Tuesday, 4 December 2012


So having refused him lunch on Sunday, he emailed me to have lunch on Monday.  At Scott's! This is one of the poshest restaurants in Mayfair, a place to where I aspire to be invited.  I replied in the affirmative, although it wasn't, if I'm honest, massively convenient.  It meant I would have to wash my hair again and possibly get a re-varnish... Still, small price to pay.

When I woke up Monday morning, it occurred to me I didn't know his surname.  No way was I going to get all putzed up and go into town to enter a restaurant to meet a man called Carlos without knowing in whose name the table had been booked. 

"Good afternoon, Madam."
"Good afternoon.  I'm meeting... er ... Carlos?"

They'd think I was a hooker.

So I emailed and asked what name the table was in and actually, could he kindly call me to confirm the lunch date.  Nada.  I waited until noon, getting ever more agitated, then emailed again to say:

"I'm sorry but I have a radio broadcast to do (true) so might be a little late.  Also, I'm not comfortable meeting a complete stranger without a telephone conversation first. Please call me."


I binned the whole idea and went about my business.  Luckily, I had not washed my hair!

Later in the day, I get an email: "Sorry.  I got held up in a meeting.  I leave for NY tomorrow but will be back in May.  I'll contact you."

I fell about laughing.  I should live so long, but I won't be holding my breath!

Sunday, 2 December 2012


I take my 14 year old granddaughter, Tatiana, to the opera: L’elisir d’amore at Covent Garden – a rare treat. 

Just before the lights go down, I notice a good-looking older man hovering very close to where we’re sitting staring at us both.  He suddenly speaks, in a foreign accent: ‘Mother & daughter?’  Tatiana pipes up: ‘She’s my grandma’.   

The man puts his fingers to his lips and blows them in my direction. 
‘You don’t have a husband if you look so good!’ he says.  I laugh and say: ‘No I don’t!’
He winks at me, having established my marital status.  Tatiana gives me a nudge and says: ‘You just can’t help it, can you?’ like I’ve done something wrong!  He takes his seat, the lights go down, and the performance begins. 

During the interval, Tats & I go walkabouts.  Her maths teacher is somewhere in the audience but we don’t find her – she said she wasn't bothered, but I'm sure she would have like to show herself off in other than her school uniform.  Crossing the bar on the way back to our seats, The Foreigner is standing alone drinking a glass of pink champagne.   Stylish!

He greets me warmly, asks Tats her name then asks mine. 

‘I will call you Wendy, not Grandma...’ he whispers in my eye.  ‘I am Carlos.’ 

We chat a little.  He’s from Mexico, travels 6 months of the year, is probably lonely with a wife in Acapulco or wherever.  Tatiana’s looking bored so we walk off but bump into him again just before the 2nd act.  He quickly asks for my phone number.   

I say: ‘I’ll give it to you later’.  

At the end of the opera, he has to pass where we’re sitting to leave. I give a business card to Tats to hand to him (I never gave him my number, m’lud).  He takes both my hands in his and says: ‘Have lunch with me tomorrow at 2.’  I say: ‘I can’t tomorrow’.  He looks disappointed, but takes the card and leaves without saying goodbye to Tatiana which I find rude.  Men, honestly!! 
If he calls, should I see him? What would you do?

Monday, 15 October 2012


I'm better at keeping promises to other people than to myself and although much has happened this past year, I was reminded recently to finish posting my blog on Kolkata before I embark on another trip to India. 

My last blog left you with some of the ladies dabbing tears from their eyes.  Here's what happened next:

Local film crews jostle for position to document our arrival. Dominique lectures anyone who’ll listen to encourage the Indian Government and wealthy nationals to help their own which they do not seem to do. Through the crowd, we spot Brother Gaston Dayanand, a Swiss turned Holy Man who has lived and worked amongst the poorest of Kolkata’s poor these past forty years. He leads our procession to an open-sided tent where we are seated on a dais like a royal entourage. The whole community, decked out in their finery, sit cross-legged on the ground staring up at us.

