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Category Archives: Life and style
Supermarkets and some food producers agree to nutritional labels but critics call for refuseniks ‘to be named and shamed’
Traffic light-coded food labels indicating how much fat, salt and sugar an item contains are to appear on most food that is eaten in Britain in a move hailed by health campaigners as ending shoppers’ confusion over what to buy.
All the main supermarket chains and some of the biggest producers of snack foods, such as PepsiCo and Nestlé, have agreed with ministers to use front-of-pack nutritional labels coloured red, amber or green on some or all of their products in an effort to make it easier for consumers to choose healthier options.
The traffic-light labels, which many food campaigners and medical organisations have long called for, will be part of a new hybrid nutritional labelling scheme that combines them with guideline daily amounts (GDAs), which senior doctors have criticised as deceptive and utterly baffling to most consumers.
The new labels are intended to help shoppers know at a glance whether a product contains a low, medium or high amount of fat, saturated fat, salt, sugar and calories. Big supermarkets, including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer, Waitrose and the Co-op, will start using them “imminently”, though some may take “a few months to rebrand their packaging”, the Department of Health said.
“People will be able to use the colours to understand the level of nutrients in the food they are eating. The labels are not designed to demonise foods with lots of reds but to have people consider what they are eating and make sure it’s part of a balanced diet.
“Businesses that have signed up to using the new label today already account for more than 60% of the food that is sold in the UK,” a spokesman added.
The move follows research that found consumers are confused when more than one scheme is used, reducing their ability and inclination to use the information.
Health problems associated with being overweight or obese cost the NHS more than £5bn a year. A 2011 report found that 61% of the adult population in England is overweight or obese – higher than almost all other developed countries. It also found one third of 10- to 11-year-olds and almost a quarter of four- to five-year-olds are overweight or obese.
Mars UK, McCain Foods and Bernard Matthews are also among the food producers to have signed up to the scheme, though the multinationals Coca-Cola, Cadbury and United Biscuits have refused. Coca-Cola’s decision has surprised some food campaigners, given its recent high-profile campaign intended to reinforce its pledge that “we want to be part of the solution” to the growing global obesity epidemic.
The widespread adoption of the hybrid labels represents a significant change because, until now, only a few supermarkets – including M&S, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s – have used traffic lights. The Co-op began using them in 2006 before changing in 2011 to labels that incorporated both them and GDAs. McCain Foods is the only major producer to already use colour coding to help guide consumers’ choices.
GDAs, which supermarkets such as Tesco have always used, purport to tell consumers what proportion of their recommended daily allowance of fat, salt or sugar the product contains, according to official government advice about the maximum amount of each that is good for health.
But they have come under fire for misleading shoppers by only giving the GDAs for one biscuit in a packet or one serving of a tin of soup, for example, rather than the entire product thus potentially letting shoppers underestimate what is in them.
The public health minister, Anna Soubry, said shoppers were confused by existing food labels: “Research shows that, of all the current schemes, people like this [hybrid] label the most and can use the information to make healthier choices.” More manufacturers should adopt the labels, she said.
The consumer group Which? welcomed a “big step forward” and the British Heart Foundation said the “first-class scheme … will make it easier for shoppers to scan the shelves and make more informed choices about what’s going in their trolley”.
But Diane Abbott, shadow public health minister, and the Children’s Food Campaign (CFC), an alliance of health, education and children’s groups, called on ministers to “name and shame” firms that shunned the scheme.
“It isn’t tenable for any food company, which claims to be socially responsible, to refuse to adopt the scheme,” said Charlie Powell, CFC director..
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Study shows children whose mothers had a glass of wine a day were able to balance as well as those not exposed to alcohol in the womb
Drinking in moderation through pregnancy does not harm a baby’s neurodevelopment, according to new research.
Children whose mothers consumed the equivalent of a glass of wine a day were able to balance as well as those who had not been exposed to alcohol in the womb.
Almost 7,000 10-year-olds were asked to take part in balance tests, which are an indicator of prenatal neurodevelopment.
The drinking habits of their mothers had been recorded during and after pregnancy, with those who drank three to seven glasses of alcohol a week classed as moderate drinkers.
But social advantage could be a large factor in the findings, as the research found mothers who were more affluent and better educated were more likely to drink in moderation. Mothers from a working-class background were more likely to abstain from alcohol through pregnancy, to drink heavily or binge drink.
Professor John Macleod, from the University of Bristol’s School of Social and Community Medicine, led the study, which has been published by the journal BMJ Open.
“Most of the women in this study either didn’t drink at all or if they did drink, they didn’t drink very much,” he said.
