Category Archives: Food

The importance of warnings on food products…

I bought some salmon fillets today…

On the pack was a single, but important, warning:

“Allergy Advice: Contains Fish”…

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Filed under Consumer Affairs, Fish, Food, Humor, Humour

The most translated word in the world is not beautiful…

(Photo by Sara Cervera via Unsplash)

One thing about writing this blog is I get sent some odd messages from fairly random PR people about fairly odd and random subjects and events. Some dull; some interesting.

Some subjects are more interesting than others…

I got an email this morning telling me:

In 2017 it was reported that the word ‘beautiful’ was, monthly, the most translated word around the world. Espresso Translations wanted to find out if that had changed and to some surprise it has.

Analysing Google search terms such as ‘how to say’ in ten countries, along with the most searched for results using Google, we can now reveal the below findings:

Search term Average Monthly searches
How to say Chocolate in Italian 18,000
How to say Chocolate in French 18,000
How to say Chocolate in Spanish 17,459
How to say Chocolate in Portuguese 17,378
How to say Chocolate in Japanese 12,154
How to say Chocolate in Dutch 18,000
How to say Chocolate in Polish 14,744
How to say Chocolate in German 15,654
How to say Chocolate in Turkish 13,364

How to say beautiful is still not far behind those numbers:

Search term Average Monthly searches
How to say Beautiful in Italian 18,000
How to say Beautiful in French 14,000
How to say Beautiful in Spanish 14,459
How to say Beautiful in Portuguese 11,378
How to say Beautiful in Japanese 12,154
How to say Beautiful in Dutch 18,000
How to say Beautiful in Polish 13,744
How to say Beautiful in German 11,654
How to say Beautiful in Turkish 13,364

‘Pizza’ and ‘What is your name?’ were amongst the world’s most popular searches:

Search term Average Monthly searches
How to say Beautiful in Italian 18,000
How to say Pizza in French 16,000
How to say Doctor  in Spanish 11,959
How to say Beautiful in Portuguese 11,378
How to say Hello in Japanese 9,674
How to say you are welcome in Dutch 8,000
How to say cheers in Polish 13,744
How to say what is your name in German 7,125
How to say Beautiful in Turkish 13,364

No payment was received for posting this blog, but I wouldn’t say No to some chocolate.

I jest, of course.


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Filed under Food, Internet, PR, search engine

How do you categorise a series of uncategorisable YouTube videos?

When the US chain Borders opened up its own-branded bookshops in the UK a few years ago, I found browsing there a frustrating experience because they had no category for BIOGRAPHY (or autobiography). Someone told me this was fairly standard in the US but certainly not in the UK, which seems to have an unquenchable appetite for biographies.

In the case of Borders UK (which collapsed in 2009), they bookshelved biographies according to subject. Which meant you had to sometimes guess what they thought the subject was. How do you categorise Brian Blessed? Eccentric? Actor? Mountaineer? Does the biography of Lawrence of Arabia go under Military, Middle East or Gay?

In the case of my chum Janey Godley, her autobiography Handstands in the Dark runs the gamut from child abuse to British gangsters to Scottish social history to drug culture, psychology and more. Sometimes Borders categorised it as ‘Comedy’ because she is best known as a comedian.

This week, my chum – journalist, songwriter, comedian Ariane Sherine – she too is difficult to categorise – started a series of YouTube videos called Ariane Sherine Eats Clean and Gets Lean. It is about losing weight.

Ariane talks about her eating and other problems on YouTube

It has some chance of being successful because it is the sort of thing that might appeal to housewives in mid-America, which I understand is where the viral hits come from – as well as from spotty teenagers in the US and elsewhere, who will appreciate the underwear sequences.

The first introductory ‘episode’ was rather different to what you might expect from a series of videos about losing weight. In Ariane’s own words: “It features my #MeToo story of being sexually assaulted hundreds of times and my struggles with depression, anxiety, OCD and weight gain.”

You could also throw in jaw-droppingly honest psychological insights.

The odd thing about this introductory video to her series is the YouTube category she put it under.

She categorised it as ‘Comedy’.

You can use multiple tags on a YouTube video, but can only define it as being in one Category.

