Saturday, December 12, 2015

Hello, Goodbye - for Adele

What is it about Christmas songs on a loop that is so depressing? 

Every bar and restaurant you enter seems to have been sold a job lot of ditties that come under the single banner Festive Cheer to Make You Slit Your Wrists. 

I loathe that ting-a-ling bell thing they like to use on EastEnders when the fake snow falls and everyone decides to go into Albert Square wearing their summer clothes. I can’t bear Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody, because Mandy and Alison in secondary school used to bully me, and Slade was their favourite band (Lead singer Noddy Holder’s wife once asked me why I always wrote negative things about him; I told her the truth). 

I want to slit my wrists every time I hear John Lennon pounding out “War is over” because, quite frankly, John, love, it isn’t. Nice sentiment, but you were wrong.
I’m not a big fan of carols, either. Too many stables, too much straw, an excess of dodgy gifts (what’s a newborn going to do with myrrh, for goodness sake? Where’s the Peppa Pig of Bethlehem Macy’s when you need it?).
But I’m saving all of my wrath this year for Adele. Let me just say at the outset that I love her. She’s a great artist, a wonderful performer and a fantastic role model for young women. But this Christmas’s greatest hit, Hello? I have just one word to say about it: HELLO?!
As you can see, I have  a lot more to say about it. Here goes.
Hello, it’s me. Really? Why the effing hell are you calling me? Why would you think for one nanosecond I would want “to go over everything”? Here I was, just getting over my disastrous love life (and, to be honest, it’s taken a good few years), and here you go, out of the blue, wanting to resurrect the pain.
Well, thanks a bunch. I was just on my way to the butcher’s to order the turkey leg (which is the only limb I can afford) when you rang. I’m in Slough. You’re in California, I see, “dreaming about how we used to be”. Well, you made it to California, didn’t you? I’m a train ticket inspector living in possibly the worst town in the UK.

 I can’t even afford to pay my phone bill, so when you say “Can you hear me?” the answer is a definitive No. 

And did you really call a thousand times? If you’d bothered to ring the operator, they’d have told you that my phone’s been cut off. 

So you didn’t really try at all, did you? 

That’s because you’re doing your effing dreaming in your California hotel suite with your phone bill paid for by your management.
There’s such a difference between us? You’re telling me. Hello from the other side? Thanks for rubbing it in. Did I ever make it out of that town where nothing ever happened? 

Duh! No. 

If you’d bothered to Google me before phoning, you’d have discovered that I ended up in court for not paying my Council tax, did time for petty theft, and was rescued from the polar bear pit when I tried to kill myself at London zoo. 
You apologise for breaking my heart, which brings me to the most crucial question of all: you’re not calling to ask me back, are you? So why, why, why, have you decided to bring it all up again?
So, Goodbye. It’s me. 

No, I don’t want to meet to go over everything. It clearly doesn’t tear me apart anymore? No, it didn’t. Not until you wrote this effing song, and now I’m a mess again. 

Keep Googling me. The obituaries.

I'll be under the heading Goodbye From the Other Side.

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. 


Saturday, October 31, 2015

Halloween Horror

I’ve never got the fascination with Halloween. 

When I was growing up, the greatest excitement on October 31st was semi-drowning in a bucket of water while trying to pull an apple out with your teeth. 

That was it. Party over.
It was only when I moved to the US that I realised what I had been missing out on. My local Williams-Sonoma store in Beverly Hills started stocking up on Pumpkin Carving Kits at the end of summer. I’d never before been in contact with a pumpkin, let alone something to turn it into a work of art. It wasn’t that my parents were mean; they were just a bit slow on the uptake when it came to essentials for festivities. 

