Sunday, June 22, 2014

Happy Birthday, Virgin - Now Sort Out the Socks! 22/6/14

For someone who once spent a decade land-bound out of fear of flying, my addiction to Air Miles comes as something of a surprise.
I blame Sir Richard Branson. Travelling between LA and the UK for the past five years on Virgin Upper Class, I have discovered a method to travel pretty much for free for half the year. At the risk of sounding like Sir Richard’s personal PR, I can recommend the Virgin Black Amex, which, if you buy Virgin products on it, clocks you up four points for every pound spent.
So (and skip this paragraph if the subject of Air Miles bores you), let’s say you buy a flight at £3000, that’s 12,000 points immediately. Then there is the 8174 miles x 2 (16,348) for each way LA/UK. As a Flying Club Gold member, I then get 100% each way on base miles flown – that’s another (honestly, feel free to glaze over . . . ) 5477 x 2 (10,954). So, we’re already up to 39,302 miles – and you need just 40,000 for an Upper Class ticket between New York and the UK. On top of that, there are booster miles that can be purchased at a relatively low cost . . . Anyway, you get the picture.
At the moment, I am able to fly First Class between LA and NYC for 75,000 points and a mere $5. I tell you, airport taxes in the US put the UK’s exorbitant fees to shame.
So, I am wishing Virgin a very happy 30th birthday because I love them. Economy passengers tell me that things are not so good these days, with only one or two drinks being allowed on some flights. One friend yesterday told me that things are so bad, he was thinking of returning to British Airways, so I know that things must be really, really horrendous.
But the fantastic Virgin lounge at Heathrow keeps me loyal to the company, and the staff onboard both Virgin Atlantic and Virgin America are the best in the world. Friendly without being over-familiar, and efficient without being officious, they make every flight a joy.
The same cannot be said for American Airlines where, on a recent night flight, the crew talked so loudly, I had to ask them to keep it down. They rudely told me that they had to talk to keep awake. My letters of complaint to Customer Service have been ignored.
Having had my suitcase raided on an AA flight, coupled with their unsympathetic response and general lack of help in relation to that matter, has not exactly fuelled my desire to travel with them ever again.
For the most part, I now love flying, though I still have a few niggles. Socks, for example. I just don’t like the new Virgin Atlantic socks. They are such an odd shape and very uncomfortable. I can only imagine that the designer used a horse’s hoof as a model. I also don’t like the new Virgin safety instructions – a kind of weird rap song that is largely incomprehensible and makes you wish that the plane would go down just to stop the damn thing playing.
But here’s my biggest complaint: window blinds. On Virgin Atlantic and Air New Zealand, the captain announces that window blinds must be up for take-off and landing, and the crew check that this is done every time. On internal flights in the US on Virgin America and American Airlines, most people keep their blinds down, and the plane takes off and lands in relative darkness.
This really bothers me. Having been told that take-off and landing are the most dangerous parts of any flight, it seems to me only logical that the interior of the aircraft should be visible to both crew and passengers, in the event of any problem. An ex-pilot confirmed this to me and said that his preference would always be for them being up because (1) if there is an emergency, passengers will be better orientated spatially and more likely to get out if they have a reference for what’s going on, and (2) in take-off and landing, there are more turns and manoeuvres, and having visual references to what is happening helps to keep people from getting airsick.
Last year, I had a panic attack on an American Airlines flight and was a hair’s breadth from having to disembark (“Are you on meds?” asked the captain. “Meds?” I said. “I don’t even know what that means.”). It did not help that they booked me into a different class from the one I had booked online (again, no response to my letters from Customer Service), but I realised this week, when coming back from New York on Virgin America, what the problem was when it happened again. Most of the blinds in the cabin were down ready for take-off. I started to sweat and felt mounting claustrophobic sickness. I know I stand little chance of changing aviation history, but it seems to me a really important issue.
So, Sir Richard, on this your very special birthday, please sort this out for me. This, and the socks. 

Yes. The socks are very important. 

And I have, by the way, Sir, bought the domain, should you wish to know how to make better use of your points.



Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The President's Many Men 17/6/14

I resent anything that stops me getting to the wine shop, so police cars, barriers stretching as far as the eye can see, and cops telling me I can't get to the other side of the street are always going to bring out my wrath.

