Monday, March 18, 2013

Chariots of Fire in Cardiff

“You can stick your f*****g chariot up your arse . . . “ 

You know it’s going well for Wales when the singing starts. 

Max Boyce’s Hymns and Arias to celebrate the Welsh, and the alternate Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, to rub salt into the wounds of the English. And there will have been many hoarse voices on Saturday night following mighty renditions of both. I just wish I’d been there, but a mess-up in my scheduling put me on the other side of the world.
There is nothing like a spectacular Welsh win on the rugby field to bring out the “hiraeth” – the longing for one’s homeland – in me.
On Saturday morning, at 10am, in the King’s Head in Santa Monica in LA (currently seven hours behind the UK until the start of British summertime), you couldn’t move for the red shirts. There were a few English scattered there, too, and they became most identifiable by their groans when their team gave away yet another penalty, messed up a pass, or dropped the ball. Which was often.
In contrast, Wales were controlled, disciplined, fiery, and the best they have been since they became the darlings of the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
Until the UK smoking ban, I was never a huge fan of British pubs, and they are still not my favourite watering holes. They are generally places people go with the specific intention of getting drunk or getting tanked up to move on to another venue, where their aim is to be unconscious by 2am. They are places where people talk bollocks for hours at a time, convinced, with each new glass, that they are achieving depths of Socratic insight. They are places where male customers talk to female bar staff as if they are pieces of meat (and think scrag end rather then rump steak).
But on a rugby international day, over 5000 miles away from home and Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, where Saturday’s Six Nations clincher took place, there was no other place to be in LA other than the King’s Head.
It’s an Irish bar that does really good food and where you can have your “ ‘alf an’ ‘alf” – half chips, half rice – that we so love with our curry in Wales. The staff are great, and it is popular both with locals and visitors. Heck, I even saw David Beckham in there with his children.
None of us could quite believe Saturday’s win, as at the start of the game we had all predicted a very close match that would probably end with England winning the Championship, if not the Grand Slam.
Then, as Wales raced away with it, I heard a woman say: ”I really wish I was in Cardiff now.”
And I did, too. I used to have front row, front stand, halfway line seats in the Millennium Stadium, and with three seasons in “Jaci’s Box” – the hospitality box I hired at Cardiff Blues in the old Arms Park next door - it was one of the happiest and most fun times of my life. 

I have several hundred T-shirts bearing the phrase “I’ve been in Jaci’s Box” left over. Someone suggested that I donate them to help out with clothing next time a natural disaster hits a distant part of the world. I am not sure. The sight of a serious ITN reporter commenting on sobbing, hungry children, while they lurk in the background in their “I’ve been in Jaci’s Box” T-shirts might not be the best incentive to bring those charitable donations rolling in. Maybe I’ll put them on e-Bay instead.
Yes, it’s always rugby international days at the Millennium Stadium that reinforce my roots. And then I remember the grey, the rain and the cold of Wales, and California beckons again.
There are enough Welsh here for us to start a splinter country, though. A couple of weeks back, half of Cardiff seemed to be on Hollywood Boulevard to see the Richard Burton star being laid. Welsh actors do very well here, and Matthew Rhys is currently wowing audiences with his performance in The Americans, for which he is hotly tipped to pick up several awards.
The world has become smaller for a generation used to travel, and when I feel homesick, I always remember that the UK is only half a day’s travel away.
Compare that to an England defeat at Cardiff, where 80 minutes can seem like a week.
Now it’s being asked whether Wales are capable of winning the 2015 Rugby World Cup, which is being held in . . . England. 

Now that would be a very sweet chariot indeed.   

Friday, March 15, 2013

Clearing of the Mist

I needed this. 

Long periods of time spent just in front of the computer, doing what I do best. 

Writing, revising, reading, re-reading . . . While the sound of the Pacific hitting the shore plays in the background. One morning, a gentle, pale white break, and a sun struggling to light the day on the foam; today, an angry effort as waves try to make themselves heard. 

