Sunday, February 26, 2012

Open, Sesame - I Wish 2/27/12

My Auntie Muriel died this week.

Well, I call her my aunt but she was, in fact, our next-door neighbour for seven years, when my family moved from Cardiff, where I was born, to Newport.

I was four years old and was excited to have new friends, the children of Auntie Mew and Uncle Les: Tim, Jeff, and, after a couple of years, Lynette. Tim was the closest to my age, and we attached long planks of wood to square pieces, fitted them with elastic bands and pretended we were The Beatles.

When I was eight, I drove Auntie Mew and Uncle Les (who passed away three years ago) to distraction one Saturday morning, when I played the entire Sound of Music soundtrack eight times.

We kept in touch until the end of her life, and when I last saw her the Christmas before last, she was amused that I still had the towels she gave me when I went to university 35 years ago: two bath towels (one orange, one lime green) and two hand towels (pink and white).

It is her funeral tomorrow and I am feeling unbelievably sad. I saw Tim when he brought his mother to Cardiff but haven’t seen Jeff and Lynette for decades. It will be good to meet after so long, albeit on an occasion tinged with so much sadness.

It is doubtless nostalgia that has seen me, today, looking through my stuff for evidence of that era. In 1969, my dancing partner, Janette (Under 16s Juveniles were allowed to partner girls in ballroom dancing) won two trophies at the national championships in Butlin’s Minehead, and I find a book from my grandparents to celebrate the event.

“To dear Jacqueline,” it says. “With love from Grandma and Grandpa, on the occasion of winning the both trophies for dancing at Minehead, Sept. 1969.” The attention to punctuation moves me to tears.

It is called “A Book of Girls’ Stories”, and one highlight on the dust-jacket is Kathleen O’Farrell’s story “about Jenny – who did not get her eleven plus but found out that she had a special gift of her own.”

I turn to page 87 to find out what Jenny’s gift was. She was a girl with dreams, but someone who was put off from fulfilling them. “Perhaps . . . these other girls were right . . . If you didn’t dream dreams and make wonderful plans for the future, then you couldn’t be disappointed.”

Oh, dear. Page 93, and Jenny is already very, very depressed. I pray that she discovers her gift quickly. Phew. Page 94, having just passed a field, she is back on course: “No matter what happened, there would always be such things as lambs.”

Jenny takes Wuthering Heights out of the library for the second time (add masochism to that depressive streak) and arrives home to find that her mother has fallen down the stairs (please, please make her discover that gift quickly).

This gives Jenny the opportunity to write to her mother while she is recovering in hospital and, lo and behold, she discovers that she is, according to her mother “a born writer”.

She recalls Auntie Flo, who had been looking after the household after the accident: “It’s the door – the door Auntie Flo told me about – she said another door would open. And now it has.”

Well, let me tell you something, Jenny, old girl, publishing is in a dire state. The editor may love your book but then he or she will pass it to the 12 year-old people in marketing who know nothing and they will reject it. So you’d have been better off listening to your friends.

Then again, you could go down the path of Jenny in Barbara Ker Wilson’s Pony Mad, who finally abandons her donkey passion in favour of “dreams of becoming a world figure-skating champion”.

So many dreams – and for girls, too. Small wonder I thought big when I was growing up; small wonder I have been disappointed when life hasn’t delivered.

A Book of Girls’ Stories sits next to A Child’s Garden of Verses, Peter Pan and Wendy and, again, from my grandparents, for my 10th birthday, The Golden Treasury of Poetry. It was the book I turned to for a poem when I auditioned for the first National Youth Theatre of Wales in 1976, and, there it is, on page 30: A. A. Milne’s The Four Friends.

Ernest was an elephant, a great big fellow,
Leonard was a lion with a six-foot tail,
George was a goat, and his beard was yellow,
And James was a very small snail.”

I rehearsed it over and over in front of my mother in our kitchen in Bridgend, where we had moved in 1969. I was successful and, in the production Oh! What a Lovely War, sang I’ll Make a Man of Any One of You.

