Wednesday, March 26, 2008

LA dreaming

We are about to go away for five days to Poland for a wedding where the couple met on the internet. Is there any other place people meet these days? The last time we all had a holiday away together was November 2006 so no pressure there. I managed a week on my own though just about a year ago. I went to LA.

Tuesday, 13 March, 2007
Arnie and Me
I came over to see English friends who have moved here but they are living in a one-bedroomed, bite-sized sort of house so I am staying in a guest room a few miles away which is close to Venice beach and belongs to someone they know. The room is on the ground floor. It is actually three rooms, a bedroom, a sitting room and a little shower room off it. I am slightly nervous about it all. I might feel better if I had any cell phone reception but to get a signal you have to leave the room and walk up to the hazy beach. It will be fine, I just need to get used to myself again. My mood improved when I plundered a closet off the lounge and found rubber masks of Tony Blair, George Bush and Arnie Schwarzenegger. I planted them around the room to keep me company. Perhaps I should take one to bed? But which one? I would not want to hate myself in the morning.

Saturday 17 March 2007
“What I’m looking for”
Have just got back from the desert and a place called Joshua Tree. Apparently North America is the only place where the Joshua Tree grows and most of them are in the Mojave desert. The branches of the fibrous tree reach up into the hot air and are tipped with clusters of spiky leaves. According to a National Park visitor guide, tradition has it they were named by mormon pioneers after the biblical figure of Joshua “seeing the limbs of the trees as outstretched in supplication.” Even better than the extraordinary trees was the diversion we made to a dusty spot in the desert where a rock god’s body burnt, the embers twisting up to the skies. Gram Parsons, a 26-year-old country rock singer/songwriter, died in room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn in 1973 after downing tequila and morphine. He had some time before struck a deal with his road manager Phil Kaufman that in the event of his death, Kaufman would take him into the desert and burn his body. Time came and Kaufman duly snatched the body from LA International Airport, drove it out to the desert, and poured gasoline into the open coffin to honour the promise he had made to his friend. They even made a movie about it which I watched when we got home. Irresistible story. The National Park ranger refused to tell us where it was but we managed to find it despite my appalling navigational skills. It reminded me of the cemeteries of the famous in Paris; all that longing for the dead - famous yet unknown - love, loss, and lyrics painted on to rocks that have stood a million or more years, and on the sand a cross of stones with pennies at its heart to remember the talent spent, wasted by youth.

Sunday, 18 March 2007
Samurai dreams
Am now thoroughly in the swing of LA living. Have not only been to the desert but a concert in a down-town fabulous art deco concert hall which used to be a cinema, as well as shopping in lush Santa Monica and to a movie full of blood, gore and abdominals which I would never have seen over in the UK. And I went to Hollywood of course. I wondered is this what we want? To push ourselves into wet concrete, leaving our mark on the future for a fat girl in flip flops to put her feet over the space where we were, and ask: “Who was she then? Small feet eh?”

I like LA. It is one of those cities where everybody watches everybody else to see whether those they are watching are thinner and more beautiful than themselves. The answer in my case would of course be “Yes”. The coffee shops in particular are full of thirty-somethings huddled over their laptops, writing screenplays or planning their next pitch. Everybody wants to be somebody. It is the sort of place where you are hardly respectable unless you carry around a hopeless dream; it strikes me that whoever you are when you arrive, from then on in you decide who you are going to be. Today, my friends took me to a party at an artist’s house. It was full of writers and people on the margins of the mainstream movie business. While I ate a bagel with cream cheese, a pretty Oriental looking girl with long blonde hair told me she had just finished making a movie about “gangs and zombies” and that she wanted her next movie to “be original, like y’know Quentin Tarantino” – a post-apocalyptic movie about werewolves and samurai.” She assured me “No-one’s ever done that before.” I said: “I’m sure you’re right.” She went on: “We’re planning to approach Jim Carrey – he’s never done samurai before.” I thought: “Good on you. I hope that he says ‘yes’.” My friends are struggling though to get Green Cards which would allow them to stay here. They feel they belong. I thought about it tonight, lying next to Arnie. His face, stuffed with paper lying on the pillow and turned towards mine. I rolled over to face him. I said: “Where do any of us belong?” He just looked at me with his cut out eyes. A man of few words is Arnie.

