Sunday, February 27, 2011

Friends In Need

Hayley Westenra has one of the purest voices on the planet. I’d never heard her sing until this morning, when a friend posted a recording on Facebook. Ten minutes later Izzy toddled into my office and found me blubbering over my computer screen: she had to lend me her precious Peppa Pig to calm me down.

The friend who posted the link is a New Zealander, and the song was Hine e Hine, a Maori lullaby recorded when Hayley was just 16: the CD became the fastest selling debut classical album of all time. She comes from Christchurch and, at the age of 12, was discovered by CTV, the local television station. It’s the same station which, right now, is just a huge pile of rubble concealing the bodies of scores of victims. Among them is Donna Manning, one of the station’s presenters and producers.
The world’s front pages pictured her distraught husband and two teenage children as they waited for news beside the debris until the police came and told them there was no hope. It’s one of many tragic images of that terrible catastrophe.

One can’t begin to imagine New Zealand’s pain: one of the gentlest places on earth, caught by a disaster sudden, horrific and unfair.

It’s one of the few countries where I could happily live. A few years ago I was invited to the country to give a speech. Fearing chronic jetlag from the journey, and because I doubted I would ever return, I arrived a week or two early and planned to spend some time exploring South Island on my own. No words could adequately describe the scenery – I’ve seen nowhere on earth to match it – but it was the beauty of the people that overwhelmed me. After a 13-hour flight from Los Angeles I arrived at my hotel in Queenstown to find an unsigned note on the bedside table: “Welcome, Tom, please come to Joe’s Garage at 9am tomorrow morning.”

I went out of curiosity and found a coffee shop where, sitting at a long table with one spare seat, were eight or nine complete strangers. They were local producers, who had heard I was in their country and simply wanted to welcome me. Outside was a Land Rover to take me into the mountains to see the locations they’d used for Lord of the Rings. They’d arranged parties and dinners in their homes: and yet they didn’t know me from Adam. New Zealand is a country where, if you stop to ask a stranger for directions, he’ll invite you into his house for lunch and remain your friend for life.

Kiwis are rightly proud of their homeland and fiercely protective of its history and traditions. There is no class structure: people don’t have large houses, because wealth and social status means nothing to them. Hospitality and good health, friendship and loyalty, imagination and creativity are paramount. I spent the most relaxing week – the empty roads and simple charm of an old-fashioned lifestyle reminded me of the best of Northumberland. At one point I actually rang Jo and suggested we up sticks from Los Angeles and move there. Instead we relocated to the North East: it’s not as beautiful but just as friendly.

Bordered in the West by the snowy peaks of the Southern Alps, and on the east by the ocean, Christchurch is a proud and historic city: green and fresh, sophisticated and lush.

Friends I’d met out there have sent me videos of the devastation. There are chaotic scenes inside apartments as the earthquake struck; footage taken moments later of rescuers rummaging through bricks. But through it all, a strange calm.
These lovely people simply didn’t deserve this.

Our news reports have already moved onto the next big headline, but we mustn’t leave the Kiwis on their own. They need our friendship now.

Monday, February 21, 2011

In Praise of Real People

Despite living through nine whole decades of change, Mum actually resides in about 1956.

She’d still be using half-crowns if they’d accept them at the post office and her idea of recycling is to keep absolutely everything in case it comes in handy again.
She likes her milk in glass bottles, refuses to use a food processor, won’t forgive the French for boycotting us during mad cow disease and berates the television for putting background music on art documentaries.

“Just let the paintings speak, and stop covering them with all that terrible noise”, she moans, adding: “These young producers today know nothing about art”. For a quiet life, you either accept what she says, or swiftly change the subject.

It was her 90th birthday this week. Jo and I threw her a surprise party, complete with magician. She arrived in a beautiful silk outfit, looking decades younger than her years, expecting to be taken out for pizza with her grandchildren, only to be greeted by half her village shouting “Surprise”. She was astonished that so many people liked her: in truth, she is universally admired, and deserves to be.

