You’re the one for me, fatty

It’s been a week of grim news, and as I keenly scanned the BBC website for an uplifting tale, instead I can across this depressing headline: ‘calorie counts on menus prompt healthy choices’.

This research comes from across the pond, where calorific information has been displayed on New York menus since 2008. The results of this survey do seem patchy, with the headline being just one conclusion from a scattered set of data points. Subway, for example, showed an increase in calorific intake by customers once the calorie information was displayed on menus. This is likely to be due to the fact that people have decided to eat twice the portion of a ‘healthy’ option that contains only 75% of the calories. The Yanks have few faults, but maths is clearly one of them, at least amongst Subway customers. UK restaurants have now begun to ape this trend of putting calorific information alongside food options, from the lowly (KFC and McDonald’s) to the Michelin starred emporium of Alexis Gaultier in Soho. We ignore much of what is best about the US (cheap fuel, good service) and yet copy some of the worst (American gladiators); this is another fad that we would have done well to leave alone.

I am all for education regarding diet and healthy living, but this should come from parents and in Schools. It is important that children are made aware of what is meant by a healthy diet (to my mind there are no such things as ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ food items, seeing as no one food can supply all the nutrition that we need); it is important that we are aware of portion control (something which the Americans have lost sight of); it is important that we are aware of seasonality and its impact on lowering food miles; it is important that children are encouraged to eat a varied diet; it is important that they are able to cook.

Placing calorie information on menus seems to ignore the education side of food (as above), and instead looks to the strategy of trying to catch the horse’s tail in the stable door. Healthy eating is not all about calories anyway; avocados are very calorific, and yet most people would say they are a ‘healthy’ option. Iceberg lettuce has virtually no calories, and yet it has no nutritional value either, and therefore can hardly be defined as being healthy. Education via calories might teach people how to become thin, but that’s not the same thing as a good diet. Also, whatever Kate Moss thinks, some food really does taste far better than skinny feels (I’m looking at you, foie gras).

I don’t think that calorie information works at either end of the gastronomic spectrum. Take Gaultier Soho, a fine dining restaurant (tasting menu £68 pp). How often are you likely to go to this restaurant, or any restaurant like it? Once a month, if that? This is an occasion restaurant for a partner’s birthday, or a significant anniversary. This restaurant represents the opportunity to be decadent and hedonistic, to start a meal with champage and finish with a cognac over coffee. It’s certainly not your everyday meal. Surely the last thing you want to do is to make meal choices based on calorie content? If anything, let’s live like it’s the last days of Rome, be perverse and have the most calorific choices on the menu. Part of the pleasure of fine dining is that it’s totally out of the ordinary, a one-off treat, and one about which you shouldn’t feel guilty. On another note, if you’re eating at a place like this and you can’t tell that the grilled fish is less likely to clog those arteries than the foie gras on brioche, you probably wasting your money as you’re someone who eats only to live.

At the other end of the spectrum we have KFC and McDonalds. I’m sure that some people think the food here is great, but these people are mostly 12 or under, and as we’ve already discussed, it really is the parent’s responsibility to educate children about food. For most of the rest of us, the output of McDonald’s or KFC are pre-football food, hangover food, bored at the airport food; some don’t touch them out of principle, but fast food provides an important option when needs must. I don’t think anyone would argue that a standard meal of fried chicken/burger and chips is not brilliantly healthy, and it’s not good to eat them too often; I hope I’m not overestimating the intelligence of the average Brit, but I think this should be a given. Placing the calorie information next to a Big Mac, informing us that it’s got a lot of calories, shouldn’t be a surprise, and neither should it put us off buying one. The introduction of the McGrapes and McCarrotsticks about ten years ago was truly bizarre; surely people go to McDonald’s for only one thing: some greasy cheap food. If you wanted some grapes, just go and buy some from the nearest supermarket, though maybe I’m underestimating how ubiquitous McDonald’s really is.

