psychopaths, what’s the point in anything?

People keep asking me why I wrote just one blog last month, and the truth is, I don’t know. Call it a touch of the Nietzsche.

I went to Vegas, saw the Mayweather vs Mosley boxing match, attended a friend’s wedding, stayed at a lovely hotel, and didn’t have the desire to write much about any of it.

It may be that I am so preoccupied trying to finish writing my book (only the second in nearly 20 years, yegods); or that I continue to worry about various things going on in my family and friends’ lives 6000 miles away; or, that I just don’t see the point in anything anymore.

I’m not talking suicide, but the Icelandic volcano eruption brought life as we know it (at least, in terms of travel) to a halt. This week’s tragic, heartbreaking shootings in Cumbria in the UK, just made you wonder why any of us bother trying to pursue our projects and dreams, when we are so at the mercy of forces outside our control. Well, that’s what I felt.

I am in Spain at the moment and missing certain aspects of the US: my friends in the hostelries Enoteca, Mastro’s and the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

On the street where I live, I am not missing the screaming kids, who, because the sun is almost always shining, treat the sidewalk as a playground.

I am missing the cleanliness of Beverly Hills, along with the lack of cigarettes everywhere you look; I loathe the fact that nearly everyone smokes in this southern part of Spain, in or out of restaurants.

I am not missing the west LA branch of Best Buy, a store with which I have had an ongoing battle that is turning out more bloody than the Alamo, though much harder to bring to a conclusion.

The culture difference between the small part of the US in which I live and Europe is immense. Most of the American men I have met by casual acquaintance (the gay population totally excepted from this sweeping generalisation) are even more chauvinistic than the worst of their kind in the UK. Arrogant, pompous, rude – the idea that a woman might be going out on her own, without wishing to pull a bloke, is anathema to them – ironic, given that most of them wouldn’t even know what anathema was, let alone be able to spell it.

When I return to Paris or, this week, Spain, it is a joy to discover what fresh meat, fruit and veg tastes like, when no matter what I buy in LA tastes of nothing.

This afternoon, I sat on the beach in Marbella, where the people at the next table were celebrating a birthday, complete with guitars, maracas and singing. They were joyous, laughing for a good couple of hours and, for once, I cherished the noise.

I realised what I miss most in LA: it’s the laughter. I have it among my own circle of British friends when we get together, but go out to a bar or restaurant any time, day or night, in Beverly Hills, and you hear nothing of that uproarious, side-splitting hilarity that was so much a part of my life back in the UK and which I again experienced among close friends in Spain this week.

I know that my experience of the US is narrow, and, who knows, maybe even as I write, there are people in Michigan being hospitalised for having literally split their sides through laughing, but I doubt it.

Is humour dependent upon a country having a history, I wonder? And, being a young country, has the US not built up enough of a defence mechanism to be able to laugh at itself enough – something which, to me, and probably the UK as a whole, is one of the foundations of our comedy?

Even taking New York and the Sex and the City crowd humour into account, it’s still not of the tears rolling down your cheeks kind of laughter that I have experienced not just in the UK, but so many parts of Europe where, I believe, defending yourself against the enemy has rooted itself in our consciousness not only historically, but in the development of our artistic culture.

It’s not that there is no humour per se in the US; it just manifests itself in different ways. Miami-based Judge Alex on TV is one of the funniest things I have ever seen – a daytime judge with his own show and a razor sharp brain that knows exactly when to bring humour to a situation, and when to pull back when sensitivity to people’s distress requires it. Currently, no comedy show comes close to matching it.

Specifically to my own area, though, where is the laughter on the streets, in the cafes, in the bars and restaurants, among the LA population? I love the work ethic in the city, and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has done a terrific job through TV commercials to sell what is truly a great, vibrant state.

I just don’t see the smiles of the commercials on the streets of my little bit of LA. Maybe everyone has been so Bo-toxed up to the hilt, they’d need jaw surgery just to put a slight grin on their faces now.

And, given the recession, maybe they just can’t afford to.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Elvis, Me, And Our Irritable Bowels - Viva Las Vegas 5/9/10

Elvis died from constipation; but then I suspect that anyone who spends most of their waking life in trousers that tight is always going to be a bit constrained in the bowel department.

Still, it gives a whole new meaning to All Shook Up - or would have done, had the man received treatment that he was apparently too proud to have.

