Sunday, October 05, 2008

Live from the obesity crisis ground zero: Your fearless correspondent embedded in Rotherham disguises himself as a banana to meet our Minister of Food

By British humourist, Giles Coren. I laughed as soon as I saw who was writing this piece. I enjoy him as much as I enjoyed his late father (Alan Coren) in the now sadly vanished "Punch" magazine. I am so glad that the Coren humour seems to be hereditary. You may have to "get" British humour to be amused as I am, however. He's utterly crazy! It is, of course satire

Compared with all the other columns you will have read this week, this one may come as a bit of a surprise. Indeed, it may well be unique as a media entity, tout court, in not having been constructed from the floor of the Conservative Party conference, the US election campaign trail, or the New York Stock Exchange.

Astounding though it may seem, I have not been out sneaking around the lavatories of the International Conference Centre in Birmingham to get a real sense of how many Tory delegates wash their hands after widdling (in order to bring my own special brand of wit and insight to the conference coverage), nor have I been interviewing bagel vendors on Wall Street so as to create colourful prose about how declining pretzel sales presage fiscal Armageddon.

I am not writing this on a laptop from my seat on Barack Obama's plane, only seven rows behind the man himself, from where I am able almost to see the actual ears of the man who may become the first black US president - thus giving my prose added urgency and weight - nor am I reporting live from the McCain Oven Chips HQ in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, whence I can bring you a hilarious sideways look at the US election through the eyes of the frozen potato people who coincidentally share the name of one of the candidates (a candidate who, funnily enough, looks just like a potato, except with smaller eyes).

Unique among columnists this week, I am not “on the ground” anywhere at all (isn't it marvellous how the self-aggrandising locational tics of the war correspondent have sneaked into the general reporter's argot?), I am just sitting here, poking through the newspapers in search of something that can be written about from a suburban desk in the weary gap between breakfast and lunch - anything but the US election, the financial crisis and the Tory conference.

Hang on, is that the phone? Rats. That was the new Saturday editor of The Times. She says that Jamie Oliver was mean about fat people in Rotherham in a television programme on Tuesday. He's set up some sort of Ministry of Food and she wants me to get down there pronto and sketch the scene on the, er, ground.

Rotherham, October 3, 16.43 BST

Here at obesity crisis ground zero the air is thick with the smell of saturated fat burning on dirty griddles. I'm in Rotherham, which I think is in Scotland somewhere. Anyway the people are enormous and talk funny and it's cold.

I'm here to get a real sense of Food Minister Jamie Oliver's campaign to do something excellent relating to food, make people thinner or less spotty or something, and the best way, as we know, is to embed oneself on the ground and just get a real flavour of...Bang!

None of us knows what that explosion was, but I have taken cover under a table with all the other journalists while we wait for the all-clear from the security forces. My heart is going like the clappers, largely because I have done nothing but stand around drinking bad filter coffee for the past four hours. Many of us are now copulating furiously in a bizarre response to the feeling that this may be our last hour on Earth.

17.36 BST

The all-clear has been sounded. Apparently the explosion was down to a deprived fat kid blowing up a Monster Munch bag for larks. This is a sad, forgotten corner of the world and such cynical pranks are what pass for fun around here. But you should have seen the kid: three tons if he was a stone. One of those grotesque little porkers with a great big, pink head so squishy that his eyes looked like someone had poked them into Play-Doh with a screwdriver. His hair was shaved in a number one crop because these people are so poor that they cannot afford scissors, and he wore a baggy grey tracksuit that made him look like a snowman on the melt.

Jamie Oliver said of the diet here in Rotherham: “I've been to Soweto and I've seen Aids orphans eating better than that.” And I can see his point. This kid was way more disgusting to look at than those African babies with the balloony stomachs and the flies in their eyes.

18.07 BST

Like Jamie Oliver, I've seen the ravages wreaked on their people by monsters such as Richard Mugabe and Goran Ivanisevic, but even I was unprepared for what I saw when benefit-scrounging single mum Natasha opened the bottom drawer of her fridge: chocolate bars and sweets!

It was horrific. Where does she keep the frisee? Ha ha. No, she's working class. She doesn't eat lettuce. According to one “insider” (actually it was the cab driver who took me from the airport, we proper sketchwriters always put in a bit about what the cab driver said; he's usually the only person we talk to apart from the hooker in the hotel bar), she feeds her children kebabs and chips every day instead of making fresh polenta and stuff. Which even Richard Mugabe doesn't do.

19.03 BST

This is hard. One of Jamie's producers comes in with a special “no-bread sandwich”, and a half a dozen locals - so fat you could render them down and grease the wheels of commerce for a century - gather round to poke and touch like people in the Amazon when they see a white person, such as Kate Adie or someone. “It's from Pret A Manger in London,” says the girl. “It's carb-free and helps me stay thin enough to hold on to my job in television.”

The local people - so fat you wonder if they'll ever drop below $100 a barrel again - look baffled. “Job?”, they mouth. “What's a job?” It's so sad. Now that they've closed the pits, these people haven't even got ponies to eat.

19.57 BST

“Come friendly bombs and fall on Rotherham” - if you'll forgive my paraphrasing of Thomas Coleridge. We colour writers always quote a poem at this stage to lend our vision a bit of heart. No, but seriously, this is the town where those mums pushed pies and chips under the school fence when Jamie was trying to make their children eat healthy food in his last show. Bombing is too good for them. They're so fat that they're actually wearing out the ground so fast that by 2035, according to Jamie's researchers, Rotherham will be 1,000ft below sea-level.

20.09 BST

Finally, the great man himself, James Fitzgerald Millhouse Oliver, arrives, ten hours late, in a motorcade, flanked by armoured elephants, no, wait, those are local security guards. The other journalists gather round, but your correspondent is more original than that. I disguise myself as a banana (the first time I have gone native since I reported from Shepherds Bush in a full burka on what it was like to be constantly mistaken for John Simpson) and press through the throng.

Mistaking me for a harmless piece of fruit, Jamie comes over to say hello (it is the first piece of fruit he has seen in Rotherham). And guess what? He's actually quite fat. Ha ha! Talk about irony.

This is Giles Coren, for The Times, on the ground in Rotherham.

And it is indeed from The Times -- a top-quality newspaper that also manages to be a treasure-trove of British humour. British writers seem to be able to put an amusing spin on almost anything

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