Monthly Archives: November 2018

WHISTLE WHILE YOU WORK

Did you know that we toil one day longer than the Germans do? Research has revealed that Britain has the worst work/life balance in Western Europe. A study has found that the UK has the highest proportion of employees working more than 50 hours a week. It means Britons spend 225 more hours at work than their German counterparts every year – giving them less time to relax and unwind.

Scandinavian countries topped the list of the world’s industrialised nations with the best work/life balance, while the United States, Japan and South Korea are languishing at the bottom. The work/life index was compiled by on-line retailer Mahabis, whose founder Ankur Shah said: ‘The stresses and strains of modern life have seen peoples’ work/life balance suffer and this is particularly true in the UK. A healthy, happy workforce can drive productivity and creativity, but these figures reveal that Brits are among the most guilty of committing more time to their jobs, rather than finding time to switch off. We can all do more to recognise the importance of downtime, which can benefit individuals, businesses and society as a whole.’

Mahabis ranked 20 industrialised nations, 7 individual measures, then combined them into an overall rank. Britain came 16th, beating only Greece, the US, Japan and South Korea. Denmark topped the list followed by Norway and Sweden. More than 1 in 8 Britons (12.7%) work more than 50 hours a week – a figure exceeded only by Japan and South Korea. In France the figure is just 7.76% and in Germany 4.6%. Only 0.45% of workers in the Netherlands and 1.1% of workers in Sweden work more than 50 hours.

The average UK employee worked 1,681 hours in 2017 – far more than Germans (1356) or Danes (1408). The work/life index takes into account a range of factors which contribute to a healthy balance including the average number of hours worked each year, statuary leave available to employees, time dedicated to leisure and personal care, and overall happiness.

The only indicator where the UK performed highly is in paid maternity time leave. The 39 weeks in Britain are fewer than in Norway but well ahead of the 14 weeks in Germany and the 16 in France.There are only 20 paid statuary days off a year in the UK compared to 25 in France, and 30 in Spain. And Britain has only 8 days of holidays. Only one country, Switzerland, has fewer with 7. However, workers in the US do not have a single day of statuary paid leave.

Mahabis based its ranking on figures collated by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development and the International Labour Organization. The issue of work/life balance came to the fore at the TUC conference this year. Labour said it would look into introducing a statuary 4-day week.

Although in general, long working hours do not necessarily increase productivity, I personally prefer the notion of being occupied most of the day. With me it has always been an addiction which I believe has kept me alive and in reasonably good nick.

THE BEST OF GIFTS FOR THE HOLIDAY AHEAD…

In a few days’ time Quartet publish a blockbuster anthology, NO LONGER WITH US Encounters with Naim Attallah: 50 interviews that I conducted with the great and the not so good during the last years of the 1990s. Running to nearly 900 pages, I am startled to re-discover just how many legendary and iconic men and women I had the privilege to talk with and record their thoughts for posterity. It’s worth a brief memoir of the book’s history.

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In October 1989 Quartet announced a new book, Singular Encounters, to be published in the autumn of 1990. The subject was to be about men and would consist of an exhaustive study of twenty-five of them. The interviews, designed to unlock the subjects’ innermost secrets, would cover their private and professional lives, their ambitions and aspirations, and would delve into areas that carried the warning: ‘proceed at your own risk’. From the start I saw the book as a highly ambitious project, one that was bound to determine my future as an interviewer. The men I was seeking to engage were leaders in their respective fields and were unlikely to make any concessions to the fact that I was a novice in this journalistic medium. ‘It’s not going to be yet another book of interviews,’ I told the Evening Standard firmly. ‘I’m doing it for the challenge. My reputation as a writer will rise or fall on the book.’

My first sortie into the world of interviewing had been the collection Women, published in October 1987. That book was comparatively simple. My natural affinity with women had been an immeasurable help. I could not as yet advance the claim to have a similar affinity with men. Whether or not the right empathy was there would only emerge with time. Moreover, where the women’s book had been, broadly speaking, a compendium of their views on subjects affecting women in general, the men’s book would aim to present an individual in-depth study of each participant. As such it needed more background research and a more focused concentration during the interviews. The difficulties were exacerbated by the slating Women had received at the hands of a large majority of critics and commentators. The general tone had been to hold up to ridicule the two hundred and eighty-nine women who had accepted the invitation to appear in its pages. I was anxious that this might now become a discouraging factor, deterring some men from agreeing to a serious encounter with me. Fortunately my fears turned out to be without foundation and most of the men I approached were happy to oblige. Throughout my adult life I had always loved the notion of discourse, especially when the other person involved was either a highly endowed magnate or one whose rise to fame made him intolerably self- involved and rather irritably pompous. My memory of some of the interviews, chosen at random, may show what I mean.

