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,, and

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

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.

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