Monday, April 19, 2010

Ashes to Ashes 3/19/2010

My brother and his girlfriend, both teachers, are stranded in Beverly Hills.

Originally due to fly back to the UK last Thursday, they now find themselves, along with thousands of others, unable to take to the ash-laden skies because of the volcano in Iceland.

They are booked to fly again this Thursday, but with another ash cloud apparently heading towards southern Britain, even that journey is under threat.

They acknowledge that there are worse places to be stuck, and Air New Zealand, together with the exceptionally kind and efficient people who operate the concierge service that goes with my Centurion Black Amex (oh, how I am glad I decided to go for it), have kept their stress levels to a minimum.

I have friends currently in transit with BA in similar positions, but they have not been so lucky. Their travel insurance does not cover them for an “act of God”, and they have basically been shown a hotel room, which they have to pay for, and left to fend for themselves (BA – Bugger All, in other words).

I can’t see the airline ever recovering the kudos it once had; in response to the horror stories I have catalogued in this blog and in newspapers, so far only one person has contacted me with something positive to say about them.

I have also suggested that trapped passengers vent their annoyance by doing what Billy Connolly’s advocate character Steve Myers did in the 2001 Australian movie, The Man Who Sued God.

When his insurance firm won’t pay up after his fishing boat is destroyed by a so-called “act of God”, Myers files a claim against God, naming church officials as representatives of God, and thereby the respondents.

If they admit the destruction of the boat was an Act of God, they have to compensate Myers; if they deny it, they will be denying God’s existence. It’s a story that would run and run in the courts.

There have been more positive stories from people dealing with Air New Zealand and Virgin, my two favourite carriers. Thierry, who manages the Air New Zealand executive lounge at Los Angeles airport, could not have been more helpful, keeping us up to date with daily reports. Air New Zealand’s cabin crew are just as impressive onboard, as are Virgin’s: cheerful, always helpful staff, who get paid a fraction of BA employees’ wages and receive none of the perks.

I know that the issues between management and staff at BA are more complex than most passengers really know, but who, in their right mind, would risk flying anywhere with them now. A pair of home-made wings would be more reliable.

But back to my brother and his girlfriend. They have enjoyed doing all the touristy things that LA has to offer.

They went to San Diego to watch Shamu, the whale from Free Willy, leap about in the water (it’s something of an irony that the film about freeing the poor devil now sees him incarcerated in Seaworld, splashing kids – still, at least he’s nowhere near a volcano).

They’ve been to Hollywood and Universal Studios, three of the surrounding beaches, and numerous bars and restaurants.

They’ve met friends and lunatics, experienced the faultless Beverly Hills service, and barbecued on the roof terrace of my apartment block.

They’ve mingled with celebrities, sat in the audience at American Idol, visited Simon Cowell in his trailer, and have learned a great deal about Ukrainian history in conversation with taxi drivers.

They also heard, by means of an introduction at a private party, four words that I never expected to hear in the same sentence: “Jaci Stephen, Gore Vidal.”

By now, they would have been back in Clacton where they live and work. They are both concerned about missing the start of term and their pupils’ forthcoming exams, but still, there really are worse places to be trapped than Beverly Hills (even if my brother is pining for a pint of real ale in his local).

It’s the launch of Brit Week tomorrow night, which is rather apt, given how many Brits are trapped here. The annual festival celebrates British contributions to LA, and it goes on for about three weeks (a very loose interpretation of “week”, therefore). The number of Brits establishing themselves here also seems to be growing – actors, presenters, agents – and despite everyone telling me that the allure of La La Land would quickly wear off, it hasn’t yet.

True, it doesn’t have the cultural range of London or New York, but there is an incredible, positive energy that is generated by its being an industry-focused place, in which everyone feels that anything is possible.

Who cares if some of that self-belief is delusional; people are willing to get up, get out, and have a go.

And if that ash cloud moves any further south, expect to see my brother and his girlfriend marking registers in Beverly Hills High in the autumn term.

