Monday, November 30, 2015

I Wanted to Change my Password, Not my Life

When did changing the password on a TV cable account become so stressful? 

All I wanted was to make my information more secure, but now, as a result of the “security” questions, I am drowning in insecurity about the mistakes I might have made in life. 

So, thanks a bunch, Verizon, for making Misery Monday even worse than it usually is. 
Where did you and your spouse first meet, you ask me. Okay, I do not have a spouse. I have never had a spouse. I have never even come close to having one, let alone the several that people seem to acquire these days. That got me thinking. Am I really so unlovable that no one wanted to risk hitching themselves to me past Last Orders? 

My close friends understand me and, I think, most would say that I am kind, generous, great fun to be around and the most loyal friend they could wish for. The spouse bank clearly thought otherwise.
Part of me feels a little sad about that. As a writer, one wishes to experience as much as possible, even if only for a day. Maybe that’s about as much spouse as I could stand; who knows. I’m pretty sure I’ll never find out now. What does a spouse do? Put the trash out? Phone the insurance company when they refuse to pay out? Phone the police when your iPad’s been stolen (again)? Put an arm around you when you cry? Get the cork out of the wine bottle when the horrid new plasticky one just goes round and round and round and you risk cracking your veneers while trying desperately to pull it out with your teeth? 

Yes, I can see that a spouse might be very useful in certain situations. 
The next questions on Verizon’s list are pretty easy ones to answer compared to the spouse one. What was your favourite place to visit as a child? No doubt: Butlin’s. Free rides. Chalet accommodation. Late nights watching the batter going through the doughnut making machine, hot milk, my father’s huge white linen handkerchief wiping the sugar from my tired face. Safety.  
Next comes: What was the first live concert you attended? That, too, is an easy one. My best friend Shelley and I went to see Andre Previn conducting in Swansea’s Brangwyn Hall. We even got to meet him backstage afterwards. I have no idea how we managed to do that, but suspect that my celebrity hunting skills were already fully operational even at the age of 15.
Shelley and I also saw David Essex at the Capitol in Cardiff. I still have the photos, in which the star is a tiny dot about three miles from where we were sitting. I didn’t get to meet him on that occasion, but then I’d already been there, done that. He was starring in Godspell in the West End and, during the interval, Jesus invited people onto the stage for Last Supper wine (I think it was at this point I became a temporary Christian). Naturally, I was not only ahead of the queue, but crawled under the table to find the cork for David to sign. 
Verizon then asks: What is the first name of your best friend? That’s a really tough one. I have several people who I would call best friends. Shelley, who was my first and who is still close; Elizabeth, with whom I shared my early Fleet Street years; Rhys, whom I call my “life coach”; Mary and Liam, Liz and Ronw, Mike and Janie - my favourite couples and always my protectors and support in their dual capacities; Leisha, who makes me laugh and totally gets me; Sue, who became my friend on a cruise. I am blessed with so many wonderful friends, it is hard to single out a “best” one. They are people who are there for me, come rain or shine, and I for them. Is there any better definition of “best”? 
Now, Verizon, here’s the killer question that had me choking with laughter: What was your favourite restaurant in college? Seriously? I don’t know who pays American kids’ college fees, but the highlight of my university mastication was a can of Heinz beans and pork sausages on toast. I recall once having enough money to buy a can of Marks and Spencer creamed chicken, and I thought I was the luckiest student in the world.
But a restaurant? Even in the late Seventies, you could buy several books for what a meal for one would cost in the Armless Dragon (the first restaurant I went to long after I left university). Books would always be my food; they still are.
The next question is the easiest to answer: What was the first name of your first roommate? Billy No Mates. I’ve never had one. I’ve never shared a room with anyone. Nor an apartment. Nor a house. At university, I moved out of the student residence Aberdare Hall after one term (the residents were very irritating) and into a bedsit and have lived on my own ever since (I’m beginning to see the root cause of the spouse famine). 
Finally, Verizon asks: What is the name of a memorable place? Oh, come on. How many memorable places are there in the world? I think that what you technically mean, Verizon, is: What is a significantly memorable place for you? The way you have phrased it would result in an answer that is just plain silly because it would, in essence, mean that I would have to name every place in my memory. Cardiff, Paris, New York, Brighton, Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, Baltimore, Scunthorpe (oh god, not Scunthorpe: a particularly horrible ex was from there. I had a lucky spouse escape there), Miami, Toronto . . . you see? They are all “memorable”, although I haven’t been to most of them.

