Howard Jacobson: Live fast, die young – or spend your old age playing canasta with the ladies

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The Independent Online

The latest figures showing that men are 100 times more likely to die of everything than women – and at a quarter of their age, and in double the agony – are all I need. I am approaching the age at which my father died – I am not actually, but if you fear you are, you are. What, when all is said and done, does "approaching" mean? Life is just one short, inescapable approach. I had a friend at university who kept a notebook of the ages at which his father, his grandfather, his great-grandfather, his great-great-grandfather etc, kicked the bucket, ticking each off and throwing a small gloomy party in his rooms as soon he'd survived it. But he only gave us water. His maternal grandfather had died of sherry poisoning.

You can live till 100 like this, in a state of mortal terror. Except that it's only women who make it to 100. Judging from what I see around me, 70 is still a mountain to climb for men. My father made it to 70 but didn't think he'd lived long enough, and he hadn't. "I'd have settled for another five years," he told me just before he died. Had I been him I'd have settled for another five minutes. Though of course when the five are up – years or minutes – you're ready to negotiate for five more. It's never enough. That's the hard part: knowing you aren't going to find the wisdom to accept what's allotted to you.

"Ripeness is all" be damned. "Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither" is a fine sentiment but there's no "must" about it. There's only can or can't and we can't. In fact it's not even a fine sentiment since we don't "endure" our coming hither either. We grasp nothing of what's happening and scream ourselves hoarse every minute of it.

Men are not doing well. The fact that everyone's living for ever is said to be putting intolerable pressure on the nation's resources. I keep reading that we'll soon be a country of old people playing canasta in retirement homes and looting one another's pockets. If so, that should read a country of old women. Because from the look of it, my sex isn't going to be around.

If the heart doesn't get us, the lungs do. And if the heart and lungs are strong the rest packs up. Just when I thought it was OK to talk about cancer because we have it on the run, it turns out that men's cancer is going nowhere. It is enjoying itself exactly where it is. We are such easy targets. Overworked. Overweight. Stressed. Possessed of a gland that has so much to do alkalinising semen, attending to its selection, storage and secretion, ensuring that the vaginal tract is not subjected to an excess of acidity, else the sperm will not live long – in other words giving women all those babies they insist on having – that it has no strength left to look after itself. As a consequence of which we are in need of a drink most nights, and of a cigarette, too, though if you want one of those you have to stand outside in the freezing cold which let no one tell you is good for what remains of the prostate.

Apparently we men don't go to the doctor's enough. This is said to be because a) we don't have the time, and b) we think it's unmanly to worry about ourselves. In fact it's because a) by the time you get an appointment with your doctor you're already half dead of what you wanted to see him about, and b) there is reason to believe that the minute doctors start poking about in your body they find things of which you will die but which would have gone away of their own accord had you only not drawn attention to them.

And don't tell me there's a contradiction in that. The body is a contradictory machine, inviting you, when it's well, to do precisely what will make it ill. Myself, when it comes to health, I have always favoured the mystical approach – knowing nothing about my body, neither where anything is nor how it functions, on the principle that ignorance is bliss, that had God wanted us to understand our bodies he would have made them simpler, and that what you don't know doesn't kill you.

I would like to throw in having a good time as the best prophylactic of them all, but it doesn't work. Of the men I know, or know of, who have died in the past five years, most were carousers on the grandest scale. This is the mean-spirited little irony that mortality has in store for us. The greater our appetite for life the more we do the things that will shorten it. "Thus, though we cannot make our sun / Stand still, yet we will make him run" – the best of men try to give the sun a run for his money, but the faster you chase him, the faster he will eat your days.

Take my friend Tony Errington, a roaring giant of a man who has just died much younger than he should have. I met him 30 years ago when he walked into a shop I co-owned in Cornwall, carrying boxes of sunglasses. We didn't sell sunglasses but he told us we did now. He drove down from Walthamstow at the height of summer in a van loaded with whatever he could lay his hands on, and scorched the village. The word went out – "Big Tony's here!" – and wives would lock up their husbands, fearing the infectiousness of his high spirits. By three in the morning the entire male population of Boscastle lay unconscious in the streets while Tony roamed the lanes like some fertility god looking for someone to drink with. Later he became an artist. He wanted life so badly he had to live it and then remake it on canvas. You love men like this at your peril, because they don't last. But what else is love for?

"I have many male patients over 80," my doctor said, "but none is overweight." Here's the catch. Turn your body into a hermit's cell of pinched denial and you might, after all, get to keep company with the canasta-playing ladies rifling one another's bags in care homes in Bournemouth. There seems to be no middle ground for men. We either burn ourselves out or maunder meanly on. I know the heroic choice, but it's a shame to miss out on the canasta.