Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Kate Moss's bottom

British people are the fattest in Europe but also, we are told, the happiest with our weight; the French would say we are "bien dans notre peau" or happy in our skin. Sure. And secretly I'm a skinny supermodel called Kate Moss; so secretly even my mirror doesn't realise. How many tubby British teenage girls are happy in their peau when they realise that unless they starve themselves they're never going to look like the skinny models and actresses in the glossy magazines (who don't look like that either having been airbrushed)? So it's another diet or weight loss pills with side effects you don't want to think about too much (the drug company calls it the "Alli Oops" as if it were mildly amusing, which it is not) or another deep pan pizza. Seeing the swathes of flesh bared on a chilly day in London recently I suspect the pizza and deluded mirror have joined forces. "Does my bum look big in this?" "No dear girl, you look just like Kate Moss. Honest"

I do wonder what those who sit on the Underground and eat their own body mass in crisps, chips, chocolate and McDonalds in five stops on the Central Line and still have time for a Diet Coke, expect. Having said that, I am not sure if it's entirely their fault. Every time I go to Britain I put on weight. Every time without fail; I get back to Paris, step on the scales and I'm two kilos heavier. Not only is it annoying, I just don't get it; in the UK I eat less, I eat earlier and I expend half a million calories hauling bags and La Fille half way up the country to my parents' home and then down again.

This time I bought sandwiches for the Frenchman and La Fille for lunch and an apple for me. I said no to fish and chips and ice cream by the seaside and opted for salad. I refused potatoes and Yorkshire pudding and had extra vegetables, I ate the rhubarb without the custard. Back in Paris, I stepped on the scales: two kilos, give or take a pair of M & S knickers.

When I left the UK nine years ago chocolate bars and bags of sweets were normal-sized. Now the confectionary counters that are in your face every ten paces in London look as if they have undergone radiation on a Chernobyl scale. Then there's the enticing "two-for-one" offers in the supermarket and the obscene cereal boxes as big as houses (because of course it's cheaper to buy in bulk and not, dear customer, because we're trying to encourage you to feed your face even more, oh no, no nooo!) And a large glass of wine? Why not?" One third of the entire bottle in one go.

The "meal deal" on the train out of Liverpool Street was astonishing for the sheer volume of empty calories:

* a sandwich made of slices of bread I could have used as trendy platform soles
* a large bag of crisps
* a chocolate muffin that just screamed for Sir Ranulph to conquer it
* (the healthy bit) the smallest bottle of orange juice I've ever seen outside of a carton.

All that for just £6. A bargain! But let's face it, there's no mirror in the world going to give you a Kate Moss bottom if you eat all that in one go.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009


If one of my old editors were alive today I suspect he might write the following memo to his staff.

"It is inevitable that the words 'MPs', 'expenses' and 'scandal' may, from time to time and quite reasonably, occur in this newspaper. However, I do not ever wish to see these words appearing next to each other."

I am not sure what more there is to write about this depressing saga; God knows enough real and virtual print has been expended on it to drive even the most ardent bean counting member of ICA (England and Wales) to despair. I cannot get away from the feeling these three words, or their French equivalent (deputé, frais, scandale), would never appear in the same sentence in the press here. The very idea that France's elected representatives should account for the spending of personal allowances or that we should learn they spent it on moats, chandeliers, loo rolls, HobNobs or whatever, is risible enough. Resign? Add incredulity to ruptured spleens and mass hilarity.

There were raised eyebrows a few years ago when food bills run up at the taxpayers' expense by Jacques Chirac when Mayor of Paris, and his wife Bernadette were investigated. The receipts revealed a penchant for foie gras, truffles, organic yoghurt and chocolate mousse. While it was true the £100 the Chiracs allegedly spent on fruit and vegetables and £36 on tea and coffee a day suggested they were doing their five-a-day and caffeine intravenously at the same time, but nothing ever came of it mostly because he was by then president and beyond prosecution.

