Time Out in London

London is an incredible city. Today, passing by the British Library with a few minutes to spare I popped in to see the Magna Carta, Gutenberg Bible and the original lyrics for 'Michelle' scratched by Paul McCartney on the back of an envelope. A 30 minute walk down the road is The Wallace Collection where I found Titians, the famous 'Laughing Cavalier', and Ary Scheffer's astonishing 'Francesca da Rimini'.

Remarkably, neither exhibition cost me a penny. London is full is amazing stuff to see and do for free: The British Museum, wonderful public parks, and the RAF Museum housing over 100 aircraft. Where else in the world could so many, see so much, for so little?

This was actually my second visit in as many days to the Wallace Collection. Last month I was lucky enough to visit St. Petersburg's Hermitage with an art historian friend. What a difference it made to have an expert on hand. Until then I'd walk through galleries, pausing at the pieces that caught my eye, with little idea of what I was actually looking at. That began to change in Russia and now I've got the bug.

Until recently I had no idea when the Middle Ages where, of the Reformation's effect on European art, how the Renaissance began, and the importance of the Impressionists. I went along to the V&A to learn a bit more. It's spectacular and also free.

Alain de Botton's 'The Art of Travel' spurred me on to look at the work of Vincent van Gogh and introduced me to John Ruskin.

Ruskin believed there was an artist inside all of us and in 1857 published 'The Elements of Drawing'. It's still in print. He wasn't especially bothered how polished the results, he just wanted everyone to try.

As tourists we often pause to admire a vista, a tree or a church; we take it in for a moment... then continue on our way, barely registering anything beyond the immediate visual impact.

Sitting down and trying to commit what we see to paper means we have to study it. A brief appreciative glance isn't enough. We must carefully consider the colours, shapes and light, even how it makes us feel and the memories it evokes. Only by soaking it all in can we truly appreciate its beauty.

That, said Ruskin, was the important thing. It didn't matter if what ended up on the page resembled the work of an angry eight year old. The contemplation and consideration of the subject was the end, not the means.

You don't need to go far to find something special. From a single fallen leaf resting on dewy grass to the sleek enamelled lines of a vintage motorcycle, there is beauty all around us. We only need take the time to look.

 

You know you're getting old when...

You know you're getting old when you see paraphernalia of your youth exhibited in a museum. Taking respite from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I spent a few happy hours in the National Museum of Scotland. Newly refurbished, it's a wonderful collection representing the nation's industrial endeavours and the natural world.

As a child I remember walking around such museums with my parents. They'd coo with delight on seeing post-war chocolate wrappers, a kettle from their childhood home, or the same washing machine used by their grandparents.

Memories can be powerful. Seeing a cottage shaped teapot or hearing a few bars of music can, in an instant, reconnect us with all the multi-sensory emotions of a long forgotten moment. Even the smallest, most prosaic item can summon smells, colours, faces and feelings.

In the design section of the museum I found a Sinclair ZX81. Proudly (and bizarrely) British, the ZX81 was on the front line of the home computing revolution. For only £49.95 anyone could own one. Soon siblings could ignore each other for hours at a time whilst tapping a digital white square against a wall. Now that's progress.

I hadn't seen one for over 25 years. I was immediately taken back to my auntie Margaret's living room, sitting on the floor with my cousin playing Ping Pong and wondering why the most basic graphics imaginable bore absolutely no resemblance to the very exciting picture on the box.

Next came the all colour ZX Spectrum closely followed by the Commodore 64 on which I spent four weeks programming a quiz to test the user on the capital cities. What an interesting child.

I am typing this on a fancy new Macintosh computer. Before long it too will end up in a museum cabinet, bemused kids pressed against the glass wondering how on earth we used to survive with such antiquated machines.

In 1899 Charles Duell Commissioner of the U.S. Office of Patents said, “Everything that could be invented has been invented.” He should have known better. There's no stopping progress, and sooner or later we'll all see our the substance of our lives consigned to the museum.

Charm Lessons from a 3 Year Old

Other than a few broody moments, I've never really wanted kids. I'm more of a dog person. As my friend Tom Mitchelson says, "at least you can tie a dog to a lamp post when you pop in to the newsagents". I can't keep a pot plant alive for more than a week and besides I'm too selfish, even to own a dog. That's never stopped me enjoy my friend's children though and I am lucky to have some wonderful kids in my life.

You reach an age, somewhere in your 20s, when it seems everyone is having babies. For me, this was a tricky time. One minute my friends would be out having fun without a care in the world, the next they'd be knee deep in nappies and Calpol. A night at the movies would require the planning of a military tactician and the only thing they missed more than sex was sleep.