And so, Verizon, thank you for helping me ponder my entire life’s journey and sending me into a spiral, wondering where it has all gone wrong. 

Next time, ask simpler questions, such as: How much is your current bill? Answer: $275.18. 

See? Easy? 

Now, I’m off to drown my sorrows in that restaurant I could never afford as a student. Given my current financial situation (no thanks to you), it might well be my last. 

Now that really will be memorable.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

To Paris, with Love

Yet again, another tragic loss of life that has left every civilised human being in the world reeling in shock. 

People just out to enjoy a Friday night in Paris with their friends or families - a concert, a sporting event, a bar. 

I lived in Paris for seven years and, while everyone I know is safe, many live and work close by the areas of attack. 
The truth is, it could be any one of us these days, because we just don’t know when or where these monsters are going to strike next. They have no morals, no heart, no soul. The fact that they carry out these atrocities in the name of religion makes them even more sickening. 
The arbitrariness of such callous killing is what has united the world in an extraordinary act of solidarity. I say extraordinary only because, so much of the time, we seem disunited: country against country, people against people. Maybe it takes a common enemy to make us see that there is a core of humanity that runs through our blood, irrespective of our origins or disparate beliefs.
The best word for it is empathy:  defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. We feel it for the people of Paris and France today (as we did in January, following the attack on the capital city’s Charlie Hebdo offices) , just as others have done for the acts of carnage committed throughout all our histories - 9/11, the Boston Marathon, the IRA bombings, to name but three. 
Individually, most of us possess a conscience; a sociopath does not. It’s not something you can plant if it’s not here in the first place. Many killers have consciences - it’s what often makes them return to the scene of the crime and, in some cases, makes themselves want to get caught. Their guilt is alleviated (in their dreams).
There is also a collective conscience-ness: our care for our fellow beings, even though we live on the other side of the world. 
The killers who carried out the Paris attacks and who are being recruited at an alarming rate are conscience-less. To call them sociopaths sounds too soft; likewise, killers. Today, even murderous bastards sounds way too light. They are not only conscience-less, they are inhumane. They fly in the face of everything most of us are brought up to believe: the value of love, truth, honesty, loyalty.
The horror is that in their own minds, they possess those qualities; in reality, they have no idea as to their true meaning and have squandered the concepts on an altar that is nothing more than the misguided belief of pure rightness: a belief that is, in essence, the altar of nothingness.
Far from being powerful, these (in)humans are weak: mere sponges who collectively cannot think or feel for themselves; but, as someone pointed out to me on Facebook yesterday, there are still more of us than there are of them.
What is the answer? No one knows, as a member of the French Senate said today on CNN, when asked. She added, ironically: please, if you know what that solution is, tell us.
While governments try to address this world war (for that is undoubtedly what it is), one thing that the rest of us can do is be vigilant.
A few years back, in  Paris bar, a helmeted figure entered and pretended to hold the place up. I threw myself to the ground and went into protection mode, yelling to everyone to “Give him what he wants.” Everyone laughed when I realised I was the only person prostrate on the floor and it had all been a joke, as the man was a friend of the owner.
So, that’s another thing we can do - not be stupid. Don’t make jokes at airports, on planes, even in bars. You don’t know when it’s real, and while not everyone is a suspect, every venue is a potential target.
We will all go on living our lives, but for those who have lost theirs, or who, on Friday, lost their loved ones, nothing will ever be the same.
We will hug our families more closely, tell them to be careful, encourage them to phone if they are going to be late, ask them not to take risks, not to trust strangers.
The great sadness is that you can ask all that, adhere to it all, and it may not make a blind bit of difference when somebody can just walk into a concert hall with a Kalashnikov or don a suicide to vest to make themselves part of the carnage.
Maybe the best that we can do as individual citizens is to be there for each other when the horror strikes. We may not be able to prevent it, but we can show the very best of what means to be human by standing side by side, upright, ultimately invincible in the great collective spirit of Go To Hell.
Vive la France.
Nous sommes francais.
Liberte, égalité, fraternité.


Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Veterans - I Salute You

I am a total coward. A total, total coward. 

And, sorry, folks, I would shop you all if somebody threatened to cut my hair, let alone my throat. There. Now you know.    
So, on Veterans Day, I want to say thank you to the men and women who are braver than I could ever be; who, every day, put their lives on the line to make the world a safer place for the rest of us; who are not only trained to be brave, but had the guts to sign up to protect us in the first place. Thank you, thank you, for your service.
If I had to pick on one thing that has changed me since moving to the US, it is my stance on war. I had a brief stint being pro-capital punishment, too, but I’m still against it, for reasons I won’t go into now; but it is a very complex issue that requires serious discussion and debate - rightly so.
Anyway, back to war. Always a pacifist, who thought that everything could be solved over a cup of tea and a chat, I’ve gone a bit “Nuke the bastards”. Well, not quite. But reality, alas, is very different from our vision of how we would like the world to be, and we need people  - more than ever - to stand up to the lunatics that this bizarre world continues to produce.
Yesterday celebrated the 240th anniversary of the founding of the US Marines, and anyone who has been following my social networking pages will see that I have been making my acquaintance with the young men and women who have been in town. And I mean acquaintance in the loosest sense of the word; I’m old enough to be their grandmother, for goodness’ sake. I’ve had the pleasure and privilege to talk with many of them, and I am in awe of their intelligence, insight, loyalty and commitment to their country. 

As Mark Twain said: “Loyalty to country ALWAYS. Loyalty to government, when it deserves it.”
Okay, I looked that last bit up. Somebody threatened to cut my hair if I didn’t say it. You see? Cowardice.
But seriously. I have been fascinated this week to talk with young people in the US who say they would be proud to die for their country. While most have admitted that there is a large element of brainwashing that accompanies their training, they know that without it, they would not be able to do their jobs. 

I’m not about to enlist, by the way. I looked that up, too. At 57, I am way over the 29 year old threshold for the Marines, and I’d be signing up only to meet the boys, anyway; well, and to get the rather nice hat (loyalty to fashion, always. Fire a gunshot in my direction and I’d be “It was him, over there.” And I’d hand over my compass, just to be sure they got it right).
It’s been something of a war-filled week, for obvious reasons. I attended an event where the main topic of conversation was the part the Vichy government in Paris played during the Second World War while joining hands with the Nazis to shop the Jews. It’s a fascinating period of French history and possibly the darkest blot on that country’s landscape, and it still ignites incredible passion.
I lived in Paris for seven years and there is still an element of Basil Fawlty’s “Don’t mention the war” about the place (if you haven’t seen The Germans, the sixth episode of the great Fawlty Towers, I urge you to do so).
At the event I attended, there were so many hands in the air competing to speak, I thought I was at a Nuremberg rally. Alas, they never got the chance because the first person up to the microphone had a speech impediment. Now, I don’t wish to poke fun at anyone with any kind of disability, but if your particular stutter is your problem with the letter F, I think it’s inadvisable to speak publicly when the subject is France (I’ve just remembered, I once had a stalker with a stammer. I recall getting home and rewinding my filled up answer-machine and thinking “Brilliant, 300 people have phoned me." But it was only ever him).
The week of war has made me think a lot about my dad, who was in the Air Force. He wanted to make a career out of flying, but his health wasn’t good enough (a side benefit was that he was great at ironing, and did the lot his entire life in our house). I tried, briefly, to follow in his footsteps and joined a kind of Air Corps for kids. I gave up after week one in which we learned how to sew bars of soap into sponges. I thought I’d be up there bombing Germany, to be honest. 
As in all aspects of life, there are good and bad, and possibly nowhere more so than in the areas of armed service and law enforcement. But this is a day to remember the good guys and gals who make the world a safer place. I might not be American by birth, but I am proud of a country that produces so many fine young people who step up to the mark.
But please don’t forget. I really will shop you. 

