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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.

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.

Fashion Advice For The Over 40s

Until quite recently I spent my life prioritising comfort over style: non-iron Oxford shirts with handy breast pockets, relaxed fit high-waist trousers, and roomy tank-tops. You get the idea. Then I hit 40, and realised it wouldn't be long before a complete stranger would be feeding me soup in a room smelling of PVC and piss. Life was passing me by and my comfortable, wide-fitting shoes needed to catch up. “Could this be my mid-life crisis?” I asked myself. Before I had time to answer, I was jumping out of airplanes, going to the gym and wearing baseball caps. The most energetic thing I'd done till this point was make a meringue.

One day last year I picked out a nice pair of shorts in a trendy shop. As I entered my pin number into the machine, I noticed a sign: “Quality clothing for 16-24 year olds”. Ah… What should I do? Politely ask for a refund? Pretend I was buying them for my nephew? Run?

That notice was polite way of saying: “Go away old man. Find your own demographic. You don't belong here”.

Marks and Spencer is good for two things: food and underpants. I didn't always know this. For years my entire wardrobe consisted entirely of fur-lined M&S slippers, breath-easy socks and lambswool cardigans. Without doubt, the crowing achievement of Mr Marks and Mr Spencer is their "Active Waistband".

This clever innovation discreetly introduced a large piece of elastic into the waistband of a gentlemen's trousers. Suddenly anyone with delusions of weight-loss could confidently buy trousers two sizes smaller than they ought.

Now, instead of having to undo my pants after dinner, my Active Waistband would take the strain. In fact, no matter how active my waist got, these minor miracles never let me down.

If I was making a fashion statement, it was the wrong one. I knew I was really in trouble when my own mother said: “Look at your trousers! You should get yourself moderned up a bit”.

“Moderned up” means wearing something with covered in rivets, with a big logo on the front, or a distressed finish. Maybe all three.

Out went my Farrah slacks and two-tone loose fitting polo shirts. In fact, anything machine washable was a no-no. In came tight-fitting, overpriced T-shirts and leisure shoes designed for skateboarders. I've spent fortunes on jeans that look like they've been worn on a building site and have taken to wearing badges on my backpack.

It's embarrassing.

I figure I've got maybe four more years of this before I get arrested for crimes against youth culture.

In the meantime my comfy M&S “fat pants” are in storage. I know it's only a matter of time until I'm ironing creases in my cocktail slacks and my waistband moves with my stomach. Bliss.

 

Where's my houseboy?

When you’re eating something for the first time, and told: "First, suck out the embryonic fluid", you know you're not in Kansas anymore. I'm eating balut, a popular snack food here in the Philippines, a place that’s full of surprises. I used to think that houseboys were for (a) retired British colonels in 19th century India, who'd go about their work in splendid white cotton robes and a turban; or (b) rich gay couples in 21st century Miami, who'd go about their work in a red satin thong. It seems there is at least one more place where the humble houseboy thriving: the Philippines.

Here, almost anyone who can afford their own house can afford their own houseboy. Though not quite "ten a penny", they won't break the bank. For about £120 a month you'll have someone on hand to clean the yard, walk the dog and fix the roof.

In the Philippines almost everything seems cheap by Western standards, and there is a lot of Western money about to take advantage of it.

Downtown Manila is as modern as any metropolis. Crammed with high-rise office blocks nail bars and Starbucks - all servicing 1000s of ex-pats doing everything from banking to the booming industry of Business Process Outsourcing: BPO. This means the next time you call your electricity company you'll probably be talking to someone in Manila, not Minehead.

Filipinos are known the world over for their helpful personalities and warm smiles, so it's not surprising they have found a niche in customer services. This is good for us, since our idea of customer service is: "Your call is important to us. Please stay on the line and one of our operators will be with you shortly".

Labour costs here are low, so as well as houseboys, anyone with a professional position can also enjoy the benefits of a live-in maid, and full time chauffeur. You’ll live like a Rockefeller for less than £600 per month, plus one large bag of rice. Normally, even live-ins are expected to buy their own food. The rice is optional.

All this, you understand less than what many here consider a minimum. Family homes will also have a full-time cook, at least one nanny (a "yaya") and a laundry woman. These are considered "the basics".

Of course, anyone who does have staff spends most of their spare time complaining about their staff, usually over late morning cocktails: “Darling (sip), it’s just so hard (sip) to find good help these days”.

With such great prices, wonderful sunshine and great customer service, you'd think the Philippines would be crawling with tourists. Though 1000s come from Korea, China and Japan, few make it here from the UK or United States. They are missing out.

