Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Dr Cowell and the Frankenstein X Monster

So, Dr Cowell, your creature has taken on a life of its own.

The beautiful experiment has turned into a monster and deserted you. Despite its good intentions, it continues to gather more victims in its wake, unsure who or what it is anymore.

It is a shadow of its once tiny but perfect self. Small wonder you are weeping and Tweeting.
There is more than a tiny similarity between the tale of Dr Frankenstein and his out of control monster, and Simon Cowell and The X Factor. Both perfected a formula; both loved their creation; and neither could predict the devastation that creation would cause, once it took on a life of its own and set itself free in the world.
On Saturday night, Cowell was in the US, where he is a judge on their version of the show and, when one-time favourite, 16 year old Ella, in the UK show was evicted, he Tweeted: “Unbelievable”.
Really? Earlier in the week, I had been on the phone to UK judge Louis Walsh and told him that Ella and James would be the next to go. Ella’s songs had not only been pitched for her in the wrong key (as Nicole pointed out twice), she looked a mess and was, bless her, boring. Go to the Welsh Eisteddfod in August, and Ella voices are ten a penny – and kids with more personality.
James is undoubtedly a huge talent, but he too looks a mess. The urge to promote “urban” on the part of the judges (in particular, Tulisa) will simply not wash with the ITV audience. They want one thing: entertainment; and if that happens to go hand in hand with talent, great; if not, c’est la vie de showbiz. It is something that the current crop of judges does not understand. It is something that Cowell once did, but does not seem to anymore.
Look at the so-called novelty acts that have gone on to make money, if not very lucrative careers as a result of their laughable appearances on The X Factor – Jedward, being the prime example. They can’t sing, they can’t dance, they are irritating beyond belief, yet they are recognised and audiences flock to them the world over. In the current X Factor, Rylan Clark is a veritable Tom Jones alongside them; Christopher Maloney (who, unlike Rylan, really can sing) is a veritable Pavarotti.
Every week, Christopher gets booed by the studio audience, yet he has yet to be in the bottom two. No, he is no Leona Lewis but he delivers what the studio audience at home want: good tunes, nicely sung, by a seemingly nice, down to earth bloke. Whatever the truth behind newspaper reports of backstage tantrums, the voting audience neither knows nor cares.

So he’s someone who, according to the judges, would be more suited to a cruise ship or a karaoke bar? Well, sorry, but that’s what the audience wants: accessibility. For all Louis’s protestations – “We’re looking for a recording artist” – the show is not, first and foremost, about finding the best singer; if it had ever been about that, it could have gone into every school in the country and picked out an Ella, or visited every “urban” hangout in Camden and found a James.

The X Factor is, and always has been, about giving people something to stay in for and to argue about with their family and friends on a Saturday/Sunday night.
The X Factor was never better than when Simon, Sharon and Louis were on the panel. Here were three people who were in the business, had been for donkeys’ years, knew it backwards, and were not afraid to speak their minds. Then came the glamour girls and, with that, the fashion competitions in the press, the backstage sniping, and the belief that they were bigger than the show.
Now, the show is lucky if it can find anyone who even knows the difference between a note that is too sharp or too flat; instead, they resort to the irritating American Idol-ism “It was a bit pitchy”, which means nothing to your nan sitting at home with a sherry on a Saturday night (Simon, who is not a trained musician, still knows in his gut when a note is just plain “wrong”).
Even worse is the “You nailed it”. Not one of these judges even comes close to Cowell’s remarkable astuteness and ability to say, in one sentence, exactly what is right or wrong. Louis, whom I love, still interacted better with Simon and Sharon than he has with anyone else. In essence, Simon has the ability, as a judge, to nail it.
Is it too late to save The X Factor? To bring the monster back from the seeds of its own destruction? I fear it is. The studio audience used to be a reflection of the audience vote; now, they are little more than puppets in the hands of the judges, who must bear some responsibility for the appalling attacks and even death threats on Christopher Maloney.
It would not have happened with Cowell on the panel. This is a man who knows showbiz – and, for all the money it’s made him and pleasure he gets out of it, knows it for what it is: just showbiz. At least, that’s how I remember him.

