Saturday, August 26, 2006

The Spleandours of Extremadura


If you know the paintings of De Chirico, you'll know the effect I'm trying to achieve here. This is a medieval plaza in Trujillo, by the way. Thats the blue foothills of the Sierra de Guadalupe in the background.


Forgotten Iberia

Right now I'm in this lost corner of Spain that's called Extremadura, a sun-struck wilderness of sierras and plateaux, that stretches from Castille-La Mancha to the Portuguese border.

It's wild and brilliant. The sun never stops beating down on the hushed little villages, the cork forests are alive with pigs snuffling for acorns, the local wine - a rough red called Pittura - is maybe one pound a bottle.

And there are more World Heritage Cities than you can shake a bandillero at. Yet there are hardly any tourists - just the odd desultory group of hungover Spaniards wandering from medieval castle to Reconquista churchyard to Plateresque cathedral to fly-buzzing tapas bar.

This whole area, Extremadura, the land of extremes (and what a fine name for this country of searing heat and purple skies), was where many of the Conquistadors came from - men like Cortes and Pizarro, who took on entire empires with small troops of unshaven soldiers armed with arquebuses - and won.

You can see why they won, hailing as they did from these parts. For a start this is a tough country, brutally arid, vast, demanding, intractable - even now there are supposedly proper roads you'd hesitate to send a tank down. This is a land for breeding cruel warriors. Moreover, this is a religious inspiring country: God unquestionably exists here. You just have to look at the iron church crosses stark against the unforgiving blue sky - God is all around, stern, mighty, quite possibly violent.

I love Extremadura. And houses are cheap. Hmm.

Another quiet, hushed, ancient, haunted corner of a forgotten conquistador citadel. Fantastico.

Standing above the Plaza Mayor, Trujillo. Squinting.

Another glimpse of Trujillo, this time the dozing towers. Look hard and you can just see birds flying around the towers: unsurprisingly, because this whole area is full of birdlife: eagles, bustards, vultures, ospreys, grouse, red kites, black kites. You can't move for rare species of birds attacking your patatas bravas. I guess once the whole world was like this - alive with creatures. Poignant.

The ferocious citadel of Monroy, in deepest Extremadura. The family of Hernan Cortes, the conqueror of the Aztecs, came from the tiny village of Monroy. Great name: Monroy. Tough but poetic. Good for a conquistador.

Posing in Caceres. That's a golden-stoned chunk of World Heritage City behind me, with the baking plains of La Raya beyond. Sunglasses by Carrefour Supermarket in Plasencia.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Exam Result Kerfuffle, Part 98


So that's why girls do well in exams...




Perhaps We're Just Getting Smarter?



Why are Britain's kids doing so well in their exams? Every year at this time the A level results show improving scores. Every year, at this time, various experts trot out their pet explanations: from pupils choosing easy subjects, to exam questions getting simpler, to kids cribbing essays off the Net, to the government’s angry contention that ‘schools are getting better at teaching more and more children’.

Firmly excluded from this debate is the apparently ludicrous idea that the kids are simply getting cleverer. Yet this is the one explanation that has serious scientific evidence behind it, thanks to the seminal work of James R Flynn, a professor of Political Science in Dunedin, New Zealand.

'In the 1980s I analysed old IQ data in America,' says Flynn, 'and what I discovered was remarkable: "intelligence" has been rising by about 3 IQ points per decade ever since the 1900s.' This may not seem impressive; it means that a brainiac found in the top 10% of IQ scores a century ago would be medically defined as a moron today.

So bizarre were the results, Flynn and others scrutinised historical IQ scores, right across the globe, 'from Britain to Kenya, Canada to Japan'. They fund that the same IQ increases were happening everywhere (though Belgians do seem to be gaining in smarts much quicker than the Danes).

Since Flynn published, battalions of boffins have picked over the theory. Some reckon the so-called 'Flynn Effect' undermines the whole idea of IQ tests. Other scientists believe intelligence levels are rising, and they look to improved nutrition, or the challenges of new technology, for an explanation.

Could the famous 'Flynn Effect' explain the recent exam successes of British kids? Professor Flynn himself is hedging his bets: 'Remember that the rise in IQ is complex. In large areas of intelligence, like arithmetical reasoning, or general vocabulary, there's been no serious improvement. In certain narrower fields, like verbal comprehension, and abstract problem solving, we've seen significant increases. Inasmuch as UK exams assess these latter aspects of a pupil's intelligence, yes the rise in IQ might be an explanation.'

Perhaps the oddest aspect of this debate is the outraged way people react to the very idea of 'rising intelligence'. As Flynn puts it: 'Nobody has a problem with better housing or improved nutrition making female breasts larger, or our kids taller, but when we are asked to believe that in certain ways our minds are getting quicker, we angrily refute the notion.' Which is something to think about, next time you ask your ten-year-old son to set the DVD recorder.

Friday, August 18, 2006

My God, I've Got A Conscience After All


As you may have noticed, this is not a picture of Auschwitz. Read on to find out why.


This post replaces an earlier post called "YOUR HUNDRED FAVOURITE DEATH CAMPS". On reflection, I decided that the previous post, which playfully ranked Nazi extermination centres on grounds of "moodiness" and tourist facilities, might be a tad too offensive. Even for me.

So I removed it. However, if there is a clamour of opinion in favour of reinstating "YOUR HUNDRED FAVOURITE DEATH CAMPS", I may reconsider.

Up to you!

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Enormously Long Post About Gluttony


A dormouse. The Romans bred these in small earthenware pots, fattened them on grain, and ate them. A bit like battery hens, but mammal, and furry, and called dormice rather than 'hens'.


Just recently I sold a proposal for a new book to my publishers, Bloomsbury (Peace Be Upon Them). I'm pleased about this, not just because it means I can feed my new daughter, but also because it was maybe the eighth proposal, for a second volume of memoirs, that I'd sent them in as many months. All the rest they turned down for being too wacky, or wild, or uncommercial, or plain crap. The new proposal is all about how a boozy overgrown lad becomes, or tries to become, a doting dad. It's called Nice Baby, Nice Baby: How A Selfish Layabout Became A Doting Father.

But what about all the other proposals??!! All that work gone to waste!!?? Vexing about all that wasted effort, this morning, I suddenly realised that all my work need not be completely spunked - as I could post enormously long unreadable chunks of it, here, on the Womble.

So, as a service to my ego and no one else, here's one proposed chapter from one proposal for my proposed new volume of memoirs. The idea behind this book was that I would go through all the vices of self-destruction, thereby telling my own life story of indulgence.

The first chapter was going to be about "Gluttony". Here it is.


Gluttony. The first chapter of Death or Boredom, a propose book about self-destruction.

By me.



The longhorn cattle are filling up the livestock stalls, the Red Neck Boys are tuning up their electric guitars. And all around the place, ‘hunky’ men with ‘God’s Own Country’ tee-shirts are idly watching small boys ride sheep.

