Rod Liddle

Delaying gratification

Delaying gratification
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I’m a bit late to this, so apologies, but there’s a very good piece in the current issue of the magazine by Andrew M Brown, about why almost everybody is fat. Andrew suggests that as a consequence of the class system breaking down, we no longer know when we are supposed to eat and so, like cows, we eat all the time. He makes a persuasive case but I’m not sure that he is right.

It is true that, coming from a working class background, I have often been confused by existing class terminology for meals. For example, when I first started work for The Spectator I asked the then deputy editor, the lovely Stuart Reid, what time I should file my copy. “Oh, around about tea-time,” he replied – and so, every week I would file at six-thirty, which was when the family in which I grew up had its “tea” – bread and jam, bowl of tinned fruit, cup of tea. Only much later did I realize that Stuart actually meant four o clock, which was when the people who ran the Spectator had a sandwich with the crusts cut off and a piece of cake or something. Earlier still, when I first began working at the BBC, I was frequently startled to be invited over to colleagues’ homes for “supper”. Why would I go out at ten thirty at night to share a bowl of cornflakes, or maybe cheese and biscuits, with someone while they watched Sportsnight With Coleman? I still have difficulty remembering that the meal I eat at noon is not dinner, but lunch.

My main gripe with Andrew’s analysis, though, is his identification of the cause of classlessness as being to blame for people eating all the time. It isn’t; it is instead the almost total removal from our lives of that crucial thing, deferred gratification, a consequence not of the breaking down of the class system, but the retreat of Protestantism from our daily lives. These days we expect to wait for nothing, we want it all now. The end of deferred gratification, particularly among the working class, is almost entirely to blame for the end of set mealtimes and the growth of grazing (and hence obesity); it is partly to blame for the rise in sexually transmitted diseases, abortions, unwanted pregnancies. And it is largely to blame, even more so than Gordon Brown – although largely uncommented upon – for the mind-boggling, quite incredible levels of personal debt which fuelled our economic crisis.