Rediscovering my love of music

I've just bought a record player and with it rediscovered my love of music. I have over 30,000 tunes on my laptop, 8000 on my iPod and access to over 17 million on Spotify. I'm overwhelmed.

Until recently I didn't own a single vinyl record so I've started building my collection from scratch. I'm choosing carefully.

I've just idled away three hours in the old record shops of Buenos Aires listening to dozens of discs, making new discoveries and finding old friends. Oscar Peterson, Bob Dylan, Astrud Gilberto, MJQ, CCR, Neil Young, Terry Gibbs, Stan Getz. I can't wait to get home.

And that's the thing about records - you have to be home to play them. Fragile, bulky, non portable - they're a pain in the arse. They demand time, care and attention and all this investment makes you listen to the music more closely. Until recently I hardly ever just sat and listened to a whole album start to finish; now I do it all the time.

It's like cooking. You can easily go to the supermarket and buy a decent ready made meal for a tenner but buy the ingredients yourself and take time preparing the same meal from scratch and it will taste much better. Much of the pleasure is in the journey not the destination. I could take a car from Biarritz to Santiago but walking the 500 mile Camino de Santiago makes the destination all the more profound.

On iTunes I can hear any song I want within seconds of clicking “search”, but browsing through a fusty record shop, discovering a special disc, cleaning it and carefully lowering the needle encourages me to sit back (or dance around the room) and really appreciate the music.

Stop Press! Woman Wears Trousers Shocker

I did my first show with Clare Teal yesterday and she's as friendly as she is talented. Lovely woman. It was a great gig. The Len Phillips Big Band was on form and the audience were terrific. During the interval, as we sat signing CDs (actually Clare signed while I looked on wishing I was as popular as she is) an old woman lunged into my space and said,

"You're both nice singers but I'm disgusted with her," she spat.

I wondered what Clare could have done to provoke the woman. Tread on her petunias? Slander Alan Titchmarsh? No, apparently there are worse things.

"Doing a show in trousers! I've never seen anything like it. Normally the girl singer would change at least half a dozen times in a show. Disgusting."

I wanted to say, "Things are different these days. Women have the vote now and l believe they've been allowed to wear trousers for years," but I was too scared.

In the second half, Clare (who looked fabulous by the way), told the audience what went off and how for her the music was more important than the outfit. Everyone applauded in hearty agreement. Well, almost everyone.

I thought how this is just the kind of woman family members send away on a Christmas cruise. "Goodbye auntie, have fun!"

Come December I'll probably be stuck with her half way to the Canary Islands. I might wear a dress just to see what she says.

In Cabaret Secrets there's a section on what to wear on stage. I never thought to add how offensive a trouser suit can be. I suppose it's up to the act to consider audience expectations and decide whether they care.

42nd Street's Al Dubin wrote, "What do you go for, go see a show for? Tell the truth you go to see those beautiful dames," in Clare's case she'd rather sing like dream than shuffle on looking like a meringue.

Sushi, snoring and a day out to the toilet

I was heckled in Japanese the other night. I didn't understand him so I ignored it. Apparently he'd said "I can't understand you!" At least we had something in common. I was in Tokyo for a little tour promoting my CDs and spent most of the trip struggling with a cold. It's the worst thing - standing in front of a room full of expectant people knowing you sound rubbish. Fortunately, the people were very kind, so polite and generous; they couldn't have made me feel more welcome.

Favourite moment of the trip? During one of the CD signing sessions I asked a guy his name. "Something," he said. "Sorry?", "My name is something". "Well, I realise it's something but can you be more specific?" He took my pen and wrote it out for me. His name was indeed Something.

Best achievement of the trip? Learning a few words of Japanese to welcome the audience to my shows. It's easy to endear yourself to foreigners - just speak a bit of the language and show interest in their culture. I just had to say "sushi" and they'd all smile and applaud. Note that this doesn't apply in your own country. Saying "I like fish and chips," in Grimsby doesn't work, unless you're Japanese of course, then they'll love you for it.

Favourite discovery of the trip? Warm sake taken immediately after a show is the best cure for a sore throat. In fact I couldn't get enough sake, or noodles, or oden, or sushi, or sashimi. At the Tsatsumi fish market I watched them carving up huge tuna, salmon and squid before eating a plate full at a local sushi bar. Super fresh and beautifully presented.

