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The Hungry Years

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While most people in Britain have been talking about racism following the BNP's Nick Griffin's shambolic appearance on the BBC, in a few quarters fattism has been the predominant concern. Some people have been outraged by Dundee council's decision to take a morbidly obese couple's children into care because the parents had let the children - including a toddler - become dangerously obese too. This is despite the council having allegedly spent £114,000 on trying to help the couple in the past few months. Elsewhere, rotund rage was in evidence outside Boris Johnson's office, with protestors calling for discrimination against fat people to be made a crime like racism or homophobia in the workplace. But for most people, the comparison is risible. People can't choose the colour of their skin or their sexual orientation, whereas fat people can, if they choose, lose weight. Besides which, I've yet to hear of a fat person being murdered solely because of their size whereas violent crime is committed daily on the basis of prejudice against race or sexuality.


With size firmly wedged in the news, it seemed an opportune time to pick up William Leith's 2005 memoir about his fight with food and other addictions. At the time, I ignored it. I had read so much about the Atkins diet that I was Atkinned out. I'd even tried it for a couple of weeks when I put on a few pounds - the weight fell off me and I rapidly became skinny, much to my boyfriend's alarm. Despite theoretically working, the diet left me totally listless and lacking in energy, and I had to question whether it was better to be skinny and miserable or slim with a slight tummy and happy.


But if anyone thinks Leith's The Hungry Years is just yet another bragging account of a previous chubby seeing the light and becoming slim by forgoing refined carbs, think again. Leith's book is so much more - hilarious, moving, informative, smart and relentlessly, brutally honest.


Leith recounts his battles with his size throughout his life, focusing on a recent period when he reached his highest ever weight. He places this in context, describing his childhood at boarding schools and his problematic relationships with women, usually with other addictive types, and often women with troubled childhoods. Leith sets off to interview Dr Atkins. He would like to be cynical, but what Atkins says resonates with him - Leith has been locked in a cycle where he gorges on carbohydrates but they just seem to make him hungrier and hungrier. The science makes sense to him, and he decides to give it a go.


The story is related with many flashbacks to other periods in his life. Leith's is one of the most endearing male confessional voices I've heard - usually it's women who bare their souls and discuss their feelings, but here, Leith strips himself naked metaphorically speaking. Yet the book never has that martyrred or self pitying tone that many memoirs have. It's consistently laugh-out-loud funny - every time Leith lets us know how grim he feels, he turns the joke on himself with scythe sharp wit. His self deprecation is matter-of-fact, almost cruel :


'... if I have a proper shave, my face looks too fat - I look moon-faced, with a smooth, shiny double chin that looks like a doughnut around my neck'


He talks us through other addictions he's had - cocaine, alcohol, even a period stealing his grandmother's morphine - and captures the 'click' moment of loss of control with real insight. He's also sharply perceptive about all manner of other things such as the mixed emotions the very obese may have (wanting to be accepted at the weight they are yet being insulted if interest is shown by a 'chubby chaser', which implies they want to be accepted *despite* their weight; campaigning for fat to be recognised as beautiful but then trying to lose weight) , and the varying reactions people may have on being told they've lost weight. ('Some people, I'm told, get all testy when people compliment them on their weight loss: they feel insulted on behalf of their former, fat selves. It's as if someone is treading on the grave of the fat person they used to be.')


Along the way, studded in as flashbacks or future incidents, there are fascinating encounters with all manner of people such as Fat is a Feminist issue author Susie Orbach, blazingly talented actor Robbie Coltrane, and one-time addict James Frey, the American novelist whose memoir A Million Little Pieces was first lauded by Oprah Winfrey then discredited when it transpired that it owed more to fiction than fact, but who climbed back again with My Friend Leonard and the belting Bright Shiny Morning. There is an interviews with a French philosopher, Baudrillard, and stimulating considerations of philosophy and science through the ages. None of this is ever in the slightest bit dry as Leith's caustic self deprecation, sharp humour and hyperactive mind mean he never becomes bogged down by theory. A visit to a place as mundane as a chip factory is transformed into a jaw-dropping experience:


'Next, the river of potatoes becomes a waterfall of fries, a Niagara of what potato men call 'strips'. It is awesome. The strips are whizzed along on a holed conveyor, to ensure that small ones fall through, into the vast nether world below, the Hades of failed fries, fries that didn't make the grade.'


Leith's prose is extremely easy to read. He's one of these very bright people who writes deceptively simply and naturally, as if he's in conversation with you, so that you just gobble his pages up, transfixed. But unlike the pappy white bread that Leith himself finds so easy to cram, the readability masks great things such as a real comic talent with words, as here, on fat people appearing on a daytime TV programme:


'On Trisha, bingers ease on to the stage, hunched, bowed, shamed, brave, the Lycra in their oversize clothes stretched to the limit. Sometimes they slowly glide across the stage as if limbless, like galleons moving through the water. Sometimes they are like big trucks trying to manoeuvre through city traffic. When they come to rest, they park at odd angles, engines hot, brakes tested to the limit. People in the audience whoop and cheer, as if witnessing a miracle.'


There are so many parts that made me roll around laughing raucously that it's hard to choose which part to quote. My favourite is an anecdote about becoming neurotic about his penis because of a casual comment someone makes about unprotected sex, and, after drinking and pacing all night, phoning up a doctor whose name Leith has found in the phone book at his parents' home at an anti-socially early hour of the morning. Leith lies that he is a patient of the doctor's, elbows his way into an emergency early appointment despite instructions to take a later routine one, fails to show any symptoms on questioning, leaps round the desk to see what the doctor is writing, and insists the doctor examine his penis despite the doctor's obvious reluctance to do so.


It's a rare talent to be able to make neuroticism funny and Leith outdoes Woody Allen as far as I'm concerned. This is a book not just for dieters but for anyone who wants an insight into a troubled, addictive mindset, with belly laughs along the way.

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