Hazards of thoughtless editing

Editing is not rewriting. The edited text is not (should not be) the text the editor would have written, if the editor had been commissioned to write the copy instead of the author. It is the text the author would have written, if the author had been perfectly well informed and perfectly skilled. In some ways, therefore, editing is harder than writing.

If you don’t mind bad language, you will be amused by Giles Coren’s tirade on this subject.

The rider as Alexander teacher

Now that I can usually keep my balance without having to grab hold of the horse’s mane, we are getting on to the finer points in these riding lessons. For example, when cantering on a circle, I am instructed to raise my inside hand a bit. Why? Because its presence near the horses shoulder is discouraging him from bending.

This puts me in mind of Alexander lessons (which I had, several years ago). The Alexander teacher rearranges your body by means of the lightest of touches. It seems like magic. It appears that this works on horses, too.

Art, speech and planning

One of our neighbours is Michael Gillespie, the sculptor. We went to his open studio recently, and Andrew asked him to what extent he plans in advance the way his abstract sculptures will develop. He replied that it’s like speech: do you plan exactly what you’re going to say before you start talking?

A while ago I was talking with Alan about what it’s like to do your job in a foreign language (he uses German every day and even chairs meetings in it). He said that he thinks German-speakers plan their speeches more carefully than we do. Before you launch into one of those long sentences with the verb at the end you have to know where you’re going!

Maybe it’s the same with sculpture: perhaps you would plan it more, or less, depending on the medium you were using. As with spoken languages, some materials might lend themselves to spontaneity while others would reward a more premeditated approach.

Trail-riding in South Wales

Two days’ trail-riding at the Cwmfforest centre (“Trans-Wales Trails”) earlier this month. This is my delayed trip report. Executive summary: it was great, I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and I recommend this place for all levels of rider (you choose which ride to join depending on your competence, and they provide what sound like really exciting challenges for the very experienced – of whom I am not one).

The horses are lovely, and obviously a well-cared-for and happy herd. Their friendships are respected and their individual quirks known and understood. Care is taken in matching riders with horses. My partner was Tristan, 27 years old, about 14.2 hh and with perfectly working brakes. Brakes had been my main worry (it’s a long time since I last went out hacking), so he was definitely the right choice for me. Accelerator a little dodgy, maybe – but its improvement was dramatic after the first morning, once I’d started carrying a stick. He was safe and sure-footed on the slippery ground, and quite friendly too. His conversation was a bit limited – he tends to the taciturn, unlike his owners – but he did communicate a few interesting observations to me along the way (e.g. “Look, there’s a llama in that field! It’s weird!!” and, several times, “Here’s where we canter! Isn’t cantering fun!” followed shortly afterwards – usually after about a hundred metres – by “On the other hand, maybe at our age trotting would get us there just as well, don’t you think? The others are bound to wait for us at the top.”)

It rained a lot. Well, it is Wales! They lent me a long waxed-cotton riding coat, explaining that my Rohan coat and waterproof chaps would be fine to protect me, but the riding coat would protect the saddle too. I’ll buy one for myself before I do this again (which I’m going to). Hard to believe that it was July when I surveyed myself fully equipped for riding out on the first morning: rugby shirt, fleece, body-protector, waxed cotton coat; my thickest jodhpurs, boots, suede half-chaps and full chaps on top; and my fleece-lined waterproof winter riding gloves. I was worried about getting too warm, but it didn’t happen. On return I started stripping off wet and muddy things ready to have tea, and got all the way down to my underwear before I found a dry layer. At the end of the second day my boots collapsed. (Good! I’d been wanting to replace those anyway, so now I can do it without guilt.)

I like the way you are given responsibility for your own horse. (Of course, they check the safety-critical bits to make sure you have done them right.) You take a headcollar and catch your own horse, groom it, and tack it up. At the end of my second day I was asked to take Tristan up to the indoor school (part of the herd was being kept in that night because of the weather forecast) and put him in with the others, all by myself. This involved persuading several of the keener youngsters to stay inside the gate while I opened it, led him in, and then opened it again to let myself out. An interesting challenge.

