Rod Liddle says that the government’s White Paper on public health won’t help the fatties, but if we could overcome our fear of ‘kiddie-fiddlers’, children might be able to reduce their weight on the playing field
Everybody you know is on a diet because everybody you know is fat. Sometimes they’re just a bit porky, a roll of subcutaneous blubber the colour and consistency of a McDonald’s vanilla milkshake around the midriff, or at the top of the legs. Quite often, though, they’re quiveringly leviathan and — rather like our universe — in a state of perpetual, hectic expansion; the folds of enveloping flesh growing almost before your eyes. And here’s the point: these people are fat not because they’re stupid or feckless and can’t take care of themselves, or are merely gannets, suffused with greed, or weak-willed — but because they are victims. Their fatness, you see, has been imposed upon them unfairly by other people, by society; they did not want to be fat, they wanted to be thin and healthy. And now look.
This would seem to be the prevalent view about what is, apparently, an ‘epidemic of obesity’. Last week the Royal College of Physicians reported that one in four women and one in five men were gargantuan, i.e., hideously, medically obese, lard mountains. Meanwhile, 60 per cent of women and 70 per cent of men are classified as simply overweight. That’s 24 million adults waddling every day from the couch to the burger bar, wheezing with effort, their cardiovascular arteries as furred and clogged as the thoroughfares down which they painfully labour. Soon, one assumes, it will all become rather too much and they will die. Die of heart attacks or strokes or maybe just suffocated by their relentlessly expanding flesh. And whose fault will that be? Not theirs.
The government is in the process of producing a White Paper entitled: ‘Feckless Fat Slobs — How Much Taxpayers’ Money Should We Give Them?’ Actually, that’s a misrepresentation; it isn’t called that at all. But one assumes that my title will figure somewhere in the subtext. Why would the government commit itself to poking around our waistbands if it wasn’t intending to do something about it in the end? Already, pre-emptively, the Department of Health has expanded the Welfare Food Scheme (which has provided milk for children since the end of the second world war). Now mums will get vouchers for free fruit and vegetables (although not potatoes, which, perversely, are no longer classed as a vegetable by this government). The scheme is worth up to £5.60 per week per child and the DoH insists that no new money will be expended. Which presumably means that the children will get less milk, then, unless I’ve misunderstood. What’s the betting that there will be new money spent?
And you can bet your life that there will be tiresome, hectoring ‘public information’ programmes that will again be paid for out of your pocket: poster campaigns, television adverts all urging you to eat an apple and go for a brisk walk.
The cause of obesity is very simple and we all know what it is. As the, uh, somewhat stocky Ann Widdecombe put it last week: if you take in more calories than you burn up, you’ll put on weight. Ann knows this, I know this, you know this and the most lumpen-headed trailer-trash cretin knows this, too. Just as we all know that being fat isn’t good for us. People who eat oven chips and coffee éclairs do so knowing that these comestibles are more fattening than a slice of cucumber and a bottle of Evian. The decision to become fat is, in most cases, precisely that — a decision taken by an individual because he is stupid or feckless or simply couldn’t give a monkey’s. Or rather likes being fat.
But nationalising the issue will have — is already having — an immediately deleterious effect. It will remove yet another simple and straightforward problem from the realm of personal choice and make it an encumbrance of the state. Already people are beginning to blame the government for their fatness, as I have indicated. On the radio recently a fat man who’d had a triple heart-bypass operation was wallowing in his victimhood. ‘After I’d ’ad my op, there was no infrastructure to help me. I started eating again.’ Infrastructure to help him! Quite clearly Tony Blair or John Reid, the Health Secretary, has let this fat man down by not stopping him from stuffing his fat face relentlessly. Shame on you, Dr Reid. And then you ask yourself what this fat man could have wanted by way of infrastructure and the answer is, presumably, a legion of counsellors to police his mealtimes, the onus of responsibility having been lifted from his shoulders and placed squarely upon yours and mine.
Of course, there are myriad ways in which the enormous increase in the number of fat people can be explained — although none of them detracts from the central point, which is that it is a matter for the individual and his or her responsibility alone.
