The late Linda McCartney

has always struck me as odd.

Odd-looking: the feathery-blonde almost-not-there eyebrows; the singularly strange short haircut at her forehead, not transitioning with any grace to the longer hair in back and below; her prominent adam's apple and pointy, elephant-skinned elbows; and those eyes, slanting sharply downward at the far corners -- just like Paul's. I reckon those Paul-mimicking eyes -- how many in the general population have that unusual configuration? -- had much to do with attracting him immediately to her presence.

She also struck me, in an interview that was recorded on their extensive Sussex property many years ago, as rather a princess: most people would LOVE to have her problems (the problems of having almost too much of what you've always wanted). They were sort of non-problems, the problems that only people with more money than imagination and emotional clarity can have. I didn't feel sorry for her. But then, I couldn't understand Paul's deep depression at the break-up of the Beatles, either. 

Still. Linda clearly enjoyed life and she made vegetarianism not only more popular but easier to embrace as a way of life, as well. As a singer she was unimpressive, but she did have a lovely speaking voice. She was mainly 'the wife of', but she modestly made the most of it, in a way that made the world a better place.

My fraser fir Christmas tree

Having said that about Christmas Avoidance Syndrome, I have to confess that I mean that only in the sense of acknowledging the festival publicly, out in public spaces. At home I have long since bought -- and wrapped -- numerous presents, as is my habit, so as not to be swamped when the season is truly upon us. In short, I've nothing against quiet, even secretive, Xmas preparations. And there is one thing you really can't delay on, and that's a fresh fir tree. If you leave it too late you'll be looking at fake ones, and then you'll be looking at only the oddball fake ones that are left when everything else has been sold off. A couple of years back we found ourselves face to face with something that looked like a candidate for the Turner prize. We had ummed and ahhed too long about whether we wanted fake or fresh, or what. So we ended up with nothing.

Now we have a tree that's in the region of 6 feet tall, if you count the spike on the top. And I'm so pleased with it, I'm going to get one next year, and this is going to be a new tradition. I love the fresh tree because I am someone that prefers the real, given a choice. I love it because I like the subtle aroma, and the hardy branches that won't drop and break my ornaments like the 'pretend' Norfolk Island pine did one year. I love it because all my decorations that have been hidden away in a box for years can finally be seen in all their sparkly charm. I love it because it will make Christmas seem more present in our home. I love it because the fraser fir is native to the Appalachian mountains, in various spots of which I have spent many enjoyable summers. And finally, I love the fact that when it's dry and the New Year is here, we can take it to the kerb and get rid of it. No need to box it up and try to find a place for it in the attic!

Christmas is now a month not an event

Witness the fact that late in November, a customer at a supermarket near us wished the nonplussed checkout cashier a 'merry christmas'. And the fact that the National Park Service in America has a Tree Lighting ceremony at the White House -- on November 30. This is on top of the fact that many millions of Americans think that the right day to start Christmas decorating is the day after Thanksgiving, which takes place on the fourth Thursday of November. With all this disorienting and unwelcome bathed-in-Christmas-constantly feeling, I'm developing Christmas Avoidance Syndrome. Please someone, make it stop!

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The demeaning of actresses is an industry problem, not just the fault of individual men

Has it occurred to anyone that 'the Weinstein treatment' of actresses and other women in any employer's orbit might be related to the 'pornographization' of movies in our era? Well, it's occurred to me. 

Acting has for centuries had a reputation as being disreputable. But acting in past centuries had a Christian eye sharply fixed on it, in ways that we would probably consider absurd (the prohibition on female roles being played by actual females, for a start). But all that changed, and there was a long time when acting could lead on to greater prestige, in politics or diplomacy, for instance. Shirley Temple became U. S. ambassador to Ghana and, during the fall of Communism in Europe, Czechoslovakia. (And even she, in an interview with Larry King on his show in October 1988, claimed without rancor that both she and her mother were imposed on sexually by the top men of MGM.)

But something has happened in my lifetime -- the past half-century, let's say -- that is surely unsavoury. Women have become more than merely attractive or sexy actresses; they have been required to act in ways (witness Blue Is The Warmest Color as Exhibit A, not that I have seen it nor ever would) that mimic pornographic prostration, or even become indistinguishable from it.