The Turner family have attitude – I’m sure they wouldn’t be unhappy with that verdict (though they might dispute my choice of word as being too trendy). I have the impression that entertaining themselves by making their guests talk is part of what they find rewarding about their job – besides their obvious love for their horses and the place where they live, of course. After three days in their company I already have the feeling that we are old friends and that I know a lot about them, and vice versa. Meals at Cwmfforest are taken around the family dining table, which seats ten, and guests are challenged with direct questions and provocative statements of opinion, designed to elicit a response. A robust defence of one’s own views in turn is met with approval. Guests are expected to sing for their supper! I like the Turners, though in theory I shouldn’t (their line tends towards the countryside-alliance, health-and-safety-is-ruining-everything, why-should-we-be-in-the-EU, representative-democracy-is-not-the-answer, vegetarianism-is-unnatural end of the spectrum).

It’s an interestingly cosmopolitan place. Nobody at Cwmfforest is Welsh, as far as I can tell. The patriarch and matriarch, Mike and Maria, who built the business from scratch and have been there since 1970, are South African and Bavarian respectively (she does the cooking – Bavarian food, yummy! – just what you need after all day in the saddle). Paul, the son who now runs the riding business, sounds English-posh (I asked him how come, as he’s lived here his whole life, and he explained that he’d been to a boarding school). The extended family includes two Swedish women, one of whom works for them during the summer season and was my riding escort on both days (an impressively competent rider). Other guests while I was there included three Germans, so the conversation around the table had a tendency to switch languages as it went along. I was amused to hear overtones of Welshness creeping into the (very fluent, but accented) English of the non-native residents. I love the way Maria ends sentences with “isn’t it?”, for example. And some of the vowel sounds that Emilie uses are neither English nor Swedish.

I took a few photos.

Things I noticed when I became lighter

I was looking for this posting this morning in order to show it to a friend, when I discovered that it didn’t exist. I thought I’d posted it ages ago. The material here comes from a notebook entry that I wrote in August 2007, to record some observations before their novelty wore off.

  • I can submerge myself in the bath. No longer must I decide which bits to leave sticking out of the water.
  • My flexibility has increased (despite not having done any exercises to improve it): I can curl my legs up underneath me on the sofa, for example, and it is much easier to wriggle on and off the bed in the boat.
  • My ability to deal with heights – to balance on ladders, etc – has improved (though it’ll never be great in comparison with that of the rest of the population). I noticed this first when going up the ladder to the loft to try and find some old clothes that would fit me. It’s also very noticeable when boating, and helps a lot.
  • My bone-structure has come into focus. Running my hand over my face is interesting – the jawline, in particular. I have quite a nice facial bone-structure, it turns out. It seems to be quite delicate: the kind of face that looks best with light, delicate jewellery.
  • Wearing jewellery, especially necklaces, is fun again! Some of them simply didn’t fit at all before, and some didn’t look right. Some of the chains now need shortening, in fact.
  • My thighs no longer brush against each other when I walk (this was a new and exciting observation in the third week of August). It felt odd at first, rather as if I were walking with my legs held wide apart.
  • My wedding and engagement rings, once so tight that removing them was only possible with the help of cold water, had become so loose that they were in danger of falling off. I was able to remove them by shaking my hand a bit. I spent that month wearing an elastic band around my finger to keep my rings safe, and took them to the jeweller in September to have them made four sizes smaller.

What I know now about weight loss and weight management

Last summer, after having been fat for my entire adult life, I went on a radical weight-loss programme and reduced my body mass by 30 kg (66 lb, or about 4.5 stone). I reached a new equilibrium at that point, and have since maintained a constant weight. I’ve now been about 53 kg (117 lb, or a little under 8.5 stone—BMI just over 20) for more than six months, with very minor fluctuations. (Yes, I know I’m now below the middle of the recommended BMI range, and I was surprised at this result initially, but now that I’ve got used to it I think it’s right for me because I have a fairly light bone structure—thin wrists and ankles, for example.)

After an initial period of anxiety and disorientation I’ve gradually become adjusted to the new reality, and am now able to enjoy eating and drinking—alone and in company—without (so far) putting on weight. So now I think I am qualified to write something about the process and what worked for me. I hope other people with the same problem might find something useful here. Bear in mind that it’s only been six months, though. I don’t yet have any proof that the system works in the long term.

