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.