Saturday, 29 May 2010

Vera May Hirons: 30th November 1912 - 14th May 2010

Late last year, I blogged about my 97-year-old Auntie Vera ('Home is where the aunt is', posted 1st December 2009).

Towards the end, I wrote: "As I check for typos, I realise [it] 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."

Alas, my unintentional obit proved only mildly premature.  Vera has left us, and I returned to Birmingham this week for her funeral.

It was a lovely, simple, understated, mildly religious affair.  Very English.  Very non-London.  Only the lay preacher and I spoke.  I had laboured long and hard, attempting to capture, in a five-minute address, the essence of a long, eventful life and an independent, forward-looking, joyful personality.  Various mourners were kind enough to say, unasked, that I achieved it.

I thought I would feel only happiness on the day, as my memories of Vera are all good and she had said often during her final fortnight that she was ready go to.  And, certainly, happiness was the day's overriding emotion.  However, to my surprise, I found myself on the verge of tears numerous times.  I'm such a cry baby these days.  However did that happen?  Is it a simple consequence of age?  Do Life's knocks create a reservoir of sadness, liable to overflow whenever another unhappy event raises the saltwater level?  Or is it that Society, which once decreed that only girls cry, now tells men they may, indeed should, let it all out?  Who knows?

My first dodgy moment was in the funeral car on the way to the crematorium when one of Vera's step great grandsons, aged about eight and fascinated by every detail of his first funeral, piped up that he really loved Grandma Vera and would particularly miss the footballer pyjamas she bought him for Christmas every year.  I said he'd better make the current pair last, then, as he wouldn't be getting any more pyjamas.  The adults with us laughed at this modest joke but he took it entirely seriously and nodded in that fiercely earnest way only a youngster can.  It was that reaction, for some reason, which raised the level of the reservoir dangerously high.

Milling around outside the crematorium was a group of woman of many nationalities.  They were the carers whose work had allowed Auntie to remain in her own home until she died.  Going into a home was the greatest fear of her final years.  Even getting her into hospital for minor surgery took some doing because: "Once they get you in there, they never let you out again!"

I commented that attending elderly clients' funerals must be a fairly regular event.  "Oh, no," a grey-haired Indian lady in a sari corrected me, "we don't normally go.  We've only come because it's Vera's funeral and we all loved her so much."  The others murmured their agreement, one adding that she had never attended such an event before but wouldn't have missed Vera's for anything.  When a third explained that she would have to forgo the wake because she had had only three hours' sleep after working all night, I had to excuse myself and bite my lip very hard.   

As I negotiated the vile, 60s, pedestrian subway to the railway station for the 10-minute ride from Vera's not-very-pretty bit of Brum back to the city centre, I wondered whether, after visiting her there so many times, I would ever go to B20 again.  Now that I have a Midlands-based job, I can finally live in my fabulous flat in the Second City's iconic, cylindrical tower, The Rotunda (see same previous blog).  I move in in a fortnight and I'd imagined popping over to Perry Barr at least weekly to check on her but it seems the timing was off and it isn't to be.  I'll have to make do with a fund of lovely memories instead (oh dear, saltwater level rising dangerously....)

Finally, here's the verdict of another of Vera's impeccably behaved little step great grandsons upon his first funeral: "They're very sad things but they're good things too because you learn stuff about people."  

Photographs courtesy of Rommel Catalan

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

The case of a badly bruised leg

We live in a uniform world these days.  Every high street boasts the same shops selling the same goods.  Pop into a McDonalds or Starbucks anywhere on the globe and you can confidently predict how big your Big Mac or skinny your skinny latte will be. 

And yet there's one mass-produced item we expect to be unique: our suitcase.  Have you customised your luggage to prevent you hauling someone else's undies and trashy novels off the carousel at Heathrow?  Of course you haven't.  You assume you'll know your case as soon as you see it, even though logic tells you any of your fellow passengers could easily own an identical one.

I am no exception to this strange suspension of disbelief, and I am a wincing, limping, groaning, tragic thing because of it.

On Monday morning, I caught the train back from London to Leicester as usual to start another week on the wireless.  Unlike last week's fiasco (see previous blog), the journey proceded smoothly.  We pulled into Leicester, I collected my case from the rack and skipped jauntily into a perfect East Midlands spring morning.

For no particular reason, it then entered my head that I might have left my diary at home.  I decided to check before starting my walk to work and unzipped the compartment in my case which I reserve for this important book.

It wasn't there.  Oh well, I'd just have to manage without it until I went home on Friday night.  Unless I'd inadvertently put it in the main body of my case.  No, it wasn't there, either, although I was pleased and surprised to see that I'd brought a bottle of water with me.  Oh, and sunglasses, too.  They'd be handy now the weather had finally come good.  Very nice sunglasses, actually.  Nicer than mine.

Hang on a minute.....NICER THAN MINE???  This wasn't my case!

Without even pausing to zip it up, I pelted back down the platform and flung it and myself back onto the train.  "I'm terribly sorry," I panted to a surprised and slightly frightened carriage, "I've taken this case by mistake!"

The rightful owner stepped forward and was very nice about it.  I wrenched mine, which was indeed identical and had been right next to his, off the rack and headed for the door. 

Which then began to close.  If I didn't get off that train, I'd have to go to Derby and back, and probably miss the start of my radio show, which must never happen!   I threw my case out and myself after it, crashing on top of it in an ungainly and painful heap (watched, no doubt, by those slightly frightened passengers and convincing any waverers as to my mental state).

One of the refinements of modern rolling stock is that the doors close automatically even if the train isn't about to depart.  Sure enough, the 10.01 for stations to Sheffield was in no hurry to leave.  All I'd needed to do was push the button and the door would have reopened and I could have departed without doing my comedy impersonation of a stunt man.

Thirty-six hours later, I'm still limping and wincing, although the pain is decreasing so I don't think I've done myself any serious harm.

But the moral of the story is clear: customise your cases!  I thought about getting some stickers for mine, but where does anyone over the age of 10 buy stickers? 

And stickers say so much: people assume, not unreasonably, that you are passionate about whatever cause or organisation they advertise.  Do they do ones for people who are slightly left-of-centre, vaguely worried about global warming but not enough to do very much recycling, fairly proud to be British though aware we don't always get it right, and all for banning the bomb provided the other side ban it first?

No, I thought not.  It looks like more suitcase comedy capers could be in the offing.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Travel - at a price

I've had a frustratingly, infuriatingly, pointlessly expensive weekend.  And it could have been even worse.....

I work in Leicester all week and go home by train to London at weekends.  I buy my tickets online during the week.  A seat on the 14.57 Leicester-St Pancras service on a Friday afternoon costs £12, a surprisingly fair price for modern-day robber barons East Midlands Trains whose fares dwarf those of other operators and who, unfortunately, have the monopoly on journeys into and out of Leicester.

Last week, though, I didn't get round to buying my tickets until Friday morning.  Sure enough, the price had leapt to £48.  And none of the other trains leaving that afternoon was any cheaper.

Cost of my tardiness: £36.

The boyf and I are off to Belfast in September, volcanic ash permitting.  I'm to 'marry' a friend and his other half.  I am not licenced to perform civil partnerships, so Stephen and Ravi will do the legal bit quickly and quietly beforehand.  I will then invite them to declare their mutual love and commitment before weeping friends and family in beautiful Belfast Castle.  I am honoured and can't wait.

Ryanair seats are £30 return, substantially less, you'll notice, than a Leicester to London, bought-on-the-day single from East Midlands "just give us yer money and no-one gets hurt" Trains.  Brilliant deal.

But mind that mouse!  Don't, whatever you do, click one of the little aeroplane symbols thinking you're selecting the flight detailed alongside it.  I did - and ended up booking the 6am red-eye in both directions.  I knew that changing the journeys would incur a penalty.  I didn't, however, anticipate its increasing the cost from £60 for the two of us to A HUNDRED AND EIGHTY POUNDS!

Cost of my careless clicks: £120.  Total needless spend of the weekend so far: £156.

On Monday morning, I set off for another week on the wireless in Leicester.  The Victoria Line was up the spout.  Commuters were packed onto the platform like the proverbial tinned sardines.  An already heaving train finally limped into the station.  About one in 10 of those waiting managed to elbow their way on.  For me, with a large suitcase, the situation was hopeless.

I went back up the escalator and beeped out, thus paying £1.80 on my Oyster for a journey Transport for London had been unable to deliver.  I suppose I could have argued my case with an official but time was tight.

I hailed a cab.  The ride to St Pancras Station was agonisingly slow, roadworks at Waterloo proving particularly sticky.  I arrived just as my train pulled out, so the taxi fare was another £20 wasted.

Cost of London Underground's eternally fragile signalling system: £1.80 + £20 = £21.80.  Total needless spend of the weekend so far: £177.80.

