Those of us who cast an eye across New Britain and are not entirely enamoured of all we see, may joyfully reflect this week upon two minor triumphs.
First, the BBC’s loss of Match of the Day will, with luck, prove a long-overdue turning point in the corporation’s history. As journalist Sarah Crompton wistfully says: “Its disappearance symbolises the displacement of the BBC from its once unchallenged position at the heart of Britain’s cultural life.” Quite so. And there is no nastier place from which to move than football.
Secondly, officials in the little-known Nottingham suburb of Gedling have decreed that inhabitants using its public swimming pool must wear costumes that “give proper coverage and support”. Naturally this edict provoked outrage from those New Brits whose enthusiasm for near nudity is in inverse proportion to the attractiveness of their bodies.
It is one of the more depressing curiosities of modern life that the rapidly growing incidence of obesity, which so disturbs the medical profession, is accompanied by a widespread willingness, nay bloody-minded determination, to display naked flab. While it is one thing, and laudable too, to cock a snook at meddlesome authority, it is quite another to do so with a blithe disregard for aesthetics. It is an observable fact that at least seven out of every ten Britons look simply hideous unclothed. We are therefore fortunate in that our northern climate compels people to cover up for nine months of the year or more. Of all the dire consequences of global warming, the least mentioned, but potentially most unpleasant, is that our island race will take to publicly displayed nudity all year round.
The recent hot spell was a grim foretaste of what the depleting ozone layer holds. Everywhere, there were men with short, fat, bowed legs, wearing shorts, and young girls displaying the naked midriff equivalent of the double-chin.
In Gedling, where they have had enough of disinhibition, at any rate in the swimming baths, a council official recalls one man who wore a costume that “went see-through when wet”. “It wasn’t a pretty sight for anybody,” says the official. “He just didn’t care.”
And that is the point. People who expose their unpretty sights do so in conscious defiance of the feelings of others. Theirs is the implicit declaration: “I am not ashamed of my body”. Though shame ought not to come into it; just an understanding that your belly, buttocks, thighs and calves are yours alone and not to be shared, other than by a select few, and then behind closed doors and drawn curtains.
Marketing is gamely endeavouring to help eliminate the social evil of naked obesity, though not, I fear, with much prospect of success. Kellogg hopes to encourage us to lose weight by subsisting on cornflakes, a venture doomed to fall beneath the thundering hooves of McDonald’s. Meanwhile, Nimble bread engages the services of Prof Stephen Gray of Nottingham Trent University to measure men.
His findings confirm what our own eyes tell us. “Men are putting on the pounds faster than ever before. But as their stomachs get bigger, their trousers just get lower and lower.” He might also have observed that they also get shorter and shorter.
A pity, then, that he follows up his self-evident research with sociological comments that defy the observable facts. “Men tend to wear just a belt to support a beer gut and think they can get away with it, whereas women know they have to eat sensibly and exercise.”
This is the same Prof Gray whose first love is measuring women’s bottoms. At the last count his tape had circumnavigated no fewer than 8,000 pairs of female buttocks, an Herculean achievement that one suspects keeps him in enviable trim and allows him to hoist his trousers high. But despite the apparently congenial nature of his calling, he is not happy with the quality of material to hand. When last he spoke on the subject – perhaps to the Royal Society, I am not sure – he declared, “Today’s bottoms are broader and saggier than they have ever been.”
It is a poignant, sad lament. No dull, mechanical observer of fact is he, but a poet whose eye longs for perfection and whose heart sings when into his laboratory swings that paradigm of beauty, the perfect female backside. Yet on his own admission there are not many about. So why this nonsense about women knowing they have to eat sensibly and exercise? Or is there a semantic point that I have overlooked? Do women know they have to do those things to be slim but disregard them just the same?
The answer lies neither in self-restraint nor cornflakes, but economics. Whereas rising and falling hemlines used sometimes to be linked whimsically to phases in the trade cycle, there is no doubt at all that rolling, pendulous flab is directly contingent to economic prosperity. A severe and prolonged economic recession coupled with a series of freezing summers would put a spring in our step, tauten our stomachs, and rid our public places of a surfeit of monstrous flesh.