Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Training for the future

Hallelujah, it's over!  We've come through it again.  We may be fatter, poorer and with liver damage; we may have fallen out irrevocably with certain family members (and announced the fact to a large gathering in a loud, slurred voice); we may be biting our nails to the quick wondering what we're going to do about January's credit card bills, but at least we're still alive.  Our grandparents survived Hitler and his bombs, and their stoicism lives on in us today, kicking in every December 25th, praise be. 

So, how was the C-word (don't make me say it!) for you?  Mine was terrific, thank you for asking.  Because I almost totally avoided it, by working.

Work is a wonderful thing.  Not only do you get paid for it, it enables you to decline invitations without causing offence.  An old acquaintance invites you to their wedding: you can't tell them the truth, which is: "I really can't be bothered to search for a present, travel for hours and blow a small fortune on a hotel room just to see you get married.  I'm too old and tired to make small talk for what will feel like a year and a half with deaf, elderly members of your family.  In any case, I suspect you've only asked me to make the numbers up, or out of a misplaced sense of obligation.  So, thanks all the same, but I won't bother." 

You can, however, say: "Gosh, I'd love to, but I have to work that weekend."  For some reason, that makes it totally alright.  The happy couple probably won't even suggest that you try to swap your shifts.  They certainly won't check that you were telling the truth - they've got far too many other things to fret about - so you don't even really have to be going to work!

In the same way, honest toil is the perfect way to escape the C-word which is why I accepted two radio gigs on C-Day, in cities 80 miles apart.  I spent a total of six hours doing my favourite thing - being on the radio.  I had no opportunity to drink too much or overeat, and I wasn't stuck for long enough with anybody to fall out with them.

And here comes the point of this blog: I was only able to broadcast in London and Southampton because my lovely cousin, God bless her, lent me her car.  Why is it that we are constantly taught that public transport is the way forward, that to own a car, unless you live in the absolute depths of Nowhere-shire, is global-warmingly wicked, yet there is no public transport on Christmas Day?

Actually, that's not quite true; bizarrely, there has always been one form of public transport on the baby Jesus' birthday, and that's air travel.  If you want to fly from Manchester to Madrid or from London to Las Vegas, no problem.  But if you need to get from Birmingham to Bradford or even just nip down the road from Streatham to Stockwell, you'll have to be in possession of a relatively clean driving licence and shell out serious money on a hire car.

It wasn't always thus.  I'm too young to remember but I'm told trains ran on Christmas Day in this country as recently as the 1950s.  Then the car became king.  Cities, like my home town of Birmingham, were disastrously redesigned around them.  Every family aspired to owning one, then two, then more.  To travel by train or bus was for the elderly, the poor and children.

Many of us no longer think that way, but the legacy lives on.  I had to plan my Christmas movements, involving trains, buses and collecting and returning my cousin's car, like a military operation.  And I've got to do it all over again at New Year because, even though there will be some trains on the 31st and 1st, they don't fit my needs.  It's a logistical nightmare.  Thank heavens for my cousin; the cost of a hire car would have meant some of the gigs just weren't worth doing.

Plenty of people work on Christmas Day.  Every TV and radio station puts out a service.  Pubs pull pints, restaurants serve Christmas lunch.  Firefighters fight fires, and someone makes sure your electricity stays on so you don't miss the Royal or the Royale Family.  If you slice your finger off carving the turkey, there's a team waiting at A&E to stitch it back on.   Surely, therefore, sufficient bus and train staff could be found to work on the 25th if it were made worth their while. 

For the first few years, there may be low take-up for the "new" service as people got used to its being there.  Car-loving short-termists would rush to condemn the cost but we should face them down because, after a few years, Christmas Day public transport would seem as normal as dried-out turkey breast and having a shouting match with Uncle Eric. 

Imagine the luxury of both drinking yourself silly and getting back to your own bed for the cost of a bus or train ticket when the in-laws become too much to bear.  You really can't put a price on that.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Sorry, I just don't buy it

The TV was awash these past few days with Eurostar officials being grilled about their trains' bizarre inability to function when it's colder outside the Channel Tunnel than in it.

Every spokesperson, irrespective of whatever first question the interviewer put to them, started by saying they were personally very sorry.

When several trainloads of passengers have been marooned underground for up to 16 hours in the dark and freezing cold, having panic attacks, running out of medication, unable to quiet screaming babies, being handed a small bottle of water to share between six or a Danish pastry between nine, and all with zero leadership or organisation, one would very much hope that these officials were extremely sorry!

The question is, though: does saying so at every opportunity make the situation better or worse?

Not so long ago, public officials just didn't do sorry.  Getting a politician, council leader, senior police officer or business bigwig who had fouled up to utter the 's' word was tougher than pulling an impacted wisdom tooth.  Then those wretched media trainers (and I should know, I used to be one) sprang out of nowhere and began teaching the Great and the Good 'how to communicate more effectively' and 'how to present a positive image in TV interviews'.  What this really meant, of course, was 'how to smoothly avoid answering any embarrassing questions whilst appearing sincere and forthcoming'.

As part of this cynical plan, some genius hit on the idea of saying 'sorry'.  Why not?  It doesn't cost a penny.  It doesn't involve any work, planning or decision-making.  It makes you look less like a remote cabinet minister and more like a decent bloke who's merely doing his best.

And to start with, it was effective because it was new, different, attention-grabbing.  Pretty soon, however, it became, inevitably, a victim of its own success.  If everyone is personally sorry about everything all the time, it becomes meaningless.

We've now reached the point where politicians apologise personally for things that occurred before they were born.  Whilst we can all agree it's terrible that people used to be sold into slavery, and that the bombing of Dresden in 1945 was, at least, questionable, if you weren't around at the time, you surely cannot, by definition, have anything to feel personally sorry for.  Didn't we establish 2,000 years ago that the sins of the father shouldn't be visited on the sons?

In a different arena, have you noticed that every announcement about a delayed or cancelled train now includes a personal apology?  The trouble is, you know it's impersonal: the announcer can't be genuinely moved by the late-running of the 17.42 to Guildford and the cancellation of the 18.06 to Strawberry Hill and every other service irregularity day in, day out.  What's more, most of these announcements are now recorded messages, scheduled by computer: no member of staff even has to be sufficiently sorry to press a button.  What could be more patronising, not to mention downright nonsensical, than a machine saying "I am very sorry..." - not even "we" or "South West Trains are very sorry..." - "...for the late running of this service"?

And, of course, it seeps into everyday life.  How often now do you see a mum out with her two children and, when one does something unspeakable to the other, the only punishment is being told to: "Say sorry to your sister"?  The offender does so willingly - it costs him nothing, unlike a smack or the withdrawl of privileges.  He isn't sorry at all, though, and all parties know it, so where is the sense of justice for his walloped little sister?  Once she's finished howling, she will strike back for the retribution her parent failed to obtain, safe in the knowledge that she too will only be required to utter a meaningless word as punishment.

How are we ever to turn the tide on all this handwringing, crocodile tear-splashed regret?  I suppose we can only hope those in power, their mouth pieces and their media trainers will finally realise we no longer believe they're remotely sorry - if we ever did. 

Don't hold your breath.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Porridge and cider

I've been looking back through my blogs.  They're not bad.  There's always room for improvement, however, and I've identified at least one fault; a lack of killer intro's.

Shame on me: I was the star pupil of the Midland News Association's Class of '78 where the one thing that was constantly drummed into us was the need to grab and hold the readers' attention with a punchy lead paragraph. 

So, from now on, there'll be no slow builds; no fey literary meanderings; no taking the leisurely, linguistically elegant B-road to our subjectival destination - and no showing off with big words just for the sake of it like that, either!  No, killer intros rule from now on.

You'll have noticed that we're on paragraph four already and have still to encounter so much as an injure-you-very-slightly intro, let alone one of the killer variety.  That's because this blog hasn't started yet.  I know it seems to have, but it hasn't.  This bit's just the prologue or foreward or preamble or whatever you want to call it.  The real thing is about to start.....NOW!

I had a very interesting chat with a drunken convicted killer yesterday.

(See?  I've still got it!  Let us continue.....)

I was on a train to Wales and he came and sat across the aisle.  I was writing Christmas cards and so was disinclined to chat but he was determined.  If you were brought up, as I was, by a mother who believed good manners counted above all else, there are only so many conversational opening gambits you can ignore.

This small, middle-aged, non-decript chap was going home after serving six and a half years of a twelve-year stretch for manslaughter.  Rather than savour every moment of his first day of freedom with a clear mind, he had made a conscious decision "to get rat-arsed on cider" and, by midday, was well on the way.