But always, for me, the most calming sound in the world.
This is a part of LA with which I am not familiar. Having lived only in Beverly Hills and 30th in Santa Monica, I know only street life and the handful of bars and restaurants that became my regular haunts. I regularly went to West Hollywood when I lived here, too, but found it too congested. I still do.
And while I think this oasis of calm between Venice Beach and Marina del Rey would not suit me full time (I really don’t want to have to drive around here, and the buses are less regular in this part of town), I welcome this period of calm to re-group. My friends have given me their spectacular place while they are back in the UK for ten days, and they will never know how much it means to me.
 It’s hard to get silence and stillness these days. At my home back in Cardiff, three sets of neighbours have had building work going on for nearly a year. My dear friends in Hollywood put me up out here, but I had to move out because there is a celebrity having a house built close by, and I swear Beirut at the height of its troubles was quieter.
Living in hotels is a nightmare – which part of the “Do not disturb” sign on the door do staff not understand when they come knocking to ask if I want my mini-bar refilled? Living in a hotel where they try to charge you $6 per tea-bag (get it sorted, Thompson group) is even worse.
So now, I am in heaven. I am working on a script that I am developing with a TV company and finishing my book (writing, not reading). The phone doesn’t ring and I rarely have to call anyone. Every time I look out of the window, a painting stares back at me: a Hopper single figure, caught in a moment of contemplation; a Turner water colour; a blank canvas, even, just waiting for the next person to paint their story upon it.
It’s a grey, cloudy day at the beach today, but still those waves: always the promise of renewal, tide after tide. 

And I am thinking that this is the most content and calm I have been in a long, long time.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Twin Towns - Cardiff and Miami (yes, really)

I am not good living out of a suitcase. My suitcase is bigger than I am. In fact, I am thinking of dispensing with my clothes and living in said suitcase to save on rent.
I have been desperate to get a place back in LA, not only because of the suitcase issue but because I just love the city. The fact that everywhere you go, people are talking about TV and film; the great service in almost every restaurant and bar; the terrific bus service (people still laugh at me, but it’s mega cheap and regular, and the drivers are a darn sight nicer than the taxi drivers - and, more to the point, know where they are going); the weather – it’s my kind of town (as the song goes).
But it’s impossible to find an apartment that is exactly right. I took one of my landlords (who charged me a fortune for a place that was mediocre, at best) to court last year (and won), so nice as anyone seems at the outset, it can still turn sour. In my experience, it is better to go with a company, even if you have to pay a little above the odds and compromise a little on space. But at least, unlike private landlords, a company is professional and doesn’t try to do you over when you leave.
So while I’ve been looking, it’s been suitcase time, and I also returned to Miami for Britweek Visits Miami. The annual LA Britweek event (now two weeks), set up by UK TV producer Nigel Lythgoe and ex-diplomat Bob Peirce and his wife Sharron, has been running for seven years. This was its first showing out of California and a jolly time was had by all.
There are apparently plans afoot to twin Miami with my local home city of Cardiff in South Wales. Miami is fairly hot for most of the year; Cardiff is the second wettest city in the UK. We have the M4 and the Severn Bridge that carries people with ease from England into Wales; Miami is a congestion of taxis in a tortoise marathon, and if you want to get anywhere, you should have set out yesterday.
 Cardiff has the Millennium Stadium and rugby; Miami, Marlins Park and baseball (and if you want to get there in a hurry, you should have set off last week). Cardiff has the River Taff on its doorstep; Miami has the Atlantic Ocean. 

You can’t get a drink in Miami after 2am (and most places, apart from nighclubs, are wiping down tables before midnight; Cardiff was recently names the drinking capital of Europe (as the packed police cells and A & E on a Saturday night bear witness).
Yes, it’s easy to see why, given how much the two cities have in common, they should be paired.
I actually hope it comes off. Justin Jones, who with his wife Taima pulled off Britweek in Miami, is Welsh. Many local businesses participated in particular events, while some big businesses from other parts of the US sponsored others. And I even got to have my picture taken with Lennox Lewis, who was a guest speaker at the opening gala. He’s a big boy.
My trip back to LA was not without incident. Having been somehow downgraded on American Airlines, I found myself hemmed in next to an enormous woman from Virginia who might even have been Virginia, such was her bulk. Her knitting needles were already clacking away at a jumper clearly intended for her 60 stone niece, and the eight gallon carton of Pepsi was sitting precariously on the tiny table between us. Her leg, which was about the size of Gibralter, was up on the dashboard in front of us.
It was all too much. Too big. Too much. Too in my face. Too overwhelming for my five foot stature. And I had a massive claustrophic panic attack and almost passed out. The plane was full, so moving to the better seat where I belonged was not an option. Getting off appeared to be the only one. Ground staff were called, but I was told I would have to be on stand-by on any other flight (which would have been a whole lot of other stress). The captain came to see me and asked if I was afraid of flying. No. I do it all the time. Was I on any meds? No. Are you sure you’re not on any meds? NO!
He explained that he didn’t want to have to land somewhere mid-flight to get me off, and I told him that this was precisely why I was bringing it up before the doors closed.
Anyway, Virginia and her continent of sweater kindly moved to the window seat and I spent a calm flight back to LA in her aisle seat, from where I watched All About Eve and Hitchcock, starring Anthony Hopkins in the lead.
I love the way his accent keeps slipping into his native Welsh – I will never be able to think of Psy-kaw in quite the same way again. 

