Jenni Murray’s book about her long struggle with her weight begins as a memoir. The presenter of Woman’s Hour grew up in Barnsley, a beloved only child in a working-class family. Having been through rationing, her parents and grandparents regarded food as an expression of love, sugar as the greatest possible treat, and the cleaning of one’s plate as a moral duty. To be full was to be happy, and a sign of success. Both her grandmothers were fat.
All this contented eating, however, ran alongside ideals in the matter of female bodies that were, for her as for most women, hard to meet. Pressure came from within, and without: there was Twiggy, with her swizzle-stick figure, and there was Murray’s mother, Win, who had firm ideas about women who “let themselves go”, and who took huge pride in her tiny ankles. Win, though, seems also to have been motivated by a certain envy in the case of her daughter. When Murray went to university, where she put on a lot of weight, her mother didn’t hold back. “What the hell has happened to you?” she asked. “You look like a baby elephant.” Her daughter’s success, in later life, did nothing to mitigate this attitude. No wonder Murray gravitated towards radio, rather than television, where the double chin with which Win was so weirdly and cruelly preoccupied could not be seen.
The dieting began early. You name it, she tried it, from Atkins to Weight Watchers, and all points between. But nothing worked. At her heaviest, she weighed 24 stone. She disliked being fat, but more than this, she began to feel afraid; having survived breast cancer, she worried about what might come next. And she was unhappy, too. One day, she was in the park with her son, Charlie, when an “enormous” woman passed them on a mobility scooter. “Blimey,” he said. “If you aren’t careful, that’ll be you before long.” Some time after this, having resolved to take drastic action, she finally found salvation in the form of Francesco Rubino, a professor of metabolic surgery at King’s College hospital in London. It was Rubino who gave Murray a sleeve gastrectomy, an operation in which a large part of the stomach – 75-80% – is removed. She now weighs 14 stone.
By trying to do everything, Fat Cow, Fat Chance does nothing properly
It’s rather hard to know what to say about this book. Murray combines her own experiences with a small selection of interviews (chiefly, with others who have also struggled with their weight, among them the former politician Tom Watson and the chef Tom Kerridge); a bit of science (she looks, briefly, at the effect of such things as the environment, genes and hormones); and a little polemic (she is strongly against what she regards as fat shaming, and wishes that William Golding had not called one of his characters in Lord of the Flies Piggy, and that Roald Dahl had not made Aunt Sponge, in James and the Giant Peach, obese). Unfortunately, the result is a book that doesn’t quite know what it is. By trying to do everything, Fat Cow, Fat Chance does nothing properly. It skims where it should dive, and it too often falls into cliche. Any minute now, I thought, she’s going to say that in her childhood olive oil was something you bought at the chemist when you had ear ache. Sure enough, she did just this, in the very next paragraph.
The book’s USP is Murray herself, a good and widely beloved radio presenter, and thus a woman with many fans. If you’re one of these, and you’re interested in the increasingly vexed issue of how we became so large – 28.7% of adults in the UK are now obese – Fat Cow, Fat Chance might be for you. But there are, I’m afraid, dozens of other books on similar territory that are far better (off the top of my head: Fat Girl by Judith Moore, Fat Land by Greg Critser, In Defence of Food by Michael Pollan, The Truth About Fat by Anthony Warner, The Hungry Years by William Leith – only one of which, incidentally, appears in Murray’s surprisingly short bibliography). It’s probably no bad thing for someone as influential as Murray to put her struggles out there; to warn others, yet again, of the diet industry and the way it messes with our minds and our bodies. But this doesn’t mean that her book isn’t also both haphazard and, at moments, deeply complacent. Almost everything in it I’ve read many times before, and much better put, to boot.
• Fat Cow, Fat Chance: The Science and Psychology of Size by Jenni Murray is published by Doubleday (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free Uk p&p over £15