He was an amiable soak, which made his crime all the harder to imagine: a bloke bumped into his wife in a pub so he hit him, too hard and in a particularly vulnerable part of the body, the front of the neck.  The man died and my new best mate was convicted of manslaughter.  If his fist had connected higher or lower, the victim would have lived and a far lesser charge would have been brought, but there was no bitterness or self-pity: "Oh, I shouldn't have done it.  End of.  Oh no, it was fair do's, mate."

And now he was on his way home to see the daughter and son who'd been a few weeks and four years old respectively when he was put away and whom he had never seen since.  His wife had thought it too difficult to drag two young children on numerous trains and a ferry from Cardiff to London to Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight where he was incarcerated, then back again, and he didn't blame her. 

Their first impression of their longlost daddy would be that of a semi-coherent little man, unsteady on his feet and stinking of cider.  I wanted to ask why he couldn't stay sober at least until the evening when they were tucked up, and then let loose with his mates, but I thought better of it.

He guessed that I and my partner were a gay couple.  "I'm not being funny, like, but are you and your mate, erm, you know, that way?"  It sounded like the quaint enquiry of someone who'd been out of the loop for more like sixteen years than six.

I confirmed that we did indeed share the love that not only dares speak its name these days but positively shrieks it from the rooftops and insists you join in with a Mexican wave and a bottle of pink champagne.  This was positively received: "I shared for eighteen months once with one of your lot.  Best cellmate I ever had."

Whenever our conversation stalled, I returned to my cards and he went back to another of many phone calls, setting up meetings with drinking buddies, which always included the question: "Have you got any money?"  A couple ended acrimoniously: "Alright, then, if that's how you feel, go f**k yourself and don't bother ringing me back because I won't answer, simple as that!"  I believe prisoners aren't allowed mobiles so he'd acquired one pretty instantly upon release - or am I being spectacularly naive?

We parted company at Newport, where my other half and I left the train, with a warm handshake.  "I'm wearing all designer gear, you know," he suddenly volunteered.  "This shirt is Lacoste and the jeans are Armani, all genuine, not knock-off."  I guess he liked me and so wanted to go up in my estimation, and thought this would do the trick.

I found that terribly poignant, as I did the thought of his meeting his kids a couple more cans of strong cider down the line.  I've got a horrible feeling they'll be saying goodbye to him before too long but I really want to be wrong.


Thursday, 10 December 2009

Christmas schmistmas

Though still a relative newcomer, I am fast realising that we bloggers blog for a variety of reasons.  My love of the whole process of writing is one of my main motivators, as is a constant need to entertain and be the centre of attention: I've been like it since I was about three and long since learned to stop feeling worried or guilty about it.  As the late actor Robert Morley once said (on Parkinson, I think): "People are always telling their children to stop showing off.  I say don't.  Showing off could be their only way of earning a living." Amen, Bob.

I've also blogged to vent my spleen (over the inadequacies of First Great Western's train service), to profess my love (for Birmingham and my Auntie Vera who lives there) and for a bit of self-psychoanalysis (why must I cram my life with busyness?).

Today, however, I'm tapping away for a different reason; procrastination.  I'm avoiding writing my Christmas cards.

I hate it.  I would rather clean a stranger's toilet.  I would rather queue up in a particularly downmarket branch of Argos on a manic Saturday afternoon.  I would rather be stuck in a lift with a right-wing, chain-smoking homophobe with an unusually large selection of holiday snaps.  I would almost rather eat offal, but not quite.

It's not that I don't care about the cards' recipients.  I'm really pleased to keep in touch with most of them even if I don't see them from one year to the next, although I wish I could get the numbers down a bit; I send and receive over 100 every year.  In the past, I've tried to trim only to get concerned or hurt phone calls or notes in January: "We didn't get a card from you this year!  Are you well?  Have we upset you?"  It's sweet that they should notice and care, of course, but how can anyone notice the absence of one card?  Anyway, back onto my list these handwringing acquaintances have to go.

No, the three things that make writing Christmas cards torture are the mind-numbing repetition, the mind-hurting attempt to avoid that repetition and personalise each one and, more than anything, the realisation that Christmas is now well and truly upon us and there is no escape.

You see, it's not just writing cards I can't stand, it's the entire crassly-commercialised, bank account-emptying, wearying, worrying, anticlimactic, bloody kaboodle.  Somewhere around mid-November, a fog of gloom descends.  I've been like it ever since I was seven or eight.  I've got to be careful how I express this next bit just in case young eyes should ever see this: I think it's because I never got over my parents' confession that a certain munificent, corpulent, hirsuite geriatric with a penchant for scarlet was fictitious (are you with me?).  Or that they had lied about it whilst constantly drumming into me that lying is wrong!

Let's stop pretending for once; Christmas is full of stuff that's just so rubbish!  For a start, turkey is the driest, blandest meat known to Man.  How many cooks have devised elbarote wheezes over the years to attempt to give it some life?  Everything from draping the wretched thing in butter-soaked muslin to cooking it upside down.  You don't have to bother with all that palaver when you're roasting a chicken or a leg of lamb, do you?  You just bung it in the oven!  Turkey's not even British or traditional, it's a hideous American important that replaced goose, the juiciest, tastiest flesh your grateful tastebuds are ever likely to encounter.

Then there's the overall menu.  At no other time of the year would anyone advocate following a mountainous roast dinner with the richest, heaviest and most alcoholic of puddings (which hardly anybody likes).  And let's not even get onto the torture of a dozen people, all of whom have consumed sprouts and some of whom are elderly, being trapped together in a modestly-proportioned room with well-sealed windows and doors.  Or being dragooned into playing games.  Or having to pretend your five-year-old nephew isn't getting on your nerves.  Or that terrible, four o'clock anticlimax when every present has been opened and thoroughly examined and dinner consumed, yet it's still hours before there's anything decent on the telly.

I could go on and on and, believe me, I'd love to but it's time to get the cards out and get down to it.

I'll be working my socks off over Christmas and New Year - I've seven radio and TV gigs between the 25th and the 1st with a couple more pending.  I'll be doing what I enjoy, earning good money and avoiding a bloated stomach, sore head and short temper.  You know, somewhere deep inside, you want to be me. 

(Picture courtesy of http://www.whalecottage.com/)

Saturday, 5 December 2009

A fruitful journey

Regular readers may recall I missed a First Great Western train to the Cotswolds recently because of huge queues at the ticket machines at Paddington Station.

I've just made the same journey again.  I wasn't going to get caught twice so this time I got to Paddington with half an hour to spare - and there were no queues at all.  How could two Friday night rush hours be so different?  It's not as if First Great Western has installed loads of extra machines or doubled staffing levels at the ticket office in response to my email of complaint.

Missing the train last time meant I arrived an hour late. This time, I alighted at Charlbury a mere 15 minutes behind schedule.  This was caused by a long sit at Reading Station.  The guard - sorry, train manager - a close relation of Les Dawson at his most lugubrious, informed us this was thanks to a staff no-show.  He had agreed to do the job instead.

"I didn't have to," he deadpanned.  "I could have refused and then this train would have been taken out of service.  So yippee for me!"

One station later, we experienced another, more minor delay.  Mr Dawson's less cheerful cousin was soon back on the mic with the explanation.  "A passenger got out of the front carriage and didn't close the door.  I've just had to walk the entire length of this train to close it."  Yes, it was all about him.

I didn't know whether to be appalled at this lack of professionalism or cheered by a bit of British eccentricity.

My friend picked me up from the station.  Rather than just sit and wait for the delayed train, he explained, he had used the extra 15 minutes to drive off and buy some blueberries.  Unfortunately, he didn't add that he had left the blueberries on the passenger seat.  Ah well, they were destined for the topping of a blueberry cheesecake, so he'd have had to have puréed them later in any case.  Shame about the leather upholstery, though....

After that, the weekend went pretty smoothly which was almost a disappointment. 

Moobing forward

A great privilege of being a journalist is meeting people, visiting places and seeing things you wouldn't otherwise be able to.  Not every experience is pleasant, of course; for every personal hero you get to interview (Tony Benn), there's a personal villain (Ann Widdecombe).  For every fragrant, jewelled palace, there's a damp, overcrowded council flat.  And for every obsequious handshake from a grateful PR, there's a mouthful of abuse from someone who'd much rather you weren't poking around in their nefarious business.

Last Friday, I attended a surgical procedure and I'm still trying to work out whether it was a Tony Benn or an Ann Widdecombe moment.

I've been making a film for Channel Five TV's 'Live From Studio Five' show in which Melinda Messenger, Ian Wright and Kate Walsh meet celebrities and chew the fat entertainingly about the (mainly) inconsequential issues of the day.  They like a bit of more serious meat in their sandwich, however, which is where I came in.

