Sunday, January 29, 2012

When an Irresistible Birthday meets an Immovable Waistline

I do hope this wretched week crawls by. In fact, I’ll be quite happy if Thursday doesn’t bother turning up at all. I’d like it to be Wednesday 1st February for quite a few years – until my brain has caught up with my age, that is. For on Thursday I’m due to reach the terrible milestone that marks the beginning of my sixties.

Why on earth do we pretend to celebrate big birthdays? They take years off your life. On my 40th, I took over a Russian restaurant in Chelsea and about 100 friends and I sampled every one of the 76 vodkas in the bar. I don’t remember a lot about what followed. Apparently we all decamped to my flat at four in the morning. I woke up at midday to find that my friend Rowland Rivron had spilt black coffee all over the white shagpile carpet and upended every item of furniture, including the wardrobes and the grand piano. It took me a week to recover; the carpet never did.

My 50th was rather less wild but just as exhausting. Having discovered a talent for cooking, I decided to cater my own dinner party for 100 friends and family. It was a complicated four-course meal, so I spent most of the evening in the kitchen searing scallops. It was stressful beyond belief. Rowland was there again: but by now he was married with children, so he simply made a rude speech about how ancient I’d become. Time tempers the wildest spirit.

I read somewhere that having another child in your fifties makes you feel younger. Sure, I’ve rediscovered the joys of jigsaws, and I can recite whole episodes of Peppa Pig, but since Izzy arrived, I can’t say it’s been exactly rejuvenating. Constant toddler-carrying hasn’t removed my middle-aged spread, instead it’s given me a permanent twinge that feels suspiciously like a need for a hip replacement.

Two parcels arrived this morning and I groaned: people are already remembering the event I’m determined to ignore. The first was from my eldest daughter, with strict instructions not to open till “the big day”. Of course I immediately tore it open.

Inside was a book called The 4-Hour Work Week: How to Escape the 9-5 and Join the New Rich. It’s a best-seller, apparently – no wonder the author can enjoy a 4-Hour Work Week. I immediately resolved to write a book called Do No Work At All And Make A Million. Chapter One: Write book called Do No Work At All And Make A Million. Chapter Two: Wait for royalty cheques and put your feet up.

The second package turned out to be three small jars of pills, sent to me by a very nice chap I met on holiday. He’s a doctor: well he has a medical degree and he’s using the qualification to make himself a fortune. He’s invented some new diet pill formula that’s getting people excited in America. Of course, I offered to test it for him: if you’d seen me on the beach in St Lucia, you’ll know why. Talk about scaring the locals.

It’s called RealDose Weight Loss Formula No 1 and the label says it has ingredients clinically proven to “Accelerate fat burning, Reduce appetite, Increase energy and stamina and Enhance mood”. Now we’re talking.

In truth, there’s a tiny asterisk next to each claim that leads to some small print warning that “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.” Well, they’re about to be evaluated by me.

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog called “Bringing Me Down to Size” and lost 20 pounds in 64 days. I’m resurrecting this blog immediately to test out my new friend’s formula: you can follow my progress on I wonder if it can make me lose ten years by Thursday?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Stories from St Lucia: 1 - In The Footprints of Amy

The last thing we expected to find in our Caribbean holiday resort was a celebrity ghost.

We chose this place because it’s laid back and not remotely starry, though remote it most certainly is, and in this most northerly bay of St Lucia, the stars are so bright in the ink-black night you could almost touch them. But Cotton Bay Village, where we’ve come to escape the January cold, is nothing like the spa-laden hotels on the other side of the island. They lie on the west coast, protected from the Atlantic’s roar and the screams of toddlers; ours faces east, where it’s cooler and less manicured, making it infinitely more child friendly.

Which makes it an unlikely venue for Amy Winehouse, enfant terrible and childlike genius, who chose it as her refuge from the pain of her troubled last years.

Amy's (Wine)house

The villa she rented stands opposite ours. Right now we use her housekeeper, eat in the same little beach bar, stroke the same stray dogs and ride the horses she rode along the unspoiled beach.

We've befriended some of her neighbours, who paint a picture of a lifestyle far removed from one we were fed by some of our tabloid newspapers.

This place has none of the opulent seclusion of a typical rock star retreat. Izzy toddles up to all the other three-year-olds with a bold “What’s Your Name?” and then noisily fills and empties buckets with them in the toddler pool, their screams echoing round the villas and apartments.

Quite why the tattooed singer chose here, I don’t know, but by all accounts she is greatly missed. She had been scheduled to return just a week or so after her untimely death: her house was prepared and the staff were looking forward to seeing her. There are pictures of her in the restaurant and fond memories flow from everyone you meet.

Locals say the image of a permanently intoxicated, incoherent diva was simply wrong. Sure, she would hang in the shade of the tiny bar along the beach, but the owner, Majorie, a fiercely strong woman whose family has owned the collection of wooden shacks for the last 22 years, tells me proudly she never let Amy get drunk on her premises. "I kept my promise to her Father.  I always made her eat before she drank", she says.  Amy called her "Momma".