Missing the start of your show is one of radio's great no-nos and I was now seriously doubting whether I could make mine.  But, joy upon joy, another fast train to Leicester, the 09.25, was leaving in minutes.  I was saved! 

However, East Midlands Trains doesn't let you use your ticket on the next train if you've missed yours -that wouldn't extort the maximum cash out of its long suffering passengers, you see - so I knew I'd be caught by the ticket inspector on the 09.25 and fined £62 (or, rather, required to buy another ticket at the standard price, as they prefer to think of it).  Yes, that really is what EMT does to you for daring to catch a train a few minutes before or after the one you're booked on.  You dyed-in-the-wool motorists can't believe what we public transport users put up with, can you?  At times, neither can we!

Anyway, I should have simply put my ticket through the slot at the barrier, boarded the train and subsequently paid my fine.  Instead, I foolishly asked the charmless jobsworth at the barrier whether my ticket was valid on  the 09.25.  "No," he replied, "you need to return to the ticket office to buy a new one for this service." 

But if I did that, I wouldn't have time to catch this servie!  Couldn't I just jump on board and pay the fine?  "No."  I really would get into terrible trouble if I didn't catch that train: couldn't he make an exception?  "No."  By now, he was physically barring my way.

Swearing - and not entirely under my breath - I descended the escalator en route to the ticket hall.  But then I had an idea.  I came back up the 'up' escalator, calmly walked back to the barrier avoiding eye contact with Mr Charmless Jobsworth, stuck my ticket in, went through, and caught the train with seconds to spare.  Hah!

And it got even better: when the inspector came round, I gave him my ticket and, sure enough, he immediately clocked that I was on the wrong train.  "I know!" I gushed, all faux innocence.  "The Victoria Line was hopeless this morning, so I missed the 09.15 by moments.  Thank goodness for the 09.25!"  Had The Revenue Team been working that train, he explained, they'd have made me buy a standard price ticket (the £62 "fine").  But they weren't, and he was going to let me off! 

East Midlands Trains, it seems, had made the fatal error of employing a reasonable bloke!  I'm sure they'll soon rumble him and replace him with a charmless automaton, but I was in the clear.

"In future," he said, "just explain the problems you've had getting to the station to the staff at the ticket barrier, and they'll stamp your ticket and let you through."  Somehow, I both kept a straight face and refrained from saying: "Have you actually met the barrier staff at St Pancras?" 

Cost to East Midlands Trains of inadvertently employing a decent human being: £62.

So, what morals do we draw from this sorry chain of events?  Well, there are so many, you can take your pick.  For example:

a) East Midlands Trains are &%$"£*@!!!!!!
b) silly computing errors can cost you dear
c) in London, you're always only a signalling failure away from disaster
d) I'll never be rich

However, I prefer e):

e) it's only money: I've still got my health and strength and people who love me, not to mention more Diana Ross CDs than you could shake a stick at.  What's £177.80 compared to all that?

Thank you for reading.  My spleen is now fully vented.

PS: can you lend us a tenner?

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Pass the raw celery, please

People often remark that I don't look my age.  As I am allergic to physical exercise (my latest efforts to attend a gym regularly, as detailed in a previous blog, have inevitably fizzled out), I can only put this down to a mixture of good gene inheritance and a sensible diet. 

How is it, then, that today I consumed enough chocolate, shortbread and crisps to keep an entire sink estate of couch potatoes happy from now till Tuesday week?  Answer: I have spent the day judging the annual Great Taste Awards. 

Manufacturers of just about any foodstuffs can submit their products.  A small percentage are awarded one, two or three gold stars with which they can then emblazon their packaging.  This is a big deal in the food world; it's claimed these coveted stars have turned more than one tiny, artisan producer into a big player.

Clearly, then, it's a weighty responsibility for the judges who include producers, delicatessan proprietors, chocolatiers, cheesemakers, food PRs, chefs and writers.  Big names like Antony Worrall Thompson are happy to take part, even though there is no fee.

The judging takes place at various venues across many days.  At each session, 40 to 50 informed foodies are split into teams of five or six, each ploughing through endless, anonymous samples of sausage, cheese, oatcakes, ice cream and elderflower cordial.  They arrive at a score and write a short report on every item suggesting possible improvements.  Does the balance of sweet and sour in a relish need adjusting?  Would a shortbread be better if it were cut a tad thicker?  A rum truffle tastes terrific but its appearance is offputtingly dull: could the makers give the chocolate shell a sheen? 

If they come across a sliver of bacon, pot of joghurt or square of chocolate with the wow factor, the judges refer it up to the supreme tasting table, the members of which have the final say on how many, if any, of those three coveted gold stars it will be awarded.

As a rookie judge last year, I was astonished to be asked to serve on the supreme table for one session.  I was a bit shy and overawed to start with but, within minutes, had returned to my usual, opinionated, passionate self, and was debating furiously with Charles Campion, food writing doyen of The London Evening Standard, the optimum ratio of crisp crust to squidgy middle in the perfect chocolate brownie.

My session this year took place within the Real Food Festival at the Earls Court arena, so the lunchbreak afforded an opportunity to tour the stalls, sample the wines and stroke bored longhorn cattle and cute little lambs (which will be even more delightful in the near future when accompanied by roast potatoes and mint sauce).

Because cooking facilities at Earls Court are limited, all the hot entries were saved for another day leaving us to deal with things like chocolate, shortbread, potato crisps and chutney.

Gorging on such forbidden fruits might sound like heaven but, believe me, after your seventh fudge sample in a row, actual fruit is what your poor, abused body is crying out for.

But I mustn't complain.  It's an honour to be asked, some (though certainly not all) of the samples are simply sensational, and it's fascinating to meet fellow foodies from every corner of the culinary universe.

I'm back home now.  Sure enough, the initial sugar rush from all those sweetmeats has worn off and I can barely keep my eyes open.  Why didn't I Hoover my flat whilst I was as high as a kite?

I'm about to rustle up a bit of dinner.  I'm thinking a large, crisp, undressed salad followed by a bowl of strawberries without sugar or cream.  Anything lurking in the cake tin or biscuit barrel is safe tonight. 

Saturday, 8 May 2010

The ride of my life

We all have to face our demons sometimes. One of mine has always been horses. Specifically, horseriding.

Why would you want to climb onto the back of a huge, highly-strung creature liable to freak out if a car backfires or a mischievous dog starts snapping around its far-too-thin legs?

Why would you want to risk being concussed or even spending the rest of your life in a wheelchair when The Good Lord gave us the intelligence to invent the pedal cycle and internal combustion engine, not to mention providing us with a perfectly serviceable pair of legs?

This has always been my view: I was never the little boy rushing to the gate to give Dobbin a sugar lump. I wanted to keep my fingers safe for piano practice, thanks all the same. Female friends who went all misty-eyed at the thought of owning a pony filled me with baffled disdain.

But, of course, all one’s chickens – and, indeed, horses – eventually come home to roost and, this past week, my weekly challenge on my lunchtime show on BBC Radio Leicester has been to learn to ride.

As you may know from my last blog, I’ve already successfully tackled bingo calling, floristry, street cleaning, maypole dancing, pork pie making, beatboxing and town crying. None of those dismayed me anything like as much as getting into the saddle.

It was with a heavy heart, therefore, that I headed to the charming village of Somerby in rural Leicestershire for my first lesson. When I got hopelessly lost and had to drive back to the centre of Leicester and start again, I was secretly pleased. I rang the equestrian centre to explain that I would be terribly late: would they still be able to fit me in? Of course, no problem, laughed the lady on the phone. Damn!

Fast forward an hour, and I’ve started my recording machine, been fitted for a hard hat and am on my way to meet J.T. who is to be my (hopefully) trusty steed. Interesting name, I muse, as the recording machine whirs, why J.T.? Gail, the riding school owner, becomes hesitant and coy for the first time. “Oh, it’s, erm, an abbreviation for, you know, er, John Thomas,” she finally gets out. It takes me a second to catch on; J.T. is so named because he is unusually well-blessed, even for a horse. I sneak a peek but see nothing out of the ordinary. Mind you, he is a pensioner these days and I am not a lash-fluttering filly.

Soon, I’ve climbed a set of wooden steps (so that’s my first fear, that I wouldn’t even be able to mount the wretched thing, dealt with) and am in the saddle. Blimey, it’s high up there! I’m breathless and tense but fortunately, I have a job to do and that keeps my terror under control: I focus on the fact that I must return with some good radio.

Before long, a young lady who initially led J.T., has relinquished the reigns and I am starting him, stopping him, and turning him right and left all by myself. And it’s fine!

Just as I’m becoming relatively comfortable, owner Gail says it’s time to trot. The secret to trotting, it turns out, is rising and falling in unison with the horse. If the horse is going up whilst you are coming down, your nether regions connect with the saddle on a regular and painful basis. I have a hunch this repeated slapping of the undercarriage is less of an issue for women than men. I never quite got the rhythm, as my cry of ‘ow!’, ‘ow!’, ‘ow!’ confirmed, but I did trot.