When I was a boy, I developed man boobs or moobs, or gynecomastia, to give it its proper name.  It's a much misunderstood condition.  If you are overweight with a beer gut and a fat arse as well as man boobs, you probably don't have gynecomastia - you have pseudogynecomastia and need to diet and hit the gym.  If you are slim, fit and firm everywhere else but your moobs persist, you do.

My story is typical.  I tried diet and exercise to no avail.  I laughed along with schoolmates' jibes, some intended to wound, others just uttered unthinkingly, then cried in private.  I became a master of illusion; clothes were bought on the basis of how effectively they camouflaged the abnormality.  I was always first in and last out of the swimming pool, and I never sunbathed topless "because of my sensitive skin".

Finally, at the age of 40, I plucked up the courage to do something about it.  I found a cosmetic surgeon who pronounced me an ideal candidate for liposuction.  Not to put too fine a point on it, under general anaesthetic, the fat was sucked out of my tits.  My chest was then tightly bound so that my new shape could consolidate.  After a few days, my swaddling was peeled off.  Staring back at me from the mirror, amid a glorious, abstract artwork of red, blue, purple, brown and black bruises, was an unremarkable, unmistakably boob-free, male torso.  It was one of the greatest moments of my life.  A decade on, my chest remains as flat as the proverbial pancake and I remain euphoric and grateful.

Since then, I've unintentionally become a cheerleader for corrective surgery for the condition.  I've written about it in national and regional newspapers, debated it on radio and reported on it for television.

For this latest film, the producer had found a man who was prepared to let us film his going under the knife.  It took her some months; when you've spent most of your life loathing part of your body and treating it as your guilty secret, you're disinclined to show it off to millions of strangers, even it if is about to be rectified.

It's perhaps not entirely surprising that the brave soul who finally stepped forward is a professional performer.  Simon Evans is a stand-up comedian and co-writer of TV sitcom Not Going Out. 

After I'd interviewed him and his surgeon, it was time to don surgical scrubs and accompany them to theatre.  I had no idea whether I would sail through the sight of human flesh being sliced into or immediately crash to the floor.  I'm glad to report that I was fine and able to witness the whole fascinating sequence of events.  Simon witnessed it too as, these days, it's carried out under local anaesthetic.  If you, on the other hand, topple over at a nosebleed, look away now.....

Small incisions are made to the side of each breast and anaesthetic injected.  This is followed by a probe which delivers ultrasonic vibrations to break down the fat.  Before they get smaller, the breasts become larger; Simon's chest alarmingly transformed from Kate Moss proportions to something Katie Price wouldn't have been too ashamed of.  Then, tubes are connected and the broken down fat is sucked out.  Along a long, transparent tube it crawls en route to a measuring jar.  Here, it separates like fat and meat juices when you're making gravy for the Sunday roast.  It looks more like a strawberry milkshake, though, with a white frothy head above pink liquid.  (I did warn you to look away.)

During the 90-minute sessions, Simon revealed that he had a gig that night.  Even though the change from general to local anaesthetic meant he'd recuperate faster than I had a decade before, this seemed a bit optimistic and was not endorsed by the surgeon.  But that's performers for you; we never turn down a gig unless, possibly, we have a temperature of 105, at least two of our limbs are hanging off and our entire family has just been wiped out in a freak accident.  Mind you, even then.....

I'm thrilled for Simon because I know it's the best decision he'll ever make.  Anyone cursed with a physical characteristic associated with the opposite sex will know how wretched it makes you feel and how severely it can limit your life.  Society just isn't ready to deal maturely with high-voiced men or balding or bearded women.

And that's why I never miss a chance to bang the drum about correcting gynecomastia.  I want every man overly blessed up top to know how easily their problem can be resolved.  To put it bluntly, don't be a sucker - get 'em sucked!

Photo courtesy of http://www.guardian.co.uk/

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Home is where the aunt is

This blog comes to you courtesy of Virgin Trains (incidentally, am I the only person who often feels a bit sick on a Pendalino but never on any other type of train?).  I'm hurtling back to London after a day trip to Birmingham.

As the train neared Brum a few hours ago, I felt the usual tingle of anticipation and excitement.  I know some feel our second city is a bit of a joke but it's my hometown and I love it dearly.  Actually, far fewer people joke about it these days thanks to its rather thrilling makeover.  The sparkling new Bull Ring Shopping Centre and the reinvention of The Rotunda, our iconic, 60s, cylindrical office block, as luxury city centre apartments (which, unusually, actually are quite luxurious and are bang in the city centre) are just two of many grands projets that have loosened, if not yet entirely shaken off, Birmingham's second city/second rate image. 

When I idly picked up a discarded property supplement on a suburban train in south London three years ago and learnt of The Rotunda's future, I could barely breath with excitement and knew I had to own one of its apartments.  I don't know why I bothered to consult my accountant first because he decreed that I couldn't afford to, and I went ahead and did it anyway.  I queued for six hours from six o'clock on a dark, cold morning (some prospective buyers had camped out for two nights) to secure the last-but-one flat of the kind I wanted, a two-bed, two-bath way up on the 17th floor.

Signing the paperwork was a thrilling moment, and I was so glad I had turned down first £1,000 then £5,000 in cash offered by Asian investors in return for my place in the queue.  Actually, even if I'd wanted to, social pressure would probably have prevented me.  Six hours of nothing to do had caused British reserve to shatter.  My fellow would-be buyers and I had, by this stage, held each other's place during loo trips, fetched coffees and even shared pictures of our children and grandchildren on our phones to pass the time.  Giving up would, I'm fairly certain, have been viewed as terribly bad form.  Would those behind me even have considered that the Asian businessmen had the right to buy my queue position?  A hideous fracas might have broken out: just think how heated Waitrose shoppers become if someone barges in to buy a bag of spinach and a part-baked focaccia rather than a £250,000-plus flat.

What was interesting was that most of my fellow queuers seemed, like me, to be Brummies making a predominantly emotional purchase.  Sure, we wanted to live in a cool flat or to acquire a sound investment but, more than that, we wanted to own a piece of our history.  Little did we know we were buying at the top of the market: I'm currently £60-70,000 down on the deal.  What's more, I can't live in my slice-of-cake-shaped apartment in the sky in the dead centre of my hometown because I can't get a job up there.  Instead, I rent it out: I've spent less than one hour in it in the two years I've owned it!  Yet, to my surprise, none of this depresses me: I'll live there somehow one day and, meanwhile, a small chunk of my roots - if roots can be said to have chunks - belongs to me, and that feels good.

My trip today was occasioned by my Auntie Vera's 97th birthday.  She still lives at home, although these days she sleeps downstairs and needs a rota of carers.  I've seen her sail through a major brain operation, the removal of cataracts on both eyes and the death of two loving husbands and three of her four siblings.  She is stone deaf, diabetic and has had breast cancer, which never seems to get worse, for as long as I can remember.

Despite all this, she is cheerful and glad and grateful to be alive.  If you've survived an urban, working-class childhood in the 1910s and 20s, then Hitler's bombs, I guess such things are small beer.

At 15, she started work as a shop girl, as they were dismissively known in those days.  By the time she retired, she had risen to become one of the chief buyers at Rackham's, Birmingham's top department store (now House of Frazer, and she still gets her staff discount 38 years after clocking off for the final time).

She didn't marry until she was well into her 30s and decided not to have children, preferring her career with its regular trips to the trade shows of London, Paris and Milan.  It's hard for us to appreciate how glamorous her working life would have been considered back then, or how unusual it would have been for a woman to scale such dizzy heights, or the level of social pressure to wed early and produce a brood that she must have withstood.

When she was 80, she started going to keep-fit classes because: "I'm at the age now where you have to start looking after your body."

It's unsurprising that such an independent-thinking achiever never turned a hair when, in the late 1970s, her only nephew announced he was gay.  She tried to convince my parents who, in contrast, all but disowned me, that it was no big deal.  She failed but, God bless her, she gave it her best shot.  She adored my former partner of 16 years, becoming positively flirtatious in his presence, and is delighted that I have now found love again.

Like Birmingham, of which she is immensely proud to be a daughter, my Auntie Vera is honest, warm, indomitable and devoid of airs and graces.

Over tea and cake ("Oo, goo on, Bill, 'ave another piece, you need fattening up!"), I told her I planned to blog about her.  She was pleased but couldn't really grasp the concept.  As I check it for typos, I realise the result reads like a fond obituary, one which, I hope, will prove substantially premature as I intend to be sitting in her back room in 2012, just as I did today, and raising a glass as she tucks into a small slice of suitable-for-diabetics birthday cake to mark her centenary.  She'll be moderately pleased but not overly impressed to receive a card from The Queen and, after her decades in the fashion world, will no doubt have something to say about whatever Her Majesty is wearing in the photograph on the front.

