Friday, 28 January 2011

On Not Exercising

What I tend to do when it comes to the business of being fit is not bother. I eat lots, and then I sit in a chair.
~ Jeremy Clarkson
This typical piece of tongue-in-cheek wit by Jeremy Clarkson is the type of comment for which the curly-haired, slightly irascible journalist ("the tallest man on British television") is known. To most people he is the presenter of the perpetually popular show Top Gear, but to others his books and columns in The Sunday Times are much anticipated for their humour and calculated formulations to poke fun and push all the right (or wrong) buttons. He rails against a variety of influences he considers baneful -- bureaucrats and boffins, environmentalists, journalists, health and safety personnel, and the like. He is, in short, a contrarian. So it is of little surprise that the Idle Historian, though not always agreeing with him, quite likes the idea of Clarkson types being around the planet.

Consequently, on this subject of exercising, it should not be much of a surprise that the Idle Historian takes somewhat of a contrary-wise approach. This is not really ideological, or with the specific intent to be contrarian. It is more circumstantial; it is the way things have evolved. One is much too often figuratively locked in an air raid shelter with documents and books from 1930s Britain, working on history. While I have partaken of various activities at the appropriate times -- gardening, hiking, cycling, skiing, swimming, and whatnot (though not running, which I detest) -- for many years there has been no compulsion to regularly do so within the soul of the Idle Historian. I will say that I do try; actual results may vary.

[Edwardian Lady Cyclists!]

I was recently contemplating this whole question of exercise and how our society defines, values, and structures this concept. Speaking from an Edwardian perspective, the idea of "exercise" would have been rather foreign. Self-consciously taking part in calisthenics, as they would have then been called, was an activity for a fringe minority. In Europe, from the late 19th through to the twentieth century, many health fads proliferated, though most adherents were ridiculed as being associated with any number of questionable practices -- vegetarianism, sandal-wearing, unrestricted clothing (the "rational dress society"), free thinking, free love, and nudism. In the U.S., Dr. John Harvey Kellogg of Corn Flakes fame founded the Battle Creek Sanitarium (made famous in a not terribly exciting film, The Road to Wellville) which included physical exercise and a strict health and spa regime including bland low-protein and low-fat food, no alcohol or tobacco, fresh air, and "clean living."

But life at this time, for all but a tiny minority, was of essence extremely active. Even simple household chores required a great deal of stamina, and people of course walked a great deal. They would not have considered any of this "exercise." For them, constant movement was simply a part of daily life.

Physical fitness became increasingly valued in the twentieth century for purposes of the military and state. Following the Boer War (South African War, 1899-1902), the British military leadership were shocked by the fact that so many potential recruits had proved physically unfit for military service. Lord Baden-Powell instituted the Scouting movement, and the importance of sport and games for youth was emphasized (even though large swathes of the population remained woefully undernourished to sustain such activity). Mass exercising, of course, also became a tool of totalitarian regimes in countries such as Nazi Germany which emphasized the fitness of the individual body as a reflection of the fitness of the national polity (researching this history unearthed many Nazi images). Authoritarian countries of various stripes have put great stock in athletic performance competitions, such as the Olympics, as a means of bolstering national pride -- most notably the Soviet Union.

In the contemporary era the idea of exercise conjures up a variety of images, and is bound up with status and achievement. In the 1980s it was Jane Fonda-esque aerobics ("no pain, no gain"). In our more sensitive, apparently sophisticated era, practices such as Pilates and yoga have become popular -- the latter even better for demonstrating one's faux cultural sensitivity and ability to sonorously utter the word "namaste." The personal trainer is certainly a mark of status as is the stock image of the executive arising at 5 am, hitting the gym before ensconcing themselves in the corner office at 7. Such a person, we are told, epitomizes discipline and achievement. Their lithe frames, without an ounce of spare fat and swathed in trim designer clothes, are supposed to almost denote superior judgment. They perpetually strive to turn back the clock (though over-exercise is a proven way to age oneself by making oneself gaunt, but that is another subject entirely), and to compete with their fellow, less driven, human beings.

