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Week 4: Seville and chill

To say that Spain is rather beautiful is something of an understatement. Our lazy cross-country journey this week has taken us past miles upon miles of olive groves, blanketing the gentle rolling hills like a patchwork quilt. A breakfast stop at an olive oil factory resulted in cupboardfuls of bottles of grass-green nectar (plus a fridge magnet) and full bellies from the enormous hunks of tostada and iberico jamon. Once out of olive country we meandered past fields of cotton and then orchards of orange trees.

Having experienced one of the most jaw-dropping sunsets I’ve ever seen, we pitched up at Dos Hermanas (two sisters, don’t know whose) for a few days, to relax, recharge (both ourselves and the van’s batteries) and, most importantly, do some laundry. I was delighted to find the pool still open and it was very much needed as the thermometer crept up to 33 degrees.

We chose this campsite as it’s a short bus ride from Seville, a city we’ve been looking forward to visiting. Starting off at Plaza de España, we gaped in wonder at the stunning architecture, the porcelain balustrades, mosaiced cobblestones, the ornate tiled benches and the rainbow-casting fountain in the centre. Huge coy carp swam lazily through the crystal clear waterway, on which you could hire a rowboat if you didn’t feel like you might burst into flame at any given moment. A tireless flamenco dancer strutted on a balcony, his wooden heels competing with the Spanish guitar nearby. Glorious.

We then walked past the Real Alcazar (the city’s royal palace) and started to wend our way through tiny streets hosting restaurants, bars, souvenir shops and art galleries. You don’t get through this city quickly. On every corner and in each of the numerous piazzas and squares is another delicious tapas bar or shop selling some delight such as nougat, artisan chocolate, pastries or other tempting treat. As has become our habit, we also had to frequent most of the tat shops to stock up on fridge magnets and postcards. I was disappointed not to find a matador’s costume for my nephew, but I shall continue to look.

Despite not getting very far we managed to walk a solid 15,000 steps, according to Samsung Health, a number that caused Ben to turn quite ashen, but we made up for it the next day by barely moving from the poolside/chairs, our most strenuous effort being to keep my laptop out of the sun, string up a few fairy lights and slap away a few flies.

From Seville we took the motorway south to the coast, headed for friends in Sotogrande. We’re currently parked up in their driveway, atop a steep hill that overlooks the Rock of Gibraltar and, in the distance, Africa. It’s a stunning view, and much less built up than the north coast. Yesterday I had my first proper sea swim (warm and wavy!) and ended the day collecting seashells on the beach before a delicious dinner. This week we’ll be heading into Portugal and will be very sorry to say Adios to this wonderful country, even if just for a couple of weeks.

Week 3: Into the mountains

I could totally get used to this climate. Day after day of sunshine, as consistent as the last. And if it’s a bit overcast today, don’t worry – mañana, it will be hot and sunny again. It’s the knowledge that it will be lovely again tomorrow that chills us out, I think. In the UK, the summer generally consists of three scorching days, generally mid-week, followed by rain and leaden skies for a fortnight, followed by another unexpected bout of sun. It’s why we flock to the coast like gulls and swelter in traffic jams, cos we never know when we’ll get the next opportunity. Here, if you can’t get to the beach this weekend – no worries, try the next. It’s almost guaranteed to be lovely. Perhaps this is the origin of mañana – if not today then tomorrow.

This week, upon leaving the hectic rush that was Barcelona, we headed inland into the mountains and parked up in the tiny back garden of a lovely old guy called Manuel, who had about as much English as we did Spanish (cero). When I tried to pay he just smiled kindly, muttered mañana and shuffled off to tend to his tomatoes. I was delighted.

Heading higher into the hills we expected the temperature to drop but it just kept climbing, even when we reached 3,500 feet. We stopped for the night at an old mining complex, the tracks for the coal wagons now utilised by the local old ladies to walk their evening circuits. And to re-enact a famous scene from Penelope Pitstop.

The next day was a public holiday so we headed into Teruel and spent a lovely lunchtime overlooking the medieval city whilst enjoying some tapas. As the sun set we descended from the mountains into a gorgeous valley where we managed to park up opposite a most picturesque castle perched on the edge of a craggy cliff overlooking the river Cabriel. It was so beautiful I could almost forgive the local council workers who started strimming at 8am.


The next three days were spent in the company of Ben’s aunt and uncle who live in a tiny village in Murcia. We caught up on gossip, put the world to rights and left with clean laundry and very well fed, a real treat.

A quick pitstop at the local IKEA later (which provides free facilities and 72hrs of parking for motorhomes!) we were back on the road, heading inland towards Seville. We’ve only been out here three weeks and have already covered around 1900 miles, so we’re going to take the drive slowly. When might we arrive? Who knows – mañana.