“There weren’t many heavy drinkers. We know that heavy drinking during pregnancy has bad effects on a developing foetus.
“The moderate drinkers consumed an equivalent of up to one glass of wine a day.
“When we compared moderate drinkers with women who didn’t drink at all we actually found that in relation to a number of different tests of balance the children of moderate drinkers appeared to do better.
“However, we also found that the women who moderately drank compared to women who didn’t drink tended to be more middle-class.
“They were more socially advantaged. Having a middle-class mum compared to having a working-class mum is likely to advance a child in a lot of ways.
“They may have better balance, they might do better at school. Having middle-class parents has advantages to a child that are nothing to do with alcohol.”
The 10-year-olds were part of the University of Bristol’s Avon longitudinal study of parents and children (Alspac).
Alspac has been tracking the long-term health of around 14,000 children born between 1991 and 1992 to women living in the former Avon region of the UK.
Children of women whose alcohol consumption was recorded during pregnancy, at 18 weeks, and after pregnancy, at 47 months, underwent a 20-minute balance assessment at age 10.
The assessment included a number of balance tests such as walking on a beam and standing on one leg for 20 seconds with eyes open and then closed.
Researchers also asked the children’s fathers how much alcohol they drank when their partners were three months pregnant.
Over half consumed one or more glasses per week, with one in five drinking one or more glasses a day.
In contrast, 70% of the mothers drank no alcohol while pregnant. One in four drank between one and seven glasses a week.
Just 4.5% drank seven or more glasses a week. Around one in seven of these mothers were classified as binge drinkers, consuming four or more glasses at one time.
The mothers were also assessed four years after the pregnancy and 28% said they did not drink at all, while over half consumed between three and more than seven glasses a week.
Higher total alcohol consumption by mothers before and after pregnancy – and fathers during the first three months of pregnancy – was associated with better performance for the children, particularly for static balance.
MacLeod said: “The way we investigated this further was to look at genes. People who carry a certain gene are far more likely not to drink alcohol on average.
“If it was really true that using a small amount of alcohol during pregnancy benefitted children’s balance then we would expect those with mums who had the gene to have worse balance.
“We didn’t see any evidence that babies of mothers with this gene had worse outcomes than those who drank.
“There was a weak suggestion that children of mothers with the gene had better balance but our study was too small to show this reliably.”
He said results showed that after taking account of influential factors such as age, smoking and previous motherhood, low to moderate alcohol consumption did not seem to interfere with balance.
But better balance was associated with greater levels of affluence and educational attainment.
MacLeod said: “In this group of mothers, moderate alcohol intake was a marker for social advantage which could be a key factor in better balance.
“It could possibly override subtle harmful effects of moderate alcohol use.
“The supposed benefits we saw are not the effects of alcohol, they are effects of middle-classness.”
The Royal College of Midwives said expectant mothers should still steer clear of alcohol.
Professional policy adviser Janet Fyle said: “We recognise that this is useful research. However, there is also a large amount of evidence suggesting that the cumulative effects of alcohol consumption during pregnancy can harm the developing foetus.
“Our advice continues to be that for women who are trying to conceive or those that are pregnant it is best to avoid alcohol.”
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Clampdown on marketing to British children through TV advertising is not enough to protect them, says WHO report
Food companies are accused on Tuesday by the World Health Organisation, the public health arm of the UN, of finding ways to bypass the rules on advertising unhealthy products to children and fuelling the obesity epidemic.
Attempts by the authorities in Britain to clamp down on marketing to children through television advertising are not enough to protect them, a major report by the WHO says. There are tough rules on advertising during children’s TV programmes but not on shows such as ITV1′s Britain’s Got Talent and The X Factor, which research shows are widely watched by younger viewers.
Increasingly, food companies are also targeting children through computer games, mobile phones and social networks such as Facebook.
The WHO report calls for tighter regulation across the whole of Europe of the marketing to children of foods high in fat, salt and sugar.
“Millions of children across the region are being subjected to unacceptable marketing practices,” said Zsuzsanna Jakab, regional director of WHO Europe. “Policy simply must catch up and address the reality of an obese childhood in the 21st century.
“Children are surrounded by adverts urging them to consume high fat, high sugar, high salt foods, even when they are in places where they should be protected, such as schools and sports facilities.”
Britain has done more than some other European countries to guard children against advertising for unhealthy food, snacks and sweets, says the report, but it is not one of the six countries – Denmark, France, Norway, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden – that have fully implemented a European code on restricting marketing to children. There are, says the report, gaps and weaknesses in the UK regulations.
