"I wake up on the fattest day of my life, 20 January 2003. I am just over 6 feet tall, and weigh... how much? I step on the scale and off it very quickly, to limit the damage. 236lbs. At best! My bathroom floor slopes slightly, and I have positioned the scale carefully to ensure the smallest possible reading"
So begins UK journalist William Leith's book The Hungry Years: Confessions of a Food Addict.
This is a fascinating and addictive book. The story, which is pretty meandering but follows Leith's battles with food addiction and attempts to understand why he is the way he is, is the best kind of voyeurism. I picked it up in London a couple of years ago when it had just been released. It was a whim and I was attracted by the sight of a large, half eaten donut on the cover as well as some good reviews on the back. I don't want to take the food metaphor too far and say I devoured the thing in one sitting but the prose is so good and the subject matter so ludicrously enthralling that I have to say the book was bloody hard to put down.
I picked it up again tonight, too tired to read anything new, and had the same reaction. I've never knowingly read any of Leith's stuff (he writes for the Guardian, the Observer and the Daily Telegraph apparently) but I'd imagine he's a very good journalist because he has an incredible knack for telling you the kind of things (and not all about food) that make you squirm a little bit with embarassment but keep reading anyway:
"(Leith's girlfriend) had this one position she favoured. I would lie on my back - which, being fat, I preferred anyway - and she would lower herself on top of me, and then tell me to do a specific thing . . . Sometimes I would do the specific thing slightly wrong and she'd be furious - she'd get up suddenly, angry, and put her underwear back on, and that would be that. Once I had to stop doing the specific thing because I got a cramp in my hand."It's about consumerism, of course, but the structure - which reads almost like a series of blogs or diary entries - manages to make what might be a tired subject sound new. Having read a fair few women's magazines in my time, for instance, I thought I had read every possible variation on the story of fat people dealing with their fatness but I can very honestly say that this book said things I have never, ever thought about before - some of which I could probably have gone without ever reading in my life, if I'm honest, but all incredibly engrossing.
It's hard to say if my interest in the book stems partly from my own on-again off-again battles with food which, although, not particularly serious, seem likely to last forever, or not. I'd be fascinated to see what someone with a completely 'normal' (or at least healthy) attitude towards food thinks of the book. I suspect, however, that the voyeristic impulse in everyone is somewhat universal and that most people would find this as readable as I do.
To conclude I'll turn it over to Leith, who writes of his fascination with watching an obese family wolf down snacks on a train - a spectacle he enjoys for probably exactly the same reason I loved reading this book:
"The sight of these poeple is almost entertaining. They each carry a plastic bag full of snacks - bags of potato crisps, cylindrival tubs of potato crisps, chocolate bars, bags of sweets. As soon as they sit down, the show begins - they grab the snaks, they tear at them, they wolf them. Their hands - soft, oversized hands - begin to cram the snacks into their mouths. Constant eating has developed in them superhuman abilities to chew, to release enzymes in the mouth, to form the food into a bolus and swallow. They do not talk to each other. The guy inhales two large bags of crisps in
three or four minutes. The girl kills a Mars bar in a couple of gulps. Then she hits the Pringles. She eats the Pringles in two-inch stacks. When she runs out of food, after about fifteen minutes of uninterrupted eating, she starts moaning. She tries to snatch her brother's food bag. There is panic, fighting. The girl is making sub-orgasmic noises. The guy is grunting. He's lashing out. The mother bops the girl on the head, and gives her a Mars bar to calm down.
It is after breakfast and before lunch, These morbidly obese people are moving towards a meal, having recently finished a meal. I think: they are addicted - to starch, to sugar... But then I think, no, it can't be that simple. There must be something else, something deep, ugly. Something unspeakable in these people's brains. When you see fat people, you want to blame them for their condition. Those fat bastards. You want to blame them."