Whether talking about Twitter or Twixes, our incontinence knows no bounds

Rachel Cooke takes on BBC2's "Fat Season".

Welcome to the World of Weight Loss
The Men Who Made Us Thin
BBC2
 
I wonder why Vanessa Engle (Women, Jews, Walking With Dogs) felt moved to make a documentary about diet clubs (Welcome to the World of Weight Loss, 21 August). They seem to me to be far too easy a target for such a subtle and talented director. After all, it’s hardly news that the leaders of Weight Watchers or Rosemary Conley Diet and Fitness Clubs infantilise their members, praising them loudly for every pound lost, handing them pathetic little certificates when they reach their target size. (“Well done, Ginny!” said the leader of the East Finchley branch of Slimming World to a woman who had just shared her horror at her discovery that pine - apple added to cottage cheese made it a whole lot more naughty. “So, can we give her a big round of applause, please?”).
 
Nor is it much of a revelation that women who are fat enough – or imagine they are fat enough – to join these Moonie-ish clubs are often desperately unhappy; contentment and a desire to be weighed in public appear to be mutually exclusive. And the tedium and stupidity of the jargon! We are talking “portion pots”, “treat days” and “brown foods”. Forty minutes in, I found myself looking forward for the first time ever to my twice-weekly bolt around the park. Beneath my backside – not small, exactly, but not the size of Jupiter, either – the sofa had begun to feel positively itchy.
 
Of course, even a worse-than-usual Engle film is still miles better than your average Channel 4 “shock doc” (the titles of which alone make me want to throw up). For all her beadiness, she is an inordinately kind filmmaker, non-judgemental and always able to connect with her interviewees. It must have been tempting to ask Joan and Sharon, two sisters with a Ghanaian background and an almost religious devotion to the diktats of Weight Watchers, why they insisted on spending their “treat day” at an all-you-caneat Chinese buffet (with the emphasis on “all-you-can-eat” rather than bean sprouts) but somehow she desisted. (Sharon, by the way, was still so vast she had to walk with a frame.) They were enjoying themselves and clearly Engle was reluctant to spoil their fun.
 
Over and over, she threw her subjects a life raft – or at least the odd water wing. In a huge, gleaming house in Dulwich, south London, a fortysomething Weight Watcher called Penelope took Engle through her extensive designer wardrobe: Alexander McQueen, Miu Miu, Stella McCartney. On my sofa, bottom shifting, I began to feel more restless. Penelope, who did not look at all fat to me, obviously just needed something more important to worry about than herself. Engle, though, was a little more generous. Did Penelope think her determination to drop a dress size or two was perhaps born of a fear of getting older? Looking grateful, Penelope conceded that this was doubtless the case.
 
BBC2 seems to be having something of a Fat Season at the moment. Earlier this month, it brought us podgy kids in India (they’re like podgy kids anywhere, except a little bit late to the party). This week, it was Engle’s programme and the third part of Jacques Peretti’s latest series, The Men Who Made Us Thin (Thursdays, 9pm). In documentary-making terms, Peretti is what you might get if you crossed Adam Curtis with Louis Theroux, by which I mean he is a something of a conspiracy theorist, always going on – whoo-ooh! – about cabals of scary men who take decisions “behind closed doors”, but also the kind of chap who smilingly accompanies a Swedish man to the loo so he can watch him empty the contents of his stomach by means of a long, plastic tube (in bariatric surgery circles, this, so we were told, is the very latest thing).
 
I am not sure I bought all of his thesis – I’m not convinced that it’s possible for people to be fat and healthy, let alone happy – but Peretti was surely on to something when he suggested that, quite soon, even people who want to lose just the odd few pounds will be asking their friendly local surgeon to shrink their stomachs, funds allowing.
 
This, alas, is the way the world is going. We would rather be controlled than control ourselves. Our incontinence, whether we are talking about Twitter or Twixes, simply knows no bounds.
Fat loss is getting more extreme. Photo: George Simhoni / Gallery Stock

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem