Diary

John Lanchester

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita – more specifically, on the evening of my 35th birthday, last week – I saw Tom Cruise. He was sitting at the next table in a restaurant, accompanied by his equally small and perfectly formed wife Nicole Kidman and eight buddies. I suppose the world’s two most famous Scientologists, apart of course from John Travolta and the late L. Ron himself, were in town for the premières of their respective new movies. Or perhaps this was just another symptom of the reinvention of London as the hippest, most happening, furthest-molecule-forward-on-the-cutting-edge city since Periclean Athens. (Actually, the alacrity with which the locals have fallen on Newsweek’s emetic paean to ‘Cool Britannia’ and Vanity Fair’s ditto to ‘Swinging London’ is a medium-sized symptom of decline in itself – but I digress.) Cruise was giving the dinner, it turned out, and he did a certain amount of pantomime with the wine, swirling and sniffing and sipping, before nodding with great formality and permitting it to be poured; after which everyone else swirled and sniffed and sipped and nodded with great formality, too. It wasn’t hard to work out who was the Alpha Male.

I snuck a peek at what they were drinking. Cruise and his table were putting themselves outside a couple of bottles of Penfolds Bin 707, which – I had the wine list open in front of me – I’m here to tell you costs £70 a go, the restaurant’s most expensive red wine. (For a moment I was evilly reminded of a French sommelier I once met. He had recently moved to a job in a hotel in Rutland from L’Orangerie, a super-posh eatery in Los Angeles, because he had got fed up with the number of customers who automatically ordered the priciest wine on the list.) This was documentary evidence of an episode in the history of food fashion, since two or three years ago a comparable table of clean-living Hollywood types wouldn’t have been caught dead drinking red wine – in fact, a couple of glasses at dinner would have earned a reputation for incipient lushdom. But now medical science has decreed that red wine, drunk in moderation, is good for the heart, its consumption has become de rigueur, and not just in Los Angeles. One consequence of this is that prices for the 1982 vintage from top Bordeaux chateaux have gone into the £4000-£5000 range per case – which basically means that no one in Europe can afford to drink it: most of it is going to South-East Asia, where the world’s largest concentration of billionaires live. Another consequence is a new cholesterol-lowering medicine that goes on the market next month; the main ingredient in the drug is extracted from Cabernet Sauvignon. Penfolds Bin 707 is a Cabernet.

The good news about red wine was discovered through research into what is called the ‘French paradox’ (‘which one?’ you might well ask). This is the name scientists give the fact that the French have surprisingly low levels of heart disease, given how high their levels of cholesterol are, since cholesterol levels are generally taken to be an accurate predictor of the statistical incidence of heart disease. It was evidence that red wine lowers the presence of ‘bad’, disease-causing cholesterol that caused the current fad; though as it happens there is new research showing that the crucial factor may not be red wine per se but the fact that the French eat a highly varied diet, and routinely consume food from all four main food groups. In other words, the next red-hot piece of dietic advice is likely to be eat lots of everything. Remember where you read it first.

From the lay point of view, much of this seems a pretty laboured way of making common-sensical observations: use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake, and don’t eat too much of any one thing. The puzzling and irritating thing about these fads is the way the medics espousing them never seem to present their results as provisional. When I was at university the medically-approved limit for safe alcohol consumption by a man was 56 units a week. A few years ago it was changed overnight to 21 units. Then the Government changed it to 28 units, after which the BMA announced in pique that it was sticking to its preferred figure of 21. No one admits that these figures are to a large extent guesswork – apart from anything else, levels of alcohol consumption are self-reporting, so accurate figures for usage are hard to come by, especially among heavy drinkers with fucked-up health. In any case, doctors don’t believe what patients tell them about their boozing habits. The spiky British wine writer Andrew Barr told his doctor, in the course of a general check-up, that he drank a bottle of wine a day. When he next saw the doctor, a year later, the GP said, looking down at his notes: ‘And are you still drinking two bottles of wine a day?’

Some of the best things in Richard Klein’s brilliant, wayward book Eat Fat[*] are about the way in which the medical profession rushes after certain facts and conclusions while phlegmatically ignoring others. The medical received wisdom which particularly gets his goat is to do with the news that we are all too fat – in Britain, 50 per cent of adults are overweight, and the prediction is that by the end of the century one in seven of us will be medically obese (i.e. more than 25 per cent above ideal weight). Doctors agitate about this, but the various nostrums that they propose, whether drugs or the old favourite diet ’n’ exercise, are all, Klein argues, likely to fail. In the last 12 years the citizens of the USA, the most health and diet-obsessed culture in the world, have grown on average 10 per cent heavier – partly and entertainingly, Klein suggests, thanks to the success of the anti-smoking campaign. He cites the truly numbing statistic that within five years of beginning a diet 95 per cent of all dieters are fatter than they were when they began. Add to that the news that 40 per cent of American women (and 15 per cent of American men) are on a diet at any given time, and you can see why, notwithstanding the constant hysteria about the need for everyone to lose weight, we are all getting steadily fatter.