These are the possible categories:

Autos & Vehicles
Film & Animation
How to & Style
News & Politics
Nonprofits & Activism
People & Blogs
Pets & Animals
Science & Technology
Travel & Events

Which is the correct category for a dark, autobiographical, psychological piece covering sexual assault, mental problems, eating disorders and suicide?

Ariane has tagged her Introduction video in multiple ways, but she has put it under the category ‘Comedy’ because she is currently primarily known for her humorous musical numbers.

Which I guess is right.

But unavoidably unsatisfying and confusing.

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Impoverished comedians grasp at floating food skydropped in Australia

Juliette promoting her When I Grow Up show

Juliette has always taken an interest in aerial transportation

Juliette Burton ended her run at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival last night.

This morning – early evening to her – we talked via Skype

“We have an end-of-Festival party this evening,” she told me. “It’s a Tarantino-themed fancy dress party. I have two costumes and I can’t decide, so I’m going to go in a yellow jumpsuit in Kill Bill style AND as Mia Wallace from Pulp Fiction with the black bob haircut.

Not Juliette Burton

Not to be confused with Juliette Burton

“I’m planning to make a fool of myself in one outfit, then make a quick getaway, change, then come back and make a fool of myself in the other outfit.

“Sounds like a fully-formed Edinburgh Fringe show,” I said.

“A few days ago, you blogged about the lovely Lili La Scala in London,” Juliette said. “And the other day in Melbourne Sam Wills (Lili’s husband) phoned me up and asked Do you want to take part in a Jaffle-shoot contest – Do you know what that is?

“Shooting Jaffa Cakes?” I guessed.

A jaffle - as parachuted-in to comedians in Melbourne.

A jaffle – as parachuted-in to comedians in Melbourne.

“Well,” explained Juliette, “jaffles are toasties – toasted sandwiches. Two slices of bread with cheese in the middle and you press them in a sandwich toaster. Over here they call them jaffles and it’s not a jaffle-shoot as in shooting jaffles with a gun…  it’s like in parachutes – jafflechutes. They come down from the sky with little parachutes attached.

“So, basically, Sam Wills aka The Boy With Tape On His Face arranged for a group of comics to get together at a certain place at a certain time and we had to follow some arrows on the ground to X-Marks-The-Spot and that’s where the jafflechute was going to happen.

“When we got there, we looked up at every plane or helicopter that went over because we thought there might be some Third World country sending jaffles down by parachute to us poor impoverished comics. But, suddenly, this mysterious figure appeared on the top of a building and started dropping toasted sandwiches attached to small parachutes.”

“Was he dressed as Spiderman?” I asked.

“No. In fact, everyone was dressed very casually.”

“Strange for such a formal occasion,” I suggested.

“Well,” said Juliette, “Frankie Lowe, my musical director, and I are currently editing together a video of what happened which we’re going to put on YouTube. As soon as I finish talking to you, I’m going to go and record a voice-over. It was really awesome fun.”

“Did you just say the word awesone?” I asked.

Juliette (left) with Felicity Ward and (behind) Squid Boy

Juliette (left) in Oz with Felicity Ward and (behind) Squid Boy

“Yes,” said Juliette, “and, while we keep talking, I’ll send you a photo of me with Felicity Ward… Oh, Celia Pacquola was there too and Trygve – who does Squid Boy and Kraken – and, of course, Sam who is The Boy With Tape On His Face and Alexis who performs as Marcel Lucont…”

“It sounds like an upcoming Marvel superhero movie,” I said.

“…and we were all leaping about,” Juliette continued, “trying to catch melted cheese that was airborne… We were grabbing at floating food… So we’re going to post that video on YouTube soon. But now I have to go do the voice-over and then dress up as Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction for the party.”

Juliette is flying back to Britain tomorrow with stopovers in Bali and Dubai.

Tomorrow I might go to Watford with a green-eyed monster.

In the meantime, there is timelapse video on YouTube which shows Juliette being prepared for a photoshoot promoting her upcoming Edinburgh Fringe comedy show Look At Me which is about the relationship between people’s external appearances and what they really are. She is co-writing it with comedienne Janey Godley.

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Filed under Australia, Comedy, Food

I am afraid I may be becoming a voyeur or, at the very least, an eavesdropper

A symbol of going round in circles

A sign of going round in circles

This is a tale of good intentions messed-up and of coincidence.