Mum’s a marvel. She helped develop aero engines for fighter planes in the war and, in the 1950s, when few women went to work at all, became general manager of a large food manufacturer. After moving to Tyneside she devoted her time to the public good, teaching disabled people and war veterans how to build and craft new lives, then later ran a national charity for teachers of the disabled. Through it all, she managed to bring up me.

She still loves to teach children craftwork, and paints excellent portraits. She is more deserving of an OBE than anyone I know; yet she’d be the first to admit that her worldly experience doesn’t equip her for 21st century technology. More than a year ago I gave her a smart new laptop, but techno-fear prevents her getting beyond the ‘on’ switch. “Oh, please show me again, dear”, she wails, convinced that if she presses one wrong button she’d fuse all the lights.

I think this rejection of the modern age has contributed to her longevity: she does everything for herself, and her brain is razor sharp. She grows her own vegetables, and can do mental arithmetic faster than I could at school, certainly quicker than I can use a calculator. She still drives herself to town and can spot a bargain at a thousand paces. She is, in short, a nonagenarian phenomenon.

She stubbornly refuses to use an ATM, believing you should always deal with a real person. The other week she was in town with my cousin and saw a big “Lloyds Bank” sign above one of those cashpoint-only facilities. She strode up to it and started pushing at the wall around the machines. “I can’t find the door”, she said, and then started to berate the machines themselves. “You’re supposed to be a bank: where are your people?” she shouted into a slot, then started bashing the wall with her walking stick until my cousin led her away for a calming cup of coffee.

She would like Tanzania: apparently they have real people inside their ATMs. On holiday there last month, my eldest son popped his card into a machine, which welcomed him to the facility, politely asked for his pin, and then made all the right whirring noises. Except that no money came out of the slot. After a few seconds he heard a deep voice calling from inside the machine: “I am sorry, Sir, I have run out of cash. I will promptly put the money back in your account.” Yeah, right.

“Silly boy,” said Mum, when he told his Granny the story. “I told you not to trust those stupid machines.” She was right, of course. Mum always is.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Why Men Are So Unromantic

The problem with men is that they are always romantic on the wrong day. This sour wisdom stems not from me, but my wife.

Apparently women are happy to take our chocolates and flowers on Valentine’s Day, if that’s all that’s on offer, but these are scant substitutes for affection and attention on all the other 364 days of the year. Men (which means one man in particular – me) don’t have a clue how to pull off that trick.

Jo reckons my idea of romance is rushing round to Thorntons in a last-minute pre-Valentines panic to buy a chocolate-covered glow of self-satisfaction. She’s wrong, of course: you can order online now.

But hang on a minute: this isn’t fair. Don’t women realize how hard it is for men to be romantic? Everything we’ve been taught, from books to movies, is about how to get hold of love. We’ve never been told what to do with it when it’s in our hands.

In literature, love stories are never about two happily married people, unless one of them is dying or going mad. They tell of loves lost, sought, or unrequited. On the very last page, there might be a blissful union, but it’s the page after that which is missing: what happens when the wedding bells stop ringing?

Proust, a typically unromantic male, wrote: “we love only what we do not wholly possess”. We men are great at romance when we’re wooing. We’ll jump on planes in the middle of the night, ship truckloads of roses to your door and would gladly buy you a diamond mine just to make you smile. But the moment you reciprocate, and take away our insecurity and pain by actually falling in love with us and allowing us to spend our lives with you, then we’re lost. Nobody has issued us with the service guide to this part of the relationship. We assume that marriage comes with a lifetime guarantee; we even believe the claim that “love is forever”, when, actually, love is just the start.

Barbara Cartland, the Queen of Romance, was once a guest on a show I was producing. Her face hidden behind a mask of false eyelashes and crimson blusher, I recall her insistence on what she called her “special light”, a large white lightbulb on the studio floor whose function was to smooth out her wrinkles, a feat that no lamp invented could have achieved. She spoke about ideal love in her hundreds of formulaic novels, all with heroines searching for the perfect hero who knows how to be romantic for the rest of her life.