We’re at the Star of Texas Fair and Rodeo, a huge and annual celebration of everything beefy, farmy, and Texas-y, taking place on a vast windswept plain just outside Austin - the capital of the Lone Star State. And, as I look around me at the sizeable women scoffing hot dogs bigger than U boats, it strikes me that I’ve come to the right place, given that I’m trying to indulge in the sin, the vice, the self-destructive pleasure that is gluttony. There are, it seems, a fair amount of gluttons within one hundred yards of me. I can feel the thunder of their feet as they barrel over to the fried chittlins concession.

Don’t get me wrong. I love America. The freedom, the deserts, The Simpsons. All good. But there’s still no denying it, Americans can be pretty damn fat. And Texans are according to statistics the fattest Americans of all. And that's why I'm here

At least, that’s one of the reasons I’m here, with my friend Peter the Photographer. The other reason is that I’ve heard tell that there is a restaurant in these parts that serves the “biggest meal in the world“. I got the tip-off from a drunken Oklahoman in a bar in London. He was knocking down the whisky sours and bemoaning the lack of beef jerky in the UK; this led to a conflab about beef, and food in general. At which point he did a slow Southern smile, and he said:

‘You know, there's a barbecue joint outside Austen. Does the biggest damn plate of food there is. The biggest meal in the world! They call it… the Big Momma.’

Consequently, here we are. On the flat dusty outskirts of Austen, striding between the sunburnt young rodeo riders, the Barbie-esque blondes selling Jim Beam shots, and the wobbly-assed Southern housewives gnashing on humongous turkey drumsticks. I would compare these turkey drumsticks in size to a World War 2 German naval vessel, but you get the point.

So. What is this thing: gluttony? The urge to eat just too much? To the extent of arguably doing oneself harm? Where does it come from? Why do we do it? More exactly still, how exactly is that massive Texan gal going to stuff that two foot wide ‘funnel cake’ into her mouth? Oh, like that.

There was a time when we looked at gluttony in a theological light. That is to say: as a sin. Pope Gregory the Great, the first person to sit down and come up with the Seven Deadly Sins, was in no doubt what gluttony did, and why, and how. We did it, we committed gluttony, because we were born bad, we were sinners - and one of our worst sins was, in Gregory’s precise words, to eat ’too soon, too delicately, too expensively, too greedily, too much’.

Prior to Gregory, eating too much had never been seen in a particularly negative moral light. In fact it’s arguable that Gregory was so unkeen on greed precisely because he was reacting to the infamous excesses of those who went just before him - the imperial Romans.

But just how gluttonous were the Romans? The easy answer is A Lot: the richest Romans were stupendously gluttonous, perhaps the greediest people to ever waddle the planet; and I’m including in that comparison the guests at the Luxor Casino breakfast buffet in Las Vegas.

Take the notorious banquets of the Emperor Heliogabulus (he reigned around 220 AD). Lucky guests reclining at the teenage emperor’s table could expect to savour, in just one dinner, mammoth piles of venison, swan, shellfish, pork, chicken, mutton, beef and hams - and bream, hare, goose, dace, lettuce, cranes, mushrooms, asparagus, porpoise, swordfish, magpies, cockles, acorns, goats, and snails fattened on milk until they could no longer retract into their shells. Then came the infamous imperial ‘delicacies‘. Larks’ tongues. Parrots heads. Combs ripped from live chickens. Mullets’ livers. Flamingo brains. Bread rolls shaped like penises. Penises. Slices of huge conger eels which had been fattened on the flesh of Christian slaves. Sows’ udders. And dormice bred en masse, like battery hens, in small earthenware pots.

And when the diners had finished all this, then the guests would burp, or expire, or wipe their greasy fingers in the hair of the naked wine-boys…. and then they would start on their ‘second table‘, when apples, pears, quinces, oranges, walnuts and almonds, and weird pastries, and cheeses, and small baked seabirds, would do the rounds.

How the fuck did they get through it? Like many upper class Romans, Heligoabulus would use emetics to make himself spew, several times a night, so he could eat even more. The constant chundering might explain why the dandier Romans would change their special feasting togas up to a dozen times, through just one dinner.

There was also a blithe and shocking cruelty to the more theatrical Roman banquets - a cruelty that may help us understand the censorious reaction of the ensuing church fathers like Pope Gregory. Roman chefs could be force-fed their own curdled sauces, or publicly stripped and flogged if the game was overdone. Lesser servants could fare worse: one little slave-boy dishing up the dormice at the house of Vedius Pollio, a friend of the Emperor Augustus, accidentally broke a crystal goblet. Immediately the boy’s hands were cut off, and slung around his neck. The handless bleeding boy was then forced to parade between the guffawing guests, until he was taken outside and fed to the lampreys in the fishpond.

I think we can conclude that the Americans, even the fairgoing Texans eating cartwheel sized pretzels all around me, are not in the same league as the Romans. They've got no lampreys for a start. It is also pretty clear why a revolted Pope Gregory included gluttony in his Seven Deadly Sins: he remembered the Romans, and shuddered.

For many centuries Pope Gregory’s severe disapproval was the fixed position of the west, via the church: Gluttony was a sin on a par with Lust, Avarice, Envy, and Pride. Maybe worse than those, in some eyes.

Take Dante. This medieval Italian poet put gluttons in the Fifth Circle of Hell seriously lower than the Lustful. In their horrid circle the nude Dantean gluttons shivered, for all Eternity, in a filthy rain, and a vicious wind. Other religious minds configured crueller torments for the greedy: basted over fires in their own juices, skewered on rotisseries by smirking demons, forced to eat extraordinary foodstuffs like spiders, lizards, wasps, and frogs. Though that latter ordeal might not have been much punishment - for the French.

Talking of which - by the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance - it was the French who were picking up the baton of gluttony that had been dropped by the corpulent Romans. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Renaissance courts of Louis' Quatorze, Quinze and Seize became truly famous for their tables.

For example, Louis XIV once attended a banquet for 2,000 people given by the Prince de Conde, at the Chateau de Chantilly. The chef for this enormous feast was a notorious perfectionist, Francois Vatel. Legend has it that Vatel was so distraught by the late arrival of a fish course at the feast, he committed suicide; his body was found by an equerry who had come to tell him the fish had arrived. Remember that next time you fret over the creme brulee at your dinner party.

It was also the 18th century French who perfected the idea of the Prodigious Eater - the polyphages, the crapulous stage-gluttons who would eat anything, for a fee and the fame. One such was Tarare (a man whose name is said to survive in the music-hall expression tarara-boom-de-ay)

Tarare was probably born in the 1760s, in Lyon. From a very early age he exhibited an extraordinary capacity - almost certainly pathological - for swallowing weird stuff. Like stones. Wood. Or live animals. In the end his parents threw him out, unable to afford his gustatory demands.