Anyway, back in real time next week.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Next year, it's rabbit pie

Had friends up from London, arriving Thursday night and leaving Saturday morning. They managed to catch some of the worst weather I have seen up here. The woman who has only just moved back to the UK after 18 years in Spain would be entitled never to come back to Northumberland, ever. We tried to go for a beach walk twice and thought better of it. Instead, safe in our cars, we watched the white fury of the seas, waves so tall that they seemed to stand on feet, and thick sandy froth churning in the rock pools. We managed a teashop, a country outfitters, a second hand bookshop, a museum and a castle; even so, I am not sure it made up for the weather. On our way into the castle, gusts of ice and sleet leaned against us and I said to the woman: "It's not like this usually you know." I gulped down a mouthful of wet bitter cold wind. "You've caught it on a really bad day." Their visit though was definitely the highlight of Easter.

I just did not find Easter worked for me this year. My mother and father were supposed to come and cancelled because my father did not feel up to it which was disappointing. Usually, we have an egg hunt on Easter Sunday morning with the other children who come up to the cottages along the row. Luckily, two girls were there but three other families did not make it which seemed sad somehow and instead of our traditional glorious, daffodil-coloured sunshine, it was bitterly cold and grey. Once that was over. the children spent the rest of the day either eating chocolate, asking for more chocolate or crying that I had said "No" to more chocolate. It was so bad, by bathtime I had gathered up all the chocolate that was left in the house and informed the children they had eaten quite enough and Easter was officially over. I was braced for revolution but they took it quite well. I think my five-year-old might have been more vocal but this morning he woke up and started throwing up relentlessly with one of his stomach migraines which happen about every six to eight weeks. During these vomiting marathons, he withdraws completely, refusing to answer the simplest question, capable only of staring at the TV or listening to tales of pirates and dinosaurs. He vomits, sips water, vomits again and sleeps. I moved him from bed to lounge to kitchen sofa. This afternoon, he started to rally. As I pulled his washed-out tee-shirt over his head, it seemed as if he remembered something. He said: "Thankyou for doing all you did for me." As I eased down the shirt over his chest, I thought: "Ah, darling one. Happy Easter."

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


Am "proofing" the UK edition of the book. What this entails is staring at 300 pages till you go cross-eyed. If I stayed in my own office, I would eat my own hands out of sheer boredom. Instead and in an attempt to keep myself awake I have spent the last two days on a coffee bender round the cafes of the local market town. I am not proud of myself - I may have to start wearing a caffeine patch if this process takes much longer. Still I have found a cafe where they smile at you when you go in and which serves a great bacon sandwich. Yesterday I also spent an hour and a half in the new supermarket's cafe which has big windows and about the same amount of time in a hotel bistro which has deep and comfortable armchairs. Both yesterday and today I spent time in a big second hand bookshop.

This is a second hand bookshop like no second hand bookshop you have ever seen. It used to be a railway station which could be why so many men with beards haunt it. The only downside is that it is very cold so you have to wear your coat at all times. Either that or huddle in front of one of the blazing coal fires. A model railway track runs overhead and lines of Gerald Manley Hopkins and Tennyson poetry connect the columns of books. The original Victorian station is everywhere around - the pitched rooves, the ticket offices, the enormous clocks but books instead of trains carry people away. I looked at the door painted with the words "old waiting room", shelves of books reflected in its glass panels. I could see a fire burning in the darkness and the pages of a newspaper turning as if by themselves. Pushing open the door, I stepped into the room that waited for me. Pale green tiles and oak benches lined the walls. I moved along some chintz cushions, dumped my bag on the bench and pulled the table closer. As I hauled out the proofs to my "Should I stay or Should I go now" book and dug out my roller-ball, I glanced up at the huge hanging lamp. A wrought-iron lamp inscribed with fabled destinations - Shangri-la, Toytown, Camelot and the words "et in Arcadia ego".

