Better a full life than an endless one



Humans live longer than ever before, and some of the richest people on the planet are pouring their wealth into avoiding the one event no one can avoid, no matter what we have in the bank – death. A group of technology billionaires, including Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, are funding a new award called the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, which comprises five payouts of $3m (£2m) each, for research work into "extending human life". Larry Ellison has funded work on anti-ageing, and so has Bill Gates. These people have revolutionised life for millions, but can't face that moment when they draw their last breath, just like the rest of us.

We in the UK are doing very well at ignoring the chance to live longer. Research published in The Lancet, shows that Britons aged between 20 and 54 will spend more years suffering from physical and mental illness than other nationalites from similar countries. We're ranked 21st for longevity – it's down to our well-known capacity for binge drinking, overeating, lack of exercise and drug-taking. Plus, one in three of us faces suffering from dementia. So much for free health care, cancer screening, tax on cigarettes and banned substances. We suffer from higher blood pressure than our European neighbours, with a greater chance of a stroke. The average Briton will spend more time sick or disabled than the citizens of 54 countries including Romania and Thailand.

If that isn't gloomy enough news, doctors now say that too many English breakfasts can shorten life by years. What is the point of getting old anyway? Surely God sent us dry-cured bacon, sausages, doughnuts and class A drugs as an easy way of giving pleasure and reducing the population simultaneously. Given that care homes cost double most pensioners' incomes, that a distressing number fail quality checks and that there is no independent database (as there is for hotels) so we can check on their ratings, I agree with Kingsley Amis. Never a man to turn down a decent drink, he said: "No pleasure is worth giving up for the sake of two more years in a geriatric home at Weston-super-Mare."

MPs see the old as a financial burden – Vince Cable wants to tax pensioners' benefits and the Government wants us to contribute £75,000 each to the costs of our care. All that being the case, I can see no reason to extend my life beyond what is normal. I will be living it to the full and have no intention of copying Mr Zuckerberg and turning into a wrinkly 125-year-old reliant on gadgets and supplements to get me through my dreary day. At 66, I probably have more fun than that 28-year-old does.

Woolly thinking

As the police face a reduction in numbers and reduced operating costs, creative minds have been dreaming up new ways to tackle crime. Officers in Leicester are asking knitters to make pompoms to hang from trees and lampposts to make a city centre route "less intimidating". Schools, playgroups and pensioners have all been busy crafting decorations which will be festooned along the Great Central Way and Bede Park. If I glued my unwanted socks around the windows of my ground-floor London flat, would it stop drunken men from relieving themselves against the walls of my house? Somehow I know the answer. Please email me the next time you hear that a bobble hat on top of a railing has stopped a rapist in his tracks.

Royal stalker

Is Prince Charles my psychic stalker? Recently, he revealed he doesn't just "talk" to his vegetables, he "instructs" them – something we gardeners have known for years. Now he's offering advice on another subject close to my heart. During the years that I was President of the Ramblers Association, when membership soared, I was never asked to appear on the BBC's Countryfile. I'm now a vice-president and write for the Ramblers' excellent magazine Walk, but Prince Charles (not me) is being allowed to present a whole edition of Countryfile, celebrating the programme's 25th anniversary today Even more galling, he's filmed telling us how great walking is! I don't need a pampered aristo telling me that walking is good for the soul, that it's where you find solitude and recharge your batteries – it's common sense. Walking is free, unlike a visit to his mum's London home.

We'll meat again

The horsemeat saga continues with the chief executive of the group who own the Silvercrest factory in Ireland, where the contaminated meat was first discovered, telling MPs his managers had been buying meat from "unapproved sources" on the continent for months without anyone finding out. He couldn't name these rogue suppliers, but claimed they were in Poland. Horsegate proves labels are pretty meaningless, especially if those running meat processing plants have no idea where their raw materials come from. Horsemeat is perfectly palatable, but this scandal has put people off buying any meat, and decent butchers must be suffering. I ate more than usual last week – home-boiled tongue at the weekend, a delicious burger on Tuesday, culminating with a home-made Desperate Dan lamb shank pie with the bone sticking out of the top on Friday. Someone has to restore confidence in our meat industry!


There's one expression impotent ministers are drawn to like moths to a flame – "naming and shaming". First, we were told that hospitals and NHS trusts who failed to hit targets would be "named and shamed". Did that prevent any deaths in Staffordshire? Naming and shaming care homes didn't prevent Winterbourne either. And publishing lists of school results has resulted in distorted property prices in sought-after catchment areas. Now, the Government says it plans to "name and shame" under-achieving primary schools – any who don't manage to get 64 per cent of children reading to a certain level face being taken over. Do threats work, especially if headteachers boycott tests? Carrots work better than sticks, in my opinion.

New art from old

One of my favourite authors, William Boyd, has skilfully woven two stories by Chekhov into Longing, an enthralling new play at Hampstead. In this way he's created a new genre that's easily digestible – even Sir Peter Hall apologised for "dropping off" at critically acclaimed Uncle Vanya. Longing co-star John Sessions and I worked together in the 1980s – I hosted a late-night satire show and he performed sketches about the week's political news, written by a crack team including Ian Hislop. As I introduced the programme all I could hear was Sessions retching into a bucket at the side of the set – that's how bad his nerves were. He's on top form at Hampstead, playing a crass nouveau riche chap who buys a palatial mansion from toffs who've fallen on hard times. Sound familiar?

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