I was talking to my eternally-un-named friend last week about the recycling information on packaging. Yes, I lead a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.

White paper is usually paper, but not always. And brown paper is sometimes the same as bananas and grass. Some things which are clearly plastics are apparently not. And, with some packaging, some plastic bits are recyclable as plastic and some are not. Last week, even trusty Marks & Spencer confused matters.

Marks & Spencer’s brown symbol on brown bread

Marks & Spencer’s brown Green Dot on right of packaging

Their plastic bread wrapper had a symbol on it that said it was not recyclable but also had a symbol that said it was.

Or so we thought.

I Googled the brown recycling symbol on the M&S plastic and found out it was called The Green Dot.

Yes, the brown symbol is called The Green Dot.

And it means that “the manufacturer of the product contributes to the cost of recovery and recycling” but it does not mean that you can necessarily recycle what the dot is printed on.

Bear this confusion in mind, dear reader, when we come to what happened on a train on the outskirts of London yesterday afternoon.

My jury service trundles ever onwards. I was supposed to finish today. But it looks like the trial will finish on Monday and then we have to consider our verdict. This is the second trial of my jury service. At the end of the first trial, we took 9 hours 23 minutes to decide on a verdict.

So yesterday, on my way back home by train, sitting at the other side of the carriage from me were a thin English woman and a fat Irish woman.

They were talking about recycling in Swansea.

On a whim, I turned on my iPhone’s audio recorder. I am slightly afraid this may become a habit.

“When I used to go to get on the ferry at Swansea to Ireland,” the fat Irish woman was saying, “I used to pass these great big stockpiles of broken glass, piled up high – green glass, clear glass – and a bit later in the papers I read that a lot of this stuff was not being recycled. It was just being dumped in the sea.”

“In thousands of years time...” she said

“In thousands of years time…” she said, “we’ll have jewellery”

“In thousands of years time,” said the thin English woman, “we’ll have pieces of jewellery that came from a certain area because that’s where the green glass was dumped.”

“In just 20 years time,” said the Irish woman, “we won’t have to have factories making anything new, because we’ll be recycling everything like mad – everything.”

“In the War,” said the English woman, “everyone did recycle their bits and buttons and they made knickers out of parachutes and coats out of blankets.”

“And lampshades out of skin,” added the Irish woman.

The English woman screwed up her face and continued: “So why is it, if we’re trying to save the world and re-cycle everything, why is it when I go to the supermarket and buy anything, they offer me a free chicken? I don’t want a free chicken. Why should I have to have a free chicken? I always have an argument with the girl at the cash desk when they offer me a free chicken.”

A chicken (deceased)

A chicken (deceased)

“It’s terrible when you go shopping,” said the Irish woman, sympathetically, “and you want to buy something of one thing and it’s a 2-for-1 and you’re forced to buy two and then you have to eat these two things.”

“I know,” agreed the English woman, “you could leave one behind, but you’re not brought up to be… You’re supposed to be careful with whatever, but you didn’t really want two in a row and it turns into a nightmare. No wonder everyone’s getting fat.”

“A few years ago,” said the Irish woman, “they were trying to get rid of their chickens in Ireland. It was something to do with Europe. When I was a kid at home, chicken was a special meal. You had a bit of beef, a bit of lamb and that was it. A chicken? Whoaa! That was something special. And now… In Ireland they’re very, very cheap but, in England, they give them away.”

The fat Irish woman started making clucking noises and wiggling her elbows. After an initial flurry of clucks, she looked over at me and smiled.

“Poor chickens,” she said to me. “Poor little chickens. They’re all going to be slaughtered. And what with that Oyster card for travelling on the tube where you’re supposed to clock in and out.”

I smiled back at her and pretended to be engrossed in my copy of Metro.

Barry’s Tea - Ireland runs on it

Barry’s Tea – Ireland lives on it (woman not included in packs)

“In Ireland,” the fat Irish woman was by now telling the thin English woman, “we get sent vouchers through the post for a place called SuperValu. If you go there, you have vouchers and you can get things for, say, one Euro less. So, if you’re eating cheese, tea is something quite good. And washing powder. But the thing is – and this is the snag – you’ve got to read the small print, because it’s a certain size. Barry’s Tea. Ireland lives on Barry’s Tea. You’ve got to have Barry’s Tea which has 600 bags in it and they say Oh, we don’t have any of those.”