But has Dr Cowell, with his American profile and riches, deserted the UK X Factor and left us staring helplessly into the eyes of his monster?
It was, perhaps, inevitable. As Dr Frankenstein said, when his monster came to life: "The beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart." Or, as Simon Cowell might say: "Unbelievable".
Now, there are other monsters, other continents. But beware, Dr Cowell: they, too, will have lives and minds of their own.

And they may all come back to bite you.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Touched by an Angel

There are people who come into our lives who never realise how big a part they play; then, suddenly, they are gone, and you are left stunned with the shock ending: the disbelief that you have reached the last page so soon, when you thought there was so much more of the story to go.
This week, I went into the lounge on Cardiff railway station to await the 11.25am First Great Western train to London. I had not been there for some time and entered the lounge expecting to see Lena, who ran the morning shift. Lena, whose hair might be red or purple, depending on the time of year; who made your tea and coffee with the care of a nurse singling you out for special treatment.
She wasn’t there, and I did a double take at seeing Sue, normally on the afternoon shift.
“Did you hear about Lena?” she asked. I went cold. After being diagnosed with ovarian cancer at the beginning of the summer, Lena had passed away after just thirteen weeks.

I was, and still am, in disbelief, and can’t stop crying every time I think of this extraordinary woman. She wasn’t just someone who served the tea and coffee (“Chocolaty bits?” she used to ask, when I had a rare Cappuccino – and I took them because she liked to surprise me with a different design on the froth); she knew the minutiae of my life and supported me through some very hard times. That’s an incredible feat when you see someone for no more than 20 minutes before the train arrives.
Each time I re-visited Cardiff when I was living mostly in Los Angeles for two and a half years, Lena was always excited to hear of my adventures. But she also knew how homesick I was and, on one return visit, she gave me a silver daffodil pendant to remind me of home when I was away. The last time I saw her, she gave me a satin pouch containing tweezers, scissors and other essentials for my travels. She never forgot my birthday and, every year, gave me a card.
She always spoke so lovingly of her partner Fred and her daughter in America. She proudly showed customers pictures of her beautiful grandchildren and the holidays she had taken to visit them. She was also very proud of her dog, whose pictures she showed me on her phone.
Lena raised a lot of money for charity, most notably with an annual “sponsored silence”. Those of us who knew her knew how tough that was – she acknowledged it herself. She was thrilled when she started working on a Dr Barnardo’s committee and made me laugh with her description of meetings where she had to ask people to stop talking in initials, insisting that they explain the abbreviations so that she could understand what on Earth it was they were talking about.
I have never met anyone who could be so cheerful from the crack of dawn, and no matter how sad or unhappy I was when I entered that lounge at whatever time, I always emerged with a smile on my face.
On one return visit from the US, I told Lena about a very close friend who had suddenly died there, and I was in pieces every time I arrived at the lounge. As Lena had followed my adventure from the start, she was genuinely saddened by my grief as I poured my heart out. She always asked about my mum. She always sympathised with whatever my latest drama was, no matter how big or small. She helped me with my bags. She gave me water for the train. She said how lovely it was to see me. She told me to look after myself.
Every Christmas in the lounge, she had a new toy that would sing, dance, or wriggle to music – all the things I never want until at least mid-day. But to Lena, every moment was one filled with joy and not to be missed.
I missed her birthday card this year. I will miss the Christmas toys. I will miss her constantly changing hair colours. I will miss her stories and the love that filled her eyes when she spoke of those closest to her. I will miss the chocolaty bits on my frothy coffee.
Most of all, I will miss a woman who never complained, who cast a light on everything and everyone around her, and whose death seems so, so unfair.
Lena, you were a dear friend and I trusted you with every aspect of my life. A credit to First Great Western, to Cardiff, and the charities for which you so tirelessly worked, you were one very special lady. And I thank you for having been a part of my life. 

A bigger part than I think you ever knew.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Writer Re-Groups . . .

I have made many mistakes in my life. We all do. We would not be human if we did not. But the biggest mistake we ever make is not to learn from the ones we have made.

Today, I was talking to an agent who represented me twice in my career and who very generously gave me time to talk over my various projects but, more significantly, my despair at a publishing marketplace that just doesn’t seem to want what I write.

