Friday, March 27, 2015

The Innocents of Flight 9525

This is probably the 20th time I have tried to write anything, following the deliberate downing by the co-pilot of Flight 9525 that killed everyone on board.
In a week that saw acres of space given over to Jeremy Clarkson being given the boot by the BBC, and Zayn Malik quitting One Direction, the tragedy of the murder of the innocents put everything into perspective.
The knowledge that this was the end for the passengers who were screaming does not bear thinking about; the anger of their families, knowing that this was no accident . . . I just can’t comprehend, nor put into words, the despair and grief they will suffer for evermore.
The mental instability of Andreas Lubitz has since come to light and he was clearly in no condition to fly on that day – and probably had not been for some time.
I understand depression. I understand suicide. But I will never be able to get my head around anyone who decides to take innocent lives with them. Stories about parents who kill their children, along with themselves, just to avenge their estranged partners, fills me with horror; likewise, this week, the thought that anyone could be so deranged as to commit so heinous an act, is, to me, incomprehensible.
I wonder, though, if he and any number had survived, what the legal position would be? Murder? Grounds for an insanity plea? Who could defend the indefensible? Would anyone be able to sit on a jury and honestly say they were impartial? It’s all conjecture, I know, and there will doubtless be many mental health experts wheeled out over the forthcoming weeks debating the issue. But surely this was nothing other than pre-meditated, cold-blooded murder.
There are two victims in this story for whom we should also have sympathy, and yet they are probably the ones who will garner the least: the killer’s parents. They heard just ten minutes before the press call that their son had deliberately crashed the plane. The pain they must inevitably have felt initially, losing a child, in an instant must have multiplied a million-fold, in the knowledge of that child having been capable of this unspeakable act.
They will have known that their son had mental health issues, I am sure; to what extent, who knows. The mentally sick become adept at hiding what is really going on – after all, Lubitz was able to hide it from his employers. But they must be going through the 28 years of his life (and they will do for the rest of theirs, I am certain) raking over every What if? in their child’s history. 

They will be mystified when they think back to the birthdays and celebrations they had with a smiling infant; the joy he instilled in their hearts when he spoke his first words, took his first steps; and they will grieve for the son they had and was lost, who knows when, in the breakdown that became his life.
They will never lead normal lives again; neither will anyone else connected to this tragedy. But unlike the other victims, they will have scorn and anger poured upon them purely because people will see them as the origin of the instigator of the crime.
The world over, our hearts are filled to bursting point with the anger and pain for all on board, but particularly the young – kids returning from a school trip, their parents waiting at the airport to hear about the excitement of it all. Those same parents who will have given them warnings about how to stay safe, to look after themselves, never for a moment imagining they would never see them again, nor that their destiny lay not with themselves but a sick, sick man.
I think of the adults setting off excitedly, having a break from their working lives, people on business anticipating meetings the other end, crew members looking forward to time off from their duties . . . the horror of so many futures lost is unbearable.
I can have no sympathy for Andreas Lubitz, whom I see as nothing but a selfish, vile, inhumane assassin, but I will spare a thought for his parents, whose loss, confusion and grief will have ruined their lives also. 

For no matter how much people will tell them, and they will tell themselves, that they are not responsible for this devastating carnage, they will always feel that they are: that they are the creators of a mass murderer. 

And I have no idea how you even begin to get past that.


Saturday, March 14, 2015

Love on Mother's Day

It's the nature of my writing that I often reflect on what's gone, rather than what I have in the present.

That often causes confusion for people. 

They read a blog that was written in a moment of sadness about a world event and assume that I spend my every waking hour in tears. I don't. I am blessed in my life, my family, and my friends, and I appreciate every moment. 