When the Revolution came along Tarare joined the people's army, but the privations of a soldier's life only added to his intense and insatiable hunger. He was given quadruple rations. Which didn't help. He foraged in dustbins and gutters, for anything organic to consume, or maybe just mud. Eventually some military doctors heard of his bizarre condition, and he was asked to perform for them: Tarare was handed a live cat. This he tore apart and gobbled down, even consuming its bones and fur, and blood. Later Tarare regurgitated a furball. In response, the amazed physicians gave him lizards and puppies: he ate them all. During these performances Tarare was said to sweat greatly; he also stank most of the time.

France produced other Prodigious Eaters around this time: like a Monsieur Dufour, who performed onstage in London in 1792 - eating a broth of asps, with a sidesalad of thistles, followed by bats, rats, moles, tortoises, toads, flies, spiders, caterpillars, tortoises and a broiled owl.

A couple of decades later the Jardins des Plantes in Paris boasted its own prodigious Gallic glutton: a porter known as Monsieur Bijoux. This chap once ate an entire decomposing lion that had passed away in the Jardin's Zoo. But Bijoux came a cropper when he was wagered many francs that he could not consume nine pounds of hot bread in two minutes. Bijoux scoffed all the bread, and promptly expired.

Coincidentally or not, it was around this time that France produced the first 'celebrity' chefs - men like Careme and Escoffier. Both these chefs cooked, in their time, for British royalty. And it's here we come to probably the most famous glutton of near-modern times. King Edward VII, the Victorian Prince of Wales. The man who was heir to the largest empire the world has ever known, was also, perhaps fittingly, one of the greatest greediguts the world has ever known. Even the Texans eating funnel cakes have got nothing on Bertie, the food- and fun-loving prince.

Here's a rundown of the Prince of Wales' average daily fare.

For Edward, the day began with a glass of Guernsey milk in bed. Then he would shuffle down to breakfast: which comprised platefuls of bacon and eggs, and poached haddock, and chicken, with lashings toast and butter. Thus fortified, he would shoot pheasant for a couple of hours before imbibing hot turtle soup, being sure to leave enough room for luncheon: maybe some game or cold meats, with big spreads of dressed salad and vegetables. This was swiftly followed by tea at four, where, as his band played along, Edward would help himself to petit fours, preserved ginger, rolls, poached eggs, scones, hot cakes, cold cakes, sweet cakes and a special kind of Scotch shortcake.

Eight thirty brought a formal dinner, which comprised at least twelve courses, and invariably included whole salmons and turbots, various potages and soups, saddles of mutton, sirloins of beef, curries from India, dishes of snipe, ortolans, plover, goose, hare, and woodcock, followed by devilled herring and cream cheese, madeira, nuts, port, and liquers with chocolate. Edward was as fond of peasant dishes like Irish stews and Scotch Broth as he was partial to sevruga. Then again, he did like quails hard-stuffed with foie gras and served with truffles, oysters, and prawns.

Towards the end of the evening, Edward would remind his guests of the benefit of a good supper before bed, perhaps some smoked oysters. Then he himself retired. But that wasn't quite the end of things. Just in case the crepulating Prince got a little peckish in the wee small hours, his manservant would place a cold roast chicken on the royal bedside.

Was he happy? Who knows. He was certainly severely fat - though his brilliant Savile Row tailor managed to disguise that fact into the Prince's late middle age. The Prince's gluttony didn't put off the ladies, anyhow - he was known for sleeping with many of his friends' wives as well as the prettiest actresses on the London stage.

There is therefore, perhaps, an argument for saying the Prince filled the psychic hole in his life - his lack of political responsibiliy, the terrible delay in coming to the throne, the disapproval of his stern father, the late Prince Albert - with food, as well as hectares of bare, goosepimply, aristocratic female flesh. The booze, tobacco and food certainly killed him in the end. But at the distance of a hundred years or more any such judgment on Bertie must be pop psychology at best. All we can say for sure is that attitudes to such gourmandising as King Edward's are these days very different.

Because, sometime in the 20th century, attitudes to gluttony seem to have changed. Over the last fifty years we seem to have given up regarding gluttony as a cardinal sin or a heinous vice (at the same time we also gave up seeing fatness as a mark of wealth, reliability or comeliness, or gluttony as the socially justifiable sin of royals); instead we have replaced these complex attitudes by seeing gluttony and overweightness as just a distasteful affliction, or a simple weakness - that is, we see greed as something definitely Not Good, but nothing truly terrible either. Yes, we often look at greedy people as pitiable, and maybe contemptible; but we don’t regard them with the withering fury of some of our scandalised forefathers.

If we did, we’d have a lot of judging to do in Texas. I’ve never seen so many fat people as I can see right here, right now, queuing up for the Western Review Show featuring Whiplash the Cowboy Monkey. That girl over there, for instance, could have saved Thailand from the tsunami, if ionly she'd been lying on the beach in Phuket at the time.

But enough gawping. Peter and me still have a job to do: to find the biggest dinner in the world, the Luciano Pavarotti of Lunches. The Big Momma!

Eventually, we track down something called the Beef Quiz Bowl in its very own tent. It’s a round table Q&A session where members of the public are allowed to question experts from the beef industry about just how surprisingly good for you beef is, and how its actually not that full of fats at all, at least as compared to lard. We're on the hunt for a big beef dinner: this could be the place.

Taking our seats we attend to the slim, brunette, thirty-something figure of professional dietician Dr Shalene MacNeil. Dr MacNeil is keen to tell us all about the benefits of beef.

‘The bad rep that meat has got in the last three decades is due to the western world’s weight problem. As obesity has, er, exploded, people have pointed the finger at the animal fats in red meat. But, the fact is, we need a certain amount of fat: for energy and the transport of vitamins. Without fat in the diet your skin starts falling off and your bones get all brittle. You’ll be walking down the road with acne and then your leg goes. Crack!’

Well, I think she’s being amusingly hyperbolic; I also think she’s referring to eczema and osteoporosis, which have both been linked with lack of animal fats. She’s certainly pleased the man on my left, who is working his way through a beef sausage longer than the Heinkel 211 fighter bomber.

Peter the Photographer is sceptical about some of Shalene’s claims. He asks her if it can really be true that beef is relatively low in fats, given how much fat there is in, say, a rib-eye steak. Shalene narrows her eyes, and gives us some more hard facts on fatness, fatties, fattening, fatosity, and fats. She's especially good on the US problem with obesity. The average fashion model, she says, is thinner than 98% of US females. 80% of US kids are 'afraid' of being fat. 91% of college women in America have tried dieting. 21% are 'always' dieting. 280,000 US deaths every year are directly related to obesity. 60% of Americans are overweight. One third are obese. It's a MAJOR issue.

