Sorry for the silence recently. Operation Bridesmaid (OB) is still up and running but so is Operation get-the-house-ready-for-the-wedding which has involved sanding garden furniture, stripping walls of newspaper and cutting ten acres of lawn: all keeping me active I suppose.

Most importantly, the dress fits! So we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief, or at least I would join in but the dress is quite snug around the rib cage, so lady-like half breaths it is for me.

This is my third week of a month at home before the wedding, which is on July 4 (non-independence day) and I think the move back came at just the right time. I had been doing OB for almost two months and was starting to lose a bit of motivation and plateau. 

In coming back I had to change my routine and the instructor whose classes I go to now works entirely differently from the one at my other gym in Cardiff. That is not to say either are better or worse, just that they have very different methods and techniques which is good for shocking the body.

The classes I am doing are similar in name – combat, boxfit, circuits, LBT (legs, bums and tums) – but very different in style. Lee, my instructor up here goes very much for short explosive exercises and these achieve the same kind of results as interval training.  One class he teaches which I didn’t do in Cardiff  is kettlebells. This is VERY tough and not for the faint hearted.

Here’s a video of the kettlebells in action:

Lee’s kettlebell class uses very similar exercises. I did it yesterday and lets just say the hamstrings and quads are killing today. It is definitely a class I would recommend to others: it gets the heart pumping, works on your muscular endurance and burns fat all in one.

And as Lee says, “It’s only pain, it won’t kill you.”

It must be all the double cream

It must be all the double cream

I was both shocked and appalled by the article “No pain no gain” in The Sunday Times Style yesterday. Spread over four pages, this was an article espousing the benefits of crash dieting over losing weight in a more steady and sensible fashion.

First of all the title, No pain no gain, how Draconian. As it happens, I agree with them but I think I mean a different sort of pain. I’m talking of the kind you get the morning after a good run or boxercise class, when your muscles ache because you’ve had a good work out. They are talking about a constant niggling of hunger, not to mention the emotional pain felt when one inevitably falls off the crash-diet-wagon and stuffs the nearest thing resembling carbs down one’s throat. (Ouch, cardboard hurts.)

The imagery they use supports their idea of extremes. On the first double page spread there is a picture of a corset with a measuring tape pulled around the waist, straining it in. The invisible person wearing this corset seems to have a waist of approximately 25 inches. Is that the kind of measurement anyone apart from Victoria Beckham should realistically be aiming towards? (And I only say Victoria Beckham should be because that would entail putting on a few pounds.)

Now on to the thrust of the article. “New research shows that far from being bad for you, crash diets can be a safe and effective way to keep the pounds off,” proclaims the standfirst. Yes, you’ve got it, Tufts University in Massachusetts (a very honourable institution I’m sure) says it’s true so it must be.

To be fair to Olivia Gordon – the woman who wrote the piece – she does give the balancing view of Dr Peter Rowan who warns dieting and eating disorders go hand in hand (shocker) but really the damage has already been done. If someone even gets to this token section, tacked on the end of the article, they have already been lambasted with six paragraphs on the ‘joys’ of crash dieting:

“So what if we fasted for 48 hours, drinking only water, diet cola and black coffee, then munched a 400-calorie meal then fasted again for 48 hours more? We lost 1st in four days – even if it was dangerously extreme.”

It is precisely because of attitudes like this I want to get into the health and fitness sector. Somebody has to fight (and write) against all the drivel out there filling women’s heads with nonsense. Is it too much to ask for some responsible journalism where the issue of weight is concerned? People seem to forget the influence their articles can have and I expected more from Style to be honest.

The only saving grace was provided by the case study. Simon Glazin describes how he lost 7st in three months through using meal-replacement drinks in an effort to take control of his weight (21st at the time). In conjunction with his Dr and with the support of his family and friends Simon managed to turn his life around. He acknowledges such drastic action is not best-suited to everybody, “I would never suggest such a dramatic diet programme to just anyone. It worked for me mainly because it had to.”