But I also have empathy for those less fortunate, and those to whom life suddenly throws a pile of crap. I've had my share of the latter, but nowhere near as bad as other people. Then again, it's not a competition. Pain is pain, emotional and physical, and you have to be where people are. Judging them is irrelevant; offering unsolicited advice, ignorant; arrogant, actually.
I have written a great deal about my father on more than one occasion. He was/is in my memories, a wonderful man, and I miss him every day, even though it was 25 years in January since he died.
But tomorrow is Mothering Sunday and I want to talk about my mum, because I love her just as much as I did (and still do) my dad, and often we don't tell the living how much they mean to us while they are still around to hear it.
Where do I start? I could fill books with the happy memories I have of my mother. The trips to the beach, when she packed the car with enough stuff to have taken us on safari for six months; the late night whims cooking pasties or toffee, that, to a kid in a dressing gown, were the height of decadence; the play time with the LancĂ´me beauty case; the first time she plucked my eye brows (less happy - AGH!); the Kardomah cafe in Newport, where, after a rainy Saturday shopping expedition, she stood at the counter while they ground beans and put them in a bag for us to take home. 

It was all terribly glamorous to me.
I never had the right twigs and branches for nature classes in school, but when it came to fancy dress, Mum excelled herself. One Saturday morning in summer, she realised she had left it way too late to get me a fancy dress costume for the local summer fete, so, looking around the house, she grabbed the sheepskin rug in front of the fire, wrapped me in it with safety pins and put the sign The Abominable Snowman on me. I came first and won 50p (never mind that I nearly expired in the 85 degree heat). My brother was less successful with Charlie's Aunt, but then Coity, the village where we grew up just outside Bridgend, was to progress what beach towels were to Noah's Ark.
On my first day in the small village school (we had moved from Newport for my father’s job), Mum sent me off in a psychedelic crimplene mini dress and a cow bell round my neck. She was a Sixties mother. Alas, Coity had barely caught up with the end of the Second World War. Actually, make that the Wars of the Roses.
When I went to Brynteg Comprehensive, Mum had another idea to try to throw her very reluctant daughter into modern life and gave me a Michael Jackson frizzy perm. I spent the whole of my history lesson with my duffel coat hood up and went home in tears at lunchtime, when Mum removed the frizz with the lotion that had given me the damned busbee in the first place. It would not have been a shock if she had made me black up, just for authenticity's sake.
Which reminds me of another story. My Auntie Audrey, Mum’s sister, had been to India, and brought me back a gorgeous sari. At the end of term party in Durham Road junior school, I was therefore very well prepared for the fancy dress. Except that Mum decided to mix cocoa powder with water to my face and neck so I would look like a real Indian. I spent the party crying in the toilet and was taken home, sobbing, with my now zebra face.
My mother was a hairdresser for most of her young life and she was (and still is, actually) a damned good one. She went to college relatively late, trained first as a social worker and then went to university to further her education and train as a therapist. Her work with young people in particular and the disadvantaged and disenfranchised in society is something that makes me in awe of her every day. She cares. Really, really cares, and has changed lives: so much so, that some of the people she has helped in their young, difficult lives, are still in touch with her, many years on, and with families of their own.
I saw her help and support my father through the very tough time when he lost his business during the country's horrific Three Day Week. I saw her constantly visit and support her own mother following the death of Grandpa. I have seen her battle breast cancer without ever once complaining. I have also seen her battle through two Apple Macs and an iPad (about which, I confess, she has complained).
My mother always looks immaculate. She loves her clothes and make up and never looks anything less than perfectly turned out (unlike her daughter). She takes everything that life throws at her with extraordinary courage, good grace and equanimity. She has never moaned about or criticised my tendency to up sticks and go to live in foreign places. "I always wanted to give my children wings to fly," she has always said - only once adding, when I decided to live in Los Angeles: “I just never expected them to fly that far." That’s another thing, by the way: she is very, very funny.
I am never more at ease with anyone than I am with my mother. We have had arguments over the years (who doesn't), but I know that there is no one who knows me better. She may not know the most about me, but she knows when I hurt, and she feels my pain; she is the person who, when everything else seems to be crumbling around me, is the one who lifts me up, carries me through, and quotes the Bear Hunt Song: “Can't go under it. Can't go around it. Got to go through it.” 
I get through all of it because of her. 

Happy Mother's Day, Mum. 

