Welcome to my blog. I may write copy here that I would not present elsewhere. This blog allows me to comment while reporting for clients which can include subscription-only platforms. I use it to take a sideways look at running stories, and all views presented here are my own.

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Sunday, 30 October 2011

Health and Fitness; Matthew Fox rocks with his "Thug Workout" and "Body Blitz" classes

When I joined my gym the first class I did for the trial day was Matthew Fox's cardio session.

His cardio workouts were nice and tough; one of his USPs was that he loves House music and always tended to have a dance while he was yelling at us to "Drive through them legs," and "pump them arms!" As we got into the working minutes Matthew had a habit of loudly commenting "EASY!" which it most certainly wasn't and I told him so. (I often said "No!" to some of his more challenging instructions; he just gave me a look and ignored my protest).

All my instructors are ambitious and Matthew devised, along with a colleague of his, a lethal Body Blitz 45-minute class. It is a fast-moving workout; a hardcore attack on each area using our own bodyweight; the sessions varied each week. My legs ached so much after my first sessions -for four days no less- that I adopted Matthew's suggested remedy of sitting in a cool bath with my lower body submerged for four minutes after each session until I got used to the leg exercises after a few weeks. Body Blitz is as near to a military workout as I can imagine. To get us to do 40-50 reps or more for each exercise, we worked in pairs opposite each other on mats and swapped places after every 10 or 20. He also had us sometimes ourselves count the reps in turn which was a neat interactive tactic that maybe helped to take our minds off the difficulty of what we were doing.

Matthew is developing his own brand of classes. He is in demand at Gymbox and teaches in all of their London venues. Along with his colleague, he has developed the Thug Workout which is what he teaches at Gymbox; it is a calisthenics-based bodyweight class using outdoor frames, like bars for pullups, inside.

Matthew also does Body Blitz type sessions in Notting Hill Gate at BodyWorksWest and it is in that part of London, popular with some of the arty clique of the capital (though Ealing has a high percentage of media workers too) that he does personal training. Matthew is definitely heading in the direction of being at the top of the next generation of celebrity trainers. We will all miss him.

Frank Gardner's "Blood and Sand"

My son Sukh gave me the paperback of this book a few years ago but I only started reading it recently as I had other things on my mind over the last year and a half.

It is a great introduction to certain areas of the Middle East that Frank has travelled to through his student years and in his twin careers of banking and the BBC. Through his own passion for the region, he unfolds the language, culture and the political scenario of each country.

After years of freelancing and paying for his own travel, he eventually lands a contract job with the BBC (the corporation loves folk to freelance and send stuff in from abroad or at home completely at their own cost - a tried and tested way for people to get longer contracts) Frank became Security Correspondent and was immensely valuable due to his knowledge of Arabic and the Middle East.

On 6 June 2004, he and his very experienced cameraman Simon Cumbers were ambushed in a carefully planned attack by Islamist gunmen in Riyadh. Simon was killed immediately. Frank was hit in the shoulder and the leg. As he lay on his stomach in agony, pleading for his life in Arabic, four more bullets were pumped into his body at point-blank range by an unknown killer.

The chapter dealing with the detail of Frank's injuries and treatment was so graphic it made me feel physically nauseous (the first time I've ever had that reaction to a piece of written text), and the episodes describing coming to terms with his paraplegia were extremely moving. I could sense him willing himself to carry on and pick up his life despite what had happened. An unforgettable book.

Book Talk followed by Lunch at the Asian Voice Group

I was so thrilled when C.B.Patel told me over a lunch in parliament earlier this year that he planned to hold a launch for the book "Sonia Gandhi."

He kept his word. Before I knew it, he and his associate editor had organised the lovely event taking place Thursday November 3rd 2011 at the Asian Voice offices in Hoxton Market, in the city. Lord Navnit Dholakia, a great friend and supporter, has agreed to chair. Lord Dholakia is not only Deputy Leader of Liberal Democrat party and one of the highest ranking Indian politicians in the West, he is also a member of the Privy Council, the group of advisers for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second.

