Hunting and Gathering

When I was a young hunter gatherer at an English prep school in the 1960s, there was never enough food. If you ate quickly enough you could hold up your plate for a second helping. Being of a naturally competitive disposition, and as long as it wasn’t Banana Slop, Pig’s Liver, or Chocolate Blancmange, I’d be one of the first to be ready for seconds. Indeed, I’d be at the front of any queue that promised more calories. I’d even join the afternoon biscuit queue twice. Unfortunately I’m still the same, always the first to finish, and as I wolf down whatever is put in front of me, I must resist the urge to hold up my plate and shout out for more. I even ask for seconds on an aeroplane. Don’t ask, don’t get, I find.

Perhaps food is foremost in the mind of any small boy. At my school it was more exciting and digestible than Latin grammar, but only just. I used to keep a diary and in the absence of other excitements (daily religious services don’t get a mention) I noted down the food we were given for breakfast, lunch and tea. There were patterns to discover – Spotted Dick on Tuesday, Jam Roly-Poly on Thursday, fish on Friday, Macaroni Cheese every other Monday, baked beans on fried bread almost every other day, and always Marmite. There were few things I couldn’t eat, but Banana Slop (overripe bananas sliced into cold custard) still fills me with horror.

Food is still somewhere amongst my top five pleasures, just ahead of Wagner, and I cook and eat far more than I should. I shun light food, often to the dismay of my dinner guests, and although I have once attempted a homeopathic dinner party, it’s not something I would repeat. I still take seconds (and even thirds) if they’re offered, and I love to cajole my guests into overconsumption.

Modern life is so decadent. The problem is that hunting and gathering have moved online. It’s far too easy to buy too much. My eyes are still slightly bigger than my tummy. And supermarket marketers are far too clever, too, tempting us, just as Amazon does, with ‘other products you might like’. I try not to shop when I’m hungry, but I love to hunt on the Ocado website and let them gather the basket to my doorstep too. You need never leave home, except to work a little. And nowadays, for most of us in the Western world, it takes us only a few minutes’ work to fill the shopping trolley.

No surprise, then, to read reports over the last few days that more than half of the world is obese, and that diabetes has become one of the world’s most dangerous killers.

It’s so hard to overcome one’s instincts. Our genes say eat when you can. As a child I used to enjoy the satisfaction of a full stomach, and the feeling still trumps the psychological discomfort of a large one.

What can we do about it?

Eat less. Take control. All very well, but let’s be served less, too. I’m on a skiing holiday in Austria, on half-board terms at a lovely hotel in Solden in the Otztal valley. I know that downhill skiing is the lazier form (my brother, for example, prefers the masochistic cross-country variety), but I still kid myself that a skiing holiday is a healthy one. There’s the fresh mountain air and all that swishing and swooshing on the slopes, enough even to justify a hot chocolate or two. I spend an extra half an hour in the pool at the end of the day for good measure.

But then, come dinner time, there’s this:

cutlery

I’ve rearranged the setting to get it all in shot, but this is what I found at my table on Sunday evening. It was Gala Dinner day, a banquet comprising more than five dismaying courses of hearty Austrian food. All paid for in advance, so another corner of my mind tells me I have to eat it all. But I overcame my instincts, and ate just three courses. I even pushed most of the carbohydrates to the side of the plate, ignoring, with great difficulty, the prep school rule that the plate must always be scraped clean.

There needs to be a law that forbids a restaurant from serving anyone more than 1,000 calories. I’m all for the nanny state if it can make me thinner and healthier.

 

The Niagara Falls – Pristine is too much to expect

I visited the Niagara Falls two days ago in the company of a new business partner based in Toronto (and occasionally Bermuda). It was a pleasant mid-afternoon drive from Toronto in fine Autumn weather and the car was a better pace to discuss business than an office or the foyer of a hotel.

The Falls, when we reached them were spectacular, and mercifully quiet. I don’t mean the Falls themselves, which were thunderous, as you would expect, but the crowds. It was late Season and late afternoon and the selfie-stick wielding tourists were no great danger to life or limb.

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It’s not a wilderness site anymore and it would be foolish to expect as much, but the brasher aspects of tourism are more or less kept at bay. Tall brand-name hotels and casinos tower over the gorge from a reasonable distance, and I suppose they must balance the need to provide their guests with a view with the need to preserve the atmosphere of the Falls themselves. I don’t doubt that most visitors would wish the hotels, indeed the whole town, were not there at all, but then there wouldn’t be jobs and taxes.

Worse than the hotels, casinos, souvenir shops and cafes, are the crumbling and brutal relics of early hydro-electric schemes which lurk just below the Falls. They’re as lovely in their dereliction as the abandoned industrial ruins of Eastern Europe which were built with equally complete disregard for the environment. But there’s still a rigorously defended strip of parkland that follows the gorge, and the Autumn leaves on Monday were splendid. With a little imagination you can picture the Falls as they must have been. And the water falls as reliably as it always has.

As great natural wonders of the world go, the Grand Canyon is better managed. Hotels are situated some miles away, and human interventions (pipes, walkways, toilets) are few. It’s a magnificent example of minimal intrusion and careful preservation. No cable car, no escalator, the only way up or down is on foot or on horseback.

At the other extreme lies Halong Bay, in Vietnam, which I visited in February. Magical from a distance, murky and polluted up close. A few quick bucks, no doubt made possible by corruption, are trumping conservation.

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But pollution, sadly, is everywhere. Even three hundred metres below the Niagara Falls there is this foul mess…

muck

But one mustn’t lament too much. Modern dentistry, at least, is some kind of consolation in the world we are spoiling.

Crying Wolf

I’m sure that in every culture and country there’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of frivolously raising an alarm. British boys and girls must endure the one about the Boy Who Cried ‘Wolf!’. He took delight in seeing his friends and family running to rescue him, especially when he could make a fool of them, so he cried ‘Wolf!’ whenever he felt like it. Finally, of course, the real wolf came and ate him (every single morsel!) whilst his friends and family ignored his cries.

Two lessons, I suppose – don’t pretend there’s danger when there isn’t, and don’t ever ignore an alarm.

wolf

So when the fire alarm sounded at 3.00 am this morning I had to take it seriously. I was sure, of course, that it must be a false alarm, as it always is, and I knew, in any case, that if the fire were real, I could jump from the window, or tie my sheets together and let myself down. But I dutifully pulled on some clothes and made my way along the corridor towards the muster point, though I was immediately turned back well before I got there by apologetic staff sent to reassure us.

I have only twice been woken by fire alarms at hotels. Once, now, here in France, and once in Hemel Hempstead, where two hundred guests assembled in the car park and the duty manager called out our names from the hotel’s register. In both cases they were false alarms.

And once, when I was an undergraduate at Oxford, drinking beer with friends one summer evening in a thatched pub on the edge of the city, someone came running in and cried ‘Fire!’. And indeed there was a fire and the whole pub burned down over the next forty minutes.

So, on the whole it’s sensible to do the thing we’re trained to do.

That said, my friend Caroline, in the room next to mine, didn’t even hear last night’s alarm. The whole hotel was up and about, and running down corridors, and she slept through it all, and might have been burned to a crisp. If you’re going to cry ‘Wolf!’ cry loudly!