The programme that I used is Lighter Life, and not surprisingly I am very enthusiastic about it. These are the reasons I think it worked so well for me:

  • During the weight-loss phase you don’t eat normal food at all. There’s no wiggle-room, no ‘just a little bit won’t hurt’. This appeals to my nature. I like to start a project and just do it until it’s done. Gradual methods don’t attract me.
  • It’s medically supervised (they insist on this) and my GP was supportive—to my great surprise—when I consulted him before I started. This made me feel safe and relaxed about the process. Yes, there are health risks with rapid weight loss, but (as a doctor acquaintance of mine pointed out) you have to balance these against the considerable health risks you take by staying obese.
  • There’s a psychotherapeutic element to it. You have weekly group sessions and the approach is based on cognitive behavioural therapy, which makes a lot of sense to me.
  • You can’t fail to lose weight if you follow the programme, and this fact has a beneficial effect on your mind. I had talked myself into a mindset in which I basically believed that it was impossible for me to lose weight, so there was no point in even trying. Now I had the experience of standing on the scales each week and seeing proof that this belief wasn’t true, and the CBT sessions allowed me to extrapolate from that realisation. As a result of this I understand a bit more about false beliefs in general, how the mind clings onto them, and how to dispel them. This basic insight has been very helpful to me during the weight-maintenance phase (see below) as it’s enabled me to re-examine quite a lot of other false beliefs that I had about food and eating habits—and in particular, the one that says that even if you do manage to lose weight, you’re bound to put it all back on again because ‘everybody always does’.

OK, so that was the weight-loss phase, and my advice to anyone else who wants to lose weight as I did basically comes down to: ‘go to the Lighter Life people, trust them, and do what they tell you’. All well and good, but then what happens next? There is absolutely no point (in my opinion) in losing weight if you’re not going to stay light afterwards.

Well, first, I’d recommend anyone who’s done Lighter Life to use the follow-up programmes that they provide. Don’t just strike off on your own as soon as you reach your target weight. Their gradual process of food reintroduction—it’s like being a baby being weaned all over again, but better this time!—is tremendously useful, and the ongoing support from the counsellor and group is really great.

Next, you really have to learn about food and how to choose what to eat. You think you know, but actually you don’t. It’s an active area of research and you need to inform yourself about what the science now says, as well as learning what works for you psychologically.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • Carbohydrates give you a sensation of fullness, but fats don’t—they just slip down. This is one reason why you have to treat fats with such caution. You need some, but you need to learn that a little goes a long way. Weighing portions helps a lot with learning how much to have.
  • Fibre is essential for digestive health but you don’t have to load yourself down with tons of calories to get it. You can take soluble fibre supplements. I use Fibresure, which is basically inulin, twice a day. I also have porridge for breakfast with a few dried apricots, and I have a vast quantity of green vegetables at lunch and dinner. I have a little wholemeal bread as well. That adds up to enough fibre to keep my digestion working well.
  • Women need less food than men do, generally, because women have a smaller frame (especially true for me, because my husband is a lot bigger than I am). Older people need less food than younger ones do. Standard portions have to be enough for those who need more food than you do, so you have to get used to leaving food on your plate when you are eating out—especially if you eat out a lot, as we do. Abandon notions of ‘getting your fair share’. I now routinely divide my portion of rice in half at the start of a meal. Half a standard portion of rice is plenty for a woman of nearly 50.
  • Counting calories really works for weight maintenance. People have told me not to do it—‘it’s soul-destroying’. Well, it depends what kind of soul you have. For me, it’s fascinating and exciting because it means I now understand the process of eating and using food. It gives me precise control and it gives me the freedom to make an informed choice—50 g of this is the same as 25 g of that, so which will I have today? And, most importantly, as I am already at the right weight, I am not trying to minimise calorie consumption. If I haven’t had enough, I must eat some more. It’s bed-time and I need to consume another 100 calories to reach today’s ideal total. I’ll have a cup of cocoa. There is absolutely no reason why I shouldn’t. Depriving myself of the food that I need will not do me any good. (This is why I think that counting calories for weight loss would be a bad idea, though I can’t speak from personal experience about that—it seems to me that you’d always be trying to minimise consumption, and never be satisfied that you’d had the right amount.) Calorie counting is also beneficial because it’s an incentive to take health-giving exercise: a 30-minute brisk walk, or 20 minutes on the rowing machine, means that I can add more than 5% to my basic calorie allowance for the day. A second chocolate after dinner, maybe? A piece of cheese? A glass of wine?
  • However, exercising in an attempt to burn fat is not an efficient way to lose weight. Exercise is good for you—one of the many benefits of being lighter is that exercise is now easier and more fun, so I do (somewhat) more of it now—but exercising while fat in order to reduce is not useful. You have to do such a lot of exercise for such a small loss of weight. And it increases your appetite. You get fitter, which is good, but you don’t get thinner.
  • The body doesn’t like to mess about with its fat reserves, either burning them up or laying them down. It will try to maintain an equilibrium instead (reducing or increasing energy used in order to compensate for reductions or increases in input). This is why temporary starvation or feasting has no effect on fat, and it also explains the discouraging plateaux and sudden exciting shifts that most people experience when losing weight (you get these on Lighter Life too, though of course they are quicker than those you get on a conventional diet). Changes in eating habits, either up or down, have to persist for quite a while before they persuade the body to push past a particular equilibrium state and into the next one.
  • Good things can be saved for later. This takes away the pressure to have them right now just to avoid their being wasted. I was cautioned against this in case it led to snacking, but for me it doesn’t: it just works beautifully. I save tiny portions of leftovers in the fridge and the freezer, in little boxes neatly labelled. I bring them out again next time I’m choosing a meal for myself (my husband and I eat dinner together, but normally, although we often sit at the table together at lunch-time, we each choose our lunch food independently—so there are plenty of opportunities for this), and I savour them instead of opening something new. Often the new thing would have been higher in calories than the leftover portion anyway, so I win both ways.
  • Most of the pleasure of most foods comes in the first couple of mouthfuls, so why have a huge plate-full? Pleasure in eating is maximised by having lots of different, but small, taste sensations (this is one of the messages of the most excellent French Women Don’t Get Fat). Normally these days I have two to four micro-courses at each meal. And quite often I end a meal with a chocolate. Just the one. Exquisite!
  • Choosing and wearing nice clothes can be just as much fun as eating is, once you get used to it. I’ve rediscovered the joy I used to take in getting dressed.

