Weighty Problem

I have always had a bit of a weight problem. It came partly out of having three grandmothers.

No, I was not part of a weird early seventies genetic experiment. I had the normal two (if you are lucky enough to have grandmothers – despite what follows they are wonderful things) but I also had a Great Aunt who lived across the road from us. As she had no children of her own I became surrogate grandchild and was expected to pop in every day to see if she was OK. Inevitably she would have been baking – she seemed to be baking all the time – and so the visit was usually into a heady atmosphere of freshly based scone, sandwich cake or, perhaps best of all, apple pie. I have still to find an apple pie its equal. I am not a great one when it comes to regrets but I so wish I’d been as interested in cooking as I am now as she has taken the recipe with her; but (un)fortunately I ate so much of it as a child that maybe I had already used up my universal quota by my early teens. So my parents fed me. My grandparents fed me – they’d grown up in times of hardship and were not going to see their only (or one of very few) grandchild starve (perish the thought). And on top of all of that I had the delicious baked goods production line across the road. I did not have to sneak the sweets and the chips into my diet they were more or less forced on me in some belief I was about to starve.

Those of a certain age will also know that eating in the seventies for a child is not a matter of choice. You eat what you were given on your plate that of course was non-negotiable. But on top of that you have the offerings of additional food, whether it be the freshly baked scones (can you resist? I think not) or the Sunday tea of sandwiches and cake that arrives on Sunday only about an hour and a half after Sunday dinner. On Christmas day, that was just about bearable. But to have that every Sunday, well, it was a bit much. But if you refused, however politely, it was clearly intended by you (and taken as) a deep personal insult. So you stuffed down a mini sausage roll and a slice of egg custard (my grandmother was not up to her sister’s ability in scones or apple pie but her egg custard was a fine thing) and try not to move too much for a while.

Back in the day at least when you were under ten you did not really care too much about the fact you were turning into a little balloon – especially as a lot of children grow by rounding out and then shooting suddenly up. But as I got into my teens and was conspicuously not getting any taller – I reached my adult height at about 12 – I started to have the slow but unerring realization that I was expanding at what I would later think of as Mr Creosote proportions. I think it was one particular day labouring back from the more distant rugby pitches at school that the thought struck me that I was fifteen and weighted fifteen stone. Thinking back to a physics lesson a year before the unpleasant fact dawned on me that at that point I had been fourteen and weighed in at fourteen stone – and even my slightly dodgy maths could see that this was not a tenable progression.

From that point on I started off on a more healthy path – one less sausage roll on Sunday and politely asking before she cooked it that maybe Grandmother could give me pizza rather than pizza and a huge plate of chips – and a lot of walking at college helped (together with no money). The best things that ever came to me in this area were (1) the concept of portion size and (2) one weekend afternoon when some very good friends (Tim, Phil – thanks guys) suggested ‘going for a run’ – and suddenly I found I had an exercise outlet I actually kind of enjoyed and was good enough at that I did not feel embarrassed doing it. And finally I started to feel a little better about myself and if not stop the universe like expansion then at least delay it; aging and the problems that brings is largely inevitable so I’m not even going to look like the person on the front of Men’s Health (but then, very few people do, and I bet he’s not over forty for a start!)

However, there is a darker side to this. I still think of myself as fat, and I think I always will. It does not matter how much weight I lose or how much exercise I do. I’m still ‘fat’. For me, that wound happened as a child and it will never fully heal.

These days I think it is far, far worse, and I see children who you can barely see in profile thinking they are ‘fat’. It is a real problem we have, to try and help people be more healthy and not set them up for problems in later life – and help enjoy the many physical delights that the world offers – you cannot and should not see everything ‘by car’ for instance, there is a real sense of achievement when you find something out of the way because you’ve <gasp> walked to it – but at the same time not make people feel that they are ugly. Because the reality is we are all gorgeous and we should be revelling in that and not always comparing ourselves to others. I really believe that and each of us should think of the people we love and wonder – when was the last time I told them they are beautiful?

[Important Note: The Lovely Wife consistently tries to help me think better of myself – it is what keeps me from despair in my own inabilities. I wish I was able to listen better.]


