Friday, 23 May 2014


"And the Sunday sun shines down on San Francisco Bay
And you realise you can't make it anyway
You have to wash the car, take the kiddies to the park
Don't marry her, (have) me..." (The Beautiful South)
Got back from holiday to discover that a new series of Episodes had started. And since technically I can’t tell you anything about our holiday until I happen to watch a programme about Holland, I shall write about Episodes instead. Now into season three, it appears that much of the original premise (the transatlantic transition of an award-winning British sitcom in the hands of a cultural-nuance-oblivious, ratings-obsessed American television network) has been lost. We are now focusing almost exclusively on the love triangles (getting complicated enough to be verging on love tetrahedra) which have developed. To be honest, the details of these would have escaped me entirely had there not been a flashback at the start of the first episode. Though if in doubt, just assume Matt Le Blanc is shagging them. It would be nice to say that Matt Le Blanc is being terribly decent showing himself up like this, but really he is still playing Joey from Friends, just with a slightly higher IQ. Only this time when he is playing Joey in LA, the television programme featuring it has at least been successful.

The American guys (apart from one token camp one) are all big and beefy, and the American girls all skinny and plastic with ice-white teeth, as you might expect. The British have inferior dentistry and are as terribly polite and neurotic, equally as you might expect. Stephen Mangan plays his character like a lost puppy, and Tamsin Greig hers as a slightly wistful uptight eccentric. But by this point in time the British characters appear to be assimilating nicely to their film studio lifestyle. They power-walk in the Hollywood Hills but drive to work. They enjoy the glamorous parties and the luxury condominiums. Mostly the scenes are bathed in a golden glow, which may represent either the glorious Californian sunshine or the less glorious Los Angeles smog. Although the first scene of this series was set in a torrential downpour, which may just be because they film a lot of the show in Britain.

I have never been to Los Angeles. My picture of life there is enough to put me off visiting, even though this picture has been formed entirely from what I have seen on the television, both fictitious (on shows like Entourage) and factual (on, like, the news). LA strikes me as a place of ludicrous excess intermingled with the effects of extreme social deprivation. So you have the bullshit of pilot season on one side of Sunset Boulevard, and the genuine risk of a drive-by shooting on the other. You see corrupt police, riots and choking pollution, but somewhere nearby is Disneyland.

I have had to work with people in Los Angeles, however. Or rather in Burbank, since most of the film studios have long since left Hollywood behind. When I was working as a translation project manager for a DVD subtitling company in London, the company that owned us and consequently a lot of our clients were based in California. Generally this served as a source of irritation, since - thanks to the time difference - our American friends would arrive at work just as I was planning to leave. They would be full of (fresh coffee) beans just as I was fading at the end of my London day. They would usually hit upon some major problem that they could see many hours left in their day to solve. But the only hours left in my day were overtime, and unpaid overtime at that.

Eventually, to help us beleaguered souls in London, it was decided that one of our team should be moved over to Burbank on a rotational basis, each person staying for around a year. I was never among the ones selected, and never applied to be. But the ones who did go did seem to enjoy it, and some never actually came home. So life in LA must be a little seductive after all.

I have been to California at least, but it is a scarily long time ago now. The trip, undertaken when I was 19, is rather a blur, since when I was there I was taking some evil antibiotics for a case of giardia that I had managed to pick up in Glacier National Park, Montana. I also discovered in California that I don’t do heat all that well. Being British, I had previously thought that I quite liked hot weather, but this was the first time I’d experienced 103 degree Fahrenheit in the shade on the edge of a desert, and my coping strategies for this were tantamount to useless. Goodness knows what the family I was staying with made of me, but there must be a reason that the British people in Episodes are all portrayed as so neurotic. Anyway, I have vague memories of being driven through vineyards and a forest of redwood trees, and across the Golden Gate Bridge. I remember a strange house in San José (which I would dismiss as a heat hallucination now had I not just double-checked its existence) and walking along the boardwalk of an earthquake-destroyed Santa Cruz at night. I slept in a tent trailer in someone’s sweltering back yard and ate a lot of slightly dysfunctional vegetarian food. (And I just learned, as a sad postscript, that the father of the family I was visiting died a few years ago.)

