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Losing Weight Wasn’t As Tough As I Thought

I’ve always been overweight. The “body mass index” seems fraudulent to me because it takes no account of the shape or build of a person’s body. But despite the prevarication, I’ve known for some time I need to drop a few pounds. Losing weight would make me more healthy, I know that.

But knowing isn’t doing. For years I half-heartedly tried to cut down on calories and failed to halt my ever-expanding waistline.

“Losing Weight is for Losers.”

Earlier this year my attitude changed. After New Years’ it suddenly dawned on me I’d be sixty next birthday. I’m ten years older than Nigel Farage, for Christ’s sake! Shortly after this revelation sank in, I found myself halfway up the escalator at London Bridge rail station. I’d been walking up but I had to stop to take a breather. Out of breath, I became dizzy, with slight pains in my chest.

Other, less dramatic incidents followed, and I decided the time had come for me to tackle my excess weight. Losing weight became an imperative. The weighing machine in the bathroom couldn’t cope with all my pounds, and at my peak, I tipped in at almost one stone (14 lbs).

hungry_years_cover

Around the same time, I read a blurb written by author Jon Ronson for a book by William Leith called The Hungry Years: Confessions of a Food Addict. Ronson blurbed: “This hilarious, self-lacerating memoir of a compulsive eater is a superb book … this is his crowning achievement.” I waddled straight over to the iMac and bought it.

Losing Weight Book Arrives

Before Leith’s book arrived, I only had a vague idea about how obesity worked. As far as I could tell, the process of losing weight involved eating less and exercising more. Large comedian Phill Jupitus summed it up when he said: “You’ve got to shit more than you eat.”

The Hungry Years is not a manual about how to lose weight. It’s more a memoir of someone addicted to food. Leith was putting on weight and simultaneously interviewing people like Dr Robert Atkins for magazine and newspaper articles. He binged on toast, spooned coffee-creamer straight into his mouth, and couldn’t pass a fast food restaurant without ordering fries.

Although I was getting tired of (and disturbed by) his accounts of repeated binges and plummeting self-esteem, I laughed as much as I squirmed. Slowly I began to realise that “Leith the Eater” was an extreme, slightly younger (isn’t everyone?), version of me. He was eventually lured to the Atkins low-carb diet and was amazed to find himself losing weight. While the pounds dropped off him, he looked into the health issues associated with a high protein diet. That was starting to look scary, too.

Losing weight with Fatty Arbuckle
Fatty Arbuckle eats spaghetti with no thought of losing weight…

More fries, please…

After reading The Hungry Years, I sat down and had a quick think. Fries were definitely out, as was toast and coffee creamer. I decided to lower my intake of processed carbohydrates and basically ignore the other stuff associated with Atkins.

For example, I always start the day with an apple. I’ve done so since an Indian guru recommended it forty years ago. An apple a day may not always keep the doctor away but I’ve never spent a night in hospital or had major surgery, so it seems to work for me. Apples before breakfast are a no-no with Atkins because of the natural sugars they contain. I prefer to think of the enzymes doing me good.

After the apple, I’d have a “proper” breakfast, only without carbs. Because I’m a pescetarian, there’d be no bacon or meaty sausage, instead I’d lightly fry up the Quorn equivalent in a little olive oil, with an egg, mushrooms, and/or tomatoes. Or I might have scrambled eggs with cheese. Because there’d be no toast for it to sit on, I’d scramble two eggs instead of one. Sometimes I’d treat myself to a stinky kipper or two. All washed down with mugs of green tea.

Lunchtime at the Oasis (when you’re losing weight)

That’d keep me going until lunchtime. I deliberately never worry about calories. My lunch might be a bag of raw almonds or cashew nuts (over 1,000 calories in itself!) or more likely a salad of home-made hummus with raw carrot, tomatoes, cucumber, olives and green salad. Quorn make some yummy Mini Savoury Eggs, which are like scotch eggs but surrounded in Quorn. They’re almost pure protein and cheap: £1.20-£1.50 for 12. Believe me, a couple of those babies, sliced in half and spread with English mustard, make a good salad even better.

For my final meal of the day, I’d stay pretty normal. Curry with rice, pasta, jacket potatoes, risotto, whatever. I’d always try and use wholegrain rice or pasta whenever possible, but aside from that, the evening meal would be pretty much what I’d have eaten before.