We were always, for example, the last people Christmas shopping for sprouts at 5pm on Christmas Eve (I still am, by the way). My Jack o’ Lantern was always a turnip, not a pumpkin, because the latter sold out at least a week before we needed them (I recall one year when even the turnips had run out; I think we had to make do with a plump carrot that year).
In Los Angeles, people start turning their lawns into Halloween Festivals round about September 1st. Skeletons, ghouls, fluffy white stuff, pumpkins, candles - everything guaranteed to terrify a small child goes on display, and for what purpose I have never been able to fathom.
A notice came around in my building last week asking whether I wanted to be included in the Trick or Treat festivities carried out by the complex’s little people. Not unless they never want to be reunited with their parents again and eke out their remaining days under my floorboards, I said. Politely.
I put it down to the fact that I was born on November 5th. In the UK, that is the day that celebrates (or commemorates, depending on which side of the political fence you are sitting) Guy Fawkes’s unsuccessful attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. He was a Catholic. That may or may not be relevant - depending on which side of the religious fence you are sitting.
Every year, children came to my birthday party armed with (and I mean this literally) explosives. Sometimes, I got a present, too, but the bigger the box of explosives, the smaller the present. After everyone sang Happy Birthday and I blew out my candles on the cake, everyone retired to the garden to watch the explosives display. 

Except me. 

I always stayed inside, hiding under the dining table or behind a chair until it was all over. I hated fireworks then and, to this day, I still do. They make me cry. To me, it’s the loneliest sound in the world.
I suppose I equate Halloween with that time of year. I’ve never been able to be near anyone wearing a mask; my dislike of beards is probably because I genuinely have a fear of being close to anything with its face covered. I would need to be accompanied by paramedics if I were to attend a masked ball; my mother once had to carry me out of the circus when a clown approached me for a friendly chat. I had hysterics in Paris Disneyland when a mouse came within nibbling distance. 

And I was 43 at the time. 
So, tonight, I am staying in. I’ve just had to turn off Strictly Come Dancing on BBC1 because they are doing a Halloween theme, and I never thought I’d run screaming from BBC presenter Jeremy Vine. 
What’s to like about something that celebrates everything that is horrible? That preys upon our greatest fears about the unknown? That transforms people into hideous incarnations of grossness?
Bizarrely, it is a celebration - the first day of Allhfallowide - that takes place on the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows’ Day. In my book, that’s just a posh way of saying “Another Excuse for Christians to Get Rat-Arsed Day".
Apparently, we’re not supposed to eat meat today, but we’re at liberty to light candles on the graves of the dead. 

Go figure.
So, a very happy Halloween to you all. I’m keeping all my doors locked, eating all the candy I have (sorry, kiddies), and watching back to back Law and Order: SVU (again).
Come November 5th, I might emerge. 

Drinks are on you.


Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Health is Bad for your Health

I suddenly became very weepy this morning. 

For no reason whatsoever. 