As it was still going so well, Gail suggested we leave the safe predictability of the indoor arena for a hack down the lane. What, on a first lesson? What about barking dogs and backfiring cars and a hundred other horse-spooking possibilities? An experienced horseman could no doubt cope with most of them but what chance would I have?

Gail, of course, pooh-poohed my fears. The weather and countryside were beautiful. The few dogs we encountered were friendly and the odd vehicle was driven with consideration. To my utter astonishment, I walked, trotted, stopped, started and turned J.T. around the Leicestershire fields, if not like an old hand, certainly with little fear and even with a degree of relaxed confidence.

Gail pronounced that I had passed my weekly challenge and that she could certainly make a horseman out of me. 

I won’t be granting her that opportunity. I haven’t experienced a bridle-path-to-Damascus conversion. I was still pleased to dismount and retake control of my destiny. However, the experience was a reasonably pleasant one, and I definitely conquered my riding demons.

This week, I am to learn the art of tattooing. Unbelievably, a volunteer has been found who is prepared to allow me to permanently ink his body after just a couple of hours’ tuition. I feel the ante has been upped once again. I can’t help feeling that, as the needle whirs and my hand trembles and my victim looks up at me with a trusting smile, I shall wish I was back in the saddle.

And if you’d told me that a week ago…..

Monday, 3 May 2010

Taking the tasks

Question: what do bingo-calling, pork pie-making, street cleaning, floristry, town crying, maypole dancing and beatboxing have in common?

Answer: I can do all of ‘em! Maybe not to the very highest standards, but I definitely can!

One of the features of the BBC Radio Leicester show of which I’m currently long-term caretaker, is a weekly challenge.

As if mastering the technicals of 21st-century radio wasn’t enough for my aging brain (see previous blog), I have, from the start, been required to master a new skill every seven days, too.

Listeners follow my progress through the week as an expert tutors me and I practice. At least, I hope listeners do so: for all I know, they could be yelling at the radio: “Who cares whether you can construct a simple bouquet with three long-stemmed roses and a variety of ornamental grasses, Bill? Play another song, for heaven’s sake, before we retune to commercial rival Anonymous FM!” (strapline: “playing Leicestershire’s favourite six songs over and over again until you lose the will to live”).

On Friday, teacher turns examiner. He or she concocts what they consider to be a fair test of my abilities, and I take that test live on air.

I don’t like to boast (is it ever true when someone says that?) but thus far, I’ve passed seven out of seven.

As with most things, there’s more to floristry, bingo calling, even litter picking, than meets the eye.

Take the bingo. For a start, camping it up by announcing 22 as two little ducks, 59 as the Brighton line or, perish the thought, 88 as feelings-hurting, litigation-creating two fat ladies, is strictly verboten. Bingo has gone serious, slick and modern with cash prizes running into four figures. Neither the players, many of whom are no longer fat ladies of a certain age, incidentally, nor the management, want time-delaying whimsy anymore; they demand fast, efficient delivery, and nothing but.

Each numbers must be announced in a certain way. 50, for example, can only be delivered as ‘five-oh, fifty’. The same rule applies to all the others that end in 0. The reason? If you say ‘forty’ before you’ve said ‘four-oh’, it can be misheard as ‘fourteen’ and occasion a false shout of ‘House!’.

Single digit numbers, meanwhile, must always be announced as, for example, ‘eight, on its own, number eight’. No other permutation is acceptable, not even ‘number eight, on its own, eight’. Again, this is because this form is thought least likely to cause confusion.

Only machine gun delivery will do. There simply isn’t time to think: “Ooo, 64’s come up. Do I say ‘six and four, sixty four’ or is it ‘sixty four, six and four?”

The hundred-odd bowed heads at Mecca Bingo’s lunchtime session formed a daunting sight, but I pulled it off. Being a broadcaster to the souls of my feet and roots of my hair, the fact that tens of thousands of radio listeners were eavesdropping on my moment of pressure, which I guess would be many people’s primary concern, never occurred to me, let alone added to the pressure.

I’m proud to say I got a spontaneous round of applause from the players at Leicester’s Freemans Common (which sounds quite scenic but is, in fact, an industrial estate). I controlled my euphoria and managed not to thank my mother, agent, director and, more than anyone, the writers for such a fabulous script (52, 7, 13, 44, 8: poetry!) before handing the mic back to the regular caller.

In the course of these challenges, I’ve also managed a bit of cliché destruction. My colleagues (and I, if I’m honest) assumed that, as a gay man possessed of, shall we say, a certainly degree of flamboyance, I’d take to floristry like the proverbial duck to water, but struggle with becoming a binman.

It turned out to be quite the reverse: despite kind and patient tutorage and much practice, I never really produced a professional-looking bouquet. In fact, I still can’t work out how anyone with fewer than four hands manages it. Not only do you have to hold together countless stems of varying length, they also have to be at different angles. Grasses must be wrapped around to form bows or heart-shaped loops. Then it all has to be tightly secured with ribbon. Relax the grip of your aching hand for even an instant and you end up with blooms lolling at crazy angles in a “bouquet” no-one in their right mind would want to give or receive.

My teacher-turned-examiner gave me a pass for my Friday on-air effort which I think says more about her benevolence than my skill. Floristry was certainly the closest I’ve come to a fail.

Being part of a Council gang, cleaning Leicester city centre’s streets, however, was both relatively easy and great fun. I bonded with the other guys instantly and soon got to grips with the mechanical claw device that saves you bending to retrieve every crisp packet and Coke can. I derived satisfaction, too, from giving the manky, hard-to-get-at corners of various items of street furniture, a good brushing. I’m sure it would be miserable on a cold, wet day but, with the sun on my high-visibility jacketed back, it seemed a lovely way to get some light exercise and do something useful at the same time.

You’ve indulged me sufficiently for one session, so I’ll regale you with my pork pie making, town crying, maypole dancing and beatboxing in future blogs.

Coming up this week is horse riding. I confidently predict my first fail. I only hope I don’t end up concussed or permanently wheelchair-bound. It has long been my view that horses are highly strung, bloody minded, excessively emotional scaredy cats, just waiting for an excuse to toss that pesky rider off their back and canter free. If God meant us to sit up there, about a thousand miles above the ground, he would have given us unbreakable spines and denied us the intelligence to invent the pedal cycle and combustion engine. “You’ll never get me up on one of those things” has long been my equine mantra so quite why I have agreed to saddle up at one of Leicestershire’s riding schools, I have no idea.

Anyway, watch this space. I shall report back on my dealings with Dobbin. Anyone got any spare apples or sugar lumps?

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Not quite going Radio Ga-Ga

Shame on me. It’s so long since I blogged, you must have thought I’d packed it in for good.

The truth is, I’ve been too tired. What I thought would be the cushiest job I’ve ever had – presenting a mere two hours a day of local radio – has done me in.

I used to broadcast four hours a night, four times a week, on London’s phone-in station, LBC 97.3  I started at 1am and somehow kept my brain in gear and the phone lines buzzing until signing off at 5. These hours are called the graveyard shift, and rightly so because they are an absolute killer. The only chances I got to refocus my mind or empty my bladder were brief new bulletins and ad breaks.

If the computer system crashed or there was some other technical fault, there were no engineers around to consult. The only other person at the station was a phone-answerer, and most of them had far less technical knowledge than I did. Theoretically, I could have phoned an engineer and woken them up. Curiously, on the very rare occasions when this proved unavoidable, they weren’t too pleased. I couldn’t even slam on a CD whilst I investigated the fault; on a speech station, no music is allowed. Playing an entire song, unless it illustrates a feature, breaches your licence, and means a fine for the station and quite possibly the dole queue for the presenter.

Attempting to diagnose a technical fault whilst listening to and challenging the possibly libellous and usually wildly inaccurate opinions of an inebriated caller is not easy. In fact, it’s the hardest job I’ve ever done and, please God, the hardest job I ever will do.

So, playing a few songs and doing a few lightweight interviews for a mere two hours a day on BBC Radio Leicester, and at lunchtime when the mind and body aren’t begging to be allowed to shut down, sounded like a breeze. I’d be in at 10 and out by 3 without breaking into a sweat. Being away from home from Monday to Friday, I’d be unable to tackle all those niggling domestic jobs that always want doing (hoorah!), and would end up blogging away at a furious rate, as much to pass the time as for any other reason.

Not a bit of it. If the learning curve had been any steeper, I’d have ended up with vertigo. I’ve had to master the BBC’s arcane information system to find scripts, sound clips, jingles and trails. I’ve battled with new-fangled equipment when pre-recording, learnt how to transfer the results to my PC, worked out how to edit them, and attempted to store the finished product in the correct file before transferring it to the appropriate day’s running order. It’s been hard!