There are strict rules to prevent foods with high salt, fat and sugar content being advertised on TV during children’s programmes, and the broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, said this reduced children’s exposure to advertising for crisps, sugary drinks, fried chicken nuggets and the like by 37% between 2005 and 2009. But, says the report, there has been an overall increase in advertising for junk foods at other times of the day “and children continued to be exposed to HFSS (high fat, salt and sugar foods) advertising, especially during TV programmes between 6pm and 10.30pm”.
This is what is called family viewing rather than children’s TV.
According to the Children’s Food Campaign, the TV programme most watched by four- to 15-year-olds is Britain’s Got Talent, which airs from 8pm to 9pm, with more than 1 million child viewers. Next most watched by children are The X Factor and I’m a Celebrity. Commercials running during Britain’s Got Talent typically include ones for fizzy drinks and chocolate.
The report says: “Overall these data suggest that despite full implementation of the regulation, children in the UK appear to be exposed to just as much food advertising as before full regulation.”
Food companies are increasingly using the internet and mobile phones to interact with children. Online advertising overtook TV advertising in the UK in 2009. Data from 2011 shows that 65% of children aged between five and seven in the UK used the internet on computers in their home, which rose to 85% of children between eight and 11.
Advertisers are increasingly using social media sites such as Facebook and messaging services, which are popular with young people, says the report. Food companies have developed their own websites which are attractive to children, inviting them to become fans of the brand. There are no restrictions on the use of cartoon characters owned by a company to promote the products.
“Advergames” are increasingly popular, too. “Most major food companies have developed game-playing and fantasy video sites for young children,” says the report. A Chewits site, for example, has an animated dinosaur seeking out sweets. Leaf International, which owns Chewit’s, has said other parts of the website contain information on how the sweets should be consumed responsibly.
“Some sites offer videos or advertisements which, in countries such as Norway, Sweden and the UK, might be considered to be breaking the local regulations if the same advertisement were to be shown during children’s TV,” says the report.
Many children have mobile phones – one in eight aged eight to 11 and one in 50 aged five to seven in the UK own a smartphone.
Vending machines in schools are not allowed to contain junk food, but there are no restrictions on them in sports centres and other places children go, says the report. Food companies are allowed to sponsor events, such as the children’s Amateur Swimming Association awards by Kellogg’s and the Olympics, where Coca-Cola and McDonald’s were big sponsors.
The British Heart Foundation said junk food marketing to children was a major concern. “Even if there’s no junk food in your kitchen cupboards, you can guarantee unhealthy products are finding their way into your home,” said Simon Gillespie, the BHF’s chief executive.
“Every day, children are faced with adverts for foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt – through the TV, computer, their smartphone or in print.
“Restricting TV advertising has helped to limit ads on kids’ programmes, but some of the shows most watched by children, such as the X-Factor, are still fair game. Weak online regulation also offers retailers loopholes to reach children through ‘advergames’, downloads and competitions.
“As it stands, nearly one in three children in the UK are classed as overweight or obese. We desperately need a system that protects our children from sophisticated marketing campaigns, and helps parents to close the door on junk food advertising.”
The Advertising Association, a trade body, said: “Despite advertising’s minimal role, there are strict content rules across all media in the UK to ensure food ads don’t encourage unhealthy lifestyles – with an extra layer of protection for children. Effective self-regulation and a responsible industry will play important parts in helping to tackle obesity.”
A Kellogg’s spokesperson said it was completely aware of the impact of its business, “which is why [we] are responsible about how we market our products, particularly to kids in the UK.
“In fact, we think we’ve got a good story to tell. So, we have no kid-targeted websites for Coco Pops or Frosties and our Facebook pages are locked to anyone below 16 years old. And, our on-pack promotions are for things like free adult tickets to Alton Towers.”
He added: “When you do see our advertising on kids TV, it is there because the products it is promoting meet the very strict regulations about what food can be advertised to children.”
The company says that its partnership with the Amateur Swimming Association is one involving the corporate brand, Kellogg’s, and there is no branding for products such as Coco Pops.
McDonalds reacted to concerns about involvement with the Olympics by insisting sponsorship was essential to the successful staging of the Games, while also announcing plans to launch campaigns focused on “activity toys” and vouchers for sports sessions.
A Coca-Cola spokesperson said the company “takes seriously its commitment to market responsibly across the globe, across all advertising media, and across all of our beverages”. “Our worldwide responsible marketing policy states that we do not target any of our marketing messages on TV, radio, internet, mobile phone and product placement mediums where children under 12 make up more than 35% of the audience.