Week 2: Carcassonne to Barcelona

There are worse places in which I could be suffering a mild case of food poisoning, I reflect, as I pray to the porcelain god at two in the morning. For example, I could be at home. There are numerous establishments back in Ely that could have served up a questionable mussel and I wouldn’t have had nearly as much fun eating it as we had in La Boqueria food market in Barcelona yesterday.

I blame the pizzeria. Six years ago, Ben got some work on a super yacht in Barcelona and rented an apartment in Barceloneta, near Port Vell, where the boat was moored. He soon found an excellent restaurant right on the harbour front, which did lovely pizzas and a great vermouth. We were keen to reminisce, so after a light brunch (not light at all – see pic) at the Milk Bar in el Born, another favourite, we hired a couple of electric bikes and set off to find it.

Six years later and the pizzeria has gone, in its place yet another tired paella and tapas joint, and with it our hopes of walking down memory lane. Never mind, we thought – we’ll go up to Las Ramblas, buy some tat (our fridge magnet collection is growing magnificently) and go to Barcelona’s premier indoor food market.

We had a fantastic meal – a tray piled high with squid, mussels, prawns, crayfish, scallops and razor clams – washed down with ice cold cava and served under the mournful eyes of the elastic-banded lobsters primed for that evening’s dinner.

It was absolutely delicious, and reasonably priced, and at no point during the 45 minutes in which we managed to consume the lot did I think we’d have reason to question our life choices. Six hours later, back at the campsite, the lobsters got their revenge.

When your chemical loo is full and you have to run the mosquito gauntlet to the shower block to expel more foreign bodies than Priti Patel has in her entire term of office, you find yourself thinking ‘I really wish I’d just had a pizza’.

Never mind. This week has been a lot of fun. Giving up on ever trying to get into Aigues-Mortes, we travelled inland for a couple of hours and ended up at Carcassonne, parking up in a motorhome park right outside the ramparts. The skies cleared and we had a glorious evening wandering around the ruins (NB: really not all that ruined, feels more like Disneyland, and was apparently extensively restored in 1853, but looks more like a hundred years later) and a taste of cassoulet and gizzards (NB: we’ve got to stop eating weird things). The next day held more rain so we remained in place and I did some work, attempting to position myself on camera at an angle that didn’t invite too many questions. The sun finally reappeared and we were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves charged a comparatively tiny amount for the two nights we had spent at this major tourist attraction (the equivalent of six hours in a carpark in Cambridge).

This country is amazing. Nevertheless, it was time to leave, and so we headed south into Spain and Barcelona. A glorious drive on the edge of the Pyrenees took us to a campsite 30kms north of the city. Not our usual choice but it’s out of season and boasts a pool and surprisingly few children so we’ve spent a lovely few relaxing days, catching up on laundry and work (using the free and remarkably good wifi) before heading into Barcelona itself for a whistle-stop tour and the aforementioned mussel attack.

Barcelona is a fantastic place, fizzing with life and energy and it was great to return, feeling the sun beat down on our backs as we cycled up to the Forum and enjoying a kicky vermouth at the beach bar in Barceloneta. Ben even found time to get his hair done.

Assuming the effects of the food poisoning wear off tomorrow we will be heading over into central Spain where the mercury continues to rise, as my tan lines need better definition and I can surely provide some more Spanish mosquitoes with sustenance. Hasta ahora!

Le grand tour – 2021

I wake to the distant sound of gunfire. It is a still morning, first light. We are somewhere north of Lyon. The wind, which has been buffeting the van all night, has dropped.

Another smattering of shot, much closer range. We have been in France a week now. There are no fuel shortages, the supermarket shelves are fully stocked. No civil unrest as far as we are aware (although we did witness the Union Jack being flown upside down at a port de plaisance the day before, an apt metaphor if ever there was one). What then is this?

Three short bursts at close range wake me fully. Wtf? And then I hear crows cawing, as startled as I am, and the bleat of a goat, and remember we are parked on a “France Passion” goat farm and the noise is merely a bird scarer. It worked.

Seven nights in and we’ve yet to visit a campsite. We’ve “wild camped” (the definition varies – from this remote auberge to a market town square to the curbside of a residential street) three times and spent the remaining nights in marinas or specially created “aires” that provide, often free of charge, all the facilities motorhomers need to merrily wend their way along France’s well-kept and pothole free roads. In return for such hospitality we’ve shopped in the local boulangeries and petits casinos, and stuffed ourselves at the many restaurants en route. Our tourist euros end up directly in the local economy and people are welcoming wherever we go. Considering the disaster zone we left via the channel tunnel last week, this feels truly like a land of lait et miel.

Enough political commentary! It’s been a fantastic first week. 

