Our beloved tabloids call me the hospital food tsar. But I remember what happened to the last Tsar . . .

Last November, the Department of Health asked me to get involved with an initiative called better hospital food, which is part of the bigger NHS plan. I accepted and instantly our beloved tabloids were colourfully but inaccurately calling me the "hospital food tsar".

Well, I remember what happened to the last Tsar and I don't wish hospital catering to be my gastronomic Ekaterinberg. But the challenge was great and the need to do something was obviously there; and, now, four months later, we're nearing the stage where we reveal the first proposals for getting better food to patients.

Paradoxically, a lot of surveys in the past suggested a broad level of satisfaction with hospital food: perhaps patients have rather low expectations or, as a colleague depressingly suggested, what they eat at home is worse than what gets served up to them in institutions. I once sat next to a woman on a flight from Puerto Rico to New York who thought the airline "food" was so good that she asked for seconds. In the same spirit, while my postbag is bulging with condemnations of NHS catering (no more letters required please), it also contains a testimonial from a woman who claimed that her local hospital produced the best ice-cream she had ever tasted.

The NHS dishes up 300 million meals a year and spends £500m a year doing it. Getting anything right in an organisation that is so big and complicated is an achievement, and, unfortunately, for many years the NHS has been the mother of all Aunt Sallys. At meetings with NHS staff (the most recent a couple of nights ago), I am impressed by how many good and talented people they have on board. And the NHS has the ability to do so much. As one of the country's biggest food buyers, it could develop a food policy that helps to regenerate our battered rural economy. Maybe that's something else to suggest.


Whenever I plan our next family holiday, my local bookshop experiences a sales bonanza, as I have to arm myself with all the latest guidebooks. Always believing that research is one of the keys to a successful holiday, I add the imperative: follow your instincts. I am now proud to shed any veneer of sophistication. Tell me about an arcane little mas, castello or hacienda where the amusing proprietors encourage you to eat, drink and - God forbid - share the hot tub en famille with them, and I will run a mile. My needs are really quite simple: tons of fluffy towels, MTV and hot and cold running club sandwiches.


Time to return to the rails - and my morning trip to Bristol is very civilised indeed, with a free newspaper and a pleasant girl serving tea and biscuits. Until, that is, we grind to a halt somewhere west of Slough and sit for 20 minutes. The "train manager" announces that we have stopped because of "an inaccurate report that thick smoke was billowing from the rear power car". The train starts up again and we are pleased not to have been roasted or choked to death. That morning, others aren't so lucky, as a Newcastle-to-London train crashes, killing ten. News reports later in the day all mention the poignancy of mobile phones ringing in the wreckage unanswered by their dead or injured owners.


At my meeting in Bristol, there is justified doom and gloom as the foot-and-mouth disaster deepens and more and more of the countryside is declared off-limits. Everyone is talking about the plagues of Egypt only half ironically. Later that day, one of my daughters asks: "What's wrong with Britain?" Even Pollyanna would be tempted to say enough's enough.


Popstars is crossing the shadowline between television and reality. Popstars are now less alluringly named Hear'Say (don't ask me about the apostrophe, but it is meant to be there) and the group's first single is released this week. Like half the nation, I have watched every episode, alternately charmed, infuriated and bamboozled by the series' seamless mix of shameless hype, greed and rags to (possible) riches. All those kids so desperate to be famous.

A veteran and real pop star observes that, when he was a teenager, if you wanted to be in a band, you started a band. The question of the week is: will Myleen, Kym, Noel, Danny and Suzanne make it to the pantheon of This Is Your Life and Desert Island Discs, or next year will their favourite lyric be "Coke with your fries?". I wish them well.


There's a small drinks party in Lon- don for people like me who have an interest in Liverpool. The object - to help promote Liverpool's bid to be European Capital of Culture in 2008. The process is long and arduous, other UK cities must be competed against, but the rewards are great.

Glasgow's 1990 reign permanently changed the way Britain and the world looked at that city. From the bathos of the Seventies, things are moving in the right direction on Merseyside. Builders' cranes, universal signs of urban vigour these days, are sprouting. Restaurants and hotels are opening. The Walker Gallery and the Liverpool Museum are getting a Lottery-fuelled facelift. It looks as if St George's Hall will at last be rescued. I hope there will be a new Beatles museum. People who can do things are staying. We folk in London are asked to help Liverpool in its bid. I think Liverpool should succeed, so I thought I'd start now.