I know it’s not because I have no ability; I have. Lots (*modest face*, as Twitter would say). But in a precarious and ever-changing world, how do you get out there? Do you try to second-guess what people, publishers and audience alike, want? Do you just do what you want to do and hope that the penny drops with someone, somewhere? Do you just write about what you know?

I have published a lot of journalism, but little fiction, which, along with poetry, is how I began my writing career. I had two stories published by Faber in 1984 in Introduction 9, which showcased new, unpublished writers. Six years later, Hutchinson published my first novel, Definitions of a Horse. It was critically acclaimed, even by John Carey in The Sunday Times, but sold few copies.

The heady world of showbiz, London and, for the first time in my life, being paid for writing, incarcerated me in journalism and, as a result, TV presenting. In the intervening time, I continued to write what I called my “real work”, mainly updating my autobiography and trying to re-market it in different forms in the hope of making a sale.

The eagle never landed. It is still trying to fly but losing height as the years go by.

I suddenly realised, during my conversation this morning, that it was pretty much the same conversation we had had several times before. Yet here I was, not in my 30s or 40s anymore but, at the age of 54, still banging on about the same subject matter, the same obsessions, the same failures, the same foibles – and still not getting it published.

Einstein said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. It’s what I’ve been doing in my writing. I know I can write, but escaping my internal landscape and putting thoughts, words and deeds into the mouths and actions of characters is a skill I have to re-learn.

My first novel featured a 50 year old, embittered married man having a nervous breakdown. I was a 30 year-old, content single woman; the only thing my character and I had in common was that we both worked in a school. Yet people praised me for my ability to “get inside” the head of a middle-aged man. I hadn’t done any such thing. I took the emotions that I felt – that we all feel - and put them inside another body and personality, fine-tuning them to that character’s different circumstances. But it was still, essentially, me. A human being.

When I landed my first job on the London Evening Standard in 1988, the brilliant editor John Leese quickly knocked out of me my tendency to say “I” in my job as TV reviewer, even though I was expressing my own opinions. “There’s always a better way to say it,” he said.

There are, of course, many great first person narratives, both fiction and non-fiction, out there, but after this morning’s call – and feeling embarrassed that despite physical changes of circumstance, I still sounded as barking mad as ever – I know I need to start enjoying the third person again – at the very least, for my own sanity.

Not listening to that agent was one of the greatest mistakes I ever made; the other was not accepting an offer on my second novel.

I remember sitting in the restaurant and balking in horror at the advance when the publishers described the picture they could see on the dust-jacket – a bare leg with a glittering frog garter on it.

I should explain that the book was called Kissing Princes and used the Diana/Charles romance as a metaphor for how even, in the seemingly best love stories, princes turn into frogs.

Had I taken the cheque and carried on with damned thing, it would, given the events that followed with the Royal divorce and Diana’s death, probably have made me a fortune. But I wanted to be Tolstoy. At the very least, I wanted to starve in a garret to prove my authenticity.

And I lacked confidence. I was from South Wales, living in London in a bedsit. These publishers must have been wrong. Why would anyone want me?

The last time I left the agent’s office, many years ago, he told me that the publisher “really thought you were going to be the next big thing.”

I walked up the road, sobbing, knowing that I had made a huge mistake. And I felt such a failure. I still do.

The world of celebrity and trivia is big business; heck, bad writing is big business, as is bad television. We are, as I am wont to say, living in the golden age of mediocrity.

There’s a place for that, too – clearly – but I realised today that it’s not where I want to be at this point in my life.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time on the wild side with stars in my eyes under candy-floss lights. But the time to write about it has gone and I missed the boat. I didn’t listen to the people who knew what they were talking about. Shoulda, coulda . . . But didn’t.

Hey, ho. But now, as the TV psychiatrist Frasier says: “I’m listening”. And the first thing I’m going to do is to stop listening to the sound of my own voice banging on about myself. It’s time to change the record: put away the vinyl and enter the emotional digital age.

Much as people enjoy the personal stuff, it just ain’t selling. And I need to eat.

That’s not to say that everything I experience won’t still make it to the page at some point, but it will be in a different form; the reality (albeit a clichĂ©) is that you can tell the truth a darn sight better in fiction that you can in non-fiction.