First stop is Toul, in Lorraine, where we kept our boat for three extraordinarily cold winters a decade ago. Remembering where the marina is proves a little tricky but we follow our noses and find the green gates of 13b Rue de la Champagne (how could I forget that address?) just as it’s getting dark. The marina mostly houses cruisers now but there are still a few “project” boats and it looks busy. We spend the next day wobbling around on our bikes, attempting to find familiar landmarks (the cathedral, the clothes shop I used to love, the vets that saved Sprocket’s life – sadly no longer there). 

A delicious lunch the next day at Le Table au Victor sends us on our way south to see some friends out on their boats in Savoyeux and Saint Jean de Losne. Would love to report on what we got up to but the amount of bottles we had to recycle the next day make it difficult.

Suffice to say – plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose. We learn about both rumtopfs and rumtops and have a brilliant few days together before we head off again south in forty mile winds until reaching said goat farm.

France Passion is an initiative whereby farmers, vineyard owners and the like offer up pitches to motorhomers and campers in the hopes of tempting them with local produce and perhaps a “degustation” (tasting). Sadly, we were too late for either so we leave a note and a promise to come back the next time. Today we head to the coast – the fabled 3.5hr drive offered by the TomTom turns into an eight hour slog down the peage against gale force winds and petrol stations that might be fully stocked but certainly don’t want to take money off anything higher than 3.3metres. We figure it out in the end and finish up at Aigues-Mortes, which is apparently a beautiful medieval city, but has had a 2.5 metre height barrier installed in the recent past, scuppering all attempts to get close.

We are now parked in a windswept carpark where a game of petanque results in damn near losing the jack somewhere near the Mediterranean. I win though.

Tomorrow sees me “back to work”, but still heading south into Spain. As the internet to date is considerably better than in Ely, all bodes well. The weather looks pretty promising too. The van is running beautifully (despite losing the outer part of a window to a strong gust of wind and being left distinctly rattled by running straight over a brick carelessly left on the motorway) and my homme au foyer 😉 is working hard. A bientot until next week.

THanks for visiting!

Tom Hanks has been in the UK for the past week.

Based in London, just 70 miles – or one of my favourite train journeys – away, I can practically smell him (old spice and shoe leather is my best guess but I’m happy to debate this with whomever has their own views on this point).

My modus operandi to get hold of the Hanx has to date included:

  • Attempting to get tickets for the Graham Norton show, on which he appeared – no answer.
  • Applying to humiliate myself on the Red Chair on the same show – no answer.
  • Spending my life savings (about seven pounds) on texts to BBC radio 2, in an attempt to get Zoe Ball to ask him ONE SIMPLE QUESTION – she did not.
  • Endless tweeting and an excruciating 45 minutes of sitting through Heart radio breakfast show to ask the same question – only to find his interview had been pre-recorded and he was likely already halfway across the Atlantic, thanking his lucky stars he has escaped a whole week’s worth of endless press relatively unscathed.

Really, all these feeble efforts at attempting to get in touch are just child’s play, in the wider stalker’s smorgasbord of options.

  • Why have I not camped outside his hotel?
  • Why have I not bombarded his agents and publicists with requests for interviews?
  • Why have I not done anything even remotely restraining-order worthy?

Maybe I’m just too British for this sort of thing. Or maybe (cough) I’m being sensible and professional and going through the correct channels – i.e. googling producers and managers, writing letters of introduction, requesting to pitch – and growing slowly more despondent and drunker each day, like every other writer before me. Yay me!

One thing I have discovered throughout this process is that going on one of these press junkets must be massively tedious and exhausting. I’ve by no means watched, listened to or read all of his press appearances, but from the ones I have, I’ve heard the same anecdotes and stories several times. There are certain things he is allowed to say, and many he is not. He must by now be able to recite the Toy Story 4 synopsis in his sleep, and it appears most of his interviews have been held so early in the morning he really deserves to be. He does it all with good humour and high spirits, but I can’t help but think this isn’t what he signed up to when he first applied to drama school as a kid. Likewise, the reason I started to write a follow up to Big wasn’t to then spend endless tedious hours trying to get his attention.

To date my “Do you know Tom Hanks” social media campaign has not yielded much fruit (or A List actors). What it has done, however, is made me realise how many people are behind my quest, and excited about the potential of the film. I’ve had people I’ve never met, from the other side of the world, wishing me luck; I’ve had friends of friends asking their friends of friends if they have any kind of vague connection; I’ve heard from people on similar quests of their own. It’s given me faith that it’s not a completely crazy idea, and patience that it doesn’t need to happen today (although today would be nice). It’s given me a lovely warm fuzzy feeling that 211 people have gone out of their way to visit and ‘like’ my page in the midst of all the ridiculousness going on in the world – much as I am grateful to Tom Hanks for visiting our crazy isle, I thank you guys more. I shall now unglue myself from social media and Tom Hanks Google alerts to resume my usual position behind my desk, adjusting plot lines and editing typos – a position in which I am much more comfortable. And I hope that Mr Hanks will find some time to do what he does best soon, without the requirement to be endlessly cheerful at 7am. Nobody signs up for that!