I probably already have. 



Saturday, November 7, 2015

What Happens in Gerry's Stays in Gerry's

An old friend appeared on my Twitter feed last week and he was the last person I ever thought would engage in social networking. 

His name is Michael Dillon and he is the owner of Gerry’s, a private members’ club in London’s Soho set up in 1955 by actor Gerry Campion, who played Billy Bunter.
Michael has been at the helm since 1991 and I adore him. He is one of my favourite people - ever. He is also the most discreet. Many famous people have passed through the dimly lit basement and yet no gossip ever emerges from there. It’s an unspoken rule. What happens in Gerry’s stays in Gerry’s.
I’m not about to spill the beans, not least because I have more to lose than most (he’ll know what I mean), but I have many happy memories that I know Michael will not mind me sharing.
I once held the record of being the last person to leave the club at 10.10am, 14 hours after I had entered. I was in the company of a famous actor (nothing untoward, I hasten to add) and we just pretended that the clock was in PM, not AM mode as the hours rolled by. I was living in Soho at the time and was usually the last person to leave everywhere; I am the same today. As a baby, I never slept because, I suspect, I always had a fear I was missing out. Its the thing I dread most about being dead.
My happiest times in Gerry’s were spent standing on the bar - well, singing and dancing on the bar, performing songs from musicals. My speciality was Mack and Mabel, and how I didn’t break my neck is one of life’s great mysteries.
The writer Keith Waterhouse was less fortunate. Keith was a very good friend, and he and Michael were great friends, too. We all still miss Keith. He was not only a brilliant writer but a truly great human being. I spent many a joyous time with him enjoying “Just the one”.
Keith’s fortunes almost took a disastrous turn when, during one of my song and dance routines, I knocked him out. Goodness knows why I was jiving by myself, nor why I though that Keith would be able to catch me; he was no John Travolta. Suffice it to say that when I threw my right leg in his direction, it served only as a baseball bat to knock him out cold. 

I can still see and hear that slow slide to the floor down the pillar. There is only one thing worse, I realised, than seeing your life flash before you: and that’s seeing someone else’s life flash before you. I had killed Britain’s greatest living writing legend. 
Thankfully, Keith recovered enough to join me on the bar in an encore of Mack and Mabel, with Michael close by, ready to play paramedic (again).
I have life membership of Gerry’s, but Michael would never allow any man I took there to join. He was absolutely right. He knew that if relationships ended badly (and he really knew me well enough to know that they would), he would be stuck with the sidekick. To his credit, he always knew I was the more valuable half.
You never knew who was going to appear around the corner on the stairway in the club, and, yegods, so many well known faces did. There was always great conversation, wonderful music, some organised, but often spontaneous, and laughter - yes, non-stop laughter.
I haven’t been there for ages but always drop in every time I am in London. Michael is one of the coolest people I know. He has seen me through many good times and many bad times. He listens, without judgment, and he is a genuinely funny Irishman (as opposed to the millions who just think they are).
I was so thrilled to see him on Twitter and he has already made me laugh more in Tweets of 140 characters than most people could manage in a lifetime.
I have even learnt that bulls are vegans. Who would have thought it?
There is something about a person knowing you well - really, really well - that makes for an honesty and ease of communication that is like no other. The best of it is, we are both still alive! So many people I met through Gerry’s aren’t, and while that saddens me, I am still grateful for the good times we shared and the incredible people I met.
So, dear Michael, I just wanted to say how much I treasure you, our friendship and the club that got me through some of the toughest times of my life. 

In the words of Mack and Mabel, I Won’t Send Roses - but you know you will always have a place in my heart.


Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Reflections on my Birthday

Everyone who used to give me birthday presents is dead. 