Shalene finishes off by adding, darkly. ‘There’s plenty of other foods that have as much fat as beef.’ As if on cue, a ‘buxom’ girl wanders past the entrance to the tent. She’s carrying a pizza carton you could use as a helipad.

Point taken. After a few more Q&As, and the somewhat unshocking revelation that Shalene works for the Texas Beef Council, the Beef Quiz Bowl winds up, and we disperse. Outside, it’s only two in the afternoon, but the atmosphere is getting frolicsome. On my right some whooping guys at the Whiskey concession are asking a very cute girl to flash them her nipples.

Striving not to be distracted, we catch up with Shalene. She smilingly asks what we want. We tell her need to find the biggest meal on earth. We hear it’s somewhere near Austen. And is served at a barbecue joint. The meal may be called ‘the Big Momma’…?

She shakes her head. ‘Heck, dunno. There’s a bunch of barbecue joints around here. This is Texas!’

As I make helpless notes on this, I spy three more hefty girls buying ‘deep fried cheese balls’ just across the way. Wow, look at their butts! I didn't know they made jeans that big. If ever the Palace of Westminster needs to be entirely sheathed in denim, there’s some women here might know the right haberdasher.

But then I find that, try as I might, I actually can’t take my eyes off the girls. For several minutes I watch, transfixed and aghast: as the women cram the deep-fried cheese balls into their gaping Texan mouths. They do it so vigorously they look like they are starving; they clearly are not starving.

In my mind, I feel all angry. I feel like getting Pope Gregory on their asses. What these gals are doing - stuffing their puffball bodies with more animal fats - is obviously wrong, and evidently self destructive. It’s like looking at people sniff lighter fuel, or head straight into a war-zone for kicks.

At least the girls are smiling as they do it. They are apparently enjoying themselves. But I’m not enjoying myself watching them. I have a terrible desire to rush up to the biggest of them and say: ‘Salad!’

Why do I have this rather punchy attitude to lardbuckets? As may be obvious, I don’t really appreciate fat people. Try as I might - and I do, I do - I simply can’t buy the notion that fat people are fat because of their glands, neither can I really believe fat people are fat because of their awful childhoods, or because of the conspiracy of fast food companies to make those burgers So Dang Tasty. Or anything else. Fat people are fat, experience tells me, because they Eat Too Much, and Don’t Move Around Enough. It's not a question of installing more cycle paths in Alberta, it's more a question of: Put the frigging chicken leg down, Jumbo. No you don’t want that seventh Whopper, wobblechops. Stop eating, you fat bastard!!

Does this sound harsh? Maybe it does, and maybe you've guessed why. Yes: I am basically a fatso manqué myself. Inside this slightly stout guy, me, is a massive fat man struggling to get out. I too want to Eat Too Much. I too have an urge to Not Move Around Enough. I too am a glutton, at least potentially.

Here's evidence. I don’t know if this is unusual, but I can remember the very first time I had a sensational food experience. I was seven years old and on hols in Collioure in southern France with my family and I was walking down the road and my mum bought me an éclair to stop me from crying about my sunburn. It was a real moment, an infantile epiphany. This éclair wasn’t like éclairs we had back in 70s England with their factory-made cream and ickily fake chocolate; it was sumptuously lovely, rich without being cloying, sweet in a subtle way, gorgeous, gooey, flaky, perfect. I stopped crying at the first bite. It was obviously a carbohydrate rush - the sugars doing their bit for my mood - but it felt transcendent. It felt like more than that.

Then I had avocado vinaigrette. About fifteen years later. This may seem pretty naff, but to someone largely unused to even slightly fancy food, as I was then, the combination of a tart and garlicky vinaigrette with an unctuously ripe, bathroom-suite-green avocado-half was notably pleasing.

In my early twenties I had what still ranks as the greatest meal I have ever consumed. A young chef had opened a restaurant in Wandsworth, South London. It was called Harveys and the food was said to be phenomenal. So my friends Nick and Trevor and me, we all went down there one evening and we had turbot in the intensest sauce and ravioli so weightless it must have been cooked on the moon. This was cuisine like I had never experienced: I am wary of foodie pomposity but this meal really did raise the workaday craftsmanship of cooking to something approaching an art form; eating that meal was like sitting in an office chair handmade by Michelangelo, like reading a local newspaper edited by Shakespeare. It was also incredibly expensive.

The chef was Marco Pierre White. The youngest chef ever to get three Michelin stars. A chef so successful he retired from cooking at about the age of 30. One of the greatest cooks who has ever lived.

All of which goes to show that, like I say, I do like my tucker. And appreciate it. To the extent that I sometimes run to fat and have to rein myself in. Thus I watch my weight - because I get depressed when I put on pounds. In fact, when I am fat, I hate myself.

But that’s my very point. This is why I am down on fat people. When I look at the blobsters around me, I see myself unless I am very careful. And this fear and contempt provides with me with a crucial safety valve of self hatred, a sensitive thermostat of self loathing. Put it another way: once my face has turned into a football, I have a day or two of horrified staring in the mirror, as the denial slips inexorably away, then I go on a strict diet and slim down again, at least to a reasonably sturdy 180-190 pounds (not bad for my 5 foot 11 height). Then, over the following months my weight slowly edges up again; but then I look in the mirror and go ugh! again - and I diet again. You know what I mean.

Ergo, what I don’t understand is why these tubby Texan lasses eating the deep fried cheese balls over there never have that ugh! moment. Don’t they ever look in the mirror and think to themselves, I know, I’ll skip that extra large tub of Haagen Dazs, because I am now the size of a walrus on steroids? Perhaps they just feel things have gone too far - maybe they think - to hell with it, I might as well get even fatter (if that’s possible) - and have fun on the way, because there‘s no going back now, not from 436 pounds. Or maybe there really is something truly self-devouring, suicidal, masochistic in these girls’ behaviour. What is it?

I could of course go and ask the girls outright, luckily I don't have to ask these impertinent questions - and risk them getting angry and falling accidentally on top of me: Because I have already asked the same questions of a friend. My fat friend. Everyone has a fat friend, as my non-fat friend Trevor says, and at the moment my fat friend is Simon.

Simon is one of the nicest and smartest guys I know; we've done some real stupid things together. Not least drugs (as we shall see). About three years ago, though, Simon gave up everything, all the vices - and in that time he's since ballooned from a chunky but acceptable fourteen stone to a frankly surreal twenty stone.

Before I left for Texas I rang up Simon to ask if he felt there was a link between his new gluttony and his old vices; as he certainly seemed, to me, to be filling the same hole in a different way. However, it was difficult to know how to broach this subject. It's a sensitive one after all! So I tried an oblique angle.

'Simon, you're a real blob now.'

Fortunately, he laughed.

'Yeah.'

'Why?'

'Well.... Sean... I just I took my eye off the ball.'

