'Cigarettes, whisky, and wild, wild women'
Henry Allingham, now the world's oldest man, on the secret of a long life
Saturday 20 June 2009
Having spent 113 years and 14 days on this earth, Henry Allingham is used to breaking records.
He is one of three British men still alive who actively served in the First World War, is the last surviving founder of the Royal Air Force, has long held the record for being the oldest man in Europe and earlier this year he became Britain's most ancient man ever after overtaking John Evans, a Welsh former coal miner who died in 1990 aged 112 years and 295 days.
But when Mr Allingham woke up yesterday morning at St Dunstan's care home for blind ex-service personnel, in Ovingdean, near Brighton, the supercentenarian was informed that he had suddenly achieved the highest age-related accolade for men.
Tomoji Tanabe, a Japanese retired civil engineer, had died peacefully in his sleep overnight. He was 113 years' and 274 days' old and had more than 50 great-grandchildren. Having foregone alcohol and cigarettes all his life, Tanabe had became the world's oldest man in January 2007.
That mantle has now passed to Mr Allingham – the first time a British person has ever held such a title.
A St Dunstan's spokesman said that the oldest man on Earth greeted the news by simply returning to bed after breakfast for a celebratory nap.
For someone who has seen three different centuries, six monarchs, two world wars (and 18 world cups), becoming the oldest living man is, perhaps, something of a non-event.
Mr Allingham is quieter these days, but no codger at heart. In contrast to Mr Tanabe's asceticism, he attributes his longevity to "cigarettes, whisky and wild, wild women".
The Air Mechanic First Class is best known publicly for his war record, because of the many public engagements he has attended – up to 70 some years – including regular meetings with the Queen, politicians and soldiers returning from theatres of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Yet he dislikes talking about conflict, saying only: "War's stupid. Nobody wins."
He added in an interview recently: "Like so many, I have tried to forget my time in the war. In the last few years I have met other veterans, and we never spoke one word of the war, not one."
One of the many remarkable things about him – particularly given the mores of his time – has been his willingness to talk about mental health. "I've had two major breakdowns," he recalled, "one during the war and one after. But both when I was trying to do the work of three men.
"The trick is to look after yourself and always know your limitations."
On the key to a long and prosperous existence, he added: "I don't know if there is a secret, but keeping within your capacity is vital."
Allingham was born on 6 June 1896 in Clacton, east London, and his father died when he was a baby. One-hundred-and-thirteen years later his dynasty includes six grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren, 14 great-great-grandchildren and one great-great-great-grandchild.
In the meantime, he has personally experienced the events now known about predominantly through history textbooks. At the time of his birth, the Football League had only two divisions and 23 teams, including long-since-departed mainstays such as Bootle FC and Northwich Victoria.
Just two months earlier, the first ever modern Olympics had taken place in Greece, with 15 international teams, among them that of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Mr Allingham's earliest memories include cheering WG Grace at the Oval in 1903 and watching soldiers returning from the Boer War – an occasion which eventually inspired him to join the military himself.
In 1915, shortly after his mother's death, he joined the Royal Navy Air Service, initially to help maintain sea planes. But high casualty rates – and Mr Allingham's enthusiasm for taking to the air – meant that he soon joined in with air missions, serving as a spotter with Britain's fleet of flimsy biplanes. A year later he narrowly escaped death at the Battle of Jutland; a German shell hurtling towards his merchant ship, the Kingfisher, ricocheted on the water and whistled clear over the ship's deck. He went on to fight at Ypres – where standing in two-feet of water in the trenches particularly haunted him – the Somme and Passchendaele.
Yet another of the exciting episodes in Mr Allingham's life began in 1919 when he left the air force and went into the burgeoning motorcar industry, joining the design department at Ford cars in Dagenham.
The engineering skills he learnt there were put to use during the Second World as a designer of countermeasures to the German navy's magnetic mines.
The 113-year-old spent over half a century married to his first and only wife, Dorothy, with whom he tied the knot in 1919, shortly after returning from the First World War. Together they had two daughters, Jean and Betty, who emigrated to the US and both died in the 1980s.
Dennis Goodwin, the founder of the First World War Veterans' Association and a long-time friend of Mr Allingham, said he was not surprised by his pal's relaxed response to yesterday's news. "He is philosophical, he will take it in his stride like he does everything else," Mr Goodwin said.
"I think he has done so well to now because the more you engage people and focus attention on them, the more they develop a will to live.
"And that's the case with Henry. If he had been allowed to vegetate he would have disintegrated."
For his family, the news is yet another reason to be proud of an extraordinary man.
"It's fantastic news," said Mr Allingham's nephew Ronald Cator, 74, who is one of just a handful of relatives who does not live in the US, where Mr Allingham's two daughters emigrated many decades ago.
"He is very frail now, but I'm sure he'll be pleased to hear it. We are very proud of him."
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