The Countryside, naturally

One of the most enjoyable things for me about living in the UK and being able to walk pretty much anywhere and – aside from a few hills – do so with a minimum of preparation (never good to be without a waterproof, some water and emergency nuts, but beyond that you normally do not have to go). As was pointed out to me recently there is also little danger of running into any dangerous beasts, although I would be careful of wild boar in the Forest of Dean and at the wrong time of year you could get at least a hard stare from a stag. Usually the most dangerous animal you come across in the British countryside is a farmer’s dog. Although they certainly should not be messed with, the only times I have felt threatened by a dog in adult years has been from working dogs and farmers views on walkers across their land can be variable, although providing you keep to the rights of way on the whole I have had more positive experiences and no one has come after me with a shotgun bellowing ‘ARRRR… Get off me land!!’ yet, although there is always a first time I guess.

 The countryside is an endless source of fascination for me. As anyone who has mistakenly read any of these things before will know, being out and observing nature is a particular pleasure for me and even doing walks you have done many times before always has the opportunity to throw something at you, whether that be startled deer, a fox vanishing into the bushes just as you come around a corner or a cloud of meadow brown butterflies (there seem to be a lot of these particular species around this year, which is no bad thing). But the other thing is that you cannot walk far in the UK before finding something interesting. It might be an earthwork, or a nice cottage or a Second World War pill box, but the countryside is literally covered in things to look at. Because there are only tiny parts of the country where the hand of man is not present, very, very few places indeed.

 It made me laugh some years ago when there are suggestions that places should be put back to their ‘natural’ state. Most places in the UK have not seen its ‘natural’ state for a few thousand years at least, as this part of the country has been continually occupied since at least the Iron Age. There are very few bits of our countryside that are in a truly original state, and even in some of our national parks, looking a bit more carefully you see the old abandoned quarries, the cairns and manmade earthworks, never mind that those rolling grassy hills were originally forest. Now, don’t get me wrong – there are definitely places where there is a compelling argument to put back the type of terrain that was there originally, whether that be restoring wetlands or re-planting forests; but that is a conscious choice and the modification requires our input and planning.

If I want wilderness there are parts of the world where you can still find it if you want to make the effort. But while thinking about this I have realised that the reason I love the countryside here so much is that it melds in a very unique way two things that motivate me – nature and heritage. The two are combined in the landscape in both obvious and more subtle ways. But it is this impact that our ancestors have had and that we continue to have on the landscape that is just fascinating. Even from your armchair, looking at the larger scale Ordinance Survey maps, you can see so much. One of the things I really enjoy about holidaying in the UK is to look at the map where we are staying and try and unravel the story it is telling me, from the shape of streets, the position of the church and its relationship to some abandoned village (probably flattened by the local landowner to improve the view…) endless fun to be had with a little imagination. And it can help you avoid getting lost.

Tales of Intolerance and Inconsistency 

It sometimes strikes me just how inconsistent I am when it comes to nature. I want it there for me to enjoy but most of the time only on my own terms. So we have the joy of decent sized garden to enjoy in the brief fleeting moment that is the British summer. But it has to be on our terms. We decide what plants are supposed to grow in which place and – if we are being conscientious with our gardening at least – any interlopers are ruthlessly removed. Nightly, we participate in a massacre of gastropods as the seemingly unending supply of slugs fall foul of the minefields we have laid for them in protecting the less developed plants they seem so keen to munch. Even the lawn – which now has grass as one of the minority species – while turning up a number of meadow species is not allowed to do its stuff and has to be kept short and tidy – at least when we are expecting anyone to drop around.The fauna is equally invitation only, if we had the say on it. We just about tolerate the grey squirrels as they give me some satisfaction in their frustration that the bird feeder is in exactly the right location to prevent them getting on it via flying leap from any of the fences or trees. The fox that wanders through periodically is virtually welcomed with open arms or at least supressed squeals of delight. But if there is the slightest whiff of a rat, then the feeling is they have to be eliminated (actually I have a soft spot for rats. They are fascinating and intelligent animals, though the fear and loathing they are held in is entirely understandable practically and culturally. I also have trouble forgetting the time a poisoned rat lay, twitching, in the middle of our garden one afternoon. I tried to ignore it, thinking to clean up the corpse a few hours later, only to find the poor thing was still twitching. So I put it out of its misery with a spade. Not a great way to die for any animal.)