It wasn't that way when Grace Kelly was in films -- when she was rightly allowed to be a lady on screen, such that a prince of Monaco could see her, fall in love, and invite her to join him in as consort in his realm. In her day, acting was seen as a reputable profession, not as a gauzy form of visual prostitution. 

The selling of women in the lowest moral terms is degrading to the women in film. It is also degrading to our civilization.

Dame Maggie Smith said, in March 2017: 'I think they are so brave, the young actresses of today. They seem to have to strip off every second. I can’t imagine how they cope with it today, I really don’t. They are required to do the most extraordinary things'. Extraordinary is a lady-like word for the many un-lady-like things actresses are 'required' to do. And they ARE required, since there is only one Hollywood, and if you don't please the right people at the right time, you may find yourself cast out of your vocation for ever. The fact that several of the more famous and established actors have insisted on unadvertised body doubles is neither here nor there.

Julia Roberts agrees that nudity should not be part of an actress's job description. ''I wouldn’t do nudity in films," she once said. 'To act with my clothes on is a performance. To act with my clothes off is a documentary.’

Indeed. But more than that, it is to elevate prurience above any other motive for watching a film or following a narrative. 

It is past time that a woman of freedom should be able to say 'no, I won't mimic the accessibility of a whore, just for the privilege of being an actress'.

Give me an E!

I can't stand what seems to be the new transatlantic craze for spelling all progressive forms of a verb without an e -- so we have 'binging', 'aging', and 'cringing'. There is no verb, 'to bing'. There is no verb, 'to ag', and likewise there is no 'to cring'. I want the E to soften that G, as it has always been, especially in Britain, until lately: bingeing, ageing, cringeing. That to me looks right. And I'm sticking with it!

Never mind the Chinese, even native speakers don't speak English...

I have just read a comment by someone that claims to understand how people read web pages: by 'scanning'. This is rubbish. They 'skim' -- meaning that they read quickly, glancingly, and skipping much material that appears to be irrelevant to their inquiry. To 'scan', by contrast, means to read closely and intently: it's exactly the opposite.

Never mind: the other day an intelligent writer for a pre-eminent news commentary magazine wrote of someone getting behind a podium. I doubt it: a podium (as in podiatry and chiropodist) refers to the foot: its a platform you stand on, the better to address an audience. It's not a lectern: that's the thing you read from once up on the podium.


Chinese English is so much fun

On you can learn how to operate your new 'Gycinda Energy Saving Environmental Protection Handpush Sweeper, Broom & Dustpan & Trash Bin Three-in one, Mechanical Braking No Need Electricity (Blue)'. That's the product description: it makes most 16th-century titles of treatises seem fairly snappy by comparison. Anyway, operation is simple, according to the 'Use Manual': '1. Use hand press broom when clean the floor, it will take more rubbishes. 2. When broom take some rubbishes we need Bring up the broom make rubbishes go inside, then continue clean the floor'. The idea of 'rubbishes' is intriguing, as is the oddly sporadic punctuation. But it must be said that their English is better than my non-existent Chinese, though the potential for misunderstandings with anything more complicated than a broom is considerable.... (Note: I did not in fact buy one, opting instead for a non-electric silicone broom, which is most satisfactory.)

The mystery of the primitive toothbrush...

Collection of the Wellcome Trust, London, England.

Collection of the Wellcome Trust, London, England.

Apparently, the primitive toothbrush that a caveman -- or Napoleon, much the same thing in some respects -- would recognize is fashionable, trendy, and romantic for contemporary consumers. If not, why else would Pottery Barn and Anthropologie feature toothbrushes not seen since Gone With The Wind was a new film? Is there a secret and profitable market in hawking ludicrously outdated bad toothbrushes to modern retailers who think that good ones look gauche? Or do they import their props from Borneo, or what?

Anthropologie, again. They ain't kidding. This one looks like it's been used by a Neandertal for six months.

Anthropologie, again. They ain't kidding. This one looks like it's been used by a Neandertal for six months.

I like the toothbrush holders (under $16 for four at The brushes are quaint, are they not?