Monday, April 12, 2010

To Pad Or Not To Pad, That Is The Question 4/12/10

Now, I know it for sure, and I can stop practising writing my surname as “Cowell”.

Despite the fact that becoming the first Mrs Cowell would have solved all my financial problems, plus those of every living relative and a couple of dozen friends to boot, I know that it is over. The dream.

Because I have, quite simply, seen That Ring. Yes, it’s for real. Having been invited onto the set of American Idol this week, I can confirm that there really is a future Mrs Cowell waiting in the wings.

I know, because I have seen the diamond evidence, and it is very firmly on the hand of the beautiful, very slim and very charming Mezhgan Hussainy. My mission to get Simon interested in short Welsh birds has ended in failure.

Well, you can’t say I didn’t try. Fifteen years, to be precise.

Now, let’s get back to That Ring. The stone alone is bigger than my en suite bathroom. I could park my car on it and there would still be room for a small music festival. Having recently lost the diamond tennis bracelet I worked 30 years to be able to afford, I was a breath away from grabbing the nearest knife and taking Mezhgan’s finger home in my bag; but I resisted.

Good luck to them both, although I will be the one singing It Should Have Been Me at the reception.

I was at the show because my brother and his girlfriend were visiting and, as my first house guests here, I wanted to show them as good a time as possible. They were thrilled to be invited into Simon’s trailer (if That Ring is the size of my bathroom, the trailer is my entire house), and the show was terrific.

I saw more of LA during my guests’ visit than I have managed in the past year. Normally, I have to be excavated out of the Golden Triangle of Beverly Hills, but my brother was keen to explore.

One friend drove us all to Laguna Beach, Newport Beach, and then up into the hills of Palos Verdes. I took them to Soho House LA, Santa Monica, Hollywood Boulevard – all on the bus. They set off for San Diego and Seaworld on their own; enjoyable and cost-efficient as I find the buses, the idea of sitting in one for six hours in a day is about as appealing to me as a day trip to Guantanemo Bay.

One highlight of their trip was getting to see the iPad in advance of its UK launch.

To Pad or not to Pad – for those of us in love with all Apple products, it’s the question that has been occupying us for some weeks. When I spot an iPad across a crowded dining room, I approach with stealth, like David Attenborough coming upon a new and rare species, hoping to get just the merest glimpse before the owner snatches it meanly away.

Stephen Fry has written a wonderful piece about the iPad in the current issue of Time magazine, and after bumping into him in LA, I learned more about the product than I had from the hopeless assistant in Fashion Island’s store in Newport Beach (“It’s like a big iPhone,” he said – and that was it).

Stephen posted the opening of his iPad on You Tube, and his “Oooh” as the final layer of wrapping falls, is as glorious as the squeals of a four year old, finally winning Pass the Parcel at a birthday party, after a week of bullying at school. It’s a lovely “Suits you, sir!” moment, and Apple should use it in their advertising.

Stephen reckons that we relate to Apple’s products as we do to animals or humans, and I’m totally with him on that; it explains the Apple cemetery that I have in my attic, as I am unable to throw away even completely clapped out computers and phones.

But I’m still torn, in a way that I wasn’t when trying to decide whether to go to Seaworld, but I know that I will weaken. I’ve now spotted three iPads in LA, and they are undoubtedly jewels that single out the men from the boys in town (I have yet to see a woman with one, so that may end up being reason enough to indulge).

I am not a big shopper normally, but Apple draws me in with an alacrity that Versace or Armani never quite manage.

I don’t need the iPad; I’m not sure that I think it will offer any more than my MacBook Air currently does.

Oh, but how I want one. Nothing says more about your Hollywood status at the moment than wandering into a restaurant or bar and opening up your new best friend. Forget the boob job and tummy tuck, girls; it’s the iPad that has the real pulling power. I’m going to call mine Simon.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Death Wish In Soho House 4/6/10

My visiting friends had been warned. It was Earthquake Preparedness Month.

They asked me about the posters and, now that I’ve been here a year, I was able to tell them exactly what the heralding of the great event entailed.