But any good work done by this far from stereotypical advocate of ‘the right crash diet in the right circumstances,’ is promptly undone by the box-out alongside: “Crash and burn – extreme diets we love to hate” which provides a handy summary of the best crash diets and which celebrities endorse them. Thanks Style, where would I be without you?

 

N.B Following a comment from Olivia herself, here is a link to the online version of her article. I don’t think it illustrates the points I made about the layout, headline and strap but the writing is the same.

Playwright, novelist, screenwriter: A man hungry for ideas who cannot help but write. Esther Armstrong profiles Julian Mitchell’s career

Julian Mitchell is a gay writer. But he does not wish to be defined as such, “I do not regard myself as a gay writer. I write and I hope I can write anything.” And indeed he can. Born in May 1935, Mitchell is a playwright, a screenwriter and a novelist. Since taking up the pen at the age of 14 he has covered an array of topics but is perhaps best known for his contribution to the ITV drama institution Inspector Morse. However, despite his protestations, it would seem he does have a habit of looking to his own life for inspiration.

Mitchell describes the final night of Another Country as his proudest moment in a career spanning more than 50 years, and an occasion which made him cry. Based in 1930s England, the play deals with homosexuality in public schools and on its last showing in the 1980s, packed a West End theatre to the rafters. Mitchell himself boarded at Winchester College as a boy and admits he can identify with the experiences of the main characters, “We all assumed when we were young that this was just a phase out of which we would grow, and 90 per cent of people did. But it was a shock when you didn’t.”

This attitude towards homosexual activity is something Mitchell revisited in his film Consenting Adults (2007) – written for BBC4 in commemoration of the Wolfenden Report (1957). The film depicts the controversy surrounding the final suggestion by a government committee to decriminalise homosexuality. Adding to the complexity and drama is the relationship between John Wolfenden, who chairs the committee, and his son Jeremy, who happens to be gay. Again Mitchell’s art imitates life, “My father hated homosexuality and thought it was a crime. My mother never talked about it.

 “I was at least 25 before I fully adapted,” he continues, “It was very difficult in those days. I do not know how easy it is now. I never did tell my parents. But they knew.” Despite writing Consenting Adults, Mitchell is unsure of how important it is to educate young people today on the Wolfenden Report and its importance for the progress of gay rights. In his view society is much more relaxed now, “It seemed when I was younger things were never going to change. Then the law was changed and five years later nobody could remember it had ever existed. In this country I think people have become incredibly liberal in my lifetime.”

 Mitchell does not think he is unusual in drawing inspiration from his own experiences and says a little defensively, “Every writer writes about his family. You learn about human relationships very young and very early on.” Now, aged 74, he lives with his partner in Monmouthshire and says he does not like to define himself as either English or Welsh. Following a period of relative quiet, he is currently working on a series of six novels set in Monmouthshire which shows again his propensity to draw from what goes on around him. Inspiration, he says, comes along far less often than you would think, “I just drift around, I read, I listen, I look and I hope something will happen.”

 But Mitchell is not necessarily a modest man, “What is the point in writing if nobody is going to read it… I have written two [of the Monmouthshire series] so far and they are sitting in a box waiting for a publisher.” On saying that he has no plans to retire any time soon, “I would die if I didn’t write,” he imparts with no unnecessary drama.

 An avid reader of history, Mitchell wrote a biographical film of Oscar Wilde (Wilde) in 1997, something which he enjoyed tremendously. “When you are writing historically you are making them up… I did history as a student and I still read a lot. The imaginative effort to getting into the past is a great pleasure for me.”

 At times taciturn and at other times eager to share, Mitchell is an extremely interesting man who finds great delight in the world around him. Clearly capable of wowing a crowd he is both entertaining and fascinating in equal measure. But typically of men his age he does not seem inclined to sentimentality and this makes it all the more heart-warming when he temporarily lets his guard slip, “I met my partner at a dinner party. I arrived and there was an empty space opposite. He arrived late, he’s always late. I looked across the table and my life was changed.”