Favourite pastime in Tokyo. Sitting on the toilet. They are padded, heated, and come with more technology than a BMW. In fact they are more comfortable and far more satisfying than a BMW. A Fisher Price activity centre for your bum. You can choose the direction, intensity, temperature and duration of your "downstairs" wash - rear end or (where applicable) front bottom. You can even choose what music you'd like to expedite your movements. It's like a day out.

Biggest disappointment of the trip? No presents. I kept waiting for people to give me presents. I thought it was customary in Japan. I see people next to me digging in to carrier bags and think "Ooh, at last, my presents," but all I got was one tiny metal snake charm with a bell in it's head. Lucky me.

Biggest surprise of the trip. The prices. Japan is expensive, especially with the Yen as strong as it is. Tickets for my shows were never less than £60 and went up to £110 for an hour lunch time set with a big band. It's only £12 to see me in Cleethorpes next March.

Favourite sights of the trip? Two actually. A day out in historical Kamikura were I visited two remarkable Zen Buddhist temples, and seeing a Kabuki performance. Kabuki is a traditional style of Japanese theatre dating back over 200 years. Highly stylised and largely unchanged, it was a fascinating way to spend four hours. Yes, four hours. Towards the end of the three act I did nod off. I woke myself up with my own snores. Very embarrassed. Fortunately, the Japanese, being Japanese, pretended not to notice.

Thank you Japan. It's was a wonderful trip. Great musicians, lovely people and amazing food. A place where a trip to the toilet promises unspeakable pleasures and everyone's got a smile for you, even if you do snore like a drain.

I need some ugly friends.

I am at my ideal weight. I don't often eat or drink to excess. I workout a lot, going so fast on the Cross Trainer my heart rate's faster than a chipmunk's on amphetamines. And yet, I can't shift this friendly layer of insulating fat. It just wont go away. I could take a blowtorch and a can of paint stripper to it and it'd still be there.  Twenty years ago I could run for a bus and loose three pounds. That's probably the only thing I miss about being in my 20s, a fast metabolism and skin with more shimmer than a chorus girl's stockings. Now my face feels like an ashtray and eyes look like crop circles.

I know I need to stop comparing myself to 20 year olds but I can't seem to avoid them. In this business you're always only a hop, skip and a shimmy away from the young and the beautiful. Stretching, kicking and smiling. It makes you sick.

They say middle age is the time in a man's life when his broad mind and narrow waist change places. I can relate. Like those people who feel richer by getting poorer friends, I really should find some ugly people to hang out with. That way I can eat what I want and still feel good about myself.

Or maybe, just maybe, feeling good about yourself should have nothing to do with what's on the outside. Aren't we supposed to love ourselves for who we are on the inside? Probably. In fact centuries of philosophy tells us so, but if I go along with that, what's stopping me making any effort at all? “Yes, I look like a pig, but who cares? On the inside I'm lovely and that's all that counts.” I don't know. It seems like a cop out to me.

Thank God getting older does have some advantages. These days I have less to prove and more time to enjoy myself. I spend more time doing things that are important to me and less doing things that are important to other people. I have some perspective and understand that what's all consuming today will be forgotten tomorrow. I suppose I'm learning that life is all about balance, in work, play, food, drink and exercise.

I'll leave you with the wise words of my friend Martha Sanders, who sums it all up perfectly: “When I was young I wanted to save the world, now I just want to get out of the room with some dignity.”

Four Weeks, Eight Cities and Seven Skewed Chakras – My Indian Taster

After bathing in the waters where Gandi's ashes were scattered, we rode camels into the desert where the moon rose over the mountains that cloak the hazy lake. This is no ordinary moon. Appearing just once every six years, this is the Blue Moon that Lorenz Hart swooned over and now light a path of pilgrims. And this is no ordinary lake. Formed when a lotus blossom fell from the sky it's a place Hindu's should visit at least once in their lifetimes to bathe in one of the 55 ghats that hum along the water's edge.

I'm in Pushkar, where the priests outnumber the cows and booze is strictly on the hush, hush. You can get beer but it's served discretely in a tea pot. You sip waiting for Elliot Ness to show up. On the other hand, a plate full of "magic" cookies will cost you less than a Mars Bar. Not that you need drugs to intensify the noise, the smells, the flavours and the colours. There's a real spiritual energy here but it's just a warm up for the equally revered burning ghat in Varnasi.

Hindis from all over India come here to be cremated and access to tourists is, quite rightly, very limited. We were lucky. It was night time. There was a power cut and the only thing lighting our way was the orange glow of fifteen tightly packed funeral pyres. We stood inches away, heat searing into our faces, and watched new pyres lit with a flame that’s said to have been burning for 3000 years. A young boy threw an earthen pot (a matka) on his father's body to signify his break with this world as we looked on in silent, respectful observance.