Food shouldn’t really be complicated; people need only a few clear guidlines, and they can make their own choices from these. The ‘5 a day’ for fruit and vegetables has passed into common parlance, though there’s no real reason why it should have been 5, and not 4 or 6. If kids are given a varied and balanced diet, and taught how to cook a few simple dishes, people should be fine to make their own decisions. I’m glad that the research (despite the headline) showed no distinct pattern, and certainly didn’t seem to support the need to expance the calorie information to all sorts of other menus. As with many things, it’s the education, the pro-active strategy that tends to work, and as soon as one adopts the reactionary approach, we run the risk of having to deal with a nation of fatties, rather than ensuring that we don’t produce these big units in the first place.

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Familiarity and contempt

I’ve used the Stephen Fry expression to describe friendship before. The Nation’s favourite Wildean uncle claimed that he ‘likes to taste his friends, not eat them’. Aside from the obvious innuendo, it’s a sentiment with which I agree. Some of my favourite people are those that I don’t see for a couple of years, and when we do meet up, it’s like we’ve never been apart. I’ve just spent a week in the states with a friend I hadn’t seen for 3 years (we keep up only through twitter) and it led to some of the most enjoyable, entertaining and easiest conversation you could imagine. Some people like to surround themselves with a small group of close friends, and these people act like a kind of social comfort blanket. Friendship lines are drawn, everyone knows which topics are there to be debated and which are off-limits, opinions are generally well-known, and conversation can be dominated with everyday chit-chat.

I’m certainly not saying that the better I know people, the less I like them, or even the less interesting I find them; I do consider however that the friendship of those people that I rarely converse with and meet up with even less often can be just as valuable. It’s like music and books. Some books you are happy to read and re-read, and there’s some music that you never tire of listening to. There are other books that you loved first time around, but you have no desire to read again, at least not in the immediate future. Some music is like this too; I love it, and then I love re-discovering it, but only at a much later date.

As I’m on holiday at the moment, I’ve had the opportunity to do quite a lot of reading. I’ve been reading a couple of authors that I thought I liked a lot: Malcolm Gladwell and Jay McInerney. The more I’ve read of them, the less I like them. Maybe that’s a little strong, but the less interest I have in them; their freshness is notable by its absence. In McInerney’s case, I’ve read him pretty much chronologically, starting with the fantastic ‘Bright lights, Big City’. His later novels (less so the short stories) resemble less good versions of his earlier work. The themes are similar, the humour more forced, the material less fresh. People say that you write about what you know, but he seems to have written about all that he knows in the first couple of books, and has spent much time re-hashing old material after that. Gladwell is more odd, because I read Outliers (2008), then What the dog saw (2009) then his breakthrough novel The Tipping Point (2000). Gladwell certainly has a brilliant easy-reading style, and it has been said of him that he ‘makes you feel as though you are the genuis’. It’s a very leading style though, and many of the conclusions that he comes to, which appear watertight at first, do not stand up to any kind of rigorous scrutiny. His standard technique is to take a one-off event, re-tell it as an incredibly entertaining story, and then to draw far reaching conclusions from this single event that usually challenge general thinking on the subject. Thought and discussion-provoking certainly, but hard evidence? almost certainly not. The more I read, the more I feel that I’m being worked on, albeit very gently, into believing the genius of Gladwell, and I find that irritating, and just a little bit subversive.

This isn’t the case with all authors. If one reads Orwell chronologically, things culminate with 1984, and all of his other writing and experiences feel like a build-up to this. It helped that he died young, and knew that he was dying, and maybe that’s the key: to die before one’s output starts to tail off. Morrison, Dean, Fitzgerald have nothing duff in their back catalogue; they simply didn’t have time. Conversely, the longer that Jagger or McCartney hang on, the more hapless the material they produce has become. This is similar with Dave Grohl, who sounds more like un-edgy bad Nirvana with each album. I used to think that Dali was a genius, until you realise that you’ve seen all the good stuff in the first 10% of his output, and the rest of his career was a re-hash of former ideas.