Come the great twinning programme with Cardiff, they’ll all be speaking like that in Miami by Christmas.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Mama Mia-mi - Part One


No mice, no lice, no spice. 

All the plays on the title of the TV show Miami Vice I had been hoping to adopt in writing about Miami Beach, came to nothing.
Miami Gripes was the best that I could do. And there were so many. Oh, so many. The dreadful music, the rudeness, the darkness, the service, the dirt, the runners, the cyclists, the internet connection, the rip-off merchants, the motorists, the shouting . . .
I could go on. And will. But let’s start with the positive. The Atlantic Ocean: a perfect aqua: white waves meeting equally white sand and an empty beach before breakfast.
And now back to the gripes. Because, once you have taken in the beauty of the ocean, what you are left with is Ibiza on Sea.
I had gone to Miami to escape the January winter in Cardiff, and friends offered me a good deal on their apartment. Having fixed up to write a travel piece, too, along with the host of my favourite US TV show, Judge Alex, it was almost cheaper to go to Miami than to heat my Cardiff house for the month.
But I quickly discovered that Miami Beach is right up/down there (depending on your viewpoint) with the least sophisticated parts of the Spanish coastline.
If I didn’t get killed there, it was entirely likely that I would have turned killer. There was just too much hair, and women tossing their manes with absurd regularity, seemingly intent on taking out one of my eyes in their efforts to invade my personal space and take it for themselves. First comes the hair, then the lit cigarette, brandished with equal carelessness. I had a choice between either being follicled to death, or burnt.
And another thing . . . They’re all gay (well, it seemed that way)! Now, I have nothing against gays, male or female; loads of my friends are gay. In fact, most of my friends are gay. And while I have zilch interest in finding a partner, a little flirtation doesn’t go amiss. In South Beach, this was about as likely as a mole getting a suntan. 

I was definitely the only non-gay in the village. On board the Virgin flight over, I had stood at the bar next to two men and tried to make conversation, but they had eyes only for the two men on the opposite side, who had eyes only for each other. We were joined by two women who, I quickly discovered, had been an item for two years. Suddenly, I regretted boarding a flight to  Miami.
“What did you expect?” friends asked, with incredulity, when I returned. “It’s Miami.” Yes, I knew that. But I was expecting beefy coppers, muscled personal trainers . . . Not that gays can’t be either, but I’m a sucker for what I see on the telly.
Then there were the people who I never knew were gay or not, because they were too busy trying to kill me as they jogged along the boardwalk. Those that weren’t jogging were whizzing by on upright two-wheelers; others were on bikes. The boardwalk is apparently the empire of the outdoor enthusiast, and you risked your life if you paused to look at the ocean. I could see my autopsy report already: “Killed in the path of oncoming jogger”.
So why, in March, did I find myself back in the place I swore never to go again? 

It's coming up in part two very shortly, when I have recovered from the trauma of my pre-take-off, claustrophobic panic attack on the American Airlines flight back to LA. 

Long story. But let's just say: don't put a five foot tall Welsh woman next to an 84 stone Virginian knitting a sweater for her 60 stone daughter, drinking from an eight gallon cup of Pepsi and blocking your entrance to the inflatable slide (which she would burst anyway)  with her leg.

Like I said. All in part two.