I like the toothbrush holders (under $16 for four at The brushes are quaint, are they not?

My dog's [human] toothbrush is more sophisticated than this.

My dog's [human] toothbrush is more sophisticated than this.

We all know that toothbrushes have moved on since Napoleon's time. He had a silver gilt one, monogrammed with the letter N (how bourgeois!) and stuffed with horsehair bristles, the bastard. You can see the front of it here, and the back as well. 

From a current Anthropologie collection.

From a current Anthropologie collection.

Pottery Barn, this time. A brush that Julius Caesar would have been proud to own. Or possibly Genghis Khan.

Pottery Barn, this time. A brush that Julius Caesar would have been proud to own. Or possibly Genghis Khan.

The amazing disappearing adverb

I remember the days when it wasn't considered baroque and extravagant to add -lily to the end of words that were meant to describe (or 'modify') verbs: 'we had a leisurely drive' but 'we drove leisurelily'. But if you look for it in the dictionary, it won't be there: why not? Why is OK to say 'livelily' but not 'leisurelily' on the same principle? Yes, it's a bit awkward, but adding 'lily' for the sake of a grammatical distinction always was. But the thing is, I still feel, when I read that benign tumour cells 'tend to grow more slowly and orderly' that something is missing. The 'slowly' part is all right, since it has an adverbial capacity built in, if you like. But 'orderly' is an adjective without that adverbial reach. I feel that it ought to be 'slowly and orderlily'. Perhaps that sounds too floral and fussy for our era.

Embracing the pies

English journalist and author, Marcus Berkmann

English journalist and author, Marcus Berkmann

I love this article by the ever-insightful and entertaining Marcus Berkmann. It's one of his last as music critic for The Spectator (that's the British one, of course), and the subject is fat and thin in popular music. My favourite part is this observation:

But while Jagger’s scrawniness, and the last-minute bickering over TV rights, suggest he is still as driven and uptight as ever, Keith Richards is visibly mellowing into old age. Not only has his hair been allowed to go as grey as nature intended, but for the first time I can remember he sported what can only be described as a paunch. Always useful to rest your guitar on between tunes, of course, but even so. Having eschewed the pharmaceuticals, he has embraced the pies. The Sixties are finally over. It really has been a long time coming.

I also love this:

Even the rockers who start fat don’t necessarily end fat. Meat Loaf, for one, is a shadow of his former self, a low-fat yogurt of a man.

Read it all and enjoy.



Is life better lived or imagined?

Somewhere in Allan Bloom's last book, Love And Friendship, he speaks of the promise of romantic love and its fulfillment -- my recollection is that it might have been in a discussion of Anna Karenina. Whatever the context, Bloom averred the fantasy of a life together would be 'better than any fulfillment'. In short, our dreams are a beautiful fraud that life demolishes at leisure, in the manner of a child picking petals off daisies or a lizard making a meal of an insect.

Whatever the truth of that claim in many respects, it is nonetheless true that life can surprise in the other direction -- by being better than you expected. I can think of at least three examples in my own life. In the first place, sex was nothing like what I expected -- to the extent that I was capable of expecting anything, which in my profound ignorance I was not. Still, I had expected it to be pleasurable. I had not expected it to be rapturous and utterly transporting (and no, physical spasms had nothing to do with it and were not a feature of my rapture). The fact that I have abjured such rapture for the past quarter century is neither here nor there. It was better than I expected by an order of magnitude. That's the point.

She comes first.

She comes first.

Then there is the dog. I had always thought that having a dog would be a life-enriching experience -- why else have one? But the fact is that I hadn't yet met my dog, I had only met other people's -- which is a bit like trying to judge how much you will love your own child by how much you adore children of all kinds in any playground. I expected to love Chummy when we got her, but I had no idea how much, how deeply, I would love her. Having a dog, despite the rather comprehensive restrictions -- as a free spirit I have chafed within them at times -- you can't move about with anything like the freedom of other people, for a start -- is a whole dimension of being human that I had no idea was really possible. Whatever the cost in freedom and convenience, being Chummy's parent is vastly better than I can describe. It is certainly well beyond what I imagined at the start. In fact, the reason that I am so willing to accept great restrictions on my freedom is that I love my dog and care for her wellbeing so much: one proceeds from the other. 