I’ve had to interrupt colleagues, all of whom always have too much to do – believe me, there is no slack in BBC local radio these days – time and again. They’ve been unfailingly helpful and patient but I’ve felt so guilty. And stupid. And old. And defeated.

Then there was the terror of setting up the studio ready for my live shows. When I started in BBC local radio, there were cartridges to play (like the old eight-track you had in your Ford Capri), reel-to-reel tape recorders, turntables for records, new-fangled CD players, and that was about it. Today, I have to monitor no fewer than six computer screens and know how all kinds of bits of kit work. And there’s no technician the other side of the glass to appeal to when you get stuck anymore – you’re flying solo.

The scariest bit is what we call ‘taking control’. The previous presenter works from an adjacent studio. Towards the end of his programme, you have to select an inordinate number of symbols on touch screens until his programme is actually going out via your studio. Get it even minutely wrong and you haven’t taken control at all, even though you may think you have. The first you know of your mistake is when you realise not a word of what you’re saying is being broadcast. You have reduced the station to silence, and that’s rarely good on radio.

Take control wrongly in a different way and you instantly cut off your predecessor before you’re ready to fill the void. Again, silence reigns. It’s hard to know who will be less amused, the colleague the end of whose show you've just destroyed or your boss.

And then there were the more mundane tensions that everyone experiences in a new workplace, like forgetting where the loos are, not being able to absorb colleagues’ names, and not being able to find the kitchen.

The last problem (which I detailed in a previous blog) wouldn’t normally be of crucial importance unless you were literally dying of thirst or hunger but, believe me, when you are due there to interview a chef live as he rustles up a dish and you have only the duration of one record to make the journey from the studio, you don’t half panic when you can’t find it. Eventually, I ran into the engineers’ room and screamed: “Help! Tell me where the kitchen is! I need to be there in seconds!” “It’s there,” they replied in a baffled and slightly nervous tone, pointing at a door all of six feet away from which the unmistakable aroma of cooking was emanating.

How is it that an old trooper like me had so much to learn? It’s partly because I’ve been broadcasting in the commercial sector for the past few years where all the equipment is different. But I also hadn’t realised how cosseted I’d been prior to that during my last stint at a BBC local station. There, because I had another job to dash to each day, I was what’s known as show-and-go. It sounds a bit like taking only one bottle of shampoo into the shower but it means your colleagues assemble everything for you, you swan in, glance through your scripts, glide onto the air, do the show, and head off to your next gig leaving others to clear up all your mess, from logging the music details to washing up the tea mugs.

There are no handmaidens to ease my burden at BBC Leicester: I have half a broadcast assistant. Her hands are more than full finding and booking guests to fill my show and the other one she works on. That leaves me to do everything else.

Of course, it’s getting easier. Some of the procedures that originally had me sobbing with frustration are already second nature. Others are still difficult but can be confidently tackled by following the idiot-proof, step-by-step instructions which I’ve written for myself. When I do get stuck, I remind myself that it now happens far less often, so well done, me! (It doesn’t work, of course – I still feel old and slow and stupid.)

Why, you might ask, have I persevered if it’s all been so tear-inducing and time-consuming?

Two reasons: I hate not working. I’ve worked all my life. The word that invariably cropped up on my school reports was ‘conscientious’. My essays were always handed in on time. I just can’t loll about. Hobbies are fine but only as a counterpoint to hard work. As you might have read in previous blogs, I’ve been somewhat under-employed since leaving LBC last autumn, so the opportunity to flex my radio muscles again daily was one I grabbed with both hands.

The second, even more important reason is that I just love being on the radio. Even on Day One at Leicester when working the desk felt like driving a car on an icy road very fast after only half a driving lesson, the actual broadcasting bit was simultaneously exhilarating and comfortable. Getting the best out of a caller, landing a killer question on a prevaricating official, being funny or creative off the cuff, even introducing a song just right – these are the things which, quite frankly, I live for.

That might sound terribly sad, I realise: shouldn’t I live for the love of my partner, friends and family? For the beauty of Nature? For making the world a better place? Well, yeah, those things are fine up to a point but they’re not being on the radio, are they?

I’m afraid if I had to choose either a romantic dinner and night of passion with Thierry Henry (the world’s most attractive man, as you’ve possibly noticed) or presenting a radio show flawlessly, there’d be no contest.

It would be the fabulous food and ‘afters’ with M. Henry, obviously. Good grief, you didn’t really think I was that sad, did you?

But I still really, really love being on the radio…..

Friday, 19 March 2010

Finding my feet and fish in The East

Look at the date on my previous blog: 3rd March!  That's over two weeks ago and represents the longest gap between posts since I started.  I humbly apologise.  I don't know why you all bother with me, but I'm glad you do (quite a lot of you, according to Google analytics - who are these readers in India, Russia and Canada?  I'm intrigued.  Shows yourselves!)

You'll have to completely let me off, at least as far as this last week is concerned.  I've been up in the East Midlands presenting BBC Radio Leicester's lunchtime show and it has wiped me out.

This is not what I was expecting.  I've been presenting daily programmes on BBC local stations, off and on for more than 20 years.  I thought I'd breeze through it, especially as it's only a two-hour show.  I thought I'd have so much spare time, I'd be blogging until you couldn't bear to read another word.

What I hadn't taken into account, because I'd completely forgotten about it, is how tiring working in a new environment with new colleagues is, however nice it and they might be (and both the building and people seem very nice at the Beeb in Leicester).  I ran around like a harrassed, headless chicken for the first couple of days, unable even to find the studio, toilet, my desk or the kitchen. 

You might think mislaying the kitchen wouldn't be the end of the world unless you were starving but, on Day 2, I was to interview a fishmonger there as he poached haddock, boiled roe and sauteed chitterlings (which, it turns out, are fish intestines - you learn something every day - and absolutely yummy). 

In the studio, I commanded the computer to play a longish song then headed kitchenwards with headphones, microphone and a box of technical tricks I don't understand that enables me to continue broadcasting away from base.  The BBC at Leicester is hardly a vast, labyrinthine edifice like London's Broadcasting House or Television Centre yet I simply could not find the blasted kitchen.  After a couple of panic-filled minutes that felt like a week and a half, I put my head round the door of the engineers' office and begged them for help.  "It's just there," they replied.  I was approximately three feet away from the kitchen door.  I made it just as the record began to fade.

Once I'd got my breath back, the food feature turned out to be a joy because John Heath, the fishmonger in question, and I have had dealings before.  Three years ago, John's fish, chips and mushy peas was runner-up main course in Series 2 of Britain's Best Dish, the annual, culinary contest on ITV1 featuring chefs Ed Baines and John Burton Race and wine guru Jilly Goolden. 

Ed, John and Jilly act both as mentors and judges on the show and, towards the end of the series, were augmented by London Evening Standard restaurant critic Charles Campion, culinary goddess Sophie Grigson and me.  We were rendered ecstatic by John's pearly white, perfectly flaky cod in gossamer-light batter with chips that would have your great granny weeping with nostalgia. 

He was beaten by the narrowest of margins by an ambrosial lamb biryani.  We all felt awful having to choose one dish over the other as they were both way ahead of the pack, and couldn't have been more different: it was like saying a superb pear was better than a stunning apple.

John appears to have recovered from the disappointment of ending up so near yet so far from the glittering televisual prize and is still happily supplying haddock, halibut and herring to the good folk of Wigston Magna, as he has done for an amazing 47 years. 

Some of my more squeamish new colleagues were aghast at the relish with which I consumed his roe and chitterlings, so goodness knows what they'll make of next Tuesday's cookery feature.  I'll be meeting a guy who cooks roadkill in the exhaust pipe of his camper van.  Fricassee of squirrel, anyone?  I like to think of myself as fearlessly omnivorous but maybe even will be yearning for the return of fried fish intestines. 

I suppose I could always fail to find the kitchen on purpose......

Photos courtesy of http://www.programmes.stv.tv/, http://www.guardian.co.uk/, http://www.glanceimage.co.uk/

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Playing with Poirot, rum, chocolate and a large portion of turkey

Another bizarre day in the life that I call mine.

It started with my providing piano accompaniment whilst David "Poirot" Suchet and two thesps, both aged about 90, sang a song made famous by the forgotten comedian Sid Fields for a BBC4 documentary.  I then enjoyed sipping no fewer than 11 rums, each paired with an exquisite chocolate dessert.  The fact that I can even find my PC's keyboard, let alone hit the right letters, proves either that I'm a disturbingly hardened drinker or an exceptional typist.  I prefer to believe the latter. 

And later, I shall have the dubious pleasure of rubbishing Andrew Lloyd Webber's new musical on BBC Radio London 94.9.

