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Fat and Fulfilled

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At 18 I had a waist you could put your arm round, just 26 inches. But in the mirror this morning I found myself looking at something the circumference of a bicycle wheel.

It's restaurants that did it. All my life I've been a restaurant freak; they're where I function best. And although the current size of my waistline is totally my own fault, if I were to apportion any blame it would go to a French family I stayed with when I was 12.

In 1951, I went on an exchange visit to Paris. The boy with whom I exchanged had gone on a summer course. His parents had no interest in me and went to work all day. They left 200 francs on the kitchen table every morning with which I could buy lunch. For two weeks I had the run of Paris bistros. On every street, at every corner, there was another one, bustling and inviting.

By the time I got home I was a gourmet. And what happened? I was sent to public school for five years of prison food.

"What are you going to do when you leave school?" the careers master asked.

"Eat in restaurants," I replied.

And that's what I've done - lunch and dinner nearly every day for 50 years, which means around 25,000 meals eaten out.

In the 50s, London had less than 150 licensed restaurants. The Good Food Guide described them as "unfriendly", "serving over-cooked meats and sodden vegetables."

By the start of the 60s things hadn't improved much. I was working in Soho, editing films. For under a pound I could eat lunch at L'Escargot, Quo Vadis, Kettners, or Ley-Ons (one of only three Chinese restaurants in London). The food was second-rate at all of them. For something better I could pay double at the Caprice in St James where film and theatre stars ate posh lunches dressed in jacket and tie. But it wasn't a patch on Parisian bistros.

By the mid-60s I'd moved into the music business. New restaurants were sprouting all over the place and food was improving, but foreigners still thought British cuisine was a joke.

Music people ate out all the time - lunches in Soho, dinners in Chelsea. The Casserole, Le Matelot, Daphne's, the Aretusa, it was a nonstop calorie-fest, yet somehow my waistline stayed trim, probably because I was using so much energy. After dinner there were trendy discos, with dancing till 3am and sex to follow. In Swinging London sleep wasn't important. I'd be up at 8am for an hour's squash before going to work.

The 70s brought more eating options, in particular Langans, a French-style brasserie serving English-style food. Half-owned by Michael Caine, it stole the Caprice's clientele of film and theatre people.

In the 80s, revamped and refurbished, the Caprice grabbed them back again, serving hugely improved food and setting a benchmark for all new restaurants to come. Everywhere in London, food was becoming more interesting. Indian restaurants were now as common as Italian. And in Gerard Street, previously known only for hookers, the Chinese moved in from end to end.

My waistline grew larger. But because I still played squash and was jetting round the world managing Wham!, I managed to keep it at a tidy 36 inches.

But in the 90s things went wrong. Terence Conran opened Quaglinos and Bluebird, and a new generation of chefs emerged with their own restaurants - Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsey, and Tom Atkins. There were other places too - Le Gavroche, Scotts, The River Café, The Fat Duck. London was on the point of replacing Paris as the eating capital of the world. And it was then I damaged my shoulder and stopped playing squash.

There were now so many restaurants worth eating at that lunch and dinner alone were hardly sufficient to try them all, but I did. And with hardly any exercise my waistline went out of control.

This morning, standing looking in the mirror, I wondered how it could ever have grown from 26 inches to 50. All in the line of duty, I decided. To have helped turn London into the world's greatest city for eating out is something to be proud of. I feel fulfilled.

I've seen some amazing changes in my lifetime - the end of apartheid, the collapse of the Soviet Union, a black president in the White House - but none more amazing than London's rise to culinary stardom.

Sure, the chefs and restaurateurs will get most of the praise, they were the generals. But how could they have done it without the foot soldiers, me and thousands like me, selflessly putting our waistlines at risk in the battle to improve Britain's cuisine?

My enormous belly tells it all. I should get a medal.