(Photographs courtesy of http://www.rhinocarhire.com/, Rommel Catalan and http://www.property.britishland.com/)

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Pop-eyed at olive oil

Good Italian meals, it seems, are like buses; you wait ages for one then two come along at once.  Recently, on the same day, I enjoyed lunch from the celebrated hands of Giorgio Locatelli and dinner cooked by Alessandro Traverso. 

Even the most half-hearted of foodies will know of Signor Locatelli from his Michelin-starred West End establishment, Locanda Locatelli, and his other popular restaurants.  Don't, on the other hand, even try to embellish your foodie credentials by claiming knowledge of Signor Traverso; he is a friend who acquires the rights to children's television programmes by day (well, somebody's got to) and becomes a splendid, amateur, Italian cook by night.  His lemon and mint risotto, which costs only a few pence per portion and which he audaciously makes in a pressure cooker, could make you weep with pleasure.

The day began with a morning of Italian olive oil tasting at the Mermaid Conference Centre at Blackfriars.  Yes, whilst you were toiling in your office, driving your bus, looking after your children or doing something else useful, 70 to 80 of us were slurping oils and comparing the colour, clarity, viscosity, grassiness, richness, pepperiness and I forget what else.

And to think that when I was a boy - and I'm not that old - we only encountered olive oil in tiny bottles at the chemist's where it meant to cure earache.  We've come a long way.

Its story in this country is surely similar to that of wine.  My parents were lucky if they drank wine once a year.  Actually, 'lucky' isn't the right word, as they were rarely relaxed enough to enjoy it.  For a start, they would be in a restaurant, a rarely-visited, intimidating place full of etiquette booby traps and superior staff.  Then there would be the worry of knowing what to order: no-one back than had consumed enough to know whether they were a Chardonnay lover or a sauvignon blanc kind of guy.  Better to stick to gin and orange for the ladies and mild or bitter for the gents: you knew where you were with a Beefeater and Britvic or a pint of M&B.

Then, suddenly, we were all wielding corkscrews and knocking back the Blue Nun and Mateus Rose and feeling ever so European and sophisticated.  Fast forward a bit further and everyone is debating grape varietals, New World versus Old, supermarket own labels against the big brands.  Then we realised there was more to sparkling wine than over-priced champagne and tooth-rottingly sweet Asti Spumante, that dessert wines were brilliant with dessert (the clue in the name ought to have alerted us sooner), and that roses could vary as much as reds and whites.  Now olive oil is making the same kind of journey.

You'd have thought our tasting session was an event of international importance - a meeting of EU delegates, perhaps, or a UN press conference - rather than a jolly good skive for olive oil producers, retailers, a posh, tweedy chap who announced himself as 'Britain's only qualified olive oil taster', plus numerous food writers who should have been pounding their PCs, meeting deadlines for articles like "11 new ways with bananas!!" or "10-minute Christmas pudding: it's not too late to make your own!".

First, a panel of the great and good of Italian olive oil addressed us via headsets and an interpreter.  Then an elegant Englishwoman of Italian descent with the dark looks of Sophia Loren but the refined accent of Celia Johnson waxed lyrical about the product.  She "trembles with excitement" when she encounters a new variety, apparently, which sounded very Sophia and not at all Celia.  Olive oil was "the oldest food known to mankind," she claimed.  What, older than woolly mammoth steak gnawed by a caveman?  Never mind, it sounded good.

We were advised to pour a little of each oil into the palm of our hand, inhale the bouquet then slurp it, taking in plenty of air, as you would when tasting wines (although we weren't offered a receptacle for spitting, thankfully).  Ms Loren-Johnson hoped we hadn't been drinking coffee, smoking or gargling with mouthwash as all these activities blunt the tastebuds.

Unquestionably, there was a fair degree of vareity in the oils' colours and flavours, although I couldn't quite identify the almond or chocolate notes described by our passionate hostess (perhaps she was also distantly related to Jilly Goolden).  Between samples, we sipped water and ate tiny slivers of apple to refresh our palates.

The subsequent Q&A was perhaps the most informative and fun part of the morning.  We learnt that olive oil that's past its best but not yet rancid makes an excellent moisturiser or, mixed with salt, a body scrub.  It's not just a boon to humans, either; rub it into your horse's coat and he'll gleam like he's in the title sequence of TV's Black Beauty.  Whether it's wise to ride him in this condition was not discussed: might his saddle be more likely to slide off?

Was it true that many Italians start the day by drinking a glass of olive oil, someone wanted to know.  Absolutely, enthused Ms Loren-Johnson-Goolden, it's a well known way of 'keeping the body balanced'.  Balderdash, countered one of the gloomy Italian heavyweights via his interpreter and our headsets, it's extremely rare for Italians to consume olive oil in this way.

What's the difference between virgin and extra-virgin?  The latter is cold-pressed, a chemical-free process producing a lower level of acidity, we were told.  I've always thought we need to coin a new term to replace 'extra-virgin'.  How can anything be more virginal than virgin?  It makes no more sense than 'super omnipotent' would, or 'especially unique' or 'blander than Daniel O'Donnell'.

Always store olive oil in a cool, dark place, we learned, as light and temperature fluctuation are its greatest foes.  For this reason, never buy it in clear bottles and run screaming from any deli that displays it in the window.

Signor Locatelli was on the panel, and all ears pricked up when he announced that he must dash back to Refettorio, the Italian restaurant in the nearby Crowne Plaza City Hotel of which he is consultant, to finish making our lunch, every course of which would incorporate the oils we had been tasting.  We were to sample carpaccio of sea bass; gnocchi with both cooked and shaved, raw artichoke; roast, crusted sea bream and, slightly alarmingly, olive oil cake with olive oil ice cream and dark chocolate sorbet.

Suddenly, the lack of regulation governing sell-by dates, and price differentials between Italian and Spanish oils seemed less riveting.

And the lunch was truly outstanding.  The ambience was buzzy yet relaxed, and the company - I shared a table with three effervescent women responsible for many of Waitrose's publications - charming and stimulating.  Our wine glasses were regularly topped up by smiling staff and, most importantly, every one of Signor Locatelli's culinary creations sang.  Even the pud, which had sounded suspiciously clever-clever, proved that olive oil into cake and ice cream will go.  He toured the tables afterwards to canvass opinion and seemed as excited as a kid in a sweet shop by our fulsome praise.  He is either a master showman or still besotted by his craft, and the quality of his food suggests the latter.

My only concern was whether I'd be ready for another Italian feast that night.  Trencherman that I am, I shouldn't have worried.  My friend, Alessandro, was on fine culinary form, delighting his guests with a cold, thin, crisp, Med veg and parmesan tart followed by bagna cauda.  This is a dip made from vast quantities of garlic and anchovies and, seemingly, little else.  There are rumours that olive oil and butter play supporting roles, but you'd never know it.  Each diner receives a bowl of the stuff set over a tea light candle to keep it hot.  All manner of raw and cooked vegetables are provided to dip into it.  It a warming, wintery, fun, communal, healthy feast although, if you dislike anchovies, it must truly be the dish from hell.  The garlic rules out snogging for at least three days but guarantees you plenty of space when commuting on the Northern Line.  The meal concluded with not one but two very sound homemade cakes, one chocolate, the other featuring pears.

I couldn't help but think what a 'London' occasion it was.  Eight of us sat round the table, all men aged 30 to 50.  Three were German and two, Italian.  There was one Dutchman and one Filipino which made me the lone Brit.  I'm probably wearing my metropolitan-tinted spectacles, but I couldn't imagine such a group convening in Nuneaton or Newton Abbot, so I don't think I'll go and live there.  (As the snotty continuity announcer played by Suzie Blake on 'Victoria Wood: As Seen on TV' once said: "And now a message for our viewers in the North: it must be awful for you.") 

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Love in a foreign climate

I'm a sucker for a good wedding (a bad one can be fun, too) so I was delighted that the centrepiece of my trip to The Philippines was the marriage of my boyfriend's sister.

She and her husband were first hitched a few years ago, but they were young and penniless back then, so it was a tiny, civil affair.  They then moved to London where, even if the streets aren't paved with gold, it is at least possible for a nurse and a chef to earn enough to save for the wedding of their dreams, provided they hold it back in The Philippines where everything is so much cheaper.  Those dreams included a white frock, white doves, 150 people scoffing a lavish feast and a gorgeous, pastel-hued church in their hometown of Cotabato.  Oh, and an Englishman, me, bursting into song....