I've only been here twice and both times I stayed pretty close to Manila. Still, I've visited fabulous churches in Ilo Ilo, climbed a volcano in Taal and enjoyed world-class diving in Anilao. Most tourists head for Boracay or the “Chocolate Hills” of Bohol, both spectacular beauty spots with everything a tourist could want. Manila itself has the old Spanish influenced district of Intramouros, the American cemetery and lots of shopping. There are malls everywhere to suit every taste and budget. The “Mall of Asia”, the fourth largest in the world, has over 4 million square feet and around 200,000 shoppers every day.

No time to vacation here? Why not consider retiring here? Thousands do - attracted by the climate, cheap property and excellent healthcare. You can buy a fabulous beachside home for around £40,000 and employ a full-time private nurse, driver and maid to take care of you. Surely that's better than ending your days abandoned in some dreary English seaside “home” waiting two hours for a stranger to take you to the toilet.

With so much Western influence here you'll have no trouble finding familiar food. Steak houses, burger joints and pizza parlours are all over, and of course there are lots of Japanese and Chinese restaurants.

Popular Filipino dishes include adobo (pork or chicken stew), lechon (roasted barbeque pig), sisig (the face of a pig, chopped and fried), sinigang (soup) and lots of fish. And of course, everything comes with rice.

And so we come to that fabled Filipino snack: balut. If there was ever a food to scare young children and bring grown men to tears, this is it. Balut makes semolina look appetising.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gKzx-Q7XDKk[/youtube]

Take one duck egg (make sure it's fertilised), wait three to four weeks so the duckling just begins to develop its little beak and feathers, then boil it and enjoy!

First, make a hole in the top of the shell and drink down the embryonic fluid. It’s known as "the soup" and considered the best part. After you remove the shell, you have a choice: eat the partly formed duckling first, then the egg, or just down it all together in a couple of eggy, feathery, beaky bites. It goes great with beer. Ideally fifteen pints, so by morning you forget you ever did it.

If you can eat balut and you’re lucky enough to find good help, maybe the Philippines is for you. If not, fry and egg and enjoy Blackpool.

Pandas, semi-colons, and other endangered species.

Imagine, for a moment, that you live in a world where Tiger Woods is your golf partner, Anton Mossiman, your cook, and Bill Gates runs your local evening class on "Microsoft Word for Beginners". For a moment last week, I was living the dream, when Lynne Truss agreed to teach me how to use a comma.

Lynne Truss, "Queen of the Colon", is a modern hero. Her bestselling little book "Eats, Shoots and Leaves - The Zero Tolerance Guide To Punctuation" took the world by storm in 2003 with its hilarious, informative guide to commas, quotes and apostrophes. Since I was ill-served by an educational system that placed no value on punctuation and spelling, she is my hero.

Apparently, in the 1970s and 80s, the ideas that you were trying to express were thought to be more important than the way in which you expressed them. Drawing attention to a student’s dodgy punctuation was thought to inhibit his creativity and limit his self-expression. And, since a cartoon paperclip was always on hand to offer spelling suggestions, why even bother trying to remember anything? Technology, it was thought, was relegating the old conventions to the dustbin. Creativity was king and nothing else mattered.

And so came the day when I passed my English 'O' Level, a whole year before anyone else in my school. That's right. I excelled in English and yet had no idea what a verb was, the ellipsis was a mystery, and I thought that a compound plural was a sport’s injury. In fact, I was left dangling with my participles for 16 years, until Miss Truss came along - a champion in a world punctuated by grammatical confusion.

I am sure that the captains of education felt very pleased with their refreshingly modern approach - loosening the tie of convention and letting us all off the hook. For them, every day was “dress down day”. Unfortunately, they didn't realise that for us, the subjects of this grand experiment, effective self-expression is, in fact, all but impossible without the proper tools for the job.

Americans escaped these modern ideas and still today their children spend hours attending spelling bees and "diagramming" - a process of breaking down sentences into their various grammatical elements. For years there was a hugely popular American cartoon series called "School House Rock" that featured catchy tunes like "Conjunction Junction" and "Interjection!" Like Lynne Truss, the program creators understood how to make the often-uninspiring subject of English usage great fun to learn. As a consequence, in America, the Queen's English has never looked better.

So, since I don’t have Lynne Truss on speed dial, I’ll continue to bumble along, relying on my spell-checker and generally punctuating on the basis of what looks right, rather than what is right. Anyway, if I get it wrong, don’t be too hard on me - it might inhibit my creativity!