The sweet-faced children then perform a 3-hour song, dance and acrobatic show. They all look clean and healthy yet some have shaven heads, presumably to ward off lice. Their parents were all lepers, unable to care for themselves let alone their offspring: infant girls abandoned for simply being female; toddlers left alone when their young mothers died, reduced to scavenging on scrap heaps with the rats; eight-year olds without a rag to clothe themselves forced into prostitution for a few grains of rice.

All those who entertain us have been saved from certain death by Brother Gaston and the selfless, noble, unflinching dedication of Dominique Lapierre, his wife and their fellow humanitarians.

Bouquets and gifts are presented; speeches are made; cakes are cut; photos are taken; the website goes live.  Bottled water is handed out much to our relief.   From the four corners of the globe, we thirty Western strangers bond through the sheer intensity of this shared experience.

The next day, we set off for Barrackpore to visit a home called Udayan: The Resurrection. This inspirational centre was founded in 1970 by an ex-gentleman’s outfitter from Gloucester, Rev. James Stevens O.B.E.  He went out to India in 1968, borrowed a truck from Mother Teresa and began gathering up children from the slums.  He has since created a paradise on earth, financially supported by Dominique Lapierre since 1981, where 300 mentally and physically-challenged children aged 4 to 18, all rescued from leper colonies, live, learn and learn to live.

Costly antiobiotics, physical therapy and high protein diets restore their health. They are educated in all academic subjects, as well as yoga, music, arts and crafts and sports. They learn the skills to earn a living and will go on to become tailors, carpenters, welders, mechanics, electricians, leather workers. When they leave the centre, Udayan will help them buy materials to open their own shops.

Wherever possible, they still see their parents who reap comfort and joy from seeing their now-healthy children growing up to fulfil the dreams they never dared to even dream.

As the week progresses, the schools and health centres become bigger and better:  The Dominique Lapierre School of Excellence for Children with Special Need, The Dominique Lapierre Centre of Excellence for the Disabled.  We watch a football match played by two teams of polio sufferers, little boys with callipers on their legs and some on crutches, including one who ‘runs’ across the field on his hands and bottom. 

As the patients grow up, they too become care givers, physiotherapists, manufacturers of aids and appliances, receivers and providers of physical and mental therapy for the next influx of rescued children. 

We sail up the Ganges Delta on a hospital ship to visit the Sundarbans, a vast area of mangrove forest mudflats, straddling the Bay of Bengal and Bangladesh.  Designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site and one of the seven wonders of the natural world, 4.4 million people inhabit 54 of the hundreds of small islands which do not feature on any map.

Xander van Meerwijk, a Dutch philanthropist and heroic friend of the Lapierres, has donated, amongst much else, the funds to build a floating ambulance which provides a whole range of equipment including an on-board lab and X-ray machine capable of detecting tuberculosis in its early stages. This ship is a world first which has already saved thousands of lives.

Xander tells me a wonderful story about the little black dress Audrey Hepburn wore in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. 

“The designer Givenchy gave it to me to auction at Christie’s, the proceeds to go to my good causes,” he says with a twinkle in his eye, “The price was going up and up to ten times over the $100,000 reserve.  Hubert (de Givenchy) suddenly objected to the nationality of the highest bidder -  a wealthy Russian - and slammed in a final bid just before the hammer went down.  He effectively bought his own dress back but he still donated the money: close to $1,000,000 for that famous little piece of cloth!” *

The Sundarban region, as well as harbouring snakes and crocodiles, is famous for the Royal Bengal tiger, the only animal that drinks seawater. This fearsome creature is a merciless man-eater with a penchant for the cadavers that float along the Ganges, bodies only partially cremated for the simple reason that their families couldn’t afford enough wood for a decent funeral pyre.

Local farmers wear masks on the backs of their heads because the tigers supposedly won’t attack if you’re looking at them, but this is poor protection when you take into account the annual number of deaths.