My role wasn't confined to cabaret crooning, either.  In fact, it seemed to grow like Topsy.  I was also granted the honour of being one of the bride's sponsors.  This doesn't mean I had to donate 100 pesos to Children in Need for every yard she walked down the aisle without tripping over her elaborate train.  Sponsors are older and allegedly wiser friends who agree to mediate should the union hit problems.  The couple had appointed well over a dozen each, so let's hope they're not expecting major trouble.

As well as being the only non-Filipino sponsor, I was also the only one who, like the happy couple, lived in London, so I'm guessing I'll be first choice should any marital tweaking be required.  It's perhaps fitting, therefore, that on the eve of the big day, I was promoted to chief sponsor.  This meant that, as well as singing three songs, I would now be required to make a short speech.  It all seemed to be turning into The Bill Buckley Show.  I'm a born performer, so that was fine by me.

Preparations were extensive and meticulous.  I was sent for a haircut, a facial, a pedicure and a manicure.  I opted for clear nail polish as I didn't want to upstage the bride.  I visited the home of my keyboard accompanist for two lengthy rehearsals of my songs.

Come the great morning, the wedding party departed from the bride's house in blazing sunshine.  We picked our way along narrow, rubble- and litter-strewn passages between breeze block bungalows with corrugated iron roofs.  My Kurt Geiger patent leather dress shoes encountered dust for the first time.  It was a far cry from Liberty in Regent Street, whence they came. 

All the neighbours turned out to witness this fairytale procession, complete with pale-faced Englishman towering over everyone else.  Dogs, chickens and small children seemed especially agog.  A dead rat, on its back with its legs in the air, appeared less interested.

The flowers in the huge church were yellow and white to match the building's colour scheme, perfect for a hot climate.  The service was long and seriously catholic but no-one fainted or nodded off in the heat.  The congregation's hymn singing put that of the average English wedding to shame.

To my surprise, all the wedding photos were taken in the church.  The priest disappeared, leaving friends and family to join the bride and groom at the altar in various configurations.  This meant the happy couple left the building last, rather than first, and there was no need for the electric keyboard player (the church appeared to have no organ) to master Mendelssohn's Wedding March.

Onto the reception, held in a function room atop Cotabato City's only shopping mall.  It was the familiar flower-filled scene of cloth-covered round tables but differences from a western do soon emerged.  An 'emcee' (the word is presumably a delightful corruption of MC, or Master of Ceremonies) gave a running commentary.  His voice was not the most expressive, and he was clearly a stranger to the dictum 'less is more'.  His comments were underscored by love ballads performed by off-duty soldiers.  The bride and groom dined alone on a stage.  There was no alcohol; instead, a bottle of Coca Cola with a straw and a glass of water graced each place setting.  The only dancing was the bride and groom's first smooch.  And by 3 o'clock, it was all over.

Every guest received a momento from London.  My ashtray, with pictures of Tower Bridge, the London Eye and a guardsman in his bearskin, has now crossed the world and ended up back where it started.

My speech was listened to politely, although I'm not sure the crowd understood all the gags - they certainly found my ashtray's round trip less hilarious than I did. 

They loved my singing, though.  My first number was Eric Clapton's Wonderful Tonight, the bride's favourite, to which the couple danced their first (and only) dance.

I was about to do a bit of patter between numbers when the emcee (who had introduced me as 'Mr Anthony Bill') cut in, wanting to know how many more songs I intended to sing, as events were running late.  Two, I informed him.  One would be better, he replied.  Having worked so hard to perfect my set, and sensing that the audience were on my side, I asked them to decide.  'Two', they overwhelmingly replied.  Hah!

Next came Theme from Love Story (Where Do I Begin?).  This was an even bigger hit than my first number, eliciting huge cheers.  The emcee still had the last laugh, though.  Before I could speak, he was back on the mic, announcing that the bride and groom would cut the cake during my third and final song, Burt Bacharach's What the World Needs Now.  This I didn't mind in the least, but he then talked all over it, giving the guests entirely unnecessary information like: "And they are now cutting the cake."   I had dared to attempt to usurp his authority, and I had paid for it!

Two white doves were released.  As we were in a function room, they were unable to soar into the blue, soaring instead only to the ceiling, but it was still a nice touch.

I learnt later that, although 150 had been invited, 200 had turned up to the reception.  Extra, uninvited guests are par for the course at Filipino weddings, apparently, so the bride and groom had taken the precaution of catering for an extra 20.  Instead, an additional 50 had to be accommodated.  Perhaps they all wanted to witness the brilliant English singer.

I don't blame the gatecrashers, though, as, my run-in with the emcee aside, it was a lovely occasion.  I was honoured to be given two major roles, especially as I have known the couple for less than a year.  The lack of booze meant no-one got into a drunken argument and it was nice to be back home, Kurt Geigers kicked off, by mid-afternoon.        

My boyfriend's sister and her husband had the wedding they wanted, and that's what matters, of course, whether it takes place in Cotabato, Canberra, Cologne or Coventry.

(photos courtesy of Rommel Catalan)

Monday, 16 November 2009

Fear in The Philippines is strictly from the birds

I'm back from my fortnight's tour of The Philippines, a beautiful, vibrant, chaotic country where every purchase is a bargain, the sun always shines and almost every face wears a smile.

There's no such thing as paradise, however (although Paradise Island in Mindanao Province could certainly stake a claim), and the country has quite a reputation for crime, fairing badly in international comparisons of murder and manslaughter rates and those for other serious offences.  This is inevitable, perhaps, in a land of mass poverty where government and police corruption is so widespread and long-established that the topic elicits little more than a shrug when you bring it up in conversation.

And sure enough, my determination to explore its cities freely meant that I encountered moments of utter terror and even came home with a minor head injury.  This was not at the hands of gun-toting drug runners or even small time muggers or pickpockets, however.  No, my adversaries were a dove and a small, insignificant wild bird that looks a bit like a sparrow or a blue tit.....

After spending a few days in the cities of Manila, Davao and Cotabato, I stopped gawping at signs in hotel lobbies and at entrances to shopping malls kindly requesting me to check in my firearms, although I never quite got used to kindly old hotel doormen invariably packing a hefty pistol.

Nonetheless, it was without a care that I hopped in and out of jeepneys (rattling old minibuses, often gloriously over-decorated) and the ubiquitous motorised trikes (poor people's taxis), many of which have religious slogans painted on the back.  I'm not a believer but, if I had to negotiate the hooting maelstrom of vehicles, forever jockeying for position in the potholed, triple-parked streets, I'd probably put a bid in for some Divine protection, too. 

Friends of my Filipino partner were amazed at my lack of nerves, which made me feel rather proud and terribly British.  What they didn't know is that I suffer from ornithophobia, the irrational fear of birds.  Well, I do and I don't: certain birds in certain situations reduce me to a shrieking, quivering wreck.  Other birds in other situations are fine.

I've no problems with chickens, for example.  My nan always kept a few hens at the bottom of the garden and, as a five-year-old, I remember stroking the tamer ones, and helping her feed them and collect their eggs, even feeling under those too lazy to rise from their nests, to see if a warm egg lurked.  One of them once gave me a good hard peck despite Nan's assurance that she wouldn't mind my little hand groping her nether regions.  I howled at the injustice of the situation ("But Nanny, you said she wouldn't mind.  You said!") more than the pain, but even that experience didn't put me off.

We've lost the chicken-keeping habit in this country, of course, more's the pity, but not so the Filipinos.  You see hens scratching around everywhere.  No-one pens them in, not even the most impoverished of country folk for whom the loss of a regular egg supply would surely be significant.  They wander onto main roads yet miraculously always avoid the thundering traffic by a feather's breadth.

What puzzled me was the number of cockerels.  Every morning at my partner's family home in Cotabato City, my sleep would be punctured by their crowing.

All was explained when I visited the home of three generations of the boyfriend's relatives and was introduced to their very handsome and very tame young cock

"Why do so many people here keep a cockerel when they don't produce eggs?" I asked my other half's auntie.  "Do you fatten them up for Christmas?"

"No, no, it's for fighting," she explained.  "If you have a good cock, you can make big money."  I stifled the obvious, off-colour rejoinder.

Unlike over here, no-one objects to the 'sport' of cock-fighting, it seems, even though the loser often dies.  Dog fighting is popular in parts of The Philippines too, I was told.  Both are legal.  Auntie was fascinated to learn that in the UK, participation in either activity can get you a prison sentence and an unwanted appearance on News at Ten.

It was hard to think of the friendly bird I'd petted fighting to the death a few months down the line.  I tried not to look shocked and I certainly didn't feel censorious or superior.  After all, how many portions of battery chicken or intensively produced eggs have I consumed over the years?  Far worse, surely, to endure life in an overcrowded cage than to be a Filipino fighting cock, wandering freely and doing all the things chickens are meant to do before meeting a bloody but relatively swift end.