Except tonight. Emerging from my building to the heavy security, I was completely thrilled that it was all in favour of President Obama, who would be arriving shortly.

So, I stood with my iPhone, among a handful of people, with the video set to record.

When the first motorbike appeared, there were a few screams (not hugely loud - there couldn't have been more than 30 of us there), but we were to be disappointed. The President did not follow. Then, another group of bikes turned up, lights flashing and promising the great man. They came and went, too. Then, another lot (you're getting the general picture now?).

Finally, a cavalcade that would have outdone any Star Wars movie appeared. Headlights, flashing lights, lights on the top of police cars - it felt like an invasion. And, in the middle of all the bikes, trucks, SUVs, big black cars, little black cars, there was what we had all come to see: a car with a flag on it. Well, two cars with flags on, to be precise.

It was over in seconds. "He was in the second one," said a rather smug man, who appeared the only one of the assembled throng who knew what was happening.

Now, I didn't expect the President to get out of his car and offer to have a selfie taken with me, but all the same, it was a bit of a letdown. In the UK, I have no interest in anyone else's excitement when the presence of a royal (no, I refuse to give that word a capital letter) beckons.

I scream in London, when I am stuck in traffic when the horses leave Buckingham Palace at mid-day and make their way down the Mall.

I am a reluctant party goer for any royal wedding. But I admire Obama hugely: a black President?! Geez. I am so thrilled to have seen that in my lifetime.

He was part of the reason I relocated to LA. He was elected on the eve of my 50th birthday and I watched the TV coverage through tears - and not because of my advancing age. I felt like having a new start and thought it would be interesting to be in a country that was embarking on new times, too.

So, despite the fact that the moment came and went in, well, less than moment, I felt thrilled to have accidentally caught it. There is still a great deal of racial prejudice in the US, and the poor guy has inherited a heap of shit from Bush, not least the mess that was created in Iraq, the "benefits" of which we are now witnessing. I admire his achievement.

I have never made any secret of the fact that I am no royalist; anyone accorded privilege purely by virtue of their birth just sticks in my gut. It's true that to some extent, we are all accorded privilege, or lack of, by virtue of our birth, but for most of us, that doesn't come with the title Head of State, a ton load of houses, and a taxpayer funded lifestyle.

Of course, Americans love the royals; they love Downton Abbey and its residents more, probably because they are under the delusion that they really are royalty.

Personally, I dislike Downton Abbey almost as much as I dislike the royal family.

Despite the criticism Obama attracts in vast areas of America, I remain convinced that he is a good man who got where he did on merit, hard work, shrewdness, and, incredibly, against all the odds.

If I had had a little American flag on a stick, I would have waved it when he went past.

Instead, I went into the Irish pub McQuaids opposite my apartment block and watched my video of the motorbikes and cars.

All the President's men. Dozens of them.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Straight Pride Day - Let's Celebrate! 13/6/14

Straight Pride Day.

It has a certain ring to it. 