Ashis Ray, President of the Indian Journalists Asssociation, will also be on the panel.

CB Patel is an amazing pillar of the community. Always elegantly dressed in a suit, slim and happy-looking, CB gets up at 4am every day to practise yoga and follows a strict diet. He looks much less than his 75 years and is every bit as alert and sharp as when I first knew him some 20 years ago. His group of newspapers in English and Gujarati is very popular and the magazines and special issues the conglomerate produces are must-haves for every South Asian household in the UK and abroad.

This event is by invitation and we are expecting an interesting set of people in the audience; some old friends, some new acquaintances. There will be a delicious vegetarian lunch after the talk which will give guests a chance to network and mingle.

CB makes really personal, kind speeches which cut straight to the quick and stop me in my tracks as they are direct and, when aimed at me, deeply affectionate. He will speak on Thursday and already I anticipate I will be moved by what he will say. He is not afraid of anyone and speaks his mind. Yet he is respected all over the world and if he invites a government representative, British or Indian, to his events, it is unlikely that that person would ever dare refuse. When CB calls, people will jump through hoops to do his bidding.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

DSC Closing Gala; Reuniting with Friends

The closing event of the DSC South Asia Literature Festival at the Globe Theatre in London, home to Shakespeare's plays, brought me into contact with some gifted people I had not see for years. Tabla maestro Talvin Singh was mesmeric as always, very much at the top of his game.

Romesh Gunesekera, whose new book, The Prisoner of Paradise, is being published February 2012, looked no older than when he came in for a writers'event I organised for Radio 4 executives in 1997 when I was producing and presenting over there. (He was shortlisted for the Booker Prize with Reef.)

On my father's side,we are from the Chowdhry clan originally located near Rawal Pindi in Pakistan and my nephew ( a couple of times removed) Paul Chowdhry was on sober form as host for the evening. I am really glad that Paul now has a regular spot on Channel 4's Stand Up for the Week; he is certainly the best and most dangerous British Asian comic in the country.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

October 18, 2011; Launch Day for "Sonia Gandhi" in India!

September 2011 was the US release, and last week saw the UK launch. Pan and Palgrave Macmillan told me the interest in the book was so high in India that the release date was brought forward from late November to today. So I am doing print interviews back to back as well as television news.

The questions are really good and tough and testing. I am needing to think on my feet, which is always a good thing.

Pan Macmillan Delhi called this morning to discuss my schedule, I then did my cardio class and raced home from the gym, finished one interview, had lunch and dressed for the TV crew, now on with the next ones!

Can I keep to my gym commitments and other daily tasks while all this is going on?

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Health and Fitness; Paul Stribling and Eivissa

As I wrote earlier, I need to attend my gym, the privately owned Eden Fitness, pretty often to get my fitness level back to what it was 11 months ago when my writing started to become become more intense and needed all my energy.

I regularly have cardio classes with Paul Stribling and they are a real treat. Paul is gentle, always asks me how I am before we start, and always has a ready smile for me. The cardio classes operate on the principle of interval training, so we do one minute of hard work followed by one minute which is less intense. We rotate through six machines for a total of 45 mins.

One of Paul's Unique Selling Points is that he monitors everyone and will go to each of us, check our numbers and give us something he thinks we can strive for.
He will change my goals if I am struggling and would rather I reach a lower target at the right speed than go slower and fall way below.

Paul's manners are impeccable and he always makes time for me. He'll stop and check my stance on the gym floor, and is generous - he happily explains things in simple terms.

Each of my instructors has something different to offer. Paul loves Ibiza, and has set up a company, Eivissa mind, body and soul with his mother Maria, an experienced yoga teacher. Together they offer packages on the island.

A qualified football coach who has taught at Queens Park Rangers, Paul plays tennis and has attained Level 3 Status on the Register of Exercise Professionals having completed a Diploma in Advanced Personal Training.