“Our sponsorship of sporting events highlights our commitment to making a positive difference in all the communities we serve. We care about people’s well-being and want to make a positive difference in their lives, both physically and emotionally. We also aspire to help people lead active healthy lifestyles through the beverage options we produce, the nutritional information we provide and our support of programs that encourage active, healthy living.We sponsor more than 280 physical activity and nutrition education programs in more than 115 countries. We are also the longest, continuous standing partner of one of the largest sports platforms in the world, the Olympic Games – proof of our commitment to using the power of our brands to encourage more people to become active through sport.”
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Hyperspectral imaging to be employed to study deterioration of sponges and cupcakes and prolong their shelf life
It took 10 years and an elite unit from America’s navy seals to hunt down Osama bin Laden. Now the technology used to track the most elusive terrorist in history is at the centre of another top mission to help to enhance the life of cakes in British bakeries.
Strathclyde University has been awarded a grant to examine how the imaging used on the helicopters that surrounded Bin Laden’s Pakistan compound in 2011 might be used to perfect cupcakes, Victoria sponges and a host of other staples of the British diet.
They are working with a British food company, Lightbody, to try to accurately plot the deterioration of a cake and formulate a recipe with the best fat, sugar and liquid proportions for taste and shelf life.
“With hyperspectral imaging, you can tell the chemical content of a cake just by taking a photo of it. That allows the baker to optimise the process for shelf life and taste. It tells you what’s going on, how the sugars are breaking down, how the fats are breaking down. If bakers can get the formula right, they can extend the shelf life and sell their cakes further afield,” said Stephen Marshall, professor of image processing at the university.
In a military context, hyperspectral imaging captures hundreds of values in the electromagnetic spectrum which enable scientists to identify objects without sending them to a laboratory.
A hi-tech snapshot creates an electromagnetic “fingerprint” of the objects which can be used to identify minerals, crop disease, and movements of people and vehicles under military surveillance.
In the hunt for Bin Laden, it would have identified movements of people and vehicles simply by capturing changes in the grounds surrounding the terrorist’s compound.
Strathclyde and Lightbody received a grant of £25,000 from the Interface Food & Drink, a Scottish fund designed to forge links between business developers and academic research.
Howell Davies of Interface said: “You can basically take a picture of something and analyse the product without taking it away for testing in a lab. You can see things that you can’t see with the human eye.”
Retailer says it expects a vintage summer after slow start to the year as sales increase of English sparkling wine
Majestic Wine has said it is hopeful of a good summer selling season helped by growing sales of English sparkling wine, despite a slow start to the year.
The London Olympics and jubilee celebrations drove a surge in the popularity of English sparkling wine, with sales up 200% in the year to 1 April. Nyetimber Classic Cuvée, priced at £27.99, was the most popular of these.
The retailer said a rise in sales of prosecco and wine from the Rhône, Argentina, Italy and Spain had contributed to a modest rise in profits over the year.
Majestic’s chairman, Phil Wrigley, said the company was “well placed to maximise sales over the important summer trading period”, while warning that the year had started slowly as a result of Easter falling earlier in 2013 and because of the lack of boost from jubilee celebrations this year.
The average price of a bottle of still wine bought from Majestic last year rose to £7.56 from £7.34, while the average spend per transaction remained unchanged, at £128.
The single bestseller was the Ned Black Label sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, priced at £6.99.
Majestic reduced its minimum order for delivery to six bottles from 12 in June 2012, to “broaden the appeal of our online offering”. It said the move had resulted in a 25% increase in online transactions, to 234,000, offsetting a 7% fall in the average value of an order, to £134.
Pre-tax profit rose by 2.1%, to £23.7m, while total sales fell by 2.1% to £274.4m. Majestic said the fall in sales reflected its decision to scale back exposure to the wholesale drinks market. Underlying sales, excluding wholesale activities, were up 2.6%, it said.
Customer numbers increased by 56,000, to 624,000, and sales of fine wine priced at £20 and above rose 9.4% despite the weak economic backdrop.
The company said it would continue to focus on opening new stores, increasing sales to business customers, driving online traffic, and developing sales of fine wine.
The board recommended a final dividend of 11.8 a share, bringing the total dividend for the year to 15.8p a share, an increase of 0.2p.
Majestic has 193 stores, and said it continued to aim to for 330 locations in the UK.
Philip Dorgan, an analyst at the stockbroker and investment company Panmure Gordon, said: “We believe that Majestic has significant market-share opportunity as it builds on its position as the UK’s pre-eminent specialist wine retailer. We see many years of highly visible profit growth, and we therefore remain buyers.”