It was reported this week that the singer’s official doctor has revealed that Elvis’s colon was twice as long and twice as wide as it should have been, and that a four to five month old stool was found in it at the autopsy.

If only I had been armed with this information last week, when I visited Las Vegas. How many more friendships could I have formed, in the city that celebrates the singer on every street corner?

“Do you know Elvis’s stools caused him to have “accidents” on stage?” I could have asked, as I watched fellow diners’ enormous mouths descend on burgers as big as buses?
“Don’t you realise the trouble you’re storing up for your stools?”

I could have entertained them at length about the real reason for Elvis’s weight gain: namely, that his gut couldn’t digest and dispense with all the muck he was feeding his body.

I could have told them of my own problems in the irritable bowel department and my experience of colonic irrigation that was filmed for a TV show, and the pronouncement that I had “stubborn stools". Oh, yes; how very different my Vegas trip could have been.

But instead, I find myself writing up an entirely different set of experiences as I return to the oasis of calm that is Los Angeles.

Now, there can’t be many times in the history of print that this combination of words have appeared in the same sentence; but returning to the city after a week in the chaos and often sheer hell that is Vegas, I feel a calm that is not a far remove from rigor mortis.

I had never been to Vegas and, despite being a fan of boxing, had only ever seen televised fights. So, on the encouragement of a friend, who assured me that the Floyd Mayweather/Sugar Shane Mosley welterweight confrontation was going to be huge, I secured a ticket and booked six nights at the Bellagio, famous for the dancing fountains that separate the hotel from its lake. I had only ever seen them on the TV show Las Vegas, a drama that portrays casino life as one long endless arena of glamour and intrigue, and thought I was in for a classy experience.

I was therefore spectacularly unprepared for the reality: the miles of slot machines, and the awful racket as the likes of Lobster Marina and Kitty Glitter flashed their lights with the promise of riches that never seemed to materialise. The endless rows of isolated, sad looking individuals, exercising a single arm as they pushed coins into slots or built turrets of chips (in many cases, castles) on numbers at the roulette wheel; the smoking that is allowed on the casino floor. God, yes; the dreadful, disgusting smoke.

Shell-shocked, I spent the first night in my room, only to be woken at dawn by the couple next door having the mother of almighty rows: so bad, in fact, that four security people came to check on the wellbeing of the screaming woman. Her take on things was that the argument had come about because hotel staff had been too noisy in the corridor – a logic that escaped the security people, and also me, by then in my dressing gown, also in the corridor, for fear of missing a slice of the action.

Just when I thought that life couldn’t get any worse, there was breakfast: a cafeteria style room reminiscent of a cheap holiday camp, crammed with screaming kids, and, in my section, presided over by a waitress for whom the notion of having two tea-bags was proving even more of an uphill task than if she had gone to Ceylon and picked the necessary leaves with her teeth.

The tea-bag issue is something of an issue for me the world over. In Paris hotels, where they have heard only of Liptons, I have to ask for at least a box of the stuff if I am to stand a chance of my finished cup appearing even slightly off white.

In LA hotels, they think all the British drink is Earl Grey, which I loathe. If and when you manage to get served English breakfast tea, it arrives with honey and lemon. The operation to explain the reason for, and finally get your milk, is so tortuous and long, that by the time it arrives, the tea has to go back because it is stone cold.

When you can’t even acquire tea-bag number two and are told that the tea will be strong enough with one, Oliver Twist’s “Please, sir, Can I have some more?” starts to look like a gastronomic walk in the park.

Now my bowels were really irritable, along with the rest of me. Had I not been looking forward to the boxing on the Saturday, and had I not also agreed to be a witness at a friend’s wedding in the Little White Chapel, I would have been out of the city quicker than an Elvis stool at a colonic convention.

Instead, I phoned the concierge service that comes courtesy of my all-singing, all-dancing black Amex Centurion card, and spoke again to the wonderfully efficient and charming Hayden, who had arranged my whole trip.

Hayden quickly got me moved to another hotel in the Amex programme, the Mandarin Oriental, and I packed up and moved out of the Bellagio – although not before I had used the $100 voucher for lunch that came with the Bellagio package.

That was a lot of food for one in the Olives restaurant, I can tell you (all of these deals are for two people), and with oysters, steak and cheese, I still managed to spend only around $60.

If I wasn’t yet looking like Elvis, my innards were a getting a pretty good idea of what it might be like to feel like him.

Love Me Tender? Not until I’ve spent an hour in the rest room.