How I ran away to Italy

A quarter of a century ago I somehow managed to get out of Paris where I had haunted a cheap hotel for months like a ghost trapped between this world and the next. I drove to Italy where I have lived ever since. I had a great contract with a famous publisher to write a biography of Benito Mussolini but had already spent the hefty advance and had yet to write a single word. On arrival in Italy, I did not even have enough money to pay the motorway toll. But the young woman in charge handed me a form to fill in and waved me through with a smile.

The handmade suit I’ll never wear

Someone somewhere must surely have calculated that Bangkok has more doctors and tailors per capita than anywhere on Earth. These two industries, healthcare and clothing, must account for a prodigious share of tourist revenues, and they both operate on similar principles: make the customer feel pleasant even as the results disappoint. It’s a formidable business model, not least because it persuades thousands of customers that they have scored a bargain and therefore cannot be as disappointed as they actually feel. Deeply gaslit, the customer fervently believes in what he has purchased – even if his new suit would not look amiss on a Jacques Cousteau research boat or his ‘world-class’

A beginner’s guide to getting a massage

 The agony could strike at any moment. Daggering pains in my lower back demanded correction. Not just painkillers, I needed a permanent cure. ‘Thai massage’ suggested the internet, so I hobbled across a tangle of east London streets and found a doorway beneath a pink neon sign. A receptionist of south Asian appearance, bundled in a white winter coat, nodded at me unsmilingly. ‘Massage?’ I asked. ‘Forty,’ she said tersely. I counted eight fivers out into her small pink hand. ‘A receipt?’ ‘No receipt,’ she said. ‘Room Two.’ She gestured behind her at a line of numbered doors. Room Two was a narrow, sweet-smelling nook with silvery wallpaper, piped Burmese

The wonder of Jon Pertwee and his frilly shirt

 When a friend asked if I wanted anything for Christmas I took a deep breath and replied: ‘Well, maybe I finally need to watch this.’ I handed him a video cassette retrieved from my sister’s attic and he took it to a place that digitises such things. On Christmas Day I nervously plugged in the memory stick. There we were: Carmel and I, aged about seven and nine, bathed in late-1960s sunshine in the garden of our mock-Tudor house in Woodmansterne Road, Carshalton Beeches, Surrey. (I emphasise ‘Surrey’, because in those days Carshaltonions were in Margo Leadbetter-style denial over new local government boundaries that landed them in – shudder –

Why foreigners can’t speak Thai

For 12 years now I have been learning Thai from my maid, Pi Nong, who has been employed in our building for decades. It’s a much misunderstood relationship. Here the maid is an obligatory fixture, integrated into daily life for foreigners and Thais over the age of 45 and over a fairly modest income level. For foreigners the maid is a linguistic go-between, a bridge between two worlds, a portal into a new language. While she is making me dinner she gaily informs me that farangs cannot eat Thai food even though she is making it for me now and that, even more mysteriously, they cannot speak Thai – even