Jo meets "Momma" Majorie

Majorie's Shrimps with "Ground Provisions"
And such good food: succulent curried prawns, saltfish cakes and spicy creole chicken.

“She was never any trouble”, say Amy’s next-door neighbours, a retired English couple who spend three months every year in this sun-kissed hideaway.

“She was sweet, and very quiet”, says Melissa, our cleaner, wiping away a tear. “She’d sit like a child for hours with crayons and paper just drawing, like Izzy does. She always had nice words for me, although sometimes, when she drank, she went cuckoo”, she added. “What happened then?” I asked. “A few things got broken – nothing serious”.

One day Amy brought in a basket of tiny puppies from the beach. I can understand why. It was all I could do to dissuade Jo from popping one of their cousins, a friendly mutt with the sweetest eyes, into her own suitcase. But six untrained puppies would be a bit too much for the most tolerant housekeeper. “The fleas went everywhere so we banned them”, said Melissa.

Amy’s generosity was legendary. In Majorie’s, a man with eyes as dark as the rum and coke in front of him, sits wearing headphones. When I ask him what he’s listening to, he pops them over my ears. “I wish I could sing no regrets and no emotional debts”, Amy was chanting.

"Amy Winehouse Saved My Life"
“She saved my life,” he says. “She paid for my hernia operation. She was a saint”. Behind him, the Atlantic rollers accompany the lyrics: “So we are history, the shadow covers me, The sky above, a blaze that only lovers see.”

Sure, Amy Winehouse may have faced her demons with alcohol: but I think I can now understand why her favourite drug was this charming, impoverished island. It’s simple but bewitching, and about as far removed from cold, dark reality as you could possibly get.       
Oh dear, back to the real world next week.   

[With grateful thanks to the St Lucia Tourist Board]

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy Holidays

Nobody says Happy Christmas anymore in the United States. Instead they’ve cleverly swept up Christmas, Boxing Day, Hanukkah and New Year into a generic and optimistic “Happy Holidays”.

What a misnomer: how could this time of year ever be described as a holiday? The word holds the promise of chestnuts and roaring fires, Santa and smiles; it suggests rejuvenation and reconciliation, the comfort and happy familiarity of close family; it conjures up images of carol singers and giant reindeer and polar bears lit up on neighbours’ homes, the scent of mulled wine and free mince pies in large, welcoming department stores. “Holiday” means grannies will be smiling as giggling children tear open their beautifully wrapped presents and scream with delight at thoughtful wooden toys and hand-knitted jumpers. Holiday is a time without dissent, politics or strife.

They’ve obviously never spent Christmas in our household. This year my wife actually got things incredibly well organised, and did most of the Christmas shopping in October. Despite this, we still managed to spend an entire December week stuck in traffic jams in Newcastle’s absurd “no car” driving lanes, and queuing in even longer lines for department store checkouts, with Izzy screaming for attention and home.

In our final few days of panic-buying, we turned to the internet for help, and consequently spent hours waiting in for courier companies to honour guaranteed next-day delivery, then more hours driving through industrial estates looking for courier company warehouses after their drivers put “sorry you were out” cards through our neighbour’s door.

Fearing a champagne drought, we carefully emptied all the local supermarket’s shelves of its half-price bottles, yet today, New Year’s Day, our wine rack is completely empty, and we still have a houseful of people. I’ve been scrambling hangover-curing eggs at the rate of two-dozen a morning. That’s over 300 broken eggshells since Christmas Eve.

The best thing about American holidays is that they are mercifully short. People work on Christmas Eve, Santa arrives on time, and everyone is safely back in the office by Boxing Day. Our celebrations started on the 21st, my eldest daugher’s birthday (“Just a few close friends, Dad, and I’m sure they’ll all bring sleeping bags”), and we still have a houseful of cousins. For two weeks we haven’t seen our sitting room floor for the piles of wrapping paper, bows and discarded cardboard. Our nice new sofa has been introduced to various vintages of red wine.

We had turkey, brisket (my wife is Jewish, so we celebrate Hanukkah as well as Christmas), roast lamb for 14 and giant stews for 30, and I’ve personally consumed so much chocolate I swear I’ve turned completely spherical. So far no one has ended in casualty, though at 3am on Christmas morning Izzy woke up and announced she was about to be sick. Her prediction proved completely accurate, so, instead of a present-filled stocking, Santa had to bring her clean sheets and pyjamas. Three times.

I can’t wait for Wednesday and the excitement of sending emails from my nice quiet office. So what did you get for Christmas? my team will ask. I will proudly point to my new watch, a perfectly timed gift from my wife. I will tell of a lovely book about Northumbrian gardens, a most thoughtful offering from my Mum. I will mention various useful gadgets for my kitchen and my own garden, without which I can’t imagine how I’ve survived the last few years.

However, I will certainly not refer to the Borat mankini, given to me as a joke by my nieces. They have dared me to wear it next week and send them a photo. Even without the effects of the chocolate I wouldn’t be seen dead in it. For next week this spherical columnist will be on the other side of the world, basking on a sun-kissed beach. I’m taking a holiday to recover from the holidays. And, boy do I need it.

Happy New Year, everyone.