The former MI5 chief turned novelist discusses over lunch her strangest meal ever, the state of the secret services – and the advantages of owning a dog
The strangest meal Dame Stella Rimington ever had was soon after the Berlin Wall came down, when the senior members of Britain’s secret services met their counterparts at the Lubyanka in Moscow. Having spent nearly 40 years Tinker Tailor Soldier Spying on each other, desperate for scraps of information, here they were walking through the front door of the KGB building. “We must have looked like something out of the zoo to them,” she says, “and they did to us. We had only defectors’ accounts of these people, and suddenly here they all were in front of us.”
Was there, I wonder, a sudden sense of shared humanity, a celebration of the final thawing of the cold war?
“No, there wasn’t,” she says, with a quick laugh. “It was more like wild animals looking at prey they could no longer eat. They were in this highly disturbed state where everything they had taken for granted about the future no longer applied. But one thing was for sure – they were going to hang on to their own positions and power. [Boris] Yeltsin had put a professor in charge in the hope of democratising and modernising them. He didn’t last more than a few months.”
Old habits dying hard, the Russian intelligence services still followed the Brits around Moscow on that trip and when they had a private dinner they knew their conversation was being recorded and all the ham-fisted waiters were KGB men. “Suddenly we didn’t care at all. There was a hysteria around the table so we all started saying various things that caused the waiters to twitch and raise their eyebrows. It was quite the weirdest day of my life.”
Rimington, now 78, is recalling these events in the Red Lion and Sun in Highgate, a gastro pub not far from her London home. My recording machine is in plain sight on the table. I guess in retirement all working lives seem another country, but few can seem as foreign a place as that of the ex-head of MI5. She attempts to bridge that gap by writing spy fiction; the seventh of her novels featuring her young alter ego Liz Carlyle is about to be published. She lives mainly in the country, and as she says: “Sitting, as I was doing the other day, in Norfolk imagining someone in difficulty in the Yemeni desert is tremendously relaxing.”
Rimington is a surprisingly informal and warm presence, giving hardly a clue in her manner of her former power. Others worry about her security, but she doesn’t. If she does venture out for lunch it will almost always be to a gastro pub for which she is spoilt for choice near both her homes. She likes this one because it is “cosy, unfussy and they have kept the original fixtures” and orders decisively the asparagus and salmon with nicoise salad, and a glass of sauvignon blanc. “The nature of my career has made me wary of social things,” she says. “Initially, there was the need to not tell people what you did. You would slightly dread the question because you know you would have to make up some story.”
Did that come naturally to her?
“It did come quite easily. But you tended not to accept invitations, or cultivate wide circles of friends and I think I am still the same. I am quite reclusive by habit now.”
She split up from her husband 30 years ago and, having raised her two daughters, has subsequently lived alone, which she likes. “Loneliness has never occurred to me,” she says. “Certainly not when I was working. The fundamental secrecy of the job means that it is a cohesive family unit. You can share things with colleagues that you couldn’t share with even your closest friends, which was strange I suppose. And of course there is an easy answer to loneliness: get a dog, which I have now.”
The last time I knowingly sat down with a British spook was when I was approached by MI6 after university and had a couple of surreal job interviews in rooms with darkened windows off Pall Mall before it was mutually agreed I was probably not about to become our man in Havana. My abiding sense then was that you would need an unshakeable conviction that what you were doing was right in order to lead so double a life. Having led that life herself, I wonder if she ever doubted its purpose? She must consider herself a great patriot?
She finishes her mouthful of English asparagus. “I suppose so, a bit like Mrs Thatcher in that way – the way she was always talking about her country. I think that sense that we were trying to be on the right side was strong. That came from my father, who fought in the first world war and worked in the steel industry. I came from an era where there were clear-cut enemies. In the cold war we were facing another country that wanted to completely change our way of living and had nuclear missiles aimed at us. Plus there was a covert war going on, with subversive acts aimed at undermining western democracies and making us all communists. My patriotism comes from that. I thought our democracy was clearly worth defending.”
Her father fought at Passchendaele, and was “never able to relax after that, a very uneasy soul, difficult to get close to”. She joined the intelligence service almost by accident having followed her husband on a work posting to India, and taken up a clerical job in the Foreign Office. After that her mother’s influence came to the fore: she had been a formidable coper, having to “prop him and us four children up”. One of the things Rimington had to cope with, not long after becoming director general in 1992, was her cover being blown – not by the KGB but by John Major’s government. She was to be the first spy to go public.
“MI5 had no press office, so I was on my own. From day one, newspapers, particularly the Sunday Times, got my home number and told me they knew where I did my shopping and who I had lunch with. There was talk of [accessing] my medical details. All of this was dressed up as in the public interest. They published a photo of my house with my daughter’s bedroom window open to show how lax security was. It was all quite alarming.”
