Monday, June 25, 2012

50 Shades Of Garbage

How does a book that is long, boring, repetitive and ridiculous become the fastest selling paperback of all time?
That is exactly what has happened to British author E L James’s 50 Shades of Grey, which has already sold 10 million copies worldwide – and it’s rising. Now we have men reporting on a daily basis regarding the number of women they have spotted reading it. In fact, the number of men counting women reading it will probably also exceed the 10 million statistic.
Billed as an erotic novel, it tells the story of college graduate and virgin Anastasia Steele, who falls for the richest, most handsome man on the planet, Christian Grey. He dresses fantastically, he has a fantastic smile, perfect teeth and everyone loves him.
There’s only one tincy wincy drawback: Christian is heavily into BDSM which, for the uninitiated, is Bondage, Discipline, Sadism and Masochism. Oh, drat. Wouldn’t you know it. There’s always a catch.
I won’t spoil the er, treats you have in store, should you wish to waste your money on this tripe, but let’s just say that if Christian were to buy you a bunch of red roses, he’d throw away the petals and stab you with the thorns.
He draws up a contract for Anastasia, setting out the terms for their relationship: in essence, she must be submissive in all things and he dominant. She must keep herself fit and healthy at all times and not snack between meals.
Hang on a minute, mate. No snacking? Maybe it was a misprint in the text and meant to read “no smacking”, which would make more sense. But not even a bag of Cheerios as a reward for being chained up before supper?
The book, which is the first of a trilogy (oh, yes, there’s more, alas – still, they might prove to be good book ends), is being dubbed “mummy porn”. The audience seems to be largely made up of married women over 30 who, for whatever reason, find this stuff erotic.
To be honest, porn is putting it a bit strong, and as for the sado-masochistic elements – well, there’s a lot more hard core stuff out there. But maybe that’s the key: it’s fantasy, with a bit of violence thrown in, but still sex taking place between two consenting adults. Well, until Christian whacks Anastasia’s backside very, very hard with a belt and she dumps him. Oh, drat, I’ve gone and given away the ending.
The ending confuses me a bit. Not long before said thrashing with belt, Christian has cuffed Anastasia to a cross he has constructed in his “Red Room of Pain” (trust me – he’s no Laurence Llewelyn Bowen) and whipped her privates. She rather gets off on it (as she does on quite a lot of beatings – she specially enjoys bath-time), although quite why she was okay with the cross and the shredded clitoris and not with the belt is anybody’s guess.
It’s not the BDSM part of the book that worries me – I’ve read far more erotic stuff and much harder porn – it’s the fact that so many women are devouring the material. The basic message it is sending is a fairly traditional, Mills and Boon one: all women want is a handsome, rich man and their life will be complete – certainly, a handsome, rich man who also happens to be an ace lover and the ideal candidate to pop your cherry.
People can do what they like behind closed doors, and BDSM is hardly a new phenomenon, but the idea of the submissive woman, surrendering not only her sexuality but her whole life, to satisfy a bloke’s every whim is, quite frankly, abhorrent.
Forget 50 Shades of Grey; this book sets the clock back 50 years for women. But it’s even being made into a film. The script is being written by Brett Easton Ellis, who wrote American Psycho (now that really is a disturbing, strangely erotic book) and will doubtless prove as popular as the novel.
Speculation is rife as to who should play the leads. Whoever they choose, they had better be good friends and, in the case of Anastasia, have no allergies to leather or masking tape. The film should also come with a warning: Don’t try this at home. Or, if you do, make sure you have a paramedic’s number to hand.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Remembering Dad

Tomorrow, it will be 22 years since I last sent my dad a Father’s Day card.

Twenty-two years since the first Father’s Day after his death passed with a gut-wrenching sobbing and feeling of resentment towards children buying cards and gifts for their dads. 