Walking is the New Jogging

To complement the new diet I decided to walk more. Nothing too dramatic, just making myself aware that a shortish walk was better than a short bus journey. After four days I began to notice the difference. I’d already dropped a couple of pounds and it was staying dropped. After a month I was weighing in at zero (19 stone in real terms), and now, two months down the line, I weigh 18 stone 4lbs (256 lbs). I’ve lost a lot of weight, but I don’t feel like I’ve been dieting. My energy levels are definitely higher than they were. In fact, I feel about ten years younger; possibly even younger than Nigel “Beer and Bensons” Farage. My walks are enjoyable and I’ve not felt tired or dizzy after “exercising” since all this began.

The Occasional Slice of Cake

Occasionally, I will eat a slice of cake or a chocolate bar, but not every day. As far as I can tell, these divergences have not had any noticeable effect on my weight. The secret is not to be obsessive and not to binge. Sandwiches and pasta for lunch were what kept my weight on. If I’m out and I want a cheap, tasty lunch, I buy a packed salad and a small container of supermarket hummus or a dollop of cottage cheese, mix them up with a generous splash of chilli sauce and nosh the lot. A big, filling lunch and it costs around £3.

Strangely, I don’t look a lot different to how I did when I was nearly two stone (28 lbs) heavier. Maybe it’s a question of relativity. I can feel the difference, I’m not carrying the equivalent of a sack of spuds around with me any more, my feet are half a size smaller, and my bum has definitely shrunk – which means I probably am half-assed, as many people suspected. This just tells me it wouldn’t hurt for me to lose some more weight. My new target is now 16 stone (224 lbs). Let’s see how that looks.

My Healthy Hummus Recipe

I started making my own hummus, not because it was cheaper – it costs about the same – but because it tastes better and contains higher quality ingredients than the shop-bought stuff. Here’s the recipe I think I’ve almost perfected:

Start with a food processor into which you tip a generous measure of tahini (around 150 grams), two raw chopped garlic cloves, a chopped chilli (red or green) and the juice of one lemon. Drain a large 454g can (or two small cans) of cooked chickpeas and add them, together with a good glug of olive oil (not extra virgin, that can be too over-powering). Replace the lid and start the machine.

It’ll be slow at first and the hummus will look lumpy and plaster-like: but don’t worry. Pour in a tablespoon of cold water, then a tablespoon of olive oil (you can use extra virgin at this stage), and alternate these until suddenly, the magic happens. The humus will come alive and start to turn itself from chopped chickpeas and stuff into a smooth paste. When you like the consistency, stop adding liquid, turn off the machine and taste. Add salt, ground pepper and maybe more lemon juice until you’re happy.

How the Greeks & Turks Like it

Turks and Greeks like their hummus a little rough and grainy. Palestinians and Israelis prefer it smoother and slightly more pungent. I’m with the Palestinians and the Israelis.

I also add more chopped chillies once the mixing is over. I always buy Middle Eastern tahini (ground sesame seeds) in the brown plastic containers when I can get it. Otherwise, the Greek/ Turkish version is almost as good, if a little more pricey.

Enjoy your hummus, whether you want to lose weight or not.

Up until recently, I used to finish with a YouTube video of William Leith talking about his addiction to food. It was very interesting, but since I posted it, William seems to have wiped the internet of all trace of his shame. Instead, we have to make do with a review of the book. It’s almost as good…

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Stewart Lee on “Not Writing”

Comedy is subjective. So is writing. I’ve just come across a 45-minute video I felt I had to share. It skirts around both subjects and comes up with some savoury little insights. The video will not please everybody. The comments below it are a testament to that. But anyone who shares my vague interest in the psychology of comedy and love of Stewart Lee should find it fascinating.

Like him or love him, Stewart Lee is a man who knows his allium from his Elba.

I’ll just explain that he started his comedy life in a double-act and writing partnership with Richard Herring. Although their BBC-2 TV shows that aired from 1992-2000 didn’t propel them to the heights of Morecambe and Wise (or even Fry and Laurie), they became cult favourites.

After the split, Stewart gave up performing stand-up comedy for several years, choosing to write instead. He came back with a stronger stand-up act and found himself portrayed within the business as the ‘comedian’s comedian’. Among his writing credits are several books and the controversial play, Jerry Springer The Opera.

Stewart Lee: “On Not Writing”

The talk begins slowly and in a slightly rambling, self-conscious manner. Stick with it and your patience will be rewarded. Writer, comedian and (dare I say it?) intellectual Stewart Lee gives a very interesting talk to Oxford University students about his comedy and the writing of it. It’s a reprise of a talk he gave on a writers’ day in February at the University that wasn’t recorded first time around. The recording is straightforward and low-tech, with some gooey fades.

