I worked for the Sun on and off for 16 years. I'd like to think some of my articles had merit. I opposed the EU for example, backed the Smithfield meat porters in their fight to keep their market open, and I campaigned for the UDR Four. So why is it that nine out of ten Sun readers who stop me in the street ask the same question: Oi, Gal, how hot was that curry you had to eat?
The year was 1993, and Abdul Latif, Viz comic's favourite restaurateur, had just added a new dish to the menu of his renowned Rupali restaurant in Newcastle: The Curry Hell. "Clear your plate," he'd promised, "and you eat for free."
The Sun ran the story and Kelvin MacKenzie, then the paper's Editor, had a brainwave. "'Ere, Bushell" he said. "You like a ruby. Get your arse up to Geordieland and polish off one of these ****ing things. Show them ****ing Northern shirt-lifters what Londoners are made of."
And of course I responded in the only way any self-respecting person ever did to the mouthy Millwall-supporting incubus. I rose to my feet, looked him straight in the eye and defiantly muttered the words: "Yes, boss."
It didn't sound like much of a challenge. I prided myself on my cast-iron guts. I'd eaten curries from Dehli to Dagenham. Vindaloos, Tindaloos and Phals. My favourite Spice Girl was Madhur Jaffrey. I'd even survived the legendary Wrath of Khan that they served with a topping of malicious chilli peppers in Margate - and eaten the left-overs for breakfast. But nothing prepared me for The Curry Hell.
The ingredients were secret but chef Abdul confided that they included five tablespoons of the hottest chilli powder known to man. The rest of it was probably sulphuric acid.
"Twenty-five people have tried this dish since the Sun wrote about it," he told me. "Only two of them managed it. I haven't seen them since."
I stayed poker-faced. The man was obviously trying to psych me out. I decided to ignore him. But I couldn't ignore the audience. The place was packed out with readers of the Currant Bun all keen to witness my do-or-die attempt.
None of them were eating the Curry Hell. I downed a couple of pre-match lagers, chose a table close to the khazi and prayed. Not hard enough. The curry was so hot you could hear it coming. My confidence started to wobble. It dissolved entirely as soon as I took a Ghandi at the dish. The food was the colour of molten tar. Same texture too. It looked evil. I'd swear it had a pulse. And it smelt like something you'd scoop out of a cesspit.
"Are you sure about this, Mr Garry?" asked Abdul. Yes, I nodded. Show no fear. Nan but the brave...
I pushed in my fork, not entirely convinced it would come out again in one piece, and took a bite. It was like French-kissing a flame-thrower. After three forkfuls, my eyes started to water. My nose stung. Five mouthfuls in, my face was as red as Fergie's freckles. Sweat poured freely. There were, and I apologise in advance for this, tears on my pilau.
"Nice?" asked my tormentor. Blinding, I replied. Every eye in the restaurant was on me. I ate some more. Now my mouth, lips and tongue were ablaze. This must be what they serve up in Hades to people Old Nick doesn't like. My throat felt like someone was strangling it from the inside. "Would you like another lager?" asked Abdul. "Just pass the fire extinguisher," I said. I was not sitting comfortably.
After ten more forkfuls my mouth was numb and I was convinced the muck had scorched the lining off my tongue. It would cost me £6.50 if I didn't finish it. Just £6.50? I would have paid £65 just to end the pain. What was at stake? Only my job and my reputation. I'd have a life-time of scorn from MacKenzie, but was it that big a deal? I was too young to die.
"After a few spoonfuls people change language," said Abdul.
"A*%$***!" I replied.
"I hope you're praying to the right God," smirked Abdul who seemed to be turning red and sprouting horns.
I muttered the magic words "Salman Rushdie" under my breath and offered him a forkful.
"Get that ruddy stuff away from me," he said. I knew how he felt. At that moment I hated him. He was a genius. He could make a mint marketing meals for masochists. I was feeling more drained than Jim Davidson's best man. But I knew victory could be had – as long as I had the will. And a side-dish of chilled Savlon.
"I hope you're not intending to get into bed with your wife tonight," Abdul quipped.
I'm not a racist person but right then I would cheerfully have booted him back to Bangladesh. The only thing getting shagged tonight was my insides. His poison, having torched my throat, had now started to burn holes through the lining of my stomach. But there were just five mouthfuls left. Just five. I was sweating like Heather Mills on a lie detector. Slowly, surely, I cleared the plate. I'd done it. I'd won. With a smile plastered on my face, I backed out of the Rupali, waved gleefully and then dashed off to stick my head in the Tyne.
My triumph was short-lived. On my three hour rail journey back to London, I spent two and a half hours out of my seat. I prayed the train didn't stock Izel. This time my prayers were answered. Abdul hadn't told me the Curry Hell is ten times hotter on the way out... If anyone had struck a match in that cubicle after I'd left the consequences would have been devastating. The pleasure of achievement was off-set by the agony of the experience. Abdul's dish was vinda-lousy. It was like eating a distress flare. You'd need a cast-iron stomach and an asbestos palate to even contemplate it. But Abdul had swelled with pride when I told him it was the hottest curry in the country, if not the world. "Yes," he beamed. "It's not just hell, it's bloody Hell." Did he eat it himself? I asked. "You're joking," he said. "I'd rather have fish and chips."
* Scientists say that eating curry improves the memory. Really? If that's the case, how come when you get the bill in an Indian restaurant someone always says: "I don't remember ordering that... "?