Wednesday, 29 November 2006

Happy birthday Ryan Giggs


Contrary to popular belief, Ryan Giggs could not have chosen to play for the England football team. He played for the England Schools team because he was at school in England (all England schoolboys are eligible no matter what their nationality) but he was born in Cardiff of Welsh parents whose parents were Welsh.

To play a team sport other than rugby union at an international level for Wales is to wear a crown of thorns, but Ryan has shown the same undemonstrative dedication to Wales that he has shown to Manchester United.

While he is the most decorated Red Devils player ever, having won eight Premier League championships, one Champions League and four FA Cup titles, he will never win any silverware for his country. Yet against Brazil in September this year he was finally able to show that, even at 33 years old, he is still the equal of any player in the best team in the world.

Penblwydd hapus, Ryan.

Tuesday, 28 November 2006

An area the size of Wales


A FEW years ago, in what now amounts to a previous life, I helped Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler, promote the Rainforest Foundation, a charity they established in response to the violation of the rights of the Kayapo Indians in Brazilian Amazonia, and the wanton destruction of the rainforests in which they live.

While making a television commercial with John Hurt to publicise these issues, I noticed that the annual area of Amazonian deforestation was a round 20,000 square kilometres. Being a Welshman, I knew this to be an area the size of Wales and I casually mentioned the fact to John. "My God!", he said, "That big?"

I suddenly realised that if I equated the scale of the problem to an area that people were familiar with, the implications would be quickly grasped and succinctly understood. So, I rewrote the words, John read them with passion, the analogy from the commercial was widely reported in the media and the phrase stuck.

Now, the multi-talented Simon Kelk has developed a wonderful little website containing the 'Wales-o-meter', a set of conversion utilities for lengths, heights, areas, volumes and weights, enabling you to express a feature of interest in terms of something more familiar; in terms of the size of Wales, for instance.

Simon is also the man responsible for the 'Bus-o-matic', a utility that explains in pseudo-scientific terms why you wait ages for a bus and then two turn up at once, and the fabulous 'Cybertoilets', which might be the best thing on the web if Simon were to work with a good graphic designer.

Monday, 27 November 2006

Stinking of cigars and reeking of booze


MR CHURCH and I spent the entire afternoon in Floridita, smoking cigars, drinking 7 year-old Havana Club and shooting the breeze. Well, I did the smoking, he did the talking and we both did the drinking.

Floridita is Terry Conran's cigar bar in London's Wardour Street, a place I frequent rather too often when I'm in London, especially as I can't really afford to smoke cigars at London prices. (My other half helpfully suggests I delete the last three words.) The London establishment is supposedly based on the bar of the same name in Havana where the Daiquiri was invented, and where a life-size statue of Ernest Hemingway perches in perpetuity on his favourite stool at the end of the bar.

It's a shame that taxes on cigars are so high here that they can only be enjoyed by the rich, because smoking a cigar is essentially an egalitarian pastime in Cuba and Central America.

To the initiated, cigars are subtle, sophisticated, artisan products to be savoured and quietly reflected over, especially with a related product of what the French call the terroir (the characteristics of geography that bestow individuality on an agricultural product), in this case Cuban rum. I like a full bodied flavour with spicy rich smoke and notes of pepper, nutmeg and coco, so Partegas Serie D No 4 are my thing - kind of the cigar equivalent of a four-shot espresso.

To the uninitiated, cigars stink like hell. Mr Church's training regime does not involve rolling pungent and aromatic smoke around his palate, but half a bottle of rum is apparently not a problem. Mrs Church is going to be on my case very soon because I sent him home stinking of cigars and reeking of booze. I am a very bad influence, it has to be admitted.

But all this reminds me to recommend you to the wonderful A. E. Lloyd & Son, with branches in the Wyndham Arcade in Cardiff and Terrace Road in Aberystwyth, without whose services I'd be forced to emigrate. They will happily ship cigars to anywhere in Wales and have as good a selection as Floridita, although I doubt they can claim Ernest Hemingway as an ex-customer.

Friday, 24 November 2006

The ideal car for a young Welsh family


MR THOMAS knows a thing or two about cars. He has to really, considering that he's the executive editor of one of the leading websites devoted to the subject.

It wasn't always so, but nowadays we tend to bow to his opinions regarding what car you really need for any given situation. After all, he has driven practically everything on the market.

However, when he recently tried to convince us that the new Jaguar XK convertible could be the ideal car for the well-heeled family man who is trying to recapture his youth, we were highly sceptical, to say the least.

I'm more into bicycles at the moment – a Jaguar XK wouldn't last five minutes in my street anyway – but even I know that sports cars and kids don't go together. The ensuing debate ultimately resulted in the arrival of the photograph you see reproduced above.