One reluctant target was Mark Birley of Harry’s Bar and Annabel’s. He procrastinated but in the end agreed to be a victim. Until then he had always refused to submit to any press coverage and his inclusion in the book was a bit of a coup. However, it was a chance I almost missed. On the appointed day I was struck down with flu. If I had cancelled he would no doubt have jumped at the excuse not to reconvene the session at another time. To ensure this could not happen, I rose from my sickbed suffering from a fevered, aching body, swallowed two codeine tablets and phoned Mark’s secretary to confirm I would be arriving for our appointment. To my astonishment, as if by a conjunction of fate, she told me Mark had the flu as well but would be willing to do the interview at home if I was happy to make the effort. We ended up sipping champagne together in a state of near delirium and conducting a serious conversation in a codeine-induced haze. The unusual encounter marked the beginning of a close and remarkable friendship that remained strong over the years.

Lord Goodman raised a stumbling block of a different order. I saw him over a lavish breakfast at his London flat, initially to be assessed for my suitability to be an interviewer of this giant among men. I outlined the concept of the book for him and mentioned several people who had agreed to participate, including Lord Alexander QC and Lord Rees-Mogg. Evidently I passed muster because a month later I conducted the interview itself. Then, a few days later, a letter arrived from Lord Goodman withdrawing his permission for publication on the grounds that Richard Ingrams would be appearing in the same volume: ‘It was inexcusable to have lured me with a number of respectable names and to have withheld the fact that Mr Ingrams is to be included in the book.’ I replied with a soothing letter, reminding him of his avowed opposition to censorship and questioning the wisdom of bowing out in vexation. The strategy worked, though his reply was designed to put me in my place: ‘In view of your pathetic plea, I am prepared, albeit reluctantly, to allow the interview to appear.’ I heaved a sigh of relief. Lord Goodman, a staunch defender of the cause of the arts, commanded great respect as a legal adviser to both political wings and the establishment itself. He knew nearly everyone in British public life and had been called upon to advise virtually every great national institution. Indeed, he came close to being a national institution himself.

Harold Acton made a sharp contrast: though he had the reputation befitting a grand aesthete, I found him easy-going and charm itself. Our interview took place in Florence over dinner at his home, La Pietra, a Renaissance villa that was like a domestic museum full of countless objets d’art and priceless paintings collected by his family over the years. I had visited him there many times, mostly for tea or dinner, when he would engage in affectionate gossip about his great friend Tony Lambton, or regale me with the latest scandals making the rounds in the small circle of Florentine society, taking especial delight in any sexual peccadilloes. He considered me an amusing dinner companion – a welcome change from certain other guests, who tended to be academic and whom he labelled stuffy and boring. He often cancelled a dinner date with them in preference for spending an evening of banter with me. As a student at Oxford, Harold had been well known for flouting convention and mixing in male undergraduate circles where bisexuality was in vogue. His close friends included Auberon Waugh’s father, Evelyn, who reputedly used him as a model for some of the more outrageous characters in his novels. I used to tease Harold about girls and enquire if he had ever slept with one. He would put on a show of being greatly shocked at this sudden intrusion into his private life before rolling his eyes and smiling an enigmatic smile. Then he would tap me coyly on the hand as if chastising me for being such a ‘naughty boy’. This only encouraged me to urge him on. Harold entertained well, but he had one curious phobia about electricity consumption. When I needed to visit the cloakroom he would escort me to switch on the light and linger in the vicinity to make sure it was switched off again after I emerged. It was part of his economy drive to maintain his lifestyle without compromising it with waste. Or that was how he explained it.

John Kenneth Galbraith, the world-renowned economist, was a difficult proposition: he was imperious and patronizing. From the outset he tried to dwarf me by orchestrating every aspect of our conversation, refusing to give me a straight answer when he felt a question might compromise him. Instead he would skirt around it and avoid tackling its essence; or refrain from being specific when challenged. Whenever I tried to insist on a proper response to a question, he brushed it aside with a curt dismissal: ‘Move on to the next question.’ The tone in his voice made it clear he meant what he said and I knew that, if I stood my ground, I would soon be shown the door. Since he was a name to be reckoned with, I swallowed my pride and moved on under his overbearing direction. Eating humble pie was better than having no portion of pie at all. He was a man totally secure in his self-confidence and impressively grand in his immense knowledge. The experience of meeting him was worth it for the painful lesson it gave me in self-control.

