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.