About 15 years ago I went to a gym with my wife. We tried side-by-side stair climbers. Seeing our puffing, sweating, beetroot-coloured cheeks in front of the full-length mirrors sent us into hysterics. We never went back to the gym, and took to playing tennis instead.
In the past, I found I could cut back on calories and within a few days the excess weight would drop off, motivating me to carry on with a diet until I’d reached my target. Now as I approach 50 I find it harder. But is it even worth the effort? Can I fight off Anno Domini?
Writing in the Spectator recently, the editor of the Today programme, Sarah Sands, observed that weight loss had become a preoccupation of men – particularly those in the public eye. Huw Edwards, the 56-year-old BBC newsreader, has lost three stone, prompting the tabloid headline “From Flab to Fab”. Journalists are not immune, replacing dough-ball byline pictures with newly svelte versions. Features are written about “How I transformed my dad-bod”, with before-and-after photos: beer belly and sagging moobs turned to gym-toned Adonis. To my mind, the effect can be unnatural, making a middle-aged man look like a 12-year-old. But in a way that’s the point, because what we desire more than anything is to defy the ageing process.
In Britain (and France, and Canada, and Italy, and Austria) we seem to like ever-younger politicians, and newsreaders. So people who do those sorts of jobs are terrified of looking old. (This is true even as our population ages and public spaces teem with “active retireds” – go to an art gallery or stately home outside the school holidays and you feel as if you’ve accidentally stumbled into an old people’s home.)
The fashion for male weight loss is changing the human landscape. Generously cut clothing designed to conceal middle-aged spread, once the norm, is being replaced by “slim-fit” shirts, specially tailored to highlight rippling musculature. All the presenters in the BBC’s lavish World Cup studio wear this style of formal shirt.
Is there no room in the commentary team for a veteran of the game with a pot belly? At Victoria station last week I overheard this phone call: “He’s 31. He needs to get married. But all he does is work and gym. Work and gym.”
Doesn’t that sum it up? We have reached the latest stage in society’s worship of outward appearances more than inner value. There is self-denial, but it’s not, on the whole, motivated by a desire to be a better person.
What matters is living forever in a state of permanent youthfulness – or a Botoxed, pinned-back, collagen-plumped simulacrum of youth. (The vogue for tattoos among elderly celebrities is a symptom of this, because tattoos are the ultimate statement of the carelessness about the future that’s the defining characteristic of youth.)
To those middle-aged and older who follow this creed, life has to be stripped of the wondrous pleasures of food and drink that are glories both of creation and of God-given human ingenuity. What pleasure they do gain, in response to the strain of lifting weights or pounding on stairclimbing machines, is the drug-like pleasure of the brain releasing a rush of endorphins.
Yes, I know some of it is done for health reasons, but mostly it’s the cult of youth that forces newsreaders to go on starvation diets, and makes middle-aged people dress like teenagers. The novelist Judith Krantz once said: “I happen to believe that being young, beautiful and rich is more desirable than being old, ugly and destitute.” Yet Clive James, in a memorable book review, quoted that line, concluding that “hard-fought delaying actions against time” were “a dream that intelligent people ought not to connive at, since the inevitable result of any attempt to prolong youth is a graceless old age”.
He’s right, isn’t he? It is a fruitless exercise to try to stop the march of time. The Old Testament Wisdom books know this, particularly Ecclesiastes. There, Solomon, the putative author, spells out the brutal truth – ruthlessly, with no sugar-coating and rejecting all humbug. Decay and death happen to everybody, the good and the bad, he says, and “this is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all”.
And then, with extraordinary, fabulous imagery, the author enumerates the stages of morbidity: “desire fails … the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity.”
Andrew M Brown is the Daily Telegraph’s obituaries editor