Dieting is the only game where you win when you lose.

August 17, 2020 – Karl Lagerfeld


I went to what I thought was a fancy dinner party a week or so ago at my neighbours, the Gortons, to find the only guests were myself and an eccentric-looking professor. She stuck out a bony hand and withdrew it quickly, remembering we do not shake hands anymore. ‘Creeper,’ she said, ‘Virginia.’

I nearly corpsed. Virginia Creeper. Did she marry a Mr Creeper or were her parents exceptionally cruel? It reminded me of something from long ago. Perhaps it was another unfortunate name, like my friend William Quickley at school… William Charles Quickley. It turned out, however, that the memory was much nearer at hand.

‘How are you then, William?’ she said. She clearly knew me and, indeed, her voice was familiar. ‘You don’t recognise me, do you?’ ‘I do,’ I replied hesitantly, ‘I just can’t place you.’ ‘I suppose I’ve changed,’ she said, ‘from our bridge days.’ It came back with a lurch. Ginny Creeper. My bridge partner at university. ‘No better at climbing gates, I expect,’ she went on, laughing. That allusion was less hard to remember. I played bridge one night at a women’s college (just coming to the end of their existence) and left after midnight. The back gate was locked and I somehow got stuck on top of it when trying to climb over. In one of those horrible moments reminiscent of a nightmare, I could not move as I watched the night porter’s torch coming nearer and nearer. Of course, it was Ginny’s college. I was fined ten pounds.

After the surprise reunion, we enjoyed the delights of a frugal meal, laced with comments from the Gortons as to how I had put on weight during Lockdown and the increased COVID risk for the obese. I reminded them as politely as I could through skinless chicken and green salad that I had already had the virus. Ginny was delightful though. The years rolled away as they always do and I saw her as she was. It turned out that she had become quite an eminent statistician advising some sports quango.

‘It’s rather like the House of Lords, isn’t it?’ she said. ‘What is?’ I asked. ‘Obesity.’ I was puzzled. ‘They keep trying to cut the size down, but end up just stuffing more and more people in.’ ‘It is difficult,’ I observed. ‘It isn’t really,’ she said. ‘If you just had a retirement age of 72, or even 75, you would clear the place out.’ ‘But don’t we have them for their wisdom and experience?’ ‘Well,’ she said, ‘you don’t say that about doctors or judges. They have to retire. They just get past it.’ ‘Barristers don’t have to retire,’ I said and reeled off at least three names of old members who went on to practise to very advanced ages. Of course, though, they only worked while someone wanted to instruct them and their cases did drop off somewhat and no-one paid them out of public funds just for walking into Chambers each day.

We sat next to each other later on the Gortons’ sofa sipping a minute glass of port each. ‘The virus has been very hard on the young, William,’ she said. ‘They are losing time that can never be made up and missing out on opportunities at such a brief and special moment in life. Imagine if we had lost six months of our time at university, or perhaps even failed to get in.’

I thought about it. My mock A-levels were certainly terrible. I might have missed one of my best parts on the amateur university stage or failed to get pupillage. Lost opportunities in youth can change everything. That is less true of advancing years. Ginny read my mind: ‘I bet you’ve enjoyed the Lockdown apart from no money.’ I had. I have read so many of my favourite books.

‘Take that algorithm to determine examination results,’ she said. ‘There was nothing wrong with it. It is just a set of rules you ask a computer to apply in solving a question you pose. It’s your question that is good or evil, not the poor algorithm. It’s like blaming a gun for committing a murder.’ She suddenly sat close up to me in a very socially undistanced manner. ‘Take tonight for instance,’ she said, whispering and reminding me very much of Ginny at 19. ‘If you wanted to provide a really awful meal, you would create an algorithm and it would tell you to cook pretty much what the Gortons have been giving us. Masks up!’