My interview with Conor Cruise O’Brien was very heated at times and ended with O’Brien being less than happy with the outcome. In some ways I think this interview was my fiercest, especially when I asked him how he reacted to the accusation made by many people that he was ‘a British stooge’ and when I queried his refusal to be less biased about Israel, his fury was obvious.

Monsignor Alfred Gilbey, the ultra-orthodox Catholic Society priest who resided, till his death a few months after I interviewed him, at the Travellers’ Club in Pall Mall, was for decades a chaplain at Cambridge. He lived in grand style and entertained his guests for dinner at the club with healthy measures of good wine, obviously not believing that abstinence from culinary pleasures was needed to ensure an easy passage to heaven. For the interview, I met him for dinner and then retired with him to a quiet corner to conduct it. He certainly had a rare eloquence and gave the impression of a single-minded individual who was not afraid to court controversy, especially when it came to his views on women. Tackled directly on the subject, he swiftly emerged as a woman-hater extraordinaire, nostalgic for the days when universities and other institutions were strictly male preserves.

I particularly wanted to interview John Updike. He was the American writer of his generation with the most distinguished and prolific output, who had dissected the suburban sexual mores of small-town America. The snag was that he then rarely gave interviews. As André Deutsch was his publisher in Britain, I asked him if he thought he could persuade Updike to meet me. André said he would do what he could but could promise nothing. Eventually he came back and said Updike would be willing to see me in Boston, but had stipulated that the interview must be restricted to forty-five minutes. I naturally gibbed at this impossibly meagre concession, but André said well, it was either that or nothing. I flew to Boston specially and Updike came to my hotel room as arranged. Once he got going, our conversation went on for almost two hours. In his own memoirs he had described himself as malicious, greedy for a quota of life’s pleasures, an obnoxious show-off, rapacious and sneaky. This certainly did not really match my perception of him.

I was especially pleased with Robert Kee’s review for the Literary Review, starting it off by observing that if you were watching a brilliant conjurer it was the trick you noticed rather than the man’s personality, wondering only afterwards how the trick was done. ‘So it is with Naim Attallah, a magician interviewer of the highest order … Only an interviewer of quality could get, as Attallah does, a nun, a consecrated virgin as the technical term goes, to say: “I don’t actually believe the state of the hymen has very much to do with the holiness of the person; it’s just a fact like whether you have all your teeth,” or bring someone once described as the cleverest man in the world to say: “I do not believe in the unconscious.” . . . Attallah has a guileless way of asking questions. Seldom for him “with due respect”, etc.’

I was most happy with his comments of my interview – the longest in the book – with Lord Healey, who had been interviewed many times before and was known as an ‘old bruiser’:

Even here the charge of overfamiliarity was avoided by the interviewer’s freshness of approach, his use not just of intelligence, knowledge and energy, but his ability to make people actually enjoy answering his questions, which leads to an agreeable surprise or two. Lord Healey . . . is happy to proclaim in one breath the interesting news that he has more and more in common with Wordsworth and in the next denounce himself as a ‘clapped-out old fart’. He has never seemed less clapped-out.

Looking back, I am amazed at the variety, diversity and differences in all these interviews. I am surprised, even happy, that most of them still contain much that is relevant today. It is in that spirit that I offer them again, in part to celebrate the lives of some remarkable people but to also allow a new generation to discover thoughts and observations which still help all the face the problems ahead.

With an Introduction by Richard Ingrams, No Longer With Us is too big for the Christmas stocking but is a hugely solid and satisfactory present for anyone of a certain age or knowledge of the most interesting movers and shakers of our times. As the jacket proclaims: ‘The fifty interviews, reprinted in their entirety, all display the wit, wisdom and life experience of a remarkable range of unforgettable and now legendary personalities. The shocking reality is that so many read as if conducted only yesterday.’

RIP VAN WINKLE HAD IT EASY

How conflicting some studies, embarked upon by scientists, turn out to be. The latest example is apropos Neanderthals, who in previous studies have been depicted as slouched, ape-like cavemen – but it appears that nothing could be further from the truth. A study of the most complete skeleton unearthed to date shows that they were more upright than humans and had stronger lungs than even we enjoy today. It adds to growing evidence that the mysterious human species were far more sophisticated than previously assumed.