"What's his name?" I asked.  "He doesn't have a name," came the baffled reply.  Clearly, Auntie was beginning to think the visiting Englishman was a couple of portions of rice short of a banquet.

So, it wasn't Cotabato's young contender which set off my ornithophobia, but a dove from the same city.

The main reason for my trip to The Philippines was the wedding of my partner's sister (about which I shall blog separately) at which a pair of white doves was released.  Unfortunately, they didn't soar into the blue heavens but merely to the ceiling of the function room in which the reception was held.  As they then flew back and forth overhead, I felt my phobia begin to tickle but I controlled it well.

Everyone wanted a picture with the tale, pale-faced visitor from London, England and, as I was bearing a cheesy grin for the hundredth time, I realised a boy was standing next to me with one of the doves clasped in his hands!  Believe me, this was a very big deal.

I let out a cry of terror which I explained away, perhaps only partially successfully, by saying I'd only just noticed the bird and it had made me jump.  I managed to stay put until everyone had got their picture at which point I beat an apparently unconcerned but nonetheless urgent retreat.  Which only goes to show, I suppose, that I am attention-seeking, compulsive performer first, ornithophobic second.

The really bad moment occurred when the boyf and I decided to get a haircut in Manila a few days later.  No sooner had I sat down in the barber's chair than I realised a small bird that looked like a sparrow or a blue tit was flying around the room.  It was a maya, a common wild species in The Philippines, which, I assumed, had nipped in unbidden and would be shooed out, but no, it was a pet!

For the next 15 minutes, I entertained staff and customers by shouting, ducking, flinching and hiding under the barber's cape.  I suggested someone catch the wretched thing and imprison it temporarily under the basket that held the manicurist's materials - upended, it would have served perfectly.  The flaw in my plan, of course, was that the more staff tried to catch the maya, the higher he flew - until they gave up, at which point he recommenced whizzing past me from all directions, causing renewed shrieking, jumping and trembling.

Somehow, the barber managed to crop my hair with safety clippers inflicting only a few minor cuts to the head.  I was appalled, however, when he got out his cut throat razor for some final neatening up.  What was he thinking?  I was liable to jerk my head at any moment and didn't fancy blood pouring from a gashed neck, however spectacular a finale it might have provided for my engrossed audience.

Now I'm back in south London to face my regular foe, the filthy, feral pigeon.  At least when I'm in the barber's chair down Kennington Lane, his horrible, bobbing head can only stare at me from the other side of a plate-glass window.  It's good to be home.

(Photos courtesy of http://www.commons.wikimedia.org/, http://www.katnarneo.wordpress.com/, http://www.virtualtourist.com/ and http://www.amberskinlove.wordpress.com/)

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

TV ads to the sum of human knowledge

A surefire way to discover the priorities and preoccupations of a nation is to watch its TV ads.

I'm now in The Philippines where I've squeezed in a spot of telly amid the sun, sea, sand and sightseeing, from which I've learnt that its people worry about the colour of their underarms, lean towards hypochondria and don't understand milk.

One oft-shown commercial is for a deodorant which not only stops sweat but also bleaches the armpits.  The attractive young woman featured is thrilled to be killing two birds with one roll-on.  Dark underarms are a complete no-no, it seems.  Women attend beauty parlours regularly to have that area of skin lightened.  My Filipino partner says even modern males are at it.  Indeed, he confesses to weekly sessions himself until he came to London where the cost of living and the exhaustion of nursing in the NHS taught him to love pigmented pits.

A higher porportion of ads than we are used to is for medicines and health products.  Coughs, headaches, fatigue and indigestion can all be banished with a spoonful of syrup or by popping a pill.  Is your liver below par?  Don't worry, just purchase the preparation endorsed by a handsome tough guy ("It's the liver lover!").

Beautiful toddlers bounce with vitality because their mothers feed them a particular brand of formula milk.  "It's the best!"  Unfortuantely, the advertiser is legally required to immediately follow this claim with the contradictory full-screen rider: "Breast milk is best for babies up to two years and beyond".  Two years and beyond?  They'll be emulating David Walliams' 'bitty'-demanding Little Britain character if they're not careful.

I don't speak a word of Filipino but I don't need to to glean all this because many of the ads are in English.  This is a trilingual nation; pretty much everyone speaks Filipino plus the dialectical language of wherever they come from, and English.  In their soaps (based on the American model, so expect wall-to-wall good-looking actors, background music and lengthy close-ups but an absence of EastEnders grit and Coronation Street whimsy), one furious character might launch into a Filipino tirade but tag it in English ("So, tell that to your precious sister and see where it gets you!").  Similarly, in their equivalent of American Idol, nearly all the songs are American and British pop classics sung in English but the compere asks for the judges' comments in Filipino and they might answer in either.

These people understand English but don't have a clue about milk.  Another ad shows cute teenagers enjoying sterilised milk straight from the can.  Sterilised milk!  This vile substance was already on its way out in the UK was I was a kid 40 years ago.  Universal home refrigeration meant we all switched to pasteurised and realised what a thug sterilised had always been, nuking tea and tainting breakfast cereal.

And now, decades later, young Filipinos are being entreated to swig it neat, and from cans!  Such bad manners!  Such bad milk!  Such indoctrination should surely concern the country even more than its young women's disinclination to accept the colour of their underarms.  It's the pits!

East is east and west is west. And Hong Kong is both

My two and a half days in Hong Kong have whizzed by faster than the city's ultra-reliable, sparkling-clean underground trains.

Countless travel writers have described its chaotic, cacophonous wonderment better than I ever could, so I'll keep my observations brief.

I've taken a near-vertical tram to its highest peak for a panoramic view of the stunning cityscape, and I've joined commuters on its old but indispensible Kowloon ferry.

I've sampled its haute cuisine (and will long remember the juicy eel with its crisp, charred skin) whilst watching the nightly laser spectacular, played out on the skyscrapers across the harbour. I've dined at a modest, semi-legal, neighbourhood joint where the chilli in the air-con system caused more coughing than the chilli in the dishes.

I've murdered ABBA classics in a karaoke bar, and managed not to titter from ticklishness as my toes were tweaked in the Zen-like, dimly-lit tranquility of a foot massage parlour.

The British legacy remains, and the resulting contrast between foreignness and familiarity is perhaps Hong Kong's most endearing characteristic. You need not go without your Pret a Manger sandwich or your Marks & Spencer undies. The buses are double deckers and the plugs have three pins. Some of those buses are bound for districts with Chinese names but others go to Kennedy Town or Clearwater Bay.

I'm warned that, for several months of the year, the heat and humidity are hard to bear, yet I still feel I could move there tomorrow.

Are there any media entrepreneurs out there? There's a gaping hole in the market for an English language radio station along the lines of Radio 2. I'd like to be its mid-morning presenter, please.

(Photo courtesy of http://www.goway.com/)

Izzy whizzy, let's keep busy

I'm a relative newcomer to the blogisphere, so it would be unseemly for me to start formulating theories about its practitioners.  I still shall, of course.....

I'm thinking that bloggers are divided into two groups:

a) those with the time and energy to blog because not much is happening in their lives, and whose musings are therefore likely to be less than riveting
b) those whose lives teem with blog-worthy activity and who therefore rarely find the time to blog about it

I'm delighted to say that, of late, I've been firmly rooted in category b), hence the lengthy silence since my last posting.

I apologise to my vast army of addicted fans; the withdrawal symptoms must have been horrendous.  Actually, do I have a vast army of addicted fans?  Do I have even a solitary, depleted platoon of mildly interested ones?  I have no idea.  I daresay there's an icon on my laptop screen which would give me all the facts and figures regarding my "traffic" - I believe that's the word? - at the click of a mouse but, as is the way with us 50-somethings, for whom every tiny new technological accomplishment is cause for celebration, I've yet to discover it.  The only way I know of determining whether you're there or not is when you leave a comment.  So, please comment every time you visit, even if you only want to say something along the lines of: "Your inane ramblings about your shallow, metropolitan, freebie-strewn existence are even more tedious than when my great aunt recounts her tales of post-war rationing for the umpteenth time."  Thank you.

Going back a step, why did I instinctively write a moment ago that I'm delighted to have been too busy to blog?  Why do I consider it preferable for every waking moment to be accounted for than to have time to watch the grass grow?  I've always been like this, cramming every day with busyness and feeling mildly ashamed and depressed if I don't.

One of my friends, a mental health professional, confirms my suspicions that it's not a healthy mindset, and that many of us are prone to it.  After all, what does an old dear invariably say when you ask after her wellbeing?  "Oh, not too bad, thank you, dear.  Keeping busy."  She's been busy all her life, raising six kids on a pittance without the help of disposable nappies and Nintendo Wi's.  Heaven knows, she's earned a break, yet she would never answer: "Oh, not too bad, thank you, dear.  Just idling my days away doing bugger all," even if it were true.  Keep a hamster running long enough in its wheel and it unlearns how to stand still, I suppose.