Monday, March 17, 2008

Ewe don't say.

Popped round to see a friend for coffee. This being the country, this being spring, she was not in the kitchen, she was in the lambing shed. The sheep which had not yet given birth were milling around in an open area penned in by bales of straw; sheep which had given birth were in their own small enclosures with their lambs. I said to my friend: "How can you tell when they're ready to give birth?" She said: "Well look at that one." I said: "Which one?" She said: "That one." I looked at the sheep she was pointing at. She said: "You see. She looks "starey"." I said: "She looks like a sheep." It is not like there are any give away clues - no one was straddling a beanbag, sucking on ice chips or screaming for an epidural. They all seem to take it all quite calmly. In fact it was almost biblical. Sunshine fell through the open side of the barn where there was tranquility, warmth, new life and just a little bit of blood being spilled. Every now and then my friend who has a bad back would drop to her knees and I would think: "Is she going to say a prayer of thanksgiving?" Instead she would do something to the backside of an animal that made me think: "I am so not having another baby." At one point she tried to "put a lamb on" that is to say persuade a ewe to adopt an orphan, she eased aside the ewe's own lamb, wrangled the mother to the ground then knelt on her. She took hold of the orphan lamb, handed him up to me and said as if it was nothing very much: "Put him in the water trough up to his head would you?" I carried the long legged lamb across the straw carpetting the barn and over to the trough and ducked him under. I said: "Sorry mate." I just about resisted saying: "Do you renounce Satan and all his works?" I carried the dazed, wet bundle back and she smeared him with goo from the ewe and his "brother" lamb. I suppose that is what you call being born again.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

"Try something new today"

Sainsbury's has opened up in the nearest market town. This is akin to the Second Coming. It is such a big deal that Sir Ken Morrison announced his retirement on the same day despite an increase in his company's profits. Last year a small Marks and Spencer's opened up in another market town slightly further away from us and talk among mothers was all of cappuccino and caramel shortbread in the cafe. But this Sainsbury's is serious shopping. It opened at 9am this morning and my husband drove us to it after dropping the children at school. I wondered why head office had not approached me to open it - perhaps they had heard about "the barn". Outside men in grey suits welcomed shoppers while uniformed women dished out store guides and little engraved trolley tokens then confided: "Actually the trolleys are free today." I am not sure the supermarket experience is complete without trying unsuccessfully to feed a pound to a trolley and cursing while you wrestle it from the bosom of its trolley family. The store guide had a little letter from Debra the store manager in which she told us to "Enjoy your shopping and if you can't find something, please ask me or one of the team." I love that idea. Getting to the check-out and saying to the cashier: "I'm so sorry. I forgot the black pepper. You couldn't just ring up to the office and get Debra to pop down with a box?" Anyway the aisles were full of big-eyed shoppers pointing at "buy one get one free's" and I have never seen so many smiling shop assistants in a supermarket ever. Apparently "regional" was in - not sure what this means but it is obviously a big deal in supermarket land. Every time you looked at an assistant, they would beam from ear to ear and look utterly delighted to see you there. I think my husband was even happier than they were. He walked up to the convenience foods and pointed to the Tiger Prawn Paella. He said: "Look tiger prawn paella. Let's get two."

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

After the horse has bolted

OK so I brought the teasmade upstairs, cleared the books from the bedside table, plugged it in, set the time, set the alarm, filled the tank with water, fished the teabags out of my dressing gown pocket, put them in the teapot, went downstairs, poured milk into a china jug and settled it in a bowl of ice, carried up the bowl and two china mugs and pressed the button so that a little red light went on underneath the logo of a steaming cup of tea. I was aiming for tea at seven o'clock. I got tea at seven o'clock. I also got woken up every hour between midnight and seven o'clock by the thought: "I wonder if the tea is ready yet?" which was not at all the idea.