I accept that fresh air is supposed to be good for kids but, considering we're at the end of November, this is akin to those pictures we once saw of Conservative Agriculture Minister, John Gummer, trying to feed a hamburger to his four-year-old daughter during the BSE crisis.

Close inspection of the photograph (click on the image to enlarge in a new window) reveals that he has shoehorned two child safety seats into the back of this 2+2, so he wouldn't be breaking the law.

A word to the wise; never get into a bet with Mr Thomas. But you might want to check out the Jaguar XK convertible if you're a wealthy father who fancies a sports car rather than a people carrier.

Thursday, 23 November 2006

Rhys Ifans' reputation precedes him


A MATE from the valleys is selling his London flat to accommodate his growing family in something a bit more spacious. It's a lovely flat but one that's really only suitable for a couple without kids or a single person, and it's likely to appeal to someone with funky taste. Consequently, viewings have been a bit sparse.

My friend's mam was up from home, helping out his heavily pregnant wife, when a call came from the estate agent to say he had someone who was very keen to view and could he make an appointment for the following lunchtime? Since his wife and mam would be home, my friend readily agreed.

So, Mam spends all morning cleaning the place from top to bottom and at the appointed hour the doorbell rings. In walks Rhys Ifans.

I need to explain at this point that my mate and Rhys know each other quite well, but Rhys doesn't know he's viewing my mate's flat until he sees his wife. While they're both overcoming their embarrassment at meeting like this, my mate's mam comes in. She doesn't know Rhys at all but she knows who he is and she is clearly well aware of his reputation.

She takes one look at him and her face becomes a picture of anger and disappointment. She blurts out, "Oh God! I've spent all morning cleaning this place but if I'd known if was going to be you I wouldn't have bothered."

How wonderful is that?

Wednesday, 22 November 2006

Little Britain


I LOVE Welsh humour, me. So imagine my joy when I passed a pink-painted Vauxhall Astra parked in the centre of Llanddewi Brefi recently. How neat is that, eh? (Shocking Pink is obviously not a standard Vauxhall colour.) Respect goes out to the owner of said vehicle.

Of course, if you're not a fan of the hit television comedy series Little Britain, this won't make any sense to you at all.

Speeding


ON THE subject of cars, Gwent Police recently caught me speeding. So now I have to live with the shame of having three points on my driving licence, the endorsement having been scribbled by some minor court official. (I imagined the punishment would be inflicted by some cold-hearted machine.)

They got me with a camera van that was parked-up just inside the 50 mph section before you get to the Severn Bridge toll, the point at which you're most tired and concentrating least when driving back from London. I could query the accuracy of their claim that I was doing 72 mph but essentially it was a fair cop and I've taken the rap.

Nevertheless, I can't help feeling aggrieved because although I may have exceeded the speed limit once or twice before in my life, it's never been by that much and I've never actually been caught as such.

That is, except for that one time in Holland (the unfortunate incidents in South Africa and Brazil are best left undisturbed). I was attending an event in Assen and, rather than fly to Amsterdam with the tedious prospect of driving the traffic-jammed length of the country, I hit upon the brilliant idea of flying to Bremen in Germany and then driving across the open border on traffic-free roads.

At the time, I had a business relationship with Hertz in Germany and the big boss made a special point of looking after me. So, I booked and paid for a Category A car (Opel/Vauxhall Corsa or Ford Fiesta with no radio) and collected a fully-loaded Mercedes S55 AMG at Bremen Airport. You should have seen my self-congratulatory grin.

The journey across to Groningen was fast and uneventful on empty, largely unrestricted autobahnen, but as I swung South towards Assen I collected a tail. This was at the point in the journey where, as with the Severn Bridge toll in the drive between London and Cardiff, you're not really thinking straight.

Suddenly, a horrible, tinny, dark green Mitsubishi Lancer driven by a giant of a man who seems to fill both front seats, sits on my bumper and shapes up to pass. Adrenaline instantly charges through my tired body and I naturally decide to show him who's the boss around here.

For such a big beast, the S55 is one very fast car. Already doing 120 kph (70 mph), the back end dips as I stand on the throttle. The tyres grip the tarmac and we blur into hyperdrive. Eventually the S55 reaches its electronically restricted maximum speed and won't go any faster. Cars traveling in the same direction appear to be driving in reverse. Fast! The Mitsubishi is blown away, man. Totally erased from the rear view mirror...

...until 5 minutes later when I hit traffic as I turn off the motorway for Assen. As the Lancer arrives and screeches to a halt behind, an illuminated sign drops down in the front window saying 'POLICE STOP'. I jump out of the car, documents clasped in sweaty hand, and meet the police officer with a torrent of profuse and abject apology.

