by Peter Hitchens
The easiest piece of advice I was ever offered was that I should get fat. This counsel was given to me by a senior person at what was then the Daily Express, in those far-off days still in the hands of the legendary Beaverbrook family. Its Canadian founder, Max Aitken, a modern monster, had cheerfully admitted that he ran the paper purely for propaganda purposes. There was still an air of real power and glamor just lingering in its offices, halfway between journalism and show business. At the time, I thought that being urged by a superior to become less thin was a perfectly reasonable suggestion. If I couldn’t take a joke, I shouldn’t have joined.
These were strange times in the British newspaper industry, once uniquely raffish and outrageous, with giant circulations and huge influence on public affairs. Television was rapidly killing that. Accountants and efficiency, along with all the other modern, glinting, and efficient people who are the enemies of romance and fun, were poised to make us more, well, normal. An air of decline and lost empires pervaded the surprisingly shabby building, whose sleek 1930s exterior concealed dingy offices where filthy, yellowish windows gave us a dreary view of the equally unlovely cigarette-stained newsroom of our rivals next door. The shabby, shouty newsroom, heart of the beast, looked as if the invention of the telephone had come as a complete surprise. Sticky black cables hung from the ceiling in thick clumps like jungle creepers, leading to black dial phones covered in a strange crusty film which I think must have been the congealed breath of a thousand reporters. Typewriters, now only to be found in museums, were everywhere. There was even carbon paper, for making copies. There were men in black waistcoats, endlessly whispering into receivers, who looked as if they had been there since 1936. Compressed-air tubes propelled edited material to the forbidden zones where the compositors worked, giving the corridors the look of those in a large warship. Enormous rumbles and sighs came from the presses far, far below, so powerful that they made the floor tremble. Towards midnight when the first edition began to roll, the whole building hummed with their strength. The stairs were full of the boot-polish perfume of printer’s ink. We were still on London’s Fleet Street, now a dreary zone of ordinary commerce but for centuries the thrilling and disreputable quarter in which, as Samuel Johnson put it, men could make a living by scribbling on the backs of advertisements.
I had been recently hired, quite possibly by mistake, and had spent some weeks wondering when I would be found out. Anyone could have said anything to me, and I would have obeyed. Nobody could ever have been less fitted for that newspaper, the model for the Daily Brute in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. In those days I had a hollow Trotskyist face, and a thirty-two-inch waist. You could tell just by looking at me that I had a social science degree, a past which actively unfitted me for this world of drinking well beyond midnight in locked pubs, having wads of cash ever available to buy beer or otherwise loosen tongues, and the shameless simplification and exaggeration of everything, always just on the right side of veracity. I was not like Waugh’s appalling but cunning reporters, Shumble, Whelper, and Pigge. I was the opposite of cunning. I was not even William Boot, so colossally naïve that I could succeed despite myself. Never was there a man more unfitted for his task. Worse than a seasick sailor or a steeplejack with a helpless fear of heights, I didn’t belong. Later in life I realized that was why it all became so very enjoyable, because I was able to swim against the various tides and fashions which my trade adopted. But not then.
So when my well-nourished mentor took me to one side with a confidential air, in a deserted brown passageway, I was ready for anything. I thought he might be going to pass judgement (too late) on the appalling suit I had bought for my new job, or to tell me my expenses were too low and I was letting down the side or even maybe to fire me. But no, out of one side of his mouth came the words “You’d be taken more seriously if you put on a few pounds. Gain some weight.” I looked to see if he was joking, but it was clear he was perfectly serious. And given our freedom in those days to take people out for lunch pretty much without question or limit, provided it produced a story, I was able to do as suggested. I became considerably fatter, though without being taken more seriously, then or later. The years roared and tumbled past, as the pounds of lard solidified in all the usual places. I still didn’t fit in, but I also didn’t stand out any more in the gaunt college graduate way I had once done.
And then one day it came to me that, unless I took up smoking as well, I could not really be living a more unhealthy and deadly way of life. Older men around me were plainly doomed to horrible early, lonely deaths. Perhaps, I mused, I would be found by nervous neighbors some weeks after expiring in an empty, squalid home. This did not appeal. So one day I bought an old bicycle as a concession to health. And that evening I rode it homewards up Primrose Hill, a small, gentle rise in North London. The effect of the effort was astonishing. As I stood on the pedals to make the machine go uphill, I could feel great globs of hardened fat detaching themselves from the insides of my major arteries and rushing into my brain. It was a foretaste of death. I was, for a moment, so dizzy that I could not see. I had a strong feeling that I might actually lose consciousness and fall to the ground with a clatter and a groan. I was even more grotesquely unfit than I had thought. Gasping and appalled, I stopped for breath. But I did not stop cycling as a result. Quite the contrary. I realized that my rackety bike was all that stood between me and an early tomb. When my first decrepit machine was stolen before my eyes, I was so furious that I chased after the thief in a state of vengeful rage, caught up with him and beat him around the head with the bag of laundry I happened to be carrying at the time. But laundry, as I now know, makes a bad weapon and—despite receiving several shrewd blows around the head, and wobbling wildly—he managed to keep going and escape, so I had to buy a new and sleeker bike. I have been riding bicycles ever since. I even tried to do so once in Communist Moscow, a genuinely terrifying experience. The sidewalks were broken, potholed, and littered with debris. The roads were similar, and also filled with homicidal drivers, many of them far from sober. I took instead to the Metro, where you could walk for miles down gigantic tunnels, far from the ice and snow or the terrible Russian traffic.
But I have never truly got rid of the fat that I gained all those years ago, under orders. Exercise, I can testify, does not make you slim. It only makes you less unfit. You have to eat less. Once, thanks to a rigid diet of cabbage and kippered herrings (which made me almost unbearable company, in many ways, for weeks), I shrank back to something like my old slenderness. It was proof that I could if necessary find the will that I have sometimes urged others to apply against their weaknesses. I do not like being fat. Sometimes it actively annoys me, for a minute or two. But I do like food and wine and beer. I like the way they feel and taste and smell, and the idea of weeks without much of them fills me with a terrible boredom. Nobody forced me to eat as I do. I am, as I have shown, perfectly capable of eating less if I truly want to. So I chose to cease to be thin, and contentedly ate and drank my way back to what is now my normal shape. This (if I look in the glass honestly) is roughly that of the doomed dirigible airship, the R101. After T.V. appearances, it can be mortifying to watch the recording. Sometimes it is worse than the truth. I am pretty sure some cameramen have been told by directors to “shoot against me,” as the expression goes, because I have the wrong opinions. This generally involves the use of a low angle, which emphasizes jowls, nostrils, and dewlaps. But mostly it is distressingly accurate, leaving me in no doubt that I would be better off on the radio, on which I think I sound quite svelte. I am even thinner on paper.
Can we really doubt that actresses and models are instructed in whispers to diet, the opposite of what I was told all those years ago. Surely they all know that they will be taken more seriously, or at least hired more often, if they are more thin? I may be the only living person ever to have been urged by a superior to get fat. And as with so many of the other decisive moments of my life, I wonder how things would be now if it had never happened. I might now be slender. But what else would I have missed?
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