When we have lunch it is after the Boston bombing, but before the Woolwich attack. She must feel relieved every time there is a situation like that where she is no longer the one having to help form a strategy?
“In a way, yes,” she says. “But leaving the service [she retired in 1996] was a combination of relief and bereavement. There is a sense of loss that you are no longer at the centre of things. From the outside, I think the service is in a good place having prevented terrorist plots here for a long time. But one day something will happen. That is the worry that lurks in the heart of every director general all the time: is there something we have missed?”
As a surrogate for that sense of anxiety and responsibility, Rimington immerses herself in her writing. How close is her fictional spy to herself?
“It’s not all accurate but it’s a bit memory lane-ish,” she says. “I think she has developed as a person through the books. Less spiky and more nurturing. When she first started she was obsessed with her boss and thought she was in love with him, but he went off with someone else. Put it this way: she is all the things I like to think I once was. Sparky and spiky. I let her say many of the things I thought but didn’t always say about all the patronising male colleagues and so on.”
By now Rimington has given up on a trencherman’s portion of salmon, and waves away thoughts of pudding. She has an appointment to get her dog washed. Before we leave I suggest it seems appropriate that she should be reflecting now on so unlikely and fantastical a life in the form of fiction.
She laughs. “I thought of calling my autobiography A Life of Surprises. I thought I was going to be a county historical archivist and have children. It didn’t quite turn out like that.”
The Geneva Trap (Bloomsbury, £7.19) is published in paperback on 4 July
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The Scottish singer on chips, going vegan – and her youthful nickname of ‘Katy Custard’
My earliest memories are of California, when my dad took a year’s sabbatical at UCLA, and the orange and lemon trees seemed like things out of Dr Seuss.
There was a fantastic sweetshop in St Andrews where I grew up called Burns. My favourites were chewy lemon bonbons. My mother discouraged sweet-eating and, as a girl with brothers, one had to protect one’s wares. So I’d squirrel away my stash in a shoebox in the wardrobe.
In Scotland, Dad grew courgettes which were the size of my leg. I’d step into the garden and it was like The Day of the Triffids. He was a physicist so maybe there was some nitrogen derivative being brought home from his lab.
My younger brother Daniel was born deaf. He just wouldn’t try anything food-wise and I took pleasure in forcing him to try new things. I’d offer him hot chocolate and he’d make a screwed-up face. But I’d insist and then he’d have it and his face would light up and he’d become a fan for life.
After one of my parents’ dinner parties, I crept to the kitchen and finished off a sherry trifle. I was seven or eight and I don’t know whether it was the alcohol or the cream, but I became confused and barfed all over the stairs.
We used to go to a swimming club in Cupar (eight miles outside St Andrews) when I was young and we’d get fish & chips afterwards from a really good shop, but not be allowed to eat them during the 15 minute drive home, because we had to eat them at the family table, with forks. It was torture, them sitting in the lap, all vinegared and salted. So I just can’t eat chips with a fork. It ruins it. You should feel a chip, like you should feel a pizza. Chips are infact one of my major vices in life. Even if I’m completely full I’ll still eat chips. I think I’ve got a separate chip stomach.
I think it was Dad who gave me my nickname “Katy Custard”, recognising my deep, positive and lasting relationship with it.
When I went to university I survived on jacket potatoes and pasta for three years. Long afterwards, I was on the dole and never ate out. When I received my first big cheque for my publishing deal, I ran to Marks & Spencers and blew £50 on lovely food.
I’ve been to Japan five times on tour and the food is crazy. Without a translator I’ve eaten what I thought was angel-hair pasta and it’s turned out to be jelly fish.
In 2001 I went pescatarian… well, aquavore. Pescatarian sounds so wanky, so I say aquavore.
I stopped having meat after a two-pronged attack of an old chicken fillet and a petrol station ham sandwich. Recently I’ve become vegan, after watching a film called Forks over Knives [which advocates a plant-based diet]. Also, my dad dying while I was recording my new album sharpened my sense of mortality. But I’ve yet to find a sherry trifle made with soy custard and soy-based cream.
KT Tunstall’s Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon is out now on Virgin
Parents pushing clever offspring into the Channel 4 limelight are uncomfortably close to US TV moms
It must be an inspiration to ambitious parents that the fame of Honey Boo Boo Child, the seven-year-old reality TV star from rural Georgia, has spread to these islands, with her off-screen appearances, as well as her TV show, now regularly documented in places that have not, historically, chronicled the caffeine-fuelled exploits of overweight child beauty contestants.
