Monday 29 October 2007

Big fat scare

We're said to be in the midst of an obesity epidemic so unstoppable we're all going to get horrible fat-related diseases and die prematurely.

Except that an American health expert says it's all a pack of lies, actually there's no epidemic and we can all relax and give up the frantic dieting.

Professor Patrick Basham of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore says there's no evidence that overweight and obesity are significantly increasing. He says that in 1997 the definition of overweight was changed and millions more people were suddenly classed as overweight - although their weight hadn't altered.

In fact the average adult weighs only a pound or two more than a generation ago, and some surveys suggest child obesity is actually declining.

Nor is it true, he says, that being overweight or modestly obese leads to premature death. The increased risk is tiny, as is the number of early deaths.

He claims statistics have been distorted and misread to imply that body-weight has become a widespread problem.

In particular, there's a false assumption that overweight children become overweight adults and overweight adults become obese. But this is not necessarily so.

Furthermore, he says the new obsession with dieting and weight monitoring to control this so-called problem itself leads to serious health risks, eating disorders and body-image hang-ups.

Instead of a campaign against obesity, what we really need is a campaign against thinness and pointless dieting.

His opinions are an astonishing contradiction of the conventional wisdom that assails us from all sides. Can he be right? I hope so. Then we can all calm down and leave our bodies alone.

Size two-zero, anyone?

PS (November 8): Medical researchers in the USA have concluded that a bit of fat actually does you good. Slight overweight in fact makes you 40% less likely then normal weight people to die of a whole range of diseases and risks including cancer, heart disease, emphysema, pneumonia and Alzheimers. In 2004 in the USA there were 100,000 fewer deaths among the overweight than if they had been of normal weight. The researchers were from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia.

Friday 26 October 2007

Fear of the dark

I'm nervous of the dark. It makes me deeply uneasy. It's not just what it's hiding, it's the brooding, ominous quality it seems to have.

I know only children are supposed to be afraid of the dark, you're meant to grow out of it. But my nyctophobia seems to be increasing as the years go by.

I do my best to ignore it by keeping myself occupied and looking forward to daylight returning, but that unease is always there in the background, trying to insinuate itself into my consciousness.

Even going to sleep doesn't entirely remove it, as I always have disturbing, unsettling dreams I awake from in a state of mild distress and alarm. Dreams in which I'm being chased or I'm hopelessly lost or everything's disintegrating.

Am I completely unhinged, or is this actually quite a common experience? I've no idea. Certainly nobody's ever admitted to me that they share the same anxiety.

But the return of daylight always changes my mood dramatically as soon as it occurs. One minute I'm still deeply ill-at-ease, the next minute a surge of well-being is racing through me. The instant emotional reversal is as regular as clockwork. Who can explain it?

Psychotherapists would suggest I'm projecting some personal fear onto the darkness, or the residue of some unpleasant nighttime experience, but if that's the case I have no memory of anything that might be relevant.

I doubt if there's any cure. All I can do is come to terms with it, like a deranged aunt holed up in the attic. And be thankful it's nothing worse.

Tuesday 23 October 2007

Chocs away

I was gripped by the story of the master chocolate-maker who saw red at the sight of a competitor's chocolates and impulsively crushed them all to pieces.

Barry Colenso, master chocolatier for Thornton's, left a "trail of destruction" at a display counter at Hotel Chocolat in Nottingham, after he laid into a pile of tantalising truffles and squashed them all with his thumb.

He apparently failed to see the CCTV that revealed his every move to the astonished shop staff.

Mr Colenso was forced to resign in disgrace from his prestigious job. Thornton's were too embarrassed to make any further comment.

But Peter Thornton, ex company chairman, said Mr Colenso "must have been under a tremendous amount of pressure to do something like this."

It's said that top chocolatiers are under the same stress as famous chefs. They have to keep coming up with winning recipes and if they don't, their reputation is on the line. If they can't produce the latest melt-in-the-mouth sensation, they're in trouble.

Under the circumstances, it's understandable that he saw a pile of someone else's lipsmacking truffles and just had to obliterate them. If he hadn't been on candid camera, he would have got away with it.

But what now? A period in rehab followed by the launch of his very own Colenso Truffle? An unexplained inferno at the Hotel Chocolat factory? Watch this space.

(Note to Peter Colenso's lawyer: the last paragraph is pure fantasy....)

Saturday 20 October 2007


I told my doctor I was sure I had all the symptoms of hypo-chondria but she said no, I was just imagining it. Honestly, these doctors, they just want to get you out of the surgery.

I've met people with raging hypochondria who know for a fact they're got terminal cancer but the doctors keep misdiagnosing it. I would point out they looked perfectly healthy, only to hear a catalogue of tell-tale symptoms like intermittent light-headedness. Only intermittent? You should be so lucky, says I.

Of course real hypochondriacs don't just imagine they're ill, like you and me reading the worst into a stubborn headache. They pester the doctors and consultants for every scan, blood test and investigation known to medicine, always hoping for something lethal.