It’s a cat’s life

I’m feeling guilty.

When I decided to start blogging again, I wrote down a whole list of topics that I could write about. The boat. My script. Definitely not Brexit. The cats. The car. No more trains.

So today I sat down to write about the cats, thinking “I must have done a load on Sprocket, so these two deserve a bit of screen time”. And then I looked through my entire site and couldn’t find one mention of the furry little bugger. After seventeen years of faithful fluffiness, the Greatest Cat in the World got less mention than Greater Anglia. I am ashamed.

Sprocket left us to go play in the great litter box in the sky last September. We were heartbroken. He was our family, our constant, the one thing that was always there – usually right under our feet.  Ben went out one night to buy a sink and came back with a kitten. At just eight weeks old he was tiny and terrified, and absolutely useless at holding water. We adored him from that first evening, and he became the perfect boat cat. Occasionally he would leap off the deck in the wrong direction and end up in the water; sometimes he didn’t come back when he was called, and on more than one occasion we thoroughly disowned him when he brought live and shrieking baby moorhens home in front of horrified children. But other than these teeny tiny flaws, he was just the best. Always up for a snuggle, especially if you didn’t want one. Brilliant at diverting your attention away from a book or the TV. He had the loudest snore I’ve ever heard emanate from an animal, and in his prime weighed in at over seven kilos. He is missed.

Which is why, approximately three days after he died, I was champing at the bit to go and get another kitten. I couldn’t stand the sight of the space where the cat bowl used to be, and it felt plain wrong to enter the boat without issuing a non-sensical greeting and hearing the thud of little paws racing towards me. A week later we had met and fallen in love with two gorgeous little cats, a brother and sister whom we named Rivet and Ratchet, to continue the mechanical theme.

But what we’d forgotten in our grief-ridden haste was that we were replacing an old, slow, boat-savvy cat with two balls of fluff that had never seen the great outdoors, were barely toilet trained, and moved at approximately ninety-five miles an hour.  They eat like horses and steal anything shiny or fluffy (upon moving the sofa last week we found a magpie-den of Christmas baubles, Rizla packets, bits of string and feathers, all carefully curated by Ratchet). They climb behind the lining and send ornaments flying. Rivet regularly poos on the floor of the back cabin or the saloon, usually in full sight of his pristinely clean and empty litter tray. They’re a friggin’ menace.

Most people by now know my stance on kids. A bit like veganism, it’s fine for other people to do it, but there’s only so many Insta pics of a cauliflower steak that I can admire. I’m pretty satisfied with my level of responsibility – a leaky old boat and an ageing husband (both in need of maintenance) – and prefer to spend my hard-earned cash in nice restaurants and time thinking about pretty shoes than on baby clothes that never get worn and worrying about catchment areas.

Why, then, did we buy two kittens? I’m now constantly buying stuff that doesn’t get used (two cute collars that they freaked out at, food of the wrong shape that doesn’t get touched, the litter tray) and worrying about what brand of worming tablet to use.

To me, now, a catchment area is the 50 square feet directly outside the boat where Ratchet is decimating the local fieldmouse population. I’m googling heights and weights of healthy cats, wondering if Rivet is underweight, overly-long, if his head has stopped growing prematurely and whether his tail should be wagging quite like that. Within two hours of bringing them home they vanished entirely, only to be found at midnight, by me in tears, curled up in a drawer under the bed. We haven’t slept through the night in months, and now the sun comes up earlier the cats find 5am the ideal time to pounce on the bed, play with the noisy toys in the bath, and knock glasses of water over (we now use sippy cups, after two dawn soakings).

In short, kittens are hard work! For beings that sleep for fifteen hours a day, they seem to spend the majority of the remaining 24 hours making a mess and being very loud. But also impossibly adorable and cute, which I guess (begrudgingly) is the same as kids, to a greater or lesser extent.

So, in apology to Sprocket, who never got his name in print, but lingers long in our affectionate memory, this is my humble ode to the joy that is cats, with their toe beans and their warm bellies, their chirrups and their snores, their thunder paws down the deck and their ability to stop whatever it is you are doing to go “awwww, you’re so KER-YOOT” at least seventeen times a day.

I am looking forward to the day that Rivet learns where his poo should go, when I get eight hours sleep in a single stretch, and when I can safely leave a half-eaten sandwich on the table without finding bits of it down the sofa three hours later. But equally, I don’t want those years to rush past too quickly. I need at least seventeen years of cat snuggles to pass before a) going through the heartbreak of saying goodbye, and b) forgetting the hard work that is kitten poo and mice carcasses, and having the urge to do it all again.