“I was in Sainsbury’s,” agreed the English woman, “and they had yellow tea on special offer. You could get 80 bags for £2 or you could get 160 bags on special offer at £5.70. They said the 160 bag packet was on special offer… and I suppose it was in a way.”

“I was in a flower shop last week,” said the fat Irish woman, “and they had Sell By dates on the cactuses and I said That’s ridiculous and the man in the shop said Yes, the European ruling is you can’t have more than two years on it. I asked him: What do you do when it reaches its Sell By date? and he told me We put a sticker on it with a new date. Apparently there’s a European rule that says you have to have a Sell By date on everything including cacti.”

“And black trousers,” said the thin English woman.

“You can get them cheaper if they’re a year behind,” said the fat Irish woman.

“Yes,” agreed the thin English woman.

At this point, I had to get off the train, both because it was my station and to save the few remnants of my sanity.

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The British comedian who battled anorexia and was sectioned under the Mental Health Act – and what God said

(A version of this piece was also published on the Indian news site WSN)

Juliette Burton in London yesterday

Juliette Burton in London yesterday

“Someone recently told me,” I said to comedian/actress Juliette Burton yesterday, “about a 26-year-old female comedian who was turned down by two major agents because she was too old. They wanted younger, inexperienced comedians who could be moulded by them. My reaction was: What does an 18 year-old know about except homework and things they’ve read in books?

“Most comedians I’ve met,” agreed Juliette, “need to have experienced the extremities of the experiences of life to have a slightly different take on things. I think anyone who’s been through some darkness in their lives… the only way you can come out the other side is to find comedy in some way. You have to have darkness to appreciate the light.

“For me, at the really dark times in my life, I discovered Monty Python and other things like The Muppets and Richard Curtis’ The Vicar of Dibley.”

On Saturday, I saw a preview of Juliette’s happy, life-enhancing Edinburgh Fringe show When I Grow Up in Stowmarket, Suffolk. Tonight, she performs the first of three previews at the Brighton Fringe.

Yesterday, I chatted to her as she passed through London on her way to Brighton.

“So you were sectioned under the Mental Health Act,” I said.

“Yes,” said Juliette. “I’d been in and out of clinics most of my teenage years. The first time I was sent to a clinic, I went in voluntarily… but, when I say voluntarily, it was because my parents wanted me to and I was very young. I was fifteen – my GCSE year. And then the next time I went into a clinic I was sectioned under the Mental Health Act, which was involuntary. They turned up in an ambulance and took me away.”

“I went into a mental home when I had just newly turned eighteen,” I told Juliette. “They seemed to think it was a bad idea that I had tried to commit suicide. So going into a mental home was suggested as a good idea. I had taken an overdose, which was a silly idea because I had always been very bad at chemistry in school… What did they say was wrong with you?”

“They said I was a month away from dying,” Juliette told me. “It was anorexia… To be sectioned, you have to have five people who agree you are ‘a danger unto yourself or others’. And I was a danger unto myself.”

“I’ve seen your show,” I said. “You’re a danger unto others.”

“In a positive way,” Juliette laughed, “ I hope I’m dangerously fun now!… But my mother had to agree to me being sectioned. Definitely my doctor and then some other medical people and people close to me. Then, after a couple of weeks in that clinic, I had a psychotic episode.”

“What’s a psychotic episode?” I asked.

“I’m sure you know,” said Juliette. “but it’s kind of similar to schizophrenia and it can vary for different people. For me, it wasn’t brought about by drugs or induced in any other way, it was just down to the mental and physical stress that my body was under.

“I personally feel that I was so underweight and the stress of going into hospital and losing all control over my life and the stress of that… basically my mind decided to give up and I went off into various different experiences mentally, so I wasn’t really aware I was in the place I was in.”

“You were hallucinating?” I asked.

“It was… Yes…” said Juliette. “It’s really tricky, because the people I’ve met who have had similar experiences… It’s so… It’s difficult because obviously your body is present in that room in the hospital, but mentally you are elsewhere. It’s a bit philosophical, but who’s to say what’s actually going on? I had experiences of seeing things that weren’t there.”

“Such as?” I asked.

