Cabaret

All I Do The Whole Day Through Is Dream Of Pie

I dreamt about a Scotch Egg last night. There is a small sandwich shop in Grimsby that makes the best I've ever tasted, especially if you get them still warm, straight out of the deep dat fryer. I bought it, ate it – slowly savouring the warm bread crumbs melt against the sausage meat – entered a temporary state of bliss, then woke up. If you didn't already know, I've spent the last four months working on a cruise ship in and around Brazil. It's been amazing; better than I could have imagined. Friendly officer's and crew, generous audiences, good musicians and technical staff. The Brazilians beach ports are idyllic and I've fallen in love with Buenos Aires. I keep telling everyone that I don't want it to end, but with just a few weeks to go, I've found a little stone in my shoe that won't go away. Yes, it will be great to see family and friends again, but do you know what I miss the most? Food.

I miss Marmite. On toast. Actually they do have Marmite here (I call it “my precious”) but a good piece of toast is another matter. I want a slice of crispy-browned, thickly-sliced, wholewheat bloomer dripping in butter. I'm sick of staring at mean soggy squares of anaemic carbohydrate, sapped of life after lounging under a heat lamp for 20 minutes.

I ache for a Yorkshire pudding. Gravy, roast lamb, mint sauce, parsnips, creamy mashed potatoes and a pint of London Pride on the side. Right now I'd give you my last Rolo for a spotted dick, but I don't have any Rolos, or Maltesers or Curly Wurlys.

Don't get me wrong, by and large the food on the ship is excellent (especially the sushi), and I've had some great meals in Buenos Aires: risottos, steaks, fancy pastas... but there are days I'd give my right arm for a chinese-takeaway-chicken-curry with chunky chips and free bag of prawn crackers.

Speaking of curry, I haven't had a decent rogan josh for months. Brazilians don't like spicy food and the one Indian restaurant in Buenos Aires I found seems to specialise in it's own particularly bland interpretation of Indian cuisine. I've had more spice in a tortilla chip. I want a barghi, some dhal, popadoms smeared with minty yoghurt and that red stuff I always regret afterwards.

As Sinatra sang, “It's very nice to go traveling but it's so much nicer to come home”. He missed the girls on 5th Avenue. I miss pie.

Why I Am Making Myself Homeless for a Year

A brave experiment in lifestyle design, or a crazy scheme to save a few quid?

 

Part 1: The Why

About 18 months ago I joined a cruise ship to find a book in my cabin left there by the previous entertainer. It was called “The Four Hour Work Week”, which made me laugh because that’s precisely all most entertainers on ships work anyway.

The author, Tim Ferriss, says how our current system, where most people sacrifice the best years of their lives for unfulfilling careers, is a mistake.

We give up time with our loved ones, put off perusing our ambitions and spend our lives glued to laptops and mobile phones. With luck we retire at 65 and hope our pensions afford us to do all the things we’ve been putting off. That’s providing our friends haven’t forgotten who we are, and we’ve still got our health.

There is, he says “an insanity of consensus, if you will – to get rich from life rather than live richly, to “do well” in the world instead of living well. And, in spite of the fact that America is famous for its unhappy rich people, most of us remain convinced that just a little more money will set life right”.

I think he has a point. Maybe we should explore other ways of living and working.

One of the benefits of travelling to poorer countries, as I have, is that you realise how little money you actually need to enjoy a good quality of life. Instead of working till we drop, we could chose to work less and give ourselves more of that truly finite resource: time.

By spending less we can afford to work less, and that means more time for what's really important: time and experiences, not money and “stuff”. As traveller Ed Buryn said: “Money, of course, is still needed to survive, but time is what you need to live.”

Sound right?

The good news is that numerous studies have shown that living more simply and avoiding unnecessary purchases makes us happier than when we’re obsessed with material possessions and money. Lusting after new stuff never produces the long-term satisfaction we think it will. No sooner do we have the latest, fastest, shiniest or coolest thing, an even better model comes along to tempt us all over again. Before we know it we're sucked in to a never ending cycle of working, producing and consuming – with little time for actually living. Sony, Prada and Tesco would love us to believe that shopping is all we need for a satisfying life. That's something I don't buy.