Personally, I stay well away from doctors and hospitals if at all possible. You could end up sicker than when you started. Doctors? It's their business to find illnesses so give them half a chance and they'll find one. Your blood pressure's a tad high, Nick, you'd better take some of these little pink pills. Quick, run for it!

As for hospitals, it's a toss-up whether you come out cured of that chronic affliction or adding another one. Blood clots, anyone? Superbugs, fresh today. Oops, just whipped out the wrong kidney. Lucky you've got two, eh? Nowadays the nurses don't just check your pulse, they check your will and your life insurance. Just in case.

But hypochondria's on a roll. If you can't find an actual illness to lay claim to, there's a potential illness just round the corner. Every day the media reports something unexpectedly dangerous, something that'll make us all horribly ill in a few years' time. Mobile phones, lipstick, burning candles - they're all oozing health hazards.

I just know I'm almost ill. I've got all the symptoms. Tell me the truth, doc, I can take it.

Tuesday 16 October 2007

Office stalwarts

Wherever you work, there are always certain types of people who pop up – some a joy to work with, some totally impossible. Every time you change job, you think “Thank God I’m shot of X” and then lo and behold, there they are again, just with a different name and gender.

A quick guide to those lovable characters:

1) The Idler. Comes in half an hour late blaming the traffic, a migraine or a sick cat. Whiles away the day looking at Facebook, having snacks, emailing jokes, fixing domestic crises and fiddling expenses. Always claims that that overdue work is “on its way”.

2) The Busy Bee. Works feverishly. Never misses deadlines, whizzes through piles of paperwork writing comments on every line, in and out of the boss’s office with suggestions and project outlines. Sees aimless chatting as a personality defect.

3) The Stickler. Everything has to be perfect. Constantly fuming over messy kitchens, misspelt reports, untidy desks, faulty photocopiers, staple shortages and meetings that start ten minutes late. Scrutinises everyone with a gimlet eye, waiting to pounce on the smallest mistake.

4) The Piss Artist. Has no standards at all. Treats work as a joke, hands in sloppy nonsense several weeks late. Expects workmates to cover for failings. Does the least they can get away with. Spends meetings doodling, checking mobile and saying “Does this really matter?”

5) The Gasbag. Talks non-stop about their family, what happened to them yesterday, their schedule for the next three weeks and their medical problems. If you don’t listen with rapt attention, they take offence and see you as an uncaring clod.

6) The Mute. Only speaks when strictly necessary, when approached by the boss or their pants are on fire. Impossible to find out anything about them except their name and national insurance number*. If you ask any personal questions, they glare as if you were asking about their mother’s sex life.

Of course none of these ludicrous stereotypes resembles myself in any way. Any contrary suggestion and I’ll consult my lawyers Sue Grabbit and Runne. I’m always diligent, sensible, capable and naturally a superb team-player and self-starter.

Except when I’m farting around googling Annie Lennox and the latest terminal disease I’m sure I’ve succumbed to (just joking, boss….)

* (or PPS number in southern Ireland)

Saturday 13 October 2007

Trying to be female

Can a man ever really understand a woman? Even if he's the most sensitive, observant, imaginative and open-minded man of all time, I think the answer has to

It's often claimed that man X has an uncanny and astonishing insight into a woman's psyche, that he manages to transcend masculine limitations and get right under the skin of the opposite sex, but I don't believe it. It's just wishful thinking.

It's most often said in an artistic context, of a film director or novelist or playwright. And it's not just men who say it, women say it too. But do they honestly mean it, or are they really saying "Considering you're a bloke, you get pretty close, but the truth is you're still on the outside looking in."

Because let's face it, however much I as a man can empathise mentally and emotionally with a woman's view of the world, I'm not actually a woman, I'm not seeing things through a woman's eyes, I'm not being treated the way she is, and I'm not immersed in the female culture and subject to the same onslaught of male-defined expectations.

How can I really know what it's like to be relentlessly propositioned by an ugly, boorish male? Or told in a hundred ways that however smart and capable I might be, my contribution is always worth less than a man's? Or dismissed instantly by a man because my bum is too big, my tits are too small, or I don't look like a stick insect?

Or on the other hand what it's like to enjoy greater physical beauty, emotional sensitivity and articulacy?

I think the best I can do as a man is admit a woman's experience is often foreign to me, accept that it's just as valid as my own, and above all listen carefully when women explain that experience, so I can get as close to that reality as I can short of sprouting breasts and my willie dropping off.

Wednesday 10 October 2007

Going to extremes

After writing about overworked women, I realised how easy it is to overdo things, for quite natural desires to turn into unhealthy obsessions. Like dieting that slides into anorexia and bulimia.

We've all been there, I'm sure. I guess most people see me as a fairly level-headed person who doesn't do extremes, but there are one or two skeletons in the closet.

When I was in my twenties, influenced by stories of Buddhist monks in mountain caves, I decided minimalism was the way to go and tried to simplify my life to the bare essentials. I rented a tiny bedsit, gave away my car, eschewed all luxuries and never took a holiday.

Outside of work, I lived like a hermit, talking to no one, ignoring the rest of the world, contemplating the meaning of the universe. This went on for some months until I fell for a stunningly beautiful woman who visited my spartan lair and threw up her hands in horror at my hairshirt lifestyle.