Shall we run through all that in a little more detail?

Sid Field was a hugely successful comedian in the 1940s.  He was also, like me, a Brummie, so I am ashamed not to have previously heard of him.  His act, I learnt today, was not only hilarious but camp and riddled with doubles entendres.  I like the guy more and more!

The BBC has commissioned a documentary about him, presented by David Suchet who portrayed him in a musical, What a Performance, in 1994.  This morning, he and I repaired to the Prince of Wales Theatre in Leicester Square.  Mr Suchet interviewed two extremely elderly gentlemen who appeared with Mr Field in various West End variety shows during the Second World War.  I played piano whilst all three sang 'I'm Gonna Get Lit Up (When the Lights Go On in London)', apparently one of Mr Field's greatest hits.

Mr Suchet was charming, urbane and actorly, and displayed an encyclopaedic knowledge and burning enthusiasm for his subject.  He teased fabulous wartime, theatrical tales out of the two old boys who, despite their great age, remain performers to their very bones.  One of them delivered a brilliant tap routine, albeit whilst sitting down, as befits a nonagenarian.

They weren't the easiest trio to musically direct, each having different ideas about the tempo and lyrics.  The director pronounced himself satisfied with our rendition, however, so who am I to argue?

The first rule of TV filming is that it will overrun.  Sure enough, I had to jog from Leicester Square to Wigmore Street for my next appointment, a rum and chocolate matching session at posh cookery school, L'atelier des Chefs.

It was worth being temporary out of puff, though.  After introductions from north London restaurateur and rum expert Ian Burrell and world-class chocolatier Ramon Morató from Spain, I and a gaggle of food writers, chocolate retailers and assorted freeloaders worked our way through 11 of Senor Morató's divine desserts, each one accompanied by a different rum selected by Mr Burrell.

I like rum as much as the next lush but have never majored on it and so was surprised to discover that rums are at least as diverse as whiskies.  Indeed, one tasted exactly like a peaty single malt.  Others were reminiscent of brandy and calvados.  Some were pale with a sweet edge, some deeply hued and firey.

As for the puds, I'll make you green with envy with the details of just a couple: first, imagine the heaven that is a little cube of sugar syrup-soaked chocolate sponge topped with a tart passion fruit set cream, a dried raspberry and a speck of crystalised violet.  Then think of the taste and textural sensation a mini sphere of dense, deeply-flavoured chocolate mousse atop the tiniest dice of banana and crunchy biscuit swimming in a sharp lime syrup would provide.

I'm not convinced rum and puds are natural culinary companions but, hey, it sure was a blast finding out.

Soon, I shall head off to my third and final appointment of the day, describing the events of my past week to Joanne Good on BBC London 94.9.  In addition to reviewing several restaurants, I shall report on Press night at Lord Lloyd Webber's new musical, Love Never Dies, at The Adelphi.

I feel uncustomarily nervous because I shall be slating one of the giants of musical theatre.  There's no logical reason to be, as I shall only be proferring an honest opinion.  That opinion will be that the show is a total turkey.  With stuffing, cranberry sauce and chipolatas.

It continues the story of the Phantom of the Opera and Christine.  The Phantom has fled Paris for a new life in New York's Coney Island where he runs an amusement park and theatre.  Christine has given up the stage and married a petulant alcoholic who drinks and gambles away all their funds.  Without revealing his identity, the Phantom, who is still obsessed by her, offers her a vast amount of money for a one-night singing engagement.  Thus she, her husband and their 10-year-old son are lured to America where poor old Phantom hopes finally to win her heart.

So far so good.  After that, no good at all.  The plot is unbelievable (can you swallow, for example, the idea that the Phantom had sex with Christine before releasing her to marry the boy she loved?  Gaston Leroux who wrote the original story must be turning in his grave).  There are no laughs - it's all shade and no light.  The songs are just awful - A.L.W has forgotten how to write memorable tunes.  The audience tittered at what should have been the tense dénouement.  Applause throughout was lukewarm and shortlived.

I am not one of Theatreland's sneering snobs who routinely dismiss Lloyd Webber.  I love Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Sunset Boulevard and the original Phantom.  But please, if you are thinking of spending £50 of your hard-earned money on a West End musical, don't waste it on this bum-numbing tosh.  Not when Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Wicked, Billy Elliot, Sister Act and especially Legally Blonde are around.  If you want high drama, suffering and quasi opera rather than feelgood fun, catch Les Miserables.  It's still doing good business after more than 24 years.  Love Never Dies doesn't deserve to run for 24 days.

Images courtesy of http://www.commons.wikipedia.org/, http://www.probertencyclopaedia.com/, http://www.ilovemygrub.com/, http://www.elter.net/http://www.beachbumberry.com/, http://www.thesun.co.uk/ http://www.fongsongs.blogspot.com/  

Friday, 26 February 2010

Page boy

Life is full of surprises.  Well, mine is, at any rate.  As regular readers may recall, within the last few weeks, I've appeared on a West End stage, made small talk with a drunken convicted murderer, and worn the late comedian Billy Dainty's toupee whilst listening to a 78 recording of The Beverley Sisters.

Surprised though I was by all of the above, none of them comes close to my latest bolt from the blue; I have been included in the acknowledgements of a physics text book for undergraduates!

Yes, I, the schoolboy whose lack of interest in science was eclipsed only by his loathing of PE, the boy who scraped a grade C physics O-level then gratefully dropped the subject like a hot brick, have been thanked in print by the author of a learned tome.

The writer is Dr Sharon Ann Holgate whom I've known for years since she was a regular contributor to my afternoon show on BBC Southern Counties Radio.  Sharon has a brain like a planet and a string of letters after her name that looks like a lengthy Croation sentence.  Yet she pulls off the rare trick of also being down-to-earth, fun-loving and fashion-conscious.  She even knows about popular culture!  And, despite being an uber-smarty-pants, she's a total klutz when it comes to mobile phones.  She was, therefore, the ideal candidate to demystify a different aspect of popular science and how it relates to the world around us on my radio show each week.

We've since kept in touch and, this week, I attend the launch of her latest work, Understanding Solid State Physics (yours from Amazon for a mere £37.04  - go on, it'll make a change from your Danielle Steel or Len Deighton).  I flicked through a copy and, sure enough, there was my name with those of significant academics I'd never heard of.

I couldn't wait to take Sharon to one side to ask her what I'd done to deserve such an honour.  One of her aims is to link physics theories to everyday life, and she'd once asked me, as a foodie, what I thought of a product designed to keep food fresh for longer in the fridge. Apparently, my response saved her from writing a large number of wasted words.  Who'd've thought!

What's coming next, I wonder: a citation from The Rugby Football Union?  Candlelit dinner with Thierry Henry (yes, please)?  A private audience with The Pope (no, thanks)? 

As a rock star with an unfortunate propensity for bedding his followers once said: "Life is what happens whilst you're busy making fans."

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

When roast carrots take wing

A happy blog today.  I want to remind you of that wonderful moment when you do something, something you care about, 110% right, and you don't know how.

It could be a party you throw or attend, a sexual encounter, a work project, a public performance.  You haven't prepared more thoroughly than usual, you don't seem to be expending greater effort, yet the whole thing floats effortlessly, gloriously, glitteringly along.  At some point, you realise all that's required of you is to allow it to go on happening.

Entertainers will recognise what I'm talking about.  An actor has been in a play for six months, banging out eight shows a week.  One night, quite possibly a wet Wednesday in Hull, the atmosphere becomes electric, the audience is enthralled, every member of the cast's performance goes up a notch.  Or a comedian delivers the same stand-up routine he's performed countless times to moderate acclaim but this time, the entire crowd is rendered helpless from the first gag.  Bouyed up by this, he tosses in ad libs and all of them, even the ones that didn't sound particularly promising in his head the split second before they left his lips, hit the spot.  What's more, on some mystical, possibly primeval level, he knows they'll hit the spot, even though he doesn't know how he knows.

Don't try to analyse it.  You'll get nowhere and, like quicksilver, if you try to grab it, it will disappear through your fingers.  But then, it disappears anyway; the following night, the play's performance is its usual, respectable, solid self.  The stand-up comic has an okay night but no-one in the audience requires treatment from St John's Ambulance to get over their hysteria.

I occasionally experience the phenomenon when I'm cooking a meal.  I've thrown countless dinner parties over the past 30 years and can probably count on the fingers of one hand the times when every component of every course has been, to my eyes and tastebuds at least, unimprovable.

To my delight and bafflement, it happened last Sunday.  My chilled asparagus spears were neither too firm nor too mushy.  They had retained their bright greenness and big asparagus flavour.  The mayonnaise I knocked up to go with them had just the desired degree of lemon and garlic.  The quantities were exactly right.