In "The Conquest of Happiness", Bertrand Russell puts it like this: “Very many people spend money in ways quite different from those that their natural tastes would enjoin, merely because the respect of their neighbours depends upon their possession of a good car and their ability to give good dinners. As a matter of fact, any man who can obviously afford a car but genuinely prefers travels or a good library will in the end be much more respected than if he behaved exactly like everyone else”.

Having tempted us with an ideal alternative lifestyle, Ferriss presents some practical solutions on how we can make this happen: goal setting, delegation, downsizing, focus and outsourcing.

The starting point is to work for yourself or at least find a job that gives you plenty of autonomy. Control over our own working day is consistently shown as a significant factor in increased happiness and satisfaction.

I didn’t go along with everything in the book, but it was enough to inspire some real changes in my life, which have ultimately left me homeless.

Part 2: The Planning

It's all well and good wanting a better work-life balance, but what does that mean?

First I thought about what I actually wanted to do with my life. To think this through properly is actually surprisingly tricky and does (or at least should) take some time to get right. I find it easier to start from the end and work backwards, for example: imagine you are eighty years old, looking back over your years and telling your life story to a new friend. What sort of a life do you want to have led? What kind of stories would you like to be telling? What kind of experiences do you want to have had? Write it all down and then figure out how you can make it all happen. Plan when you want to do those things and consider how you'll be able to fund them.

I won’t bore you with the details, but for me, broadly speaking, the important things fall into three categories: my singing career (keep doing more of the same), travel (spend more time in my favourite places and really understand local cultures), and personal relationships (see as much of the people I care about as possible).

Deciding What’s Important I want to work less so, unless I win the Lotto, I need to spend less. In choosing to lead a simpler and more frugal life, I've come to realize how much money I’ve been wasting on superfluous “stuff”. We live in a material culture. We work hard to buy stuff we don’t really need so we can show everyone how “successful” we are, then we throw it away and work some more, so we can buy the next thing. After 9/11, George Bush’s rallying call to the nation was: “Shop!” It’s the way our economies keep on growing: people keep working, so they can keep consuming. Round and round it goes. To do anything else was considered almost un-American! But, as Ferriss points out, “neither self nor wealth can be measured in terms of what you consume or own”.

Of course, all this shopping creates mind-boggling amounts of waste. In the fantastic little book “The Story of Stuff”, I learned about “planned obsolescence”, “externalised costs” and what problems all our waste creates. Our world is fast running out of resources and we need to use what we have we care.

Please don't think I am having a go at one who likes so shop. I certainly am not. I still enjoying buying nice things as much as anyone. The difference now is that I stop... and think... “Do I really need that designer banana tree, Voice Recognition Grocery List Organiser, or for matter anything else from the Sky Mall catalogue?”

After one trip I got home to find my closet packed with clothes almost identical in style, size and colour. Having lived quite happily out of a small suitcase for weeks, the excess staring me in the face was sobering. I immediately gave most of my wardrobe to charity. I've never owned so little and felt so liberated.

Temptation is hard to resist and the advertisers know just how to push our buttons. So when I walk down the High Street, I try to remind myself of the real cost of the stuff we buy.

Dip in to the best-selling book “Affluenza” and you'll find some sobering statistics:

  • Americans spend six hours a weeks shopping and only forty minutes playing with their kids
  • Two thirds of the US economy is spent on consumer goods
  • America has twice as many shopping malls as high schools
  • Household debt stands at 125% of disposable income
  • Every fifteen seconds an American goes bankrupt

 

The ancient Hindu Upanishads refer disdainfully to “that chain of possessions wherewith men bind themselves, and beneath which they sink”.

In “Vagabonding”, Rolf Potts put it like this: “The more our life options get paraded around as consumer options, the more we forget there's a difference between the two. Thus, having convinced ourselves that buying things is the only way we can play an active role in the world, we fatalistically conclude that we'll never be rich enough to purchase a long-term travel experience.”