Even people who have never experienced Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, broadcast here on TLC channel, or its parent show, Toddlers and Tiaras, may well recognise their principal celebrity, who is more often pictured in a state of grubby dishevelment than in her pageant finery; they may even have heard some of her bon mots. “A dollar makes me holler” is one. Her mother’s “If a person farts 10–15 times a day then they’re healthy, so I guess my girls are healthy” is another line to feature in collections of the family’s celebrated table talk.
Possibly it is because the formerly hard-up Boo Boo family are said to make squillions per episode, and will therefore enjoy the last laugh on all its critics, that photographs of a podgy seven-year-old in smeared make-up are already a regular feature in the sort of publications that regularly worry about child welfare in Britain’s Got Talent, and about the sinister impact on girl toddlers of pink toys.
In any case, since the programme seems likely to be accepted here, as in the US, as a historic landmark in reality TV depravity, it is, of course, possible to watch in a spirit of strictly scholarly inquiry, to discover what Jodie Foster meant, when she declared, explaining her wish for privacy: “I’m not Honey Boo Boo Child.” It is also instructive to see how thoroughly it is permissible to exploit a seven-year-old before the child protection agencies become involved.
The best thing to be said about the Honey Boo Boo programme makers is that at least they don’t seem to claim any noble motive for monetising their freak collection. “It’s been called everything from a pop culture phenomenon to an indication of the decay of western civilisation,” is how the crowing TLC channel has introduced the show over here. “But one thing’s for certain, there isn’t a family out there like the self-proclaimed ‘crazy’ Thompsons from Georgia, USA.”
There isn’t? True, you don’t hear many coinages such as Mama Thompson’s “beautimous” on Channel 4′s latest Child Genius series, given that spelling is one of the many tests in which the winner must excel. On the other hand, the families who have agreed, for whatever unfathomable reason, to subject their children to the genius equivalent of the redneck games, are all about being different, like the “crazy Thompsons”.
There can’t, for example, even in the outer, unholiest circle of tiger mother weirdness, be another family to rival Hillary’s, dominated by her determination that her son, Josh, aged eight, should become the youngest-ever chess grandmaster. In order to fulfil her ambition, she calculates, perhaps having read Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, the boy must complete 10,000 hours of practice – 50 hours a week for five years – some of it, less prodigiously than the average viewer might expect, under the supervision of a chess tutor.
Hillary’s participation in the Channel 4/Mensa competition from which they are about to crash out, is, she says, “the chance to celebrate Josh”. But like Honey Boo Boo, Josh is not always in the mood to please expectant voyeurs: he vomits on the way to the event, flounders, gets distressed, wants to go home. Honey Boo Boo’s mother, of course, keeps a supply of sugar and Go-Go juice (a cocktail of Red Bull and another caffeine drink) handy for these crises. In Josh’s case, Hillary tells him: “I love you for trying and I love you for being here …” Hold that thought, Hillary, when you find that the 10,000 hour rule has just been convincingly challenged and it might take wee Josh 26 years instead.
No less than the unflinching anthropologists responsible for Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, the makers of Child Genius are also committed to exposing the truth about this minute subset of Britain’s unbelievably intelligent community, to suppress episodes of unusual child behaviour that might lead to ridicule or to future regrets. It’s not unknown. “I bitterly regret that the headmaster of the school where I was seven pushed me forward for this series,” one participant in Michael Apted’s acclaimed, Seven-Up series has said, “because every seven years, a little poison pill is injected.”
Another pulled out, for a while, following tabloid vilification. “I was absolutely taken aback, genuinely shocked at the level of malice and ill-will.” But, mercifully for Apted’s subjects, they were exposed before social media intensified the experience, in ways that should only deepen suspicion about Channel 4′s use of children and the ethics of a wider culture that tolerates such pimping of minors, whether the contract was sealed in Georgia or in north London.
Inevitably, given its extensive experience in human commodification, (Boys and Girls Alone, Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners etc), Channel 4 could have foreseen that the spectacle of one heartbreakingly unstreetwise child sniffing her books and of others showing off or acting up in the various ways their parents have, incredibly, sanctioned for public viewing, would inspire some mature members of the audience to compete with insulting comments. The children were diagnosed, among other things, as “autistic”, “Aspergers”, “dicks”, “arrogant lil fucks” (sic), and “faggots” worthy of a “punch in the face”: a little flavour of how helpful this programme will be in removing the taint of geekishness and singularity that already makes it hard for gifted and studious children to reveal themselves at school.