My sea bass fillets had steamed to optimum white, juicy, flaky, fishiness the first time I checked on them.  The roast roots on which they sat were crunchy without, mashy within, well-seasoned, not oily.  Both components married ecstatically with the dill dressing I spooned over.  It had that restaurant look about it.  It was still hot when it reached the diners.  They loved it.  They left their plates so clean, it seemed an extravagance to put them in the dishwasher.

I could bore you with the virtues of my chocolate orange mousse in similar fashion but you get the picture.  And, sure enough, the most fascinating aspect is that all this was achieved with less, not more, effort than usual.  It was as if some greater force had taken over and I was merely the conduit

Cherish these moments.  They are few and far between and you'll need them when you're sitting in the old people's home, bored witless.  The solitary sunny afternoon when every square inch of your garden shimmered with beauty.  The night when sex was somehow simultaneously surpising and inevitable so that you felt you were reading each other's minds.  The round of golf when the clubs seemed to swing themselves and you notched up your best ever score (and knew you would). 

Whatever your moments are, hang onto them, re-run them, smile a secret smile about them.  Nurse will think you're going ga-ga but she'll probably think that anyway.

Let her.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

An interesting stage in my career

One of the best things about being a TV and radio performer is that you get asked to do all kinds of things for which you're completely unqualified.

For example, despite my acting experience being limited to a few school plays, I have often appeared on stage.  I've donned Joseph's amazing technicolour dreamcoat, toured in a comedy and been booed and cheered in several pantomimes.

I've even performed in the West End, something some proper actors never have the good fortune to experience.  Okay, it was way back in 1985 but at least it was at The Palace Theatre, one of London's biggest, and at least it was a solo spot: I sang one of my own compositions at the piano in a starry concert to raise money for the dependants of Keith Blakelock, the policeman murdered in the Tottenham riots.

I was such a success, I knew they'd have me back and, sure enough, a mere 25 years on, I've just made my West End comeback.  Again, it was a one-nighter but there the similarities ended.  This time, I had a non-speaking role (don't sneer; it never did Marcel Marceau any harm), and it was in a serious drama.

An Inspector Calls, J.B. Priestley's attack on capitalism and the class system, had long been an unfashionable staple of regional rep when director Stephen Daldry began the lengthy process of reinventing and rehabilitating it 20 years ago.  His tense, dark interpretation, complete with spectacular exploding house (by designer Ian MacNeil) has won raves and awards around the world.

One of Daldry's innovations is a kind of mute, time-travelling Greek chorus.  Approximately a dozen men, women and children representing the working classes, excluded from the comfortable, smug and apparently secure, middle-class, 1910s world of the protagonists, stand by, sternly watching events.  Their clothes clearly announce that they, however, are from the 1940s.  It's all a bit complicated and, in any case, I don't want to reveal too much and spoil things: see the play, or at least read it, and all will become clear.

Anyway, to get the production talked about, the PR people had the brainwave of inviting a different broadcaster, journalist or blogger each night to join the chorus, and this Tuesday, it was my turn.

I reported to the stage door of the beautiful old Wyndhams Theatre in Leicester Square at five and was taken to wardrobe for my 'costume fitting'.  All it entailed was being allotted an overcoat, scarf and hat, although I did get to choose between two scarves and two hats.  I went for the brighter scarf and bigger hat, obviously, to maximise the impact of my brief moment in the spotlight.

One of the other Greek chorus members (they call themselves supernumeraries) took me to the stage and walked me through the 'part'.  There was a step forward to remember, a 180 degree turn (on the right shoulder), a turn back (right shoulder again), a final turn away (left this time) and an exit, all on dialogue or other sound cues.

I began to feel quite nervous.  I remembered our school drama teacher stressing how vital it was for every chorus member to act as one because "if one of you does it differently, that's the one every member of the audience's eyes will be drawn to!"  Gulp...

We supernumeraries had two other scenes but these involved only standing motionless in the bourgeois family's house and bowing twice at the curtain so at least there were few opportunities to screw up there.  Finally, I was warned there would be some loud bangs and that jumping or screaming in surprise would constitute unacceptable focus pulling.

It was still barely six o'clock and our first entrance was not until after 8.30 so now began one of the main activities of an actor's life; hanging around.  Installed in the green room, I met the other supers as they arrived.  They were a welcoming and surprisingly diverse bunch including the understudies to all the main roles plus other theatricals like Paul Tate, a larger-than-life northern gentleman who had joined the cast after giving Dame in pantomime: I could certainly picture him berating Jack for trading the cow for a bag of beans or fondly cuffing cheeky Aladdin.  Other members of our group, however, weren't actors at all; there was a housewife, students, a teacher and a couple of office workers all of whom came directly from their day jobs to make a few extra bob. 

All were eager to hear about me; I suppose an injection of new blood is always welcome when you're stuck doing not much with the same colleagues eight times every week.  Teas and coffees were frequently made and distributed, and when a box of shortbread from a recent trip to Edinburgh was broken open, quite a party atmosphere ensued.

Eventually, it was time to go on.  I entered, I stepped, I turned, I turned again, I got off.  I can't say the adrenalin was pumping but it was definitely an experience I'll remember, and I was quietly proud that I'd carried out my minimal duties accurately.  Indeed, one of my colleagues claimed I was the first guest who had got everything right but I'm not sure whether he meant it or was just joking.

Well, you can't tell with these actors, can you?

Pictures courtesy of http://www.abbeyboxoffice.co.uk/, http://www.showsinwestend.co.uk/ and http://arthurlloyd.co.uk/

Monday, 15 February 2010

Sweet charity!

A few blogs ago ('Give over, Gordon!', 6th January, 2010), I railed against the insane hoops charity shops have to jump through to claim the tax on the money they make from selling your unwanted shirts, books and DVDs. 

Any donor who pays income tax is invited to fill in a Gift Aid form with a unique code number.  A sticker with that number is then attached to every one of their donated items.  Once everything's been sold, the shop informs HM Revenue and Customs of the total raised and claims the extra 28%.  It is a bureaucratic nightmare; the assistant at my charity shop told me she spends at least three hours a week at the computer punching in the codes.  And goodness knows how much it is costing the taxpayer for civil servants to process the claims from all the UK's charity shops, probably far more than the relatively trivial amounts being paid out to many of the charities.

The simple way to deal with this would, of course, be to declare charitable donations tax-free.  Why on earth should they be taxed in the first place?  Because there is never enough money in the kitty to pay for all the public services we have come to expect and rely on, I suppose, and the Government is desperate to claw in cash from wherever it can.  Nevertheless, it seems a particularly low piece of stooping.

I'm blogging about it again because today I received a letter from my local charity shop which reveals that the situation is even crazier than I realised.

Not only does the shop have to go through the nonsense I've already listed, it is also required to write to me every time it makes a Gift Aid claim.  If it doesn't, the Scrooge-like automatons at HM Revenue and Customs won't cough up the additional 28%.  The shop can either wait until every item I donated has been sold, thus delaying receipt of the tax money which is rightfully theirs, or it can claim every so often as my unwanted Christmas and birthday presents gradually find new homes but it must apply to HMRC and write to me every single time.

And get this: I can choose to reclaim the proceeds from the sale!  The good-hearted volunteers at the charity shop are required by law to inform me, again in writing, that I can change my mind and swell my own coffers rather than those of the charity.

You might think it unfair that the shop can be forced to hand the cash over when it has invested time, labour and expense in washing and ironing, labelling, displaying and finally selling my stuff, but don't worry, the Government has thought of that: I have to pay the shop an administration fee....OF ONE PER CENT!  My items made £25.64 so, by my reckoning, if I chose to be a capricious, tight-fisted old so-and-so, I could demand £25.37 simply for having donated and dropped off the goods, leaving the shop with all of 27 pence for doing all the rest.

All over the country, kind-hearted souls are giving their time to raise money for the sick, old and disadvantaged.  Their work receives little attention and is decidedly short on glamour - would you relish laundering a stranger's clothes?  How they keep going in the face of such spiteful provocation, I've no idea.

And how the pen-pushers at Revenue and Customs sleep at night, even if they are just following orders, I find equally baffling.
 

Sunday, 14 February 2010

(I'm) just a puppet on a string

Only three and a bit months to go!  I'm seriously over-excited.  I expect you are, too.  How will you be celebrating this year?  Whom will you be with?  It's always difficult to know whose invitation to accept, isn't it?  A lovely dilemma, but a dilemma, nonetheless.  Or are you hosting?  A big do or a small one?

What do you mean, you don't know what I'm talking about?  I'm only talking about the cultural event (not to mention the gay event) of the calendar! 

Still no clearer?  Oh, for heaven's sake....  Alright, here are a few clues; British pride, British shame, block voting, musical clichés (especially key changes), intensely annoying television comperes and commeres, puppets, clowns, transvestites, stilt walkers, girls getting their skirts ripped off, hurdy-gurdies.  I'm talking Eurovision!