It's simple: spending less means we can afford to earn less, and that gives us freedom.

Part 3: The How. Once I decided what was important, here's how I set about trying to make it happen.

Delegating and outsourcing is not just for managers and large corporations, we can all enjoy its advantages.

It took me a long time to learn this. I never saw the point of paying someone else anything I could do for myself. Trouble was it would take me hours to do something a professional would do in minutes. Nowadays I'm happy to pay other people to share the workload. I've consolidated my suppliers and now work with a handful of people I trust to help me get everything done. Yes, there is a cost, but my extra free time makes it worthwhile.

If there are never enough hours for your to-do list, how about outsourcing your tasks to an Indian call centre? Get Friday, the company I used, will do pretty much anything that doesn't require a physical presence. For say $10 an hour they'll organize your birthday party, complete your tax return and research your dream holiday. If your time is worth more than $10 an hour let them help you to get out of the office and spend more time with the kids.

Protect Your Time – It's Precious I used to spend half my life on the phone. I loved making calls and taking them. I especially liked checking my voicemail and hearing: “You have 17 messages”. I think it made me feel important and necessary – like dentistry. I felt successful. Then one day I thought: “Who is more 'successful': the man running around like a maniac on the phone all day, or the man sitting on his beach with his phone switched off?

I lived under the delusion that nothing would work properly unless I dealt with it personally. Delegation was a dirty word.

Precipitated by working away, I stopped taking as many calls. I weaned my colleagues and clients on to email as the easiest way to get hold of me. In time, I grew to like it and so did they. Instead of having the phone glued to my face 24/7, I'd check my emails once or twice a day. My staff rose to the challenge; and guess what? Everything got done. Suddenly I had more freedom, less stress and more control over my time.

These days everyone is so used to it that my phone hardly ever rings. I can be anywhere: Leeds or Lima, and it makes no difference to how I conduct my business. It's liberating.

This simpler lifestyle has freed me from the the 9-to-5 and given me choices over how I spend my time. At last I have the opportunity to do more of what I really love – travel. Whether it's working on cruise ships or backpacking for pleasure, I don't care. The thing is, now I can.

Choosing Homelessness I am, in fact, away so much these days that I began to wonder if I could manage without a home at all. Could I survive living out of my suitcase for a whole year? Would the benefits of someone else paying my mortgage be worth the inconvenience of having no place to call my own? The answer was a tentative “Yes... probably”.

Since I've got rid of most of the stuff I own, what little I have has gone in to the loft. With luck, the new tenant will be happy for me to access my stuff once or twice a month when I'm between trips.

The rest of the time in the UK I'll stay with friends, family and when necessary the odd hotel room. If I do find myself with a few weeks off, I’ll just go traveling instead.

I am aware that I may well hate not having a base – somewhere to call my own – but I won't know until I've tried. It's an experiment. If it doesn't work out, I won't have to bear it for long. Hopefully it will encourage me to see more of the people I care about, and the money I save on mortgage payments will mean I can travel more, unencumbered by material excess. That's the theory at least, so let's see what happens.

If it’s advice you need, Chief Sitting Bull has the answer.

At a party the other week I was introduced to a recent graduate of a well-known musical theatre school. You know the type: bright eyed, desperately ambitious and somehow able to give you their full resume and hat size within thirty seconds of "hello". And then the inevitable question comes: "so what are you doing at the moment?" I hate this question because what they really mean to say is "are you worth talking to and can you help me with my career?" My favourite response to this is "I sell fire extinguishers". To which they pause, look blank for a moment… then say, "That's awesome. Facebook me", and walk away in search of Simon Callow. To be fair, given a choice between Simon Callow and a fire extinguisher salesman I’d do the same. Meeting one of your heroes can be a real thrill and whenever I get the chance I live in hope they’ll give me some great anecdote or nugget of advice I can impress my friends with, something like: “I see you’re admiring my bow tie. Pierce Bronson taught me how to do that,” or “Yes, Barbara Streisand recommended this particular avocado peeler”.  Sadly it doesn’t usually happen like that. Many years ago I was thrilled to meet the great Tony Bennett; the conversation went like this: “Hello Mr. Bennett, may I have your autograph?”, “Yes”.