 

 

 

Julia's book <i>East of the Sun<i/> won Romantic Novel of the Year Award 2009

Julia's book East of the Sun won Romantic Novel of the Year Award 2009

 

 

 

They say everybody has a book in them. But it seems for some the book just writes itself. Is it easier to write if you have had an eventful life? And when is the best age to start? Esther Armstrong caught up with 2009’s Romantic Novel of the Year Award winner, Julia Gregson, to get some tips.

This is a woman who was asked by Muhammad Ali to affirm he was the sexiest person she had ever seen; someone who was so star-struck during an interview with Bob Dylan that she forgot the golden rule of listening; and a professional who found that even as she talked to him in jail serving his sentence for the Great Train Robbery, she was not immune to the charm of Ronnie Biggs.

Julia Gregson has had a career many could only ever dream of and yet, at the age of 61 she is still not ready to slow down. “I love the feeling of being gathered up and working on as many cylinders as possible,” she says. Having worked as a journalist since her mid-20s, Julia has recently branched out into novels.

In what could be described as a second career, Julia is finding out how different types of writing require a unique approach. While working on a novel she aims to write 1,000 words a day but will also “tinker” with what she has written the day before in what she calls a “warm-up exercise”. 

She compares a novel to a patchwork quilt; in the progress of fitting it together she draws ideas from various life experiences. And this is why Julia feels writing novels at a later stage in life can be more rewarding, “It’s much sweeter at my age. For me I could not have written a novel in my 20s, I did not have the discipline, self-belief or even the desire if I am honest.” 

Confidence is a theme she returns to time and again and is something she has developed with age. “Every time I have tried to take the next step I have had this sort of period of thinking ‘I cannot do this’. There’s always a mental block with me that has to be overcome. 

“There’s something about going through the process over and over again and learning what your own weaknesses are… It’s like a muscle you have learned to work, the more you do it the more instinctive it becomes.” 

Julia also feels better equipped to deal with the finer aspects of success now she is in her 60s, “It can be awfully overwhelming, suddenly everybody is being so nice to you. If it had happened at a younger age then I might have taken it too literally and expected it to always be like that.” 

Being older makes her wiser, and contrary to what you would expect Julia does not feel an overwhelming pressure to improve on the success of East of the Sun – the novel which won her the award. “The success of my last book has given me more confidence to keep going and to know that if I go through the process something will happen at the other end.”

 This is a clear example of how her journey as writer has developed alongside her journey as an individual. Not for a moment does Julia regret spending her formative years as a journalist. She acknowledges that had she started on novels earlier she might have greater literary notoriety by now but explains, “I loved being a journalist and would not have enjoyed such a solitary life in the early years.”

 And she did, of course, learn some transferable skills: the knowledge of what makes a good story, “It is like a prickling in your scalp and you know you are prepared to spend the time on it,” she says. Equally important is to write on topics that interest her, “If I was to try and write a book about middle-aged women going through marital angst it would not consume me.”

 But while it may sound pedantic, for those starting out, Julia advises one simple step: to write. She feels the worst trap can be thinking that everything you write must be deep and meaningful. “Sit down every morning and just write for 20 minutes about anything. It can be absolute rubbish… then piece together the bits where you feel excited about it.”

 Similarly she cautions against writing groups as she feels it can be destructive in the early stages of a piece. Instead, she favours a group of writer friends which she uses as a support network. “None of us share our work in progress… we get together and moan a lot, encourage and occasionally bully each other.”

 Her latest book, Jasmine Nights is due out in of August next year and it would seem even those with experience are not immune to the odd computer related pitfall, “I lost about 3,000 words in a computer error yesterday and I almost had a heart attack.”

 Above all she advocates writing with passion, “It’s an addiction. For me I feel my most alive when I am writing.” So with her final piece of advice Julia Gregson, a natural story-teller, leaves the room and I am left with an overriding compulsion to write. I better get cracking.

This guy maybe knew what he was doing...