My third example is a bit different from the others in that it doesn't, directly, involve anyone else. It was the moment when I finally realized my years-long desire to write music. One day, I erupted with a song ('Golden Shadow') that set me on a path of songwriting and music-making that has been part of my life ever since. The pleasure and satisfaction are beyond what someone else might imagine -- and certainly I was right to want the realization of that dream, instead of cherishing the dream as something better than any reality....

In short, Mr Bloom: Though you were right about many things, I don't think you were right about this one.

Amelia Earhart's fate

A brand new American documentary about Amelia Earhart's fate in 1937 -- when her plane disappeared and neither she nor her navigator, Fred Noonan, were seen again -- has apparently been debunked by a Japanese 'military blogger'. Both National Geographic and The Guardian newspaper report that this person Googled the photo and found that it was actually published on 10 October 1935, long before the plane's last sighting on 2 July 1937.

The photo that all the fuss is about. No wonder it was ignored for eight decades!

I am of course no military expert nor photographic witness nor connoisseur of 20th-century working boats. Nor am I even particularly interested in Amelia Earhart (it must be said that Donald Crowhurst's story -- and disappearance -- is far more engrossing and tragic). But I do have expertise about human nature. And one puzzler about the supposed Jaluit Atoll 'Earhart and Noonan' photo is the man claimed to be Noonan.

In The History Channel documentary, Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence, we are told that the two aviators were captured by the Japanese and likely imprisoned by them. We are also told that three facial features of the man in the photo match those of Fred Noonan: the sharp V of the receding hairline; the prominent nose; and the look of the teeth. I don't know what about the teeth was so distinctive, but what I ask is this: If your pioneering plane had been downed and your project had been demolished -- never mind whether you had been 'captured' by a suspicious and unfriendly foreign power -- would you be grinning and showing teeth? Would you be smiling for the camera? Hardly. The psychology is all wrong. We all react to distressing events in different ways, of course. But some reactions are more likely than others. And I should imagine that when Noonan and Earhart's journey ended, there were no smiles attendant on that fate.

'Begging the Question' -- a good figure of speech?

I've never liked it, myself. A lot of people (most, probably) don't know what it means, because it's not particularly evocative of its meaning. Those three words are cut off, a fragment of the longer and more complete explanation. 'Taking as a given what remains to be proven' is a longer statement, but it has the virtue of being crystal clear. I don't think I would ever use 'begging the question' if I could make myself that clear instead.

In defence of Kate Middleton (and taut women everywhere)

Taut and talented: Alison Balsom OBE has biceps. (Source: Ms Balsom's Facebook)

Taut and talented: Alison Balsom OBE has biceps.

(Source: Ms Balsom's Facebook)

Nietzsche wrote (in Beyond Good And Evil): ‘every virtue inclines towards stupidity; every stupidity, towards virtue’.

I mention it because one virtue — that of self-control, particularly with respect to appetites — is seen as suspect and possibly even stupid when it means that your body fat is scarcely visible.

Women that are very lean are usually envied, though not always: the English writer, Julie Burchill, has often claimed that fat girls have more fun, in the sense that they can have all the sex they want (or at least she can: she’s married to a man that likes it) and eat with gusto, drink cheerfully, and still be fit and energetic (swimming is Burchill’s preferred exercise).

Even if one doesn't share Burchill's acceptance of fat (and Burchill herself admits that she would lose it if no self-denial were involved), there is still a general sense that lean women are being unkind to themselves. It's one thing to be slim, with muscles still swaddled in a thin layer of flesh (i.e. fat, and the blood vessels that feed it). It's another situation if your muscles seem the most of you, and nothing, even in jumping jacks, jiggles.