Once, after a performance of Mack and Mable I bumped into Jerry Herman, “Congratulations!” I said, “Thank you, ” he said, “goodbye”; and I once introduced myself to George Martin in Abbey Road studios who completely ignored me. Just last year, immediately after doing a concert in Los Angeles I walked off stage to be introduced to the great arranger Johnny Mandel, “It’s a thrill to meet you Mr. Mandel!” I gushed, “Oh,” he said, “and what do you do?”

I suppose that’s better than what happened to the UK’s number one Elton John tribute act, who after months of letter writing and begging, managed to set up a meeting with the man himself. He was told to wait in the wings during a sound check and to introduce himself to Elton John as he left the stage. Eventually the moment arrived, and gathering all his nerve our man seized the moment, “Hello Elton, this is a big moment for me. I make my living impersonating you and it’s such a genuine thrill and honor to meet you, sir,” to which the great man said, “f**k off”, and left.

I did have a bit more luck recently. A few weeks ago I asked John Prescott what advice he could give me on life in general after his years in Government, he said, “Be yourself, play to your strengths and always admit it when you’ve made a mistake”, (I wonder if he told his old boss that) and when trying to connect with an audience, Des O’Connor told me simply, “be like them”. Wise words.

The best career advice though must be credited to Chief Sitting Bull in ‘Annie Get Your Gun’: “Keep bow tight, keep arrow sharp and never put money in show business”. Now that’s advice worth taking, even for a fire extinguisher salesman.

How Sharon Osborne taught me to walk again...

As the world received Ricky Martin’s shock revelation that he’s gay the cynic in me was wondering why he chose this moment to come clean. Either his hand was forced and he was about to be outed by a tabloid or his publisher thought it would make great media event on which they could sell bucket loads of his soon to be released biography. Rather like when George Michael was caught in those loos by The News of the World and only weeks later released a hit single all about having sex outside. Either he is very quick at writing, recording and marketing a song or it was all part of a clever marketing plan. As the release date of my two new CDs approaches I’ve been in discussions with my publicist about how we can best spread the word. Journalists are always looking for an angle and the angle, and the angle - it seems - is more important than the product. It’s not enough to write a best selling book or be the world’s fastest man in a coracle, they always want a little extra something to spice up the story. They call it “human interest” and evidently my two new albums are not sufficiently interesting to humans without a heavy dose of personal tragedy. In the words of Miss Mazeppa “you’ve gotta have a gimmick”. Loosing half my weight on a miracle diet, surviving child abuse, remortgaging my house to pay for plastic surgery, or discovering I’m the illegitimate offspring of gypsies I might provoke a glimmer of interest.

"evidently my two new albums are not sufficiently interesting to humans without a heavy dose of personal tragedy"

I could singlehandedly discover the cure for cancer and they'd want to lead with “how Sharon Osborne taught me to walk again”. Big band singer Andy Prior told me he once asked The Sun’s gossip columnist for advice on how to get in the papers. “Would it be enough if I was caught cheating on my wife in bed with four other women?”, “that,” came the reply, “would depend on who the women were.”

Over the years my publicists have always got very excited when they learn that before I was singing full time, I ran a fire safety company. “Ooh! The singing fireman” they squeal and start planning photo shoots of my dressed as a fireman with a microphone in my hand. No. Thank. You.

So in the absence of “how Princess Diana helped me through drug addiction” I rely on press releases, digital ways to spread the word like Twitter and MySpace, and the good old-fashioned flyer. The Edinburgh Fringe is living proof of how effective an A5 colour handbill can be, though when I considered “doing Edinburgh” a few years ago the reality of spending my afternoons dishing out flyers and my evenings in a sleeping bag on someone’s floor rather put me off. I once did a summer show on the end of Bournemouth Pier and in one marketing brainwave decided to run an offer with £5 of a pair of tickets. To spread the word, I hired the prettiest girls in town to hand out flyers on the High Street wearing yellow T-shirts emblazoned with the line "£5 off on the Pier tonight". The potential misunderstanding had totally escaped me.