Perhaps there’s a limit to creativity, and it’s best to stop when you feel genuine creation is harder to come by. Bowie and Picasso manage to stay creative forever by continual re-invention. They are the genuine outliers; these are people with whom one can be fully familiar, and feel nothing but admiration for their genius.

Funny business

Comedy is the new rock n’ roll. This isn’t really the case of course, any more than Rupert Murdoch is the new ‘all say awww’, Clive Dunn-esque, loveable Grandad figure who’d slip you onto his knee and drop a Werthers’ original into your mouth soon as look at you. It’s a phrase that gets trotted out quite a lot though, and what it really means is that comedy has become incredibly popular; stand-up comedy in particular. Comedy has always been popular, but live comedy has really boomed over the past decade or so, such that it’s not unusual to find comedians packing out huge stadia, when they used to be found in smoky dingy clubs, dealing with front row hecklers. Newman and Baddiel were the first comedians to play Wembley stadium, and whereas their show now looks remarkably dated, they were the ‘comedians as rock n’ rollers’ trailblazers, to be followed by Peter Kay, and latterly, Michael McIntyre. Peter Kay seems to be universally popular, despite the obvious ‘Northern-ness’ of his humour, and punters and peers like him equally. It’s difficult not to like Peter Kay.

Michael McIntyre has been in the news a lot this week, coming under fire (so he says) from others in his profession. He’s clearly popular with the punters, but his peers don’t seem to like him much, to the extent that his wife got a load of reflected stick at a recent awards ceremony, despite the fact she’d bought a new dress specifically for the occasion (this is the sad story, as recounted by Mr McIntyre on desert island discs this week). Stewart Lee was singled out as perpurtrating the greatest amount of anti-McIntrye bile, describing McIntyre’s material as ‘warm diahorrea’, though he’s since claimed that the material was taken out of context, and that he was in fact ‘in character’ when he wrote this line (a minor part of a 30,000 word show).

I’m sure that many will take McIntyre’s side in this argument, and some will take Lee’s. But is it an argument with any merit? Is it an argument that can lead to a conclusion?

The argument is very similar to that which tries to compare different types of popular music, and bearing in mind that comedy is the new rock n’ roll, let’s see how far we can get with this comparison. Arguments rage from the pub to the playground over which music is ‘better’, but rarely do two people agree on any definition for the word ‘better’, at least in this context. One can define better as meaning more popular or more influential or more original, but none of these definitions hold more universal sway than any other. One of the most obviously good things about comedy is that something with no comedic merit at all never even makes its way into the public eye (with the possible exception of Rotherham’s finest, the Chuckle Brothers). This is certainly not true for music, where Jedward are able to sell millions. So that’s a disappointing start.

Michael McIntyre is the Take That of the comedy world. Almost universally popular; pretty much everyone would admit to liking him (and them) at least a bit. Stewart Lee is the Elbow of the comedy world. He’s someone that you know (if you consider yourself intelligent) you’re supposed to like, but you can’t get over the feeling that it’s just a bit dreary, and takes itself a little too seriously. Michael McIntyre is trying to be as funny as he can, and is trying to make as many people laugh as he can. There’s no great sophistication to his humour, just as there’s no great sophistication to the music of Take That, but you’d probably feel in a better mood after listening to either of them for ten minutes. They are both unashamedly populist, and exist merely to create enjoyment for people, and by doing so, to fatten their own coffers. If McIntrye’s comedy was so base and easy though, wouldn’t it all have been done before? His brand of everyday observational comedy can’t be that straightforward, can it? Similarly, Take That; how many other similar groups have tried and failed to recreate their success?