“Such as I saw God,” said Juliette. “And the Devil. And I saw angels.”

“What did God look like?” I asked.

Juliette was surrounded by white light

Juliette: a bright white light from God surrounded her

“I say I saw God because language is really limited,” explained Juliette. “Mentally, the way I processed it was I saw God. What I actually experienced was an intensely bright white light enveloping me, 360 degrees around me, and an overwhelming feeling of being unconditionally loved, like I’d been searching for all my life. Being completely safe and completely held. And I was aware of a figure but not aware of a face or anything distinct.

“I’m not saying this actually happened. It could be medically explained with chemicals. But my experience was that I remember asking God what the meaning of life was. And I remember being very disappointed with his answer, because I was expecting something deep and meaningful… I only got two words back – BE NICE – but, then, I think that is what all the major religions boil down to. And it’s the best moral code to live by.”

“I remember,” I said, “in the 1960s or 1970s someone took an LSD trip and saw God and realised what the meaning of life was, but he couldn’t remember what it was when he came down from his trip. So he decided next time he’d have a notepad and pen near him. He took another trip, saw God and again realised the meaning of life and wrote it down. When he came down again, he looked at the notepad and he had written: The smell of methylated spirits permeates the air…. What was the Devil like?”

“That appeared to me in shadows,” said Juliette. “I was aware I was in the room I was actually in but, in the shadows, there was some menacing form that was coming to get me… There was a time during that psychotic episode when I felt I was God. I thought I was in charge of the world. There was also a time when I thought that everyone in the hospital was talking about me, so that was more paranoia than anything.”

“Sounds more like what most performers hope for at the Edinburgh Fringe,” I said.

“I was hearing voices,” continued Juliette, “telling me what to do. And that was also part of the psychosis. It only lasted three weeks, but I had an amazing adventure…”

“Definitely like the Edinburgh Fringe,” I said.

“I thought I was time travelling,” said Juliette. “I went back to the Victorian age, I was a little girl and I was aware of a father not being there and I was crying. Then I was in another time when women ruled the world. I could see very bright flowers and it was lush and green and I was a High Priestess and I remember lots of people turning to me for advice, which was lovely. Then another part of it was when I saw aliens, which was exciting.”

“And they looked like…?” I asked.

“Again, it’s the limitations of language,” said Juliette. “I saw blackness and there was a red laser and it was trying to communicate with me and I understood that to mean that an alien communicated with me. But all of that sounds completely mad and it was over ten years ago…”

“When I was in the mental home,” I said, “they gave me happy drugs. Did they drug you every night?”

“Every day when they could get me to take them.”

“Did they not force you?” I asked.

“I think they must have had to sometimes. But I wasn’t fully aware of what was happening.”

“They gave me drugs,” I said. “The drugs made me feel happy without wanting to be happy.”

“I was put on Prozac when I was sixteen,” said Juliette. “It was really too heavy for me. I felt like a zombie. Yes, you don’t have any major lows; but you also don’t have any highs whatsoever. So what’s the point of being alive if that’s all there is?

“Lots of the anti-anxiety medication that I’ve been given over the years I’ve found actually made me more anxious. The drugs I had at the time I was having the psychosis I think did bring me back down to earth but there were a few weeks where, although I knew who I was and where I was, the paranoia was still strong.

“I remember once being out in Marks & Spencer’s in Chelmsford and I suddenly had an attack where it was like picking up on frequencies and thinking everything everyone was saying was about me and about what I was doing and they were judging me.”

“The Edinburgh Fringe again,” I said.


Never watch if having a psychotic attack

“Never watch the movie Vanilla Sky if you are in the middle of a psychotic episode,” advised Juliette, “On one of my weekends out of the clinic when I was past the worst of it but not quite fully grounded, I was allowed back to my parents and we watched Vanilla Sky, which really screwed me up and set me two steps back.”

“Chinese medicine,” I said, “tries to cure the cause, whereas Western medicine tries to hide the symptoms, like papering over the top of the cracks but not filling them in. Giving people drugs just papers over the cracks, doesn’t it? So have you just papered over the cracks?”

“I’m not on any medication at the moment,” said Juliette. “I think the NHS has improved a lot but, for me, the answer is almost never medication. You have to deal with the root cause which, for me, is anxiety and being able to accept the things I can’t change.