Exhibit A of the jiggle-free, extremely lean woman is Kate Middleton, now Her Royal Highness. (Sorry, Catherine: I know that you prefer that name as ‘more regal’ (William’s words), but Kate is how we think of you, and you should be glad: it’s a prettier name.) Kate was always a slender girl, but as we all know, photographs can fatten one — which is yet another reason why artists should not rely on photos to learn their craft. At some point (around the time of William’s graduation from Sandhurst?), she seems to have decided that press photos were showing her face as too rounded. So she started to get very lean, and then, after her marriage and in the months before her first pregnancy, she got even leaner. People were beginning to talk about it: how can such a fat-free woman hope to get quickly pregnant? We don’t know about the quickness, but my guess is that Kate was a metabolic expert by that point, and she knew that the body needs just enough to perform its functions — and no more. If she was to gain some fat in pregnancy, then she wanted to start out from as lean a base as possible, so that after the pregnancy she would end up pretty much where she started. And that is apparently what happened, twice. Two babies later, she is still one of the leanest people in the world. But is it healthy? And how can she be happy? What is so bad about a little fat?

Alcohol: fun but fattening

Alcohol: fun but fattening

Here I’m going to use the word ‘complex’. The function of fat in the body is complex, and the means of successfully and eternally losing it can be complex as well — though not nearly as complex as you might think.

To be lean and healthy, you ideally need three strengths, and these are appetite control, hunger acceptance, and enthusiasm for exertion (which practically means: strong muscles). These are the mechanisms or factors that determine everything else: your microbiome (gut bacteria, mainly), your insulin response to food, your ability to fight infection and repair injuries, hormonal balance, and so on. So in a real sense, being lean isn’t something you have in addition to being healthy: it is actually, in people that have good nutrition and muscle mass (unlike, say, prison camp survivors) a sign and indicator, indeed guarantor, of that very health.

Let’s start with the importance of muscles, and the predominance of muscle tissue in lean, fit people such as Princess Kate (and…cough…me). Muscles are fat suppressors because of how they work. The benefits can be summed up as three: firstly, muscles are where the energy goes when you ingest food (in addition to your liver) — and the glucose so stored is termed glycogen. Guess what happens when the muscles and liver are full up with glycogen? That’s right, the excess energy gets stored away as fatty acids known as triglycerides (because they are packaged in bundles of three).* It stands to reason that the more muscle tissue you have, to act as immediate storage baskets for your fuel, the less your body is forced to partition that fuel as fat. 

The second benefit of muscle tissue is that it requires more calories than fat does to be maintained: it is ‘metabolically expensive’, as they say. That means that the mere fact of having muscles, never mind the calorie-burn involved in using them, results in more calories burned overall. 

Thirdly, when you use your muscles enough to encourage their development — which is to say, they become more efficient and bigger, through cellular repair — your body gets the message that those muscles are needed and therefore diverts fuel for their upkeep, which again prevents fuel from going straight into your fat cells. Working your muscles hard encourages muscle partitioning of food over and against near-complete fat partitioning of food. 

I did say the subject was complex! But in a way, it’s remarkably simple. Muscle gives your food somewhere to go before it must be stored simply as fat (a little bit of fuel will always be stored as fat, but the question is: how much?). And muscle trains your body to ‘view’ muscle as something to preserve and build — re-directing it from its project of storing fat. And when this process in any individual has been honed and well-practised over time, what happens is that the muscle, in elbowing out the excess fat, becomes highly visible. The curves you see on that person tend to be muscle curves rather than fat curves. There is tautness, and there isn’t any jiggle (except for the bosom, of course).

How do you get those muscles in the first place? By using them in a way that stresses them, which prompts them to get bigger for next time. (Filling a vase with flowers doesn’t stress your muscles, but lifting your dog off the bed very well might!) What motivates you to use your muscles in such a challenging way? Well, having enthusiasm for activities that require exertion. Or to simplify, as we did at the beginning: having enthusiasm for exertion. And Princess Kate, who is clearly a sporty sort with a love of games, has had that enthusiasm from a very young age.