I’ll just have to wait for Andrew Lloyd-Webber to launch a TV talent search for a balding, middle-aged crooner… and keep my fingers crossed.

Diamonds on the street.

I was just struck by a line in Isherwood’s “A Single Man”: “George is like a man trying to sell a real diamond for a nickel on the street. The diamond is protected from all but the tiniest few, because the great hurrying majority can never stop to dare to believe that it could conceivably be real.” It reminded me of doing a PR gig for Carlsburg Lager years ago, dressed up like Sinatra in Canary Wharf at 7am singing “They All Laughed” while pretty girls tried to give out free Sinatra CDs that were being sold in the shop for a tenner. Try as we might, no one wanted a free CD. For a slightly more rarefied example of diamonds on the street, read this. Washington, DC  Metro Station: on a cold January morning in 2007. The man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about an hour.  During that time approximately 2,000 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. After 3 minutes:  a middle aged man noticed the musician playing.  He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried on.

4 minutes: The violinist received his first dollar.  A woman threw the money in the hat without stopping and continued to walk.

6 minutes: A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and walked away

10 minutes: A 3-year old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The child stopped to look back at the violinist again, but the mother pulled hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head back all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. Every parent, without exception, forced their children to move on quickly.

45 minutes:  The musician played continuously.  Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while.  About 20 gave money, but continued to walk at their normal pace.  The man collected a total of $32.

1 hour: He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed. No one applauded.

Findings; No one knew this, but:

  1. The violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world.
  2. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written.
  3. With a violin worth $3.5 million dollars.
  4. Two days before Joshua Bell sold out a theatre in  Boston where the seats averaged $100 each.

This is a true story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the Metro Station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste, and people's priorities.

The questions raised: "In a common place environment, at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty?  Do we stop to appreciate it?  Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?"

One possible conclusion reached from this experiment could be this:  If we do not take a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made... How many other things are we missing?

Comment below.

Warning – Twitter can seriously damage your career

Before I was a singer I ran a company called Bonus Fire “selling and servicing over 500 discounted fire safety products”. Exciting, I know. In fact I still have the business, so if you just happen to need a great deal on a fire extinguisher you know who to ask. Anyway in the mid-90s there was a lot of pressure for companies like mine to get accredited to a new British Standard. It was an expensive process and I always doubted it’s worth. I only did it because everyone else was going it and I didn’t want to be left out. It is much the same, I think with Twitter.I have still to be convinced of the benefits of Tweeting your every thought and action to the world. Does anyone really want to know that “I am in New York shopping”? Tweeting can be dangerous too, especially if you’re performing panto in the provinces, away from the comforts of the metropolis. Owen Woodgate, a young actor appearing as Prince Charming in Lowestoft’s Marina Theatre Panto wasn’t too enamoured with the Suffolk seaside town and used his Twitter account to say as much, describing the place as “a shithole”, adding : “everyone is pregnant. No Starbucks. Hoodies dominate the streets.” Only when his Tweets hit the local paper did he revise his opinion, relying no doubt of his acting talents to say that “his first impressions of the town were way off the mark”, and that he was now having a “fantastic time”. Yeah, right.

Chesney Hakes, who finds himself entertaining my kinfolk in Grimsby made a similarly indiscrete gaff when posting a Tweet "Oh no it isn't" under a poster proclaiming "Grimsby – worth a second look". However, he immediately apologised after a complaint from a fan, tweeting: "It was a panto joke! I love Grimsby. Sorry if I offended you. I assure you I didn't mean to." The funniest thing about this story is the 20 odd reader comments on the paper’s website including this: “I was born and bred in Grimsby and even I think this is hilarious. He's only saying what 90%+ of the residents of that once Great Town think. Why do you think so many people move away???? It's a bloody eyesore, full of drugged up louts, pregnant chavs, lash heads & benefit cheats. It's a shame to say it but as has always been said since the dawn of time......The truth hurts.” You can read the rest of them here. Brilliant stuff.