Since it’s unimaginable that the parents weren’t warned to expect vilification, they, too, must have accepted as a fair price for their own ambitions, or narcissism, the kind of hostilities that would never be countenanced by a Channel 4 producer for his or her own relations. Or not unless they, like the Thompsons or Kardashians, were richly compensated for their trouble and probable disappointments.
Even before the advent of online malice, those “where are they now?” pieces about child prodigies unfailingly turned up individuals with soaring, Mensa-worthy IQs, whose melancholy life trajectories could have been designed to confirm a) that it’s never like a JD Salinger story and therefore b) for young geniuses, the circus is not your friend.
Responding to Sir Michael Wilshaw’s concerns about bright pupils, following the abandonment of the gifted and talented programme, Mensa says such children “should be provided with the appropriate resources to learn and achieve their potential”. Advice that might have been worth exploring had not this organisation just taken a bunch of clever children and parents and persuaded them do something so stupid that it makes Honey Boo Boo look like Mozart.
All members of the family benefit from the active presence of paternal influence
To the lexicon of man-bags and mankinis, the Centre for Social Justice has added “man deserts”. Giving warning of family homes throughout Britain devoid of present and engaged fathers, it talks of a “national emergency”, seeing a million children growing up without positive male role models. Many have disputed the Centre’s figures and criticised its alarmist language, but at least the right is engaged in this issue. When did a left-leaning thinktank last publish a report about fathers?
I know that fathers matter. My father walked out on my mother and her five children when I was 12. I never saw him again. I have always felt that hole in my life – and I am not alone. By the age of 16, nearly 3 million children in Britain no longer live with their dads and a million others never see theirs.
Absent fatherhood isn’t all about fecklessness though – the overwhelming majority of dads want to be involved. Last year, I met Warren at a young fathers’ group in a Brixton church. Typical of many young, poor dads, he can find no job and no house. He is left without any money to spend on his children and no place to see them in even if he had. Even dads who are better off than Warren, and are still with their partners, struggle to be there for their children. British fathers work the longest hours in Europe and statistics tell us that more than half have missed a significant event in their children’s lives in the past year because of their jobs. Paternity leave is paid at a measly £136 a week – £100 less than a full-time job on minimum wage – and the government’s recent shared parental leave is so complicated and filled with loopholes that it is expected that only 4% of dads will take it up.
This is unacceptable – and not only for fathers; 82% of working dads want to spend more time with their children and half of British mums say that, though they are actually the main carer for their children, they do not think that they should be. This anger has built up because Britain combines a 21st-century economy with 19th-century social policy.
Today, women are working longer hours but social policy hasn’t caught up, and still assumes that families will have one carer (generally the mum) and one earner (generally the dad). The burdens on women have increased but they are still expected to provide the majority of childcare. My mum had no choice but to take on three jobs because she had been abandoned. Today, many women who want to share childcare with their partners are being pushed into staying at home by our archaic social policy.
Family policy is not a zero-sum game: any gain for dads need not come at the expense of mums. Dads are not a risk to be managed, but a resource to be used for the benefit of the whole family. Sadly, the Labour party has yet to make these arguments unambiguously.
The key public services that families rely on struggle to recruit men in significant numbers. Four out of five primary schools have fewer than three male teachers and even fewer men are active and present in children’s centres. This feeds through to the father’s experience of these services. Social workers often don’t even record a father’s name on individual care plans. GPs and schools will often only write correspondence on the child’s development to the mother. Life is made difficult for mothers who want their partners to be fully involved.
And life is even more difficult for mums whose partners do not want to be involved – the government now wants to charge them for chasing the fathers of their children. Because we expect too little from dads who don’t want to be there and are too hard on dads who do, mothers lose out either way.
A tacit conspiracy builds up on both political extremes that is entirely to the detriment of women. The instinct of many commentators on the right can be to berate mothers who happen not to live with the fathers of their children, even though many will do so because they have been widowed or abandoned. Yet the commentators on the extremes of the liberal left who insist mothers do not need anything more than financial assistance from their partners are just as damaging. All the evidence shows that active dads are good for children. Children, particularly boys, who grow up without fathers are more likely than their peers to be involved in crime, heavy drinking and drug use; have low educational attainment; suffer low self-esteem and anger issues; and, ultimately, become poor parents themselves. Active dads make a positive contribution: they are good for children and they are good for mothers.
Ed Miliband should pledge to make Britain the most father-friendly nation in the world. It is not good enough for us to cede these conversations to those who demonise single mums and deadbeat dads but have nothing to say ourselves.
We need a family policy that is fit for the 21st century and we need a language of love and respect with which to frame it. Without this, it won’t just be the Labour party that loses out – it will be the next generation of children who grow up without a father figure in their lives.