I hadn’t noticed how much weight I’d put on during lockdown until I went out for a business lunch a couple of weeks ago. It was the first time I’d put on a suit and tie in 16 months. As I struggled to pull on the trousers, I thought: ‘Something’s wrong here. Did Caroline hang one of the children’s suits in my cupboard by mistake?’ But no. It was mine. To fasten the trousers I had to suck in my stomach like Mr Incredible trying to squeeze into his superhero costume. And my ‘slim fit’ white shirt wasn’t merely snug; it was more like a straitjacket. I looked like a bald Boris in his pre-Covid pomp.
In one of his memoirs, Clive James said that weight gain isn’t a gradual process: you just wake up one day and discover you’re fat. When I read this, I dismissed it as an excuse, a way of trying to avoid responsibility for being overweight. But now I think there’s some truth in it. I knew that not doing any exercise for a year, drinking too much and snacking on pot noodles at 3 a.m. would mean I’d gain a few pounds. Nevertheless, it was a shock to discover that I’d put on a few stone. George Orwell famously said that inside every fat man there’s a thin one trying to get out, but in my case the opposite was true. And the fat man hadn’t merely escaped. He’d eaten the thin one.
The last time I managed to shed any weight was three years ago, inspired by the monstering I received at the hands of an outrage mob when I was appointed to a minor public role by Theresa May. The offence archaeologists trawled through everything I’d written dating back 30 years and discovered such a rich haul that I didn’t merely have to step down from that position, but from four others as well, including my full-time job. I can joke about it now, but at the time it was pretty traumatic and I lost half a stone. I called it the Public Humiliation diet. I went on to lose another 20lb and for the first time since my mid-twenties got back to my ideal weight. Every cloud, etc.
One advantage I had back then was a good deal of free time thanks to the loss of all those jobs, which meant I could exercise regularly. I became a fixture in the basement gym at White City House, sometimes spending two hours down there. At one point, I even started running to the gym and back, a three-and-a-half mile round trip. Losing the weight and getting fit became an obsession and I threw myself into it with the same energy that I’d previously devoted to opening schools and running charities. I never quite managed a six-pack, but I felt better than I had in years. Aches and pains that I’d resigned myself to living with for the rest of my days began to fade away.
Since then, I’ve rebuilt my career, which means I don’t have time to go to the gym. Even squeezing in a run is difficult. The most I can manage is a brisk walk to Acton Town tube — about a mile away — instead of cycling there on my Brompton. So the entire focus of my weight-loss programme is on eating less, which I’m finding incredibly difficult. I’m doing a healthy version of the Atkins diet — good carbs rather than no carbs, as well as plenty of fish and white meat — and ‘intermittent fasting’, which means I don’t eat between 9 p.m. and 1 p.m. Skipping breakfast is a doddle, but I often work till about 3 a.m. and the hours after midnight are proving tough. Occasionally, packets of biltong are consumed.
My first weigh-in was due last Sunday, a week into my diet. But on Saturday night Caroline and I joined some friends at a fancy new restaurant in King’s Cross called Hicce and after a couple of cocktails my resolve went out the window and I insisted we all have the tasting menu. Three of the people at the table were women and they began to flag after the third course, so I gallantly helped them out by hoovering up whatever they couldn’t eat. I was dimly conscious that my body was trying to get back to its ‘set point’, i.e. compensate for all the calories I’d been depriving it of, but my superego had been bound and gagged with alcohol. I was like a junkie let loose in the back of a chemist after a bout of cold turkey.
I’m now back in the Priory, as it were, making do with the methadone of poached salmon, boiled eggs and green salad. I didn’t weigh myself in the end — I couldn’t face the bad news — but am determined to do so this Sunday. It’ll be a miracle if I’ve lost more than a pound. It’s going to be a long haul.