London girls of 14 are the hardest people in the world to impress. They don’t want cuddles or sweeties or encouragement. They would rather swallow sharks than laugh at your thin jokes. Their vivid freshness renders you haggard, yet their stabs at cynicism make you feel awfully naive. And if they sense you are in any way trying to get in with them, they will have you for breakfast. Yet is there anyone more appealing on the planet?
In a crowded restaurant I am hanging on every word uttered by the 14-year-old daughter of a friend at our table, listening – barely commenting, for fear of putting my foot in my mouth – nodding a bit, very slightly inclining my head every few minutes. Finally, a mammoth reward: “Your top’s quite cool,” she says to me in passing, before turning away.
I don’t understand quite why but I sense festoons of roses bursting into my cheeks and the sort of bashfulness and pride more properly belonging to Oscar winners. The bewitching child-person is talking to someone else and I am straining to listen. And then she says it: “I just don’t like musicals, never have, never will.”
I am so personally hurt, it is as though she has taken an axe to all my relations and hacked them up, burying the pieces. Not that directors, producers, dance-captains, composers, lyricists, chirruping chorus girls, stage managers, wardrobe mistresses or stars of stage and screen feature at all in my family. Please know it cost me a great deal to write that sentence.
I don’t love musicals blindly. Why, only last week I woke in the middle of the night and finally admitted to myself that the woman in the “The Lady is a Tramp” song – well, I just don’t like her.
She is unbearable, boasting that she doesn’t go to Harlem in ermine or sleep through the opera, or run down her friends or cosy up to her foes. I should think not! For this we are meant to be grateful? Is it any wonder she’s “always alone when she lowers her lamp”? But I digress.
The menus arrived and we picked them up. And do you know what the charming establishment had written in the menu next to all the dishes listed? The calorie content, that’s what, which was a shame, as some mindless high-speed eating of bland carbohydrates would have done a great deal to assuage the musicals blow.
I learnt the calorific value of all foodstuffs as an infant in the 1970s when it was practically on the girls’ school curriculum. I wish I didn’t know these things but they are burned into my consciousness forever, along with the fact that Charles II’s dog was named Gypsy. I only have to see a small packet of Hula Hoops and think “134 calories”, or “205” for a Cornetto, and part of me, on seeing these two items together thinks, “Hello: a balanced lunch!”
The government is urging fast-food outlets to list the nutritional content (such as it is) of their products at points of sale. There are health campaigns that remind us of our five-a-day, what constitutes an eat-right plate, and the need to jig about regularly. There is much despairing talk about the obesity time bomb.
It seems to me, however, that these approaches are far too literal. In the main, humans do not overeat because they don’t know what’s good for them. People overeat for many reasons, few of them food-related.
They do it to allay anxiety because the repetitive hand-to-mouth action of fast eating briefly numbs difficult feelings; and to get a reward or a pat on the back after a hard day, as it’s darn impossible to get this kind of communication from a person these days. They do it out of boredom, using food to lever some interest or excitement in a dull day, as highly greasy and salty or very sweet foods are very stimulating. They do it to celebrate good news, underline and emphasise it somehow with an eating spree. And we all, from time to time, open the fridge as though it might contain some excellent answers to questions we could not quite put into words.
Encouraging people not to overeat has nothing to do with listing calories on a menu and everything to do with finding new ways to soothe ourselves. A poster bearing luscious fruit and vegetables gleaming with dew is less useful in this regard than one that says:
“Attention all those feeling low:
Phone a friend you trust for a chat;
Get into bed with your favourite book;
Run a hot bath and as you get in repeat that truism: “You, my friend, are a little bit special”;
Write a letter to someone you love;
Browse Irish linen double damask stockists on the internet;
And, above all, avoid sophisticated 14-year-old girls who raise you up to the heavens then drop you flat.
More columns at www.ft.com/boyt