Having learned from my experience during my first earthquake last May, this time round I had heeded the advice of the Pioneer hardware shop that first put my preparedness kit together and gave me advice.

I sleep with money and a torch by the side of my bed, and a lot of bottled water in the apartment. I know to run to a door-frame or under my dining table when disaster strikes.

My friends were impressed.

Or would have been, had we not been 14 floors up in Soho House’s new members only club, when Mexico’s 7.2 earthquake struck on Sunday afternoon.

The new Soho House venue is spectacular, as all of Nick Jones’s ventures are. When I briefly returned to the UK a couple of weeks ago, I stayed at the London Club’s new hotel in Dean Street, where the pillows are so spectacular, you need crampons and a compass just to make it into bed.

If I had picked up anyone en route, I wouldn’t have known, as I wouldn’t have been able to find them among the Himalayan linen.

Soho House LA is a mixture of modernity and old Hollywood, and has quickly become everyone’s favourite place. I have been a member of the London Club since day one; I had my 40th birthday party there, and I adore the new place even more. So, with 360 degree views over the city, and the best roast dinner I have had in years, I was quite content when the light fittings started to shake.

Shortly followed by the room.

It was only when I saw the fish clinging with their gills for dear life in the restaurant’s lake that I really started to panic.

The whole scene appeared to pause in freeze-frame. I hadn’t ordered flying fish for dessert, but one looked suspiciously close to landing on my plate.

These were the people I was going to die with.

I thought that the man on the next table, who had brought his brand new Apple iPad to lunch, would never get to use it (although it would be the first thing I was going to steal when the walls started to crumble). Gone.

We would never again see the beautiful Ally, who had welcomed us, or the immaculately turned out Phil, who had served us (I want to employ whoever does the Club’s laundry to do mine). Gone.

The cocktail glasses, apparently modelled on Marie Antoinette’s breasts, would be nothing but shards among the rubble. Gone.


The eerie silence lasted for about a minute, but felt like ten. Then, when the shaking stopped, and we realised that the earth had moved but not caved in, a strange thing happened. People started to chat to complete strangers, almost deliriously, relieved that we were all okay.

Or, I wondered, maybe we were not, and we had already gone to the afterlife. I wouldn’t have minded, to be honest. With its open roof, imported olive trees that canopy the restaurant, and great food, if Soho House was Sixth Sense II, I wasn’t going to be complaining.

There were worse places I could have died. Rite-Aid, for a start. I wouldn’t want them to find me among the hundreds of products in the Feminine Hygiene aisle that have so fascinated me since I came here (by the way, the TV commercials say that Refresh beats the others hands down, ladies, and I concur).

Or I could have been in Sports Club LA, where they would have found me like an inflated lobster as I tried to keep up with Victoria Beckham on the next treadmill.

Or in Century City’s AMC cinema, with the Buffalo Burger and fries down my front.

Yes, there were definitely worse places to die than Soho House.

We quickly learned that the earthquake had registered as 6.9; then it was up to 7.2. Our new best friends thought that for dramatic purpose, we would tell everyone back in Britain that it was 11.3.

We also learned that the building that houses the Club is on wheels, which apparently make it earthquake-proof. This worried me even more, as I had visions of us free-waying our way down the Hollywood Hills into unsuspecting Big Mac diners, who had not been so fortunate as to have just enjoyed the dining experience that we had.

The whole event has made me reassess my plans for Earthquake Preparedness Month. If you’re five miles away, what use is a torch sitting in the drawer of your bedside cabinet?

Now, I am going to carry my EPM kit around with me, and it will consist of just two things: my Soho House membership card and a corkscrew.

Because, at the first hint of another rumble on the news, I’m going to be out of my place quicker than Marie Antoinette’s breasts in her boudoir, and over to Soho House.

And when the fish start to fly, I just want to be drunk as a skunk before they find me among the rubble, with a goldfish up my nose.

A Sherpa Is Not Just For Everest, He's For Life 4/6/10

Finally, I know the kind of man I want.

A Sherpa.

He doesn’t have to talk to me or sleep with me; in fact, I am happy to walk three steps behind him – just so long as he is carrying my bags.