There’s more to say, of course, but that’ll do for now.

Dutch girls

Something that strikes me as odd in Amsterdam is the existence, side by side, of two radically different ways of being (or looking) female. Two styles. The Red Light District style—the naked body, make-up, red fabric, black leather etc—and the scrubbed face, denim, bike-riding, no-nonsense types. We speculate that there is even a cross-over between the two. Are there young women who arrive by bike wearing their jeans, undress, put on the make-up and stand in the window? This whole juxtaposition seems to us Dutch and not English. We are similar but not, after all, the same. [See also ‘Dutch Girl’ by Lisa Yuskavage, recently acquired by the Stedelijk Museum. Nice modern take on Vermeer!]

Another clue to the difference in cultures might be the lack of attention to safety precautions on the city’s many building sites. Andrew has noticed builders on scaffolding without hats, and items being lifted and lowered with no safety barriers, while pedestrians walk beneath—not just on one site, but generally. Is this (I speculate) another facet of the same basic attitude that gives rise to the existence of the coffee shops and the prostitution?

If I were younger I would start asking at this point “and is it a good or a bad thing?” But these days I don’t think in those terms nearly so much. It’s an interesting thing, that’s all. It gives rise to some consequences that are probably good, and some others that are undesirable. On balance, would I choose to live with it or not? I’m not sure. My answer might depend on how lucky I was feeling when you asked me. My optimistic self would find it refreshing. My pessimistic self might be scared.

Greatest art experience ever

This happened 12 years ago but it’s still vivid in my mind. I hope it always will be.

It was the year Andrew and I got engaged (we were married in 1997). We got tickets for the great Vermeer show in the Mauritshuis at The Hague. We were not the only ones looking forward to it as the best art show of the decade.

When we got there, clutching our timed tickets (for 6pm, if memory serves—purchased from the Dutch consulate in London) the museum was closing and the last visitors were being ushered out. We argued. An official was fetched. Our tickets were examined. An executive decision was taken.

For the next hour, accompanied by a bored security guard, we had exclusive access to the Vermeers. We wandered, we peered, we savoured. We ran from one to another exclaiming and comparing. Look! He’s used the same props in this one. And again—the yellow dress—look!

They aren’t very big, Vermeers. They are exquisite. They had never all been together in the same place before, and probably they never will be again. The next day, back among the crowds for a second look, joining the scrum around every painting, we realised the full value of the luck we’d had. It was amazing.

Generation gap

[OK, so now I’d better actually write some stuff.]

Recently we’ve established social contact with the son of one of my cousins, and his girlfriend. Nice young people. It’s been a curiously disturbing experience, though. Here are people who are a whole generation younger than us, but nevertheless adults. Weird. When you reach middle age you think (well, I thought) that life would run out of novel experiences to show you. But it doesn’t.