At the age of 46, I have disrobed for a popular family magazine. The first consequence of this act may be that the magazine will become less popular, but that’s their roll of the dice.
My principal concern is to answer the inevitable question I expect to be hearing from people once they have received their copy of this week’s Listener, and that question is, of course: “What Were You Thinking?”
I’ll start at the beginning. A few weeks ago, I had a call from Sally Blundell. She was doing a piece about heart attacks and wondered if I’d be willing to share my story. Happy to. Always happy to. I tell it so often, I fear I bore people to death, but that heart attack entirely changed my life, and even two decades later I am still absorbing its implications. She duly turned out a most interesting cover story, using my own tale as a way in.
Enter the unparalleled Jane Ussher, who took some lovely photos of Dad and daughter two years ago. "I couldn’t talk you into doing one showing your naked torso could I" she asked brightly. I receive all kinds of odd phone calls here at the world headquarters of speechesdotcom, but this was the first time someone had asked if they could take a photo of me with my shirt off. Oh my unfulfilled dreams. Ever since I was a little girl I wanted to be a topless model in a glossy magazine.
That’s not it. Try this: For one thing I say "Yes" to everything. For another, as friends whose counsel I sought after the fact were quick to assure me, I am given to acts of vanity and foolhardiness.
“Sure”, I said, “why not.” I think she was surprised.
Let me share some of the advice I was given at no cost from one the nation’s most expensive public relations practitioners:
They won’t airbrush you.
Rodney Hide tried this. It didn’t win him anything but snide letters to the editor.
Men your own age will hate you. (How dare he not have a gut. Do you think he’s gay?)
Younger women will be repelled (Middle aged skin. Gross.)
Women your own age will be appalled. (Oh dear, sad. I bet he’s bought himself a sports car.)
Children will be frightened. (Mummmmmmmmmmy!)
You will have to confront this naked you at every corner dairy for an entire week. And each time you do you will think – do people think I think a lot of myself?
Talk about yourself till the cows come home but please don’t lose your shirt over it!
I also consulted the previous editor of the organ in question. He said, “Look, by all means do it if you want to, but if it was me, I wouldn’t.”
Did I listen to them? I tried. In the end, though, certain combined aspects of my personality, namely: class clown, reckless gambler, contrarian, blind optimist won the debate. Not forgetting the previously mentioned foolhardy vanity.
We met at Cheltenham Beach: Jane; her glamorous assistant Naomi and I. It was all fun. You’ve seen the news shows following her around before, perhaps. She’s a wonderful person. All photographers should be so nice. And she promised to do a kind job. I looked at my post-Christmas waist. Could they Photoshop off the love handles? Sure they could.
Off we went: Under a tree, standing purposefully and manfully, legs akimbo, in the sun; in the water, following directions. “I want you to come out of the water like Daniel Craig,” she teased. I emerged as instructed from the water. “That’s not exactly like Daniel Craig is it,” I said. “No,” said Jane. “No. He’s more …....” - the beginning of a pause loomed over our little group - “British!” declared Naomi brightly. "That’s going in a blog," I said.
I am indeed less British than Daniel Craig. You can turn to pages three and fourteen of the Listener to verify this for yourself. There is also a picture on page sixteen of Dad and daughter.
Mary-Margaret, I expect you to concur, looks beautiful and takes after her mother.
For the past couple of weeks I have been slagging off my friendly gym to anyone who will listen. “Look better naked” they promise in their exhortation to join an intensive class of six. All around town I have declaimed loudly against this evil manipulation.How dare they be so cynical? How dare they use a line certain to elicit large measures of self-doubt? There are vast numbers of women who have no reason to believe it but nevertheless consider themselves to look not sufficiently attractive when naked. And so on.
Well, here’s some advice to myself. Less time slagging off the gym and more time on the weights since Christmas, and you might not have been so perturbed to see the state of your love handles in a glossy magazine, Chester.
There’s always more than one perspective, though. This is, I rationalised to myself in the last two weeks, the year of the male nude. Everyone’s at it. Harry Potter’s getting his kit off. Matthew Ridge can’t keep his clothes on, and every time you turn on the TV, there’s Paul Henry, for whom I have the utmost respect, proving that it’s okay in middle age to get your shirt off and let the flesh proclaim your humanity to the TV viewers of the nation.
It’s only February. The year of the male nude could be, if you like, bigger than Ben Hur. Putting all misgivings aside about the less than perfect state of my aged self, I think there’s a sound basis to this nudity business. Let’s be having more of it. Few of us look so terribly splendid naked; but you know what? A little more honesty and authenticity could well do us all good. Less veneer, more truth.
So that’s me at 46. Rippling abs, flowing locks, a truly marvellous specimen of alpha masculinity, even if I don’t look very British. Narcissus came undone with his self-loving gazes but that’s only because he was looking at himself in the water. You can’t drown in a magazine.