'Do you think there is a link between doing heroin and doing.. profiteroles?'

Again, he chuckled. 'Perhaps. I know I'm much happier off the drugs, but I'm not happy being twenty stone. I don't think it's an exact swap. I do need that sensation... and as I'm not allowed alcohol and I'm not even letting msyelf drink coffee.. I'll diet soon.'

'What about punishing yourself? Is that what you are doing? Do you think you are self harming?'

'Yeah...' He said, affably enough - considering. 'Maybe. But again it's not as self harming as what I was doing. Or what you were doing. How are you on that score now?'

'Fine. You know. Sorry about putting you in prison.'

Another rotund chuckle. Simon and I have forgiven each other for some really bad shit. Which we will come to later. Then he went on:

'Eating is my only vice, like I say. Maybe we all need one vice. The difference with food as against something like drugs or drink is that you always need to eat. You can stop boozing forever, and stop doing drugs forever, you can close the door for good on them. But you can't stop eating for good. The door is always ajar... and if you have a tendency to excess... well... there you go.'

Yes simon, I nearly said, there you go - if you are now the size of Hitler's secret weapon, the Tiger III superpanzer.

Anyway, our conversation ended on that point. A point I am mulling over here in Texas, as I watch the girls with their deep friend cheese balls.

But then I hear a clicking. It's Peter the Photographer, snapping his fingers in front of me: rousing me from my fattist reverie. It's a sharp reminder, We’ve got a job to do and only one more day to do it. We have to find Big Momma. Or else.


That night we get drunk in Austen. Peter is keen to go to a lapdancing club called Cheetah's. Early next morning, we jump in the car. We’re on the way to the place Shalene recommended, to Bobby Steiner’s ranch. It’s about two hours out of Austen. As we zip down the sunburnt highway we see maybe a dozen BBQ stalls and BBQ restaurants. These people really do like their beef.

Soon we are surrounded by sleekly black and glossy cattle. Lots of ’em. It turns out we’ve chosen to visit during one of the major cattle sales of the Texan year. There are muddy BMWs and guys with stetsons milling around everywhere. And lots more cows.

Smack bang in the middle of these 8,500 acres of green Texas farmland, and several million head of lowing kine, we finally locate the fortyish and rather rugged ranch-owner, Bobby Steiner. We tell him, obliquely, that we are ‘interested in the beef industry’ (it seems a bit rich to just come out and say ’we’re here because Texans are so fat!’) . Bobby squints as he tries to understand our accents. Then he takes the opportunity to tell us why we shouldn’t become one of those annoying ‘veg-a-tareens‘.

‘My granddaddy lived till he was a hunderd and two, his brother lived till he was 95, and his sister till she was 96. And you know what? They all ate red meat every day of their lives!’

Bobby has a thing about the wholesomeness of beef. Maybe unsurprising in a beef farmer. He goes on to angrily explain how US beef has been barred from Europe. This is apparently because of an EU ban on hormones and antibiotics, all got up by the French. I notice Bobby says the words ‘the French’ with the same tone you and I would use when saying ‘urinal cakes’.

Bobby concludes his friendly lecture with these wise words. ‘You know Sean. What I like to say is: ain’t no vegetareen can kick my butt.’ This is interesting, but off topic, so finally we come right out with it - and ask about Big Momma. Bobby does an affable shrug that says he can't help - and wants to get back to making enormous profits on his Herefords. Understandable.

But at the last moment he turns back and says:

‘Heck. I know. Casub Simples!’

‘Casub Simples?’

‘Casub Simples!’

This exchange of the phrase ’Casub Simples’ could obviously go on for a while, but Bobby happily elaborates:

‘Best barbecue man in the state.’

‘Yeah?’

‘Casub’ll know what you’re on about.’

‘But where can we…’

‘Try the barbecue cook-off at the Texas Star fair and Rodeo… It’s just…’

‘Outside Austen...!’



So here we are again. We’ve gotten back in the hire car and high-tailed it down the highway - the clock is ticking - and now we’re back at the Rodeo.

Soon as we step out of the car we can sniff something significant in the air. It’s the tasty tang of broiled brisket. And, as we walk between between the US Marine recruitment stall and the Dancing Dogs of the West official caravan, we see why.

Yup. Bob was right. It’s the barbecue cook-off. Across the fairground, teams of barbecuing experts from several states are loading charcoal into ovens shaped like Stephenson’s Rocket, so as to roast great big lumps of beef in time for the judging later tonight. The competition is fierce, the smell delicious, the portions bloody enormous. I never knew that coleslaw came in vats.

Approaching one man, Buddy Templeton, leader of the highly-respected Bald Eagle barbecue team (1st prize for Bloody Mary, equal 1st Beef Brisket): we introduce ourselves, and ask him if he knows Casub Simples.

Buddy is in a white apron, standing behind a trestle table, and is shovelling juicy, greasy shreds of barbecued beef into a floury bap. He looks a bit hot and bothered in the sun; he looks like he‘s been cooking all day. Which he almost certainly has.

But at the name of Casub Simples his face lights up. He laughs.

‘Say, you guys are from British aren’t you?’

We shuffle. ‘Er, yeah… Britain.... England.’

‘Right. Yeah.'

Buddy grins and trowels some more juicy beef into a sandwich, and squirts on some of the Bald Eagle Barbecue Team’s secret prizewinning hickory-n-lime bbq sauce. A pleasantly chubby girl, about 200 pounds, takes the food from him and does a cute giggle. I look at her for a while. She smiles back. We exchange more smiles.

Hn. I’ve obviously been in Texas too long, as I’m starting to fancy women bigger than the Panzer Kampfwagen (Mark IV). Actually, this isn’t the first time this has happened to me - I mean, this isn’t the first time I’ve experienced unusual sexual acclimatisation. The same thing can happen when you go to stay a while in a very orthodox Islamic country, for instance. At first you find the women in jilbabs and yashmaks very unsexy. Then you start noticing how dark and sultry their eyes are, behind the slits. After a month you glimpse the shapes of the women under their complete body-coverings and you start panting.

Buddy is grinning at us again. ‘You’ll find ol Casub at the Barbecue Judging Tent. Just over there!’

Gratified, we thank Buddy and make for the tent, but a quick mosey around the marquee tells us that Casub may well be a judge, but he’s not due here until 7pm, when the judging actually starts. We’ve got another crucial hour to kill, of our ever shortening day. Hot-dang.

What can you do? We fly out tomorrow., It would awful to come here and fail. With these disturbing thoughts in our mind we wander about, idly walking past the Apache Cafe, past Eric’s Spicy Sausage stand, and past something called the 'Cowboy Jail'.