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A team, led by Dr Asler Gomez Olivencia of the University of the Basque Country in Bilbao, used CT scans of the fossilised skeleton – a 60,000 year old male dubbed ‘Kebra2’ – to create a model of his chest. He said: ‘The shape of the thorax, which includes the rib cage and upper spine and formed a cavity to house the heart and lungs, was key to understanding how Neanderthals moved because it informed us about their breathing and balance. The spine is located more inside the thorax which provides more stability,’ said Dr Gomez Olivencia. ‘Also, the thorax is wider in its lower parts. This shape suggests a larger diaphragm and thus greater lung capacity.’

Fellow researcher, Dr Elia Been of Ono Academy College, Israel, said: ‘The wide lower thorax and the horizontal orientation of the ribs suggest they relied more on their diaphragm for breathing. Modern humans, on the other hand, rely both on the diaphragm and on the expansion of the rib cage for breathing.’

The team say the study – published in the online journal Nature Communications – redraws the hunched brutish and ape-like caveman as a straighter-backed version of the modern human, with more powerful lungs. Neanderthals became extinct 40,000 years ago. Recent studies have shown they had brains as large as ours and may well have interbred with early humans.

How very exciting….

‘HE WAS A BRAVE MAN WHO FIRST ATE AN OYSTER’ Jonathan Swift

Are raw oysters, which have long been rumoured to be a potent aphrodisiac, the seafood of love? Casanova himself was said to have gulped down 50 for breakfast every day, and now scientists have found that couples who eat a lot of seafood – ranging from oysters to oily fish – have sex more often and are more likely to conceive. This may be because nutrients in fish and shell fish can stimulate ovulation, and boost sperm quality and embryo development. Audrey Gaskins, one of the US researchers from Harvard University, said: ‘Our study found that couples who consume more than 2 servings of seafood per week while trying to get pregnant had a significantly higher frequency of sexual intercourse and shorter time to pregnancy.’

The scientists aimed to determine the relationship between seafood consumption and time to pregnancy by asking 500 couples to keep a diary recording their seafood intake and sexual activity. They found that 92% of those who ate seafood more than twice a week had conceived by the end of the year – compared with 79% of those who had eaten less.

The link between seafood consumption and a greater likelihood of pregnancy could not be entirely explained by the couples having more sex, researchers said. Instead, biological factors relating to beneficial nutrients in seafood were thought to be a significant factor, according to the study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.

Dr Gaskins added: ‘Our results stress the importance of not only female but also male diets on time to pregnancy, and suggests that both partners should be incorporating more seafood into their diet for the maximum fertility benefit.’ The NHS advises that women who are trying to get pregnant should limit their oily fish consumption to two portions a week, but there is no limit to shellfish.

The association to oysters and sex dates back to the Romans. Galen, the most renowned physician of the ancient Roman Empire, prescribed them as a cure for the loss of libido. In the same context, the shellfish also featured in the 1967 James Bond film, You Only Live Twice. Bond, played by Sean Connery, is offered a plate of oysters by a woman who is pretending to be his bride. But when she tells the spy that she will not sleep with him, he pushes them away with the words, ‘Well, I won’t need these.’

Smart fellow is all I can say, otherwise James Bond he ain’t!

WALKING BACK TO HAPPINESS

For those who hate a lengthy exercise, they need not worry any longer. Health officials say we don’t have to notch up 10,000 steps… A brisk 10-minute walk could be a good alternative. It’s hailed as the magic number to reach every day if you want to stay fit and healthy. However, they want people to increase the intensity of the walking rather than just focus on the distance. Just 10 minutes of brisk walking – around 1,000 steps – can cut our chances of an early death by up to 15%, according to new guidance from Public Health, England and the Royal College of GPs.

One in five middle-aged adults in England is physically inactive, meaning they do less than 30 minutes of physical activity a week. Nearly a third – 31% – blame not having enough time, while around a quarter say they are too tired to exercise regularly. Health officials say a daily brisk walk is a simple and effective way to increase heart rate and improve overall health. The official recommendation for adults is to carry out 150 minutes a week of moderate to vigorous physical activity. Doing this much exercise has been linked to a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers.

In a Public Health England poll of 3000 adults, 87% said they already walk more than 10 minutes a day – although only 54% said they walk at a brisk pace. The government agency has now created an app – ‘Active 10’- which measures time spent and the intensity of walking, as well as distance.