This guy maybe knew what he was doing...

Today I was at the gym and I saw something which made my blood boil: two guys lifting weights that were obviously too heavy for them, and letting their form suffer as a consequence.

When I say form, what I mean is their posture and positioning, a crucial element of both gaining results and remaining injury free.

As I sat on the bike, watching with a morbid fascination I usually reserve for Discovery Channel documentaries,  I actually had to stop myself from going over and saying something to these berks. I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have thanked me anyway.

But this prompted me to wonder where the members of staff were? On each machine in the gym there’s a notice advising you to ask floor staff if you are having any trouble. Putting aside the stubborn pride of most men, surely an instructor should always be on hand to dispense information and keep an eye out for dangerous use of equipment?

On the way out, I mentioned to one of the instructors what I had witnessed, “Ah those guys,” he remarked, “They’ve been coming here for years and we’ve given up trying to tell them what they are doing wrong – they just don’t listen.”

Maybe not quite the right attitude, but in all fairness he did then spend five minutes telling me the main principles of good form so I could write this blog post. Here’s what he had to say:

1. Engage your core muscles – very important for supporting your back, doing this will also help tone and flatten your stomach. And it’s not limited to weight lifting either, when doing cardio you should try to remember to keep your pelvic and abdominal muscles tight. In gym classes, good instructors will usually remind you – on average every other minute to, “Pull your belly-button towards your spine.”

2. Keep your knees soft – locking your legs straight puts a strain on the knees and lower back. If you are standing to lift weights, make sure to keep a slight bend in the knees. An alternative is to stand with one leg slightly behind the other to give better balance.

3. Do not use momentum to  lift the weight – for instance, if you are doing bicep curls, keep your elbows close to your sides and do not use your back to add extra swing. It is far more beneficial to lift a lighter weight using correct form than a heavier weight using other muscles to help you along. More importantly, your back won’t thank you if you keep treating it in this way.

4. Pace yourself – similarly, take your time to fulfil the whole range of movement. A good way of doing this is to count to two or three while on the way out and to at least three on the way back in. There’s no prizes for the fastest, and your muscles will respond better to a smooth, consistent technique.

I still think there should be someone around to look out for people not following these simple principles. The thing is, some people have probably never been told, or have forgotten the information given to them on their induction day, and could do with a refresher. I am fortunate enough to have had some great instructors in the past who ingrained the basics into my head, and I still have to make a conscious effort to “pull that tummy in”!

While we are on the topic of things that annoy us at the gym, I found this humorous article about gym etiquette. I’d be interested to hear what gets your goat when you’re trying to get a sweat on?

The programme was about genuinely desperate housewives

The programme was about genuinely desperate housewives

 

Last night I watched Desperately Hungry Housewives on BBC1. I was in two minds about whether or not to do so because since starting my new fitness regime (Operation Bridesmaid) I’ve had a couple of friends voice concerns over the possibility I may take things too far and get a bit obsessed.

Watching a programme about anorexia and bulimia, especially considering I had just munched my way through a plate of homemade millionaire shortbread, was maybe not the best thing to do. Seriously, I don’t know where the heck I was when God was handing out the self-control, one whiff of chocolate and I’m away.

Thankfully, as I listened to Zoe, Tracey, Jane and Georgia recount their stories, I felt nothing but empathy for them. In fact, I would go as far as to say I pitied them. Here were four women who for one reason or another had a relationship with food which had at times taken over their lives. For some of them, sadly, it still was taking over.

Each of them still fought daily to combat their issues and the likelihood of them feeling completely at ease with food in the future seemed extremely slim (no pun intended). The history of Georgia’s anorexia in particular shocked me. We were shown skelatal photographs of her at the peak of her illness aged 18. Now, a young mum, she was dieting to lose those post-baby pounds and restricting herself to the extent that she wouldn’t eat a slice of her other son’s birthday cake.