Now we reach back to the other two important factors in slenderness: appetite control and hunger acceptance. The first is a willingness to delay gratification: to eat later instead of now, to eat a smaller portion rather than fill right up, and to space out indulgences between more restrained and conscientious nutritional choices, rather than eating indulgently all the time. There is nothing in appetite control that need imply an indifference to good food or the incapacity for gourmet riches. It’s just that a lean person does not feast on energy-rich food constantly, six or three or even two times a day. And — this is important — the older the person gets, the less likely she is to indulge in energy-rich foods as a matter of routine (youth does have its advantages!). Some lean people can and do eat anything they want and find as well that they ‘can’t gain weight’. By definition, such people are in energy balance and they are not over-indulging. But age, and its concomitant hormonal changes, tends to mean that what was once normal eating, under the line of fat gain, has now crossed the line to become more than enough for fat gain. As with many other aspects of life, older adults must generally be more disciplined in their habits than younger ones. This is not because there are no health penalties of self-indulgence in youth, but it is still true that young people can get away with more — for now.

Finally we come to hunger acceptance. That is related to the ability to delay gratification, but I think it deserves its own category as a factor, as truly another resource employed by the very lean person. It is no good, we can all agree, delaying gratification if it simply means a compensatory binge that undoes all the restraint you showed earlier. Hunger acceptance is the willingness to receive the body’s signals about peckishness and ignore them. I don’t mean signals of true hunger, of faintness and hypoglycemia, of headaches and weakness. I mean the hormones, chiefly ghrelin, directing you to fill your stomach with something. 

Two fruit galettes: not on your ballerina in-season diet

Two fruit galettes: not on your ballerina in-season diet

I call these the peckish hormones, which act on your mind much like holding your breath. After a short time without new oxygen, you begin to panic and gasp for fresh air. The difference is that if you don’t get that fresh air, it’s curtains — but if you don’t eat, you can carry on quite wonderfully for many, many hours. The peckish effect, when you’ve got lots of fat stored, is really a bit of a fraud. Because when you respond to the peckish urge, what you’re really doing is not feeding yourself for now: what you’re doing is feeding yourself for later. Why is your body making you do this? It’s concerned that if you don’t feed now, when food might be available (or is available, depending on the time of day, and whether you’re looking at a laden table), you may not have the option to feed later. And if you don’t feed, the effects will be far worse than any delivered by your hunger hormones (and hydrochloric acid in your stomach). Your energy system is a primitive ape still living in the state of nature. Hunger acceptance is the override that lean people don’t mind deploying when needed. And guess what (again)? Like appetite control, the more you do it, the easier it gets. This is because you realize that a little prodding in the stomach region — from the inside out — never killed anybody. And it’s also because the hunger signal, in time, becomes less urgent. We can be certain that Princess Kate, among others, has appetite control aplenty, and if peckishness strikes, she knows enough to wait it out.

You still might wonder why someone that has mastered muscle maintenance, appetite control and hunger acceptance should nonetheless be so thin. Isn’t it possible to master these and yet have a little more body fat? Indeed it is, but each individual is both alike and different. To the extent that this threesome is a package deal, it results in its own ‘set point’ or level of return. So even if Princess Kate decides to have some wedding cake, it’s not her habitual way of eating, and she’s always been slim, so it won’t have much power to shift her metabolism. Someone else, eating that same wedding cake, might find herself gaining fat — because of her history, her other habits, and her tendency to do things in twos and threes, for instance. And as a package of behaviours — exerting muscle, restraining food consumption — it’s also a way of life that is like a switch, turned either On or Off. It can be tweaked and it can be more relaxed, but essentially, you are either on a ballerina path or you are not. If you’re on that path, your body has adapted and you have achieved a fine metabolic balance — which it would be foolish to give up. Ballerinas, elite athletes, and princesses that want to look like a storybook do have seasons and cycles, to be sure. But the cycle doesn’t exist unless somewhere they return to their more ascetic, disciplined ‘base’ of eating. Slices of cake, summer vacations, and even pregnancies aside, you are either a lean, mean, fat-burning machine — or you are not.

In sum, given that Princess Kate, and other taut women like her, have found a way to keep fat at bay, the fat happily stays off because their bodies don’t need it to function. To put it otherwise: taut women have the fat they need, but it’s just not pillowy enough to see it as something discrete. They don’t have pillowy fat because they have grasped, better than most people, the almost shocking fact that we humans need quality over quantity when we feed.

*Glycogen, by the way, is stored as dense granules in each cell. Triglycerides consist of three molecules of fatty acids and one molecule of glycerol. All of these names derive from 'glucose', a monosaccharide or single sugar.