Having recently reverted to my Twenties lament of “I am short, fat and ugly”, I’ve been living a very healthy lifestyle of late: meditating twice a day, drinking my healthy green shakes, going to the gym, walking, swimming, taking time to read, making sure I take time off from work to enjoy friends. None of it has helped with my sleeping, though (not to mention the short, fat and ugliness), and I think I’m just exhausted with fitness. 
I keep a daily book of my morning weight and blood pressure, meditation time (20 minutes), everything I eat and drink, the seeds and powders that go into my shakes, my morning vitamins . . . and, before you know it, it’s time to go to the gym. A walk of 1.3 miles to Chelsea Piers.
There, between machines, I catalogue my calories and miles per hour and length of time spent on each exercise. Then, I walk home, write down the statistics in my book, do my evening meditation, take my evening vitamins, cook my supper, write down what I’ve had, do my evening meditation, relax in front of the telly, and retire to bed. Exhausted (Oh, yes, I forgot. I work, too).
Except I can never sleep. I’ve never been a great sleeper, even as a baby when, even then, I think I had a terror of what I might be missing. I haven’t been out for a week (apart from to the gym) and think that my new lifestyle might be turning me into a bit of a recluse. What if someone buys me a drink that is over the 125 mls I occasionally allow myself? I daren’t risk the adventure.
Which is possibly why, this morning, I just started crying. I started to read up on depression that can be related to both meditation and exercise. I already knew of the former. When I learned Transcendental Meditation many years ago, my calming Alpha waves made me so spaced out I nearly got myself killed crossing a road after a session. I then became so severely depressed, they had to cut my meditating time, as I was clearly delving way too deep into my psyche. 
There is a theory that over-exercising can induce depression, too. While it boosts serotonin, which brings about positivity, some believe that coming down from that high can send you plummeting to the emotional depths you were trying to escape in the first place, in much the same way that coming down from a drugs high can do.
The truth is probably much more simple. We are physical, emotional and spiritual beings who cannot but help react to our surroundings and the people in them, conscious or otherwise. We want to love and be loved; we not only have our needs, but we like to be needed; no matter what our social status, we have basic primal emotions that are all part of the one basic need, which is to survive.
Despite our apparent surface differences, we have more in common than we know, and it probably boils down to this: we want to protect ourselves and our loved ones. We choose many different ways to do that (I am not, for example, going to rob a bank), but survival is all.
Survival is also about control and, when one feels that life is out of control, there are any number of things people turn to that might give them at least a semblance of control or, at best, the illusion of it.
I’ve never been into the chemical drugs scene (I was once offered speed and turned it down on the grounds I thought I was being asked to run a very fast marathon. Not joking. I was very young), but I’m suspecting that ultra health is my drug of choice.
As a child, I spent most of my pocket money on Here’s Health magazines and the vitamins it recommended. I have exercised my entire life and never not been a member of a gym (although I know many people who can say that and they have never been to one). I’ve always looked to being the best that I can be, physically and mentally (give or take the odd bottle of Chianti, obviously).
But: Oh, sleep, where art thou? Because, no matter what I do, I can’t capture that one thing that everyone tells you is the key to good health. I dread going to bed. I dread sleep. I hate every minute I am not conscious. I hate my dreams in which I am always buying houses I can’t afford (a bit like real life in that, actually) or travelling in vehicles that won’t take off or land. I fear every moment I am not in control.
And there you have it. 

Maybe, at the end of the day, that’s the fear we all have: the dread of losing control just manifests itself in different ways, socially, politically, personally, whatever. This morning, I just lost control. 

But tears dry. 

Life moves on. 

And so, for today, I’ll just go along with the words of the song: “You've got to laugh a little, cry a little/Before the clouds roll by a little.”
And at the risk of going a little too soppy sitting alongside my Kleenex, this much I know: The sun’ll come out . . . 


Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Badge of Pomposity


YAY! Finally, I have made it to an age when the young call me pompous. My adult rehabilitation is complete.
Having joined two journalism “support” (Ha!) sites on Facebook and been nothing other than kind, generous and helpful in my suggestions, stories and advice, the tide has turned. It had been a while coming, and I had already been surprised by the levels of aggression when people asked for advice, I took the time to give it, and then others joined in the thread to disagree aggressively with what I said (including one man who got very heated in the “learned” vs “learnt” debate (that was half an hour I’ll never get back). Caring and sharing it sometimes ain’t.
The swearing and blaspheming was so rife on one day, I thought it might be construed by some to be offensive. I deigned to suggest that, in the marketplace where potential employers are operating, people should refrain from using the F word or blaspheming, as some people might be sensitive to such things.
The worst abuse, however, came from women, and I came under attack both from people I know and complete strangers. When I added fuel to the fire by suggesting that their language and attitude might be the reason some of them were struggling to find work (the Groundhog Day of complaints out there), the sound of self-combustion – emotional and verbal - was laughable. If, in my opinion, they were scuppering their chances of getting work through swearing, they were now on a suicide mission to linguistic wasteland. 