So, I’m going to take a break from myself and take a walk on the dark side again. It’s where I began and, probably, where I belong.


Friday, November 9, 2012

Misophonia is the New Black

Misophonia is the new black. 

Ever since I described the condition and told people my symptoms, I have been inundated with people who say that they, too, are blighted by the condition.
Basically, misophonia is a neurological response to certain sounds. It induces in sufferers high states of anxiety, often anger, and their inability to tolerate them can force them into a life of solitude.
 It is not – I stress not – just being irritated by those sounds. It is an extreme reaction that really can make life intolerable.
 I can no longer sit having breakfast among other people in a hotel. Waiters clattering cutlery, spoons chinking on cereal bowls and, worse, diners scraping every last morsel of yoghurt from a carton – all bring me out in a sweat and feelings of intense fury. “Just have another yoghurt if you like it that much!” I want to scream, as I hear a spoon excavating another layer of plastic.
Tapping, chewing, scraping, texting, typing – to me, the ordinary sounds around us every day are intolerable. I have stopped going to one cafĂ© bar because I cannot stand the sound of customers playing with their cappuccino foam, right down to the last bubble. I have parted company with another restaurant because, at the end of food service, the sound of cutlery being washed, dried and cleared away echoes in my ears like the London Philharmonic tuning up. Loudly.
Then there’s The Hum, which is a different ear complaint altogether. And it’s just that. A hum. I have it only in one house, which makes me think I am attuned to some kind of generator close by.
So, finally, I went to the doctor, who thought the second complaint was most likely tinnitus; she didn’t really comment about the first but thought that I was suffering from high anxiety and recommended anti-depressants or counselling. I took her up on neither. She also referred me to the hospital, where finally, yesterday, I had an appointment.
The nurse said that I had been referred for tinnitus, and when I explained about the misophonia, she wrote down hyperacusis and said they were the same. Well, they are not. Misophonia is, literally, a hatred of sound; hyperacusis is the over-sensitvity to the loudness of a sound.
I was sent to a room for some hearing tests. With headphones on, I had to press a button every time I heard a sound, no matter how quiet. I would have been able to hear every one, had staff not been making such a racket outside the supposedly soundproofed room (cue sweaty palmed annoyance). I was also tested for my tolerance to very loud sounds.
I returned to the waiting room while the results were being collated, and that’s when the trouble started. I could hear Lady Gaga singing Poker Face. Quietly, but enough to set off my misophonia big time. I looked around to see if anyone else could hear it, but this was a room full of people losing their hearing, so it was unlikely. 

I went to the reception desk to ask if they could turn the music down. They said there wasn’t any (their own hearing aids made me realise I was on to a loser going down this path) and that it was the air-conditioning. Even I know that air-con sounds nothing like Lady Gaga, but they were adamant. I spotted a lad listening to his phone and asked staff if it was okay to approach him (ie beat him up if he didn’t turn his music down). When I did, it was clear that the sound was not coming from his earphones. 

What followed was a small riot. People started to strain their ears and declare that yes, I was right, they too could hear Lady Gaga. They nodded their heads enthusiastically, agreeing that they, too, were suffering this gross infringement on their silence. 

I felt like Robin Williams in Awakenings, as the catatonic patients came to life after being administered with the L-Dopa drug. Suddenly, all these deaf people were awake to the sound of Lady Gaga; the waiting room sprang to life, with patients frantically pointing to the air-conditioning, insisting to staff that Poker Face was coming through the vents. My misophonia had brought about a revolution.
The man reading his Kindle in the corner had been quick to join the complainers, little knowing that it was the phone in his pocket that had been playing the song. When he realised, he apologised to the now baying throng, but it was too late; the rabble were well and truly aroused.
Luckily, I was called back to the nurse for my test results and left the chaos I had created.
Verdict: I have the hearing of a dog (I could have told them that). “My hearing’s even a little bit better than yours,” said the nurse, a little unnecessarily, I felt. I wanted to add: ”And I’m five stone lighter than you, and I know which I’d prefer,” but I kept my counsel.
As I was able to tolerate extremely loud sounds with no discomfort, hyperacusis was out (I could have told them that, too); so was tinnitus. I have experienced strange noises in my ears just twice in five years, and The Hum did not appear to fit the tinnitus profile, either.
I was recommended “hearing therapy”. “The first question you’ll be asked,” said the nurse, “is what you do to relax.” She had already asked me that question when I arrived and, the truth is, the only thing I do to relax is more work. I love writing. More than anything. Taking time off from it to go fly-fishing or some such inane “hobby” would stress me out even more.
I know I am stressed at the moment and my blood pressure is higher than normal – all of which, I was told, could well be contributing to The Hum.
I think, basically, the verdict was that I am nuts.
Walking back through the waiting room, silence had resumed and, as in Awakenings, when the patients returned to their catatonic state when the effects of the L-Dopa wore off, my patients were once again deaf mutes.
Still, it felt good to know I had given them their moment in the sun.
So, now I await my “hearing therapy”, during which I will doubtless be told to imagine calm seas, to breathe deeply, to get more sleep, and to do something relaxing. Like fly-fishing. 

