Not eating is a tactical strike against the fast-food racketeers. Photo: Getty
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Will Self: Intermittent fasting can do things to your head

It’s Tuesday afternoon and I feel like going to synagogue. I’m not sure what I’ll do when I get there – I mean, I can’t see myself praying, let alone acclaiming the scrolls – but it just seems like the right thing to do. Why? Because I’m fasting today and the last time I can remember going without food for 24 hours was when, in a sad little effort to fit in at school, I observed Yom Kippur.

You’ll forgive me if I wander digressively in this week’s column, won’t you? Lack of nourishment can do things to your head . . . Anyway, I always hated going to synagogue – almost as much as I loathed church. As a demi-Jew, I didn’t really fit in at my north London grammar, where roughly a third of the boys in my class were recent Hindu or Muslim immigrants, a third Jewish and a third Anglo-Catholic flotsam. My dad took us to church on the high days – and occasionally Sundays – but my Jewish mother wasn’t about to oblige; her Semitism extended as far as a salt-beef sandwich from Bloom’s in Golders Green and no further.

It was left to my Jewish friends to chivvy me along to shul. I was amused by the way the men talked right through the service and in such a toothsomely stereotypical fashion about the price of smoked salmon or property but I hated having to wear the paper kippa given to visiting males, the heft of which was undetectable on my bouffant early-Seventies hairdo. I kept having to reach up to check it was still there – although whether I feared social censure or the judgement of He who must not be named eludes me now.

It hadn’t occurred to me from that day to this to go wilfully without food. Why starve voluntarily when so many people – and increasing numbers right here in Blighty – simply don’t have any choice?

Then, last week, I was visiting my friend Farouk, whom I’ve known since school (he was part of the recent immigrant fraction, obviously) and who was recovering from a painful and traumatic back operation. He was fasting and started telling me all about how it promotes longevity by limiting the production of IGF1 (“insulin-like growth factor 1”), which is manufactured in excess quantities by older livers. Apparently there’s some tribe in Ecuador whose members have congenitally low levels of IGF1; they cane it all they want – drinking viciously strong aguardiente and smoking hand-rolled cigars the size of babies’ forearms – and still live to be 100. There’s a way to manufacture this desirable state of affairs: simply fast intermittently. Farouk recommended 24 hours a week or 72 in a month (in a single block) but the interweb seems to think five days’ normal eating and two of under 500 calories will do the trick.

I would have dismissed Farouk as a crank, were it not that he’s a consultant-level doctor and he’d read a heap of papers on the subject. Besides, he spoke to my condition: I’ve long maintained that the middle-aged don’t need to eat anything much at all, which is why most of the older people you see are wandering around wearing whole-body fat suits and why 12 per cent of the population of the People’s Republic of China has that popular disease, type 2 diabetes. I’m not about to advocate fasting as a way of “getting in touch” with sufferers of “innutrition” (see Real Meals passim for an explanation of this nauseating WHO euphemism). I tend to Thomas Hobbes’s view that charity exists almost solely to relieve its donors of the burden of their compassion.

However, I can heartily recommend not eating for this reason: it’s a brilliant tactical strike against the multinational fast-food racketeers and the monopolistic supermarkets. Just reflect on this – for every meal you don’t eat, you’ve taken a healthy bite out of their profits. Then there’s the rebellion against vapid conformity to the go-round of meals imposed on you by late capitalism; as Raoul Vaneigem so percipiently writes in The Revolution of Everyday Life: “The organisation of work and the organisation of leisure are the blades of the castrating shears whose job is to improve the race of fawning dogs.”

And what are mealtimes, if not the very organised intervals between those organisations? Yes, the eater is perforce a clockwatcher, always with an eye on the next time he can chow down; while the faster – paradoxically – is free from all earthly accounts of this nature. Maybe that’s why I feel like going to synagogue, even though, technically speaking, it’s only a couple of hours since I’ve been without my normal diet.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

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Did Titantic do more for climate change than Leonardo DiCaprio’s new documentary?

