Do you believe that gyms have become an essential part of modern life, with more and more people joining them and becoming more and more conscious of their health? Isn’t this a good thing, especially when obesity is increasingly recognised as a dangerous condition?

Gyms per se cannot be bad as they promote exercise and therefore better health. But how come previous generations had plenty of fit people when there were no gyms at all? The fact is we don’t need gyms to get fit. The treadmill must be one of the most overrated inventions of modern life – why can’t we just go out and jog or run around? And why do we have to watch TV when we exercise? Should we really regard a wretched screen affixed to the front of a treadmill an incontrovertible luxury? It is excruciatingly tedious watching the news on the box while I am doing any kind of exercise. I prefer silence so that I can have a clear head to think, especially when jogging in, say, Pyongyang, where I had to work out why there was nobody in the streets yet I still felt I was being watched or followed.

Added to that, the habit of relying on a gym is that when we are not at home, or are travelling for work, we become a victim of perceived privation. Some would argue that a gym offers machines and weights with which to work out and pump iron. Yet we don’t need any of these tools. There isn’t one exercise that we cannot do without a piece of machinery. At one poor gym in Hanoi in which there were no dumbbells, I just improvised with the (empty) fire extinguisher.

Yet the worst aspect of the gym is the trainer. God, I try to avoid trainers to save my life. First, like hairdressers or even barbers, they talk too much, and worse still, they talk rubbish or inanities. They also make us feel guilty because they are so fit and we are the opposite. It is irritating to have a goody two-shoes around, smug and superior.

On the whole, I would like to see gyms shutting down rather than growing. When they are commercial and have a bland room with fluorescent lighting over 100 pieces of machinery, I feel sickly tired just looking at it. And it is disconcerting to see much fitter and more beautiful people around one’s own modesty. In an ideal world, without a gym, I would only like to do four kinds of exercise: I would run for cover, jump to conclusion, jog my memory and stretch my imagination. For a bonus, I might fish for compliments.

What is your view about the imminent legislation in England to ban smoking in cars carrying children? And do you agree with the proposal by London mayor Boris Johnson’s health advisers to ban smoking in public parks?

I was driving my children the other day. I wasn’t smoking, but both of them were. Would they, or even I, be committing an offence? And would I have the right to stop them smoking? Would I have the power to make a citizen’s arrest on them? I do not think that there are clear answers, which suggests that the incoming law is bad. Anyway, the law would be absurd in an open convertible car against which passive smoking could hardly be charged. The proposed ban on smoking in the open air like a park would be another example of how the state is interfering with our private lives. It is also a blatant prejudice against smokers who are paying a great deal of tax on what they are smoking.

Last month I attended a service at St Martin-in-the-Fields in London to mark the 300th anniversary of the Hanoverian succession. The Duke of Kent also attended. I just hope he didn’t venture to have a green olive, which were prominent among the “nuts and bolts” served at the reception afterwards. They served them complete with the stone, but with nowhere to spit or nothing to spit into! What would you have to say about that?

The Duke would be far too practised to have fallen into the olive trap! We ordinary folks must adapt. It’s easy to get rid of a couple of olive stones surreptitiously at a cocktail party: spit them out, best one at a time, into your palm, and then circulate the room with happy swinging arms. As you weave in and out of people, just nonchalantly let go a stone at a time, making sure that your trajectories cover different parts of the room so that there is no one pile of stones attracting attention. If there are plants with pots, the sleight of hand becomes a cinch.

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