Fat chance.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

ITV's Stewie is my Family Guy

Four years ago, on the eve of my 50th birthday, I was crying in a London restaurant, watching a TV and seeing America’s first black American President head for the White House.
It felt good to be a part of history. Not just good. I was brimming with overwhelming joy. To see changes in our society that just a few decades ago would have been unthinkable was something that could not help but move you.
I thought back to my primary school days, when a boy called Raymond, who obviously had learning difficulties, was (even to my young and inexperienced mind) racially abused. He went on to do time for murder and, while I recognise mental disorder, I wonder how much of his disturbed adult life might have been averted had his learning disability been recognised and treated and, even more significantly, if he had not been black.
High on Obama fever, I went to live in Los Angeles, where I stayed for two and a half years. The venom I heard poured on Obama horrified me and disgusted me. “Whadderyer think o’ the urban?” I was asked, through barely disguised contempt. Most of the comments I heard are unprintable.
The ignorance of so many Americans, who blindly go where evangelical religion leads them, to the extinction of all rational thought and humanity, stunned me. While ignorance is just as capable of breeding and being fostered on this side of the Atlantic, I believe that it is our history and the lessons we learn (or are forced to re-evaluate) from it that enables us to examine ourselves very differently from our neighbours across the pond.
It is that ability, coupled with extraordinary broadcasting abilities that, for me, made ITV’s coverage of the US election one of the greatest pieces of television, let alone news, I have ever witnessed.
I have been a TV critic for over 25 years and regularly watch between 80 and 100 hours a week. In over two decades, nowhere has there been as great a change as in news. When Sky launched its 24 hour news channel in 1989, it was revolutionary. I was addicted. I watched the entire OJ Simpson and Louise Woodward trials, gasping when the verdicts were announced as loudly as I might when watching a drama killing off a key character.
Now, 24 hours news is everywhere, and we have Twitter, which delivers news even faster than even TV can. I learn about celebrities’ deaths through Twitter, I Tweet throughout all TV programmes (via Zeebox), sharing thoughts and ideas with others. The irony is that in an age when we are able to record and catch up on just about anything and everything on TV, it is still the shared experience that we most enjoy. For all the joys of the boxed set era, there is still nothing quite like our relationship with the immediacy of the literal boxed set in our living rooms.
What ITV did spectacularly last night and throughout this morning was take news coverage to a whole new level. The studio-based discussions and interviews, led by a breathtakingly energetic Alastair Stewart, made complex political analysis accessible to all, without resorting to dumbing down. Alastair made personalities and mini-dramas of every single situation and interviewee – even the dullest. No, it’s not often that you hear the word “parsimonious” at 2.30am, and the banter about such matters, through Alastair’s linguistic fencing, while still keeping a tight rein on the matter in hand, was awesome (as the Americans would say) to behold.
Quite what the BBC was up to is anybody’s guess. At no point, apart from post 4.30am did they even have the right numbers of total seats won on the screen. While ITV cut to the US each time a key result was announced, the BBC panel, hosted by David Dimbleby, was engaged in yet another sleepy, repetitive discussion.
Meanwhile, on ITV, direct from the US, pieces of carpet were being laid on ice to show which states were going to which party; there were towers keeping us up to date with the numbers of states falling to red or blue; there were people. Yes, people! ITV recognised that this was an election about people, and we heard from them. Women. Hispanics. Blacks. Gays. Voters!
Alastair Stewart was the brilliant ringmaster throughout, and seemed to thoroughly enjoy himself. I was at home watching from my bed but ITV made me feel as if I was a guest at the biggest party on Earth.
As I did four years ago, I cried again, because today, the world is a better place for the decision that America made. And British television continues to be a better place for the sublime talent we witnessed on ITV last night.
The US has its own Stewie in Family Guy. 

