Friday, 3 September 2010

Book of the Month: The Hungry Years (William Leith)

William Leith, his website informs us, is a journalist, who has written about subjects as diverse as cosmetic surgery, Palestine, Hollywood directors, and drugs. He writes regularly for the Guardian, the Observer, and the Daily Telegraph. He is also a man, if his first (and to date only) published book is anything to go by, who has a love-hate relationship with food. (The clue is in the title of the book—The Hungry Years: confessions of A Food Addict.)

The Hungry Years opens with Leith describing how he woke up one day in 2003 to the ‘fattest day’ of his life. He had managed to achieve the weight—having eaten endless quantities of what he would later discover as refined carbohydrates and food with high glycemic indx—which, as a P.G. Wodehouse character might say, would test the perdurability  of most weighing scales. So how much did Leith weigh at that time? The answer: 235 lbs, which, I have calculated, is just over 16 stones. Now I am no nutritionist, but 16 stone does sound like a bit too much even for a man as tall as Leith (he informs us at the beginning that he is just over 6 feet tall).

What follows is a curious, slightly puzzling account—distinguished by mostly mordant (at times slapstick)—humour, and slightly affected solipsism punctuated by ersatz insights—of Leith’s adventures over the years with the Mars bar, so to speak. And not just the Mars bar: as the story unfolds and Leith’s mind (to paraphrase Charlotte Bronte) seems wholly taken up by reminiscences of past frolics and excesses, we learn that alcohol, cocaine, and prescription painkillers have, from time to time, vied for the top place in Leith’s impressive list of addictive substances. In an interview given at the time of the publication of his memoirs, Leith said:

I had been coming to a sort of realization that we as a culture were full of self-loathing; that we have not really acquitted ourselves well as regards the environment, and Africa and so on; that we are surrounded by endless stuff about getting fat and being unhealthy. And it occurred to me that I was not only slightly involved in this. I was fat, greedy, a drunk, a drug-taker, a heavy consumer of everything I could find. I was 42 and I thought that I had messed my life up at every available opportunity. There is a problem in society, I thought, and it's me. Or people like me, those who always take the easy option, who always want more ...

Leith is full of loathing for his fat self. Unsurprisingly, he finds it difficult to muster up adequate sympathy for those who are living rebukes to the tactics of moderation. ‘Fat people and their excuses,’ he snarls at one point. ‘It really makes me angry. They are always whining, the whiney fat pigs. Why don’t they stop whining and do something about it?’ Then—and this happens repeatedly—the anger is turned against self, and Leith concludes with the rhetorical question: ‘why don’t I stop whining and do something about it?’

What Leith decides to do on the fattest day of his life is to fly to New York and interview the controversial diet Guru, Dr. Atkins. He interviews the former cardiologist, who, we learn, himself weighed over 16 stones in the 1960s when he stumbled upon the idea of low starch diet after reading an article published in a medical journal. Over the next few decades Atkins transformed this idea into a multimillion dollars franchise. First published in the 1970s, the Atkins Diet plan—which essentially takes the position that carbohydrates make us hungry and overweight, and advocates curtailing of carbohydrates in your diet, not bothering about calories and fat—sold millions of copies before falling into disrepute in the 1980s and 1990s when low calorie, low fat diet plans became the flavour of the month. It made—as is the nature of such things—a triumphant comeback in the 21st century. At the time of his interview with Leith, Atkins is enjoying an unprecedented uplift to the popularity of his diet—two months later Atkins would slip and fall while walking on an icy road, and die in an intensive care unit after spending nine days in coma, and the backlash against his diet would begin—and Leith becomes a willing convert. He convinces himself that carbohydrate is the problem, decides that the meta-scientific theories supporting Atkins’s claims are gospel, and, upon his return to England, takes to the Atkins diet like an alcoholic to the bottle. He gorges on bacon and eggs and goes into apoplectic fits when presented with risotto, cereals and white bread; he rants hysterically about the evils of carbohydrates to anyone who is brave (or foolish) enough to give him an ear. He stops drinking alcohol. And he shades weight, to the point where he is able to fit into his jeans he had bought fifteen years earlier (even though it does not make him feel good about himself—why, you wonder). When his mother phones him slightly concerned about his father who (presumably overweight like Leith) has started on his own version of the Atkins Diet, and begun feasting on sausages and black pudding, he feels able to blithely reassure her that it was the bread and potatoes that were the culprit all along. He sees food-conspiracies everywhere. The politicians are obviously the puppets of the Food Industry giants and that’s why they do not promote the low carbohydrate diet and continue to watch passively as the erroneous ‘low-fat-diet-is-good-for-you’ message is rammed down the throats of gullible consumers. (Could there be a less sinister explanation? Such as eating excessive fat, as many Atkins fanatics seem to do, clogs up your arteries and makes you more susceptible to suffering strokes and heart attacks—the good doctor himself suffered a severe heart attack a year before he died, although he claimed that it was the result of a chronic infection!) From the vantage point of sobriety, at the time of the writing of the book—we learn that after the Atkins Plan ended in the inevitable breakdown and an orgy fuelled by alcohol and drugs, Leith made a cautious return to the balanced diet and allowed pasta and bread to reenter his diet—Leith is able to look back upon the days of Atkins frenzy with a degree of equanimity; the narration, as a result, has a droll, slightly farcical, tone to it, which accentuates the absurdity of it all.

