Why are men so obsessed with dieting?

30 June 2018

9:00 AM

30 June 2018

9:00 AM

In this gloriously sunny week, the cavalry horses are off on their summer break to Bodney, Norfolk. They can be seen prancing across Holkham beach, scattering oyster catchers, pushchairs, Cath Kidston picnics and naturists. Everybody loves to see the horses, some plunging into the sea, others shying gingerly from the spray. I am especially keen, having watched some of them Trooping the Colour a couple of weeks ago. Charles Moore has already noted approvingly that, when Field Marshal Guthrie took a tumble, his horse stood immaculately still. It is a slightly equine-centric view of the episode, but not heartless, since Guthrie is on the mend. Major-General Ben Bathurst, commander of the Household Division, drops in to see us in Marham, a little way between Bodney and the coast, and I question him about the programme notes for Trooping the Colour. His horse, Atticus, for instance, was described as ‘fizzy’. Is that a euphemism for ‘total nightmare’? One of the jolliest facts I pick up is that neither the riders nor the horses are necessarily experienced. If it feels to the audience as if a horse might take off at any moment, the same thought has occurred to the rider. I suspect the Queen, an expert horsewoman, enjoys the mischief of this.

Years ago, I witnessed a cavalry officer bringing his troop to wish happy birthday to his father outside his home in a narrow road in Fulham. It was a sweet idea and his father looked out of his window in delight. His expression changed when a horse began kicking dents in a row of expensive German cars. That unnerved the other mounts; one promptly collapsed on the road. The celebratory scene ended with a horse ambulance, winch and a dejected officer explaining the destruction to the police. The horses deserve their Norfolk holiday.

We have reached peak summer, literally. And the weather is probably the Brexiteers’ best argument, since it would be madness to go abroad. This is the great week of summer parties in London, including the US Embassy and the FT. Last week was the V&A summer party, described to its director Tristram Hunt by one disbelieving guest as Civilisation set on Love Island. The reason was that millennials prefer pink carpets to red ones and drink slightly less than their elders, and worse. I am not saying there is a London/country divide, but we take our pleasures differently in Norfolk. Our neighbours were busy organising their stall for the village fête last weekend, with its celebrated attraction: hammer the nail into the log. A few miles away, my brother, a parish councillor and cabaret artiste,
was off to his fairy fête, dressed as Game of Thrones meets Widow Twankey.

On Tuesday evening I was at a dinner for City UK discussing whether London helps or hinders the rest of the country. As a former editor of the Evening Standard my position was formerly straightforward, London was all that was best about the UK. Since taking up the editorship of the Today programme, and seeing the rest of the country, I am more ambivalent. London’s economic success is undeniable and its creative spirit wondrous. I walked from the Tate to the new Bridge Theatre by City Hall the other evening and the stretch has been transformed. But the capital does not understand the simple joy of hammering a nail into a log. It is suffering from ennui. And if London has lost its ability to talk to the country, it is a problem. It leads to a regional exasperation. If Boris Johnson did say ‘fuck business’, he might as well have said ‘fuck London’.

Mind you, I am told Birmingham feels the same about Manchester, and Sheffield distrusts Leeds. They are not all so friendly outside London. At a Today programme broadcast from Gateshead on Saturday, we asked guests to draw their north-south divide. Mark Tewdwr-Jones, from Newcastle University, got into trouble for putting Manchester, Leeds and York in the south, arguing they were all in London’s sphere of influence. On our online comment section, the public drew its own lines. I am sorry to say these maps descended into shapes of male genitalia.

Talking of the male body, I notice that London men are much more interested in thinness than are women. The reverberations of Huw Edwards’s diet continue to ripple through the Fitbit set. Photos in the Mail of Lenny Henry’s diminished form elicit fresh admiration. The first truly reduced public figure I remember was the former chancellor Nigel Lawson. I would love to talk to him on Today about the long-term effects of his diet, but he has a tendency to wander off the subject. I have lived through an age where women’s weight has been discussed ad nauseum. I am ashamed to say I remember a picture caption beneath an actress in my old newspaper that read simply: ‘Piling on the pounds.’

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