“When I was fifteen, I was under-eating, at seventeen, I was very under-eating. At nineteen, something changed. Within three months of my 19th birthday, I doubled my body weight and, within six months, I’d gone from a size 4 to a size 20.”

“What are you now?” I asked.

“I’m a size 8 so, if anyone would like to send me any dresses, particularly any French Connection dresses…

“Back then, it went from food being, in my mind, something I wasn’t allowed to touch to being something I over-indulged in. And that was all about control. Anorexia for me was about trying to retain control. And the compulsive over-eating was about me trying to avoid taking responsibility for life by losing control.”

“How old were you when you were sectioned?” I asked.

“I was seventeen. I spent my eighteenth birthday in the clinic.”

“And with you, why was your anxiety all about eating disorders?” I asked.

“Food is one of the few things in your life,” explained Juliette, “that you can have total autonomy over. For a long time, I used food as a solution – because, if you focus on the details of life, then you avoid the bigger picture. For me, at that time, I wasn’t ready to deal with the bigger picture. Over-eating and under-eating are just flip sides of the same coin. Different symptoms of the same core problem. All the psychological problems I’ve had have stemmed from anxiety.”

“And yet your show When I Grow Up” I said. “is jolly and enthusiastic and life-celebrating.”

Juliette Burton: happy and positive

Juliette Burton: happy & positive show

“Well,” said Juliette, “I hope it’s a positive, fun, uplifting show about me trying to be all the things I wanted to be when I was a child. So, in the last year, I’ve gone off and tried to be all the things I wanted to be when I was a kid – ballerina, baker, princess, pop star, artist, farmer and Muppet.

“I would really love people to see the show and feel positive. A lot of the stuff I’ve just spoken to you about is really dark and I have spent a long time turning into who I am now, but who I am now is somebody who desperately wants to make other people feel happy and connected and not alone. The only way I feel I can do that is though comedy and storytelling and taking people on a little escapist journey and come out the other side feeling Wow! I feel better about life.

“And people will go out with a smile on their face,” I said.

“Did you go out with a smile on your face, John?” asked Juliette.

“I did.”

“Awesome,” said Juliette.


Filed under Comedy, Drugs, Food, Health, Mental health, Mental illness, Psychology

Michael Palin in the rainforest + steaks rubbed round toilet rims in Hampstead

Last night I dreamt that I was in some sort of Eagle Has Landed / Went The Day Well? scenario in which my village (I have never lived in a village) was being taken over by infiltrators, except the infiltrators really were the villagers themselves and I and others were trying to get out before the violence started. Surely some psychological theory to be had there.

A photograph not taken by a forest tribe

I had that dream before I saw Michael Palin at the Oldie magazine’s Soho Literary Festival yesterday. He was plugging his upcoming travel book Brazil, which is published in a couple of weeks.

“My father lived through two World Wars and one of the greatest Depressions the world has ever seen,” said Michael Palin, “and how they came out of that – how they psychologically dealt with it – is amazing.

“We have had a very cushy time with lots of choices, lots of stimulating chances, just in travel. No-one in the 1950s… Certainly when my father was around, you didn’t travel except on company business. The idea that you can travel recreationally, that you can now go almost anywhere in the world for a relatively small amount of money… that is all new.”

When Michael Palin arrived at one remote Amazonian community, already in the village were one American anthropologist, one Brazilian film crew and one American photo-journalist.

“This was a remote part of the southern Amazon Basin,” he explained. “The extraordinary thing was that this tribe who, fifty or sixty years ago, had barely made contact with the rest of the world, had seen so many photographers come through that the one thing they wanted was to become photographers themselves.

“These people were still dressed in primitive rainforest garb, wearing skirts, all painted with their basin haircut and hennaed hair, but they all had quite sophisticated cameras. This remote tribe was filming us.

“To me, the big story of this place was how people can change – Two thousand years or whatever of civilization, the Enlightenment, all the various steps we’ve taken to get to the ‘sophisticated’ world we have now – and they just jumped straight from face paint and catching frogs to computers. And they understood them perfectly well and they were actually quite truculent if you gave them a rather second rate edit app – Some people give us this the other day! – These guys were waiting for the new iPhone 5.”