It’s at this point we come to the small area dedicated to Swifty the Swimming Pig. It appears this is one of the main side-attractions of the Star of Texas Fair and Rodeo. Kids and their moms are sitting in low tiers of wooden seating, patiently waiting for the presumably porcine rodeo star to do his thing. In front of the stands of seating is a small plunge pool, maybe three yards long. No, not even that, two yards long. It’s not going to be much of a swim if that’s all Porky does. Just swim that? Derek the Dunkable Hog might be a better expression.

But still we wait. And we wait. And it‘s as we wait that I have one of those sad epiphanies of life.

When I was growing up and deciding to become a writer, I imagined myself mainly as a war correspondent. I thought I‘d spend my time jetting to war zones, hiding under crumbling walls as bullets flew, interviewing troops with thousand-yard stares as the shells landed nearby. Right now lots of my peers and my friends are doing just that - they are in Iraq, or Kashmir, or the Sudan - and they are sending home crucial and tough-bitten prose that changes the way we see the world through the terrible prism of conflict.

And me? I’m sitting in a wooden seat, next to a kid eating candyfloss, waiting for a Swimming Pig.

But then something happens which means I never get to see Swifty do his six centimetre long swimathon. Just as the little aquatic porker is being introduced to the crowd, I feel a nudge from Peter.

‘I’ve found Casub!’ Peter says excitedly. ‘And he says he can help us.’

Great! Together we sprint over to the Bloody Mary bar, where Peter guides me to the tall, imposing, check-shirted figure of Casub Simples. Casub Simples shakes me by the hand, very firmly, and does a loud friendly laugh at my inquiries. He’s a very chummy guy. This is one of the many things about America that I love. OK some of the girls may have buttocks bigger than planetoids, but most of the citizens of this overfed country are generous, optimistic, friendly - I like that.

Maybe my upbeat mood is also helped by the fact that Casub has just solved our problem.

‘Boys,’ he says, ’What you’re looking for is not the Big Momma. You want the Big Daddy! You got the name wrong.’

‘Doh!’

Casub chuckles again. ’The Big Daddy is a huge rack of ribs, you’ll find it at the County Line restaurant.’

’And that is…’

’Other side of Austen!’

I feel like hugging Casub. The only problem is that would take two men. Casub is not fat, but he is mighty.

So we’re on. Bidding goodbye to Casub, Peter and I jump in the car, check our watches, call the County Line restaurant on our mobile, and get details. Yes they do have a dish called the Big Daddy. Yes it could fairly be described as ‘huge’.

Let’s go!

On the speedy way through Austen I get to thinking. My first thought is - ‘just how big is the Big Daddy’? When a Texan describes a meal as ‘huge you can be fairly sure it’s not going to be nouvelle cuisine in style. I am probably about to eat something larger than Cheshire. Then I start thinking how unusual this eating experience is: driving at 90mph across the darkening plains of north Texas to go eat the biggest amount of beef in history.

But then again, this isn’t the first unusual eating experience I have ever had. In my time schlepping across the world as an itinerant hack I have tasted, scoffed - and sometimes spat out - some very curious foodstuffs. I once had puffin on the Vestmann islands near Iceland, for instance. Two puffins, actually. It was after a day spent on a volcano and I was absolutely starving, as was my photographer friend, and then that evening we walked into a restaurant - and they were doing puffin as a special.

I’ve got one word for anyone who wants to try puffin. Don’t. They taste like fishy liver. Yuk. Even though my mate and I were ravenous, we merely toyed with our boiled seabirds for a few minutes, then we left them with their little beaks pointing up from the plate, and then we fled the restaurant, and went to a bar next door and had a frozen pizza and chips. Much better.

In Iceland I also had whale. That was OK. Like fishy beef. Over in Finland I once tried bear - very gamey - and also elk - very like venison. In Laos I tried river algae, its similar to crispy Chinese seaweed and jolly good. In Mexico I dipped grasshoppers into guacamole. They were deep fried, crispy, bitter and fairly repulsive.

But by far the most disgusting thing I have ever eaten is silk worm pupae preserved in soy sauce. In South Korea. Apparently they are a real favourite amongst Korean kids; the tins of pupae can certainly be found anywhere in the country. As I say, they are indescribably revolting.

So why did I eat them in the first place? I could have guessed beforehand that the experience was not going to be fun: who really thinks silkworm larvae decomposing in a tin are going to be real nice? But that didn’t matter to me - when I bought them from the Seoul 7-11, I was just greedy for the experience: I wanted the newness. The buzz. The rush. I was a glutton for punishment. Maybe there is something in me that makes me just as bad as the fat girls and their deep fried cheese balls. Even if I'm not quite as lardy. Yet.

‘I hope this is the right road.’ Says Peter, as we head on out the other side of Austen. ‘Otherwise we might not be able to rupture our stomachs this evening’.

He changes gears. Darkness is falling on the flat Texas landscape. Enormous trucks, driven by huge men eating Snickers bars, whoosh past.

I look at the truckdriving men, one fat hand on the steering wheel, another feeding their big faces. It occurs to me that there is an obvious biological explanation for human gluttony. Mankind evolved with a constant hunger because constant hunger is what kept you alive during our evolution; there wasn’t much easy food around on the African plains circa 100,000 BC - so you ate all you could when you could. And then you stored it as fat for when the famine came, as it would.

But today we don’t have famines in the developed world, we have Pret a Manger All-Day Breakfast Sandwiches: yet we still bolt them down just in case the locusts come a-visiting next Friday. That evolutionary hangover is, I think, certainly part of our problem. Then you’ve got to factor in the well-known come-ons of modern food, especially processed or junk food: all those sluttish sugars and lick-me lipids and call-me-your-little-baby carbohydrates. Contemporary food is designed to be super attractive, ultra alluring, absurdly sexy: like a hooker in hot pants on Sunset Boulevard. No wonder we fall for it, like Hugh Grant.

And if we feel like blaming ourselves as a species for this, perhaps we are being too harsh. Because we're not the only animal troubled by fast food. As any visitor to an American National Park picnic area will know - bears, deer and wild turkeys have also recently developed a taste for Cheeseburgers, Twinkies, Oreos, and Kitkats - or at least the sugars in the remains of these junk items thrown away by tourists. That's why these animals crowd around the same places that people congregate in these parks - the animals want the sugar high, too. They're equally addicted. Some experts actually believe that that the mule deer of Mesa Verde, in Colorado, for instance, will soon be wearing enormous lilac slacks and taking up two seats in coach class.

Is the main problem then just the bad stuff, the refined sugars and carbs, that we put in our food? Is this what's causing our modern trend towards greed and gluttony, and the epidemic of obesity that is sweeping the world (cause it ain’t just America that’s blobbing out - the same thing is happening in the UK, China, Germany, France, Brazil. Yes, Brazil)?

Actually, I'm not convinced. I think that there may possibly be something else to blame: a self destructive ennui.

i.e. Boredom.