This year, as every other, those celebratory images in shop windows do not lose their impact. The Interflora phone service from which I once ordered flowers still reminds me every year to send something to Dad, despite my having told them, as the first Father’s Day approached after his death, how much their automated prompt had upset me. Even the online Apple Store suggests Father’s Day gifts. The iPad, for example, currently being touted as “The gift Dad won’t take his eyes off”. Everywhere, I see the promise of things one’s father is going to love.
The things my dad might have loved - but I doubt it. Because what my Dad loved most was his family. My mum, my brother Nigel and me. And now, every Father’s Day, I try to put aside the immense sadness I still feel at his not being here and celebrate the fact that I was blessed with such a kind, thoughtful, strong and loving man who, all these years on, continues to have such a huge, positive impact on my life.
The last birthday party he attended would be his last. I was 30, living in London and working as television critic on the London Evening Standard. I still went home regularly, and even more so when Dad first went into hospital in the January of 1987. I was used to him being ill; he had been a smoker and had always had a weak chest. But he had always come through and we expected him to again. 

The moment I knew he would definitely not was the Christmas before he died, when a doctor at the hospital told me that he had suffered three “small” heart attacks that week. “But no one can survive that, can they?” I asked. “Well, no,” he said.
Until that moment, I had not thought of a life without Dad. Although I was very busy in my new job and having problems settling in an alien city, we were in constant touch, either through visits or on the phone. Then, as always, Dad was a huge part of my life, and even the thought of him not being there left a hole that left me gasping for breath. 

This was what people meant when they talked of the parent becoming the child, and I felt ill equipped for my new role. 

Feeding Dad his supper one night, when he was too weak to hold the fork, was a moment of grown-upness too far.
Both my mum and dad gave my brother and me a good, fulfilled and joyous childhood. There was not a vast amount of money, but we lived a comfortable life in which we felt no deprivation. 

Our holidays were spent at Butlin’s, where we enjoyed late nights drinking hot milk and watching the doughnut-making machine sugar our supper. On summer weekends we went to the beach, where Dad really came into his own packing the car (and unpacking it at the other end) the essentials Mum deemed necessary for a day at the sea - wind-break, Lilo, Flotina, deck chairs, table and chairs, cold-box, hamper, sun umbrella, Tupperware for sandwiches and squash, flasks for tea and coffee, dog bowls, towels and swimming costumes, eight gallons of Calamine lotion. 

By the time we left the house, dusk was falling and our day out became 40 minutes. But as with everything, Dad bore his lot with equanimity.
Dad’s calm nature was in stark contrast to that of Mum, Nigel and me, whose rather wacky humour put us in tune with each other in rather more obvious ways. Where Mum had me dressed in psychedelic dresses and wearing cowbells to school when I was 11, Dad practically needed oxygen when I wore my first pair of platform shoes with a bright red plastic heart on the sides. His views on fashion were, as his values, old-fashioned by today’s standards, but I remain grateful for them.

He taught me manners and respect; the importance of hard work and being driven, but not to the point of negating the people closest to you. Despite his intellect and enormous success in his work, his family came first, ambition second. I doubt he ever thought of it as a sacrifice, but it is one that I believe he made in order that his children might have better lives. 

Mum still lives in Bristol and works as a therapist. Like my relationship with Dad, it is a very close one, and undoubtedly Dad’s goodness and love live on in the special relationship I have both with her and Nigel. Every year, on Father’s Day, we call each other.
In celebration of my dad, I this week uploaded a short book on Amazon Kindle called, simply, Dad (available in their store, £1.99). It is another reminder of how very lucky we were to have him.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Addicted To The Chase - And Possibly in LA Soon?

Don’t phone your mother at 5pm on a weekday. That’s a given among all my friends. If you do, you’re likely to be met with a cold, ‘But you know I’m watching The Chase’ – that’s assuming she can tear herself away from the TV to answer the phone in the first place.

The quiz show has been running since 2009 on ITV1 and is such a hit it’s just been made as a pilot for Fox TV in the US. Here, it regularly attracts audiences of over three million and has become the must-see show in ITV1’s daytime schedule, beating its rivals in the same slot.

It is totally addictive television, and so much more than your average quiz: it’s a nail-biting race against the clock, in which a contestant and a quiz expert, called The Chaser, go head-to-head answering general knowledge questions.