I decided to leave both sites, as the “debate” (I use the word loosely) escalated and turned nasty. Life really is too short and I genuinely do not have the time or energy to deal with people whose only form of defence is another form of attack. Besides, I had articles to write. And money to earn.
I have nothing against swearing per se; I have been known to drop the odd expletive myself - as, indeed, have many of my colleagues and editors, who do so in the workplace (although personally, I would avoid it there, too); but it’s different when you are presenting yourself to others and looking to be employed; I’m sorry, but different rules apply. 

Much as you may like wearing a T-shirt and jeans around the house, you wouldn’t dress like that for an interview. If I am looking for a front of house receptionist for a five star hotel, I wouldn’t choose someone with facial piercings. If I am employing a construction worker, I wouldn’t choose someone who wants to turn up to work in a three piece suit and tie. If I am employing a wordsmith, I choose someone who uses language to the best of their ability, not a lazy person with a shallow word box who resorts to expletives when the going gets tough. 

For me, social networking is the same: you are in the public sphere, so you act accordingly. Fine, if you don’t want to do that, but if you are on sites where you are trying to get work, surely you put your best wares on display.
Just in case I was out of touch with modern thought, I’ve asked a lot of people (writers, editors, sub-editors) for their opinion, including many of the women on these sites. Privately, without exception, they all agreed with me, but didn’t want to be seen commenting on the page – which reinforces my main point: that one behaves differently on social networking from how one does in private.
The language/swearing issue is an interesting one. If it is so socially acceptable, everyone would be doing it - in print, on TV, in every social situation; but they’re not. It certainly has its place. A Paul Abbott drama without swearing would be laughable; a newscaster telling us that there’s another effing war in the Middle East would land them the sack.
Keith Waterhouse was a good friend of mine, and one of the greatest and most successful writers of his generation. Privately, Keith swore regularly and it never offended me. There was also what some would call “colourful” language in his plays – all of it justified in its context. But there was never, ever a swear word in his journalism - for one simple reason: he knew his marketplace, and you cut your cloth accordingly.
One response on Facebook pointed out to me that “We are all adults”; my response would be “Well, stop acting like children.” Yes, it’s true, you can say what you like and how you choose to say it, as it’s a free country and you are, officially an adult, despite evidence to the contrary; but this is still missing the point. 

On pages/sites/anywhere where you are looking to be employed and presenting yourself to people who can potentially give you work, it is detrimental, as a writer, to advertise your linguistic retardation. If you can’t at least try to understand that, you are missing not only one of the fundamentals of good journalism, but of life.
If that makes me pompous, I embrace my new status with alacrity. 

And anyone who doesn’t like it can simply Go . . . F . . . Find themselves someone who gives a damn.


Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Sexing by Numbers - Who's Counting?

How many times have you had sex? 

How many times have you had sex with each person? 

These questions have been uppermost in my mind this week after reading a couple of news stories in which people state, specifically, how many times they have shared bodily fluids.
First, it was the wife of the UK’s Jeremy Kyle, Carla, who was reported to have had sex 20 times with polo player James Carr at his Ascot home when Jeremy was away filming in the US. For those of you who don’t know, Jeremy is the UK’s answer to Jerry Springer, a very good presenter on mainstream TV (although occasionally prone to what I would call bullying) and quite a hottie (well, a hottie by ITV standards). Carla is reported to have enjoyed a smoking break outside her home with Mr Carr, after which he led her inside etc. etc. (I thought people lit up after sex – is lighting up before a new thing? Or am I just behind the times?).
Now, there’s another story in the news: a schoolboy who was seduced by “disgraced teaching assistant” Caroline Berriman, claims to have had sex 50 times with her, when she was 30 and him 15.
I’m not going to pass judgement on either situation, but I’m fascinated by the specifics of the numbers. How many people actually count, let alone remember? Pretty much everyone can recall their first time, and I suspect most can also remember their first time with a new partner. But after you’ve listened to them banging on about themselves (I’m thinking about men here), don’t you just get on with it whenever you choose and forget the time codes? 

