Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Life is for the Living, Not the Dying

I grew up watching my grandmother go up and down flights of stairs all day long when she and Grandpa ran The Old Globe pub in Rogerstone, just outside Newport in South Wales.
Her stamina always amazed me. She carried crates, served behind the bar, and, the thing I remember most, rose at 5am every morning to make fresh Cornish pasties for pub lunches.
On the one occasion I stayed with her, when Grandpa was ill in hospital, we shared the same bed and I recall three things: the false teeth she put in the glass at her bedside before retiring (I was fascinated – I thought only dentists removed teeth); her kneeling on the floor at the side of the bed to say her prayers; and the early morning that was ‘pastie o’clock’. She had barely been in bed five minutes after cleaning up after last orders.
She had always been the same. At 14, she gave up her job as a photographer’s assistant to wash clothes for the huge family of nine. To me, knowing this when I was young, it was a slavish existence. She must have worked eighteen hours a day until she retired when Grandpa died in 1971. Fifty years. That’s well over 350,000 hours. At least.
I lay there one night, on a sleepover when Grandpa was in hospital, listening to the mixer (good old Kenwood) stir the potatoes and onions and, when I finally got out of bed, I marvelled at the rows of golden, ribbed Cornish pasties on their steel trays that Grandma carried down to the bar to put in the ‘snacks’ container that kept them warm on the counter. And at 64, when she retired, she was still bounding up and down those stairs like a youngster.
When we, as a family, visited every weekend (Mum helped out behind the bar), I collected tops from the Courage beer bottles – numerous bright colours (orange, blue, yellow) surrounding a cockerel in the middle – and was ecstatic when Grandma gave me an empty cigar box in which to put my collection of plastic jewellery. I still have the Babycham glass she gave me with Bambi prancing across the front.
On Bank Holidays, Dad would take us to the temporary fair in the field opposite the pub. Dad always won a coconut and, one afternoon, won two goldfish – one for my brother Nigel and one for me. Nigel’s fish, Fred, died, when Mum fed him eight oxygen tablets when he appeared to be struggling to breathe. In the end, I suspect it was the wind that killed him.
My fish, Horace, had an inauspicious start in life when the bag we carried him back in burst, and he spent a good few minutes drunk as we tried to scoop him up from the spilt Guinness on the pub floor. At least he lasted longer than Fred, so it must be true what they say about the benefits of stout.  
I remember every Saturday afternoon, when Nigel and I were deposited downstairs, emerging from the terror of the living room where we had to watch Dr Who in the dark (apparently, it saved electricity), to be offered our choice of chocolate from the sweet counter in the bar.
I have thought of Grandma so many times since her death in 1989, a short while after her eldest daughter, Audrey, and a short while before my beloved father in 1990. I recall never hear her once complain, though her life was non-stop work, morning till night, seven days a week. She brought up three daughters, including my mum, Val, the eldest, and the youngest, Barbara, through a war, looked after Grandpa when he was dying of cancer, and dealt with horrendous money problems not of her making, following his death.
When I started out in my late twenties in Fleet Street, writing five TV columns a week “live” (this was in the days before videos and DVDs), living on five hours’ sleep a night for four years, I always had at the forefront of my mind that to survive in life, you had to have a strong work ethic, and nowhere had I witnessed it more powerfully than in my grandmother. 
To this day, that work ethic, and her fortitude and spirit are central to what keeps me going when times get tough for me (and I work just as hard now as I did when I started out). She had it tougher; she really did. But she loved her work, loved her family, and, despite the hardship, loved life.

At her funeral, the minister said: ‘Some people live dying; others die living.’ Grandma was the latter. And, thanks to her, I will do that, too. 

Hopefully, not for a while yet.  

Saturday, January 3, 2015

It's Not Easy Being Green

New year, new fad. 