My favourite place of all was San Francisco, because it was cool. Not cool as groovy, but cool as in cold. There was always a sea fret in the bay, which lowered the temperatures to an acceptable warm British summer level and meant I could function again. But even then, San Francisco is still vague in my head – Chinatown trinket shops, pyramid skyscrapers, sea lions, cable cars, curvy roads, Alcatraz, a tube train called Bart. But I see it every day on a painting that hangs above our TV in the lounge. It features the view from the top of Hyde Street, minus the cable cars, and is by my friend Nadine. The colours have the same golden glow that filters through Episodes.
Read the artist's blog here
(And the real Hyde Street)

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Vertigo Roadtrip

And just as I happened to mention my "crippling vertigo", there was a whole programme on about it. Not my crippling vertigo, needless to say, but people like me, who suffer from extreme acrophobia. Now, I had never previously considered my vertigo to be a phobia or indeed to be that extreme, but it seems that I am well up there with the people appearing on this programme. I hadn’t realised that it was that abnormal or unusual to have a racing pulse, jelly legs and a dizzy spell when crossing a narrow footbridge hundreds of metres above a river gorge. Or to imagine yourself falling off a skyscraper balcony. Or to crap yourself at the mere sight of a ten-metre diving board. Or to say “Ooh, I think I’ll keep my eyes shut” when in a cable car lurching up into the Alps.

Or maybe these people’s cases of vertigo weren’t as extreme as they had originally led the production company recruiters to believe, although a couple of them did throw a bit of a wobbly for the cameras after climbing just two blocks of stairs in a London office block. I reckon some of them might have just been after a free holiday. Because their cure through intense exposure therapy involved travelling to Innsbruck and Dubai. Really, if they were that terrified of heights, wouldn’t Blackpool Tower or a trip up the Shard have sufficed in the “scare them shitless” stakes? Not to say that the world’s tallest building, the Burj Kalifa skyscraper in Dubai, wasn’t worth seeing. It was astounding. And yes, if you can get yourself out in the open air at the top of that, you have definitely cured your acrophobia.

Mel Giedroyc (now suddenly brunette and without cake) was on hand to give everyone a cuddle as required, but the doctor in charge was an American called Jennifer Wild, an Oxford based psychologist and specialist in behaviour therapy. She was soft-spoken, with an intense stare, and knew how to apply gentle encouragement very insistently and effectively. Her clients responded surprisingly quickly to treatment (I would say suspiciously if I were considering the free holiday hypothesis). A grown man went from absolute hysterics in a swimming pool to leaping off a springboard into it quite happily in a matter of minutes. A woman wailed at the mere sight of a bridge, but was strolling across it in a great state of excitement just moments later. But all Dr Wild seemed to do to cure people was make them jump up and down or push against glass walls. I need this lady’s number.

Because I have humiliated myself time and time again in various locations around the world. I have never completely lost it, but I have had what might be termed a “funny turn” atop various buildings, from the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona to Conwy Castle in Wales to the Sky Tower in Auckland to the Royal Albert Hall in London. I’ve had to sit down with my head between my knees until my breathing and heart rate have slowed. But I have always continued on my path, albeit looking straight ahead and my pace quickening, on various hideous bridges, like the iron one that goes to the spa in Scarborough, or the glass-bottomed one over the largest underground canyon in the world in the Skocjan caves in Slovenia. But blind panic and feeling close to fainting have never been far away. And please don’t mention Red Pike. Or the rope bridge in Alnwick Garden.

But I have an incident to compare myself to, which I use to convince myself that I am not that bad after all, and do have things under control. This incident occurred when my husband and I were on a group holiday to Jordan. One day we were taken by our guide on a hike in the hills above Petra, up to the High Place Of Sacrifice, via a less trodden back route. I couldn’t get myself too near the edge of any of the rocky viewpoints, but we saw a whole range of unforgettable sights, one of which was standing on the rocks directly above the Treasury, watching a constant stream of tourists snaking out of the Siq far below. My photos cannot do the constantly changing hues of pink, yellow, brown and red in the rocks justice, or the deep azure blue of the sky. 