The first and most obvious is increased affluence. We eat more because we can afford to eat more. Fatty, sugary foods are more expensive than fruit and vegetables, but we buy them anyway because we like the taste and, crucially, we can afford them. And laziness is perhaps a handmaiden to affluence; we are spoiled by having things done for us and would prefer to pay more for a convenient, fatty, pre-cooked meal than go to the bother of peeling a real carrot.
But crucially — and allied to both of these — is the almost total removal of the principle of deferred gratification from our lives. These days, we do not see why we should wait for anything: we want it all now. Back in the 1970s I remember nutritionists and health experts scolding parents who offered sweets as a reward for good behaviour or hard work. But at least this meant that the sweets were rationed and employed almost as part of a ritual, rather than handed out every day at the slightest plaintive demand, as seems to happen now. Nor are the adults much better; the goal of our society — and the same is true of sexual behaviour as it is of eating — is immediate and continuous gratification. We will not be denied. One reason for this, perhaps, is the erosion of religion — and specifically Protestantism — with its emphasis upon self-denial and, later, gloriously uplifting reward. Maybe Dr Reid will decide to herd us all into chapel every Sunday at 11 o’ clock for a bloody good talking-to. But somehow I doubt it.
The other complaint one hears, almost as a mantra, is that we take insufficient exercise — particularly our children. They lie in front of their computer screens or DVDs, belching and farting as they consume their endless supply of fizzy drinks and family-size bags of prawn-cocktail crisps. And yet it is here, ironically, that society maybe should shoulder a little of the blame. Children always lay in front of the television when allowed so to do; there is nothing particularly new in this. But it is much more difficult for them, these days, to venture out on to the mean and dangerous streets without — so the parents have been led to believe — being accosted by the vast legions of raincoat-bedecked kiddie-fiddlers at large in our town centres with their bags of sherbet lemons and whispered promises of puppies. We have been led into a ridiculous state of paranoia about paedophiles and a concomitant suffocating overprotectiveness towards our children. The age at which kids are allowed out to play by themselves has risen from five years (1970s) to almost nine years (1997). The children want to play outside — but apparently we won’t let them.
The paedophile paranoia has affected their ability to become involved in organised sporting activities, too. A friend of mine recently volunteered for a course that would enable him to teac h cricket to the under-12s. The volunteers were lined up and told the following: ‘At least 10 to 15 per cent of you people here today are paedophiles. We do not know yet who you are.’ He left, sickened. The rules governing how adults involved in such activities are supposed to interact with their young charges are now so copious, so strict and so labyrinthine that fewer and fewer people want to have any part of it. Here’s one, for example: you should never be alone with a child. Ever. How does that stricture make you feel?
Nor is it just paedophilia that so scares us. Litigation and health and safety regulations have played their part in keeping the kids at home, too. I sent my son off recently for his first football training session but he was turned away because he didn’t have shin pads. He was five years old at the time. But nobody wants to be sued because little Tyler has taken a painful kick to the leg, so shin pads — and a whole bunch of other equipment — are compulsory. And believe me, they’re expensive. Why bother with the cost when they can just lie in front of the PlayStation, apparently consumed with happiness?
An ever increasing number of schools have banned children from playing in the playground because they fear costly litigation should the child fall and hurt himself. So more and more kids stay in the classrooms during break periods. I suppose they’d be allowed to play on grass if it weren’t for the fact that so many school playing fields have been flogged off on the say-so of successive governments.
In fact, almost everything which has militated in favour of children not getting exercise has been imposed with the connivance of successive governments, from excessive health and safety regulations to ever increasing amounts of homework and summer schools for those who are deemed to be in need of catching up. But there is no reason why we should succumb and go along with any of this. Neighbours may look at you oddly if you are so laissez-faire as to allow your children to do such reckless things as climb trees or run along a pavement by themselves; but it is, again, the prerogative of the parent to sanction such things — just as it is the prerogative of all of us to take a nice walk every now and again and eat food which is nutritious and non-fattening. But here’s the question: do you think that this will be the conclusion drawn by the government and the self-righteous medical clergy when the White Paper is delivered? Or will there be campaigns and bullying to tell us the patently obvious? And do you think, in the end, we’ll be any slimmer as a result?