We journalists are a cynical lot, but even I was taken aback by the response of a national newspaper editor to the 2004 Asian tsunami. We were having dinner about a week after it had happened and I asked him what his reaction was when he first heard the news. "I thought: 'Thank you, God,'" he said. "Boxing Day to January 1st is usually such a slow news week."
So much for the 229,866 people who were lost that day.
I regret to say that my first thoughts weren't for the victims, either. I'm a trustee of a charity called Orbis -- currently celebrating its 25th anniversary -- and natural disasters can have a negative effect on annual fundraising targets. The amount of money people are willing to give each year is limited and if they donate to one cause they're less likely to give to another. A survey carried out by the Samaritans discovered that 81 per cent of Britons contributed to the tsunami appeal. Of these, one in six said they would give less to other charities as a result.
Not wanting people to donate money to disaster appeals is just one of the ways in which being involved with a charity makes you less charitable. I also have a tendency to belittle other causes, thinking of them as less deserving than ours.
The work Orbis does can be summed up in three words: eliminating avoidable blindness. The World Health Organisation estimates that over 37 million people are blind throughout the world -- 28 million of them unnecessarily. In developing countries, blindness isn't merely a massive inconvenience -- it can be a cause of death, too. In India alone there are 880,000 under-16-year-olds who are either blind or suffer from low vision -- and three-quarters of them can have their sight fully restored by a relatively simple procedure. However, if these children aren't treated, 60% of them will not reach adulthood -- and to prevent that from happening Orbis has set up a pediatric Ophthalmology training programme on the sub-continent. This is just one of the numerous projects Orbis is involved in worldwide.
If you're thinking of giving money to any of this year's disaster appeals I can't, in good conscience, urge you not to. But please bear in mind that a £15 donation to Orbis is enough to restore a child's sight.
Five years ago, FilmFour optioned a memoir I wrote about my disastrous stint as a Vanity Fair editor in the late Nineties and at the end of this month the film is scheduled to go into production with Simon Pegg playing me.
I'm absolutely delighted with the casting, obviously. Not only is Pegg a wonderful comic actor, but he has an intensely likable quality -- something he's going to need in spades if he's going to turn me into a sympathetic character.
When I attended a production meeting recently, I was pleased to see that he's in terrific shape, having gone on a crash diet to play the gun-toting police officer in Hot Fuzz. However, the director of the film was a little troubled by this, pointing out that I'm not exactly a lean, mean fighting machine.
"I think you're going to need to bulk up a little bit," he told Pegg. "Either that, or we're going to have to put you in a fat suit."
I can't really complain. When my old boss, Vanity Fair editor-in-chief Graydon Carter, was asked who he'd like to play him in the movie, he said, "I don't know about me, but for Toby Young Verne Troyer." For those of you that don't know, Troyer is the dwarf who played Mini-Me in the Austen Powers films.
Having had two bicycles stolen in less than two years, I've switched to a Brompton. These are the ingenious, folding bikes that are rapidly becoming a must-have fashion accessory for the environmentally conscious. You don't exactly feel cool as you propel yourself down the street -- it looks like a child's bicycle with a very high seat -- but instead of leaving it outside the tube station when you go to work you can fold it up and take it with you -- and then carry on cycling at the other end.
The downside is that Bromptons are comparatively expensive -- my particular model retails at over £1,000 -- and they're very popular with bicycle thieves. Consequently, whenever I pop into a shop, even if it's only for a minute, I daren't leave it outside. This hasn't endeared me to my local newsagent. So far, I have had to pay for one ripped copy of "Disney Princesses" -- a ludicrously expensive children's magazine -- and contribute to the cost of replacing the glass front of a refrigeration cabinet. Still, it's a lot cheaper than having to buy a whole new bicycle