He has a great energy about him - calm and quiet, and his sessions always contain an element of humour. Here is Paul's website.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Talking about "Sonia Gandhi" brings in interesting nuggets of gold

Appearing on "Today with Pat Kenny" yesterday a listener with a special interest wrote into the show. It was the producer who had led the film crew that was supposed to interview Indira Gandhi, Sonia's mother in law, the day she got assassinated. This is what he wrote, and it is a really good eye witness account. He saw a momentous event in Indian history.

"Lovely piece on new book About Sonia Gandhi this morning. For the record, Seamus Deasy, although he always was my favourite cameraman, was not there when Indira Gandhi was assassinated. The programme ‘Peter Ustinov’s People’ was produced by me with Rory O’Farrell directing that episode. Here is an excerpt from original manuscript of my book , OFF SCREEN – A Memoir’:

Early in 1984 I met my old friend Peter Ustinov in London. I proposed making a series of television programmes, “Peter Ustinov’s People”. Peter was enthusiastic. Over lunch we came up with a list of names which included Indian Premier, Indira Ghandi.

I approached Indira Ghandi through Kiran Doshi the Indian Ambassador to Ireland. Within a few days he confirmed that Mrs Gandhi would be delighted to participate in the programme. Three weeks later having negotiated a deal with controller of programmes, Muiris MacConghail that RTE would substantially finance the project, I acquired a German co-producer. We set out for New Delhi. I would produce the programme; Rory O’Farrell my business partner at the time would direct. Our German co-producer engaged a local Indian film crew.

I met Mrs. Gandhi before at the New Delhi Film Festival. She was then an opposition politician. I was impressed by her. She was very attractive, smaller than I had imagined. Then in her mid 60’s, dressed in a colourful sari she looked younger. Certainly a person who would make a charming and interesting dinner companion. She talked of Indian and world affairs. She told of a meeting with the Irish harpist, Grainne Yeats and how she loved classical music. She mentioned that because of the presence of grandchildren in her home, the only music she ever heard there was that of Michael Jackson!

On this occasion she was in fine health and ebullient spirits as she prepared to seek a fifth term as prime minister of the world’s most populous democracy. Mrs. Gandhi invited us to travel with her on her pre-election visit to the state of Orissa where she would hold a series of political meetings. These public meetings always followed the same pattern. The Prime Minister would emerge from her helicopter to orchestrated shouts of “Zindabad Gandhi” (Long live Gandhi). She would then stand in the front of a jeep and be driven slowly round the inner perimeter of the meeting ground, waving and being showered with flowers. Then she would mount a small concrete grandstand. She made her speeches in Hindi and spoke in a weak unresonant voice, completely devoid of oratorical tricks. The average attendance at these rural meetings was 100,000.

Mrs. Gandhi told us with evident satisfaction that these were small meetings compared to most. She seemed to be a microcosm of India, as capable of calmly ruthless decisions - like the storming of the Sikh Temple at Amritsar- as she was of most engaging and even humorous banter. Five months earlier, she had sent the army into Punjab and into the most sacred of all Sikh shrines, the Golden Temple, which Sikh extremists had turned into a sort of holy fortress. At least 600 people were killed in the ensuing battle.

The main interview with Peter Ustinov would take place in the garden of the prime minister’s residence at 9 a.m. on the morning after our return from her political tour. This had included the laying of the foundation stone for a new ordinance factory in Saintala, a helicopter ride from Bhubaneswar, the capital of Orissa which was our base during the trip. On the return journey to New Delhi in the Prime Minister‘s private aircraft, Indira Gandhi told me about her son, Rajiv, a former airline pilot who had reluctantly given up that career to become a politician and his mother’s heir apparent. After the death of her younger son, Sanjay, four years earlier, she had been grooming Rajiv for leadership of the party. He was currently conducting similar campaign meetings in West Bengal and would not return to the capital until after our departure. However, as I proposed returning to India later in the year, she said that we would have an opportunity to meet then. Little did she or I know that within twenty-four hours of this conversation, Indira Gandhi would be dead and her son, Rajiv would be sworn in as Prime Minister of India.