Last week, this hamster ran so fast, he thought his little legs would fall off.  I completed 11 professional engagements in seven days, a personal best (there I go again: why isn't it a personal worst?), including presenting five overnight shows on BBC Radio London 94.9, conducting three interviews with authors in front of theatre audiences for The Guildford Book Festival, and pontificating three times about the national newspapers on TV and radio.

As any freelance will tell you, jobs are like buses; you wait weeks for one, then 11 turn up at once.  Because we never know how long the wait will be for the next batch, we always say yes to all of them even if, as in this case, it means snatching the odd hour ot two's sleep here and there then worrying that you'll give an exhausted, below par performance.

I'm delighted to say all went well.  I maintained concentration whilst entertaining London's insomniacs and nocturnal workers on the radio.  I uttered remarks that sounded reasonably informed and profound (as long as you didn't think about them too hard) about The Times, Observer, Mirror et al.  And I turned in more than adequate, if severely sleep-deprived, interviews after racing down to Guildford, with Radio 2 stalwart Ken Bruce and TV chef James Martin.

Both effortlessly delighted Surrey's bookworms, as did Frank Gardner, the BBC's Security Correspondent.  Frank's the guy who was shot by Al-Qaeda militants in Riyahd several years back, an event which cost him the use of his legs and very nearly his life.  You've seen him many times since, brillinatly demystifying the intricacies of international bomb plots from his wheelchair on the BBC news.

Frank, who turns out to be an hilarious raconteur, was physically gung-ho and an inveterate traveller before the cowardly fanatics cut him down in Saudi, and little has changed since.  Though now a paraplegic, he scuba dives, goes quad-biking and has even abseiled in his wheelchair.  He still roams the globe, even though his condition means sitting still on aeroplanes is nothing short of agony.  He is always starving when he flies, too, because food goes straight through him, and eating is not worth the hassle and indignity of trying to get to the lavatory.  (Of course, it's only airline food he's missing out on, but even so.....)

Next time I hear myself whingeing about my thickening waistline, thinning hair or some minor ache or pain, I shall think of Frank, a happily married father-of-two with a high-octane career who speaks several languages but doesn't know the meaning of 'self pity' in any of them.

Speaking of airline food, I finally have the chance to blog again because I'm on a packed Cathay Pacific jet to Hong Kong.  Everyone else is asleep: how do they do it?  As usual, one G&T and two glasses of Chardonnay have failed to knock me out.  Here I sit, hollow-eyed, whizzing along in a metal tube at hundreds of miles per hour, 30,000 feet about the planet, tapping out words which, once I'm back on terra firma and have cut and pasted them to a blog, pretty much anyone in the world will be able to see, though the vast majority will choose not to.

I wonder which component of that scenario great grandma would have found hardest to comprehend.  Still, at least she'd be happy that I'm keeping busy.

(Photos courtesy of http://www.baldrus.com/, http://www.mumsclub.co.uk/, http://www.news.bbc.co.uk/)

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Getting intimate with Mr Showmanship

I love brash, big budget, bums-on-seats West End musicals.  Sister Act is sassy, Priscilla is camper than Christmas at Julian Clary's, Billy Elliot will move you to tears, Wicked is, well, wicked, and, for me, Hairpsray manages - just about - to be a brilliant, backcombed cut above even all the rest.

But don't forget that countless other shows are being performed nightly, often in tiny, out-of-the-way venues. Some will be bum-numbingly bad but others will knock your socks off (and isn't that equally true of big budget theatre in any case?). 

In other words, if you've already seen all the blockbusters that tickle your fancy, try the Fringe.  It's an incredibly cool, in-the-know thing to do, and tickets prices are far lower, so you can impress the boy- or girlfriend whilst saving £30-£40 a head!

Until 8th November, your best bet for high camp without the high price is Liberace Live from Heaven at The Leicester Square Theatre in which Bobby Crush, who rightly bills himself as Britain's Top Piano Entertainer, portrays the world's top piano entertainer of all time.

The premise is simple: Liberace finds himself at the Pearly Gates where he has to convince a panel of angels (played by the audience) that he merits a place in heaven rather than descending into the fiery furnace.  It turns out that God (played on voice tape by Victoria Wood - inspired casting) is a George Gershwin fan.  Cue keyboard medley of everything from Rhapsody in Blue to I Got Rhythm via Embraceable You.

Musical interludes punctuate the entire show, in fact, including a brillaint recreation of Liberace's famous invention, boogie woogie 16 to the bar (which is the standard, eight to the bar variety but with the left hand going at twice the speed; a real finger-buster as any pianist will tell you).

Bobby Crush delivers an absolute tour de force, not only matching Liberace's complex, high-speed, flawless pianistic technique but also offering a wholly convincing impression of the man who, despite his cheesy lines and fake-as-a-nine-bob-note fixed smile, was, for several years, the highest paid entertainer in the world.  His outrageous costumes are recreated too, a gobsmackingly gaudy parade of sequins, feathers and fur.

There's a more serious side to the evening.  Liberace was a troubled soul, a gay man living in a age when homosexuality was still illegal.  Discovery would have meant social and professional ruin, which is why he sued The Daily Mirror in 1959 after one of its columnists dared to hint that he might not be the marrying kind.  Such was the sexual naivité of the time, the jury believed the false testimony of this mincing old fruit who had never married (at least Rock Hudson put on a convincing act!) and awarded him massive damages.  God is therefore rather put out (whilst St Peter, voiced by Stephen Fry, becomes nothing short of apoplectic) that Liberace had sworn on the Bible to tell only the truth .

Will the joy his music and showmanship brought to millions outweigh his blasphemous deceit in the minds of the audience of angels?  Will they decide that he was more the victim of a cruel, illiberal age or a phoney, money-grabbing sinner?

The show is playing at the Leicester Square Theatre's basement studio in which even an audience of 60 constitutes a tight fit.  That means, as is usually the case at fringe venues, that everyone gets a ringside seat, unlike in the big West End houses where sitting in Row Z or two floors up can leave you feeling divorced from the action.  Intimacy borne of proximity is one of the Fringe's greatest attribtues even when, paradoxically, as in this case, it's fringe in the heart of the West End. 

Indeed, the 'angels' in the front row are so close to the action, there's every chance of their being knocked sideways by the heavy, swirling hem of Liberace's floor-length, white fur cape.  And, for twenty-odd quid, you can't ask much more of a night out than that!

(photos courtesy of http://www.leicestersquaretheatre.com/ and http://www.bobbycrush.com/)

Friday, 16 October 2009

A case of (non-mistaken) identity: footnote to a previous blog

I'm just back from Waterloo where I reclaimed the suitcase I left on the train yesterday.

The guy in the lost property office was very chuffed to meet me.  "Are you Bill Buckley, the radio presenter?" he asked.  I confirmed this, with my best approximation of a modest shrug.

"Oh, I really used to love listening to you in the night on LBC," he gushed.  I thanked him.

"And wait until I tell my parents I've met you!  They were huge fans of yours when you were on BBC Southern Counties."  I muttered something about that being very nice.

"Right, I've got your case here," he continued.  "Do you have any form of identification?"

"But you know who I am!" I protested.

"Oh yes, but I can't hand anything over with some form of identification."

A credit card, carefully scrutinised, sufficed.....

Queues for food and queues to meet a foodie

Celebrities are wont to bemoan the price of fame but not to give thanks for its awesome power.  Last night, I witnessed that power in Guildford. 

Surrey's county town recently acquired a branch of Jamie's Italian, the restaurant chain belonging to TV cheeky chappie and culinary campaigner Jamie Oliver.  It's in an ugly 60s building some distance from the attractive, quaint high street but only a narrow pavement away from the town's vile and thunderous one-way system.  And yet, at 7.15 on a Tuesday night, the place was packed and a queue of 40 (yes, 40; I counted twice because I couldn't believe it, either) stood patiently outside.

I daresay the cured meats, olives and pastas are perfectly nice (though a bit uneven, according to critics) but I doubt very much they're that nice.  What's more, it isn't particularly cheap, and the chances of Jamie himself stuffing your ravioli are slimmer than a fasting supermodel.  Yet, with any number of mid-priced alternatives a short stroll away, 40 people preferred to wait outside, inhaling bus and lorry fumes, for as long as it took.  Ah, the power of celebrity.

Talking of celebrities, I was in town to interview Tom Parker Bowles and Dr Hilary Jones as part of the annual Guildford Book Festival.  (Next week, I shall return to gently probe BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner, chef James Martin and Radio 2 stalwart Ken Bruce.) 