After all the excitement in LA last weekend (yeah, thanks for those Village People hits blaring outside my window at dawn, folks), I realised that nearly everyone in the world is gay, and I am now a minority.
As a minority, I must surely be entitled to my own special day, but perhaps I should narrow my status down a little. Straight, female, single, short, menopausal – but then I don’t think that Straight, Single, Female, Short, Menopausal Pride Day has any ring to it whatsoever; in fact, I think I might be the only member.
But the truth is, I really feel I am one of a very small number now. Don’t get me wrong. Easily 50% of my friends are gay, male and female; I think it is joyous that we live in a society that celebrates sexual preference and which joins together against rich hotel owners who advocate stoning of gays (no, I won’t be going to the Dorchester or Beverly Hills Hotel again, either); I believe in equality, irrespective of gender, or who one wishes to sleep with. But being straight isn’t as easy as it once was.
Maybe I’ve brought it on myself. When I am in LA, I reside in West Hollywood; when in New York City, Hell’s Kitchen – both gay epicentres of their respective cities. My gay friends from the UK visit both often and, when I am in town, I go out and have a blast with them.
They all enjoy a very wide social circle and always have somewhere to go, people to see, dogs to babysit etc. I never get invited anywhere. My friends who are in couples, straight and gay, invite only other couples around for dinner; my single gay friends are always out partying; my single straight friends are too depressed or too poor to go anywhere and prefer to stay indoors with their box set of Mad Men, enjoying a night of binge viewing. 
So, most of my life is spent among gay strangers. But here’s one of the things I’ve noticed – and I know I risk the wrath of the gay gods when I say this: LA gays are so much more backbiting and bitchy than New York gays.
I am not going to try to analyse why that might be, other than to say that a village mentality (and LA is far more a village than NYC) tends to harbour prejudices and insecurities, which generally bring out the worst in people, more than large cities do.
It’s not something that I notice in other aspects of LA life. For the most part, people are merely desperate to make it big, and they do not have the time or energy to waste bitching about others; self-promotion is all. But when it comes to the gay life I have witnessed in LA, it is much more akin to the rather infantile nastiness I saw in the UK long before it was cool to be gay.
In New York, it just doesn’t seem to be a big deal. If the gay guys there are ogling fresh meat walking on the sidewalk, they are not so rude as to comment on it when they are talking to me (don’t even get me started on the level at which Miami gays do this); I am regularly invited to join groups of gay guys I have never met before for drinks or dinner – which has never happened once during five years of living in LA. Even my gay realtor invited me to his barbecue.
There is a general tendency in society at large to regard any older woman as being on the scrapheap, yet I am invariably the last person to leave any bar or event in any establishment. It’s not that I like to keep drinking (I can do that at home if I want to), but I love company and have what has recently been labelled FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). I’ve always been the same. Even as a baby, my parents couldn’t get me to close my eyes at bedtime “Don’t she stare?” said my grandmother, during one spectacularly inquisitive moment.
I do stare. I listen. I love observing people of all cultures, shapes and sizes, and hearing the stories that got them to where they are. Stories of joy, pain, loss, love, hope – the humanity that walks our streets every day.
In the end, it doesn’t matter if those people are gay or straight, but please, just for one day, let me celebrate Straight Single Female Short Menopausal Pride Day. 

And it’s today. 


June 13th

Friday 13th

I’m feeling lucky.


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Rik Mayall - A Young One Gone Too Soon 10/6/14

The news of another friend’s death strikes me more keenly when in the US. It makes me ponder the fragility of life and the time I wish I had spent – and should be spending – with so many people.
For the most part, I consider the UK a mere ocean away; in fact, one Christmas, flying from LA, I arrived back at my mother’s house in Bristol in less time than it took my brother to drive there from Clacton, thanks to the joyous M5.
But when I receive a call or read on Twitter (which is always first with the news) about another death, that ocean feels very wide, and the UK another planet.
The news of Rik Mayall’s death spread quickly on Twitter, and people were quick to pay tribute to his genius and place in comedy history. The suddenness and unexpectedness of it added to the heartfelt sadness among friends, colleagues and fans; his wife and children’s tribute to him on Facebook put them and their loss uppermost in our thoughts.
I first met Rik through my first job as TV critic on the Evening Standard in the late Eighties. I had reviewed him in The New Statesman, the political comedy penned by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, and raved about him. It was an extraordinary performance: full of menace and, at a time when we weren’t fully aware of just how vile politicians could be (well, I wasn’t, anyway), something of a prophecy.
For women, Rik had that rare thing among men: the ability to talk with you, not at you. He was not only a brilliant actor, comedian and lover of life, but a great listener. Having survived a near fatal accident in 1998, he came back from the dead after being in a coma for five days (beating Jesus, he said), and we were lucky for the extra years he gave us.
I got to chat to him a lot when he was performing in the West End with Adrian Edmondson, in Waiting for Godot. It was the only time I ever enjoyed the play, and, after the show, I would see him and/or Adrian in the Groucho Club (sans Godot – I tell you, we’ll be waiting forever for that guy), the private members’ establishment in the heart of Soho.
I was very new to London, very insecure and pretty depressed. Rik was someone who lent an ear to my woes. Not without his own insecurities, he made me laugh so much at a time when a lot of my hours were spent sobbing.
He had beautiful eyes, a gorgeous smile, and a mellifluous voice that brought instant calm. He was caring, sweet, and nobody had a bad word to say about him.
His contribution to the world of comedy is assured, but we have lost not only a great performer, but a lovely man.
No matter how much we hear about death, no matter how many times we are forced to confront it, no matter how much we acknowledge its inevitability, it still has the ability to shock. 

Hearing about Rik was one such moment.