Sex is difficult enough to negotiate, both emotionally and physically (not to mention the post-coital laundry), without having to bring maths into the equation.
I already have a strangely prurient interest in these stories: such as, what was the 11th time like, Mr Carr? Did you keep a notebook full of polo statistics and, after riding your horse in a match, put something in the margin along the lines of  “Later that day: another great ride”? 
I’d be interested in seeing Jeremy’s diary for this period, too, because he, on national television, confessed to not having had sex with his wife for a very long time. Now this sum, I find easier to deal with, because, if you’re not getting it, you can always remember the last time. It’s all the counting between the first and last times that I’m struggling with.
I can, for example, remember my first kiss. It was at a schoolfriend’s party and with a boy called Wyndham. I remember he was wearing a bottle green V-necked sweater and had brown-rimmed National Health glasses. I was 13. I can also remember the first time anyone saw my breasts – so terrified was I, as an innocent in South Wales, they could hear my screams in England. 

More recently, I remember the last time I kissed someone (who shall remain nameless). But as for all the kisses and liaisons in between, who’s counting? As I grow older, most of the time I can’t even remember where my tongue is, let alone where it’s been (I’m regretting not having gone to the pub last Saturday to see Wales beat England in the Rugby World Cup, though, because Welsh men can’t keep their tongues in their mouths after spectacular wins).
Speaking as a woman in relation to men, what do we really remember after sex? Not always the guy’s name, that’s for sure, so why would you record the notch on the bedpost? Here’s a list of what I remember (all things relate to the man’s actions, not mine, by the way):-

1.     Snoring.
2.     Farting.
3.     Stealing the duvet.
4.     Breaking the door handle in the rush to escape (just me, then? He never paid for the repair, either).
5.     No wine to keep me drunk enough to keep fancying them for the next 40 minutes (at most).
6.     No milk in the fridge for a cup of tea in the morning.
7.     The car registration number (just me, again?).
8.      The registration number of the next car, when car number one is traded in (there’s a pattern emerging here, I can tell. For those of you interested: TB0 440H, followed by MUH 853P).
9.     Choking.
10.  Three licks, followed by the words “My tongue’s tired.”
11.  No licks at all.
12.  Waiting for the early morning wake-up call that all the books tell you guys have, when they are already suited up and looking for the car keys to drive to work.
13.  Texts from ex-girlfriends.
14.  The decreasing content level in the baby oil bottle at the side of the bed (advice: mark it with a Biro when you leave, girls).
15.  The bailiffs arriving to take away the bed you are sleeping in.
16.  The police arriving to take away the guy you are sleeping with.
17.  The ex-girlfriend arriving with an axe to chop up the bed and the guy.
18.  Getting rid of him so that you can catch up with Law and Order: SVU on the DVR.
19.  Wondering what on Earth you were thinking the night before.
20.  Another reason why I am never drinking again.

And that’s just for starters. The nice ones. Wait until I get going on the guys I didn’t like.


Monday, September 28, 2015

Single Supplements - Give Us a Break

Business travel at a fraction of the cost. 

