110 not out! Britain's oldest man
Emily Dugan meets Reverend Reginald Dean and hears him lament the decline of cricket
Emily Dugan is social affairs correspondent for The Independent, i and Independent on Sunday, covering Sarah Cassidy’s maternity leave. She was previously a news reporter for The Independent on Sunday. Her investigations into human trafficking have twice been awarded Best Investigative Article at the Anti-Slavery Day Media Awards and her human rights journalism was shortlisted for the Gaby Rado Memorial prize at the 2012 Amnesty Media Awards.
Sunday 04 November 2012
They gave the Reverend Reginald Dean the last rites three months ago. Yet today Britain's oldest man celebrates his 110th birthday and will receive another telegram – his 11th – from the Queen.
Back in July he was not expected to make it. His son Chris had raced from Portsmouth to the Peak District to be by his bedside, prematurely it turned out. Mr Dean, survivor of two world wars, three marriages, 24 prime ministers and most of the 20th century was not going to be carried off by a urinary infection. After a few perilous days he looked up from his bed and announced to his son: "I've decided not to die, Christopher."
Today he will blow out the candles on two enormous cakes in his room at a care home in Wirksworth, Derbyshire. He is bed-bound but still remarkably chirpy and sociable.
"Are you up to it?" a friend asks him tentatively when I arrive for the interview. "Ooh, yes," he booms in reply. "I'm up to anything." The voice is unexpected: deep and sonorous.
And he has a sense of mischief. Asked what, in his 110 years, has been the worst development – the atom bomb? Aids? Nazism? – it is something of far greater consequence: the decline of cricket.
"I'm a fan of cricket, but not in fancy dress, and not as a one-day game. I like village cricket in whites on a green grass field," he harrumphs.
Anything else? "Yes," he says, getting into his stride, "motor cars in their millions. It shows that we are affluent, self-satisfied, important people. But we're not."
Though registered blind, struggling to hear and finding sitting up in bed painful, he's still a master conversationalist. Asked which of the 11 decades that he has lived has been his favourite, he replies in a flash: "This one."
Noting my incredulity, he chuckles. "No, that's just a bit of fun. I think the third decade was the best. When I was 30, I was in Singapore. I was working as an assistant chaplain in the cathedral. The climate was great: I loved the tropics."
Born in Tunstall, Staffordshire, in 1902, Mr Dean trained as a minister and worked in Singapore and India before being stationed in Burma as an army chaplain during the Second World War.
It was here that he had his first brush with death. "I nearly didn't come back from Burma, I was under shell fire so often. The second-in-command of our regiment was a friend and he was in the same trench with me when the shells were coming over. I said, 'What are you going to do when they come here?' He said: 'I'll lay about them with this kukri' – that's a Gurkha knife. Luckily, he didn't have to."
After the war, Mr Dean returned to England, settling in Derby in 1947. Since then he has worked as a minister and schoolteacher, spending his spare time doing amateur dramatics and running a church choir.
The worst thing about ageing, he says, is not being able to see his two grandchildren. "I have two of them, I think," he jokes.
And the second worst? "Not being able to run about is really most annoying. I used to be a cross-country runner."
Unsurprisingly, being stuck in one place is a recurring gripe. "I don't want to be in bed. I'd like to be out in the streets, out in the lanes, out in the country, out in the town."
His favourite of all the 24 prime ministers he's witnessed is Harold Macmillan. "Maybe because he published Thomas Hardy," he muses. "Hardy is a very great favourite of mine." When asked to think of the prime minister that he liked least, though, he flatly refuses. "No," he says, "I don't dislike many people."
Not wasting too much energy on hating people might be one of the secrets to his longevity, I suggest. "Yes, probably," he agrees. "That and having a religion I can trust. I think what Jesus did all his life was right."
While both of these may well have helped him enter his 12th decade, his diet may have been an important factor. Mr Dean has been a vegetarian for more than 30 years. "It was compassion for animals that made me give up meat. I had a dream about some people asking me to take a young pig to the slaughter house. Soon after, a young pig came towards me, grunting and wagging his little tail, and I couldn't do it."
The thought of killing animals still gives him nightmares. He puts it down to an experience when he was 10 and he saw his uncle and father kill a cockerel for dinner. "When dinner came, I said, 'No thank you'."
And what of romance? Has Mr Dean been married, I ask. "Yes," he says, his eyes twinkling. "Three times," letting out a deep chuckle, before looking serious and launching into a story. "My first wife died through curiosity: she went into a cellar at a house where she was staying for a short time and they locked her in without realising. She died of hypothermia. My second wife is a big mystery... And my third wife..." he says, moving on before I can ask any impertinent questions about the second, "was a co-worker." She, Anne, is still alive, though she has a new partner now.
After more than half an hour of conversation, Mr Dean is beginning to look tired. As I go to shake his hand he takes mine and kisses it, managing to be every bit the gentleman, even from his bed. Does he think he'll be here for his next birthday? "Oh, yes, I shall reach that. Maybe even 115, I don't know."
That, I say, might make him the oldest man in the world. "Oh good," he beams, "I do hope so."
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