Not all bodies are cremated like this. Holy men, pregnant women, victims of leprosy or a snake bite are just some of those simply laid to rest in the Ganges. Despite the thousands of turtles released in to the river ever year to help consume the remains, decomposing bodies are a familiar sight. Still, along with locals we did take a dip, that is until a young boy emptied three rat traps in the water right next to us. That was enough spiritual cleansing for one day.

 

Priests in handsome orange robes pepper the streets. Some pray for tourists, others prey on them. If you look like you might have money to spare, someone will be happy to relieve you of it, even if it is under the guise of a puja in the holy waters.

 

I did meet at least one sincere holy man who told me that though his body is weak is mind is strong. He wakes at 3 am everyday to "open himself to God" with two hours of meditation. The rest of the day is spent talking to people, listening to the BBC World Service and reading. "Without books," he told me, "there is no life”.

 

India is as vast as it is diverse. In just four weeks I've meditated on the spot where Buddha gave his first sermon, watched the sun rise over the snow capped Himalayas, picked tea in Darjeeling and sipped cocktails in the shadow of the Taj Mahal. The sights and vistas are only half the story - it's the people who make travel truly worthwhile. There aren't many places in the world where a farmer would invite two strangers into his home simply for friendship and conversation.

 

Meeting the locals is one thing but there are times you'd rather not come face to face with another traveler (tourists with a backpack and tie-dye pants like to call themselves 'travelers'). That's when you realise you're not so intrepid after all. 1000s have come before you and more will follow into the arms of smiling shopkeepers and hungry opportunists.

 

If you do want some easy company over a few beers, just head to wherever the Lonely Planet tells every other backpacker. Once you get past the usual icebreakers (How long have you been here? Where have you been? Where are you going next?), it's surprising who you can meet. In my case, a French photographer who is riding his way across India on an old Triumph, an American sculptress who built her home here, and a Bollywood actress showing her Chilean boyfriend what makes India special. We spent a fun morning with a group of five Bangladeshi lads watching the sunrise over Kangchenjunga the world's third highest mountain. They were all in rag trade and told me a shirt that costs them £6 to make sells in a well known High Street store for £35. All the more reason to wait for the sales.

 

Almost everyone is selling something. Boat rides, hash, train tickets, tea, toilet paper. Catch their eye and you’re in trouble. If I was in a buying mood they'd smile and call me "muscle man" otherwise it was "old man". Still, if you like a bargain forget New York and Dubai, Delhi is the world's real shopping capital. It was there I realised that for the price of a medium Chai Tea latte in Starbucks I could get one hundred and fifty small cups of Masala Chai. One hundred and fifty. And it tastes much better when you can see them throwing handfuls of cardamon, cinnamon and cloves in to a huge pan of boiling milk.

 

It's amazing how far our pounds and dollars can stretch. A car with driver for a day sight-sighting - £10.50, decent double room in a tourist hotspot - £3.50, a ten hour bus ride with private lay-flat sleeping compartment - £4.10, a Colgate toothbrush - 12p. So the question is, how did I get roped in to spending £100 on a duvet cover and four cushions? For that money I could have had board and lodge for a month or five thousand cups of chai. The answer? After three hours looking at soft furnishings in Jaipur's Women's Cooperative Shop you'll do anything to see the light of day.

We saw no sights on our first day in Jaipur - only bars, restaurants and shops. One our second day we asked a local take us to a traditional Rajastani puppet show. He actually took us to his friend's puppet shop. Five hours we spent in that tiny room. We drank, smoked, played the drums and finally, somehow ended up buying everyone dinner.

 

We let someone else take us to an Indian palmist. "The real thing" we were promised. “Hold this crystal,” he said, then told me I am bad at making decisions (I am not) and I have occasional lower back pain (who doesn't?). The solution was a special stone pendent (starting price £50) to "balance my chakras". As luck would have it he happened to make such stone pendants on the premises. Sensing my doubts he warned that bad things may happen if I did't buy his stone, and “By the way, we do accept all major credit cards.” I said, “Maybe another time,” leaving my chakras more skewed than ever.