On the evening of our return to New Delhi, I received a ’phone call from the Prime Minister herself to ask me what she should wear for her interview the next day. Over the previous few days, we had seen a wide array of saris, so I suggested one which was predominately orange coloured. She agreed with this.

We arrived at the official residence at 8.30.a.m. the next morning. Our camera was set up on a large lawn in the extensive garden. This was no ordinary suburban garden but rather a small park. At the appointed time, the Prime Minister’s press secretary went to fetch her. I followed a little behind in order to meet her as she entered the garden from the living area. I carried a gift-wrapped present, an Irish linen tablecloth. As I approached the high fence which divided the garden from the residence three shots rang out. Behind me in the interview area, the Indian cameraman explained to the other members of the crew. “Firecrackers” he said. “They are quite usual in these parts”. Then came a burst from an automatic weapon. Clearly not fireworks. I briefly glimpsed the figure dressed in the blood-stained orange sari lying on the pathway surrounded by security guards. Shocked, I slowly walked back to the film crew. Peter Ustinov later described me as “looking white and shaken”. I told them that the Prime Minister had been shot. The whole situation seemed unreal. The early morning birdsong in the garden which had ceased momentarily when the shooting started created an eerie silence. One recalls film and television footage of public assassinations in other countries which take place in public with the attendant panic, shouting and general confusion. In India it was different. Indiria Ghandi’s assassination took place in her garden, in silence as had been in the case of her distinguished predecessor, Mahatma Gandhi, the father of modern India many years earlier.

Indira Gandhi had been shot by two of her Sikh bodyguards who then calmly dropped their guns and were seized by other security guards. A fight broke out and both of the assassins were shot dead. The day before her death, Indira Gandhi had told a large enthusiastic crowd in Orissa’s capital city, Bhubaneswar “I am not interested in a long life. I am not afraid of these things. I don’t mind if my life goes in the service of this nation. If I die to-day, every drop of my blood will invigorate the nation”. These words are now displayed in a shrine erected in the garden of the Prime Minister’s residence along with other memorabilia including Indira Ghandi’s diary. The page open for the last day of her life includes two appointment entries, one for the early morning and one for the afternoon with “Sheamus Smith and Irish television crew”.

As ever


Thursday, 13 October 2011

As "Sonia Gandhi" launches in the UK, "Today" with Pat Kenny for RTE

I really liked being interviewed by Pat Kenny for RTE, a great current affairs programme which an awesome reputation. He had read the book closely and came up with some interesting information of his own from 31st October 1984.

It was nice the way he gently led me through Sonia's life to date and it felt like a real conversation because he had many ideas of his own.

Here is the 20 mins.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Talking about "Sonia Gandhi" on BBC World's "The Hub" with Nik Gowing

I first met Nik Gowing more than a decade ago when I took a group of South Asian journalists into Television Centre for a high level meeting with BBC World TV. I'm not sure that Nik remembered that event last evening, as he breezed onto the couch near his set and said "I haven't got much time now" before telling me in one minute flat what he wanted to talk about. Having said that, anchors tend to avoid talking about meeting up outside the newsroom close to or during transmission time as they are so "in the zone," their heads full of notes and what the gallery has been saying to them. The best time to talk is when they finish their shifts -then they relax.

Nik wanted to look at the current situation rather than the past and was on top of the story but -and I guess it is only to be expected these days with cutbacks etc- his researcher or whoever had briefed him had clearly been in a hurry. He announced that Sonia Gandhi was an unelected member of government (not true, she is an elected MP from the constituency of Rae Bareli) and he was also given the wrong figure for the amount of time she was out of India for surgery this Summer.

He was quick to press me on a couple of things I said and and as it was the first interview I had done on TV for the book, it was a little surreal to have my own words quoted to me - but nice, on reflection, and showed that he had read the text carefully. All in all, interviewing for the biggest TV audience in the world is stupendous and I experienced a real feeling of nostalgia being back in the newsroom where I cut my broadcast journalistic teeth and felt, over many years, the elation of compiling reports which went out to millions of listeners.

I love that newsroom. It has always been my favourite place to be on a Saturday night - or any night of the week for that matter.