After deciding not to take the multiple amounts of medication given to me by doctors for my bad back, I spoke to an osteopath, who put the problem down to the immense bag carrying I have been doing on my Transatlantic travels – usually two cases that come up to my elbows, a back-pack, camera-case and equipment, and a handbag as big as a moose.

One of the cases is generally stuffed with dozens of books, and on one trip, before my back went, I managed to re-locate my entire collection of Italian, Spanish and French language learning sections of my new US home library, back to the UK.

Quite why I thought I was going to learn three languages on my ten-day break is a mystery.

If I had a Sherpa, he could also carry back and forth the Russian language learning section, which I bought when I recently decided to read Tolstoy in the original, too (I got as far as “Zavoot Jaci”, plus one obscene word, which is apparently the same in Polish).

Each decade brings about a big difference in the kind of man a girl wants, and travel has a lot to do with it. Between the ages of one and ten, she looks for The Protector, who will walk her to school and carry her satchel.

Eleven to 20: Protector turned Welcome Predator, who will start by carrying her satchel, but only with the aim of whipping her off to a quiet secluded spot when he acquires his driving licence at 17.

From 21 to 30, it’s The Wooer, who whisks her off to Paris and makes her cry (or was that just me?).

Thirty to 40, she wants The Provider: someone with a job, security and a bit of money, who will pay for a second home abroad.

If she’s still on her own at this time, or has dumped, or been dumped by, any of the ones she has acquired from the previous decade, from 40 to 50 she will simply start looking for The Available.

And if she hasn’t pulled post 50, all she wants is The Sherpa. Trust me: I’m there.

I have done more travelling since hitting 50 than I managed in the previous five decades, and having spent 25 years swearing I would never cross the Atlantic again, after visits in New York and LA in my twenties, now I can’t wait for the 11 hour journey, during which my mobile won’t ring, I can watch a couple of films, read a book, enjoy a decent meal and generally live a very comfortable life – albeit a mini-one.

And whether I travel with Air New Zealand or Virgin (forget BA; I’ll probably be able to buy a plane with my unused BA points, the way things are going), I know that I can rely on both to get me to my destination on time a darn sight more than I can rely on the First Great Western Railway to do the same between Paddington and Cardiff, when I hit the UK.

But the bags. The bags. Oh, how I need a bloke to help me with the bags. It’s the only thing missing now. At this age, I’m really easy maintenance otherwise.

Although my sexual desire has increased a hundredfold, post menopause, I’m really EPCM (Easy Post-Coital Management). Forget all that after-sex cuddling and kissing (and, heaven forbid for men, talking), that I wanted years ago, now I want him out by midnight so that I can watch the back to back CSI episodes from what feels like a hundred US cities.

Actually, I don’t even want him to hang around that long, and now I think I think that if I meet any halfway decent men, I’m going to have to establish some sort of shift system for my new lifestyle.

As I’m generally working by about 5.30am (and up at four, if I need to catch people in the UK before lunchtime), early mornings are out. Then, when I’ve managed a few hours work, it’s over to the gym and back at the apartment to watch Judge Alex over lunch.

It’s work again in the afternoon (there are so many more hours in the day over there – weird!), until two episodes of Two and a Half Men at seven; major dramas nine till 11, then late-night Chelsea Handler and Letterman, before CSI starts all over again.

So, basically, any man I meet has a brief window of opportunity between eight and 9pm – without food, and he’d better be quick about whatever it is he wants to do. Actually, on past experience, I’m now thinking that even an hour may be too long.

Like I said. Easy maintenance.

When I was back in the UK last week, nearly everyone asked me: “Have you got a man in LA?” I found it faintly irritating. It was never my top priority anyway, and it’s certainly not what I came here for. It’s not even on my radar.

And unless James Spader, David Letterman and Judge Alex are going to come up with an idea for how a foursome might work between us, that is unlikely to change.

But I’ll make an exception for a Sherpa.

My only worry is whether there will be time between the specified minutes for him to pack the travelling homes that have become my luggage.