To eat and not to count the calories

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THE calls have stopped, I've noticed. I have had to realise that my life-threatening condition is no more interesting to other people than theirs are to me. Especially since I have to report to the few loyal callers an almost alarming well-being.

I have not had a drink since I can't remember when and meat and butter are as rare on my plate as a Chippendales poster in a nunnery. I am hoping that this strategy of asceticism will do me some good, and not just in the morale department. But I hear there is no other sure virtue in trying to tinker with your cholesterol: a kindly professor of animal husbandry has sent me an academic paper which suggests you might just as well, as his note on the compliments slip advises, 'Eat and enjoy]'

Still, I want to lose weight as part of my mission to get in touch with my body and look lovely, even if my hopes of living for ever have now been dashed.

The professor's dietary message is much that of a nice bloke in the village whom I met as he watched his grandchildren splash about in the newly renovated pool in Leominster.

I was trying to do myself a bit of good ploughing up and down its placid waters and afterwards stopped by at his table to drink the quarter of a hot chocolate I allow myself in celebration of surviving the tedium and strain of this dull exercise. He is over 70 with high blood pressure, he still plasters houses, does not believe in all this dieting nonsense and was thinking of doing a couple of lengths himself.

Fat-ish, flushed and unfussed: he is the very picture of an Englishman. Except that what country grandfather 30 years ago would go swimming?

Mind you, he has been dipping in this pool since the day it opened, lido-style then, nearly 60 years ago. It had been donated by a man who ran a hardware shop in the town, who collected the rents on his several houses on a yellow bike, and who (I am glad this has stuck in the mind of the boy who has grown into a man in the pleasure of the ironmonger's benefaction) never wore socks. Tom Waits used not to wear socks, either. He, too, now lives in hicksville, his music now sounds like an accident involving lots of spades, rakes and door knobs, so perhaps he will donate a swimming pool to the locals.

HOME from my chlorine-furrowing, I skip over the little hill behind the village, a stick swinging in my hand, my measured stride eating up the yards and the calories as the sheep in the meadow start arthritically away from their munching. Previously, as I slouched through, these knackered ewes barely moved, but now they recognise a man who might be dangerous. While we are on about elderly females, I must one day tell you about the man I met in a pub in the Forest of Dean last weekend. When he was young he worked on the cruise liners and held his ship's record in the octogenarian department. It is not for the faint-hearted but is the sort of lowering tale you hear if you follow a rock'n'roll band, as I have begun to.

The walking round here is at its best: the crops are in and only the most aggressively organised farmers have got round to ploughing. Yesterday we went out and picked great heavy bunches of the elderberries which are sagging the boughs and sharing with the blackberries the honour of making the starlings on the telephone wires produce a matching line of purplish splats on the pavements below their perches. It was the first really peasant sensation in my two years here.

I have made a new acquaintance. I think - only from rather patchy inspection of a couple of bird books - that it might be a female sparrowhawk, but it seems awfully big. Last week, I was wondering whether to come off the lane and scrump a couple of apples from the old orchard owned by the woman who brings the milk. The bird came loping up out of the trees, slowly and languidly. That day it behaved as the books say sparrowhawks and goshawks do: low skimming flight, inconspicuous. The next day, though, as it soared above the copse in which I think it lives, it suddenly gained height and with the laziest, most insouciant air, rose and circled and wandered off round and round and higher and higher toward the horizon until it became a speck and must have been away over the tree-lined Lugg River and beyond.

Apples are a major part of my diet, as they should be in this part of the world just now. The boy comes back with Russets which have that lovely furry strong skin: they are like biting into sugary voles. He swears he comes by them quite legally, and I enjoy them nearly as much as the ones I steal.

I ALMOST regret being rude to a woman I am rather fond of who runs a nature-as-art outfit from Covent Garden. We met at a lunch at the Royal Show and she had some sort of campaign on to persuade country people to know the names of their apples: I was in the mood to think it might be a nice idea to let the country people find their own way to hell and not bother them with artsy-fartsy stuff. But I would love to be able to name the dozens of different nutty, sweet, sour, tiny, plump, crunchy, red, green and red-green jobs which are presently making the trees about here groan.

I even bought an apple the other day, at the organic farm where the boy was spending an afternoon in gainful employ. He had earned quite a bit of money and a Nirvana poster scrubbing out two 10,000-bird sheds in the holidays and liked that. But the organic farm has a prettier smell about it, you get to see the daylight, and the chickens in the darkest of brown grubbing about in the orchard face few perils beyond being Isaac Newtoned by a cider apple from trees far taller and older and handsomer than those which up-and-at-it commercialists have around.

The lad rather thinks he will go back and pick apples today: it is piece work, which makes his eyes light up. The pity of it is that the woman at the organic place is so nice she will not have her old hens eaten. I am told that leggy free-range birds have just the kind of fat you need, and they might taste distantly of apple. I would like to see the lad come home with a couple dangling from his handlebars.