The cumulative effect of years of phobotherapy – scaring people for their own good – is at last denting the resilience of our bulldog breed.
Footballers have been spotted running onto the pitch wearing woolly gloves as a precaution against frostbite; further afield, our cricketers daub their noses with zinc ointment on the cloudiest day, and, when the Zimbabwean sun shines, avoid staying at the crease for more than a few minutes; meanwhile, back home, more of us are growing our own food.
According to the charity Sustainable Agricultural Food and the Environment (Safe), during the past year there has been an “allotment renaissance” among city dwellers. Across the land we till our plots, dib and sow, reap and harvest. Of a Sunday morn, crescent and avenue ring to the carefree whistle of stockbrokers-cum-husbandmen as they wheel barrowloads of manure-flecked marrow home to waiting Agas.
Safe’s Kerry Rankine says: “We have had endless food scares from pesticides in carrots, patulin in apple juice, BSE and now the E Coli epidemic in Scotland. People are becoming more and more cynical about the food they buy in shops.”
Weakened by scaremongering we might be, but there is something quintessentially proud and British in the philosophy of self-help. Rather than meekly lie down before the juggernaut wheels of a Tesco or Sainsbury’s hell bent on selling us carrots, each of a uniform length and colour and each reared on toxic waste, we pull on our wellies and shake a defiant hoe.
Where renaissance allotment man leads, others will follow. For instance, it’s not all that hard to dig a well. And now that US research has shown that fluoridated water can make your teeth mottled and leave you confused, drowsy and listless, there is a gleaming smile and a razor-sharp mind in a lowered bucket.
And thank heaven for Dr Kathy Samaras of St Thomas’s Hospital, London, who showed that, for women at least, there is self-help in planned obesity. The trick is to put on weight not around the stomach but around the buttocks and thighs where it protects against high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. Dr Samaras’s study refers approvingly to the “traditional pear-shaped British woman”. So once again those for whom it is fashionable to scoff at the time-honoured ways of doing things are proved wrong. All those years of fashioning British womanhood in a pleasing pear-shaped mould were wisely spent and a renaissance is overdue.
As for men, there’s is a different challenge and something of a race against time. As luck would have it, the answer could not be simpler: it is to knit your own underpants. According to a new study, men are becoming less fertile by the minute. If sperm counts continue falling at the present rate, boys born 60 years from now will be infertile and the story of man will dribble to a close. The precise cause of the crisis is unknown but the evidence points to tight pants. Some years ago, an experiment carried out on rabbits, who, as is well known, are to sexual abstinence what the Duchess of York is to thrift, showed that bucks in close-fitting Y-Fronts were less successful at reproduction than those without. There were only two possible explanations: either the increased temperature of the testes reduced virility or the pants got in the way.
So if men were to fashion their own underpants, knitting one and purling the other, they would be bound to be loose-fitting. Inexperience alone would see to that.
But whatever answers we fashion for ourselves, modern living is a constant battle between us and the phobotherapists, each striving to be one step ahead of the other. So even as we toil in our plots, seeing at atom of survival in each organically grown parsnip and herb, there will be a spokesperson for the Royal Society for the Protection of Accidents at our shoulder. “Don’t you know,” he or she will say in that caring sort of whining voice that distinguishes members of the counselling trades, “more people break toes with garden forks than in any other way?”
There is so much simple pleasure to be derived from scaring others that it is in the interest of the phobotherapists to ensure a plentiful supply of victims. It’s a matter of striking a balance between sufficient numbers going down with secateur poisoning and patulin-spiked apple juice and enough of the others surviving to be lectured about the dangers. The Health Education Authority’s current advertising campaign focuses on the latter.
“There is something you should seriously consider saving for your old age,” it says.
But it’s true what the phobotherapists say – there are hazards everywhere. There are a few of us, for example, who, on reading an advertisement paid for by money extracted from us by law in the form of taxation, which advises that in order to reach an old age you have to live longer, are liable to succumb to palpitations, high blood pressure and an uncontrollable urge to kill someone.
Then again, the effort required to throttle a quango employee could be described in the words of the HEA as “a regular activity that makes you feel warm and breathe more heavily than usual”. And that’s good for you.