The remote islanders are in dire need of all types of medical assistance.  Cataract removal, cervical screening, malaria control, leprosy treatment – you name it, they need help for it.

One young woman I spoke to explained she was trying to raise enough money to build a house (one room mud hut) and start a stationery business to provide pens and paper for the islands’ schoolchildren.

“How much would that cost?” I enquire. “About $300. . .” she replies.  The price of a good lunch.

From having been afraid to touch anyone or eat anything, we have learned to tuck into the local produce laid out for us and clutch the outstretched hands that greet us.  We hug the smiling women and pat the straight-faced babies. We stroke the children’s silky hair then surreptitiously pass round anti-bacterial hand wipes in our inbuilt Western paranoia.

On our final day, we visit the slum immortalised in Dominique Lapierre’s best-selling book The City of Joy where his hero, a rickshaw puller/human horse died of TB aged 32.  On an area the size of three football pitches, thousands of people live, love, give birth and die alongside open sewers, stinking latrines and polluted wells.

One enduring memory however is of a photograph of a filthy, crippled baby in a crib covered with flies followed by another of that same child aged 18, upright and well, graduating from University. Without the charity, the 2nd photo would not have existed.

Dominique Lapierre is one of life’s heroes instrumental in opening 102 schools, digging 650 wells, bringing literacy to the women of 3000 villages, launching 4 hospital ships and distributing millions to those in need.

“When I see a wealthy Indian driving a brand new Bentley or Ferrari through the streets of Mumbai” he muses, “I see enough money to lift 50,000 tuberculosis-ridden children off the streets, to cure them and to educate them.”

In hard economic times such as these, there is a terrible deficit in funds. Due to the recession, benefactors are knocking noughts off the end of their previous donations.  Some of the schools and centres may have to close. 

On returning home, I scoop the last spoonful from a jar of coffee then have a terrible dilemma about throwing the empty jar away.  What use the Kolkatans could make of it: as a storage container, a water vessel, a grain pounder, a rolling pin.

I’ve heard it said that India changes you. 

I never believed it. 

I do now.

Tragically, dear Dominique sustained a bad fall in May and is still recovering in hospital in Toulon. We all wish him a speedy recovery to full health.

Sunday, 2 September 2012


A dear friend of mine, who’s had more romantic let-downs than a whore’s drawers, is currently between the horns of an amoral dilemma.  Just like babies after IVF, two chaps have come along at once. 

She likes them both - in slightly different ways: one for his witty repartee, organisational skills, generosity and the remote possibility of a future, the other for the fact that he’s as hot as chilli between the sheets.  

In the course of their work, both gents travel a lot on business.  They’re often away at the same time which gives her the chance to see her friends and look forward with eager anticipation to their duplicitous return(s). 

Last week, she spent a wonderful evening with one of them.  Two days later, the other one wanted to get together.  Feeling slightly guilty, yet unwilling to refuse, she rationalized thus:   

If I refuse, he might think I don’t like him and drift off to pastures new.  I don’t know what he gets up to when he’s away and I might just be his London lover.  For all I know, there’s a Washington wife and a Madrid mistress.  So is there any sense in me being prissy when I could get hit by a bus tomorrow? 

She often views sex as ‘medicinal’ based on the irrefutable knowledge that it is good for you as a mood enhancer, spirit lifter, endorphin booster.  I support her in her life choices: a little of what you fancy does you good and a bit of something is better than a lot of nothing. 

So I say: ignore the guilt and you go girl! Men have been treacherous lechers since time began.  Is it so wrong for women, just for the fun of it, to act the same? 


Saturday, 4 August 2012


I've come to the Edinburgh Festival to escape the Olympics.  I booked this months ago when the Games were, to my mind, an irritating inconvenience.  As a non sport-loving Londoner, all I could envisage was my city being stolen from me.  Little did I realise how much I'd enjoy it.

Anyway, can't help that now: train and apartment booked and paid for, so here I am.  On my own. 