Steaks on toilet rims in Hampstead

In another session at yesterday’s Soho Literary Festival, The Times’ food critic and humourist Giles Coren was plugging his new book How To Eat Out.

He used to be a waiter at a restaurant in Hampstead and was asked about a section of the book in which he says the steaks were wiped on the floor.

“It is rumoured,” Giles said, “that people you don’t like… Well, it’s since George Orwell in Down and Out in Paris and London claimed to have spat in everybody’s soup, but you only need to read six pages of Orwell to know he’s the kind of fellow who would do that.”

And wiping the steaks on the floor in Hampstead?

“It was actually on the toilet and the lawyers wouldn’t let me say that,” said Giles. “The guy was called The Captain, named after Captain Sensible; he was a Russian punk. This was in the late 1980s and he just didn’t like what he called capitalist shitbags. He came over basically (joked Giles) just to wipe steaks round the rim of the toilet bowl and serve them to some really quite nice people in Hampstead.”

What this says about the relative values of Amazonian tribesmen and Westerners, I dare not even begin to imagine.

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Life is stranger than fiction but Jaffa Cakes can be far, far more terrifying.

The strange, sinister and terrifying texture of a Jaffa Cake.

Some time in the closing years of the last century, I had dinner with two workmates – Suzie and Simon – at a Uruguayan restaurant in Amsterdam. I have changed their names.

I mentioned that I had once worked at a Soho facilities house in London with a girl who was terrified of Jaffa Cakes because she found their texture frightening.

“It’s the texture.” she told me. ” They’re dark and it’s the way the light reflects off the dark curves of the chocolate.”

 I  had thought she must be joking until someone innocently brought some Jaffa Cakes into the office and she had to flee the room.

“I can understand that,” Suzie said, “I don’t like the look of Jaffa Cakes either.”

Simon and I looked at her.

“It really is the texture,” she continued. “I don’t like things like Aero chocolate bars and bathroom sponges. It’s the little holes – the circular shapes. There’s something sinister and un-natural about them. Even though I know some sponges are natural. But they’re un-nerving.”

I mentioned to Suzie and Simon that one of the Dutch videotape editors at the TV station where we all worked had appeared as The Artful Dodger in her school’s stage production of Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver.

“Oh!” said Suzie, suddenly interested. “I played the Artful Dodger in a school play, too. When I met my husband years later, I told him about it and he said he wasn’t surprised, because he was always physically attracted to the sort of girl who could play the role of the Artful Dodger.”

Simon said he knew he wasn’t gay because recently, in Dublin, he had had his twice-a-decade dabble and knew he wasn’t.

Suzie and I were slightly taken aback but tried not to show it.

It was a strange dinner.

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Christmas with Malcolm Hardee: a pint of strange-tasting beer and falling fish

(This was also published in the Huffington Post)

I will be spending a quiet time at home on Christmas Day.

I asked ‘Digger Dave’, a friend of the late ‘godfather of British comedy’ Malcolm Hardee, if he had any memories of spending Christmas with Malcolm.

Perhaps this was a mistake.

“Most of the stories are still far too embarrassing to the living for me to tell,” Digger Dave replied. “And we won’t mention shows where the box office take got lost!!!

“Malcolm once lured me to some country house for a Boxing Day sexual extravaganza with some game show hostess and then asked me to reglaze the broken glass in the patio doors. He also ensured that another member of The Greatest Show on Legs crashed in the same room – well flaked-out across my legs, making movement or undressing impossible. It’s quite an impediment to romance – having a Greatest Leg unconscious on your own legs. No leg-over is possible.

“You can ask someone else about their memories of the Great Christmas Can Can Tour of London’s East End pubs. It was his sister Clare’s idea to do the dancing and I did the promo and posterwork (which I had to pay for myself, as the ‘free’ service at Goldsmiths College couldn’t).

“Some of the pubs had secret handles that couldn’t be opened by unwelcome persons. Most of the audiences would have looked good in a movie like your Killer Bitch, but the cast usually outnumbered them. Sometimes it wasn’t possible to get across the room. It’s quite difficult doing dance-centred performance when the play area is only two feet wide.

“It was the normal Greatest Show on Legs routine – the Scotsman striptease, the dustbin lid clog dance,  the beer mat dance and spinning the dirty old men plus Malcolm doing his impression of French President General de Gaulle using nothing but his genitals and a pair of spectacles… with a Can Can dance added at the end.