I have so much to say about this vast and ever growing, glorious, overblown, camp, insane, slightly out of tune celebration of the mediocre that I shall only scratch the surface in one blog, but here goes.

Let's start at the beginning; it's a very good place to start.  The first Eurovision you can remember dates you as surely as revealing which timelord is 'your' Dr Who.  If trees watched Eurovision, they wouldn't need rings in their trunks.

I lost my Eurovision virginity in 1967.  I was eight and watched with my mum and dad, nan, and godparents, Uncle Fred and Auntie Tit.  (I sense eyebrows shooting up.  Fred's last name was Titterton, and Auntie Tit was his wife.  I can't remember her first name because I always called her, in all innocence, by that abbreviation of her surname.  If the grown-ups used to smirk about it, they were careful not to do so within my eyeline).

Anyway, there we were, five grown-ups and little me, eating mum's ham and mustard sandwiches with whisky for the men, sherry for the women - sorry, ladies - and milk for me, watching Sandie Shaw cruise to victory in a mini dress and bare feet with Puppet on a String, a song we now know she couldn't stand.  Our hearts were in our mouths when the technicians forgot to turn on her microphone so that no-one could hear the whole of her first long note (the 'I' of 'I wonder if one day that/you'll say that/you care').  It didn't stop her winning by a landslide, though, scoring more than twice as many votes (47) as runners-up Ireland (22). 

The grown-ups, I remember, were mildly diverted by the spectacle and mildly pleased by the UK's success.  I, meanwhile, was thrilled and captivated in that intense way only kids are capable of.  I didn't scream or punch the air, though, however much I wanted to, as the UK's votes racked up; it was unusual for eight-year-olds to be allowed up so late in those days so the last thing I wanted to do was draw attention to myself, as it would have resulted in the familiar refrain: "What are you still doing up?  You should have been in bed ages ago!  Go and get your pyjamas on.  Now!"   

Anyway, it was the start of my lifelong love affair with Eurovision.  Like most relationships, it has had its ups and downs.  We broke up for much of the 80s.  You know how it goes; we'd been an item a long time and probably became serious far too young - I was eight and Eurovision was only 11 when we got together.  And both of us had stopped trying; Eurovision was tired and flabby, it wasn't a vivacious, attractive contest you could proudly boast of having a relationship with anymore.  I was a young man by this time; the world was my oyster and there were countless distractions to turn my head.

Of course, I now regret that decade of estrangement and I'm sure if Eurovision could talk, it would say the same.  We got back together about 10 years ago; I can't pinpoint exactly when or how.  As is the way of rekindled relationships, it just crept up on us until it became blindingly obvious we were meant for each other and would be together, come what may, forevermore.

How Eurovision has tested my fidelity since then.  There were the years when the UK's entires ended up near or at the bottom and sooo didn't deserve it (take a bow, Nicki French, James Fox and Andy Abraham), not to mention the years when UK entries did just as badly but richly deserved it (bow your heads in shame, Scooch, Daz Sampson and especially you, brain-searingly out-of-tune Jemini).

But, like many a faithless mistress,  just when Eurovision realised it might lose me again, it was all over me like a rash.  And of course, feeble, lovesick fool that I am, I fell back in love thanks to Jade and Lord Lloyd Webber marching proudly to fifth place with It's My Time (despite that unfortunate incident involving Jade's eye and a violin bow).  

What of this year?  Pete Waterman of Stock, Aitken and Waterman fame will write our song and, for the second year running, the televised competition will be to find its performer.  This is completely arse about face for a song contest, of course, but never mind.  There are those who assume we'll end up with a dance floor filler like Kylie's I Should Be So Lucky or Ricky Astley's Never Gonna Give You Up, and I can think of far worse outcomes than that.  It is true that Waterman ballads are thin on the ground - I can only cite Kylie and Jason's Especially For You off the top of my head - but you never know; people mature and develop, and that includes songwriters and producers.

One thing's for sure: whoever ends up singing whatever railway enthusiast Mr W comes up with will have a tougher job on their hands than Sandie Shaw did.  She only had to see off 16 rivals but there will be 24 acts in this year's final.  Still, at least a further 15 will have been eliminated in two semi-finals before we get involved (39 countries have confirmed their intention to participate as I write).  In case you didn't know, this is because the UK, Spain, France and Germany buy their way straight into the final by more or less bankrolling the event.  It's a pretty odious lesson for our young to learn, that being the richest, not the best, is what matters.  Still, that's the way the world works, so they may as well get used to it as early as possible, I suppose.  And, having said all that, the Big Four have languished at the bottom of the scoreboard so often in recent years, one can't help wondering whether the poorer nations aren't registering a protest by biting the hands that finance their extravaganza.  In which case, Eurovision sends out a very different message to youngsters about how the world works, perhaps a preferable one.

Anyway, roll on the contest to find a singer for Europe, not 'A Song for Europe' as it always used to be.  And even more so, by a factor of at least a million billion trillion squillion, roll on 29th May when our TV sets will transport us to Oslo for the inexplicably thrilling main event.  I've made my lifetime commitment to the Eurosong for better or worse, for more points or for fewer, and, as Sonia so wisely sang in County Cork, Ireland, in 1993, Better the Devil You Know Than the Devil You Don't (aha).

photos courtesy of http://www.songcontestvoting.com/; http://www.plasticpop.co.uk/; http://www.dailymail.co.uk/; http://www.radioassistant.com/     

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Why rations should be back in fashion

I alluded to Bedlam in my last blog, and tonight I went there!

Bethlem Royal Hospital, to give Bedlam its proper name, no longer houses the insane, manacles them to the walls and invites in the public to gawp at them, thank goodness.  Today, the building houses the Imperial War Museum.  It still welcomes the public but now they gawp at fighter planes and cannons, the tools of humankind's insanity, rather than at insane humans themselves, one might say.

I was there for the launch of the Museum's latest exhibition, The Ministry of Food, which marks the 70th anniversary of the introduction of rationing and tells how Britain dug for victory during World War II.  There's a 1940s greenhouse, grocer's shop and domestic kitchen to explore.  Government information films play, gloriously dated in style and tone, denouncing, for example, the fecklessness of cutting a slice of bread when there are still potatoes on the table.  There are posters, too; in one, a glamorous, cloche-hatted woman is ostricised by her equally chic peers who have somehow discovered she's been profligate with the sprouts.  It's a splendid exhibition, bringing history alive for youngsters whilst providing bucketloads of nostalgia for their grandparents.

As is the way of these things, the great and the good gathered to graze, glug and gossip.  Betty Boothroyd, Patricia Routledge, Moira Stuart, Celia Imrie and TV gardener Monty Don were among the famous faces enjoying war-themed canapés like mini, open-topped Lord Woolton pies (wholemeal pastry filled with whatever Dad dug up from the vegetable patch that day) and chicken and Spam croquettes.  There was a chance to compare regular biscuits with the wartime, potato-based equivalent (not crisp); real cream versus margarine whipped with sugar (greasy and gritty); even real goose against vegetarian 'goose' (consisting mainly of potato and herbs, a very poor substitute centrepiece on Christmas day).

One inescapable conclusion of this exhibition is that there are lessons we can, and must, learn today from how food was produced and consumed back then.  It might not have felt like a whole lot of fun, but the diet 'enjoyed' during WW2 was the healthiest of the 20th century, high in fibre, low in fat.  Whilst our tastebuds might find 40s veg overcooked, at least the vegetables would have had real flavour. Processed foods hardly figured.  Children's teeth weren't rotted by sugary drinks and unlimited sweets.  Food, perforce, was as seasonal and local as possible.  Growing your own - the number of allotment holders more than doubled during the war years - provided physical exercise.  Left-overs were invariably used up.  Packaging was minimal and recyclable.

In short, just about everything we are entreated to do was being practiced back then.  Same tactics, different foes: our grandparents' enemy was Hitler, ours are climate change and obesity.  Let's hope our generation also emerges victorious against the odds.

(image courtesy of http://www.commons.wikimedia.org/)

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

The food’s the zing

At 7pm, the queues outside the HMV Apollo (AKA the Carling Apollo, Labatts Apollo, the Hammersmith Apollo or the Hammersmith Odeon, depending on your vintage) numbered several hundred and snaked away down Queen Caroline Street.  Barriers had been erected, security goons patrolled.

What show could possibly have drawn such a crowd?  Had Robbie and Take That finally buried the hatchet?  Had cryogenicists brought back John and George to shake their mop tops with Paul and Ringo?  Was Amy Winehouse rumoured to be performing sober?

None of the above.  As snow fell and winds worthy of Siberia whistled, the huddled masses waited, hoped and prayed to be allowed to witness the final couple of hours of the day’s auditions for Britain’s Got Talent. 

