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 fa├žade 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.