David Hockney has just endorsed a series of specially designed beer mats, created by an artist called Mr Bingo, that display a cigarette in an ashtray with the slogan: ‘Bored with wellness.’ He went on to declare he found the very idea of wellness ‘ridiculous’ and ‘too bossy’.
Hockney is a verification of that urban legend often cited but rarely seen: the granny who ‘smoked like a chimney’ and ‘drank like a fish’ and lived to be 100. He is now the nation’s good-time gran. At 84 he’s still standing — and smoking — and boasts that he’s never been to a gym in his life.
I know people just like Hockney, usually obese middle-aged men, who boast that they never do any exercise, never go to the gym and who smoke, eat and drink whatever and whenever they like. I kind of admire these people who won’t let a little thing like a double coronary heart attack get between them and their fags-booze-burger lifestyle. As one of them — who has had two heart attacks and has been warned to get healthy or die — said to me: ‘A life of salads is no life at all.’
There are times when you think that life is too short for workout routines, gluten-free this and soya that. We need to assert a personal autonomy through appetite and stop being sensible and just gorge on the forbidden — whatever the consequences.
I know all about this because I had health-food fanatics for parents. In the mid-1970s, my dad put the family on a macro-biotic diet. He was so fanatical about healthy food that he once threatened to divorce my mother when he caught her with an ice cream. Every day I was sent off to school with a healthy packed lunch. You can imagine the reactions when my classmates at my tough north London comprehensive first discovered my packed lunch of miso and tahini sandwiches on unleavened bread. The stench caused widespread howls of disgust.
As an act of rebellion my brother and I would sneak off to the local Wimpy for burgers and chips. It’s no wonder that I looked down on the evangelical joggers and born-again juicers. When people said their body was a temple, I proudly boasted that my body was a toilet.
But I’ve changed. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I don’t take drugs. I go to bed at 9 p.m. I get up at 6 a.m. and meditate. I jog. I watch what I eat.
What caused me to change my ways and go for a healthy lifestyle? Sheer vanity. One day I looked in the mirror and saw that I no longer resembled a young Michael Douglas; I was now in my late Elvis phase.
What bothers me is not that people want to live an unhealthy lifestyle. I say go ahead, get another round of drinks in, light up another fag, binge on junk food. Enjoy! (I did for many years.) It’s when people dress up their pursuit of pleasure as a matter of high-minded principle that I raise an eyebrow.
I’m thinking of those who wear their unhealthy lifestyle as a badge of courage. They seem to imagine they’re engaged in a kind of defiant resistance to the Nanny State and her lecturing legions of ‘health fascists’, ‘killjoy experts’ and ‘patronising puritans’ whenever they choose McDonald’s over the gym.
What may look to others as simple hedonistic self-indulgence is to them a defence of a freeborn Englishman’s right to live as she or he pleases. In lighting up another fag, they’re keeping alight the torch of freedom. But freedom is not the same as licence.
When I was going through my late Elvis phase — those fat, druggy, fast-food-loving days — I didn’t evoke the name of freedom. I did it because I thought it was enjoyable, pure and simple.
So while the Hockney brigade appear brave, we who on health grounds decline a second drink or second helping are branded as ‘boring’. That’s because we still have this post-Romantic notion that the exciting people are the people of excess — those who burn their candles at both ends. Let’s face it: nobody becomes a legend by going to bed early, jogging at dawn and sipping herbal tea.
Yet if there’s one thing worse than a health bore it’s an unhealthy bore. Yes, the joys of the gym and talk of fungi-kale smoothies are deadly dull, but try having a conversation with someone who has drunk too much. Consider the relentless repetition! The incomprehensible babble! The killer rays of boozy breath! And it goes on for hours.
There are things more boring than a concern for health and wellbeing — and being unwell is one of them.