Professor Paul Cosford, Medical Director of PHE, said: ‘Managing all the pressures of everyday life can mean that exercise takes a back seat but building a brisk walk into your daily routine is a simple way to get more active. Taking a brisk 10-miniute walk each day will get your heart pumping, improve your mood and lower the risk of serious health issues.’

It comes after a study found older people who walk at a brisk pace were 53% less likely to die from a heart attack or stroke than those who dawdled. For those of any age, keeping up a fast or average speed – between 3 and 4.3 mph – cut the risk of death from any cause by more than 20% over a 15-year period, researchers found.

Professor Helen Stokes Lampard, Chairman of the Royal College of GPs said: ‘Small, often simple lifestyle changes can have a really positive impact on our health. There has been a substantial rise in patients who have developed multiple long-term conditions in recent years and many of these, including type 2 diabetes and heart disease, are linked to not being active enough.’

Most fitness trackers, such as Fitbit, encourage users to walk 10,000 steps a day. It is believed the concept originated in Japan in the run-up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics when a pedometer – called ‘Manpo-kei’ which translates as ‘10,000 steps meter’ – became popular among the health conscious.

Well, we are told how much exercise is beneficial but to get cracking is not an easy task if you are not used to it, especially if you are elderly.

THE PLUS AND MINUS OF LOVE

Why being in a couple apparently does make you fat. It is all to do with love as you are most likely to put on weight when in a relationship than if you are single, scientists have claimed. A study of more than 15,000 people over nine years has found those in couples are less likely to be a normal weight than singles, widowed or divorced people. While the researchers did find that couples tend to eat more fruit and vegetables, and are less likely to smoke and drink alcohol to excess, there are other factors which could be causing them to pile on the pounds.

Their report states ‘marriage or de facto relationships come with spousal obligations such as regular family meals. While they may include more healthy foods such as fruit and vegetables and less fast-food, people often consume large portion sizes and more calories in the company of others than they do alone, resulting in increased energy intake.’

Researchers at Central Queensland University in Australia, who conducted the study, also suggest that married people gain weight because they no longer need to remain thin to attract a mate. Lead author Dr Stephanie Schoeppe told New Scientist magazine: ‘When couples don’t need to look attractive to attract a partner they may feel more comfortable in eating more or eating foods high in fat and sugar. When couples have children in the household, they tend to eat their leftovers or snacks.’

The study found that both couples and single people were likely to meet recommendations for exercise and watch a similar amount of television. Data comparing the body mass index (BMI) of couples and singletons was taken from surveys conducted between 2005 and 2014. Previous research has found couples tend to become overweight, lazy and sedentary two years into a relationship.

Now that I’m a widower I tend to eat much less than before and to a larger degree I seem to have lost the pleasure of eating. It’s a real shame…

THE MEMORY OF ALL THAT

Memory is the greatest problem of old age. If this could be sorted out, then the so-called oldies will have less stress and a more peaceful life. With the progress of science, nothing seems to be beyond the realm of possibility.

In a radical experiment, one character’s memories are moved to another’s brain. It sounds like the plot of a science-fiction film. But fantasy is closer to becoming a reality after neuroscientists were able to transfer a memory from one animal to another.

The memories were the recollections of being given a mild electric shock, in sea slugs zapped repeatedly for two days. When material from their brains was injected into sea slugs that had never been shocked, they reacted exactly the same way to the weak touch of a wire.

The results suggest memories can be physically transferred and follow claims from experiments in the 1960s that this could lead to ‘memory pills’ or jabs. The authors of the latest study, from the University of California in Los Angeles, say it could lead to a treatment to block unwanted memories – just like in the film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The study says its results offer ‘dramatic support’ for the idea that memory can be stored in ribonucleic acid, or RNA – the biochemical cousin of DNA – which is used to copy and transport our genetic code.

‘Our results suggest that RNA could eventually be used to modify, either enhance or depress memories.’ The UCLA scientists, led by Professor David Glanzman, observed that the frightened sea slugs learned to pull their gills into their bodies in response to an electric shock. Untrained slugs, which should have been unafraid of an electrical wire, also retracted their gills after being injected in the necks with RMA from the frightened slugs. Other slugs, not given the injections, did not react according to the study published in the journal eNeuro.

Professor George Kemenes of the University of Sussex said: ‘It might give rise to novel treatment to eliminate memories related to post-dramatic stress syndrome or to alleviate memory loss caused by dementia, but that could be a long time away.’

As I said at the outset, any progress in the memory region could be a blessing whenever it happens.