Herring v Belly

The love-hate relationship of one comedian and his beer/crisp/cake-gut

Last October, I decided to have another shot at eradicating my beer belly. It is a belly that has been with me my whole life, long before the first beer ever crossed my lips. Even when relatively thin, there has always been a protuberance in my midriff. Always a barrel, never a six-pack.

With nine months before my 40th birthday I saw this as a kind of reverse pregnancy. In three quarters of a year my fecund bump would diminish and then disappear. My baby made of crisps and cakes who refused to leave the man-womb because of the constant topping up with chocolate and booze, would wither and die. And I would be a new man.

Because I believe I am defined by my belly. It means I am cuddly and unthreatening. Not that I necessarily want to be threatening, but I wouldn’t mind if people just thought I might be dangerous, just for a second. But because of my stomach I am just a bear, a clown no challenge to the Alpha Male, never the kind of man who would drive women into a frenzy, by whipping off my top and repairing a lift, while they drank diet pop. Not that a belly precludes success with the opposite sex. There seem to be plenty of women who like a paunch - one ex-girlfriend pleaded with me not to lose weight, saying my stomach was the best thing about me – it must surely be because it stands for safety and comfort. They’ve got themselves a crying, talking, farting, walking, living teddy bear.

After four months, I had lost two stone. My face was thin, my muscles defined, but my belly, whilst a mole-hill rather than a mountain, was still there. It refused to go how ever little fuel I gave it and whatever physical exertions I put it through. But I persisted and slowly and steadily the battle was being won. I was going to be a new man. Then came the break up of a relationship and a two month tour, with the temptations of garage-bought pasties and after-show Guinness and all the hard work was undone.

My stomach returned to its former proportions and now, less than a month from the start of my fifth decade I have had to either concede defeat or just pay a surgeon to Hoover out my insides or tie my intestines in a knot.

And I realise that the person who gets the most security from my belly is in fact me. When I get close to not having it around me, a literal comfort zone, I panic and crack open the Monster Munch. Like all the best things in the world I love and hate it in equal measure.

Richard Herring began writing and performing comedy when he was 14. His career since Oxford has included a successful partnership with Stewart Lee and his hit one-man show Talking Cock
OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images
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Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.