The latest calls for a tax on sugar are a lost cause

Ordering manufacturers to reduce sugar content is hopeless, they will find other ways to keep us addicted

Janet Street-Porter
Sunday 12 January 2014 01:00 GMT
Sugar is one of the most addictive substances
Sugar is one of the most addictive substances (PA)

The drugs that cause us the most harm and cost the NHS millions are all highly addictive. They are sugar, salt, alcohol and tobacco. Not cannabis – which has just gone on sale legally in Colorado, without the world grinding to a halt or the population of Aspen suddenly turning green and growing extra arms and legs.

Doctors are right to complain that the Government seems extremely reluctant to interfere with our "human right" to eat, drink and smoke ourselves to an early grave, while spending money on ineffective health campaigns designed to get us exercising and eating fruit and veg. Half of us are overweight, in spite of diet books, gym memberships and exercise DVDs. Major supermarkets might have had a disappointing Christmas – but the actual amount of food and drink we bought was the same as usual, we've just become more savvy in selecting where and how we purchase it. Some experts think that we are in the grip of "food addiction", because so much of what we eat is laden with stuff to enhance the taste and make us want more. This heightened sense of pleasure is achieved with chemicals and flavour enhancers and some would say that they are just as harmful, if consumed in excess, as strong booze and class-A drugs.

How different my generation are compared with my parents'. We're about a third bulkier, for starters. Forget all that crap about baby boomers being self-centred, the real difference is that we lack the discipline and restraint of those who endured the last war and decades of deprivation. Every step of the way, we have opted for excess and having a good time, and why not? Subsequent generations (the under-sixties) have no concept of "going without" and, to teenagers, the idea of no phone or no chips is akin to losing a limb. It's not surprising that so many of us have ended up flabby and unfit, slouched on our sofas, gorging on buckets of sugary snacks while sniggering at shows about benefit scroungers – the new reality "entertainment".

The latest calls for a tax on sugar are a lost cause. Taxing booze and fags has had limited impact. Ordering manufacturers to reduce sugar content is hopeless, they will find other ways to keep us addicted. Surely, the best way to deal with our national sugar addiction is to learn a lesson from the last war and return to rationing. I can see nothing wrong in being issued with coupons for sugar. All foods could have a sugar rating to be translated into a coupon value at the point of purchase. And why not issue fag coupons to smokers while you're about it? To qualify, they would have to agree to regular health checks and produce a certificate to say they are fit to smoke. OK, this impinges on our freedom, but it places the onus on consumers, not producers, who will always maximise profits and never have our interests at heart. We can learn a lot from a previous age of austerity. Ration books – bring them on!

Let's change the architecture of learning for children

The other week, Jamie Oliver was praising a school in Los Angeles that had asked his daughter about her interests and then used them as a starting point in its teaching. Now, one of Michael Gove's advisers, Ian Livingstone – the man behind Tomb Raider and president of the gaming company Eidos) – is advocating learning through play rather than fact-based memory tests, or, in other words, exams. Mr Livingstone argues that kids can look up facts they need on the internet. He says, "You don't need to cram your own hard drive, your brain, with all this data that you could access at the click of a mouse."

He is right about a lot of subjects. When I studied architecture, we spent hours on technical stuff, most of which is now farmed out to experts. You don't imagine Frank Gehry or Norman Foster do their own structural calculations? Children are highly adaptable: they need to learn to interact with each other, and build on their innate sense of curiosity, but this is drowned out by the need to memorise useless facts. In the future, teamwork and problem solving is going to be vital. As we move to a leisure-based economy, our children need people skills above all else, which is why they suffer now in the jobs market.

But Mr Livingstone's war on facts may not play well when the Department for Education has to consider his application to open a new school in west London next year.

Why don't awards go to the right people?

The awards season is here again, starting with the announcement of the Bafta shortlist. Most of these films will not have been seen by the British public, just the 6,000 or so members of the British Academy, and it is hard to dredge up enthusiasm for something you have only glimpsed via a carefully edited trailer on television. The other night, I enjoyed Bruce Dern turning in a fabulous performance as a forgetful alcoholic old dad, in Alexander Payne's engaging portrait of working-class middle America, Nebraska. But who is to say that Dern is better (he is nominated as a leading actor) than Will Forte, who plays his son (and has equal screen time), and the wonderful June Squibb, who gets all the best lines and the biggest laughs as his long-suffering wife, Kate? Awards never go to the right people, do they? Nebraska is a quiet film, reminding me of the best of John Cassavetes' work.

Bedazzled on a rainy day

On a rainy dark afternoon last week, the Museum of London was packed with visitors, engrossed in a display of the most dazzling jewellery imaginable. More than 100 years ago, workmen in the City of London discovered a hidden stash of priceless Elizabethan and Jacobean gems, which were subsequently split between several museums, although some pieces disappeared and were sold. Nobody has ever discovered whether the Cheapside hoard (as it became known) had been stolen or who owned the pieces.

Now, the jewellery has been gathered together for the first time – very timely, as with the stage version of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies receiving rave reviews at Stratford, we may need reminding that Tudor is not the only era worth knowing. The level of intricate workmanship is dazzling and the provenance of the stones is extraordinary: from South America to Sri Lanka.

We know modern London is a city where new fortunes are flaunted and the sales of luxury goods are booming but the billionaires and oligarchs of today seem a pretty tame group of consumers compared with the aristocrats of Elizabethan England, when the men wore jewelled earrings and brooches, yards of gold and enamelled chains and crucifixes. Some pieces, such as a gold brooch in the form of a lizard set with emeralds, and a watch set in a single lump of emerald seem utterly contemporary.

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