The Frenchman believes the British row is heading into dangerous territory. He points out, presciently I fear, that far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of France's Front National, has made a successful career out of claiming, among other things, that the French political system is rotten; so successful he was voted into the run-off in the 2002 presidential election.

But never mind the chocolate biscuits and toilet paper. Call me venal and disgusting but in what privileged parallel universe do people "forget" or "not realise" they have paid off their mortgage? I know interest rates are low, but we're not talking about settling the milk bill here.

Perhaps I should be less cynical. And perhaps I should have kept La Fille at home today after she woke up this morning and announced: "I can't go to school. I've a headache, my eyes hurt, my tummy's sore and my leg is broken."

Monday, 4 May 2009

Man's Inhumanity to Man

Over the last couple of weeks the French papers have carried pictures of a dark-haired woman in large glasses whose face is etched with unimaginable pain. She is Ruth Halimi, the mother of Ilan Halimi, a young Parisien mobile telephone salesman who was kidnapped, tortured and murdered in 2006, allegedly by a group of youngsters who called themselves the "Barbarians".

The details emerging from the trial of those accused of Ilan Halimi's murder are truly horrific and should bring tears to the most hard-hearted or tragedy inured. The story has been in some British papers, but bears repeating, in my view, not least because it reminds us of the wide and varied forms man's inhumanity to fellow man can take. Ilan Halimi, aged 23, was lured into a honey trap by a pretty girl acting on the instructions of the gang leader, the court heard. Having persuaded the young man to meet her, Ilan Halimi was then pounced on by the gang. He was, we learned, stripped naked and kept prisoner for 24 days during which his head apart from his nose was almost entirely covered in tape and he was stabbed, prodded, burned with cigarettes and beaten. A ransom was demanded of his family. At the end of his three week and three day ordeal he was dumped naked near a railroad in a Paris suburb; one ear and a toe had been severed and he had been covered with an inflammable liquid or acid causing burns to 80% of his body. He died in an ambulance on the way to hospital. Ilan Halimi was Jewish and apparently snatched because the head of the gang - a Muslim - believed Jews to be rich and instilled with a sense of social solidarity meaning they would be more likely to come up with the demanded six-figure ransom. Arguments, on which I make no comment, continue over whether the murder was motivated by anti-Semitism or money.

What is as deeply troubling as the above details is that there are 27 young people, two of them minors at the time of the murder, in the dock. Yes, 27 - TWENTY SEVEN - people. That's 27 people accused of being involved or having knowledge of what was happening to Ilan Halimi while it was happening not one of whom thought to inform the police or raise the alarm even anonymously.

In 20 years as a foreign correspondent I have witnessed some very gruesome events at first hand. The Balkan wars supplied enough material for a lifetime of horror movies, among them a Croatian village where dozens of mainly elderly residents had been massacred by a vaguely paramilitary group some using chainsaws to cut them in half (better not to dwell too much on the premeditation involved or the physical consequences). There was the Bosnian village where women and children and old men had been herded into the basement of a house, covered in petrol and burned alive their charred skeletons captured in the throes of an agonising death. There were first hand accounts of the Omarska prison camp and Srebrenica, arguably the most shameful act of negligence in post Second World War European history. In another hemisphere there were children in Sierra Leone who had had their ears and noses and limbs chopped off by machete wielding savages who had demanded: "long sleeve or short sleeve" before amputating their arms or hands.

But it is a long time since I have seen or heard anything to make me feel so helplessly angry and cry such bitter, bitter tears as the story of Ilan Halimi. I do not know how Ruth Halimi can bear the grief so profoundly written on her it is almost tangible. She has suffered the death of her beloved son and last week she must have suffered his death a thousand times over as the man accused of his murder swaggered and shouted his defiance and showed not the slightest hint of remorse raining blows upon the mother as he was accused of doing to the son. As Ruth Halimi contained herself, rocking back and forth in her seat in court, the so-called chief barbarian grinned and joked.

I only wish I had something profound and redeeming to say about all this, but I haven't. As a mother and a human being I just feel for Ruth Halimi.