So, how did Leith reach his Shangri-la? Diet did not work, whether fat-free (and carbohydrate-rich) or carbohydrate –free (and fat-rich). What turned things around for him, Leith would have us believe, was therapy—80 hours of it. And what did he discover in his therapy sessions? He discovered a lot about himself: he was a procrastinator, he was a hypochondriac, he was a compulsive, he complained of feeling trapped when he had imposed the traps on himself. And finally—you will be surprised to know this—it was his mother’s fault. He realized that he was all these years repressing his deep seated misery and resentment about not liking the posh boarding school to which his family sent him while his father (ironically, a child psychologist) relocated first to Germany, then to Holland, and finally to Canada. Leith talks and talks in the therapy and, gently nudged on by his therapist, has a further insight: he is really furious with his mother for sending him to the boarding school while his younger brother was allowed to go with them to Germany. He feels angry not about what happened but about what happened when he tried to talk about it with his mother, who responded (quite reasonably, you can’t help feeling) that it was probably not as bad as he was making it out to be. A psychological Catch 22, then: as a child, Leith felt unsettled, displaced; he hoped that his parents did not know how bad he felt, and could not stand the idea that they did not know how bad he felt. How any of this is linked to his becoming a glutton, a problem drinker, and a cocaine-snorter in later years, is not immediately clear to you, but then you are not the posh child of posh parents who was sent to a posh boarding school and suffered horribly, so perhaps you cannot empathize. Leith believes that it is linked, and talking about it to a therapist helped him to get over his gormandizing (at least at the time of the publication of the memoirs).

The Hungry Years is the story of a fat, middle-aged freelance journalist, who is obsessed about eating, who tries various diets, who interviews fat celebrities like Dawn French and Robbie Coltrane, and, above all, who cannot stop talking about himself. Along the way, he pontificates on subjects as varied as changing styles of women’s pubic hair over the past three decades, the pros and cons of wearing flares, the Fat Acceptance movement, and why Robbie Coltrane became fat. It is not a particularly well-researched book, even though there are lists galore, and statistical observations (when they suit Leith’s arguments) appear every few pages; nor a coherent one (at one point he parlays, apropos de rien,  into cosmetic surgery and face uplift). He also, while he is at it, slags off his former girl-friends, who are control-freaks, shopaholics, domineering, mean, nasty, vicious harridans who make his life a misery and (eating problems worse): one insists on woman-on-top position while having sex as his weight balloons; another sighs theatrically every time he helps himself to an energy-rich item of food. One ex-girlfriend invites him to her mother’s place and sadistically does not offer anything to eat when he is clearly suffering from (carbohydrate-induced) hunger pang and would like nothing more than squaring his shoulders and tucking into some cakes and donuts.

The reason why the book works despite all this is partly because it—despite the author’s self-obsession—holds a mirror to how we, at least those in the Western world, are leading our lives in the 21st century, but also because Leith has a wonderful way with words and manages to recount the most banal of incidents, such as eating toasts, entertaining and compulsively readable. What can one not get away with when one has the gift of words?