The French boutique airline, La Compagnie, which in June started operating flights between New York, London and Paris, appears to have it all – until you try to register on their site. As I travel between all three places and enjoy my creature comforts, when I tried to sign up I discovered I couldn’t, as there were just two options: Mr or Mrs.
As a single woman, I have always refused to tick the “Miss” box on any application form, for one simple reason: no man is ever asked to tick “Master” or “Mister" i.e. a man is never asked to declare whether he is married or not. While many sneer at “Ms”, it is, to me, entirely correct. The only reason women were ever required to declare their marital status was because, as singles, they were deemed unable to have the resources to pay their bills: having a man as an appendage made a woman reliable (allegedly. They’ll learn).
I had this argument with British Telecom some years back, when they asked if I was a Miss or a Mrs. I refused to tell them and questioned whether men were required to say if they were single or married. Of course, they were not.
La Compagnie also offers special deals, yet the current ones are all “for two”. I have no partner, I travel alone, yet always find myself excluded from the things I enjoy the most. I can’t, for example, have the Chateaubriand or the paella “for two” in a restaurant. I once ordered the latter and said I would pay the full price, but was refused on the grounds that it would be “too much for one person”. No amount of my arguing that I would just leave half of it would persuade the waiter to help me part with my money. I very much doubt they would have treated a man with the same gastronomic contempt. I ended up with a pork chop. For one.
Single women are still perceived as weirdos when out alone or, at best, second class citizens. In San Francisco one lunchtime last year, I was pointed to a really nice table in the middle of the restaurant, only to be bumped when the maitre d’ spotted a couple behind me in the queue. She then told me I could sit at the bar or outside. The bar was overcrowded; the outside seat had a great view of Alcatraz (possibly the only time anyone has wanted to escape to the prison). I left without eating and phoned to make a complaint. 

“We really don’t treat women like that,” said the manager. “You just did,” I pointed out, adding that the couple who took my table probably had a green salad between them and a jug of tap water. I would have had champagne, wine, three courses, and probably still been in there when dinnertime came around, to begin the routine all over again.
It is hard enough being single in a world where travel companies continue to charge single supplements, tax breaks benefit couples, and society as a whole celebrates and fawns over marriage, without having to deal with the anti-singles frustrations socially. I happen to be a big fan of marriage: I come from a very stable background and am lucky enough to have had a loving mother and father who could not have been better parents. It just hasn’t worked out that way for me. I’m not bitter about it; I don’t really think about it, unless I am asked. I have a wonderful family, incredible friends and, for all its obstacles, a better life than most people in the world. I am truly blessed.
But I still get treated like a social leper as a single woman. Most married couples don’t include you at their social functions unless they have a recently divorced/largely unmarketable/psycho man in their circle that they might be able to palm off on you. Then there are the practical difficulties to deal with when you are out. If you have to go to the toilet when you are in a restaurant, you have limited choices: leave your stuff at the table and return to find it removed by a waiter who thinks you have done a runner, or have it stolen by a passer-by. 

The third option - asking the people at the next table to keep an eye on your things - attracts the kind of looks you might get had you handed them a rifle and asked them to commit armed robbery in your absence.
It’s not as if I haven’t tried to meet someone who will split the Chateaubriand with me, but it hasn’t gone well. I recently attended a gathering of singles, where a French hobbit grappled with my friend’s right breast in what appeared to be an attempt to secure her stick-on name badge. He was 103, if he was a day. Next, a walrus appeared at my side, claiming to be a criminal psychologist. The walrus was also in the early stages of dementia, because he asked me my name five times. 

There was also an attempt to entertain us by a 'close-up magician', who tried to hypnotise us with non-existent snake oil. We had to imagine our hands were glued together with said oil and then try to pull them apart, the premise being that we wouldn't be able to. Er, we did.
The truth is, that if a man is single, there is something wrong with him (all the good ones really are taken); but if a woman is single, the chances are that she has had the good sense and guts to ditch the men who have that something wrong with them. That’s not to say there aren’t strange women out there (heck, I know some guys who would categorise me as that) but, for the most part, there are far more bright, sharp, funny women on the market than there are men. 

If a man is free, trust me, there’s something wrong with him, and unless you act fast to secure Windows 2016 about now (you have to look out for those inevitable Christmas break-ups), you’re going to miss out on the good guys next time around, too.
So, as I sit contemplating my Chateaubriand and paella free lifestyle while planning my travel over the next few months, I’m going to suggest to you, Sir Richard Branson, entrepreneur, enabler and grand empowerer of people, that you get behind my campaign to get great deals for single women. I can’t think of anyone better to have on our side, and all it needs now is for me to sign off. 

Yours, hopefully, Jaci Stephen (Ms).