I love you.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Frighteningly Real Housewives of Beverly Hills

A lot of reality TV is staged. I know it, you know it and, most importantly of all, the people taking part know it.
Much of real life reality can be very tedious or, if not tedious, a lot simpler than that featured on TV. Most of us manage to meet with friends without resorting to physical violence, and most of us leave restaurants and bars without breaking anything. We cook, clean, put out the garbage, brush our teeth, take showers – for the most part, we settle into a comfortable routine with our loved ones.
Imagine how boring that would be to watch. So, what reality TV does is extract big (for “big”, read famous, loud, obnoxious – anything out of the ordinary) personalities from the monotony of the everyday and place them in highly charged situations where their differences and conflicts play out for the amusement of the viewer. It’s the bear-pit mentality to which the TV viewing audience has become addicted.
At what point, though, does it cease to be entertainment and become deeply disturbing viewing? For me, that point was this week on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, when Kim Richards appeared to transform into a baying werewolf howling at the moon, when Lisa Rinna apologised very nicely, realising she had inadvertently upset Kim by going into her “business”. “You did,” responded Kim (“Awooooohhhhh! Awooooohhhhh!”).
Kim’s problems with alcohol have been well documented in each series, and now claiming that she has been sober for three years, she is very sensitive to any reference to her behaviour, past or present.
After some very nasty verbal abuse thrown at Lisa R (as opposed to Lisa V, Lisa Vanderpump) in previous episodes – a car journey, a plane ride to Amsterdam – Kim was having none of the apology, despite Lisa explaining that her own sensitivity was down to her having lost her 21 year old sister to alcohol and drugs when she was just six. Attacking Lisa R once more, Kim’s eyes widened demonically, so much so that I feared they were going to swallow the rest of her head whole. 

She then proceeded to lose it completely, attacking both Eileen Davidson and Lisa R (both newcomers to the show this season), and insinuating unpleasantries about Lisa R’s husband, the actor Harry Hamlin. Lisa R, usually the model of decorum, also then lost it, threw wine at Kim, smashed the glass and stormed out. I really didn’t blame her. I respected her for later making up with Kim, but I, for one, would not have been so generous.
Even if she is not drinking, Kim displays all the signs of an out of control addict. I have no doubt that she has struggled with her problems and continues to do so on a daily basis, but there is a real nastiness at the core of her being that I suspect she used alcohol to try to disguise. Without the Dr Jekyll front that the bottle gave her, the Mr Hyde actually has nowhere to hide, and the display in the shop window is not a nice one.
There is real anger here – anger that she can’t drink, probably – and immense jealousy. Kyle Richards, her breathtakingly beautiful sister, is at the brunt of most of it, and the cruelty that Kim displays towards her is unforgivable. It is to Kyle’s credit that she continues to forgive her sister and to try to understand her, but it can’t last, or Kyle will have a breakdown.
So, why would Kim be jealous of her sister? Well, Kyle has a gorgeous husband in Mauricio, four gorgeous kids, a beautiful home, and she recently opened a successful fashion store. She, too, has had her moments of losing it and, like all the other women, has her insecurities and vulnerabilities; but unlike Kim – and Brandi Glanville (I’ll come to her in a minute)  - she and the others do not parade their role as victims of life for the cameras.
It is no surprise that Brandi and Kim have become bosom buddies; neither has anything that the other women have in terms of looks, relationships, or professional success (Brandi did, until a blind surgeon – in my opinion - did her face over). They are the playground bullies, trying to exercise power only by bringing down the people around them, and it’s sad to see.
I enjoyed Brandi when she joined the show, but her extreme behaviour has turned her into a colourless bore and not, as she likes to imagine when she has had too much to drink (way too often), the life and soul of the party.
Both remind me of Stassi Schroeder, one of the key figures of another Bravo show, Vanderpump Rules, set in and around Lisa V’s restaurants. Another bitter, jealous, spiteful piece of work, she too has alienated everyone around her and caused so much trouble amongst Lisa’s staff (the stars of the show), while refusing to admit her own culpability.
And therein lies the problem with Kim, Brandi and Stassi  - all the bad things that have happened to them in life are, as they see it, somebody else’s fault, and that’s what they can’t forgive. I’ll bet that Lisa V, for all her appearing to have it all, has had many sleepless nights during financially challenging times and being stabbed in the back by people she thought were friends. But does she attribute blame? Does she heck.
They don’t call jealousy the green-eyed monster for nothing, but while Kim, Brandi and Stassi feed their insatiable desire for nasty trouble making, they should take some time out and try to realise one basic principle in life: it is you alone who are responsible for your own happiness. 