Well, not exactly everyone, but quite a lot of them. That’s the downside of birthdays at this age (I will be 57 tomorrow) - you tend to reflect on the past and all the people who are no longer around to celebrate the occasion with you.
But it’s also an age where we have (hopefully) acquired most of the things we ever wanted. Life is no longer defined by possessions or gifts; true value lies elsewhere, in the friends and family who are still around. What I really look forward to is getting together with lovely people over a few drinks and, basically, having a fun-filled evening full of laughter - which it always is. 
That’s why my 40th and 50th birthdays stand out. The first, in Soho House, I have always called the happiest day of my life. Although my beloved father had passed away eight years previous, my mother, brother and a ton load of friends shared the night with me in London’s Soho House, the private members’ club that has now mushroomed around the world. One of the first to join, I am now one of the oldest members; that feels weird. I’m tempted to book it for my wake.
I had three celebrations for my 50th. I cooked for 60 people in my Cardiff house, held a restaurant dinner for close friends in London, and had a party in my apartment in Paris, where I was living part-time. The last guest fell asleep on the stairs on her way out. Well, I say asleep: she was out cold and couldn’t be shifted. I had to call les pompiers to remove her. They were not impressed. My French wasn’t great, but I knew enough to understand that a man in uniform who spends his days putting out fires and yelling at you is saying something along the lines of “Our job is not to rescue drunken women in stairwells.”
Last year, despite my having been in New York just five months, I had managed to acquire around 20 people, none of whom I had known before I arrived in the city, to meet for drinks.  That was terrific, too, and nobody passed out.
I’ve never been someone who minds getting older. Why sweat over the things you can’t change? And I would rather be in my 50s than my 20s. Or 30s. My 40s were much better (well, apart from the men, but then no decade has been good on that front), and while the 50s have been a financial nightmare, I’ve done a lot of travelling, experienced the United States, and met a wide variety of people from a non-European culture. That has been, and continues to be, fascinating. What writer wouldn’t enjoy that.
I am lucky in that my health is pretty good. My blood pressure is too high, and I get shredded at the top of escalators when when I try to run up them the wrong way, my brain telling me I am still young and sprightly, my knees telling me to sit on the couch and watch telly.
I’m still able to exercise, I’m not on any medication, and I haven’t been to a doctor for four years. I’m not sure that my daily, or even hourly trips to Dr Google, who convinces me that I have every disease ever created, is a good alternative, but healthwise, I don’t feel any different from how I did 30+ years ago. 
Even The Change passed me by. I sweated a bit on and off for a while in my mid-40s, but that was it. I take natural supplements and have resisted going down the HRT route. There has been no diminishing of interest in the opposite sex (in fact, it’s increased), although obviously there is less interest on their part because they all want younger models. The good news is, though, that ageing men become less capable of servicing those younger models, so serve their own right for rejecting the older woman, I say.
I’ve been looking at my baby book that catalogues my first five birthdays. There are lots of “frou frou pants”, whatever they were, and money - lots and lots of money. Where did all that go? And why wasn’t I able to hold on to the skill of acquiring so much?
That’s the only thing that age has changed. But at 27, I was sitting in a London Camden Cafe, crying into my cup of tea bought with some of my unemployment benefit, bemoaning my lack of money; today, I sit sobbing over money with a glass of champagne in Five Star Four Seasons hotels. Same story. Better venue. My chosen house of misery has definitely improved with age.

So, as I spend the last day of my 56th year contemplating all this, I just want to say that I am so grateful for the people in my life who, despite my problems and stresses, get me through and make it all worthwhile. 

Laughter really is the best medicine. 

And that’s something you’ll never learn from Dr Google. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Satan, Sin and Social Networking

This has been  stressful week - and it’s only Tuesday. 

Thanks to a vile Tweet that started to do the rounds on Twitter, courtesy of hacking, I’ve spent most of the time since Sunday in tears. I’m not about to top myself, but I can quite understand how young people, bullied in the cyberspace, do. Luckily, I am of an age where I know that all things pass, and I again feel blessed by my friends and family, who have been so kind and supportive. But to a young person, I can understand that it might feel like the end of the world because, briefly, that’s what it felt like to me. 