Note there is always foreground in my cautious photography

However, on the way down to the Qasr-al-Bint in the heart of Petra, and nearly at the end of our trek, one of our group came a cropper to his vertigo. Before our final descent, we had to round a corner via a reasonably wide, flat ledge. The ledge had a ceiling of rock above it, but it offered no protection against a potential tumble down a steep slope of loose rocks and pink oleander trees to the ancient dwellings below. So this guy just freaked out completely. He refused to go any further. None of us, not even his wife (quite used to him doing things like this) could persuade him to put another foot forwards. In the end, he announced he was going to do the whole walk we had just done in reverse, which was a winding path of several miles over rough terrain that none of us could have committed to memory. Our guide, torn about what to do, chose to stay with the bulk of us but gave the man’s rationally thinking wife and an experienced walker from our party clear directions for an alternative shorter route down to the theatre in Petra. And he told them to meet us in the cafe at the bottom. Only they never turned up. They just decided to go straight back to our hotel in Wadi Musa. But we didn’t know this. Our guide panicked and spent several hours up in the hills near the High Place of Sacrifice trying to find them. Eventually the rest of us got back to the hotel, and found them sitting outside, enjoying a beer. We could then at least ring the guide (once he hit a patch of mobile signal) and let him know everyone was safe.

Vertigo man was only really on the trip in the first place because his wife had made him come. She was the one who wanted to see Jordan. His idea of a holiday was to sit around a pool drinking. And drinking is never the best thing to come and do in a Muslim country. But at least this incident made me feel better about my own vertigo.

But then, on the same holiday, I saw people do this...

and this...

And I realised that I really am not that on top of things, so to speak, after all. And as I remarked when writing about via ferrata the other day – what am I avoiding because of my fear? What am I missing?

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Bear’s Wild Weekend With Stephen Fry

I had spent a few days wondering what to write about next when this popped out at me from the television schedule. It was billed as a programme about what happens when an active sort meets a cerebral sort on a testing trip to the wilderness. Stephen Fry, like me, is about the polar opposite of an adrenaline junkie, if polar is not too tactless a word to use given Fry’s much documented mental ill health. He is not especially physically active, is in fact rather unfit and carries a decent sized belly on him. He never stops exercising his mind, however, and remains forever funny, enviously eloquent, stupendously clever and fiendishly full of trivia. Any programme carrying his name will always attract me.

I have encountered far less of Bear Grylls however, being generally disinclined to put myself in death-defying situations and not needing to watch people who do. But I was a Girl Guide for a while, albeit a not especially enthusiastic one, and Bear is now apparently Chief Scout. Though on our guide camps we didn’t have our survival skills especially tested. And we certainly weren’t allowed to carry tampons or condoms around with us like Bear does. I don’t suppose any of us, aged 11, even knew what these items were in the naive early ‘80s. Bear uses a tampon (with a spark from his knife) to start a campfire, whereas our method was to sing Ging Gang Goolie with gusto. For Bear, a condom is a compact instant water carrier, whereas I think our campsites came equipped with taps. For Bear, tying a knot is something your life depends on. For us, tying knots was just getting cross with bits of string. The extent of our guiding initiative on camp was making a wasp trap out of a mallet and an empty tin of shandy. (We had a 13-year-old rebel in our midst.)

Bear and Stephen attempt to bond over the things they have in common. They were both sent off to boarding school at any early age. They both had daft nicknames at school, only one of which appears to have stuck. They were both subsequently expelled from these schools. Stephen ended up in prison, Bear in the army. This is about where the similarities end. But now they have been flung together for a weekend of adventures designed by Bear and aimed to test Stephen’s willpower and physical strength to the limit. Despite their differences, they both make an effort to get on, and to get on with the tasks at hand, tasks that are terrifying to them in their own way - Stephen's to do things like abseiling, and Bear's to have profound conversations in a suitably thought-provoking setting.

The setting is the Dolomites, that beautiful mountain range of jagged pinnacles in the far north of Italy that turn a pinkish hue as the sun sets. But as Stephen and Bear arrive, clutching the side of a helicopter, the cloud is thick and a ton of fresh snow has fallen. This means that the helicopter cannot land. So Bear and Stephen have to throw themselves off on to what the pilot has assessed to be a “soft spot” of snow, with the helicopter hovering precariously a few feet above the ground. You almost have the feeling that Bear has arranged the weather specially.

