The moment I heard on the radio that Dr Atkins was dead, I was in a caravan next to the beach at Polzeath, in north Cornwall, eating tinned spaghetti on toast. Me, my boy, and my boy's half-brother were there for a fortnight's surfing – well, body boarding anyway. On three consecutive days in the first week there was a heatwave. I went brown, Mark went pillar-box red and Dan stayed about the same pale-green colour. It was at teatime, during one of these astonishingly hot days, that we heard it on the news. Dr Atkins, author of Dr Atkins's Age-Defying Diet Revolution (Feel Great, Live Longer), had slipped on an icy pavement in New York and hit his head. He was only 72.
I've been a devotee of Dr Atkins since the Sunday Telegraph sent me on one of his Caribbean diet cruises two years ago. On the Atkins cruise I ate about four times what I normally ate, did far less exercise, drank gargantuan cocktails more or less continuously, had an on-board romance with a lady with silicone breast implants –and at the weigh-out on the last day found I'd lost just over two pounds.
There were 300 of us Atkins dieters on board ship. All week we were either eating or attending lectures about eating. Each morning, however, there was an optional activity called Walking with Bob (beginners and up). Nothing strenuous – just a few led circuits of the upper deck before repairing to the dining-room for a five-course breakfast with the full English as the main plank. I remember one morning in particular – yet another glorious cloudless Caribbean morning. I was circuiting alongside Bob because he and I were the only ones present that morning capable of walking and talking at the same time. Blue sky, metallic blue sea, a warm breeze, and, as we walked, the lush coast of Jamaica appeared on the left-hand side. With tears in his eyes and his arms beseechingly outstretched, Vietnam veteran, life-long weight-battler and unashamed Dr Atkins's diet propagandist Bob turned to me and said, 'How hard is this?' 'Not very' was the true answer to that one.
Many of the Atkins people, Americans mostly, I spoke to on the cruise said they owed their lives to Dr Atkins and his no-carb then low-carb diet. They became emotional about it. He was their Lord and Saviour. Dr Atkins was also revered for his outspoken attacks on the drug companies, on the low-fat industry and the American medical profession. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to make the cruise that year, which was a huge disappointment to many, especially those who'd come on the cruise hoping to touch the hem of his garment.
We ate and listened to lectures, but mostly we ate. I seemed to spend the entire week dressing for dinner, queuing for the dining-room or seated at the dinner table tucking into four-, five-, six-course banquets. Every day felt a bit like Christmas. Yet amazingly everybody lost weight. I sat beside a lady at dinner one night who told me how she'd lost so much weight that her wedding ring had fallen off in the jacuzzi and disappeared down the out-pipe. At the same table, a trim-looking man in a tailored dinner jacket announced that he'd lost 33 stone in two years and that he had won a prestigious award for it. My lady friend with the implants wasn't an Atkins dieter, however, and did not frequent the dining-room. Her diet, invented by herself, was more revolutionary even than Dr Atkins's. Instead of cutting out carbs, she cut out food altogether and existed on nicotine and orange-flavoured Tic-tacs.
When we weighed out on the last day there was a prize of $100 for whoever had lost the most. It went to the man who'd lost 33 stone in two years, who'd lost a further six pounds. One of the Atkins dieters, an elderly man who'd already lost two stone in as many months, had died on the first evening of the cruise, and his body had remained on board. To be fair, as clear favourite for the $100, he should have been weighed as well, thought some.
There is no doubt about it in my mind: Dr Atkins's diet really does work. Any diet works I suppose if you stick to it for life, but Dr Atkins's diet has the advantage that you can still eat yourself stupid and end up like something hanging from a charm bracelet. That surely is his claim to greatness. His unexpected death is a blow to us all.
The only thing about tinned spaghetti on toast that Dr Atkins approved of was the thin layer of butter on the toast. Basically, spaghetti on toast, in Dr Atkins's book, was a definite no-no. So although I was still hungry, as a small tribute to his memory, I left some of it.