And if you can’t accept that, then be advised to stay clear of low-flying glass.


Monday, March 2, 2015

Wales: Land of my Fathers - and my Friends

This has been a very Welsh week for me, despite the fact that I am living in New York City. 

First, a reception on Friday lunchtime for Wales’s First Minister, Carwyn Jones, at the British Consulate; the next day, major celebrations at the Red Lion, where, along with the Minister, we watched Wales beat France in the Six Nations on the giant TV screen; and, finally, yesterday, St David’s Day at Mr Biggs Bar and Grill in Hell’s Kitchen.
Mr Biggs is a local hostelry where a group of Welshies meet every Sunday when our friend, Phillip Arran, briefly escapes from the Norwegian cruise liner on which he is performing in two musicals. Yesterday was particularly lively, with an eclectic mix of other nationalities celebrating our patron saint, St David, under our national flag that the bar agreed to hang on the wall (thank you, Richie and Scott).
I always get very sentimental when I am around my countrymen and women. Even though my Welsh friends and family live in different parts of the world, when we get together there is a bonding of the heart that just isn’t explainable. The longing for one’s homeland is “hiraeth” in Welsh, and some other nations have their own word for it; but, as far as I know, there isn’t a word for that stirring of the heart that occurs when we are among our own.
I have always been very proud of my heritage. Cultured, erudite, artistic, fun-loving – I never have less than a great time among the Welsh. But more than anything, I love the Welsh sense of humour. At our Sunday brunch, we enjoy two hours of non-stop laughter – something that other diners stare at with something approaching mystification.
What is it that lies at the heart of Welsh humour? To me, it is multi-faceted. There is a quickness of wit, an ability to engage in self-deprecation (so much so, we have turned self-deprecation into an art form), an openness of spirit, a genuine enjoyment of the physical act of laughing . . . It’s hard to analyse (as humour tends to be).
But I think, ironically, what makes the Welsh so funny is their seriousness – the kind of seriousness that often lies at the core of very funny people. The lack of confidence that comes from having been an invaded nation, even, at one stage in our history, being denied our language, instils a desire, a need (a real necessity, in fact) to rise above conflict – and laughter really is the best medicine.
More than in any other country, I also think that humour in Wales is classless. I have met very funny people from all walks of life in my homeland: some educated, others considerably less so, but that has never stopped disparate groups of people enjoying themselves. That is probably in part due to the fact that we have more things that unite us than divide us – not least, singing and rugby – and a sense of pride that, at its roots, was bred amongst working class communities of the valleys.
I know some very funny people – Americans, English, Irish, Scottish, French (yes, really; sharing a rugby day with the French is the best) – and humour is obviously central to most people’s lives. It’s what gets us through the mire; it’s what uplifts us when we are low and carries us through and beyond pain, both emotional and physical. Humour is what wipes our slates clean: it consigns yesterday to a box and carries us to the unknown and the expectation of better times tomorrow.
But while I love the humour of so many people in my life, the world over, there is nothing that quite beats the all-consuming hilarity of a group of Welsh people: the laughter that is born of the same history, the same insecurities, the same passionate love of one’s roots.
And so, thank you to all my Welsh friends who shared this fabulous week – and special thanks to my Cardiff friend, Catrin Brace, Wales’s fantastic ambassador in North America, who includes me in the magnificent Welsh events that take place throughout New York on a regular basis. 

I’m a European. I feel part American. I feel like an international citizen. 

But, in my heart, body and soul, I will never forget that I’m Welsh. I remain very proud of that. 

And this week was a salutary reminder of who I really am.