Saturday, December 18, 2010

Travels with Izzy - Part Two: Christmas Is Cancelled

So that’s Izzy’s childhood fantasy blown. There’s no way she’ll ever dream of sleighbells and reindeer now – she’ll be hiding under the covers every Christmas Eve praying that Santa is just a bad dream.

It’s all the fault of an absurdly smart shopping mall we visited in Newport Beach, an hour south of Los Angeles. They have the tallest Christmas tree in America, a 100 foot giant with over 17,000 ornaments and lights. Beneath it lies Santa’s Village: in fact, it’s just a little Swiss mountain hut, but I guess to a two-year-old it could be a village and it was Izzy’s first chance to meet Santa.

There was no queue at all, quite astonishing for a large mall a week before Christmas. The recession has hit America hard: department stores were advertising sales, restaurants were half empty and bored assistants were chatting to boyfriends on cellphones. We walked up to the mountain hut and peeped inside. There, sitting silently in a huge cream wing chair, was Santa.

I know a 58-year-old isn’t supposed to believe in this stuff, but I’ve never seen a less fake Father Christmas. He had real white whiskers and his eyes twinkled as he stared at us. He didn’t speak or move. He was absolutely, overwhelmingly terrifying.

There were three other people in the room: a bedraggled mother was trying to coax her tearful daughter to have her picture taken by Santa’s official photographer, who had flown down specially from the North Pole with offers of a full Rudolph digital package for $47.95 or maybe just a Prancer ($17.95 for a couple of prints). The kid was having none of it. Older than Izzy by at least a year, the more her mother reasoned with her, bribing with cookies and promises of gifts to come, the less keen she became. Eventually Mom pointed at us: “Look, that little girl isn’t scared – watch her go sit on Santie’s lap”. We had to save the day.

I confidently prised Izzy from her comfy pushchair, sprinkled with chocolate brownie crumbs, and carried her towards the monster. It looked at us and raised one bushy eyebrow. “Good luck, mate,” I said to him jovially, then paused. Aren’t parents supposed to address Santa with more respect? Maybe I should have given a little bow? This was all too casual.

He didn’t react at all, grey eyes piercing through white eyebrows. No “Ho-Ho-Ho, and what do you want for Christmas, little girl?” The beard bore no sign of join or adhesive, and the round face attached to it looked a thousand years old. He looked like a man who’d been glued to his seat since Thanksgiving, despite repeated calls to his agent that he should be back on some nice Hollywood film set.

“Izzy, this is Santa”, I said more slowly, “ and you’re going to see quite a lot of him in your life.” Then I asked, “Should I put her on your lap?”

I stopped myself. Oh God, perhaps they aren’t allowed to do that anymore. I didn’t want to get Santa arrested for indecency. Santa’s right hand, resting on his giant thigh, twitched a weary finger towards his knee.

As I handed her over, Izzy’s eyes opened in surprise. Then she turned and looked at me as if I was completely mad.
The mouth opened, the eyes welled up, and five seconds later a scream blew the doors off Santa’s Village shattering several baubles on the giant Christmas tree. If looks could speak, it would have been “You’re Kidding Me – Get Me Off This Man Right Now!”

“Oh my goodness”, said the photographer through the din. “Told you so”, wailed the three-year-old to her Mom. “Maybe next year”, I apologized to Santa. “Maybe not”, I thought I heard him mutter through the beard.

Happy Christmas, everyone.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Travels with Izzy - Part One

The flight attendant was trying to smile and chose her words very carefully: “She’s a very energetic child, isn’t she?”. British Airways staff are trained to be polite.

Izzy was giggling ecstatically as she ran up and down the aisles of the jumbo jet. We were 6 hours into the flight and only halfway to LA. We’d tried reasoning, remonstrating, restraining. Izzy, two years old next month, gave us an ultimatum: we could have either running or screaming. We opted for the running, even if it meant we had to dash behind her, grabbing the belt of her jeans when she threatened to leap on top of one of the slumbering geriatrics, gently snoring away their free champagne.

Sienna Miller was next door in First Class. As Izzy ran towards the curtain, I yanked her back to avoid a celebrity incident.

There are two types of air passengers: those who find an energetic two-year-old cute, and normal people. These were the ones who were looking out of the window, gazing down at the snows of Greenland and somehow wishing the annoying kid would end up with the reindeer 35,000 feet below.

Eventually Izzy discovered the stairs to the upper deck. On the 24th ascent the upper deck stewardess took pity on us. She took the child on a tour of the entire plane, so tiring her out that Izzy finally slept until the lights of Las Vegas signaled our descent.

I used to think I was experienced at international travel. As a high-flying executive, I was occasionally allowed to go first class. I once slept next to Prince Edward – we looked very sweet together, side by side in our blue British Airways pyjamas.