Klein’s notions as to why this is happening have the oddness of truth. ‘It may dawn on us collectively that telling people fat is bad for them and encouraging them to diet initiates mechanisms that quickly result in our getting fatter. Obesity may be an iatric disease – that is, one caused by doctors, nutritionists, and health and beauty therapists.’ Freud argued that the unconscious had no concept of negation: the more we tell ourselves to eat less, the more we internally emphasise the single idea FOOD. (It’s not hard to think of comparable prohibitions that have a comparable outcome.) The same effect is produced by the cult of thinness evident, in the post-Twiggy years, in more or less every photo of more or less every model in more or less every magazine; historically speaking, the women depicted in these images are unprecedentedly thin. I’ve heard women say that women like these images, and that they correspond to an idealised new female self-image, and I’ve heard women say that that’s bullshit. But there’s no denying the existence of a de facto conspiracy to promote images of extreme thinness that represent a glamorised idea of thinness for its own sake: thinness as an absolute value, a pure good in itself. They sit there on the page, pumping out the subliminal message EAT EAT EAT.

What’s happened here is that our attitudes to fatness – perhaps it would be more accurate to say, our attitudes to thinness – have become moralised. Being fat is seen as a sign of laxity, of self-indifference, whereas thinness is a token of virtue and self-control. It’s to do with class, too: to be fat is to be lower-class, of lower status, both as a signifier and as a fact – poor people are fatter, in Britain and the US. Klein wants to ‘transvalue’ fat, to make us see it as a good thing; he wants to remoralise the issue, to reverse the value system. But I don’t think that’s about to happen anytime soon.

One of the reasons it won’t is to be seen more or less everywhere you go in the USA: I speak of American fatties. Although every country has fatties, nowhere else has them in such individual size and numerical quantity. This is one of the things which strikes European visitors to the US most potently, and it’s a subject about which there exists a temptation to make excessively large general points, to do with immigrants’ ancestral memories of starvation in the Old Country, or the ever-amazing concept of the ‘pursuit of happiness’. This pursuit takes many forms. To a visitor to the US, it can seem that the entire country is involved in a collective delirium that is somehow about bodies. In January I spent a hot-eyed, jet-lagged day wandering around Miami Beach, repeatedly encountering three main physical types: stooped retirees from the North (‘snowbirds’ in Florida parlance), tottering home carrying plastic bags; gasping three-hundred pounders, all of them eating or drinking all the time; and huge muscle-bound gay Apollos, who had evidently taken on board advice I read on a local T-shirt: ‘Welcome to South Beach. Now go to the gym.’ I strongly suspect that there is no single conclusion to be drawn about all this, but I am confident that no American fatty is about to replace Kate Moss as the Western world’s acme of physical esteem.

You do encounter fatties on this side of the Atlantic, but there aren’t nearly as many of them, and they’re somehow not quite the same. Europe’s chief fatty at the moment is Chancellor Kohl, the only current Western leader to have written a cookbook. (He was once caught eating steak and chips at Le Pont de la Tour after an insufficiently nourishing state banquet.) Kohl, however, is no American-style butterball, but rather a two-metre tall 350lb incarnation of will, whose size is one of his most important political assets. A German journalist told me how Kohl physically intimidates people: ‘He fixes you vit ze evil eye of ze big old elephant,’ he explained. President Clinton would probably be a no-joke fatty if he had his druthers – pizza deliveries to the White House go up 18 per cent when Hillary is away, Klein reports – but as his problems with sleaze deepen he has an ever-increasing need to seem classy, which means thin. He is twenty pounds lighter than he was when first elected.

There’s a wonderful poem by Les Murray, terrific poet and world-class fatty, called ‘Quintets for Robert Morley’. The poem begins:

Is it possible that hyper-
ventilating up Parnassus
I have neglected to pay tribute
to the Stone Age aristocracy?
   I refer to the fat.

This raises the question of who were the first fatties. It may be that – without wanting to go into tonto speculation à la Song-lines – our genetic inheritance predisposes us to eat as much as we can, on the basis that we are designed to exercise all day: you know, hunter-gathering, starting fires, killing mammoths, all that shit. Fatness in that context would have been very rare, and also a tremendously good sign – boys, we’ve finally got those sabre-toothed tigers whupped. But we don’t now have that balance of calorific intake and expenditure, and seem to find it difficult to obtain; our lives are extraordinarily sedentary, by world-historical standards, so that if we want to keep our weight down we have to seek that oxymoronic thing, a rational level of appetite. Add to that the fact that we in the Western world are some of the first people ever to live without fear of starvation. We know – or rather we think we know – that whatever happens we won’t go hungry. Perhaps the purpose of all our doomed dieting is not to lose weight but to induce hunger, as if it were a sensation that we find it hard to live without. After all, most things about fatness turn out to be counter-intuitive. Murray:

So much climbing, on a spherical world;
had Newton not been a mere beginner at gravity
he might have asked how the apple got up there
in the first place. And so might have discerned
      an ampler physics.

[*] Eat Fat by Richard Klein (Picador, 247 pp., £15.99, 24 January, 0330 34293 2).