The papers and magazines are full of them and, as someone who has a Toad of Toad Hall approach to life (“Crazes. He always has crazes”), it was inevitable that I embarked on a couple more this year.
In LA, I embarked on them on a weekly, if not daily basis; on every street corner, there is someone offering you a better life, usually at a cost of thousands of dollars. In New York, it seems easier to set one’s own routine for considerably less. Maybe it’s because of the competition.
So, I began with cleansing my digestive system. I drink a reasonable amount of carrot juice anyway (I love it, but am careful not to overdose on Vitamin A – not good), and thought that Daily Greens sounded more aggressive. So it was spinach, kale, celery and lemon juice, accompanied by a banana and, my weakness, two cups of Tetley tea (my supermarket has run out of PG Tips; I am heartbroken and very shaky from withdrawal symptoms as a result).
It’s hard to say what Daily Greens tastes like, but lets just say that the barium meal I had 30 years ago when I was tested for an ulcer was better. I certainly heaved a lot less on it. Individually, I like all four components – spinach (in Delia’s spinach, rice and cheese bake), kale (stir fried), celery on its own or in my vegetarian Bolognese sauce) and lemon (gin and tonic). Together, however, it tasted like a frog that had overdosed on . . . well, other frogs. Other frogs with bad very stomach upsets. It looked like Kermit after a severe road traffic accident.
I tried coconut water instead. This is the juice from young green coconuts (maybe the frog had overdosed on those, too?) that apparently aids digestion, helps weight loss, and lays claim to being the very elixir of life, alongside water. It tasted like cat’s pee, albeit sweet cat’s pee. I decided to stick to my carrot juice and what comes for free out of my tap.
My diet, however, is going well. Fresh fruit and veg, very little or no alcohol, and two fingers of Kit Kat if I fancy something sweet (which I rarely do, anyway; I am lucky in never having had a sweet tooth). But then I’ve always been quite a healthy eater. I used to spend all my pocket money on health magazines, which is why I now know everything about bowel movements but couldn’t name you a number one hit single from the past 50 years.
But now to exercise. Again, I’ve always been quite good on this front. I used to be a dancer, I walk everywhere, and I have frequented many gyms, where I do a good cardio workout and a bit of muscle training on machines. Last year, I also had a personal trainer twice a week, and this year I have added boxing cardio to my routine – something I did years ago before hurting my knee when trying to compete in “boxercise” classes with young lads who actually boxed for a living. Very foolish.
This year, I thought I’d try something different - yet another yoga class. My friends who do yoga look amazing and seem to have knocked years off their ages. Personally, I’ve never got on with it. No matter what class I attend, I always seem to be behind the person who, in Downward Facing Dog, has a veritable wind farm operating from his or her backside.
Yesterday, I decided to try yet another form of yoga. Although it has been around for some time, “hot yoga” is increasingly popular owing to the likes of Andy Murray and Gwyneth Paltrow doing it. As I don’t want to win Wimbledon, or be “consciously uncoupled”, the celebrity aspect of it wasn’t what appealed; instead, it was the fact that the exercise takes place in a room heated to over 105 degrees, which is supposedly better for muscles and makes you sweat more.
As with all yoga classes I have previously attended, I quickly dislocated my neck trying to see what the teacher was doing. Then I twisted my groin by being too competitive and trying to stretch further than people half my age. Then came the dreaded Downward Facing Dog. Over and over again. There was an “Up” dog, too, and something I have never experienced before – “Happy Baby”. This one I struggled with, so much so that the teacher had to come over to show me how to do it, and I still couldn’t master it. Come on. How was I supposed to know what a happy baby pose was? The last time I was in one, I was a baby for goodness’ sake!
For those not in the know, Happy Baby involves you lying on your back and cupping your right foot in your right hand; then your left; then both feet together. Small wonder I couldn’t get it. Happy baby pose to me was always, I am sure, stuffing my face and sleeping it off.
I have to say, though, that the lower back pain that has been plaguing me for months had completely gone this morning. I was able to leap out of bed without pain and there is not a hint of the soreness that has been making life so difficult. Maybe it was the Daily Greens, maybe the coconut milk, but I suspect it was the hot yoga.
Did I enjoy it? No. Do I want to go again? No. Will I go again? Yes. It’s worth it for the back relief alone. And in a New York City winter, I know I’m going to need all the 100 plus degrees I can get. 

Even if I do have to suffer a rectal wind farm to get it.