The contestant is given a head start and it’s The Chaser’s job to catch and eliminate them by answering more questions correctly while a scoreboard keeps track of their progress. Successful contestants bank money as they go along, but to keep it they must play ‘The Final Chase’, when the Chaser invariably annihilates them!

The show’s appeal is in no small part due to the brilliance of host Bradley Walsh. Quick-witted, kind and sardonic without being condescending, he is perfect in the role. How he manages to keep a straight face is a miracle in itself (although his occasional giggling fits only add to the fun).

Take this question. ‘What was the Christian name of the education pioneer Montessori?’ Primary school teacher contestant: ‘Kevin.’ Somehow, Walsh managed to hold it together.

Don’t ask me how.

Undoubtedly, much of the appeal lies in the personalities of the Chasers - four brainboxes who take turns on the show and whose nicknames lend them a sinister presence that is played upon throughout. Mastermind winner Shaun Wallace is The Barrister or The Dark Destroyer; Anne Hegarty, who holds the rank of Master in the UK quiz rankings, is The Governess; Paul Sinha, ranked 20th in the quiz rankings, goes by name of The Sinnerman or The Sinner Winner; and Mark Labbett, runner-up on Brain Of Britain, is The Beast or Beastie Boy.

Much of the excitement rests on the moment when Walsh announces ‘It’s time to bring on the Chaser’, and the identity of that episode’s expert is revealed. At 6ft 7in and built to scale, Labbett is easily the most terrifying and by far the toughest on contestants who do not match his breadth of knowledge.

Then there’s the suspense element, as contestants move up the illuminated board with each question they answer correctly, only to find the Chaser hot on their heels.

It’s unpredictable, fun, a brilliant format, and perfect TV that could easily play in a primetime slot (are you listening, ITV?).

Until it does, just don’t call me between 5 and 6pm, OK?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Diamond Jubilees Are Not A Girl's Best Friend

Everyone said it was an occasion that made one proud to be British.
Presenters and guests in studios across the world extolled the virtues of a country that is able to put on such a great show, claiming that it set a wonderful precedent for the forthcoming Olympics. People over-ate, over-drank and partied long into several nights, as they celebrated Queen Elizabeth’s 60-year reign.
I felt nothing. Zilch. Nada.
I went to Spain where, for professional reasons only, I watched some of the pageantry on the telly. I wanted to feel something. A glimmer of patriotism, a hint of belonging, a sense of having come home, where I belong, after several years spent living mainly in other countries. I dug deep. And all I found was a longing to leave these shores once more in search of sunnier climes, cheaper utilities, better service – and, most importantly, leave a country that purports to be a democracy, when the head of State is where she is purely by virtue of her birth; likewise, the rest of the Royal family. That defies the very essence of democracy.
The joke is that the many thousands who gathered to catch a glimpse of the Royals this week are where they are by virtue of their birth, too: Down There. They are Her Majesty’s subjects: every one of them poorer, less privileged, and with not a snowball’s chance in hell of ever rising to Her Majesty’s position. The only way they can even get close is with neck bowed or a curtsy. I recently saw a list of DOs and DON’Ts for Joe Public meeting the Queen – it disgusted me.
I back Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood, a staunch Republican, who refuses to attend events at which the Queen turns up – and she was once thrown out of the Assembly for referring to the Queen as “Mrs Windsor”. Good on her. And for any dissonant voices out there venting their fury at this – Plaid’s membership has gone up 23% since she took the reins.
The Royal family is one of the most dysfunctional ones in the country. Her children grew up shaking their mother’s hand rather than receiving a hug. Charles went on to marry a beautiful, young but vulnerable woman, whom he treated appallingly from day one, continuing his affair with Camilla Parker Bowles and, on his honeymoon, even wearing the famously embossed CC cufflinks she had given him.
 Both Anne and Andrew are divorced, and Edward revealed himself to have the business acumen of a dead stoat in the film business, despite people throwing chances at him purely because of his lineage.
Thank heavens for Diana in this mix, and the joy that William and Harry have turned out to be – and, also, for Fergie, who has brought up two rather fun-loving daughters, even if they sometimes leave a lot to be desired in the fashion department.
On November 4th 2008, on the even of my 50th birthday, I stood in tears, watching TV, as America stood on the brink of electing its first black President. He has not proven himself to be perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but I felt proud of a country taking such a monumental step where, not so very long ago, black people had to give up their seats to white on public transport. Racism is still rife in the States as, sadly, it seems to be everywhere, but Obama has surely given hope to millions of young, disenfranchised Americans – yes, they can do it.
The Royal Family is a smokescreen for the real problems underlying British society – our failing education system, immense poverty, struggle on a daily basis for millions, as they find themselves falling behind on mortgages and bills. Waving your little flag might enable you to forget for a couple of days, but come the hangover, the problems are still there.
As for me: I’m out of here. Again.