When it comes to hotels in India, I have learned is that better usually means worse. Money can buy a marble fountain centre piece and room service but it can't buy good energy and a staff that really cares about what they do. You can keep your worldwide loyalty schemes, I'd rather pay less and share a beer with the guy who owns the place. Doctor Alone, for example, whose ambition is to become world famous by getting arrested smoking a huge joint on top of the Eiffel Tower. I asked him how much he wanted for a room. "It depends. You want to see me wear silver or gold? It's up to you."

 

 

One friendly hotel we found did promise three resident rabbits for guests to play with. I found no rabbits only gangs of vicious monkeys prowling the roof terrace. I asked the owner, jokingly, if the monkeys ate the rabbits. "No," he said, "it was the cat."

 

We did splash out on afternoon tea at an old colonial hotel in the hill station town of Darjeeling. A depressing affair. The home-made cake, served in a room resembling an aged aunt's front parlour, tasted of toilets and the service was a shoddy as the chintzy old three piece. The tea was alright.

 

I often I saw glimpses of old England in the most unlikely places. Water pumps on the streets of Delhi, shepherds herding their flocks along a dirt roads, and the slate tiled roofs of old wooden houses where families sleep with cattle and the hayloft cossets food for winter. Constable would have been priming his brushes. I think Dickens too would have felt quite at home walking through the clogged, chaotic streets overwhelmed with noise, cattle and shit. Though the elephants might have surprised him.

Two hundred years before to Dickens wrote The Pickwick Papers, Mughal emperor Shah Jahan was adding the finishing touches to the Taj Mahal. A mausoleum, built in memory of his third wife, it's considered the jewel of Muslim art. It didn't disappoint. It's equally breathtaking at sunrise and sunset. Beautifully proportioned glittering white marble. One of the few world famous sites that actually looks better the closer you get.

 

 

Not everyone I met thought so. A few days before, a Croatian girl told me how she'd just visited the Taj and "it wasn't all that". What was she expecting? Tap dancing elephants? A camel trapeze? And don't let anyone put you off Agra. There's plenty to see. The fort and Itmad-Ud-Daulah's Tomb (the Baby Taj) are just two of the highlights.

Here’s a tip for anyone who's white and likes smiling. Find a busy place to sit at any major Indian tourist attraction, smile at anyone staring at you and wait. Within a few minutes someone will ask to have their photo taken with you. Soon a small crowd will gather waiting for a turn. You can sit there for hours posing for pictures like this. I did. I assumed Location Location Location was a hit in India and they all thought I was Phil Spence (that happens), but no. Just as we find exotic ladies in glittering saris irresistibly photogenic, it seems they find a white bloke in a Marks and Spencer's T-shirt equally full of mystical allure.

Between the street food, fresh water mountain pools and snake charmers India never fails to astonish. Someone home seems a little too calm, too orderly, or maybe it's just me. Maybe my chakras are trying to tell me something after all.

Photoshopping Tony Bennett

Fewer wrinkles, whiter eyes, a better hairline. Photoshop can work wonders on vane, insecure show-offs like me. It can even transport an awestruck autograph hunter from a grubby London back street to the Royal Albert Hall. Sometime in the 1990s (I barely remember decades never mind actual years) I took the train from Grimsby to London. I had great seats for a Tony Bennett concert and was excited. I collected my tickets and walked behind the theatre to find a bar. As I passed the stage door, a black Mercedes pulled up and out stepped Tony Bennett.

It was my lucky day. Me, three anoraked autograph hunters, and a living legend. He signed my ticket, posed for a photograph and told me 'I Wanna Be Around' was one of his favourite songs.

I knew a photo of me with Tony Bennett would look good on my website, but as a starry eyed autograph hunter? Probably not. Back then Photoshop was a pretty specialised piece of software. I paid a fortune for someone to take the pen out of Tony's hand and change the background from the grubby stage door of the Dominion to a glittering reception room in the Royal Albert Hall. Which brings us to last week.

There I was again, watching my hero give life to ninety minutes of great standards: The Boulevard of Broken Dreams... Fly Me to the Moon... Stepping Out... For me it's a master class in how to sing and work a room.

Then it was over. The crowd jumps to their feet as our man waves goodbye and gives us his trademark salute.

As I'm heading out I heard someone call my name. It was my publicist Rosie Bartlett. "Come with me," she said. Five minutes later I'm in the Artist's Bar shaking hands with my hero.

Rosie took a picture and as I rattled on to Tony about what an influence he'd been on my career, I remembered the last time I met him and the photograph I'd had Photoshopped.

Now, fifteen years later, I really was inside the Royal Albert Hall enjoying a conversation with my hero.

