The Independent, 16 December 2010

This week saw the release of figures from the Public Health Observatories which concluded that Birmingham is the fattest city in Europe. 29% of adults in the city are obese, which is more than twice the European average. And the prospects don’t look good for the next generation either – 25% of 11- and 12-year olds in the city are obese, too. The tabloid headlines were full of contempt for the chunky Brummies, reminding us that Britain’s fattest man lives in Birmingham (which can hardly help the averages). And even Birmingham’s own newspapers were filled with self-loathing: ‘Birmingham shamed as fattest in Europe despite £15 million of NHS schemes’, howled the Birmingham Mail.

Free gym memberships, shock advertising strategies and gastric band operations have made little difference to the statistics: the city is fat and it’s getting fatter. And perhaps that is because Birmingham is a city of congenital porkers with no self-control and no common sense. But why should that be any truer of Birmingham than of, say, Hamburg? Isn’t it at least possible that the city itself is conducive to unhealthiness?

Birmingham never seemed like the healthiest place to grow up in, even when I was growing up in it. It is a drivers’ city, like Los Angeles, admittedly with fewer palm trees. The buses go into and out of town, but they aren’t much cop at taking you anywhere else. And the roads are massive, because there is so much traffic, which makes them a deeply unpleasant prospect for pedestrians. In London, I walk about 20 miles a week (it’s either that or the gym, and I can’t bear the leotards). But when I’m visiting my home town, I never walk anywhere: it’s too noisy and too polluted. Like all my classmates, I had my first driving lesson the week I turned 17, and I saved the money from my Saturday job to buy a knackered old car before I was 18.

It’s hardly surprising that Birmingham is car-centric. Until recently, one of the city’s biggest brands was Rover. And the other is Cadbury. When I was younger, I felt loyal to my tribe if I was eating a bar of Dairy Milk and driving a Metro – hardly likely to make anyone any thinner. Luckily, the combination of corporate incompetence and grimy venality has already destroyed Rover, and Cadbury will soon be moving its chocolate production to Poland. So perhaps Birmingham can yet learn to love a brisk walk and an apple instead.

But even if it does, it won’t be proud of itself. That is the Birmingham way: self-deprecation at all costs. It characterises every media figure who comes out of the Midlands – Adrian Chiles, Jasper Carrott, Frank Skinner. Everything’s rubbish, including me, is the constant subtext to their words.

And it isn’t just a media persona. It’s the character of the whole city. When London was hit by a tornado in 2006, the local and national news blazed with hyperbole. Freak weather conditions battered the city, devastated homes would have to be demolished, dozens were left homeless, and so on.

When a similar event happened in Birmingham the previous year, Midlands Today covered the story in much the same way. Then they interviewed a local resident who had seen the whole thing happen – as I did. What was the tornado like, the breathless reporter asked their eye-witness. It was terrible, he replied. Could he describe it? He could. He thought for a moment and said, ‘It hung in the air, like an enormous carrot’ (for full impact, you really need to do the accent in your head here). This is, quite literally, the only time I have ever cheered a local news story. In one sentence, a freak weather crisis had been brought down to earth with a root vegetable. Now if only we can all start eating more of them, and fewer chocolate buttons, perhaps Birmingham can shake off its undeserved shame.