A day out at Downton

I’ve never been into period dramas. Maybe it was being subjected to too many Merchant Ivory movies as a child, but the hoity-toity voices and the funny wigs never really appealed. They all seemed to have the same plot; a well-spoken stranger would enter a village full of half-drunk yokels, and before the first advert break there would be an illicit pregnancy, some sort of improbable sub-plot in which a heaving-breasted wench is blackmailed by a butcher, and a bar brawl. By the time the credits rolled, the posh stranger would have wed the village sweetheart, rescuing her from a life of drudgery at the Dog and Duck, and the locals would have gone back to punching one another.

They are always on a Sunday night, and for about three hours, and if you happen to miss an episode, don’t even attempt to try and catch up – the second sister will have died, there will have been another illegitimate baby, and you’ll spend most of the episode wondering why the action now appears to be set in France.

So, no, not a fan. Until…

On a particularly dark night in October last year, when I can only assume I was feeling a bit peaky and couldn’t be bothered to argue, Ben persuaded me to watch an episode of Downton Abbey.

Ben is a Downton fan, and has been for some time. He has a ‘I heart Downton Abbey’ sticker stuck (the wrong way round) in his camper van, and is particularly fond of Mrs Patmore. We watched one episode. Then we watched another. And then we watched the entire six series – all 52 episodes – including deleted scenes and bonus features, cast interviews and documentaries on the making of. I was hooked.

Despite knowing several plot twists ahead of time (having had to comfort Ben upon Matthew’s untimely demise), I was gripped. Maybe because I KNEW Matthew was going to come to a sticky end on a bend in his sporty new motor, it made his and Mary’s all-too-short romance all the sweeter. And because I know Dame Maggie is set to appear in the film (released this September, whoop!), I didn’t have to worry that any time the Countess got a cold there might be a funeral in the offing.

As with Game of Thrones (I’m starting to think I watch too much TV), which started again last week, #DatAbbey has plenty of death, family feuds, and even a fair amount of sex, given the constraints of the period and the Dowager Countess’ steely gaze. It’s highly entertaining, and kept us occupied through a cold, dark winter. And so it was that, upon completing the series and feeling a little lost, we did a bit of Googling and discovered that it is possible to visit the Abbey where the drama is set – or rather, the castle.

Highclere Castle is in Hampshire – an ancient building that has seen much transition, becoming a castle in 1850 – set in 1,000 acres of gorgeous gardens, and home to the Carnarvon family. It’s not owned by the National Trust, and the entry price (plus afternoon tea) is very reasonable – and so with the promise of a jam-and-cream topped scone at the end of the (very!) long drive, off we went, with both mothers in tow (also fans). And it’s amazing. You drive down a very grand, long and sweeping driveway, and glimpse the castle from quite a distance away. It already looks very large and only grows in stature and magnificence as you get closer.

We’d chosen a beautiful sunny day, and the wild flowers were out in force in-between the statuesque and centuries-old cedar of Lebanon trees (the location for the village fete where Edith is cruelly dumped by Sir Anthony Strallan). The folly at the end of the garden (where Anthony Gillingham and Charles Blake both realise they are about to get cruelly dumped by Mary) is another beauty spot, as are the walled and secret gardens where nobody got dumped, presumably because it’s too cramped to walk away in a huff.

But of course the main attraction is the house. Now, I had this wonderful vision of strolling around the rooms in my Lady Mary mask, lolloping on the furniture and taking selfies in the bathrooms. Sadly this is not to be. It was packed with people, photos are not permitted, and not even the real Lady Mary lolloped on anything other than the Turkish attaché (the handy signs throughout the house pinpoint the rooms where other notable characters met their glorious and inglorious ends). I soon got over my disappointment, however, as the house is just stunning. The rooms used in the show are exactly as they were left by the Crawley family when the cameras stopped rolling, with beautiful brocaded armchairs, exquisitely polished tables and chairs, the stately dining room and the leather (leather!) wallpaper in the grand hall. The red-carpeted grand stairs lead up to the bedrooms, dressing rooms and bathrooms of the lords and ladies, as well as the viewing gallery where that strumpet Sarah Bunting got Tom into so much trouble.

Around the back are the stairs leading to the servants’ quarters – sadly, we were not allowed access to these, probably for fear that being in such close proximity to the chambermaids might increase visitors’ blood pressures just a little too much for the village doctor to cope with all at once.

Around a third of the house is open to visitors, with some of the remainder still in use by the family, as well as a good deal closed for restoration. It has over 50 bedrooms (that’s more than Milton Keynes’ IKEA), and countless works of art to keep clean. As in the series, the house was opened to convalescing patients during the Great War, and the family still display the keepsakes from those who recovered there. In the grand cellars below the house lie not racks of wine (at least not in the cellars I found) but replicas of Tutankhamun’s tomb, as the fifth earl of Carnarvon was one of the party that discovered it, in 1922, shortly before dying of blood poisoning. How that storyline, or some variation of it, didn’t make its way into Downton I’ll never know. Maybe it’ll be in the film.