“I once had to relieve myself in a pint glass and hide it behind the music player. I never saw Malcolm wash his harmonica in anyone’s beer for quite a while after that night.

“There is one Christmas story that I never actually checked out with Malcolm. But two anarchists who knew him maintained that he had a hand in planning it.

“It happened in Exeter Prison, on the Friday before Christmas, when Malcolm was doing time there. As it was a Friday, there was supposed to be fish for dinner – in this case, mackerel, which had been caught off Cornwall, shipped to a very dodgy fishmonger in Truro in an un-refrigerated van and then delivered to the prison gates in another un-refrigerated van during the Thursday night. But that’s where the fish stayed – outside the prison gates – as the staff were on a Christmas rota and there was no-one to take them in. So the fish were well and truly past any relevant sell-by date by the time they arrived.

“Devon and Cornwall are not being famous for snowy Christmases, so the Friday before Christmas was nice and hot and sunny and the fish sat there until someone eventually took them in.

“The inmates always used to eat in their cells. So they were unlocked and marched one wing at a time to collect their meals on a tray from a central servery. It took an age because of the Christmas staff cuts.

“No-one wanted inedible rotting fish in their cell for the next 23 hours and there were no warders to notice what was being done, so the stinking fish contents of the trays were tipped over the landings. The falling fish hit the anti-suicide netting between the floors and stayed there.

“Rotting mackerel has a strange clingy consistency… but only for a time. After that, the warming oils make it quite fluid.

“So, after a while, the fish fluid dripped down – slowly at first – and then a really big flush hit the ground floor where the just-arrived Salvation Army band were playing God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen!”

I do not know if Malcolm was involved in this merry incident, but it does sound in character and the sort of festive fun he would have enjoyed. He liked to entertain.

It is also a typical Malcolm Hardee story – it sounds improbable or impossible but then turns out not only to be true but to actually be understated.

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The greatest mystery in all of China is to be found in a Northwood restaurant

I will be going to see more movies in the China Image Film Festival in London later today.

In round figures, there are 4,000 cinema screens in the UK.

In China – a vastly larger country – there are only 6,000 screens.

But, within the next five years, China will have 20,000 screens and will become the second biggest film industry in the world after the US – larger than India’s Bollywood. In the last year alone, there were 500 films made in China.

I had a meal in a Chinese restaurant in Northwood last night, not far from ’the bunker’, and got home to watch yet more on the BBC News channel about a world economic situation that is barely – or perhaps not – under control. All the ‘advanced’ countries seem to be in debt that will stretch decades into the future.

But China is sitting on vast amounts of money. The irony of a Communist country becoming rich on capitalism.

The last decade was all about China making things but the next decade will be all about China owning things.

Which reminds me of something a history teacher once said as a throwaway line at my school when I was about 13.

He said: “Civilisation and power moves westwards because invading armies have always ridden westwards, following the daylight.”

Trite, of course.

But, in the northern hemisphere, it is roughly true.

At the moment, power is moving from North America to the Pacific Rim (a phrase that always sounds to me like a dubious sexual practice).

What confuses me is that the Chinese are very expansionist of late.

They have been putting money into Africa, especially into very suspect regimes, for a couple of decades. They are building an aircraft carrier or, at least, have refitted a Russian one. They are now investing heavily in the West.

This seems very un-Chinese. The Great Wall was built to keep the uncivilised long-nosed foreign devils out and to preserve the integrity of China which, with quite a lot of justification, looked inward at itself as the only truly civilised place.

Japan was always the regional expansionist power, not China.

Of course, there was the invasion of Tibet in 1949, but that seemed an unfortunate exception to the rule and a knee-jerk reaction after Mao Tse-tung’s Communists took power.

It seems to be very un-Chinese to be expansionist. It is a great mystery.

Though, sitting in a Chinese restaurant in Northwood last night, it was secondary as a mystery in my mind to the greater ongoing mystery of why the Chinese – who, let’s face it,  invented pretty much everything – never invented the teacup handle not the knife-and-fork. And why on earth were chopsticks thought to be a good idea in a nation where the staple diet was and is based around small grains of rice?

Life is a constant mystery.

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Filed under China, Food, History, Movies, Travel