  We’re delighted with some of our herbs this year. The Lemon thyme has gone bonkers and flowering energetically, as a result attracting hordes of honey bees and for the first time in our garden Meadow Brown butterflies. Bees are very welcome. But as reinforced recently by a trip to the cinema to see a Ian McKellen masterclass in ‘Mr Holmes’ wasps are not. Especially as they are starting to get aggressive and definitely have a thing for beer (I’m not up to double figures quite yet in terms of wasp drownings but I’m sure I’ll get there by the end of the summer, I’d rather not kill them, but if they are persistent there is not much choice). I’m not a wasp fan. Which is a bit of a shame as they seem to have built/be building a nest up in our roof – at least it looks like that is what is happening based on the activity under the eaves. What happens now rather depends on the insects. As long as they stay out of the main part of the house I can live with the nest being there now and will remove it in the winter. If they start becoming a pest more direct action will be needed. I do not want a repeat of an unsavoury episode when I used to rent half a house in Wraysbury and came back from a weekend away to find that a nest in the roof had been fumigated; and my room was completely covered with dead or dying wasps. Not the best thing to get home to, but then at times that house was a complete nightmare – even more so than the flat I had in Reading which was in the Red Light district and where one weekend there suddenly appeared an illegal rave in the back garden. That was an interesting evening (and early morning) but for another day. At the moment, the latest animal neighbours are skating on thin ice. Time will tell if they fall through it.

I’ll work it out one day

Sometimes I can feel such a fraud. I’ve been feeling that way a few times recently when involved in conversations to younger friends about the future, university and job choices and the like. The simple fact is that I never planned anything of that sort myself at the time, hardly even thought about it. When I was at school I knew that I wanted to go to university and I wanted to study something biology related. But that was because I wanted to be David Attenborough – or at least David Bellamy. I’d always been interested in the natural world but ‘Life on Earth’ suckered me completely and there was no going back after that.

 But I never gave much thought about what and where to study until I was sat down by the Deputy Head and realised that my school actually expected me to have some idea of what I wanted to do.

‘So, are you applying to Oxford or Cambridge?’ He asked.

It was that kind of school. It was not so much are you going to apply to Oxford or Cambridge, but which one. Needless to say, since no one in my close family left school with A-levels never mind being at College, I had no idea.

‘Oxford then,’ was the advice,’ Brasenose college is a good one,’ said the teacher who had been educated at, yes, you’ve guessed it, Brasenose College, Oxford.

Actually like many hopefuls wanting to study Zoology at Oxford I applied to New College as a first choice, because that was where Richard Dawkins was the tutor and needless to say fame attracts. I was nowhere good enough to get the place but I was lucky enough – like a lot of my peers – to get hoovered up by another college. Good old Brasenose. Luckily for me, I liked the course and three happy years later I was again in the ‘what do you do now?’ scenario.

And again, I hadn’t the faintest. I did not feel like devoting at least another three years to academic research (although the experience of a disastrous final year project cannot have helped with that view), but what do you actually do with a zoology degree? I could tell my ctenophores from my cnidarians and knew that a walrus penis bone could be used as an offensive weapon (think truncheon) but outside of the specialist area I was not sure that any of that was going to be particularly helpful (incidentally I have been dogged with this all my life – as far as I am concerned I have no transferable skills. Basically when civilisation breaks down I’m in deep trouble as human ballast). So I had a fit of ant-creativity and half-heartedly went for a PGCE, and was somewhat taken aback when I got the place. So it seemed set. A career of teaching beckoned. Well, I reasoned, if I wore a light blue shirt and slacks every day I could pretend I was Sir David and perhaps inspire some teenagers who had more of a vision to go and do their stuff.

 But…That is not what happened in the end. I do not even know why I started poking around corporate recruitment brochures. But there in the black and white, next to the pictures of young men and women in white coats posing with forced grins (those never change) the discipline ‘zoology’ was listed under suitable qualifications for a job in Regulatory Affairs at Procter & Gamble. So I applied, and after a whirlwind of interviews they gave me the job I am still doing. I apologetically turned down the PGCE; on reflection, that would have been a disaster. I was nowhere near confident enough at the time to handle a class of kids, not really sure I would be up to it even now.

 So I never planned any of it. It just seemed to happen to me.

So why do I feel qualified to talk to teenagers about the future?

 I think I am there for the people who don’t know. To remind them that it is OK not have everything planned out to the smallest detail and for those that are that driven to remind them that they need to be agile too, as life throws things at you need to react to and standing around ineffectually like a stranded commuter whose normal train has been cancelled is not going to help. People these days seem paranoid about making a false start but life is not about certainties and every decision should be the best you can make at the time; if it turns out not to be ideal, there are ways of changing things until they do fit. Rarely is it easy, but the possibilities are legion. If I can give anything, it would be to get encourage young people to take a leap off the cliff into the waters where their heart directs them to go and not to be afraid of the future but to prepare for it as best they can. The water is deep and there are sharks and other threats, but there are friendly dolphins too, and the water feels so good once you are in.