Opposite me on the Tube the other morning sat a very chubby girl of about 14 or 15 in a school uniform at least two sizes too small for her. She was in a school party — heading, I imagine, for one of the museums of South Kensington, since that’s where they got out — and she was chomping away at a packet of crisps which she’d dug out of her backpack.
With lunchtime still an agonising couple of hours away, the temptation of a sneaky mid-morning snack was clearly too powerful for her to resist.
Having finished the crisps, she then spent the rest of the journey looking at her reflection in the window, turning her head from right to left as she rearranged her hair. If her intention was to look more attractive to her schoolmates, it grieves me to say that she almost certainly failed.
Members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union on the Jubilee, Central, Northern and Victoria lines backed the move by more than 95 per cent (pictured, the Victoria Line)
The unkind thought occurred to me that somebody really ought to give her a piece of fatherly advice: ‘If you care so much about your appearance, darling, perhaps you should go easy on the snacks.’
But of course fat-shaming is strictly taboo these days — blamed, probably rightly, for causing anorexia and other psychological problems in teenage girls (I sometimes count myself blessed that Mrs U and I had only sons and no daughters).
Yet if the outgoing Chief Medical Officer gets her way, my snack-munching fellow passenger will have even more to fear. The poor child will run the risk of being carted off in handcuffs by the British Transport Police, to be charged with Dame Sally Davies’s proposed offence of consuming food or drink other than water (or breast milk, in the case of babies) on urban public transport.
The plan is one of a series of authoritarian recommendations Dame Sally outlines this week in her final report as CMO. Its aim is to cure the country’s growing obesity epidemic, which the OECD said yesterday has slashed three years off average life expectancy. Meanwhile, NHS figures suggest that as many as one in three children aged ten and 11 is now overweight — a figure we may all find easy to believe from our own observations, particularly in poorer areas.
Dame Sally Davies, nicknamed the nation’s ‘nanny-in-chief’ for her bold public health interventions and who today said snacks should be banned on public transport in her most radical proposals to date, said 80 per cent of obesity is down to what we eat
Dame Sally’s other recommendations include calorie caps on all dishes and drinks sold by restaurants and takeaways, phasing out advertising in public venues for food and drink deemed unhealthy by the powers that be and extending the soft drinks levy to sugary food, if ‘sufficient progress’ is not made on cutting sugar consumption by 2021.
She also floats the idea of enforcing cigarette-style plain packaging for food and drink of which she disapproves.
But it’s her proposed ban on eating or drinking on urban trains and buses that has attracted the most public attention. And there I find myself torn.
A small part of me welcomes the proposal, though not for the reasons put forward by Dame Sally. My objection is that it’s anti-social to eat or drink on public transport in town — particularly if the drinker is already drunk or the eater is tucking in to something pungent such as a greasy hamburger or a curry.
All right, I should own up to being a monstrous hypocrite, since I’ve been known to eat a giant sausage roll bought at Victoria station on my train home from work late at night. But that was only ever as a guilty last resort, when Mrs U was tucked up in bed and there was nothing waiting for me in the oven.
I should add that I see nothing wrong with eating and drinking on longer journeys. Indeed, even strict Dame Sally herself would permit us to take sustenance on the train, say, from London to Edinburgh — just as long as it’s not too fattening.
But no. Though I admit that my journeys on transport might be more pleasant if I was spared the noxious fumes from fellow passengers’ takeaways, by far the greater part of me rebels against a ban.
Indeed, I reckon that an aversion to being bossed about by the authorities — particularly when we’re told it’s for our own good — is an integral part of the British character, if we’re still permitted to say such a thing exists.
As I may have mentioned before, one of my earliest memories is of lying in traction, aged five, at Great Ormond Street children’s hospital, after I’d broken my leg. I’ll never forget a formidable nurse laying a porcelain bedpan beside me and saying: ‘Don’t you dare kick that off the bed, Tommy, or it will break. Then we’ll have to give you a great big spinster bedpan instead.’
TOM UTLEY: I don’t dispute for one moment that the growth in obesity is an extremely serious matter (stock image)
Leave aside that odd use of the word ‘spinster’, which confused me for years afterwards. Until that nurse in her starched uniform told me not to, it simply hadn’t occurred to me to break the bedpan. But no sooner was the instruction out of her mouth than I wanted to do nothing else. So I gave the bedpan a mighty kick with my left leg (the one that wasn’t in traction) and it smashed into a thousand pieces on the floor. I can still hear the gratifying, ear-shattering crash as I write.
Indeed, to this day, nothing tempts me more strongly to walk on the grass, feed the ducks, smoke, spit, forget to wash my hands, play a ball game, run by the pool or talk to the driver than a notice telling me not to (though, British to the core, these days I meekly do as I’m instructed, contenting myself with grumbling about bossy officialdom).
Now, I don’t dispute for one moment that the growth in obesity is an extremely serious matter, with its many associated health risks such as heart problems and childhood diabetes. And though I’m tempted to argue that what we choose to eat, drink or otherwise consume is a matter for each individual alone, I have to admit this is not quite true.
In fairness to Dame Sally, I should acknowledge that as long as we have a National Health Service, funded by general taxation, the health of the nation will be very much the business of the Government and its agencies.
Put bluntly, unhealthy choices — yes, including my chain-smoking and my thirst for alcoholic refreshment — tend to end up costing taxpayers a packet (though those who die young, as I expect to, also save public funds a small fortune in pensions and social care).
Yet in proposing to dictate by law what, when and where we’re permitted to eat and drink, Dame Sally is surely taking government interference in our lives a giant step too far. Healthy living may be good for us. But isn’t freedom more precious still? As for her warning that people may die from medicine shortages caused by a No Deal Brexit, what about the risk of dying from boredom induced by officialdom’s Project Fear?
In her appearance this summer on Desert Island Discs, Dame Sally complained that she hated being called ‘Nanny-in-Chief’, going on to brand those who thus described her as ‘very sexist’.
‘The first woman as CMO gets accused that she is Nanny-in-Chief,’ she said in her irritating, patronising drawl. ‘What are they going to say to the man?’
Well, I can answer that. For as far back as I can remember, her male predecessors were also attacked as nannies-in-chief. It’s a title that goes with the job — and I confidently predict that the next time her successor Chris Whitty tries to tell us what’s good for us, the headlines will call him a nanny, too.
I started by suggesting that if that teenager on the train wants to look her best, she should lay off the crisps. In that same spirit of well-meaning advice, may I suggest to Dame Sally and all future CMOs that if they dislike being called nannies, they’ve picked the wrong job.