Every parent boasts that their children are uniquely the most advanced, talented, remarkable offspring ever to have walked the earth. And quite so - to them, they are.

I've found some parents are better than others at maintaining a sense of balance in their lives. While many take time out for themselves and keep old friendships alive, others have disappeared inside the Mothercare outlet store never to be seen again.

I do understand. Despite the pressures, expense and sacrifices, to watch your own child grow up and develop a personality of its own is nothing short of miraculous. Just to play a small part in a child's life, as I do, is an enormous privilege.

Recently I've been spending more time with two dear friends and their three year old, Josie. I have, at last, begun to understand why some parents never stop talking about their kids. Every day she comes out with hilarious, cute, adorable sentences. I want to post them on Facebook and tell my friends, but stop myself, realising that you had to be there otherwise it makes for very tedious 'news' indeed.

As any parent will tell you, children are experts at getting what they want and and getting away with everything. As someone who has read dozens of books on communication, I realise that Josie is a natural. It's like she was born reading 'How to Win Friends and Influence People'. There's a lot I can learn from her. For example, the other day as I pushed her pram, her parents asked her "Do you miss Gary when he's away?"

"No." "Oh, that's not very nice!" they persisted, "Have another think. Are you sure you don't miss him even just a little bit?"

Josie looked at me...paused...looked at the sky and after a moment said, "Look at all the pretty stars."

Brilliant. A perfect example of how to dodge a question and insult someone at the same time. Tony Blair couldn't have done it any better himself.

As if that wasn't enough, the very next day in the car, Josie said she had a poorly tummy. The parents, realising this is the sign that she's about to be sick, stopped the car, but not before Josie had thrown up all over herself, the back of my seat and the top of my head. The child puked on me and all I could say was, "Poor little thing, is she alright?" How did that happen?

I seem to remember the last time I was sick on someone I was thrown out of a club and had to walk home. Still, as someone later pointed out, at least my head is a wipe clean surface.

As a footnote to this, by the end of the day she did give me a cuddle and claim she'd miss me during my next trip. I wouldn't have got that from a dog, but then, I think the pink sparkly butterfly cupcake I bought her had something to do with her sudden affection.

 

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.

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.

 

Barton Upon Humber, making David Cameron Proud

As David Cameron’s plans for a Big Society are floundering, a small group of dedicated citizens are showing the way forward in Barton Upon Humber. The Prime Minister would be pleased to find the RNLI’s Barton branch is still working hard after over 40 years. He’d probably be startled to learn that this small community group has raised a total of £136, 772… and counting.

I’ve been proud (and humbled) to call myself President of the Barton branch for well over 10 years. It never ceases to amaze me what wonderful things a few hard working people can achieve.

If you’re in the Barton area on the second Saturday of each month (Farmer’s Market day) you may well find Ros, Ray, Janet, Jane, Margaret, Norma and others at their bookstall on Cottage Lane. Go and say “hello”. You’ll find some bargain books and give a welcome boost to the charity’s coffers. If you have any used books or CDs to get rid of, bring them along too.

If you’d rather enjoy a pint in your local, look out for the RNLI collection boxes. Behind every one of those plastic boxes is a grateful team of helpers. Our treasurer, Don, calls in to all the best pubs, emptying the boxes every month. I can promised you that every penny is appreciated.

You might also find one of our team knocking at your door to collect the fundraising envelopes. It can be a thankless task: pounding the streets for hours, but the contributions make it worth the effort.

More help is always appreciated and if you could spare the time or would like further details on how you could help, contact Ros Cash on 01652 634243. You may help towards saving a life at sea.

Thank you for any help you have given the charity over the years. Whether it’s your loose change, used books or a friendly smile – I can promise you it’s very much appreciated. David Cameron would be happy to know that his Big Society is alive and well in Lincolnshire.

 

A Day In Dubai

The low point of the desperately grim ‘Sex In The City 2’, was when Samantha (the old one) gropes her male companion in a classy Abu Dhabi restaurant, and gets herself arrested for public indecency. You might think the Emirates would want to forget a film, described by critics as “blatantly anti-Muslim” and “borderline racist”, ever happened. However, in between their multicultural mishaps the girls do shop. A lot. And in neighbouring Dubai shopping is king. I am walking around Dubai Mall, the world’s largest shopping mall, with over 12 million square feet and 1200 stores. Along with Lady Gaga, the ‘Sex In The City’ theme tune is being piped through the sound system, a soundtrack interrupted only by the Muslim call for prayer.