Of course none of these activities are wrong in themselves: exercising early in the morning, going to gym, even yoga -- as long as one doesn't do so merely for the mat-toting, bourgeois, ethnically-sensitive yummy-mummy cachet. The problem is that too many people have absorbed ideas about exercise that are not authentically their own. They often take up the prescriptions for exercise devised by others, resulting in New Year's Resolutions, and gym memberships taken out in January that fail by February. Their heart is not in it. If you take to exercise, let it be something that brings you joy, and that enforces your enjoyment of life, rather than fleeing a negative image driving you out of guilt or shame or, worse, another person's idea of what you should be or do. Exercising does not make you a superior person, more lovable, or more valuable to our wonderfully interesting and diverse society. But more activity might just bring you back to the habits of our ancestors as opposed to our desk-bound existence -- and what could, really, be more Edwardian?

NB * The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP) has recently revised exercise guidelines for weekly activity. The new idea is less actual time, but more intense activity during this time. Spurts of something or the other to get the heart rate up and break a sweat. The Idle Historian might just be able to handle this once in a while.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

Monday, 3 January 2011

The Dishes of Empire -- Or, Kedgeree, Please

Travel to any town in the United Kingdom, no matter how tiny, and chances are almost certain you will find an "Asian" restaurant. (British "Asian" having a different meaning than North American "Asian" -- denoting the Indian subcontinent.) I have seen them clinging to hillsides in a town of several hundred people in the Yorkshire Moors, in the Home Counties, in North Wales, and in far reaches of Somerset and Devon. If there are inhabitants, a curry take-away will no doubt be available to serve them.

Going for a curry is in fact so ubiquitous that some consider it to have surpassed fish and chips -- no longer served in actual newsprint due to health and safety considerations -- as the British national dish. (The curry take-away, much like the less-respected "kebab van," suits long evenings spent in the pub with little more than a packet of roast-lamb-flavoured crisps to cut the effects of the lager and creeping hunger.) Former Labour Foreign Secretary Robin Cook made headlines in a speech in which he proclaimed chicken tikka massala to be "Britain's true national dish." Although it was a long speech on Britishness and multiculturalism, few remembered anything except the following paragraph in what would widely become known as "Robin Cook's chicken tikka massala speech":

Chicken Tikka Massala is now a true British national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences. Chicken Tikka is an Indian dish. The Massala sauce was added to satisfy the desire of British people to have their meat served in gravy.

This equation of food and national identity, and the controversy that Cook's (surely there is a pun waiting there) remarks engendered, demonstrate the important role these cultural markers serve in defining group identity. For Britons in particular, with the legacy of Empire and the immigrants of these regions arriving to populate the homeland, food highlights a whole panoply of sensitive issues regarding Britishness -- questions which are also implicated in the decline of British power and world status.

The origins of Anglo-British cuisine, of course, date to the heyday of "the Raj" in the Victorian period, and were well in place by the Edwardian period. The year 1903 featured the magnificent Delhi Durbar, proclaiming Edward VII Emperor of India. In the collective imagination this epitomizes the peak of the Imperial world, just prior to the devastating setbacks of the First World War, economic depression, and another World War following in short order.

Another stellar dish from this period to consider: kedgeree, which consists of a cooked flaky fish (such as haddock, sometimes smoked salmon), rice, eggs, parsley, curry powder, and is lightly buttered. It is generally accepted to be a version of an Indian breakfast dish brought back to the UK by British colonials and incorporated into a derivative Anglo-Indian cuisine. There is a theory afoot that kedgeree was invented in the Scottish highlands, taken by Scottish regimental soldiers to India, and then re-imported to Britain, though this seems unlikely. The Scots may be believed by some to have invented the modern world, but kedgeree is likely one thing they did not invent (always happy to remonstrate with Scottish nationalists who feel otherwise).


Kedgeree was the comfort breakfast food of the day, melding the hearty fare required for the cold British climate with the hint of Eastern spice. I have partaken of fine kedgeree in the most traditional of locations, the incomparable Simpson's-In-The-Strand. Although the restaurant has been in operation for over 170 years, its decor and atmosphere seem most reminiscent of the Edwardian era. Its British breakfast menu certainly presents one with the delightful prospect of the "full Edwardian" experience. I enjoyed a truly unique first meal of the day(*) in its fine interior, complete (of course) with a large group of truly posh people seated by the fireplace uttering actual phrases such as "so dreadful having to wait for the aeroplane, dahling..."

It was tradition, Empire, kedgeree; a little bit over-the-top, and a great deal enjoyable. It also served as reminder of the many ways in which the Empire continues to influence British cuisine and daily life, from the most inexpensive meals to the grandest. The legacy of the British Empire may be contradictory and complex, but food, as we might most happily admit, is not.

(*) ...Reminding one of the Somerset Maugham quotation: "To eat well in England you should have breakfast three times a day."

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 
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