Old Ma Kelly
With a bamboo belly
And her tits tied up with string
Sitting on the grass
With a bugle up her arse
Playing God Save the King
… an age-old and cruel playground chant, describing with startling accuracy a poor exhausted Irish catholic wife who had suffered God knows how many pregnancies: the pendulous pancake breasts long defunct; the abdominal skin and muscle so overstretched as to have settled into a protuberant, multi-tiered tub (resembling the culm of the newly arrived Chinese “Buddha’s Belly” bamboo); the pelvic floor so weak as to allow loud, involuntary and frequent farts (commonly known as “bugle butt”).
The historical Buddha, Siddartha Gautama, is depicted as ascetic, lithe and slim, but he is frequently confused with his folkloric predecessor, the benign Budai – the one squatting on his lotus flower with a big round belly, a broad smile and a bald head – who typifies the “wisdom of contentment” and the spirit of generosity.
Rubbing the Budai’s paunch brings wealth, good luck and prosperity.
Sadly, Budai’s influence on many societies has been far from benign. For many centuries fat bellies were universally associated with affluence and commercial success – not, as now, with disease and early death.
The overweight “bonny” babies and their obese fathers were to be admired in Victorian times (whilst fashionable females were required to flatter their dangerously tiny waists with exaggerated bosoms and bustled buttocks).
During the boom times of the Industrial Revolution, the comforts of railway travel became increasingly available and affordable. The usual daily exertions of brisk walks and long rides became optional, and obesity became commonplace.
Homes were warmer following the advent of efficient coal fires. NASA points out that an adult burns 20% more calories when the ambient temperature drops into the 60’s.
And so the warm, wealthy and well-fed William Banting, by appointment Funeral Director to the Royal Household, had become very fat indeed by the 1860’s – so much so that he could only walk down stairs backwards, and could not make contact with his feet. His doctor recommended a regime of brisk exercise, and so, for two hours every morning, he rowed himself up and down the Thames – creating a “prodigious appetite”. He remained “corpulent” – and became deaf.
The eminent ear, nose and throat specialist, the “aurist” Mr William Harvey of 2 Soho Square, London W.1., was consulted. He cleaned out his ears and the ensuing conversation turned to the topic of obesity.
Harvey had had the great good fortune to have attended the Paris lectures of the inspirational physiologist Claude Bernard, who had gained an initial insight into the pathogenesis of diabetes. William Harvey of Soho Square had learnt about the ill effects of carbohydrates at the foot of the master, and had devised an ingenious and novel diet that happened to suit William Banting perfectly.
In simple terms, Harvey recommended Banting to avoid bread, butter, milk, beer, sugar and potatoes.
Banting lost 13” from his waist and 50 lbs from his weight at an average of 1 lb a week. Above all, he declared, “I can honestly assert that I feel restored in health, bodily and mentally”.
So delighted was Banting that he wrote an account of his experience in a pamphlet “Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public”, which, by 1869, after many editions, had become the world-wide best seller ever. It is still in print, the new-coined word “banting”, dieting, having passed into (and out of) the English language.
Similar huge success was enjoyed in the 1970’s by the Atkins Diet which closely followed the principles laid down by Banting and Harvey.
Dickens and Thackeray made it crystal clear that fat and prosperous Victorians were not necessarily happy – contrary to the popular imagery of Budai. Indeed, a hero of the Indian Mutiny and the Second Afghan War, Surgeon-Major Joshua Duke, blamed obesity for “effeminacy, unmanliness and perhaps unwomanliness” – with some considerable insight.
Banting survived into his eighties, and it is now a perfectly valid concept that Old Ma Kelly may well have outlived today’s overfed boys with their moobs, beer bellies, lacklustre libidos and low testosterone.
Be a Wellman.