Although I crossed the Atlantic every two weeks, I could never disguise the thrill when they brought round the champagne: I’ve never been able to turn down a free meal. As a result I still say yes to everything: wine, chicken curry, raspberry mousse, the dainty sandwiches and the chocolate bars. Consequently I tend to fall sleep whenever I’m not eating or drinking. It infuriates Jo, who says she may as well be travelling alone.

Not so yesterday. There was scarcely time to butter a bread roll, let alone take a nap. Travelling with a child is the most exhausting experience. No wonder the seriously rich travel alone up front, dumping their offspring with nannies in the back.

I do want to say a personal thank you to two lovely people called Angela and James, who work for Swissport at Newcastle Airport. Without them, we wouldn’t be in 75 degree LA, but stuck in melting Northumberland. They avoided a potential disaster at check-in. I’d booked our tickets many months ago, long before we decided to legitimize Jo by changing her American passport into her married name. So Mrs Gutteridge arrived at the airport bearing Miss Pine’s ticket. Computer said no way, and meant it.

Normally it takes hours or days to organize a name change. The lovely Angela did it in a few fraught minutes and James organised for us to be transported straight to the gate just as it was closing. I can’t tell you how grateful the passengers on flight BA279 must have been that they succeeded in getting us there on time, thereby allowing Izzy to join them on their flight yesterday morning.

I also feel I should issue a dire warning to Sienna Miller, and any other celebrities who may have inadvertently booked themselves on the same plane as us back to London. Having amassed a load of soon-to-expire air miles, I’ve decided to blow the lot on first class tickets for our return. It’ll be a rare treat for us, but I suspect less pleasurable for anybody who’s forked out the full price of £7,000 per ticket. So, however famous you are, I advise you grit your teeth and downgrade to economy. That is, unless you enjoy listening to The Wheels On The Bus for eleven solid hours.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Snow Joke

That’s quite enough, thank you; it’s beyond a joke now.

I originally thought this cold snap (what a misnomer – if a snap is what you find in a cracker, this is small nuclear explosion) was Mother Nature’s little taunt at Patrick, our producer. As if to tempt fate, he’d written these opening lines for a film we were supposed to be shooting this week: “A little girl wanders into a dark, mysterious wood. It’s the end of autumn and the trees are still sprinkled with brown leaves. Running through a deep leafy carpet, she tries to catch them as they float gently to the ground.”

We thought we’d timed it perfectly: not too soon, so there’d be plenty of leaves, yet not too late or we’d risk the January snows. We found an ideal location, booked the crew, cranes, dollies and location catering and cast a 12-year-old girl from scores of hopeful candidates. What could possibly go wrong?

I passed our chosen wood yesterday morning on my way to the airport. Not a leaf to be seen: they’re all mulched away under the snowdrifts. Instead of the dry brown carpet, it now has a shiny white floor like a television studio. You could expect Harry Hill to emerge from behind the trees with a broad grin, a couple of dancing girls and a cheeky Happy Christmas.

We’ve postponed, of course. Patrick has rewritten: “A teenage girl wanders into a wood, carpeted with daffodils.” Sadly it doesn’t have quite the same resonance.

If this weather has affected one film project, I can’t begin to imagine how disastrous it’s been to other industries in the region. On Saturday night I braved the black ice to visit my favourite Newcastle restaurant, Rasa. It was nearly empty: absolutely unheard of for a place that serves by far the best Indian food outside London. Save for a couple of frozen buskers and some semi-naked hens, the Quayside was virtually deserted. If the northeast had a mayor, he’d have declared a state of emergency.

Yet, despite the problems, I’m amazed by how calmly we’ve taken it. Despite the most unpleasant weather in memory, everything has kind of worked. There’ve been no food shortages or panic buying, all our main roads have been kept remarkably clear, trains and planes have got us in and out, and neighbourliness has smiled its way through the crisis. Rasa even managed to get its spectacular kingfish flown in from Kerala.

Sure, we’ve had no post – our icy farm track would have swallowed up the postman’s little red van – but when I eventually made it to the sorting office, our postman had it all organized. He came out with a broad smile and a large box containing the mail for our hamlet, which I then distributed like Santa to the grateful community. This weather brings out the best in northerners, and the worst in our southern compatriots.

Judging by the national headlines, you’d have thought the world had ended when a smidgeon of snow finally fell on the south earlier in the week. The Transport Secretary ordered an enquiry into travel disruption: apparently London was late to work. Yesterday I flew south to see for myself. The sun was warm, the snow completely gone. Almost everyone was wearing designer Ugg boots as they lumbered down de-iced designer streets. People spoke of Kent and Northumberland as distant heathen lands.

I drove comfortably into Berkshire and Wiltshire: there were crashed cars on the M4 every few miles, yet there wasn’t enough snow on the ground to ice a Frappuccino. The woods were amazing, sprinkled with brown leaves and golden carpets of… Hang on a minute: perhaps we should relocate our movie down there?