The day got worse because foolishly I had agreed to open a barn. My friend rang yesterday and said they didn't have anyone else to do it and would I consider it. They had to be desperate. I said slowly: "Okaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay" thinking "I suppose it will be alright. A barn. There'll be a farmer and his dog there."

After she rang off, I checked it out on the Internet and it was not so much a barn as a diversification/environmental/education project with a cafe and a giftshop. My ex-friend e-mailed me a guest list and there were councillors on it and people from Non-Departmental Public Bodies and I thought: "Now I'm in trouble." In my real life I am a journalist - this means I sit at the back of the room listening to speeches thinking: "God, you're boring!" This is not the best life experience to have when you realise you have to write and deliver your own speech. At least I abandoned the passing idea of "doing a David Cameron" - that is to say speaking without notes. If I had tried to do that, I think I might have had a stroke before finishing.

Some days I think you would be better just not getting up at all. I turned up at "The Barn", converted and perched on land overlooking the coast, the wind fretted sea and out onto Holy Island. The first thing I did was blow in to the education room where the presentation was being given. I arrived late - all things are relative. I arrived an hour and a half earlier than I was due to cut the ribbon but half an hour later than the event actually started. Although I had been given permission to miss the speeches and just do the ribbon thing, I wanted to hear what it was all about. What that meant was the wind virtually hurled me through the door which was right at the front of the room where the attentive audience was watching a video presentation. Everybody caught the entrance - complete with a cup of black coffee which I had snagged before I went in thinking I would just slip in at the back. (I had to have the coffee because of the sleepless night courtesy of the teasmade.) I then had to stand there at the front, leaning against the wall till the video was over because in my embarassment, I could not immediately see anywhere to sit.

The "barn"venture had taken the farmer five years to pull together which judging by his speech has not been easy. Clues like "The project has certainly not been without its problems" and "When agreements are made they have to be honoured not altered halfway through or have payments reduced." It was all quite complicated and includes flooding marshland while still allowing sheep to graze. Presumably they will warn the sheep before the tides sweep in - either that or give them swimming lessons and lilos. An enthusiastic environmentalist also talked of the importance of the project to the Light Bellied Brent Geese which are allowed to graze on stubble around and about. (Apparently the geese were supposed to take the hint and graze on grass but they have refused. It is either the stubble or Jamie Oliver recipes - nothing else.)

After we moved into the cafe for a pre-arranged "comfort break", all too soon it was my turn. I did not even have a podium to hide behind. I realised as I was being introduced that this had been a very, very bad idea and that the audience was undoubtedly asking exactly who the hell I was. My voice shook, my hands which clutched my pieces of paper shook. I told them that it was in fact the second time I had cut a ribbon for an opening ceremony - the first being yesterday when I discovered driving back from the village with the teasmade in the boot, my husband had decided to string ribbon across the gateway to the cottage on the premise that since I had not been born a minor royal I might need some practice. I think they laughed but I am not sure as there was a humming in my ears by that point. With some relief I read a section from the blog and then said some words like "diversification" and "preservation" and "nature". Then we went outside and I cut the ribbon which was red and strung between two manicured box trees. I have never done it before (I do not count yesterday when technically what I did was drive through the ribbon in the Saab) and I am never doing it again.

Apart from my pretty disastrous appearance as Sophie Windsor (believe me they earn every penny) I enjoyed being part of someone's dream. I think anyone who makes something that big happen is to be congratulated. But probably my personal highlight came as I was walking through the blustering wind back to the car when a man in a tweed jacket leaning against a bench said:"Do you want to write some song lyrics?" That is what you call a good line. As it happens I have just seen Drew Barrymore and Hugh Grant in Music and Lyrics. "Hugh" said: "I could set them to music and play them in a session in a local pub where we all meet up." Apparently lyrics have to be strong and have something that repeats. I could do that do that do that.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Tea for two

I have bought a teasmade. This has been a lifelong ambition and has made me very happy. I have no idea yet whether it works but it came in an impressive cardboard box and promises much. Not only can it make you tea on a morning, it can wake you with it, provide a bright bedside light, a clock, an alarm and a radio. Frankly there are men out there who work less hard than this teasmade. Possibly women too - though I doubt it.