I didn't have this picture digitally enhanced, but comparing my real life hairline from what it was to what it has become, maybe that was a mistake...

The secret to a happy, fulfilled life

Ladies in glittering ball gowns  with canapés and caviar. Handsome waiters creating a stir with cocktails: Eastern Standard, Moscow Mule, Classic Daqueri. And amongst a sea of black evening suits I spot a man wearing a purple sash, silver cravat and a bowler hat with tea bags Sellotaped to the rim. This is Edmund Fry.  I'm in the Chart Room on board the world famous Queen Mary 2. The thing about crossing the Atlantic on a liner like this is that you never know who you're going to meet. As Edmund closes his multicoloured umbrella with balloons added "just for fun", he tells me he's British, runs a famous tea shop in California and is the founder of a charitable foundation working in Africa.

He's one of those people with an infectious energy. At 72, he's living proof that age is just a number. With a twinkle in his eye he places a bottle of champagne on the table and tells me he's just won the competition for best hat at the Ascot party.

We order drinks from those smart waiters and eventually Edmund shares something remarkable. "Fifteen years ago the doctors told me I had cancer and my chances of survival were remote. Obviously I made it and I can honestly say that having cancer was the best thing that could have happened to me."

I've heard every cloud has a silver lining, but cancer? That's a very dark cloud.

For Edmund it was a reminder of how precious life is and to make the most of every moment.Yeah, yeah, cliché - but how quickly we forget.

I ask him to share the secret of a happy life. "Ask how much can we give of ourselves," he says, "We should spend the rest of our lives helping other people and making other people happy, regardless of whatever we're going through. Get out of yourself. Turn the TV off, get rid of the radio and start thinking about other people."

We all know he's right but the trick is to start living it before it's too late.

In The Shortness of Life, Seneca tells us it's not how long we live, it's what we do with it that counts. For Edmund it's clear the most meaningful life is one of giving.

Just a couple of days before winning the best hat competition, Edmund was taken ill. For a moment it was touch and go. His faith and defiant spirit saw him through and remains as vibrant as ever.

As we said goodbye he left me with this, "Think of how you can make every moment of your life a positive moment."

Great advice from one a man who takes nothing for granted.

Click on the player to listen to my chat with Edmund Fry. Edmund Fry

Click here to read more about Edmund's foundation Bloom Where Planted. Click here to read more about Edmund and Mary's famous English tea house in California.

I need a little work

With age comes wisdom. Unfortunately this is usually accompanied by forgetfulness, hair loss and a weak bladder. There also comes a softening of opinions. In my strident, ever-so-sure-of-myself youth, I'd bark endless opinions on everything I knew nothing about. Of course, the older I've become the only thing I have actually learned is how little I really know. The world is not black and white - it's a thousand subtle shades of grey. One of my pet rants was cosmetic surgery. Oh the vanity of it! The money wasted by insecure middle aged egomaniacs trying to stave off the inevitable decrepitude. "Grow old gracefully," was my plea, "eventually it will catch up with you anyway so spend your time learning to love yoursel. Focus on your inner beauty!"

That was all well and good when I was 22 with smooth, tight skin and a hair line. At 41 with crows feet and a forehead like a cheese grater I'm beginning to have second thoughts.

I keep going to the mirror and pulling the skin on my face back. Ten years gone, just like that!

I did consider a hair transplant once. I remember telling my hairdresser, "Don't let me be one of those guys that goes on too long trying to hide his receding hairline. Please tell me when I need to shave it all off." His eyes passed from mine to my head and back again, "You need to shave it off," he said. I was in the mood so told him to get on with it. I thought I'd come out oozing masculinity like Bruce Willis in Die Hard 14 but actually looked more like an extra from Schindler's List.

Now I'm used to be bald and I actually like not having to brush, style and titivate. I love trimming it myself and knowing I've saved another £30. In fact in the last 10 years I've probably saved about £6000 which, come to think of it, would go a long way towards a face lift. In effect my face lift would be free. Thank you head, my face is indebted to you.

Of course I could all go wrong. I don't want to go mad like Joan Rivers or Diane Keaton. Go to Madame Tussauds and see how Diane Keaton’s wax work looks more human than she does. The trick is to not get carried away. I want people to see me afterwards and say, "Ooh, you look well!" not, "Holy crap what happened to your face!"

So what do you think? Grow old gracefully, confident that it's inner beauty that counts, or succumb to vanity and pay £6000 for a surgeon to give me two black eyes and stretch my face over my ears?