Travel and Lifestyle

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.

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?

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.

How to lose weight, look great and live a debt free life.

We all have our talents. Things we naturally gravitate to and find easy. For some it's languages, sports or maybe cooking. I've just read about a man in New York who managed to consume sixty-two hotdogs in ten minutes. Now that's a talent. Seeing a great artist sketch a portrait or a businessman turn a failing company around can leave us thinking, “I could never do that; it's easy for them, they're gifted”. There's a paradox here. Successful people make everything they do look effortless, but to make anything look easy takes a lot of hard work. Natural ability can take a person a long way but rarely is it enough to get them to the top. That takes self-belief, determination, dedication, and single-mindedness.

This is important stuff. In the absence of our own God given talent it's tempting to not bother trying at all. If we're honest, we're always looking for an excuse to avoid hard work.

Twenty years ago (I don't feel old enough to have done anything twenty years ago), running a small fire safety company, I realised I needed to learn how to sell. I'd never sold anything before. I had no one to teach me so I bought a set of audio tapes from a charity shop, studied them and got to work. I made myself a little script and telephoned my first “prospect”. The first goal was simply to arrange an appointment. Sounds easy, but I remember being so nervous that my hand was trembling and my palms sweating. I survived and made more calls, one hundred every week in fact. As you can imagine my confidence slowly grew. After around four hundred calls I'd heard and dealt with just about every possible response. I read books, booked myself on sales training days and listened to more tapes. After six months and over 2500 calls, I was getting pretty good. Years went by, the business grew and I was in a position to employ my own sales people. If they struggled to reach their targets they'd say it was easy for me (or anyone else meeting their targets) because we had “The gift of the gab”. They didn't care to see the hours we'd spent reading, practising and sweating! It was their excuse for not putting the effort in. They didn't want it badly enough.

The same thing happens now. I spent the best part of 2011 learning my act in Portuguese. It was something I wanted to do, but I knew it could be a challenge too far. To say languages are not my strong point is quite the understatement. In school my average test result in Spanish was 11%. The last seven months of 2011 were spent listening to the same short phrases over again and trying to memorise them. £100s spent on countless, tedious lessons trying to perfect my accent. In the car, the shower, walking down the street - over and over I'd practise the same few phrases. When I eventually performed the show, people said, “Lucky you, you've obviously got a knack for languages.” Go figure.

"I put weight on easily and love nothing more than an evening eating a tub of chocolate ice-cream and a bag of popcorn the size of a pillowcase"

The truth is we all want a shortcut to success. A miracle diet, learn a language in 7 days (really?), 8 minutes a day for perfect abs...

In our hearts we know it's nonsense but we we keep falling for it. The reality of hard work and self-sacrifice is just too depressing.

Want to know the secret to saving money and paying off your debts? Spend less.

The secret to stopping smoking? Stop smoking.

How about the secret to losing weight and feeling healthier? Eat less and exercise.

The real question is how much do we really want it? I mean, really want it?

I am in reasonable shape for my age. People just think I have a fast metabolism so I can eat anything and get away with it. Well I don't. I put weight on easily and love nothing more than an evening eating a tub of chocolate ice-cream and a bag of popcorn the size of a pillowcase. I'm not fat because I sweat my guts out at the gym every day. When they ask me for workout tips I say, “Put that pie down and go to the gym,” but that's not what they want to hear. They want to have their cake (or pie) and eat it.

So if you're lucky enough to be able to exploit your genetic advantage – good for you, but it won't win you many prizes. Real success comes to those of us with an average ability but a burning desire to succeed. So decide what you want, roll your sleeves up and get to work. If it's being able to eat more than sixty-two hotdogs in ten minutes, go for it, but please save one for me, I'm starving.

No Ball Games

Aside from sharing a tent with Jedward there is nothing more terrifying to me than being required to kick a football. My comprehensive and unfailing ineptitude at almost all ball games is staggering. I can't blame middle age – I've always been the same.

Even the most basic skill of throwing a ball to someone directly in front of me was more than I could ever muster. Whenever I played cricket at school I longed to be batting - the only task that excused me from having to throw or catch a ball. If I did happen to be fielding I'd be sure to stand as far away as possible to avoid the humiliation of trying to throw the ball back.

Little in adulthood compares to the pubescent shame of standing in a line waiting to be picked for a football team - and being the one that nobody wants.

While the pickers were strapping lads with premature facial hair, the body of talent from which they picked would soon thin out (was this what Darwin meant?) leaving just me and a quiet boy called Colin who never seemed to wash.

Finally being picked (grudgingly) would invariably mean the further humiliation of being "Skins". This required me and my teammates to remove our shirts so as to identify ourselves during the game. There are probably laws against that now.

I faired better in sports with no balls. Cross country running, the long jump, finger-knitting. Then I discovered golf. True, there is a ball involved but I was neither required to throw it nor catch it.

Armed with two-toned patent shoes, fetching Farrah slacks and a leather glove, I had found my calling. I played in County matches, persuaded the school to allow me to play golf instead of taking an English class (that explains a lot), and even briefly considered it as a career. Then I got a "proper" job and beyond going to work, doing work and coming home from work, so there was no time for golf or sports of any kind anymore. It's probably for the best - singing's far easier and I never have to take my shirt off.

My old ball phobias have never left me, though. Even today I dread walking past a group of fellas having a kick-about. If a stray ball should roll dangerously close my feet, I'm faced with a dilemma. Either I attempt a well meaning, but pitiful kick in the wrong direction, or it ignore it altogether and get called "wanker". I choose the later, every time. It's my little revenge for being left standing, with hope in my heart and never being picked for the team.