Unlike Greta Garbo, I don't actually vant to be alone.  As I alight from the train, I feel weird.  I've been here many times, always with a crowd of friends.  I know my way around so that's not the problem; the problem seems to be that everyone else is 'with a crowd of friends'.

I settle into the apartment, which is well located, and hit the streets.  It's 7.30 p.m. and I'm hungry.  I go to M&S and do a food shop which feels normal but not in a good way.  I walk down Rose Street looking for a place to eat but everywhere is full of couples clinking, poring over programmes, jovially jabbering. There's a fair amount of jabbering going on in my head - like WTF are you doing here?  It's the first night of the Festival for Crissakes - I should be partying in the SpiegelTent!  But (cue violins) I'm all alone...

The carrier bags make me feel a bit more local but I fail to find anywhere I fancy.  I don't want to eat in a pub and I don't want to eat at Le Petit Posh.  I'm here for 2 weeks.  If I spend a minimum of £30 a day on food, I'll go broke. 

A couple of solo men walk past and I quell the urge to grab them by the lapels and beg them to have dinner with me.  Not the women, you'll notice! Then I reason that men walking on their own are probably sad weirdos.  After all, who in their right minds would want to be at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival without their crowd of friends?!

I smile at a busker.  He ignores me, but in fairness, his eyes are closed.  I wish I could play guitar so I too could busk.  That, at least, would give me something constructive to do.  Eventually I stop at a Cafe Rouge and order soup and a salad.   The waiter is cute.  I consider asking him what time he gets off.

The dinner revives me.  I take the shopping home then go back out again.  I buy a ticket for a show called Fat Whore.  She is. That makes me feel better. 

I'm sure I'll be fine: an erstwhile toyboy of mine, Mark Restuccia, has a show called How to Succeed at Internet Dating. Another friend, Spencer Maybe, performs as a male Burlesque artist.  I'm having lunch with one of the Fringe organisers next week and start my daily reportage to italkfm.com on Monday.  I'm looking for new talent for BBC London.  The Book Fair starts soon...

In 7 days time, my crowd of friends arrive but meanwhile, I can always stay in my flat and watch the Olympics on TV, uninterrupted and happily alone...

Friday, 27 July 2012


I wonder if any of the popular press are going to have the guts to say that quite a lot of the Opening Ceremony was a complete mess?  Or is Danny Boyle going to get an instant knighthood just because he created a programme of British whimsy with flashes of brilliance marred by trying to cram too much in?

The Industrial Revolution scenes were inspired as the smoke stacks from dark satanic mills rose belching from beneath the ground.  The James Bond/HM/helipcopter sequence was highly amusing.  The Mr. Bean episode was hilarious.  Even the NHS bit wasn't too bad but then it all started to go horribly wrong. 

A cacophony of modern music blared forth with great groups of seemingly random dancers prancing about all over the place texting each other.  Was that meant to be cool or what we used to call modern?  I remember the Chinese with their rigid, regimented lines and jaw-dropping aerial acrobats.  I remember the Catalans with their insanely grotesque though fascinating figures and I know they were a tough act to follow. 

But Danny, darling, less is more!  And you chose not to showcase what we Brits do best: pomp, ceremony, circumstance and pageantry.  I know we've just had all that with the Jubilee, but if we had the Red Arrows again, why couldn't we have had the Horseguards or the Busbys or a Coronation Coach or two?   So colourful, rousing and quintessentially British.

I don't think the Queen appreciated hearing the Sex Pistols or Prodigy - I know I didn't.  And at the risk of sounding like a grumpy old woman, yes, we've always been at the vanguard of popular music but Paul, Paul, Paul sweetie: next time you're asked to sing live, just say you're washing your hair that night.  Let us remember you the way you were.

Beckham was Beautiful. The Fireworks were Fabulous. The Torch was Tremendous. And the 16,000 athletes from 204 countries are what it's all about.

So can we please now get on with it so it can all be over and we can get back to normal and I can drive through the West End and go about my business without having to fret about whether I'm going to get a £130 fine for traversing one of those blessed lanes?  And all those sodding dignatories who've caused major disruption in our fair city can buzz off back from whence they came and give us Londoners back our London. (On the plus side, however, there will be lots of muscly men in tight Lycra to watch so Bring Them On!)