I’m convinced no such man has ever been born.

Ms Cartland gave me the idea for a television series called The Library Of Romance. We commissioned a load of wannabe romantic novelists to write us the most awful stories and filmed student actors camping up scenes laden with soft filters. Awash with slushy music, the ghastly concoction became an enormous hit with daytime viewers. I heard it was particularly popular with gay men and students. It had no connection with reality whatsoever, perhaps because it was produced by a team of unromantic men.

I’ve learned a few rules about married love so far. I know it’s about acceptance and trust; about sharing and even offloading your problems; it’s about not getting upset when she disagrees with you; and never cutting your toenails just before she takes a bath. Women are like puppy dogs: give them regular hugs and they’ll stay with you forever and lick you to death.

About one thing I’m absolutely certain: being loved by someone as incredibly special as my wife is a precious commodity, worth more than all the chocolates and diamonds in the world. It has to be continually earned and nurtured. I’m trying. Happy Valentine’s Day, darling.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Goodbye Tiger, Welcome Rabbit

It’s all right: everything’s going to be nice and gentle now. The nightmare of the last few years, the rollercoaster ride of catastrophe, recession and chaos is over: life will be calmer.

Apparently the new age began last Thursday. A friend of mine, who is a respected professor of art, so really ought to know better than to spout this mumbo-jumbo, confidently assured me that the Chinese New Year has brought us the end of the tiger’s rage and replaced it with the peace of the rabbit.

I’m not convinced about that. Sure, just as Beijing was waking up to its new year, my company did finally receive a long-awaited order, which calmed down my bank manager no end. And the people of Egypt must feel they are entering a new, less turbulent time.

But on Saturday, as I sat in my seat at St James’ Park and watched my team being torn apart by the unsparing might of Arsenal, I decided it was all nonsense. Four goals down after half an hour, it was more ritual slaughter than football match. Year of the rabbit? – pah, I thought: without Carroll or Ameobi we’re on our way down the slippery path to relegation. Devastated, I couldn’t take any more, and left the stadium at half time.

Instead I went into John Lewis and bought my wife a calming candle: “Peace”, it said on the box. I planned to go home, light it and, with the scent of lime and tangerine all around me, watch a movie with my daughter on my lap and a large gin and tonic in my hand.

On my way out of the shopping centre, I heard the roar from the stadium. You could have heard it in Beijing. Newcastle had broken all records and squared the match. It was the game of the century, and I had missed it. Our team had, like the rabbits in my garden, bounced back.

Of course, I shouldn’t have been so intolerant or impetuous. But I can’t help myself because, according to my professor friend, I’m a dragon, and that’s what dragons are like. Never mind, she told me, next year is going to be all mine.

I’ve never been one to believe in astrology, Chinese or otherwise. But those who do are pretty convincing. “Think back over your life”, she said. “Next February you will be 60, and, because you are a dragon, whose year comes round every 12, 2012 will be your greatest”.

Yeah, right!, I thought, thinking of the chances of winning the lottery, global warming having some effect on the Northumbrian weather, or Mike Ashley spending a bob or two from his £35million windfall on a decent replacement for Andy Carroll.

But she insisted: “Think back to each of your past five dragon years”. So I did. 1964 was my best year at school. I was optimistic and innocent: I hadn’t yet been exposed to the perils of puberty and girls. 12 years on, in 1976, I became the youngest director in the BBC – I never felt so excited or confident in all my time there. 12 years later, in 1988, after quite a struggle to gain traction, my new production company got an enormous commission that raised us to the next level. It wasn’t a completely smooth ride after that but, exactly 12 years later I sold the company and paid off my mortgage.

That was in 2000. Professionally, the last few years have been, to say the least, tortuous, and frustrating. I’m grateful that the rabbit will bring us all tranquility. But, if my friend is correct, I can’t wait for it to be turned into a nice tasty pie and be replaced by the roar of the dragon. I have another mortgage to pay off now: roll on February 2012.