The danger of her slipping back into old habits hung over the household. But she said herself there was nothing she could do. As I sat there, nursing a slight feeling of nausea from the millionaire shortbread debacle, I was so thankful that I didn’t feel the compulsion to go and make myself sick in the way that Tracey, one of the other sufferers, would do at night after her chidren had gone to bed.

But this got me thinking: What about viewers who do suffer from eating disorders? How would they react to this programme? I am by no means an expert on the subject but I have heard before that anorexia and bulimia can be very competitive conditions. The existence of pro-anorexia websites – as discussed in this article – show the dangers of this. Would some women watching Desperately Hungry Housewives last night see it as a challenge or inspiration?

Don’t get me wrong, I am aware that raising the awareness of these illnesses is important and I am not suggesting that the producers portrayed these women as role models. However, I think it has to be remembered that issues like these are highly complex and while raising awareness we could inadvertently be providing inspiration for other sufferers or for those on the brink of a downward spiral.

I would be interested to hear what other people think?

The format which works so well - are we sure the readership isn't female?

The format which works so well - are we sure the readership isn't female?

Last week when I interviewed the editor and production editor of Men’s Health (MH), both men were optimistic about the future of their magazine. And so they should be. In February this year they reported a 4.1 per cent increase in the latest ABC figures, and earlier this week they were nominated for four PPA awards including editor of the year – an award Rees won in 2007 – and consumer title of the year. MH is clearly succeeding where other men’s mags are failing, abysmally.

So what is the secret to such success?

“Service journalism,” says editor, Mogan Rees, “What that means is the information we put on the page is useful and actionable.” Substance over style is Rees’ mantra and it shows: MH has a very distinct look from which it rarely deviates. The word utilitarian is too strong since there is great use of graphics and stylised photos.

But the classic cover design of a buff, shirtless model shot in black in white, and set off by red and blue coverlines, is recognisable from month to month. While it may seem to cover the same ground each issue, Rees insists the content is new, “We have to get it [the cover] right, more than most. The image does not change much so selling the content becomes absolutely paramount. The coverlines may sound the same but the content and science behind them changes every month.”

Rees has had more than his fair share of experience in the style sector too. Before MH he worked on Loaded, GQ, and Jack – all of which he enjoyed. But he knew the time was right for change when he found himself spending more and more time negotiating with celebs to pose on the front cover.

It would seem Rees’ waning enthusiasm for men’s lifestyle magazines coincided with a nationwide sentiment much the same. In the last few months, Arena has folded, Maxim UK has gone online only and Loaded, FHM, Zoo and Nuts have all suffered from declining circulation. “The idea of a men’s lifestyle magazine is still relatively new. Before that there were specialist titles. What we are seeing now is a return to that form. If a magazine has a clearly defined remit it will do well in the current climate,” says Rees.

Production editor, Tom Stone, has a slightly different rationale as to why MH is doing well, “Health and fitness is a subject that appeals more to the older age bracket, which ties in with the magazine buying public. People buying magazines are getting older.” Stone recognises that the younger generation access information online whereas before they would have looked to magazines. But he also thinks it is possible to pull readers in from your website, if you make it good enough.

Here again, MH is excelling. This stems from the fact that their subject area is easily clubbable. The MH forums are choc-a-bloc with threads of conversations between members. These range from chats about the best place to get the season’s en vogue protein shake to discussions on, believe it or not, the key philosopher’s works for a novice to start with. With 697, 000 unique users each month the online community at MH is not to be sniffed at.

But that is not to say the MH team are resting on their laurels.

“I want to make MH complete” says Rees, “what we have done in the last six years [since he started] is expand the remit of the magazine. It used to only deal with sex and abs. These days it deals with psychology, work/life balance, career progression, parenting, you name it.”

And where does Stone see MH in the next five years?

“It will be the number one men’s monthly magazine. It will be the market leader. I expect it will have a lot more imitators – other magazines trying to do the same thing. The lad’s mags are over. It is the time for the useful magazine.”

Testosterone fuelled, cocky, high expectations? Maybe, but with Rees and Stone at the helm there seems no reason why these should not be realised.