The GP's receptionist asked if the matter was urgent. That was a tricky one. The hypochondriac part of me thought it was the most pressing emergency in all of medical history, but the rational part of me thought it was most likely trivial. As I hesitated over deciding which part within which to frame an answer, the receptionist asked what the symptoms were. I told her, and now it was her turn to hesitate. 'Can you come in right away?' she said at length, and in an alarmingly sympathetic tone.
What I had told the receptionist was that I was seeing double. It had happened a few times before but had lasted only a few minutes. This time, though, it had lasted for nearly half-an-hour. The GP listened, asked a few questions, and consulted her computer before saying she was sure it was nothing to worry about. The relief was considerable, but short-lived:
'However...', she continued ominously, she would make a referral to a specialist consultant just to be on the safe side.
'Oh, before I forget,' she said as I headed for the door, 'I'm supposed to ask how much you drink'. After pausing long enough to complete the mental calculation necessary to halve the amount as you do – I decided to tell the truth. 'Good heavens!' she exclaimed, no doubt doubling the figure, as they do.
The visit to the specialist involved an MRI scan and a thorough medical. It turned out that the GP was correct. There was nothing wrong with me and the most likely explanation was an ocular migraine. 'In fact,' said the consultant, 'you have the body of a 40-year-old'.
'Really?' I piped, thrilled, not least because I was 60.
'Well,' he said, as he shuffled through the papers on his desk before selecting one and holding it out towards me, 'If you could see your way to filling up this evaluation form?'
When I later told this story to a consultant acquaintance she guessed that the consultant had been an older person. The younger ones would never risk such humour, she sighed.
But all was not well. The examination had revealed that, at just 6ft and 13.5 stones, I was overweight. I had, in fact, been aware for some time of an incipient lateral fusion of hips and waist such that exchanging a trouser belt for galluses might eventually become necessary. Sweat beaded on my forehead at the realisation that such a necessity was nearer than I had thought. Horrified, I resolved to lose a stone.
I soon learned that the main thing in achieving such an aim was not to tell anyone. Doing so invariably resulted in a deluge of unsolicited advice, all of its various champions seemingly unaware that unsought advice is no advice at all. Some counselled eating only carbohydrates, others only protein. I should eat bread but not potatoes, or the other way round, or neither, or more of both. I should have only one meal a day, or three regular meals. Grazing throughout the day was highly recommended, as was never grazing. Breakfast should be avoided, or never missed. I should devote myself to such-and-such a formal diet or avoid it like the plague. And so it went on, the only common feature of the various pieces of advice being that their proponents were all convinced they had found the secret.
Much of the advice – or even all of it – was just plain nuts. While I may not have the answer, I do know stupid answers when I hear them. One such answer was exercise, most notably in the form of cycling and jogging. Here, the evidence of my own eyes suggested that it would be as much use a musket would be to a cow. In all the time I have been aware of Boris Johnson, he has been cycling regularly yet has become ever more circumferencially challenged. The most his drive to get us to buy bikes is likely to achieve is that bikes will soon be joining the shopping trolleys in our streams. And then there is Michael Gove. He has been running three miles a day for many years. According to my calculations, he should be in the Yukon by now and we should be rid of him altogether. But he is still here.
A displacement activity is a virtuous but easy activity we engage in when trying avoid the hard truth of a more difficult and pressing activity we should be engaged in. Thus, for example, many is the paint chip on a door jamb that has been painstakingly touched-up when what we should be doing is filling-up a tax return. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that exercise, formal diets and all the other dietary twaddle going around, are little more than displacement activities.
The hard truth they avoid is that the only sure way to lose weight is to eat less of whatever it is you eat. Everybody is different, but for me that meant buying only one Snickers at a time instead of the two-pack. It meant having a spoonful of beans instead of half a tin, and not eating both of the desserts in a M&S meal deal in one go. It meant having a small fish supper instead of a regular one (an added advantage of that is that you can eat the batter as well and still feel virtuous).
And there was the question of what to do about humanity's most alluring epicurean creation – the macaroni pie. These usually come in two-packs from supermarkets. Once the pack is opened, the second pie becomes even more irresistible. The solution was never to have such packs in house, instead buying them singly from a baker.
Drink presented a particular problem because I was born without an off switch. If a bottle is in the house, it gets drunk, pretty much right away. Yet, I observed, if there was no drink in the house, I forgot all about it. On the other hand, I do like a treat. The solution presented itself one day in Sainsbury's. There, on the shelf, were airline-size bottles of wine at £1.95 a time. One a day would do just fine. (I would note also that it is only £1.50 a time in Tesco.) A word of caution though: this is not suitable for wine buffs. It is suitable only for people who want to hurl wine down their necks irrespective of the absence or presence of any of its finer points.
Anyway, it worked. Six weeks after starting, I was a stone lighter and unaware of any ill effects, except that I have gone from a 34 inch waist to a 33 inch waist. Unfortunately, it is pretty near impossible to get trousers with a 33 inch waist. Since I have a wardrobe full of 34s, galluses may still be required, though for different reasons.