Between the books sits my stamp album. Like everything else from my childhood, I have priced it (8/6), in my eagerness to preserve order in every area of my life.

I note my strange obsession with Hungary, and the precision with which I have mounted my favourite stamps with photograph preservation corners.

I can’t stop crying today. Yesterday, Wales won the Triple Crown, and I was ecstatic, but wept uncontrollably all night. It was six years since my beloved cousin Sarah died at just 34, and with Auntie Mew’s funeral tomorrow, just the sight of my grandmother’s beautifully curved writing makes me long to be a child again.

A child like Jenny, full of dreams and hopes, eyes gleaming in the knowledge that she may have a future as a writer.

A child who knows nothing of death and the inevitable difficulties that life will throw in her path.

A child whose Auntie Flo points her to a door that opens on nothing but an endless future, full of possibilities.

Family F*****g Non-Friendly 2/27/12


They are two words I have come to loathe. I can cope with dog friendy, animal friendly, and even cyclist friendly (at a push – but gosh, they can be a pompous lot in their silly Lycra), but family friendly? No, thanks.

It’s a phrase that crops up on an almost daily basis now. There are family friendly tax perks, family friendly restaurants and, as I have discovered in recent weeks, family friendly sports clubs.

It wasn’t a problem I had in the US, where the LA Sports Club was an exclusively adult only zone. True, there were men who behaved like infants in there, shouting and jeering from their treadmills as they watched baseball on the in-built TV screens, but there were no screaming brats.

Since the New Year and back in the UK, I have been trying to find a decent sports club near where I live in Cardiff: one with a good gym, a pool, and a nice bar/restaurant to relax in after a workout.

First, I went to David Lloyd, where I thought I might take up tennis (although quite why I wanted to do so at my age is anybody’s guess – it seemed like a good idea at the time).

The cafeteria area was swarming – and I mean swarming – with children, running around yelling, while their parents sat drinking coffee, exerting no control over the monsters. On my tour, I was shown list after list of tennis leagues featuring said monsters, and, with a migraine fast coming on, I made my excuses and left. Game, set and match.

Another friend recommended the Village Hotel in Whitchurch. After driving around the car-park, trying to find a parking space for 20 minutes, I entered the foyer to find yet another crèche – even more screaming children and, worse, the disgusting, rancid smell of Starbucks coffee (is there no place left sacred from the infiltration of this vile chain?). I asked between what hours children were allowed in the pool and was told pretty much all the time. When I visited the pool, I swear a tap-dancing killer whale could not have taken up more space than the creatures in it.

Don’t get me wrong – I like children. I was one myself once. But it seems as if the whole of society is now so geared towards being family friendly that grown-ups wanting a bit of peace have no chance.

I have just endured yet another gross half term, entering every bar and restaurant to find dozens of little people screaming for burgers. I have battled with the Everest of push-chairs in doorways, queued behind fathers too lazy to take to take their kids to the park while their wives go shopping, and endured the screams at the end of the day from children bored out of their skulls watching their parents sit drinking.

Again, it is something I never saw in LA. On the rare occasions I saw children eating out, it was in establishments that specifically catered for them – in US terms, that means burgers and balloons.

The importance of the family unit has consistently been stressed by every British government, and the need to hold the family unit together by offering perks that benefit it is always close to the top of the agenda. But as an older single woman who, in Britain, is already made to feel consigned to the scrapheap of life, not being part of the family friendly picture serves only to intensify that feeling.

As a single person dining alone in LA, I was never made to feel like a second-class citizen and shunted off to a corner of the dining room, for fear of contaminating people who had managed to find their life’s soul mate. The same is true of Paris, where I spent six very happy years.

But in the UK and, indeed, most other parts of Europe, I am made to feel a nuisance even for deigning to set foot outside the door by myself.

Heck, I can’t even have the Chateaubriand or paella in a restaurant, because it is “for two persons only”.

I can’t take advantage of any Groupon or Living Social meal or holiday, because they, too, are for two people.

I can’t take advantage of special deals on the railways, because the really good packages are for families or groups travelling together.

Many package holiday deals continue to add “single supplement extra”.

Let’s get one thing straight: as a single person, who has never married and never had kids, I am likely to spend more than the average family. I don’t go into a restaurant and order a salad between four and a jug of tap water. I like good food and wine and am willing to pay for the best of it.

All I ask is for a pleasant, quiet, family free environment in which to enjoy it.

Is it really so much to ask?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

LA Not So Reverential 2/2/12

The horror! The horror! as Joseph Conrad wrote.

My ex-landlady (the Morticia of previous blogs) from Los Angeles reappeared to me in a dream. I have not seen her since our court date, after I successfully sued the rental company for money that had been withheld from my deposit after I left the apartment.

In the dream, she was showing a property to a European gentleman who was looking for locations to shoot his next movie.

Interestingly, it was Morticia’s obsessive updates to me regarding a European gentlemen tenant in the building that had been one of the main reasons for my departure, so there must be some unconscious connection there.

Anywhere, the nightmare – dream is way too nice a word for what was going on in my head – continued, when I discovered that I was moving back into my old apartment.

The old apartment with the dated cupboards, the crap cooker, the broken window, the grotty bathroom basin – the “very high end” establishment, as Morticia described it to the judge. Trust me: high spec in LA just means expensive. Never mind the quality, feel the width of your shrinking pile of cash.

Never have I been so grateful to wake. But it set me thinking about the things I DO miss about LA.

Obviously, now living in Cardiff, the second wettest city in the UK, I miss the warmer climate.

I miss walking to Santa Monica pier at the end of the day and watching the sun go down while sipping a frozen Margarita.

I miss my friends at Wine Expo, the Santa Monica wine bar and shop that boasts the best selection of Italian wine I have ever seen – on either side of the Atlantic.

Strangely, I miss the long-haul flying. Twelve hours without a mobile phone is a long time in media land, and I used to welcome the peace in the air, doing nothing but watching films and taking advantage of the many goodies on offer.

I miss the Virgin Atlantic and Air New Zealand cabin crew.

I miss Thierry in the Air New Zealand lounge at LAX.

Most of all, I miss the optimism of LA. I loved being in a city whose very heartbeat was film and television; and while there were undoubtedly many hangers on in that environment, I will repeat what I have said many times: Hollywood may be bollocks, but it’s still the best bollocks in the world.

Today, the sun is shining in Cardiff. I have just enjoyed a great four days with my mum staying with me for her birthday - the only downside being Maddie the bichon frise emptying her bladder (again) on my lovely rugs. I adore the dog, but now suspect that in some strange part of her brain, she thinks she is “rewarding” me for giving her copious amounts of chicken and gravy.

I have also just had lunch with my very pregnant friend Jane, who is about to drop at any second; in fact, I thought that her broken waters were about to join Maddie’s urine on the carpet, so was relieved when she had to leave to go to pick up her daughter.

Both occasions were reminders of why I returned to the UK: friends and family. I made a few friends in LA and remain close to them, but even some of them still find the distance between their new life and people they have known forever, difficult to cope with.

At some point in the spring, I will go to Paris for five days, and that will be another reminder of why I returned. From King’s Cross, my favourite city in the world is a little over two hours away on the Eurostar.

On a Sunday morning, I will to the Café Philosophe and listen to an incomprehensible debate in French. I will cross the road to the Bastille market and move between smells of melons, roses, cider, cheese and bread, and I will cry with joy at this glorious onslaught on my senses.

I will go for lunch in Bofinger, where they will remember me from past visits and sit me in my favourite part of the restaurant under the stained glass, domed ceiling.

I will see the friends I made during the seven years I lived in this great city and think how blessed I am to have all this on my doorstep.

And I will remember LA and everything that is great about it.

But I will know, in my heart, where my true love is.