I felt violated, hated, the lowest of the low - even though there was not an atom of truth in what was written. I can’t blame the people who reprinted it - their accounts have clearly been hacked; but someone, somewhere, originated the first Tweet, and the speed with which it went viral was deeply distressing. Even more disturbing has been Twitter’s silence on the matter, despite my having reported every single Tweet, blocked the people, and, for a couple of days, closed down my account.
It’s the feeling of helplessness that is the worst. As my friend Judge Alex Ferrer pointed out, it’s the downside of social networking: anyone can put anything out there and there is nothing you can do about it. 
Yes, my first call (well, e-mail) was to the Judge (always have a Judge on speed mail!), whose calm voice of reason managed to stem the flow of tears. When I started to tell others what had happened, the support was overwhelming. My Facebook page quickly filled up with friends and even strangers expressing their anger at my having been upset. It was again a salutary reminder of the value of friendship - and the upside of social networking.
I’ve also realised - as I increasingly do, with advancing years - how incredibly naive I am about people and the darker side of human nature. I am genuinely at a loss to understand why anyone would want to harm their fellow beings. Some may find that a contradiction, given that I make my living as a TV “critic”, but even in that sphere, it is never my intention to cause hurt. 

At the end of the day, I love TV with a passion and only ever want the best of it, and for it. I have no doubt that there are people who have found some of the things I have written to be hurtful. But take someone like Simon Cowell. He can take criticism on the chin, admit when he is wrong, and he listens to critics because he fundamentally knows that we are all on the same side. 
Judge Alex has undoubtedly seen the worst of human nature when, on the Bench, he presided over some of the most vile criminal cases known to mankind (The movie Pain and Gain was based on the notorious Sun Gym case). I’ve been lucky enough in life to know mostly good, honest, kind (literally, man-kind) people which is why, when something bad happens, it feels so ghastly. I just don’t get it. 

Why can’t everyone just be nice

I always come back to the nature verse nurture debate (it’s why Blood Brothers is one of my favourite musicals). Are people born bad, or do their social circumstances make them so? Is there such a thing as “pure evil”? I suspect that people’s inability to understand the concept of evil was what initially brought about a belief in the Devil. 

In the absence of understanding, one creates mythical figures on whom to project seeming logic (God being another of those figures - but let’s not go there today, as I already hear the sound of self-combusting. Having said that, it makes me laugh that so many people who believe in God don’t believe in the Devil. I call it selective reasoning. But like I said: let’s not go there today. Okay . . . but do watch Ricky Gervais’s The Invention of Lying, which is one of the most extraordinarily profound things you will ever see about the nature of belief. Now I’ll stop).
But back to people. Isn’t laughter the thing we all love most in life (I’ll leave sex aside for the moment, as that one might open not only a can of worms, but a veritable worm farm. Several, probably)? This year, I have seen many people go through so much - their own illnesses, the death of their children, separation and divorce - all of it desperately painful and agonising to witness. What’s a pathetic troll compared to the realities of living?
I spent yesterday in the company of my dear friend, Walter, whom I have known for well over 30 years. We met when I was doing my Master’s Degree at Lancaster University in 1983. He was with his Irish partner Liam at the time,  and after Liam’s performance at the Duke’s Theatre, Walter said: “We must meet for breakfast tomorrow!” I thought it was the most glamorous thing I had ever heard.
We spent the afternoon laughing non-stop, reminiscing about old times, including a seance we once did where we allegedly got Beethoven. He “said” that he was playing his music through an 18 year old pianist called Hildegarde Schultz, who lived on the Rheinstrasse in Vienna. We recalled that we spent quite a few hours on the phone afterwards, trying to track her down. I caught out old Ludwig, though, when I asked: “If you’re Beethoven, how come you can hear us?” He replied that he had an interpreter. I kid you not. 

They think of everything in the afterlife.
Which brings me back to the God question . . . on another day.