IAN KIRKWOOD: Modern life is heavy

LIKE many people, I’ve been fascinated by the photographs my colleague Greg Ray and his wife Sylvia have published in their books on Newcastle’s so-called missing years.

But as much as I love the scenery, it’s the look of the people that grabs me.

Just about everybody is thin. Whippet thin, in many cases, and even the older folk, who have had decades enough to accumulate some padding, are carrying precious little in the form of extra weight.

The blokes, especially, look like the archetypal Aussie bushies that modern Australia still likes to claim a connection to. Wiry, muscular frames, thin necks and prominent jaws. Forearms gleaming with ropy muscles gained from hard physical work, rather than the gym or cross-training.

It doesn’t take long to come to the uncomfortable realisation that earlier generations of Novocastrians were a lot fitter than most of us.

The old cliche – you don’t know where you are until you can see where you’ve been – is as good a way of looking at things as any. And we’ve clearly arrived in a world where there is far too much to eat and far too little in the way of hard work, or exercise, to work off the results.

This is hardly an earth-shattering realisation, I know. But the Rays’ books show us a Hunter population still within living memory for many readers, at a not so distant time when the problems that face us today were probably never imagined.

I’d been musing on these things for a while but my vague thoughts swam into sharp relief at the weekend when I saw coverage of this year’s Blessing of the Waters, the Greek Orthodox tradition in which young unmarried men of the Greek community dive into the Bogey Hole in a race to recover a holy cross thrown into the water by the priest.

Now before I get into too much trouble here, I will have to take my own shirt off and admit to a good 10 kilograms of flesh that is much closer to fat than muscle. Indeed, I weigh 20 kilos more than I did as an 18-year-old, so I’ve got form in this regard.

But the Bogey Hole dive is a summer special, a time for Newcastle’s Greek Adonises to get down to their speedos and show off their inner Spartan warrior.

But without wanting to hurt anyone in this year’s dive – and I probably already have – a number of the gods of the rocks looked like many of us do after Christmas.

I’ll leave it at that.

Except to say that a curious dualism has arisen in our attitudes towards being reminded about weight, and fitness – for the two do go together.

In yesterday’s Newcastle Herald, University of Newcastle medical academic Dr Ben Ewald was urging people to exercise and lose weight. Well-meaning people like Dr Ewald are continually prompting the population – with good reason – to do something about our ballooning weight and sedentary lifestyles. Yet to state the obvious, by saying there are a lot of overweight people on the beach nowadays, is somewhere between impolite and rude.

And all of this leads to an analysis I heard recently in an interview with geneticist Steve Jones, from University College London, who breaks human history into three great ages: the age of disaster, the age of disease and the age of decay.

Until about 10,000 years ago, humans died from wild animals or weather, and our populations never reached sufficient levels for disease to take hold. About 10,000 years ago, agriculture ushered in our first era of abundance, with plagues of cholera, smallpox and tuberculosis sweeping the world.

But with disease all but beaten, in the West at least, most of us will die from old age, or the processes of cellular failure that accompany it. An oversimplification, obviously, but an appropriate image in a world where many of us want for nothing, and have too much of everything.

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