Stewart Lee (like Elbow) seems to be trying to do more with his comedy; he’s trying to educate, to make people consider the everyday in greater depth, to debate our beliefs and prejudices. He’s probably not as gag-heavy, but the humour certainly has an ulterior motive. This is a very obvious choice that he’s made, and that’s why he exists at the other end of the comedy spectrum from Michael McIntyre. I like listening to Stewart Lee, but only for a while. He’s certainly original and thought provoking, and there’s clearly plenty of worth in listening to him; just like Elbow though, it just gets a bit too whiny and repetitive after a while (in Lee’s case, literally so, as he continues to pound the same phrase down your throat). After a bit of Lee, McIntyre comes as light relief. It’s not long before one tires of him too, with his skippy smily fatty routines, and there’s only so much of this one can stand. You’re not likely to replace one Take That album with another straightaway, but I’d be amazed if anyone wanted to sit through more than 12 songs of Elbow.

The concept of ‘better’ is pointless in music just as much as it is in comedy. It’s probably more important to be open to all different styles of music, comedy, art, theatre, film, food etc than it is to champion some things to the detriment of others. There’s merit in all sorts of diverse culture, and we have the opportunity to dip in and out of all of them whenever we please.

Wouldn’t it be dull if we all liked just one thing?

In pursuit of happiness part 2

I’ve just finished reading David Nicholls’ ‘One Day’ which I liked a lot. It didn’t look quite as good on the tube as, say, Satre or Proust, but it did look a lot more believable. It’s full of humour, pathos, emotion and class-related awkwardness. I really liked the book, and it was about as British as ‘Friends’ is American. I think that the ‘cleverness’ of the format (catching up with the main protagonists on the same day over a twenty year period) is actually a bit limiting, and I don’t think that this gimick is necessary, but I can’t remember the last time that I read a book quite so quickly, and felt as though I knew (and cared about) the characters quite so much. It’s a bit disappointing that the book has to be turned into a film; the film serves little purpose, save to pander to those with little or no imagination. If the characters are as you imagined, it’s just like reading the book again, and if they’re nothing like you imagined, well that’s just irritating.

It’s the characters in any book or film that make it stand out. Getting you to care about these fictional people is a large part of the battle. The characters in ‘One Day’ were drawn in 3D, and when they weren’t, that was clearly deliberate, almost as a way of making the key characters stand out. One of the reasons that I dislike soaps so much is that every character exists completely in 2D, and displays such a limited range of emotions at any one time as to represent nothing but cariacature. ‘One Day’ is about life, chance, fate, friendship and love, and despite the condensing of a year into a day in every chapter, it’s clear that all of these occur in parallel, not in series.

One of the overriding thoughts I had upon finishing the book was about how unhappy the characters seemed for much of the time, and how surface happiness often masked some kind of inner turmoil. I’m sure this isn’t what I was supposed to be left with, but there you go: lots of money or too little money, hectic social life or no social life, relationship or single life, unrealised ambition or unfulfilling present: it didn’t seem to matter which stage we were at, there was always something gnawing away at our heroes, making sure that true happiness remained just out of reach. And maybe this is true to life; maybe we can’t ever be 100% blissfully happy at any one time; there’s always things going that worry us, things that could be better, and even if it were possible to attain a state of happy nirvana, wouldn’t that just make us all too aware that we were at the top of the mountain, with only one way to go?

I actually find this thought that unobtainable (complete) happiness rather comforting, and it does take the pressure off somewhat. If it’s never possible to be 100% happy, it should never be possible to be 100% sad: they’re just opposite sides of the same coin, and there’s no one without the other. No matter how rough things get, you can always grab hold of lots of happy thoughts, of things that are going well, just like golden tickets (I’m thinking more Crystal Dome than Wonka here). Each day should be a nice mix of sad and happy thoughts, of moments of elation and moments of despair (ok, maybe that’s a bit strong for every day, but you get the idea). It’s these extremes of emotion that remind us that we’re human, that remind us that we’re alive. No-one wants to hang around the person who’s a perpetual misery, whose glass is always half-empty, but there’s a reason why the word ‘grinning’ is often followed by the word ‘idiot’, and anyone who claims to be happy all the time maybe just hasn’t got a particularly well developed sense of emotion.