For the benefit of those who've been living on Jupiter for the past few years, Tom is a food writer and broadcaster (and son of Camilla, now Mrs Prince Charles, as it happens) whilst Hilary has been dispensing medical advice from the GMTV (and, before that, the TVam) sofa for the past 20 years.

The usual format at these festivals is that an author is interviewed by someone like me in front of an audience, the members of which then buy his book and queue up to have him sign their copy. 

Tom was first on at The Electric Theatre to flog his latest work, Full English: A Journey Through the British and Their Food. 

We've met before but in a radio studio: he was one of my last interviewees when I hosted LBC 97.3's Sunday afternoon Food & Drink Show.  I was removed rather hastily from that post - and from LBC altogether - a few weeks ago for the crime of presenting a couple of programmes at deadly rival BBC London 94.9.  Tom nipped in and took the show over.  Well, someone had to, and good luck to him because, despite being Eton- and Oxford-educated and both stepson and godson to the heir to the British throne, he is the most modest, affable, ego-free guy you could ever hope to meet.  Actually, my theory is he's like that because of, rather than in spite of, his privilege.  I think, consciously or unconsciously, he uses his niceness to wrong-foot jealous souls looking for reasons to dislike him.

He arrived in casual jacket, combats and trainers with just one assistant provided by his publishers, as is the usual practice.  There were no hooray hangers-on and no security goons muttering into headsets, nor were there any pop-star demands for designer vodka or M&Ms with all the blue ones taken out.

We chatted before the performance about Leona Lewis who, only the day before, during a book-signing session at Waterstone's in London's Piccadilly, had been punched, and punched hard, by all accounts, by a deranged male 'fan'.  Was a rabid class warrior or the maitre d' of Simpsons on the Strand (about whose breakfasts Tom waxes less than lyrical in the book) waiting to give him a good whack in the kisser, we wondered? 

We agreed there's little you could do to eliminate the possibility; you could check fans for concealed weapons as stringently as if they were about to board a plane, but Leona's assailant just used his fist and you can't ban those.  And a security guard would need reflexes like lightening to get between a fist employed without warning and an author's face.

The interview and the subsequent signing passed off without incident, needless to say, as did the following sesssion with Dr Hilary Jones, another charming, articulate interviewee who turned up without even a publisher's assistant.

The only blip in this otherwise silk-smooth excursion involved my suitcase - again!  Regular readers may remember that Iberia recently flew me to Gran Canaria but only managed to get my case as far as Madrid.  This time, the fault was all mine: I got off my train home at Vauxhall, leaving it in the luggage rack.  The lost property department at Waterloo was unable to tell me whether it had been found - you have to wait until the following day for that information for some strange reason. 

I do hope I get it back, not least because it contains a copy of the new book by Frank Gardner, one of next week's interviewees, and I've only read the first third, let alone sketched out any questions.  Frank is a distinguished journalist who would see straight through an ill-prepared interviewer.  And, as excuses go, I doubt he'd be any more impressed by: "Sorry, Frank, I left your book on the train," than any schoolmaster ever was by: "Sorry, sir, the dog ate my homework."

pictures courtesy of www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/entertainment... and http://www.gm.tv/         

Monday, 12 October 2009

A funny turn (well, quite a few actually) at the theatre

I was at The Palladium last night.  I've seen countless shows there over the last 30 years (current incumbent Sister Act is highly recommended), but a visit still invariably induces a frisson of excitement, thanks to Sunday Night at the London Palladium.

For baffled younger readers, I should explain that this was TV's biggest entertainment shows of the 60s.  Everyone from Judy Garland to The Rolling Stones topped the bill, and it launched the career of Bruce Forsyth (yes, kids, that's right, the old duffer on Strictly who thinks racist language is no big deal).  It was a "variety" show, a concept which might leave the under-25s further confused.  This means it featured professional entertainers, rather than hairdressers, school kids and odd-looking spinsters with learning difficulties desperate to change their lives.  These were people who had polished their craft over many years and so could already juggle, perform magic tricks, tell jokes, dance or sing (sometimes all of the above) to a high standard without the intervention of a Simon Cowell-esque Svengali.  Because they were so experienced, they didn't get nervous and sing sharp, nor were they critised by a panel of judges or voted off by the public.  (I know - how weird is that?!)

And this was in the days of two television channels.  Yes, honestly, kiddywinks, there were only two, and there was no box you could buy or service you could subscribe to to give you more.  Your choice was the po-faced, we-know-what's-good-for-you BBC or the tits-and-tinsel, let's-'ave-a-larf ITV.  Snobby families claimed they never watched ITV but its often far superior audience figures proved they were liars, guiltily enjoying Stars and Garters or Coronation Street with the curtains drawn.  A legacy of the two channel era is that, to this day, I sometimes catch myself wondering what's on the other side when I intend to flip through the countless channels at my disposal. 

This duopoly meant successful shows routinely attracted audiences of 20 million or more, and Sunday Night at the London Palladium was one such.  It predated colour TV, of course, so, each time I visit the Palladium, I'm not only chuffed to stand in the space I gawped at from our living room every week but am also mildly shocked to discover it's not in black and white. Rich red is, in fact, the interior's dominant colour, just as it should be in a proper, traditional theatre.

Last night, I was there for a tribute concert for the late Danny La Rue.  Again, bear with me, fellow oldies....  Danny la Rue was the first true cross-dressing superstar before Dame Edna was so much as a purple-coiffured twinkle in Barry Humphires' eye or Lily Savage had shoplifted her first bottle of peroxide.  He was a glamorous, glittering exaggeration of womankind and one of the biggest stars of the day.  (Mind you, we never quite 'got' him in our house: "What's so clever about that?  It's just a man in a frock.  When's Jimmy Tarbuck coming back on?  See what's on the other side, Mother.")

I went because good friends were on the bill.   Believe me, I didn't want to, even though the show was raising funds for The Entertainment Artistes' Benevolent Fund which looks after superannuated performers, many of whom think they're still in summer season in Blackpool whereas they're actually sitting in a care home in Twickenham.

The trouble with tribute or charity shows is that they are buttock-clechingly embarrassingly under-rehearsed.  They're always held on a Sunday at a West End theatre in which another show has been playing Monday to Saturday.  That means there's only one day to sort everything out, a near impossibility with numerous turns wanting to run through their act, sound, lighting, a band and goodness knows what else to contend with.

The other problem is they are buttock-numbingly long.  Four hours-plus is not unusual.  This is because the entertainers agree to do eight minutes but, once the spotlight hits them and they hear laughter and applause, they just can't help themselves and do 17 minutes instead.

I'm delighted to say that last night, neither criticism applied.  Okay, the show did run three hours 35, but it was so entertaining, it seemed half that length.  And, miraculously, it was technically almost faultless, too.

Many of the acts had a delightfully retro feel - how often do jugglers, ukele players or Irish dancers get a slot on TV these days, more's the pity? - and star names included Ronnie Corbett, Barry Cryer, Anita Harris and Roy Hudd (I can't even get started on explaining that lot to younger readers).  More surprisingly, 70s prog rock god Rick Wakeman popped up, playing the piano beautifully and proving an effortlessly droll raconteur.

Special mentions (partly because they are my friends but mainly because they deserve it) go to Hilary O'Neil and Bobby Crush.  Hilary is a criminally under-known singer, dancer, comedienne and impressionist, and I have never seen her be less than brilliant in any of those departments.  Bobby, meanwhile, bills himself, with total justification, as Britain's Top Piano Entertainer.  He is about to star as Liberace, the world's top piano entertainer of all time, at The Leicester Square Theatre (more about that in a future blog, no doubt) and treated us to a preview, performing a Dusty Springfield medley in one of Liberace's trademark, OTT, spangly costumes complete with dazzling, fixed smile (so not camp at all, then).

I downed a few white wines at the after-show reception and mwah-mwah-ed the great and the good of showbusiness, all of whom were kind enough to pretend they knew who I was.  I was even kissed first by warm and wonderful King of the Jungle Christopher Biggins.

I've nibbled around the edges of showbusiness proper throughout my broadcasting career, and I love and admire its full-time practitioners; fearless, funny, feisty folk who suffer a thousand setbacks but never give up and always give 110%.  Contrary to public perception, their lives are more about grit and graft than glamour and gracious living.  If they had an ounce of sense, they'd jack it in and do something more steady and less demanding, like being an astronaut or running a small country. 

If you've ever left a theatre feeling better than when you went in, be thankful that, in their misguided madness, your laughter and applause outweighs the back street digs, the broken promises and being on first name terms with the clerk at the benefits office.

(picture courtesy of http://www.geocities.com/)