Gritty semolina pudding


IRELAND is by no means the laziest country on earth, it has emerged. Not by a country mile. Wouldn’t you think that would be regarded as a good thing?

The latest edition of the Lancet publishes a study suggesting that 53.2% of the people of this country are not exercising enough. This allows us to conclude – in a glass-half-full sort of way – that 46.8% are exercising enough, which, given everything we thought we knew about ourselves, comes less as a surprise than as a blinding, earth-rending shock.

However, the story was presented as bad news. ‘Half of Irish don’t get enough exercise,’ the press reported, which goes to show that the government is quite right after all about the media being too prone to pessimism. ‘Half of Irish do get enough exercise’ would have been a much better headline, being every bit as accurate and yet casting the nation in a much more flattering light. Wear the green jersey and all that.

Ireland was in 102nd place in the league of 117 countries, listed in order of inactivity. This means there are 15 countries in front of whose citizens we can justifiably gloat and crow and flex our superior biceps. Among them are Italy, Japan, Saudi Arabia and – oh well now, would you look at that? – the United Kingdom. It seems 63.3% of British people are inactive, which has been a source of some smirking in the news reports this side of the Irish Sea.

Malta is the worst: 71.9% of Maltese people are inactive. But at least they have a lighter way to enjoy chocolate. And the world’s most active country is Bangladesh, where only 4.7% of people are lazy. Europe’s most active country is Greece, which should stand to them in the years to come.

Apart from the unexplained disparity between Ireland and Britain, there are some other intra-continental surprises too. For instance, Mozambique is the least lazy country in Africa, with only 7.1% of people reported as being inactive. But its tiny neighbour, Swaziland, is Africa’s least active nation, at 69%. What strange force gathers on the Mozambique-Swaziland border, and causes all activity abruptly to cease? It’s a mystery left unsolved by the survey.

The researchers use their study to impress on governments the need to promote physical activity among the populace. Physical activity helps protect against heart disease, diabetes, cancer, obesity and depression, and so, simply by exercising enough, you can presumably avoid the risk of dying altogether.

So the revelation about Ireland’s activity levels will have come as bad news to the sedentary types among us, who now realise that at least half the country is in better shape than we are. This leaves us more prone than ever to feelings of guilt, and more susceptible than ever to state nagging.

And boy, does the state know how to nag. Exercise for half an hour every day; eat five portions of fruit and vegetables every day; don’t you dare smoke; don’t eat red meat; watch your weight; stay out of the sun; get out in the sun; eat your greens; eat oily fish; eat eggs; don’t eat eggs; brush your teeth for two minutes at a time; exercise at least five days a week; eat carbohydrates; don’t eat carbohydrates; know your BMI; don’t eat fats; eat unsaturated fats; drink two litres of water every day; on second thoughts don’t bother with the two litres of water thing – that was a mistake; don’t drink alcohol; on second thoughts drink a glass of red wine every day; don’t drink coffee; wear sunscreen; don’t eat bacon; walk to work; don’t eat cheese; substitute some sort of pallid chemical paste for proper butter; observe the food pyramid; on second thoughts, don’t bother with the food pyramid – we’ve had a change of heart about it; use the stairs; take vitamin supplements; don’t bother with vitamin supplements; measure your waistline; floss…

The authorities increasingly come across as a butch, domineering, boarding-school Physical Education teacher, perpetually bellowing at you about something. You there. Stand up straight. Buck up your ideas. Be a team player. Pass the ball. Pull your socks up. Pull your weight. Wear the green jersey.

The whole thing calls to mind damp mornings, ice cold running water, starchy uniforms, goosebumped legs, gritty semolina pudding, frost on the insides of the windows… an endless exhortation to be hardier.

It’s enough to make you forge a note from your mother, of the kind that flies about like confetti among schoolchildren: ‘Dear Teacher, Please excuse so-and-so from PE because she has chilblains/ a piano lesson/ the ague’.

Dear Authorities, please excuse us from your incessant badgering about healthy living, because even trim, fit, non-smoking teetotallers will all die in the end as well.

Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 22nd July 2012

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