I’m not entirely sure what this says about 21st-century society, other than that Simon Cowell is a genius, obviously.  Were these frozen teenagers keen to witness the birth of the next Susan Boyle?  (Now there’s an image you wouldn’t want to dwell on.)  Were they there primarily to laugh at the no-hopers in the modern equivalent of visiting Bedlam?  Did they merely dream of featuring in a split-second cut-away on the telly?  I think we should be told.

simon mindian zing exteriorI was on my way to Indian Zing , a brilliant restaurant incongruously located on a sad and scuzzy section of W6’s King Street.  I first ate there when I reviewed it for viewlondon.co.uk (and they remembered so thank goodness I gave it a four-stars near-rave).  This time, I was attending my first meeting of the dining club, Dos Hermanos.  The term is Spanish for ‘two brothers’ and the brothers in question who created and run the club (for love, not money) are writer, traveller and foodie Simon Majumdar (read his culinary travelogue paperback, Eat My Globe) and his sibling, Robin.

It works like this: 40 or 50 foodies bowl up to a restaurant on a Monday night having heard of the event via Facebook.  They each pay a flat fee – a very reasonable £40 on this occasion – for a set dinner, drinks and some lovely extras, and get to socialise and network with likeminded souls. The restaurant makes money by being packed on what would otherwise be the quietest night of the week, and by the economy of scale derived from serving a set meal to one, huge sitting.  It’s a win-win.

To make the nights even better value, manufacturers sometimes use them as a platform for their culinary wares.  Sure enough, Johnnie Walker got us under way with whisky and tropical fruit juice cocktails, then provided shots of their various varieties to “match” each course.  We had to sit through a brief spiel by a Johnnie Walker representative but it was a small price to pay for free booze. 

You might think a slug of Scotch wouldn’t marry with pork vindaloo, Goan fish curry or the sugar syrup-soaked Indian dumplings, gulab jamun.  You’d be pretty much right, actually.  None of the combinations were screw-your-face-up horrid but let’s put this this way; brewers and vintners have little to fear.  Speaking of which, wine also flowed freely thanks to another sponsor.

As if we hadn’t received enough for our £40 by the time it became impossible to force down another mouthful of chicken biryani or Indian rice pud, we waddled out of the door with an unusually generous goodie bag containing

* a large bottle of 'Meantime' India pale ale (got up to look like a bottle of champagne, so a brief moment of disappointment there)
* liquorice in many forms
* a string of dried red chillies
* bars of chocolate, both Green & Black’s and Thorntons
* watermelon and mango juices
* curry powder
* chewing gum
* Luscombe organic lime crush (fizzy drink for the chattering classes)
* a jar of pickled walnuts (never got the point of those but I’ll give them another go)
* a pack of Fisherman’s Friends (at least they’ll take away the taste of the walnuts)

A Catholic selection to say the least, some of it appropriate for a night of sub-continental feasting, some of it apparently entirely unconnected but all very welcome (well, apart from the walnuts, perhaps).

Perhaps I’ll see you at the next meeting of Dos Hermanos.  I’ll be the one confirming that, yes, I did once win Come Dine with Me and, no, I mustn’t have another canapé or I’ll never eat my dinner, or a second pre-dinner cocktail or I’ll be under the table.  Oh, go on, then……

One thing’s for sure; it’s a lot more fun than freezing your bahjis off in the vain hope of hearing Simon Cowell destroy the dreams of a tone-deaf borderline simpleton.
 
(images courtesy of http://uk.askmen.com and http://authors.simonandschuster.com/)

Friday, 5 February 2010

Blood, toil, tears and sweat – or at least the last three…

I’ve mentioned before that one of my motives for blogging is procrastination.  Today, I’m excelling myself: the subject of my blog is the very thing I’m blogging in order to avoid.

This ‘very thing’, this horrible, sweaty, painful ‘very thing’, this ‘very thing’ that makes me feel like a uncoordinated, unintelligent five-year-old is going to the gym.

I was a fat and short-sighted kid and it put me off physical exercise for life.  There’s only so many times you can be the last boy chosen for the football team without losing interest – approximately one, in my case.  As for rugby, why would you risk ending up in a wheelchair just to gain possession of a ball which isn’t even ball-shaped?  And cricket!  Why risk a broken finger when your Grade IV piano exam is coming up in a fortnight?  Cross country running was the least of the evils; at least you weren’t part of a team whose members were likely to get cross about your ineptitude and lack of interest, and there was no scary, dangerous, bone-crunching contact.  It was merely sweaty, knackering and boring, and the 11-year-old me was grateful for such small mercies.

Several months of serious dieting when I was 20 got rid of the flab.  I was thrilled beyond measure by the new, 31-inch-waisted me.  I had no muscles or definition, of course, but neither did anyone else in the late-70s.  A six-pack was half a dozen tins of lager, and definition was the meaning of words.  I began to dress more trendily and my sexual shyness fell away revealing a slim-hipped coquette.  I landed a first boyfriend who was so fit, he got paid to take his clothes off, and who dumped his rather tubby partner for me (see previous blog, ‘First love with a Zulu warrior’). 

The message all this burned into my brain was: ‘Thin is good.  Thin sets you free.  Thin gets you what you want.’   I’m guessing that’s why, 30 years later, I was still eating and drinking healthily and moderately and still fitting into 31-inch waist jeans whilst most friends of a similar vintage had steadily expanded.

30 years later, but not 31 years later, alas: despite not changing my lifestyle in any way that I can pinpoint, I have suddenly put on nearly a stone.  It has gone straight to my waist – my arms and chest remain as undeveloped as ever – and has forced me to edit my wardrobe; some of the severely fitted shirts I always felt so sexy in now look and feel like Victorian ladies’ corsets. 

I was always unbearably smug about others’ middle-aged spread, I now realise.  “Honestly, that beer belly is sooo unattractive!  I can’t think why he doesn’t do something about it.”  Not anymore.

What to do?  Exercising seemed marginally less unattractive than watching even more carefully what I eat.  And a gym had recently opened at the development I live in with bargain membership rates.  Thus, I found myself entering this alien world of strange-looking equipment, red faces and the wreak of sweat.

I signed up, and was offered a fitness evaluation and a bespoke exercise programme with supervision the first time I attempted it, all for a bargain 50 quid.  At least the embarrassment of having my flab measured was offset by the fact that the trainer conducting the evaluation was – cliche of cliches – a dark, handsome, fit Italian with the bluest eyes and blackest hair.  Let us call him Antonio, for Antonio is not his name.  His verdict was that I’m not bad at all in cardiovascular terms but have the physical strength of a unusually fey butterfly.

Two days later, Antonio was taking me through the fitness programme I am supposed to complete thrice-weekly for the rest of my natural – that’s quite a thought.  I was, of course, utterly hopeless at emulating Antonio’s effortless demonstration of each exercise, my ability to concentrate further impeded when, every so often, his exertions would cause his trackie top and bottoms to part company, allowing a gasp-inducing flash of toned, tanned midriff.  The situation was not helped when I instinctively looked away only to find myself staring at the grinning, what-the-heck-are-you-doing-here? face of a stunning African gentleman with whom I enjoyed a delicious dalliance several years ago.

Fast-forward another couple of days, and you find me attempting my first unsupervised session, feeling as comfortable as a rugby league prop forward pressing flowers or an opera diva doing a shift with the bin men.  I couldn’t fathom how to work the padlock on my locker, let alone remember which machines were intended for which exercises.  Once I’d located the right ones, I couldn’t programme them.  And as for making my body match those in the pictures illustrating the floor exercises, I may as well have attempted to read a novel in Swahili.

Luckily, the heavenly Antonio was on duty.  For no extra charge, he took me through every exercise a second time.  He only burst out laughing once at my baffled gaucheness which some might call unprofessional but which I deem little short of saintly. 

I really can’t ask him again so, next time, I simply must fly solo without crashing.  That next time should have been this afternoon.  I just about had the time for once so, of course, I squandered it by writing this blog instead on my comfy sofa with a pot of tea and some chocolate digestives.

I’ve got a hectic weekend lined up, with a double bill to attend at the Riverside Studios’ gay film festival in Hammersmith, dinner to cook for friends, not to mention housework and ironing, so, when I finally force myself back to that hideous den of pain where stinking sweat drips off smug faces, I’ll have had time to forget everything Antonio has taught, and re-taught, me.

I know I’m being daft.  Embracing change is part of life.  I pooh-poohed dishwashers until I moved into a home that already had one and was then speedily converted.  I shied away from computing until it became impossible to carry on one’s professional or personal life without one.  Now – the odd lover’s tiff aside – my PC is my best friend.  So, clearly, if I stick at it, I’ll get into the swing of gym-going, grow some arms that don’t look as if they’d snap in a light breeze and, crucially, firm up that wobbly tum.

Can I cross the Rubicon?  Time will tell.  Watch this space.