All in all, a grand day out. While we scoffed scones in the tearooms we reflected on the history of the castle and its ancestors, passing the castle from generation to generation. Well no, we didn’t actually, we titted about pretending to be Carson and Mrs Patmore, and tried not to talk in a loud Yorkshire accent. But I’m sure we wouldn’t be the first. The fact the castle was packed on a Wednesday afternoon in April is in no small way down to the fact that a very popular TV series was set in its glorious surroundings, which got me thinking about how other landmarks in need of a bit of money for a leaky roof might follow the same example. Ely cathedral has recently been the setting for The Crown, and Macbeth. Perhaps if an enterprising screenwriter (me?) wrote some sort of clergy-based soap opera, set in a market town in the Fens at the turn of the century, the diocese’s financial troubles would be over forever. Now, who would Maggie play?

The joy of CEX

About a year ago, a friend told me about a show on Netflix (originally the American network, the CW) called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. It sounded a bit out there – a musical comedy about a high-flying lawyer who abandons her successful life to move to the other side of the country for a boy she dated half a lifetime ago. But after she’d shown me a half dozen YouTube clips of the songs in the show, I was hooked. I immediately went home and binge-watched the first two series.

Trust me when I say it’s brilliant. And if you haven’t already accepted and embraced this brilliance into your life, look away now because, spoilers.

I laugh out loud at multiple points in every episode of this show. Even during season three, when it all goes a bit dark, there were moments when I was lolling at songs about anti-depressants and suicide attempts. The show’s creators – Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna – have created a character for every thirty-something woman out there who feels a bit doubtful about her life, her looks, her career. They’ve made a woman (Rebecca Bunch) who every single woman can identify with – for every time you’ve had a bit too much to drink and said something you shouldn’t, or eaten too much and hated yourself, for every time you’ve compared yourself to your prettier, skinnier friend and found yourself wanting, for every time you’ve screwed it up with someone you love.

There are so many blogs about this show that I don’t need to gush about its virtues, or tell you about its plot. But after four series and 61 episodes, which finished a couple of weeks ago, I feel bereft. It’s like losing friends you’ve known a long time, who always make you laugh, and sometimes cry. Rebecca and her bunch of misfits in West Covina, California (which I hope has seen its visitor numbers somersault since the start of this show) have created a world in which women (and men – this is a show watched “reluctantly”, but actually eagerly, by fans’ boyfriends and husbands) have found an unlikely hero, who isn’t a size 8 and aged 25, who ugly-cries and regularly wears hideous outfits to send herself up. She spanxes to the max, gurns and grimaces, and still, at the end of season four, has three hot men lusting after her.

A show written by two women should be this way, of course. Rachel Bloom plays Rebecca, so she has literally created herself, and has spoken about reflecting her own life in her character. I am sure there is plenty of Aline Brosh McKenna in her too, and the creators’ mothers, sisters, friends and colleagues have all undoubtedly lent inspiration for some of the characters we see – from the overbearing Jewish mother to the frenemy from school, from the hopeless boss to the mute communications manager, from the basketball playing priest to the forever-hopeful therapist.

And those are just the supporting characters.  

The real joy of this show though is in the songs. Halfway through a lament on loneliness, a character will suddenly burst into song; to emphasise a love conundrum the set will turn into a Broadway stage. In a way that dialogue just can’t (either because it would be too corny or on the nose), a song can lift the drama to another level, making a moment even funnier, sadder, more beautiful or more insane. The choreography has grown in style and substance over the seasons, and the tunes have sent up every single genre from thrash metal to girly pop, from hip hop to classic musicals. If you have just one ounce of the theatrical in you, you will love every moment of the sheer silliness of it all.

But it also takes on a serious subject. The main theme of Rebecca’s life is, undoubtedly, the (many) men that populate it – but the thread that runs through this complex love story is the relationship she has with herself. From the time she was wounded by her father leaving home, on her eighth birthday, Rebecca has struggled with self-worth and acceptance, which has influenced all of her relationships and the way she sees herself. Mental health is explored throughout all the series, particularly so in season three, when she completely loses control. Despite the title (a “sexist term”, Rebecca points out), it’s never glossed over, nor made light of, and there is so much pathos in some of the darker episodes it actually hurts.

But ultimately, it’s joyous. Whether you agreed with the ending or not (and our Crazy Ex appreciation group – or CEX – on WhatsApp was roundly divided on this issue), it was one hell of a journey. I hope I don’t sound too gushing or sycophantic, but the creators (and their team of writers and songwriters) really nailed this show – it’s the kind of thing I’d love to be part of, and Rachel Bloom really is my ultimate girl crush.