Lee is entirely open and reveals much about his stand-up technique. There’s a fantastic sequence in which he opens up the box and explains how he puts together a stand-up show: character, mood and how the “flip” comes about at the end. I’ll never be a comedian, I’ll never be much of a writer, but I can admire the technique.

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Charles Dickens Characters

Charles Dickens‘ characters fall into two main categories: the memorable and the totally unforgettable.

I can think of no other author who has created such vivid fictional characters. In no particular order: The Artful Dodger, Smike, Joe Gargery, Fagin, Scrooge. Wilkins Micawber, Sam Weller, Daniel Quilp, Mr Dick, Bill Sykes. Magwitch, Frederick Dorrit, Mr Merdle, Mrs Gamp, and, of course, all the title characters. And that’s just from memory. If I had a crib-sheet in front of me, the list would run to dozens, if not hundreds.

Charles John Huffam Dickens, 1812-1870

Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist: one of Charles Dickens most memorable characters
Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist (note: incorrect spelling)
A memorable Charles Dickens character!

I was halfway through a post about Racism in Football when I spotted a reminder that today (February 7th) is the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth. How could I possibly let that pass? The world of Dickens has enchanted me ever since I first watched those atmospheric BBC black and white Sunday teatime adaptations in the 1960s. Although I’ve nothing against full-colour broadcasting, there is something about black & white telly that sprinkles even more magic dust over his characters and storylines.

The same goes for those hugely atmospheric David Lean film adaptations of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. Here was a man who understood the inherent power of Charles Dickens characters. For some reason, we didn’t touch Dickens for school exams. There was no shortage of Chaucer and Shakespeare, great as they are. I had to discover Dickens’ writing because I wanted to, not because I had to.

For the past couple of months, the British media has been on Dickens overload. Every celebrity from Armando Iannucci and Sue Perkins to Mariella Frostrup and Aled Jones has offered up their praise and opinions on the greatest novelist of the Victorian era. There’s a genuine risk of over-kill and a sad realisation that in a year’s time there’ll probably be no Dickens at all.

That’s the way media people think. No one has ever given me a proper explanation as to why newspapers, magazines, radio and TV don’t ‘do’ something unless they have an event to ‘hang it on’. I’d find Charles Dicken just as interesting 199-and-a-half years after his birth as exactly 200, but maybe I’m the odd one out.

Charles Dickens as Storyteller

There’s a theory that suggests that Charles Dickens’ characters and brilliant – if occasionally over-convoluted – plots were so well-crafted because he had to write them in instalments. The theory falls down when you realise that many other authors wrote to the same constraints and (sadly, perhaps) their work has grown ivy and perished over the years. I think we just have to admit that Dickens’s survived is because they were so extraordinary to start with. Take this extract from Little Dorrit:

Little Dorrit (1855-1857)

BBC Adaptation of Little Dorrit, 2008

An old brick house, so dingy as to be all but black, standing by itself within a gateway. Before it, a square courtyard where a shrub or two and a patch of grass were as rank (which is saying much) as the iron railings enclosing them were rusty; behind it, a jumble of roots. It was a double house, with long, narrow, heavily-framed windows. Many years ago, it had had it in its mind to slide down sideways; it had been propped up, however, and was leaning on some half-dozen gigantic crutches: which gymnasium for the neighbouring cats, weather-stained, smoke-blackened, and overgrown with weeds, appeared in these latter days to be no very sure reliance.

‘Nothing changed,’ said the traveller, stopping to look round. ‘Dark and miserable as ever. A light in my mother’s window, which seems never to have been extinguished since I came home twice a year from school, and dragged my box over this pavement. Well, well, well!’

He went up to the door, which had a projecting canopy in carved work of festooned jack-towels and children’s heads with water on the brain, designed after a once-popular monumental pattern, and knocked. A shuffling step was soon heard on the stone floor of the hall, and the door was opened by an old man, bent and dried, but with keen eyes.

He had a candle in his hand, and he held it up for a moment to assist his keen eyes. ‘Ah, Mr Arthur?’ he said, without any emotion, ‘you are come at last? Step in.’

Mr Arthur stepped in and shut the door.

Charles Dickens: Brief Biography

There’s no room for a complete Charles Dickens biography, but enough space not to ignore the basic facts.

