Health · Notes from West London

Oily Fish

How many changes would you make to increase your chances of a long and healthy life? Would you eat oily fish (sardines or mackerel for example) twice a week? Maybe you already do. Would you drink more water and drink less beer or wine? Again, maybe already have the balance right there, keeping your alcohol intake down below the newly announced “safe” limit of 14 units per week.

During the 80s and 90s I spent time, often at gigs and in pubs, with some brothers from Scotland who lived nearby, here in West London. I recall drunken nights watching bands like the Jesus and Mary Chain, Teenage Fanclub, Afghan Whigs and Buffalo Tom, and in pubs like the Kings Arms in Acton, now pulled down and being rebuilt as an apartment block.

Nearly 20 years ago (15 March 1996 – I just checked in the relevant pocket diary) a few of us went to see the Flaming Lips (at ULU, the University of London Union, one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to). One of the brothers, Alan (or maybe it was spelt Allan, or even Allen – I never saw his name written down) was talking afterwards about a recent trip to the doctor. He had kidney problems and the doctor advised him to do three things to stop the problems from worsening: drink more water, drink less beer and eat oily fish at least twice a week. He hated drinking water and said there was no way he was eating oily fish: he hated the stuff. And he liked his beer.

I didn’t drink alcohol in those days (I had 10 dry years during my 20s into my 30s) and only drank fizzy water that night, so was designated driver as usual while the others were on the beer. I asked Alan if he’d eat fish twice a week if the alternative was to get really ill. He didn’t say yes or no. We were in McDonalds at the time (on Warren Street, near the Euston Road – very handy for parking). It was a Friday so I had a filet-o-fish (cod I believe, therefore not classed as an oily fish) and the rest of the gang were on the burgers.

This exchange has crossed my mind often these last 20 years. If I hated oily fish would I be able to stomach it twice a week, if the alternatives included, eventually, severe kidney problems? It hasn’t been an issue for me yet. I like mackerel and sardines, and eat one or both most weeks. There’s very little healthy food that I avoid, although I still eat unhealthy food in moderation. I’m even back on the beer. I easily get 35 portions of fruit and veg in a week (not necessarily 5 a day every day, but always a week’s worth in the course of 7 days), and drink between 2 and 4 pints of water a day. I get thirsty otherwise.

There is a truism (or cliché, or wise proverb, depending on your point of view) from the world of personal development (or self-help, or popular psychology, or Smart Thinking, again depending on your point of view). It goes like this: we can all have the things we want in life, so long as we want the things we have. At these words some of my friends will make gagging noises and splutter in outrage, and others will nod and see wisdom in it. I say it to myself occasionally, like those evenings when my dinner consists of a tin of mackerel, a carrot and a chunk of cucumber. If that’s what you fancy for dinner (rather than a 6oz cheeseburger with fries, and a chocolate milkshake) then you’re increasing your chances of a longer and healthier life.

Alan’s younger brother Graham (or Graeme perhaps – I never saw his name written down either) died in 2001, in his early 40s. I never quite got the full story. Alan told me over the phone but was so cut up about it that I didn’t press him for details. He had been admitted to hospital with unbearable abdominal pains and either he was already too sick to be saved or something went wrong on the operating table. Within five years Alan too was dead, having never really recovered from Graham’s death. It was one of those sad London deaths where nobody – even his remaining brothers who lived nearby, and were in regular contact with him – could get hold of him for a few days, or get into his flat, and called the police. When they broke down the door they found him there, dead an unknown number of days. Perhaps a few portions of oily fish wouldn’t have made much difference, not unless he gave up the beer too, and the cigarettes, and drank more water, and did more exercise, and ate more fruit and vegetables, and less bacon and fewer kebabs. I miss both Alan and Graham. I bump into their oldest brother Robbie every now and then, on the High Road. He’s hanging in there, he’s made enough changes to make it into his 60s.

How many changes would you make to increase your chances of a long and healthy life?

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