But really, this blog is a love letter to Rebecca – for being an entirely imperfect hero, who ultimately gets everything she ever wanted. BLAM.

Addendum: I actually wrote this blog a couple of weeks ago, since which time Rachel Bloom has announced two live dates in London in June. To say this sent our CEX Whats’app group into a slightly hysterical meltdown would be somewhat of an understatement – the outcome being, we have booked tickets and are in the FOURTH ROW FROM THE FRONT. Rachel, fear us. It’s going to be AMAZING.

No small problem

tom-hanks-big-movie-poster

A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from WordPress. It went like this:

Dear (you-call-yourself-a-) blogger

It’s been three years since you last visited your webpage. This is the third year in a row in which we have taken our payment of $12.99 for hosting a site on which there has been precisely zero activity for 36 months.

What have you been doing all that time, huh?

HUH???

OK, perhaps that wasn’t the exact wording, but I did wonder to myself what I could have spent that precious $39 on, rather than hosting dead air. I should also factor in the Adobe Stock images account I created, of which only three credits were used before the license expired, the remaining 47 still sitting on their shelves, never fulfilling their illustrative purpose.

My last blog was dated 22 April 2016, and it coincides quite neatly with another event. No, my arms didn’t drop off, preventing me from writing, nor did the Brexit referendum render me mute (although I did vow never to blog on the subject). No, I actually started writing. Whilst blogging gave me opportunity to hammer out monthly, sometimes weekly, diatribes about issues large and small (mainly rants about local train companies), it did rather divert my attention from writing anything more meaningful. My two scripts to date remained not-quite-finished, and ideas I had for others stayed in my head (usually for the best).

But in the summer of 2016 I started to write something a bit… bigger.

It started as a joke, written purely to amuse myself, riffing off a favourite film of mine from the 80s. And then it took shape, and people liked the idea, and I saw a comment on a social media post which inspired me to carry on.

“What if Tom Hanks wished himself small on the ZOLTAR machine? I would totally watch a film about that.”

Well yes, so would I. Because I was writing one.

The premise is this:

Tom Hanks, super successful and respected A-Lister, is sick of his life. His movies have become humdrum, he’s getting a little slower and a little greyer, and he thinks fondly back to the days when he was a struggling actor, trying to land a great role. One night when a little drunk, he stumbles upon the ZOLTAR machine from the movie BIG, and accidentally wishes himself SMALL. Waking up the next day as a fifteen-year-old kid, he panics and runs away. He must then spend the rest of the movie trying to get himself big again, without anyone finding out.

Over the course of the next 18 months or so, I wrote this script, sitting at my desk on an almost nightly basis “doing Small”. Writing scenes, editing others, coming up with daft ideas, and replacing them with better ones. In November 2016 I met a woman called Arlene online, a screenwriter and script consultant working in LA, who read the first act of Small and got super-excited about the idea. Together, we’ve created a 112-page script of which I’m hugely proud.

But now what? We’ve written a role in a movie that can only be played by one person in the world. Literally one. And he’s not getting any younger! Consider that I spent all of 2016 writing this script, interrupted on an almost daily basis by headlines revealing the latest celebrity who had died. I spent that year in a state of perennial anxiety, convinced that either a) some other bugger would come up with my idea first, or b) Hanks would cark it.

And this fear wasn’t totally unfounded, either. One of the reasons Arlene was so excited about the script was because she had an ‘in’ to Tom. Years ago she worked for Penny Marshall, the director of Big, and still kept in touch with a colleague very close to her. Our idea was to get it to Penny, who could then pass it to Tom.

Very sadly, Penny passed away in December 2018, a few weeks after being sent the script. Whether she ever read it I won’t know (nor will I accept any responsibility!). But her untimely death did rather kill our dreams of getting it to Tom via a recommendation, which as everyone in Hollywood will tell you, is the best (usually, only) way of getting your script read.

We’ve not given up hope of course. At the last screenwriting festival I went to I shamelessly wore a t-shirt asking “Do you know Tom Hanks?” on the off-chance I might find someone who could give me an introduction. Arlene knows many other people in LA who might be able to pass it along. I like all of Tom’s social media posts, and have even bought one of his son’s handkerchiefs (a Hanks Kerchief – how brilliant is that?) in an effort to endear myself to his wider family. My level of stalking the Hankses knows no bounds and he should probably feel grateful I’m on a different continent.

So, my return to the world of blogging is basically a cynical ploy to find myself a way to the Big Man himself. It doesn’t score highly on the “Ways to get Tom Hanks in your movie” Venn diagram – but it is on there, along with Instagramming missing socks and becoming an expert on typewriters. It’s cheaper than a flight to LA in order to sit outside the Playtone offices until he shows up (also on the diagram) and considerably less illegal than some of the other suggestions I’ve since rubbed out.