Mr Micawber from David Copperfield

Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in Landport, Hampshire on February 7th, 1812. It was a memorable year all round: poet Robert Browning and the architect Augustus Pugin shared the same birth-year. The metric system was first adopted in France.

Napoleon invaded Russia (later commemorated by Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture), and Britain went to war with the United States. By the time of Dickens’ death, 58 years, four months and two days later, he had written 15-and-a-half novels, 6 novellas and numerous shorter pieces.

The biggest selling of all his novels is A Tale of Two Cities. Don’t ask me why. The book with the most adaptations is A Christmas Carol, possible because Christmas comes around every year. There’s nothing like a bit of sentiment to start the cash registers ringing.

Britain’s Favourite

The BBC’s Big Read survey of Britain’s 100 favourite novels, undertaken in 2003, contained five from Dickens. They were: Great Expectations (17), David Copperfield (34), A Christmas Carol (47), A Tale of Two Cities (63) and Bleak House (79).

Dickens and Terry Pratchett shared the distinction of having the most works in the first 100. I wonder if that would be repeated in even 20 years from now.

For me, the big surprises were that Bleak House did so well. It was two years before the ground-breaking BBC adaptation with Gillian Anderson and Charles Dance. And that Oliver Twist did so badly, only managing to scrape in at number 182.

You would have thought that with all the adaptations, in particular Lionel Bart’s spirited musical would have propelled Oliver Twist into the top 150 at the very least. It’s not as if the storyline – including the memorable line: “Please sir, I want some more!” – isn’t well known. Or that Charles Dickens’ characters in Oliver Twist are not up to standard. My theory is that we prefer our Dickens a little darker… preferably in black and white.

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Amazing Book Bargains

I used to be a publisher. Not someone who worked for a big international corporation, mixing with bestselling authors, famous film, TV and sports personalities and their less glamorous ghostwriters, but an important part – or at least I liked to think so – of a one-man operation.

Aside from an army of authors, artists, freelance proof-readers, designers, printing and binding workers, packagers and distributors, independent sales reps and PR prats, I was The Do-Not Press. I battled fearlessly against the publishing and bookselling establishments for ten years before I finally fell, fatally wounded, in 2004. My Waterloo was the Compass Spring Sales Conference. (Don’t ask).

I only mention this, not because I’m about to relate a whole series of publishing horror stories, but because the experience scarred me and changed my book-buying habits for life. Even now, four years, four months and six days after our last book hit the shelves (or not) of Britain’s major bookshops, I cannot bring myself to buy a book from W.H. Smiths or Waterstone’s. (I’m a bit iffy about Blackwell’s, but that’s only because in 1966 Sir Basil Blackwell tried to prevent the UK publication of Last Exit to Brooklyn. I have a long memory).

Whenever I need a book and I’m in central London, I’ll walk past all the fancy Borders, Waterstone’s and whatever and head for Foyle’s in the Charing Cross Road. Disorganised, badly laid out and ineffecient as they might have been back then, (they’ve improved now), at least they stocked almost all of our books – and even sold a few.

Being an independent publisher of some panache, you’d have thought independent bookshops would have been keener than the chains to stock our toothsome output of contemporary fiction and suchlike. Not a bit of it. With a handful of notable exceptions – Newham Bookshop, Murder One, Foyle’s, Housman’s and Bookseller Crow, being the only ones that spring to mind – smaller bookshops tended to avoid us entirely. One even went as far as invoicing me for the fax paper I’d used up notifying him of an impending publication by a local author.

In my experience, most independent booksellers are pompous middle-class twits who are dead keen to stock mountains of what’s on the top of the bestseller charts but will not risk upsetting their clientele by having anything vaguely “interesting” in the building. “Oh, that’s very hard to get,” is a common put-down.

Buying online is even trickier for me. Amazon have everything I need, it’s usually cheaper there than anywhere else, and the service is invariably second to none. And yet I feel guilty about feeding money into a US corporation with a virtual worldwide monopoly. Silly, isn’t it?

I get around this by buying from The Book Depository, whenever I can. An independent British operation (sorry international readers), The Book Depository offers free delivery and prices that undercut even their obese American rival. Plus they push the product of independent British pubishing at every opportunity. Well done, I say.

The Do-Not Press website still gets 100 hits a day and is at http://www.thedonotpress.com

The Book Depository can be found at: http://www.thebookdepository.co.uk