How Swift's old-age horrors came true

The immortal but miserable Struldbruggs of 'Gulliver's Travels' are alive, unwell, and among us in the 1990s
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I have been re-reading with astonishment that extraordinary part of Gulliver's Travels where he discovers the Struldbruggs - the immortal men who cannot die. (Tonight Channel 4 shows the second part of a dramatisation of the book.) Astonishment because Swift is so prescient about what might happen if people did live for ever - or, as nowadays, survive for decades longer than was usual in his lifetime.

Gulliver is told about the Struldbruggs, rare children identified at birth by a red spot, denoting that they will never die. He fondly imagines that this must be the cause of great celebration, and conjectures on the wisdom that must reside in these ancient people. How happy must the Struldbruggs be "having their minds free and disingaged, without the Weight and Depression caused by the continual apprehension of Death."

His hosts listen with wry amusement, as he fantasises gleefully on what he would do, were he born in Struldbrugg. He would start by amassing a fortune, which by wise investment would grow to astronomical sums over the centuries. (Swift is right - the greedy galloping pension funds will soon own every business on earth.)

His hosts disabuse him: they explain that the Struldbruggs have immortality, but not perpetual youth. When they reach 80, "they had not only all the Follies and Infirmities of other old Men, but many more which arose from the dreadful prospect of never dying. They were not only opinionative, peevish, covetous, morose, vain, talkative; but uncapable of friendship, and dead to all natural Affection, which never descended below their Grand- children. Envy and impotent Desires are their prevailing passions. But those objects against which their Envy seems principally directed are the Vices of the younger sort."

How does Swift's state cope with these beings? At 80 they are regarded "as dead in law: their heirs immediately succeed to their estates, only a small Pittance is reserved for their support" (equivalent to our state pension). Their marriages are dissolved at 80 since it is deemed an unnatural cruelty to expect people to stay married for ever. (Modern divorce figures owe much to increased longevity and life expectation.) The laws against the Struldbruggs' ownership of property spring from this idea: "As Avarice is the necessary Consequent of old Age, those Immortals would in time become Proprietors of the whole Nation, and engross the Civil power."

So should we too start to fear the Grey Power of our rapidly ageing population? At the start of the National Health Service only 1 per cent of people lived to be 80, but there will be six times as many by early next century. Already the Queen is sending out telegrams to centenarians by the bagful. When we early NHS post-war bulge babies reach retirement, we will indeed prove ourselves to be a monstrous generation. We have shifted the culture of the nation in our favour every step of the way. First, when we were young, we brought power to youth for the first time. Now we take our dominant tastes with us as we go.

By the time we reach 60, you can bet we will have new laws preventing age discrimination or compulsory retirement. We will want to hold on to our jobs as long as we can. However much we fail in imagination and innovation, we will be good at blocking the rise of the puny generations below us, clothing our self- interest piously in the sententious language of "ageism", as if it were really as pernicious as sexism or racism, which it is not. Our economic hegemony will be at its most tyrannical when we become frail and the young in work will have to pay for our very expensive care.

It looks now as though the Government is about to make a fatal error in favour of the old and the middle-aged. John Major promises new schemes to allow the old to keep their property instead of spending it on the cost of care if they have to go into a nursing home. This will be of most benefit to my generation, who are insisting on the right to inherit their elderly parents' homes and capital, at a time in their middle years when they do not need it. They themselves will soon retire with these nice little nest eggs, while the young will pay more in their taxes towards caring for the decrepit.

So much for the politics and economics of the modern Struldbruggs. But what of the morality? Gulliver noted that the people among whom the Struldbruggs lived had lost their fear of death, since they could see before their eyes the horror of perpetual life. He wanted to take a couple of Struldbruggs home so his fellow-citizens could also gaze upon their predicament and lose their fear of death. "No Tyrant could invent a Death into which I would not run with pleasure from such a life."

But we already have our Struldruggs, hidden away from public gaze. I could take you to homes and psycho-geriatric wards that would fill your heart with fear of too long a life. Nodding, drooling, often wailing rows of Struldbruggs sit and wait for a death that will not come. With Alzheimer's now an epidemic, their miserable bodies have out-lived their minds, stray strands of awareness leaving them terrified in an alien world where they recognise nothing and no one. It is virtually impossible to get permission to film in such places, as, conveniently for their minders, it is claimed that they cannot give informed consent. But they should be seen, since politicians talk of the very old as if they were rosy-cheeked Derbys and Joans.

If they are both wise and kind, for their own sakes and ours, the younger generation should face the idea of euthanasia with less false moral squeamishness. I have never understood why a horse with a broken leg or an ageing incontinent pet should be afforded this mercy as a kindness, but not humans.

However, we are unlikely to be hard-headed and realistic enough ever to dare frame such a law. But as a matter of urgency, it should be possible for those of us who choose to sign a document demanding death once we are mentally beyond being able to make the request for ourselves. It is not enough to ask for no treatment, hoping that pneumonia, the old man's friend, will do the business. Many live on for years without the need for medication. Swift's message is that Struldbruggs both suffer and cause suffering all around them, and he would rightly have put them out of their misery if he could.

Extracts from 'Gulliver and Beyond', published by Channel 4 Television, PO Box 4000, London, W5 2GH, pounds 4.95.