Friday, June 1, 2012

My Horse And I 6/1/12

Don’t rent property from a private landlord. 

That’s the number one piece of advice I would give anyone arriving for the first time here. 

You may not get as much  square footage for your money from an established organisation in a block, but provided you have not violated any rules, you will get your money back at the end. 

With many private landlords, you may just have two choices at the end of your lease, when they are holding on to a chunk of your money on whatever pretence they choose. You can walk away, or sue. I sued. And I won. Californian law is very strict. Suing is a hassle, but well worth it. 

This time round, I have been far wiser and also been able to steer many people away from people I know to be bad landlords. Spread your experiences; it helps your friends, and LA is a very small place where a bad name counts for a lot – if you see what I mean.
 Another valuable piece of advice I wish I had been given when I first arrived three years ago is: never, ever, ever go to a post office. Unless you want to have three birthdays while standing in a queue for a stamp, do your business by any other means. 

In fact, hiring a horse and sending your letter by hoof will take considerably less time than organising it through the mail.
 Returning to any country for a second time when you have left it reminds you of just how naïve you were when you first arrived. Hopefully, you have learned lessons; unfortunately, you will just make different mistakes. It’s as true of life the world over as it is here.
For example: when I came here from the UK, I was naïve enough to think that cup cakes might be better than they were at home, where the experience was like sucking on a box of sugar cubes (that would have been better served being fed to the horse who delivered your letter). 

Having seen the queues outside the cup cake shops in Beverly Hills, I was optimistic. Big mistake. Had I bought a sugar cane farm and sucked on it for a week, I could not have been prepared for the massive hit of the sweet stuff that sent me rushing for the rest room. Gross. Now, you would not find me queuing for a cup cake any more than you would find me taking relationship advice  from a Kardashian. 

Learning such things is . . . well . . . the icing on the metaphorical cup cake.
Back in 2009, I was also naïve enough to think that there would be an LA hairdresser who knew how to cut hair in a style other than anything that makes a woman look like The Addams’ Family’s Morticia – or, if you’re a man, Lurch (and heck, I’d had enough of that look from my landlord’s entourage). 

I had such bad cuts, I would have been happier emerging looking like Uncle Fester.
They just can’t do short hair here, not least because they hardly ever see it. Long hair is as de rigeur as Botox and lip implants, and unless you are a poodle, you can forget coming out of a salon with a short haircut and looking like anything other than a lesbian trucker or a serial killer. 

When I returned to the UK after a haircut here, I risked arrest as children ran for cover.
 The main thing I wish I had known in 2009 is that no one area is Los Angeles: especially not Beverly Hills which, for the most part, I found to be an enclave of narrow-minded, humourless, not very well travelled people who believed themselves to be the centre of the universe. 

Don’t get me wrong: there were and are some wonderful people, especially in the five star Beverly Wilshire and a select number of restaurants; a huge number of people working in the film and television industries are also among the brightest you will ever meet, and it is always a privilege to meet them and learn from their very varied experiences.
 Santa Monica is not the centre, either. While it has among the best sunsets in the world, it feels miles from any working environment and a magnet for lots of people who don’t want to do very much in life other than hang out at the beach.
West Hollywood is a vibrant, working environment, but not a great place for a woman to stand a chance of meeting a bloke.
The truth is: whatever you want, the city has it all. Outside TV and film, it’s still a cultural wasteland compared to New York or London, but there are worse wastelands on the planet.
Anyway, that’s enough for now. 

I have to see a man about a horse.