Good luck athletes!  And good effort, Boyle but maybe rein it in a bit next time.

Sunday, 15 July 2012


If one more person says to me: "You could have written that - and better!" I shall have to thump them. "You think I don't know that?" I reply between gritted teeth.

It's like standing in the Royal Academy in front of a white canvas with a black dot in the middle that's been highly acclaimed by the (f)Art World as a tour de force.

The point about: "I could have done that..." is that you didn't. Someone else did and yes, I'm jealous as hell and want to scratch her eyes out then get hold of her credit card and pin number.

The zeitgeist of what's hot, what's not, what's coolish and what's foolish is that you just never know. Maybe 50 Shades of Beige - A Fashion Guide for the Dullhamshire Ladies Guild - would sell like hot cakes. But would I compromise my writing integrity and bash out a sleazy piece of shit-lit just to make a squillion quid? YES I WOULD.

As most writers of soft porn will tell you, it's not easy to get it right. Legs have to be placed just so, ditto, lips, hips, sighs and thighs. Good sex scenes are best expressed with a mélange of eroticism and vaguery. This is titilation not do-it-yourself gynaecology.

So no, in case you're wondering, I have not and will not read 50SOG. I downloaded a free sample onto my Kindle just to see what all the fuss was about and only because I value my e-reader did I not lob it against the wall.

And so I continue my struggle to write well while a fairly large part of me wishes I wrote less well but more lucratively!

Saturday, 10 March 2012

KOLKATA - contd.

My reunion with Dominique was as effusive as it was emotional. He’d been 34 when I’d last set eyes on him. Now 80 he seemed as fit and enthusiastic as ever as he introduced me to my co-Kolkatans, journalists and humanitarians from all over the world: an economist from Italian newspaper La Repubblica, a features writer from Vanity Fair, a fiscal lawyer from Milan, an philanthropic entrepreneur from Amsterdam, a news reporter from Switzerland, charity workers from the Napa Valley, a French documentary maker, a Spanish film crew – fine and motley one and all.

On Day One, we breakfast early and leave the hotel in a convoy of bone-rattling mini-buses. The scenery has not improved since yesterday and just beyond the city centre, the road runs out of tarmac. The bus bumps in and out of potholes big enough to bath in, shaking our diverse group into a cultured cocktail. In the absence of seatbelts, we hang on for dear life. The aircon vents in the roof begin to leak, dripping water onto those seated below. We accommodate as best we can. Soon the actual road runs out leaving only dirt track.

We weave on for miles through villages and shanty towns . . . om shanti, shanti, shanty. Industry in the form of headboard-carvers, palm-frond choppers and cauliflower vendors line the dusty way. Water buffalo amble along en route to who knows where.

As we approach our first stop, ICOD: The Interreligious Centre of Development deep in the heart of West Bengal, posters tacked to tree trunks and telegraph pole welcome Dominique Dada and his wife, Dominique Didi - Big Brother and Big Sister.

In the 1980s, the Lapierres journeyed to Calcutta to meet and research the life and work of Mother Teresa. The experience moved them so profoundly, they felt compelled to get involved and since then, through tireless fund-raising and the donation millions of dollars of his personal royalties, Dominique has build up a network of schools, clinics, hospital ships and rehabilitation centres to cure, care for and educate those children who would otherwise have perished from poverty, malnutrition and diseases long since eradicated in the West.

Our buses pull up and out we spill into the blinding sunlight. We are immediately surrounded and swept along to the beat of a band of drums. A troupe of young male stilt-walkers dressed in red dhotis dance around us. Firecrackers explode in the air; jets of crazy foam rain down on our coiffures. Brightly-clad women and children shower us with flower petals. Others rush forward and bedeck our necks with garlands of sunny marigolds.