So go forth, rejoice and be happy. Or sad. Just try and make sure they exist in approximately equal measure.

In pursuit of happiness part 1

I’m currently experiencing the first few days of ‘nothing’ that comes with an ‘all or nothing’ job. The ‘all’ is term time, and the ‘nothing’ is the holidays. This is a job like no other; I reckon that I probably work the same number of hours per year as someone in a comparable Monday to Friday job, and I’m certainly not trying to suggest (as many teachers would) that I work any harder over the course of an average year. However, I cram my working year into about 35 weeks, as opposed to the 48 that is the norm. This isn’t necessarily better or worse, it’s just different. I have lots more days off, some that I cherish, others that bore me rigid. It’s irritating that in order to attend a wedding on a saturday, I need someone to cover my lessons for me; when I go on holiday, it’s always expensive flight time. On the flip side, I spent yesterday afternoon in Chelsea barracks, looking enviously at art that I’ll never be able to afford and drinking free Ruinart champagne. My official next day of work is 1st September, so there are definitely perks too.

I’m always amazed at how many teachers spend term-time weeks wishing their life away, raising eyebrows in the common room towards the end of term as they wearily state ‘just ten more days’, as if the job they do is some kind of pergutaory before the joy of long holidays stretch out before you, brimming with exciting possibility. These are often the same people that when you speak with them at awkward staff drinks at the start of the next academic year (very probably the only time you’ll talk that year) describe their summer activities as having been spent ‘just pottering about’.

It’s a difficult balance to strike. Most ‘normal’ people work very hard from Monday to Friday, and are delighted at the arrival of the weekend – Friday night drinks, saturday lie-in with Adam and Joe, sport in the afternoon, Ant or Dec in the evening. Sunday papers, late gastropub lunch with friends, sunday night work panic; it’s got a nice sense of familiarity. This doesn’t happen in my world. It’s seven day a week boarding School life, then acres of holiday time. Monday is the same as Friday is the same as Sunday, in the holidays as well as at work. At work, my life is structured to the nth degree, and every minute tends to be planned out. The holidays hit, and my life-framework is pulled apart, and suddenly I have decisions to make. ‘The Wright stuff’ of Jeremy Kyle? It’s not a life-or-death one, but the very fact that either have become possibilities makes it imperative to get out of the house as often as possible.

But how does one turn from a frankly boring one-conversationed teacher to exciting holiday-type fun-seeker? It soon becomes patently obvious that most people don’t have the time for long lunches, and if they do, they have to go back to work at some point in the afternoon. Going on holiday is one thing, and being away from home (actually on holiday in the traditional sense) makes it easy to put work behind you. Reading is another pleasure that is curtailed for 35 weeks a year, and my rate of getting through books during term-time is embarrassingly low. I’m piling through ‘One Day’ at the moment, and that’s the part 2 of the happiness theme. County cricket (one place where it’s de rigeur to look like a lonely man) is another saviour of the summer.

One of the things that makes me feel that I’m in the right job is that I probably enjoy term-time as much as the holidays. If I were to live for the holidays, I’d consider that too much of my life (the work part) was being wished away. If I felt at a total loose end for 9 weeks every summer, that would be wholly depressing. Life’s full of specks of happiness, and I probably get as many of them during work periods. The fun rarely lasts so long, and is far less hedonistic, but it’s also the sneaky snatched nature of it that makes it such fun in the first place. Holiday fun can be far more more exuberant and showy, but when you’ve no contstraints of time or money, it’s always going to feel a little more hollow. Score draw all round I say; after all, Gatsby never seemed all that pleased by the time his ‘pulpless halves’ went out on a Monday morning….