Of course my husband disapproved. I tried to get one a couple of years ago and he said: "If you want tea so badly on a morning, I will get up and make you a cup." I think he believes it to be the epitome of lower middle-class, middle-aged, 1970's naffness. I however do not care. Last month when he was hardly ever here, I thought: "Bollocks to this, I am getting a teasmade." I ordered one in my local electrical shop and waited patiently for it to arrive. Today I snuck down to the village and picked it up. When I arrived back, my husband looked suspiciously at the box which is the size of something you would bury your lapdog in. In fact I may keep the box in the event I ever get a lapdog. He said: "Tell me that's not a Goblin teasmade." I said: "OK, I won't tell you." I need that cup of tea to wake me up. I struggle at the moment. I seem permanently exhausted and there is nothing less interesting than someone who drones on and on about how tired they are other than those people who insist on telling you about their holidays. I have already cleaned it and run it through its first cycle as instructed by the leaflet. The leaflet is full of dire warnings such as "Do not remove tea pot during the pressure filling cycle as scolding water may be ejected." Presumably if you do move it, a tinny voice says: "Didn't you read the leaflet you dolt? It said don't move me." Another reason I wanted it was the fact I only have one radio upstairs and have to carry it around with me between the bed and the bathroom and it is never where I want it to be. This way I can have a radio in both rooms. I am slightly worried about reception however which can be very bad here. The leaflet advises: "Turn the tuning dial to the frequency the radio station is broadcasting on. "Well, yes, that is always a good idea. Then it says: "It may be necessary to turn or move the teasmade for best radio reception." I suspect that is a potentially disastrous thing to do.

Monday, March 10, 2008


I have discovered that the thing about writing a book is that writing it is only the start. You then have to sell it. Selling it involves all sorts of conversations with people who take you far too seriously as you sit there "pitching" your book to them. No one has yet said "You are kidding? Someone is publishing your diary? And they're paying you for it?" Doubtless it will come.

I went down to London for a drinks party with booksellers. There were "real" writers at it. Writers I read. I half expected a siren to go off "Blogger Alert! Blogger Alert!" and metal shutters to ratchet down when I walked in. But the booksellers were so nice. Grown women with their own businesses allowed me to burble at them when I am sure they would rather have been talking to someone they had heard of. It is fatal to listen to yourself. At one point I found myself thinking: "My God this woman talks rubbish. I hope she can write better than she can speak." Which is probably true since I lisp in real life and I do not think I have ever lithped in print. Truth be told I think I am losing my nerve about the whole writing thing. I wrote a book and it disappeared into the ether and in a week or so, I will see something that looks like a book that is not a book but is called a proof. I have to read the proof and make sure there are no mistakes or ambiguities. Apparently it is too late at that stage to change it beyond those two things because it is all so expensive. What if I think it is grammatically correct and unambiguously bad?

Maybe I will feel better once I have seen it in print however good or bad it is. Because at the moment I feel as if the book is all a dream and any minute now I am going to wake up naked in a shower. Then again, I must have written a book because I have this really sick feeling in my stomach that tells me I am about to get sued, ostracised because I have offended so many friends or hideously embarassed when no-one in the entire country buys it apart from my husband's colleagues. One of my conversations at the drinks party involved someone telling me what a harsh marketplace Amazon was. You could not hide anything. If you sold, you sold; if you did not sell, you did not sell. I thought about crawling under the nearest table and hiding behind the linen tablecloth so that I could rock myself to and fro to settle myself again.