If you can help me with my small, yet big, problem, I’d be very grateful. There have been so many remakes and sequels to ‘80s movies lately (not to mention a very recent film called Little) that my fear will no doubt be founded and some other bugger will do it sooner or later. Let that bugger be me!

Fly me a-quiver

Regular readers of my blog will know that I get a fair amount of material out of criticising the UK’s public transport system. All four of you will also, by now, have realised that I quite enjoy moaning about things in general, so it may come as quite a shock to read this particular post, which will be both upbeat in tone, AND complimentary about a certain British transport company. General humanity will reel in their seats when they discover the company I’m talking about is Ryan Air.

Have I taken leave of my senses? Part of the experience of taking a Ryan Air flight is to then moan about the experience of taking a Ryan Air flight, advising everyone you ever known never to take a Ryan Air flight ever again, until of course you take another Ryan Air flight. It has always been this way.

 

But, over the course of the past six months, I’ve developed a… fondness, shall we say, for this no-frills, no-thrills (please, no thrills) budget airline, which has freighted (and frightened) me a total of twelve successful* journeys in the last half-year.

Let me go back and explain.

I hate flying. Always have. I find it akin to my hatred and fear of the dentist, and in fact the two experiences are not dissimilar. You are led into a cramped, fearful waiting room. You’re then strapped into an inadequately proportioned chair for a human being, subjected to an array of alarming noises, at which point you close your eyes, wrench your hands, and wait for it all to be over. At various points throughout the procedure you will be offered an array of unappealing items to go in your mouth, and for the pleasure of the whole experience you will be charged an inordinate sum of money. The only plus point to flying is that it’s generally a bit warmer when you get out.

But last year Ben was offered some work in Barcelona, and so I had a choice: stay at home and quietly seethe at his Instagram account, or undertake regular hops over the Pyrenees to join in the Catalunyan capers. I chose the latter, and since October last year have travelled about 11,000 miles, spent close to 260 hours in the sky, and approximately £690 on departure lounge Prosecco.

For I now have a routine. I never realised before that there is actually a way to travel successfully, by airplane – even Ryan Air. First you have to choose the right flight. Don’t fly too early. There’s nothing classy about swigging a can of Heineken (to calm the nerves) on the 8.52 Stansted Express, even if you are in good company with at least half of the commuters changing at Audley End.

Better to wait until the airport and chug back a breakfast bellini with a round of avocado on toast, before hitting up HEMA for all your stroopwaffle essentials whilst waiting for your Gate to be called. Then, depending on your Gate number (and if you’re flying with our Irish friends be prepared for a good walk as you find yourself pretty much back on a layby of the M11 where they’ve parked the plane), you’ve just time for a swift wee and another cheeky glass of the fizzy stuff as you wait for the departure board to turn from green to red. Why those people patiently wait in line for a pre-booked seat, only to patiently wait in the pre-booked seat for those not in line, I will never understand. Ok, so sometimes you have to surrender your hand luggage to the hold if you’re last on, but seeing as all I need from my hold bag is money (for booze) and tissues (for crying) this has never particularly bothered me.

As you board it’s important to take a quick glance into the cockpit to reassure yourself there are two vaguely competent people at the flight deck, who at least look old enough to hold a driver’s licence, and aren’t visibly sweating. Then it’s a quick clamber into your chosen seat (12A, in case you’re wondering), and after a panicked rummage in pockets for sweets for take-off, the flight begins.

And this is where I actually love Ryan Air, because for the next two hours you’re so distracted by their relentless tactics to extract money from their passengers (seven different methods at the last count), by the time you touch down at the other end you barely realise you’ve been in the air. Well of course that’s not true, but what with the hot meals and the cold drinks, and the scratch cards and the donations to charity, and the unintentionally comical mispronunciations of safety information by the supposedly bilingual flight attendants, there’s barely enough time to worry about a slow and terrifying pirouette into the Pyrenees, with your last thought being “I paid £10.99 to do this.”

So, thank you Ryan Air, for your safe, efficient and ‘everyone-is-equal’ (i.e. we all get stiffed in the same way) approach to transportation, and I will be using your services in the future (not least because there is little other choice between the two airports). But, I must say this – I will not clap. I don’t get it. Much as I don’t understand people who clap in cinemas (the Spanish, and the over-enthusiastic), I don’t see why passengers clap a safe and healthy landing. That’s what’s supposed to happen. It’s essentially what you paid for, and the triumphant cavalry call pumped through the speakers at the end of the flight (seemingly regardless of whether the flight is on time) is sufficient to announce that the show’s now over.

Well, ok. Maybe a little clap is deserved. As I disengage my seat belt, unclench my sweaty palms, and be thankful that I still have all my teeth, I might acknowledge the two clever souls in the front seats who’ve safely transported me home. But I’ll need to be pissed.

 

* Successful = I didn’t die.