Another lettuce leaf, Mrs Bottomley?

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I'M EATING the squid and salad, being really careful, trying to chew it slowly, the best way, because if you wolf it you find yourself going straight out of control, waving for the waiter, vacuuming up all kinds of stuff. But I'm controlling this. Look at me; spearing a little bit of lettuce, pausing, slipping the lettuce into my mouth, chewing. Then putting my fork down. I'm mastering this, getting thinner. Today I'm thinner than I was yesterday. Think what I'll be like tomorrow.

My girlfriend says: 'Look at those puddings.'

'They look horrible . . .'

'No, they look great. You're just in denial at the moment.'

'Imagine trying to explain that to an Ethiopian.' I think: how would I do that? 'Look, mate, I can see you're dying of starvation, but over here, things are a bit different - we have to kid ourselves that food is horrible, to stop us from eating it.'

And then I put my fork down, wondering if I'll be able to muster the mental strength not to pick it up again. So here goes: I don't want this food. It's vile. Look at it. White, slimy. Yeuch] I've had enough. No, I can't help myself. It's only squid and salad. It's not very fattening. Go on] Yes] Pick up that fork. There, that didn't hurt. Jab the squid. And now . . . no, down. Don't want it. This is the hardest bit. Food down. Pick up the glass of mineral water. Take a sip. There - it's working. My confidence is building up. I look at the squid, trying to visualise unappetising things - vomit, wastepaper baskets. But it's not quite working. Perhaps I should just chew the squid and spit it out. No] No] Stupid idea. So I just stare at it, gritting it out. A minute goes by. I get thinner, by a tiny amount.

You Ethiopians just wouldn't get this, would you? You wouldn't understand it. Food is a big problem here, too. Food problems are killing us. Our health minister, Virginia Bottomley, said it in Parliament last week; if we sorted out our relationship with food, we wouldn't be dying so much. But we can't do it. We just can't do it. We're eating ourselves to death. I know what you Ethiopians are thinking, too. You're thinking: if only. You're thinking: if I was in that situation I'd just eat enough to keep me alive. That's all I'd need] Or maybe you're thinking: I'd just eat enough to keep me alive, and maybe one blowout meal every couple of weeks. You reckon you could keep it down to just salads and fresh fruit, with a bowl of bran in the morning, don't you? Well, come over here and have a look around. It's disgusting. It's obscene.

Listen, it's not unusual in this country to see people who are so fat they can barely stand up. They don't look human any more - they've pushed themselves further and further away from the human shape, eating all the time, tottering around, from meal to meal, and sometimes you catch them at it, say on a train, they're eating constantly, fisting those crispy snacks, those balls of sugar into their mouths. And these are poor people. The rich spend their spare time cutting calories, going swimming, learning about diets. The rich find ways of compensating for having a bad relationship with food; the poor just have a bad relationship with food.

Here we are: I'm walking through a subway, dingy place, homeless derelicts lined up begging, and one guy holds out his hand and says: 'Any spare change?' And he's holding up a placard which says: 'Hungry and Homeless'. And I look at his hand, and it's a fat hand] So I step back and look at the rest of him, and he's not just fat, he's obese, he must be 19 stone. No wonder he's hungry - he's got an eating disorder] Poor soul - he has nowhere to go for exercise. And so I slip him a quid - I feel sorry for him because he can't afford to join a leisure centre.

In the leisure centre, you get in, put your clothes in a locker - you're among wealthy people, but you still assume that they'll want to steal your possessions - and slip into the pool. Not many people dive here, or splash around; they're not coming here for simple pleasure. Their pleasure is masochistic. You see them, the same people every day, getting a little bit thinner, pushing themselves to drag their plump bodies a bit further each day. You set aside a time every day so you can exert yourself as much as possible. It's actually easier to overeat and exert yourself than not to overeat. In this country it's more of a problem not stuffing all that carbohydrate and saturated fat into your mouth, all the pizzas and pasta and sushi and dim sum, the prawn cocktails and canapes and ice-cream, than not getting out of bed first thing in the morning to swim half a mile.

But why? What's the problem with only eating when you're hungry? The problem is that you're never hungry. We don't know what hunger is like. Have I ever experienced hunger? What we have here is not hunger, but a kind of alimentary boredom. But you often run into the problem of sitting down to eat when you're not hungry. And what do you do then? You order an appetiser - something tart and salty which might kick-start your digestive system, might give you the illusion of being hungry. Here, being hungry is a desirable, rather elusive state. It's actually quite difficult to work up a proper appetite. And, as you know, there's nothing nicer than eating when you're hungry.

'Explain what to an Ethiopian?'

'Oh . . . you know. Diets and so on.'

The end of the fork is right next to a piece of squid. This is a testing time. I'm already beginning to feel full, but I'm still not through the wood yet, still capable of darting my hand across the table and plunging the tines of the fork into, say, that little tentacle at the edge there. But the plate looks good. It looks like I've left a lot. Eating a bit would spoil the look of it. I'll get an admiring glance from the fat guy on the next table, or at least an envious glance. So I leave it. I'm doing well. I'll be thinner this afternoon than I was this morning. Mrs Bottomley would love me. -

Comments