She took me back to her plushy, sumptuous flat and all my minimalist principles bit the dust. I realised a fanatical puritanism had taken over from pleasure and common sense.

It's easily done. And it's not just the headline addictions like eating disorders you have to guard against. There are plenty of damaging routines you can slip into without realising.

Things like excessive house-cleaning regimes, extreme dedication to work, a weakness for destructive relationships or a self-effacing devotion to an impossible parent.

I've known women who couldn't rest until dust was wiped off a table or a stain removed from the carpet, whose houses had to be pristine and spotless at all times. I've known men who would stay in the office till midnight finishing that vital presentation that would impress the boss and win promotion.

We could all name friends who've been in soul-destroying relationships with hopelessly unsuitable people, constantly denigrated and belittled till they're in pieces. And we've all seen tyrannical elderly parents making relentless demands on tearful offspring who can't bear to walk away.

It's easy to drift into unwitting self-sacrifice for the best of motives. Sometimes it's not other people who enslave us. We naively make our own treadmills.

PS: Grandad has nominated me for the colossally prestigious Break Out Blogger Award. What a sweetie!


I'm deeply shocked by the pictures of utter filth and squalor at the Kent hospitals where 90 patients died from the superbug Clostridium Difficile. There was such a shortage of nurses patients were told they couldn't be helped to the toilet, they had to relieve themselves in their beds. The beds were so close together the bug spread like wildfire, and there were body fluids and rubbish everywhere. And this is despite billions of pounds being poured into the NHS. What the hell was done with the money?

Saturday 6 October 2007

Acts of kindness

Some people are so kind-hearted they just don't have it in them to ignore a hard luck story or a pleading face. I used to be that way but I've got a bit more thick-skinned over the years.

I think what altered me was a spell of unemployment in London, when I used to walk round Hyde Park every day and give my small change to the beggars and dossers.

As the weeks went by, the number of outstretched hands grew and my purse emptied faster and faster. Finally I called a halt and just walked past them all.

Nowadays I find it fairly easy to turn down the doorstep callers selling dishcloths, collecting for dubious charities or even offering cut-price paintings. Their "If you don't respond, you're obviously an insensitive brute" expression just doesn't cut any ice.

I'm not Mr Stone-Heart, but I'll only give when I feel a genuine desire to give, or when I'm passionate about a particular cause. I'm not going to give just because someone tries to guilt-trip me about refusing, or implies I'm a sick bastard for doubting their dreadful tale of woe.

I was once stopped in the street by a wild-eyed middle-aged man with an improbable story about a sick daughter, a stolen wallet and his urgent need for a taxi fare, which of course he would pay back the next day. He was most affronted when I turned him down, and even more affronted when I pointed out the strong smell of alcohol he was giving off.

It was quite different when a workmate really did have her purse stolen and we all chipped in to make up the loss. Or when Jenny and I gave away a hardly-used canteen of cutlery to a student setting up her first flat-share.

I'm a sucker for buskers too. I don't care what they want the cash for, some stirring music always brightens my day. Oh, and collections at political rallies. Does the cash go to the strike fund or the pub on the corner? I don't know and I don't ask.


Update on the OzBus: I read in the Guardian today that the OzBus is facing mutiny after claims of breakdowns, itinerary changes and difficulty getting food. The passengers are currently stuck in Tehran waiting for a replacement bus. One of them, Lucy Allen, 22, says "The whole bus is up in arms. We are currently stuck in this hellhole. We are no longer seeing half the things we were promised. The only food we've had since Istanbul is from petrol stations." Can't say I'm surprised. Here's the link for the story.

Tuesday 2 October 2007

A woman's lot

A rather brave journalist called Jemima Lewis* has dared to say that if most women feel stressed and miserable, it's entirely their fault and nothing to do with men.

Instead of giving themselves impossible workloads and trying to do everything perfectly, they should follow men's example and lower their standards, do less and relax more.

She believes the reason women push themselves so hard is not to impress men but to compete with other women and satisfy their own vanity.

Men don't waste time wondering if the wallpaper is passé, if their thighs are too big or if their Christmas presents are thoughtful and personal enough. "They have more pressing matters to attend to, such as having a good time".

Well, I have to admit, at the risk of giving Medbh apoplexy, that I tend to agree with her.

I've known a lot of restless women who thought nothing in their life was quite good enough and were in a constant frenzy of upgrading and modernising. Home, job, friends, men, personal appearance - everything was ruthlessly evaluated and found wanting.

They always claimed that all they wanted to do was sprawl on the settee with a glass of champagne and a good book, but in practice they couldn't sit down for two minutes without wondering if the carpet needed hoovering or the spice jars needed refilling.

None of these details bothered me, but they were preoccupied with them. Of course like everyone else, I want to make my life more comfortable and more satisfying, but I'm not going to bust a gut in the process. I'll take it at a leisurely pace, thanks, and I'll take time to admire the scenery on the way. Including the slightly dated wallpaper.

* writing in the London Independent, 29.09.07