The welcome is overwhelming. Mr & Mrs Dominique Lapierre are regarded as Saints. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2008, the highest civilian accolade in India. Their arrival, and ours it seems, is viewed as a great honour.

Babes in arms sporting charcoal bindis on their temples to ward off the evil eye stare at us with curiosity. Little girls in traditional dress blink shyly with their kohl-encircled eyes. Some reach out to touch our pallid Western skin. Ashamedly, I pull away, wiggling a wave instead. I’m ignorant, uncertain, unsure how to behave. If I’m honest, I’m afraid of catching something...

The local women hold their hands together in prayer position and bow their heads, greeting us with ‘Namaste’ and ‘Namaskar’. I know Namaste from my yoga class but Namaskar?

I bow to God in you; I love you and respect you as there is no one like you.

Wow! I feel totally unworthy. I have donated nothing except my presence to this trip. I live a gilded life of luxury and excess. I know nothing of their hardship, nothing of their plight. So I too lower my head in humility and guilt. Maybe I shouldn’t have flown Business Class after all. Some of the ladies in our group dab tears from their eyes.

Monday, 30 January 2012

KOLKATA contd....

I awake from a restless sleep punctuated by men snoring and babies crying. Sitting forward in my seat, I peer out of the window. The horizon is on fire: a dazzling curve of flame sandwiched between the darkness and the dawn. Beneath us, spread out like an old embroidered carpet, lies the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire: India! At last!

We disembark into the dirtiest airport I’ve ever seen. The once-white marble is grey with grime, the walls splattered and stained, the floors filthy with food and coffee spills. Flying insects buzz about. A moth the size of a sparrow flaps past my face. I duck in terror and beat my hands about my head, suddenly afraid to breathe. What other horrors lurk in this fetid air? Will I catch cholera, typhoid, dengue fever? My first Calcutta cramp heralds a bout of Delhi belly, confirming my stomach’s total disregard for geography.

I exit through immigration into a heaving horde of humanity. An onslaught of sweat and spices assaults my nostrils. Meeters and greeters swell forward straining to find their arrivees. They wave and call out in Hindu and Bengali. Behind them, buses and taxis hoot impatiently as they try to navigate the stragglers who’ve spilled into the road. Goats graze indifferently alongside old men crouching on their haunches against the terminal building chewing betel leaves and smoking bidis.

I peer at the hand-written name cards but none of them bears mine. A mild panic besets me, then there, amongst the mêlée, like an oasis in the desert, stand a regiment of beaming, white-clad drivers bearing boards. The comforting logo of the Oberoi Grand Hotel beckons me like a long-lost lover as my name hoves into view. Take me home, Shankar, I mutter, and allow myself to be guided towards the air-conditioned car.

The journey from the airport is sphincter-clenching. I can’t work out which side of the road they drive on as they appear to use all the lanes at once. Knackered old buses with passengers hanging off the roofs, motorbikes a-wobble with entire families, cyclos, taxis, trams, trucks, tuk-tuks, rickshaws - all hurtle towards each other in a dance of Destination Death.

Road signs advise: Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow and Take Your Time Not Your Life. When my driver goes over his third red light, I ask tremulously: “Isn’t that a bit dangerous?” to which he laughs jovially and replies:

“Oh no, Madame. Red light is only a suggestion.”

As we approach the city centre, a modern monolith or two rises up out of the gutters which house huddles of rag-clad beggars. Beneath a flyover flying nowhere, a market has been set up selling cracked toilet cisterns, sections of old piping, scrap metal, rusty chains.

A dead dog lies in the road, its entrails spilling out, inviting anyone peckish enough to sample its bloody buffet: Come Die With Me.

The driver points proudly to the Victoria Memorial looming out of the early morning mist. Standing in a lush green garden, it bears testament to the long gone Days of the Raj and the supremacy of its ruler, Queen Victoria, Empress of India and all her dominions.

Eventually we arrive at the wrought-iron gates of the Grand Hotel and enter this hallowed enclave which, as the week progresses, becomes a haven of calm and karma from the madness of the street.