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, and

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;;;     

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

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 (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 and

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.