When nature is through with you

The short, bitter mid-life crisis of William Leith: aging food addict and hypochondriac

When nature is through with you

Some men are born middle-aged, some men grow into it, and some men have middle age thrust upon them. In August 2004, the talented but erratic British journalist William Leith, 44 years old, found himself standing in line at a post office, clutching a bag containing about 1,000 pennies, the sum total of his worldly wealth. And clutching too at his last, best hope for a happy future, a new long-distance relationship with a woman who didn’t yet know he was broke. Or why. Leith had spent most of his 30s and beyond as a compulsive binger of everything from mashed potatoes to cocaine; now, all that was behind him, and he was busy writing a corrosively honest, often darkly comic memoir of his out-of-control life, The Hungry Years. But it would be another year before the book would see publication, and restore Leith’s finances.

On that August day, after he slowly moved up the line, mustering what dignity he could, and the clerk refused to change his coins to notes, Leith had an epiphany. “There, that’s the moment,” he writes in his morbid and mordant new book, Bits of Me Are Falling Apart: Dark Thoughts From the Middle Years (Doubleday). “The moment I became middle-aged.” In other words, had Leith been able to balance the physical and mental decline of aging with a decent increase in prosperity, his thoughts on leaving his youth might not have been quite so dark. Or so blackly amusing either; Leith’s loss is his readers’ gain.

Bad as it was, that moment in the post office was not the nadir—it’s possible (likely, even) that in Leith’s roller-coaster life the real nadir has yet to approach the horizon. But it seemed so for a while. He did, eventually, change his pennies to a £10 note and some silver coins—food for a few days—and his plan to bluff his way, ticket-less, on to a train to his girlfriend’s town worked without a hitch. The visit went well too; his son was conceived that week. By the next August Leith was slim, clean and sober, the happy father of baby Billy, touring the book circuit with an acclaimed memoir, and financially stable.

Then, for reasons never fully explained in Bits of Me, it all fell apart. In August—always a fateful month in Leith’s world—of 2007, he was separated from Billy’s mother (and Billy), sleeping on a mattress in his office, obsessed with the minutiae of aging and failure. A hypochondriac’s hypochondriac, Leith knows just how scary brain tumours behind the ear are, that about 10 per cent of the middle-aged don’t make it to old age, that the shadows cast on his retina are called vitreous floaters. He can itemize his very British teeth: 28 remaining, 13 filled, three crowns. His list of aches and pains is daunting, not that he’d see a physician about them: “I’d rather die, than know I’m dying.” Above all, he’s paralyzed by the belief that nature is through with him, now that he has performed his basic biological duty of reproducing himself.

Occasionally he sounds unconsciously optimistic. “Half my life has gone!” the 47-year-old author exclaims. (If William Leith’s abused body can make it to 94, the vast majority of his readers can expect Happy 100th Birthday greetings from the Queen.) More often, he’s his familiar sardonic self. After listing his rear-guard actions against entropy—Pilates, herbal tea, 15,000 brisk steps a day, anti-aging porridge every morning, no smoking or drinking despite the fact “my withering and corrupted tissues cry out for these stimulants”—Leith asks rhetorically, “What kind of aging am I doing? Power aging.”

Mentally and psychologically, though, he’s not sure if his regimen is doing a damn bit of good. His magpie mind is more digressive than ever, and he’s learned that the aging brain starts to see patterns where they might not exist. For someone like Leith, that’s a licence to link his own decline to what he sees as Western civilization’s death rattle—including a prescient (for 2007) feeling that the banking system was approaching some sort of existential crisis. “Lots of weird things are happening now, aren’t they? Frogs are not yet falling from the sky, I grant you that. But give them time, the frogs. Give them time.”

The resulting book, finely written, is both funny and sad, and even those less inclined to see the fault in our common mortal clay than in Leith’s mulish refusal to grow up, can see something of the ever-failing human condition in it. Nor is it surprising to hear he’s on top of the world again: last October, after publication, he reunited with the mother of his son. The short, bitter mid-life crisis of William Leith is over. At least for now.