Look at it this way. The other day I read the menus from what are said to be the two finest restaurants in the world, at the moment - El Bulli near Barcelona in Spain, and the Fat Duck in Bray, in England. What struck me about these menus was the absurdity of some of the offerings. Deep fried rabbit ears in a tempura of orange peel. Sea urchin ravioli. Baby squid in garlic foam. Bone marrow with rabbit brains. Bacon and egg ice cream. Cherries in pig fat. Snail porridge.

What does that remind you of? Well, exactly. It echoes those reclining Romans nibbling their flamingos spleens and ocelots noses and the rest. We've come full circle. So are we like the Romans in other ways? Perhaps. I’m not saying we are all headed for a Decline and Fall, but maybe we share some of the later Romans’ decadent tedium vitae; maybe the prosperity of late capitalism has delivered some of us to a place where we are just a little jaded, like a fat gouty Senator, wiping his fingers in the catamite‘s hair.

Alternatively, of course - we may just be greedy.

‘Hey. We’re nearly there’, says Peter.

’How do you know?’

‘I can see a neon sign of a pig carrying an enormous plate of ribs.’

The sign also says County Line Restaurant. Peter’s right. We’ve made it! Swerving a happy left into the car park, we step outside into the humid Texan night. There’s a lot of other cars here; this is a popular place.

Inside we soon realise this place is more than popular, it’s a riot. There’s big
guys sinking lagers at the bustling bar, jolly waitresses in check dressess scooting all over, and lots of scarlet banquettes full of Texan families having a good ol’ time.

A waitress attends to us with a cheery grin. She guides us to a table, then brings a ginormous loaf of warm bread with its own bread knife, ‘just to get us started’.

Peter and I peruse the laminated menus. For a moment I panic when I can’t see it…. our Holy Grail of Horribly Calorific Suppers… but there it is.

The Big Daddy. ‘Seven prime ribs of beef’. Only for the ‘manliest of appetites’.
Peter and I gaze at each other with a sigh of satisfaction, and perhaps a growing hint of apprehension. The waitress returns and stands there with pen poised to paper. Peter looks at me, and I nod. Then he turns to the waitress.

‘Two Big Daddys’.

She tilts her head and looks at us. There is a pause. Then: ‘Hope you boys are hungry!’ she laughs. And with that she disappears.

A reflective silence descends on our table, amidst the general hubbub. I feel like writing a letter to my fiancee explaining my final thoughts on life. Just in case. Give my pocket watch to our child when he is delivered. Remember I love you. We’re about to go over the top. God bless.

The fact that I may be about to die from overeating is concentrating my mind wonderfully. I am vividly remembering when I had that éclair in Collioure again. I am remembering something else about that time. It now occurs to me that I wasn’t only crying that day because I had sunburn. I was crying because I was on holiday with my sister and my mum - and her boyfriend.

You see, my dad wasn’t there. My dad was away with his mistress. And I think the whole situation was upsetting me. My parents’ were on their way to their divorce, and even though I was a pretty happy-go-lucky kid, that holiday somehow unsettled me, because it made me realise things were different and about to get more different, and then one hot afternoon it all got to me: my sister was unhappy, I wanted my dad to be there, it was all so foreign in France, the autoroute toilets were horrible, and yes I had some nasty sunburn, and then and then and then - then my mum bought me that éclair, and I sank my teeth into the happiness, into sensory escape, in blissfull stupor, into the thick rich cream of forgetful and nihilistic delight.

‘Whoah!’

Says Peter. He’s staring across the restaurant. Two waitresses are bringing our Big Daddys. Even from this distance the meals look unbearably vast. Other diners are staring over. A few seem impressed, most look appalled. Even fat people are looking appalled.

Because these meals are fucking HUGE. The ribs are a foot long, each, and there are seven of them in the rack.

I look at Peter.

‘Jesus.’ He whispers.

Then he starts actually whimpering. I know how he feels. The size of this meal is inducing a kind of spiritual terror. Not something I normally feel when my dinner arrives. The Emperor Heliogabulus, Tarare, and Edward VII would be proud of us. Or maybe not.

‘OK?’ I say.

Peter nods.

‘Yes. OK.’ He picks up a fork. Then he drops it and whimpers again.

‘It’s like trying to demolish the Cliffs of Dover with a teaspoon.’

Agreed. I slice a comparatively tiny piece of beef and bring it morosely to my mouth. I sigh and look up. Peter hasn’t even started his meal yet, he’s looking at the menu. He recites something.

‘It says here the Big Daddy comes with a green salad.’ He stares over at me. ’Nice touch. Is that for people who might be dieting?’

When we've both stopped laughing, we start eating. But I'm only a fifteenth of the way in when my mind moves on to other things.

What we need is a drink. Of course! Alcohol!

Friday, August 04, 2006

St Kilda Revisited


The abandoned township on the remote Scottish island of St Kilda. Cosy or what?


I was in the wild and feral wastes of west Scotland a couple of weeks ago. Actually, it wasn't so wild - it was gorgeously hot and historically sunny. More like Provence than the Hebrides.

Anyway. While I was there I walked through a beautiful forest on the isolated peninsula of Morvern. Imagine my surprise when I found out that the trees I was walking under were planted by the St Kildans - the very same refugees who were moved from the remote and treeless St Kildan archipelago in the 1930s - the very same people who represented the remnants of the last hunter-gatherer community in Europe.

For those that haven't a clue what I'm on about, here's a story I wrote about St Kilda a few months ago.



The Lost Islands of Britain


Hirta, Boreray, Soay, Dun. These names won't mean much to many people, but to one eighty year old man, Norman John Gillies, they represent a unique and extraordinary culture. A culture whose tragic fate has lessons for us today.

The names belong to four islands in the isolated archipelago of St Kilda, forty miles west of the Outer Hebrides. Seventy-five years ago this summer, the last inhabitants of pre-industrial St Kilda - including Norman Gillies - finally surrendered to the difficulties of their remote island life. They were evacuated from their homeland by the British government.

Norman Gillies, who now lives in Ipswich, still remembers aspects of life on St Kilda. The main island, Hirta, had just one street, a row of ancient, stone-built black-houses (which can be seen today). As he says: 'We lived at number 10. But I used to go and play anywhere on the island, it didn't matter, it was safe. Everyone knew everyone else. If my mother was shouting to me to come home for dinner, I was aware of it soon enough’.

Norman Gillies has another strong recollection of life on St Kilda. 'Sundays we went to church, twice, to hear sermons in Gaelic. There was no work at all.' But if the church was a dominant influence on St Kilda, it was also a baleful one. It was the arrival of 'organised religion' that led to the death of the islands.

Up to the 1800s, life had continued on St Kilda much the same way for centuries. The essential element of existence was sea-birds (which still nest on the islands in enormous numbers). Hunted on the cliffs by the intrepid menfolk, these birds provided everything.