Sex, icebergs and individual plight: the actor’s earlier outing teaches us more about vast disasters than his new docufilm about global warming’s impact, Before the Flood.

“Now you know there was a man named Jack Dawson and that he saved me . . . in every way that a person can be saved.” Or did he? For Titanic actor Leonardo DiCaprio, there is one way in which Jack never did rescue Rose: from the threat of climate catastrophe. 

Over the last 15 years, DiCaprio has made the issue a personal mission. Yet even in his role as UN climate ambassador, he stills feels far from heroic:

“If the UN really knew how I feel, how pessimistic I am about our future . . . I mean to be honest, they may have picked the wrong guy.”

So begins his new documentary, Before the Flood. A quest for answers on climate change, the film sees Leo racing around the world, marvelling at the sound of endangered whales, despairing at the destruction caused by tar-sands – “it looks like Mordor” – and interviewing a series of concerned experts, from professors to Barack Obama to the Pope.

There are plenty of naysayers to stand in his way and put him down. “Who better to educate world leaders on made-up climate change and a crisis that doesn't exist, than an actor with zero years of scientific training?” mocks one commentator from Fox News.

But if DiCaprio can gather enough evidence to believe in himself – AND believe that there are viable solutions out there – then so can we. Or so the story arc promises. His journey thus stands as a guide for our own; a self-education that will lead to salvation for all. 

It's all a little messianic. The film is even named after a biblical painting. And will those who don't already know who DiCaprio is even care? 

The sad fact is that, while DiCaprio’s lasting popularity still owes so much Titanic, the 1997 box-office smash that made his name, his new documentary fails to recapture the dramatic wisdom that put him there. It doesn’t even quip about the icebergs.

This is an oversight. Titanic didn’t win 11 academy awards for nothing. As well as a must-see rite of passage (pun intended) and soundtrack for infinite school discos, it taught me something invaluable about storytelling. Though I was not initially a DiCaprio fan, over the years I’ve come to accept that my lasting love of the film is inseparable from my emotional investment in Leo, or at least in his character, Jack. What Titanic showed so brilliantly was that the fastest way to empathise with suffering on a vast scale – be it a sinking ship or a sinking planet – is to learn to care for the fate of one or two individuals involved.

Every part of Jack and Rose's story is thus intimately linked with the story of the ship. Even that famed sex scene gains its erotic force not from the characters alone, but from their race through the blazing engine room (situated as it is between the foreplay of the naked portrait and the famous post-coital ending in the back of the cab).

And such carefully crafted storytelling isn't only essential to great entertainment but to great activism too. It can literally inspire action – as evidenced by fans’ desperate attempts to prove that both Jack and Rose could have climbed to safety aboard the floating piece of wood.

So would Before the Flood have been better if it had been a little bit more like Titanic and less like An Inconvenient Truth? Yes. And does that mean we should make climate films about epic polar bear love stories instead? Not exactly. 

There are many powerful documentaries out there that make you emotionally invested in the lives of those experiencing the consequences of our indirect (fossil fuel-burning) actions. Take Virunga, a heart-wrenching insight into the struggle of those protecting eastern Congo’s national park.

Sadly, Before the Flood is not one of them. Its examples of climate change – from Beijing air pollution to coral reef destruction – are over-familiar and under-explored. Instead of interviewing a Chinese official with a graph on his iPad, I would have preferred visiting a solar-panel factory worker and meeting their family, who are perhaps suffering from the effects of the smog in a way I can't yet imagine.

If you want a whistlestop tour of all things climate change then this necessary and urgent film is the movie for you. But those hoping it will give new depth to climate activism will be disappointed.

DiCaprio's distant relationship with the effects of climate change leave him stranded at the level of a narrator. He makes for a great elderly Rose, but we need a Jack.

Before The Flood is in limited theatres from 21 October and will be shown on National Geographic on Sunday 30 October.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.