The snow has also buried the food supplies Bear has had delivered for the weekend by the Dolomites' equivalent of Tesco – a whole deer carcass. You can just see its legs jutting out of the white. “Is that a boomerang?” Stephen asks. They hack the carcass up and then produce the tampon to light a fire on which to barbecue a few choice morsels for lunch. Later in the evening, Bear serves up a venison stew, flavoured with Alpine flora (to match the faun-a). Stephen, picking the flora, says that he has been informed that no Alpine flowers are poisonous. The narrator tells us that Stephen has been misinformed. I am just wondering if Stephen has snuck a pile of Mars bars into his backpack, because these supplies seem barely sufficient to replenish the energy they have drained, when Bear produces a jar of Nutella from his. He smears this onto some bread, but just as you think this is all a bit too normal, it turns out it is bait to attract ants from a nearby nest as the topping for what Bear calls a mountain sandwich. He claims that the ants are full of protein, but the overwhelming flavour (despite the Nutella) appears to be that of formic acid, which no amount of pine needle tea (or Bear’s local grappa) can rinse away. “Tell Ant and Dec to get me out of here,” says Stephen. “Oh, except that Ant's gone.”

Bear makes Stephen climb down a vertiginous and partially frozen waterfall (Stephen screams that this is what yodelling was invented for), using via ferrata cables for support. Bitter battles between the Italian and Austro-Hungarian forces were fought in the Dolomites during the First World War, and the via ferrata were laid by them as a means of scrambling around the mountains. The soldiers also made a shelter, hewn into the rock, where Bear and Stephen spend the night. I seem to remember a character in the Sebastian Faulks novel Human Traces spending a lot of time in a similar cave in the Dolomites. As this character is a clinical psychologist, it seems fitting that Bear uses this setting as an opportunity to ask Stephen about his bipolar disorder. Stephen tells him that his recent suicide attempt made him finally lower his resistance to taking medication for his disease. He claims that as a public figure, after such a disastrous course of events, he felt the pressure to act responsibly. He also discusses his wish but inability to help everybody who writes to him about their own mental health problems, which is why he chose to serve as patron for Mind, the largest mental health charity of them all.

Stephen is exhausted but elated, and falls into a deep sleep. In the morning Bear claims Stephen's snoring is reminiscent of an avalanche. They must then extinguish their campfire, which Bear does by urinating on it. Bear says the fire must be thoroughly extinguished as it only takes "one small ember" to start a catastrophic forest inferno. Stephen, with his back turned to Bear weeing, remarks, "And it only takes one small member to put it out." Touché.

A similar moment of intellectual victory comes as Bear and Stephen discuss religious faith. They are sitting looking at what is indeed a heavenly view of a lush valley. For the Christian Bear, God made all this. The atheist Stephen asks but if He did, then who made God? Neither of these two polite fellows attempts to convert the other. Stephen is an apologist for atheists who criticise the beliefs of others, but then presents such a reasoned logic for why you should have no religion that if anybody from the church actually listened to him they would shut themselves down. Bear believes that we are surrounded by love – the love of God. This belief would make me unwilling to have Bear lead me through the wilderness, since he would have the fervent conviction that a supernatural force is guiding and caring for him. I would rather be taken by somebody who is willing and able to survive entirely off his own bat.

However, Stephen does survive his ordeal and copes remarkably better than I think I would in the midst of such gruelling challenges. Although Stephen does tempt me to consider being braver about giving things a go. But I can’t see myself ever attempting a trip on via ferrata, not even the tamer ones above Honister Pass in the Lake District, because of my crippling vertigo. This is before we even consider my build, which Stephen would also probably describe as a “bin liner full of yoghurt”. I do love a good mountain holiday though. But I prefer my ropes to be attached to a cable car rather than a rocky edifice. And I prefer my views to be easily accessible from a hotel balcony, rather than a cave. Like this view we had of the Jungfrau from the Hotel Edelweiss in Wengen one glorious week in July 2009. And if some news reports are to be believed, Bear may well think the same way.