Outside it’s 40 degrees in the shade, so your days are spent shopping, spending and sweating. If you need to cool down, a beer in the one of the world’s most opulent (some say vulgar) hotels will set you back £40. You’re paying for gold plated coasters and Dubai’s restrictions on alcohol consumption.

This is my third time here. In the past I’ve visited The Palms, had fun in Atlantis and enjoyed the Desert Safari (about the only short excursion available). This time I was determined to seek out Dubai’s cultural side.

After the Dubai museum I headed to ‘The Creek’ - the river dividing the city, and paid about 25p for a wonderful, all too short, boat ride to the old souks of Deira. The Spice Souk has been there for generations with dozens of stores selling aromatic cloves, frankincense, and cinnamon. Five minutes walk from there is the Gold Souk where (apparently) you can find some great deals. From there I spent a couple of hours getting lost in the old streets, taking in the smells, sights and sounds. It’s a safe, fun way to pass a morning. And that, from what I can make out, is the end of old Dubai.

A 15-minute cab took me to the Burj Khalifa – the world’s tallest man-made structure, at 828 metres. If you want to go to the top of here’s a tip: book your tickets online at least 48 hours in advance. You pay a quarter of the walk-up price of about £80. Is it worth it? I suspect many people, me included, think: “We’ve come all this way, we might as well do it”. The lift shoots you up 124 floors in less than 60 seconds and the views are pretty cool. Best time to go it just before sunset, so you see the city in both day and night.

And now here we are, back in Dubai Mall, which is right next door.

Like the film, Dubai seems vacuous, shallow and materialistic. It’s the cultural equivalent of eating a Big Mac: you know it’s not good for you and if you did it every day you’d be sick – but once in a while, it’s fantastic.

Sharing Goat with the Bedouin of Wadi Rum

I am sitting around an open fire in the middle of the desert, eating goat with thirty-five Bedouin. Why am I the only foreigner here? Does anybody speak English? And what’s wrong with everyone’s left hand? This is my third trip to Jordan. Years ago I came here for a week, singing for the British Council's Jazz Festival. That trip was memorable for two reasons: (1) I met John Inman, who on meeting me said: "I've never been in Amman before", and (2) my taxi to the Dead Sea broke down in the baking hot desert leaving me to push-start it, while the driver (who was almost as big as the car) engaged the clutch.

The second time was last November when I saw the incredible Treasure House of Petra. This time I am on the sands Lawrence of Arabia made his own in the Wadi Rum desert.

After a 45 minute taxi ride from Aqaba I found another driver with a sturdy 4x4 and 3 hours to spare. Mohammad (actually, everyone I met here’s called Mohammad) sings like no one's listening, dances like no one's watching and drives like no one's hoping to make it back alive.

At the first stop Mohammad recommended I climbed up the mountain for a better view of Lawrence’s desert. After half an hour clambering over rocks, I realised this was probably his little way of keeping me occupied while he drank coffee with his mates. He did show me “ancient carvings on a rock”, but didn’t know “what they meant, who wrote them or what the language was”. Wikipedia has since told me they are petroglyphs depicting humans and antelopes dating back to the Thamudic times, around 2000 years ago.

We stopped by various rock formations, a sand dune used by David Lean in his epic movie, and finally the highlight: watching the sunset.

It was a lovely sight. I have to say not the spiritual experience the guidebooks lead me to expect, but it was very nice. If I’m honest, I’ve seen better in Scarborough.

When we returned to the village, Mohammad invited me into his family's garden where about 20 men were sitting, against the walls, on carpets, looking in on 10 more who were praying. He gave me tea, told me to sit and disappeared to help prepare dinner. People smiled warmly but no one spoke English. Others arrived and we all stood and greeted them. Small boys came around with warm water and we all washed our right hands (I realize now the left hand is reserved for other duties). Then out came platters of roast goat served on rice, soaked in a delicious stock. There was no ceremony and no dinner conversation; this was about eating. In ten minutes the platters were bare. More tea was served and then Mohamed's brother introduced himself to me. In perfect English he explained that everyone here was of the same family: brothers, cousins, grandchildren. I didn’t ask where the women were. I had been invited at his father’s request for no other reason than I happened to be there when this gathering was taking place.

As a tourist, sitting around a fire, chatting to people whose lives are so far removed from our own, truly makes a trip memorable. Suddenly you're not ticking off sights from a guidebook, you’re learning how people live and what makes them tick. It opens the heart and enriches the mind. That’s why I love to travel.