Gannets, fulmars and puffins comprised the staple diet. The islanders also wore shoes made from the birds. The only medicine was derived from fermented seabirds' fat; this was also the only condiment. Even the beaks of the birds came in useful - to button the homespun clothes, or fasten the thatch on roofs.

Such a strange life produced other peculiarities. For centuries, the islanders governed themselves in a crime-free commonwealth - with few personal possessions. As the Gaelic-speaking islanders were entirely illiterate, all the poems and songs were handed down orally. The native religion was particularly eccentric: a mixture of medieval Christianity and Druidic nature-worship.

In 1822, reports of these semi-pagan ways reached Edinburgh. The scandalised Scottish kirk sent a minister to knock some proper faith into the St Kildans. At this point the slow decline began. This minister favoured day-long sermons, which ruinously interrupted the 'fowling' - the seabird-hunting; he also forbade the old songs and dances, which demoralised his flock.

The kirk was followed by the tourists, in the mid-19th century. They were equally calamitous. When the trippers weren't throwing sweets at the 'aborigines' and openly mocking them, they gave the St Kildans money. The cash influx meant that some islanders could now afford consumer goods. This compromised the egalitarian economy of St Kilda. Once so rooted in their awesome homeland, the Kildans began to emigrate.

Add in the problems of inbreeding, and imported disease, and the end was inevitable. By 1930 the population was down to 28, from an historic high of 200. And then Norman Gillies's mother Mary fell ill. She was pregnant, and had contracted appendicitis. 'First thing we did,' says Norman Gillies, 'was get a message to a fishing trawler. Then the lighthouse ship was sent, but couldn't get to us because the seas were up.'

Vital days were lost. Eventually Mary Gillies was ferried to Stobhill Hospital in Glasgow. But the delay was to prove fatal. Mary Gillies died, and so did her unborn child.

Norman's eyes mist over as he recalls his last glimpse of his mother. 'My most precious memory is of her being rowed out to the lighthouse ship, with her shawl over her head, and waving to me on the shore...'

Mary Gillies death was the final straw for St Kilda. The islanders admitted that the end had arrived for their thousand-year-old community. 'We asked the government to help us,' says Norman Gillies. 'We had no choice. Many people wanted to leave, anyway, because they had seen pictures of the outside world, places where you could earn good wages.' The government eventually offered the islanders work with the Forestry Commission in Morvern, Argyle (ironic - given that many St Kildans had never encountered a tree).

And so, on the morning of August 29, 1930, the Fishery Protection Vessel HMS Harebell stood ready to evacuate the islanders. It was a brutal process. The islanders' drowned their dogs, and scattered their cats. Then, leaving Bibles open in their blackhouses for the 'spirits to read', they walked down to the sunlit pier and boarded the boat. Reporters claimed that the refugees were 'cheerful'. Others say that, when the St Kildans turned and saw their ancestral land fading into the sea-mist, 'many of the people cried'.

But it's here that the story of St Kilda, strange as it, has a wider resonance. St Kilda is not alone. The depopulation of the Scottish islands began long before St Kilda's demise, and is continuing today.

Handa, an island off Sutherland, met its doom in the 1840s. Mingulay, in the Outer Hebrides, was deserted by 1912. Several others, like Ulva, Colonsay and Shuna, seem to be heading in the same direction: in the last census, the total population of the Scottish isles dipped below a critical 100,000.

Yet there is one Scottish island which shows that you can buck this trend. And the story of this island's survival is intimately linked with the tragedy of St Kilda.

The island is Foula. Tony Mainwood is a ranger on this beautiful but wind-whipped sandstone outlier, twenty miles west of the Shetlands. He lists the similarities between Foula and St Kilda. 'Like St Kilda, this is a very remote place, with massive cliffs. Like St Kilda, the people here used to survive on seabirds for food, climbing the cliffs to hunt them, especially in the winter. And growing crops here is very challenging - as it is on St Kilda - because of the constant winds.'

These winds also make communication with the outside world very difficult - as on St Kilda. 'Go down to the harbour, and you'll see the little ferryboat,' says Tony Mainwood. 'It's lifted out of the water on davits, a kind of crane. That's to prevent the boat being crushed in storms.'

These constant storms can mean that Foula is isolated for weeks at a time. This, in the past, meant 'dearths' - long periods when there was no way of importing food or other supplies. Isobel Holbourne, another Foulan resident, recalls these dearths. 'We suffered severe shortages of many things, usually tobacco, paraffin, sugar maybe, soap on one occasion, and other commodities too. I still have difficulty looking lentil soup in the face after the 77 day dearth in 1961.'

Even if the Foulans didn't have the 'Celtic fatalism' of the St Kildans (as Isobel Holbourne puts it), by the late 1960s the harshness of island life was taking its toll. The Foulans were deserting - bleeding life from the place. 'When two families left the island,' says Isobel, 'that left us with 27 inhabitants.' It was at this point that the uncanny comparison with St Kilda was noted. '27 is nearly the number that lived on Kilda at the end. We knew it was the crunch. But instead of giving up, we decided to fight.'

The struggle for Foula began by improving the island's links with civilisation. In 1969, the Foulans built their own airstrip. 'No mean feat for 27 men, women and bairns', as Isobel says. With an airstrip, the island was able to persuade Loganair to run a regular service to the Shetland mainland, inducing locals to stay - and outsiders to settle. This prevented St Kildan-style inbreeding.

Foula has learned from Kilda in other ways. The young people on Kilda had drifted away in the final years; in the last decades the Foulans have established a school. The Foulans have also kept a close watch on the tourist numbers - aware of the sightseers' impact on fragile St Kilda.

So far these efforts have worked. At the moment Foula's population has steadied at about thirty. Not ideal, but not desperate. Whether the island will survive in the long term is dependent, to a certain extent, on the goodwill of the Scottish and British governments. But mainly it depends on the tenacity and determination of the locals.

This tenaciousness is not doubted by the Foulans themselves. Edith Gray is a spry and cheery 86 year old resident of Foula: the oldest person on the island. She still tends her root-crops as she has done for seventy years, working out of her ancient croft below the island's bleak and awesome hills, Hamnafield and The Sneug. Edith hasn't been off the isle in 20 years. 'I didn't feel the need', she says. And she adds: 'I don't think Foula will ever die. We love this place too much.'

Across Britain another eighty-something is ruminating on island life. Norman Gillies remembers the strange transition, from the Stone Age existence of St Kilda to the trams and trains of the mainland. 'When we got to Argyle, they were expecting us to look like we were from outer space. So it could have been difficult. Yet everyone was very kind. And we adapted. You do, don't you?' Norman Gillies also has thoughts for the other Scottish isles, still fighting for life. 'These places have a unique spirit. Just like St Kilda. I think they are worth preserving.'

The extraordinary and vertiginous cliffs of St Kilda.