For me, there’s only one Stewie, and gosh, has he earned his sleep.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Happy Birthday to Me!

This is the first birthday ever that I am spending by myself. 

It’s weird, but just a fact of age, I suppose – and having no money to be able to throw a party.
So, I had a long lie-in and was feeling quite content until I woke to my reflection and the longest hair growing out of my chin I have ever found.
I began to wish I had bought the NoNo online - the (allegedly) miracle device that removes facial hair with “virtually no pain”. It’s that word “virtually” that worries me, in addition to the potential damage I could cause if I decided to use the NoNo after a couple of drinks. I have visions of waking up on the sofa with a Mohican and one eyebrow, not to mention a sliced ear. So, I just took the tweezers to it.
In the shower, I thought that my body wasn’t too bad for 54. True, I have not “returned to me original weight”, which is what women always boast about when they shed a couple of stone (that would be silly – my original weight was 7 lbs). My age showed more clearly when I dried my hair, as there appears to be a great deal less of it with each passing year. I felt like Paul Daniels as I tried to manoeuvre strands across the patches of white scalp and wondering why nature could not make what was happening on my chin happen on my head.
As a child, I used to have parties but, being born on November 5th, all the kids brought fireworks to let off. Then, as now, I hate fireworks and used to spend the outdoors part of the evening hiding indoors, terrified behind the sofa, while my guests waved their sparklers in the garden.
They, on the other hand, were probably glad to escape my clutches. When they arrived at the party, I would organise them in order of height and arrange their presents on a chair with similar precision, so they were doubtless only too happy to be de-mobbed to the garden. To be honest, I was always glad to be rid of them at the end of the night, and thrust their parting gift of a “goody bag” into their hands as speedily as I might an unpinned grenade.
I’ve also been thinking back to my significant birthdays. In the photographs of my 18th, I am in a gorgeous turquoise two piece (oh, why did I throw it away?) and boasting a hairdo that looks as if it has eaten my body weight twice over. I look at least 55. 

On my 21st, I am in brown crimplene. 

I spent my 30th in Camden Town, in Chalk and Cheese, a restaurant then owned by my friend Liz, to whom I remain close to this day. 

My 40th - possibly the happiest day of my life – was in Soho House in London. 

I had three 50th birthday parties and, at the main dinner in London, felt blessed that the friends there were the ones who had been prominent in my life for over 25 years. At the party I organised in my Paris apartment, the last guest was taken away unconscious by the pompiers. They were not happy and shouted at me in French that this was not their job. Ha! I wanted to respond. You want to be in Cardiff on a Saturday night, when this would be your only job. Luckily, my French was not sufficiently up to scratch to be able to convey this.
I am not feeling sad at spending a birthday alone; it’s only one day. We all live busy lives; friends have partners, children, jobs. Last week, I was in London, enjoying a wonderful dinner with very close friends; does it matter that it was not on one particular date as opposed to any other? Not a jot.
Tomorrow, I hope to see my mother, who lives an hour away. Does our love diminish because we have not seen each other on THE day? Again, no.
It is the poignancy with which we recognise the nature of time passing that changes how we view birthdays. For me, today, it does not have to be different from any other, but a day to reflect on how lucky I am to love and be loved by so many wonderful friends and my ever-supportive family.
Facebook, too, has overwhelmed me with friends, acquaintances and complete strangers sending their good wishes. For all its faults, social networking is a phenomenal medium for reaching out to people and letting them know they are in your thoughts.
Every day of my life, my family, friends, and even these people I have never met, give me a goody bag, and I am 24/7 grateful for it. 

My birthday is happy because every one of them is in my life.