"You're not German then?" he asks in German, looking at the car licence plate.
"No, I'm Welsh", I answer in English, praying for a way out of the situation.
"You mean English?" he asks in English, looking at my UK driving licence.
"It's a little country with mountains and sheep..."
"What is the speed limit in Holland?" he asks without emotion.
"Oh, I don't know, I've come from Germany and the roads were unrestricted and I forgot and I wasn't thinking and I'm really, really sorry for all the trouble and the paperwork and..."
"Okay. What is the speed limit in... Wales?"
"Ah, I know that, 70 mph on motorways."
"Now, what's that in kilometers?"
"Er..."
"Come on!"
"Oh, it must be about 120 kph."
"Perfect! Quite right."
"Oh goodness! I must have been going much too fast."
"TWICE!" he screeches, making me jump. "Twice" he says again, holding up two fingers to emphasise his point. "In Holland we can shoot you for that".

I am a little disappointed by this exchange, to be honest, since the speedometer had been reading a touch over 280 kph (174 mph) and the S55 is apparently restricted to 175 mph. 40 kph (25 mph) is a big discrepancy.

All this time, people who know me have been arriving for the event and our conversation has been carried on to the accompaniment of car horns as others revel in my discomfort.

Finally he looks me in the eye and says, "If I catch you speeding again, you'll be in big trouble."
"Thank you, thank you, thank you", I splutter in relief, bidding him a fond farewell and wishing joyous blessings upon his house.

"Remember, we can easily tear up your driving licence", he says to make sure I've got the point.

As I breathlessly clamber back into the Merc, he shouts across, "By the way. If you'd been German instead of Welsh, it would have been different."

Audi R8 Launch


WENT TO the Audi R8 sports car launch in London with Jones The Bass. Mr Jones is more into his cars than me - he has more of the wherewithal for one thing - but I know a cool motor when I see one. And the R8 looks very cool to me. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to you, on looks at least.

This was entirely Mr Jones' gig to be honest. I was just along for the ride, if you'll forgive the pun. We rode, courtesy of Audi, in the new A8. Now I'm not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, but the back of the Mercedes S Class feels rather more palatial to me. And the Merc is far easier to get out of when you're blinking through the massed flashlights of the
paparazzi.

Dress code is 'Stylish', a state of dress I don't normally do, but I compromise by wearing a pair of black patent leather Costume National zippered boots with my usual jeans. I shan't comment on Mr Jones' attire save to say that he always looks cool. Fortunately, I have the presence of mind to check my treasured Royalton Hotel baseball cap into the cloakroom on arrival (I'll tell you why later).

We arrive a forgivably tardy half an hour late and Mr Jones scans the room to reveal the presence of Jason Statham, actor, (but sadly not Kelly Brook since they're no longer an item), Mica Paris, singer, (as always) and a few other people I can't remember. I never remember celebrities, not even people I know quite well. For some bizarre reason, I do recognise the design critic Stephen Bayley and even manage to say hello. Although he comes across as a plummy English toff, he's actually another Welsh taff, from Cardiff as I recall.

The menu has been designed by chef-of-the-moment Tom Aikens (the word 'designed' presumably inferring that he hasn't actually touched the
canap├ęs). Although it looks and tastes great, the menu provides nowhere near enough bulk to soak up the three bottles of Verve Clicquot we each feel compelled to consume. (If they insist on serving the stuff in giant tulip glasses, what else can you do?)

I make an attempt to get into the spirit of the evening by asking the nice man from Audi about the car. It's seventy-odd grand, as it happens, and a gallon of fizz makes this seem a remarkable bargain. "But you can't buy one", he says, "because they're sold out for the next two years." I offer my glass to the waiter for another refill.

Inevitably, we run into a boyo who once played in a band called the Pink Pussies that we vaguely remember seeing play down at Clwb Ifor Bach a
long, long time ago.

Then Audi reveal the car
tastefully, without the usual tiresome speeches, and Beverley Knight does a turn, which we applaud profusely (Verve Clicquot certainly does the job, I can vouch for that) and it's time to head for the Shalimar in Brick Lane for a curry. As we're leaving, we sign up to do next year's Gumball Rally in a rash moment of booze-fueled bravado that we'll undoubtedly live to regret.

As we hop back in the limo, I suddenly remember my baseball cap. Retracing my steps to the cloakroom, I'm handed a brace of rather heavy goody bags which each turn out to contain: a scale model of the aforementioned Audi R8, a rather nice pendent by award-winning jeweler Stephen Webster, a copy of Tom Aikens' book Cooking, Beverley Knight's 'best of' album Voice, a big bottle of Armani Code (which will make a nice Christmas present for someone) and the usual folder of press puff. Not bad, eh?

Our driver joins us for a curry - the least we can offer since he's been hanging around for us all night - and he sobers us up with tales of daring-do from his other job as a bodyguard in Iraq. Mr Jones and I drink Cobra beer which tastes great at the time but must have been off because we both wake up with the most God-awful hangovers the next day (remember we're semi-pro at this game).