January is traditionally the month of deep self-loathing. Big bills and big bellies inevitably lead to thoughts of new beginnings, a chance to mend our ways, and start afresh. Turn on the television, open any newspaper or magazine and you can't ignore exercise DVDs and diet books. Davina McCall (slender mother of three) reigns supreme at the top of the bestsellers (again), and even the comical Towie mob is flogging a keep-fit routine, complete with extras such as "what to wear to work out in Essex". Ignore them. Here's how to deal with windy and grim January: eat the same food as in December. I've enjoyed macaroni cheese, fish and chips and fruit cake, done the same amount of walking, played the same amount of tennis. When appearing in public, I wear a pair of buttock-clenching pants.
I realise I'm not typical. As our self-esteem ebbs to danger levels, a strident army of self-help gurus leap into action, making a mint out of our naive belief that buying into their philosophy will change our lives and make us achieve our full potential. No one in our modern world is allowed to be happy with the way they are: you've got to treat the body and brain you were born with as a work in progress – something you can tone, endlessly remodel and improve, a bit like a conservatory or a kitchen. God forbid you think: "I like myself. I'm happy with my life and I couldn't give a toss about the size of my backside."
King of positivity is Paul McKenna. This former radio DJ turned hypnotist has turned into a multimillionaire living in a swanky house in Los Angeles, with celebrity endorsements from David Walliams, Ellen DeGeneres and David Beckham. McKenna's latest opus, a work of supreme optimism, is a £10.99 best-seller cheekily called I Can Make You Smarter, which includes two "free" hypnosis CDs, serialised daily in a national newspaper last week. I interviewed Paul on ITV's Loose Women on his promotional tour. McKenna has been derided for claiming to be a "leading expert on the human mind", but let's not criticise him for that. Over the past 20 years, he says, he's helped millions of people lose weight, stop smoking, deal with agoraphobia and fear of flying. I'm not even going to mock his two PhDs, one from a university (LaSalle) that wasn't officially accredited to dish them out, and whose owner was subsequently charged with fraud. Paul won a costly libel action against a tabloid who suggested he'd "bought'" his degree. His other PhD is from the International Management Centre in Buckingham, an establishment that admits its qualifications "do not lead to degrees listed by the UK's Department of Education" although they are accepted in many countries.
You might wonder why, if Paul wanted a PhD, he didn't opt for a more mainstream college. Nevertheless, many find it hard not to be impressed by the patter of this dyslexic who was an academic flop as a child. He's been described as the "everygeek, the nerd that conquered the world"'. His sales pitch and glib patter ("What's school got to do with getting smarter?") are eerily reminiscent of Frank T J Mackey, played by Tom Cruise, the crass self-help guru in Paul Thomas Anderson's wonderful 1999 film Magnolia, whose catchphrase is "In this life, it's not what you hope for, it's not what you deserve – it's what you take".
Of course, Paul McKenna's easy-to-follow steps to achieve your goals are far more subtle, but I Can Make You Smarter follows on the heels of I Can Make You Happy, and I Can Make You Thin. No one ever made $1m with a book entitled "I Can Make You Fat" or "I Can Make You Miserable". From the cradle to the grave, we are conditioned to think that we can heal ourselves and life will be more enjoyable if we are thinner, cleverer, more socially adept.
McKenna cheerily told me his books are bought by those who want to pass exams, blue-collar workers who feel they're in the wrong job, and middle-aged women who want to feel better about themselves. McKenna brazenly exploits our insecurity, but there's no easy "way" to be happy, or rich or thin you can learn from a paperback or a CD. He's not in a relationship, and hasn't managed to grow his thinning hair back, so there are some things even the confident McKenna can't achieve. We've bought these books by the lorryload, but Britain is still full of pessimistic fatties with low self-esteem.
Self-help manuals are worthless. Chuck them in the bin, and enjoy what you've been dealt in life.
Acting isn't enough now – men have to be sexy, too
Sexual equality means it's acceptable to ogle pictures of attractive men. Is it pathetic to enjoy staring at David Beckham's crotch as he smoulders in the H&M ads for his range of "bodywear"? The image is a clever piece of artifice designed to appeal to women (who tend to buy underpants for their partners). Most men would look better shot in black and white with all their blobby bits airbrushed out. Sadly, there's very little of interest in the budgie-smuggler department. Perhaps David had his mind on more cerebral things.
Even glossy mags such as Vanity Fair have realised that beefcake sells to women and gay men. Its latest issue is a masterpiece of optical illusion, managing to make tiny Matt Damon, medium-sized George Clooney and chunky Daniel Craig all exactly the same height – with their meat and potatoes lined up in a row. I've met them all and found these actors well informed, opinionated and highly intelligent. So why do they submit to the pin-up poses glamour girls such as Marilyn Monroe used to promote her career? The don't need to use their sex appeal to get work.
A girl's guide to ruthlessness
The Duchess of Cambridge has volunteered to be a Scout leader, working with boys and girls aged between six and 10.
Scouting doesn't need Bear Grylls or Kate to burnish its image – the movement is hugely popular, with about half a million kids participating every week.
I have happy memories of my raucous, messy time as a Brownie in Fulham, west London, but found the Girl Guides highly competitive. I religiously collected as many badges as possible, from map-reading to knot-tying, and it was there I learned single-minded ruthlessness.
These skills have been very useful in later life.
This May, Bob-a-Job week is coming back. I can't wait.
You can't trust Mother Nature
Alan Titchmarsh says that gardening is more important than politics because "it has a consistent point of view".
He says that if you live in the countryside, "You will see little difference between this year and 200 years ago – there is a cycle that's reliable and sound, and that's real life to me".
Alan, what planet are you on? Our countryside has been ruined by wind turbines. We spend millions preserving a carefully manicured version of it in our national parks. In the mid-19th century, rural Britain was messy, dirty and poor. There were smoking mill chimneys and lead and coal mines where today sheep graze, and barns are trendy homes. As for the seasons, bulbs are flowering months early and a drought has turned into a hurricanes and a flood. Nothing is reliable in nature.Reuse content