The day I got a life: Things <i>not</i> to do before you die

After writing a book ridiculing 'Things to do before you die' lists, Sam Jordison investigated if extreme experiences really are 'liberating' &ndash; or just plain silly

Sunday 07 September 2008 00:00

Bucket lists are a blight on modern culture. About a year ago I got so fed up with all those Channel 4 shows, Sunday supplement articles, self-help books and websites telling me the books I had to read, places I had to go and activities I had to undertake, that I decided to respond in kind with my own anti-list. The result was a book: Sod That! 103 Things Not to Do Before You Die.

Writing Sod That! was a lot of fun, but it didn't provide the catharsis I expected. Spending time finding out about all the things I didn't want to be doing actually proved an uncomfortable reminder of my own mortality. I'd just turned 30, just started a family and just spotted my first white hairs. I was aware that I probably wouldn't be able to complete all those lists even if I wanted to and began to worry that maybe I was wrong.

This realisation was made all the more poignant by the recent death of Dave Freeman, the co-author of 100 Things to Do Before You Die, the seminal bucket-list book. He was just 47 and had only completed half the recommendations in his genre-inspiring tome; a sad irony that made me reconsider my own stance. Maybe I was missing something vital. Something that might change my life – or at least give me a new perspective.

There was only one way to find out. I decided to experience a few of the suggestions that most frequently appear on to-do lists to see if they were as dumb as I'd imagined. That's why, far too early on a Sunday morning, I found myself staring over the edge of an unpleasantly steep slope in rural Gloucestershire contemplating my descent down it in a giant water-filled plastic football.

Zorbing or (more accurately when water is involved) aqua-sphering, is the counter-evolutionary and singularly useless practice of rolling down hills inside oversized orbs. It was invented in New Zealand in the 1990s and has been topping must-do lists ever since. My photographer friend Jon, having read so much positive propaganda, was eager to join in – until he saw the size of the hill.

On the edge of the slope, the inner pod of the sphere towering over me had just been filled with extremely cold water and I was expected to dive into it. It was a nasty shock but it had nothing on the next stage of the process. As soon as I was sitting uncomfortably, five men shoved the ball – hard – and I was careering downhill at a horrifying speed. I vainly tried to keep myself upright, frantically paddling with my feet against the front of the ball as my head was banged repeatedly against the back, while great waves of foaming water crashed into my face. The result was complete disorientation and the feeling that if this thing didn't stop soon, I was going to drown. Mercifully, it stopped.

It had been one of the longest 10 seconds of my life. I got out, shaken, stirred and yet curiously elated. I now understood why adrenalin junky list-makers rated Zorbing so highly. My heart thumping, hands shaking and almost completely unable to speak, I eventually managed to tell Jon that it was "quite nice when it ended". I could feel a headache coming on. Time for a coffee break.

Kopi Luwak is allegedly the finest – and at £15 for 50g certainly the most expensive – coffee known to humanity. It's made from beans that have been eaten by and passed through the digestive tract of the Asian palm civet (a racoon-like mammal) and hand- collected from the rainforest floor on islands in the Indonesian archipelago. Connoisseurs claim it is unusually smooth with a unique musty flavour. There's also a certain James Bond appeal to its exclusivity that helps ensure it maintains a high place on lists of things to buy before you die.

This claim to exclusivity was somewhat undermined by the fact that Google helped me source some in less than five minutes. Disappointingly, it was delicious. It was as smooth as predicted, with a clean lingering, almost citrusy aftertaste. In fact, my pleasure was marred only by the thought that some Indonesian had had to scrabble around on the jungle floor picking up turds just so that I could enjoy my coffee.

Next on the list? My barnet – which had passed over the fine line from tousled to scruffy and was now entering the long and straggly zone. I was ready to believe the must-do list line that hacking it all off would prove a "liberation", and looking forward to never having to comb it. In the event I discovered, first, amusement – as I gave myself a pastiche of a combover – then a dreadful Samson-style regret as I saw my locks drop around my feet. Plus, I now looked like a safety match and had an itchy scalp on top of my post-Zorbing headache; I was also rapidly developing post-caffeine jitters. Just what I didn't need on the long drive to Portsmouth and Eastney nudist beach.

Public nudity, like head-shaving, is generally sold by list-compilers as "liberating". They also tend to claim it's "challenging" and "awareness-raising", as if such things are 1) appealing and 2) likely to be achieved by showing people your bottom. As far as I was concerned, this would be a situation that would present one of two problems. Either the beach would be full of naked people I found attractive and I'd feel like a perv, or it would be full of naked people I found disgusting and I'd be unable to eat meat-based products for the rest of my life.

In the event, I encountered a third and definitely worst-case scenario. Namely that everyone else was fully clothed and I alone was going to get naked. The fact that it was now late on a cloudy overcast afternoon provided a partial explanation for this lack of flesh, but it was still disconcerting to walk past what seemed to be a Muslim youth group outing complete with veiled women, gathered around a lamb barbecue.

Was I really going to get my babymaker out in front of these people? The answer, of course, was yes – I hadn't driven all this way to feel like a chicken. So I walked to the water's edge, as far as possible from innocent eyes, and dropped everything. For a brief, golden moment it was – yes – liberating. There I was, the breeze gently playing around my buttocks, with absolutely nothing between myself and the Isle of Man in the hazy distance. I wanted to shout at the exhilaration. Then a rusting old hulk of a ship hove into view (this was Portsmouth after all), the grey water at my feet started fizzing in a polluted manner and the moment passed. I decided to go home.

But the day still had one more experience in store. On the motorway back to Oxford, a Vauxhall Corsa strayed into my lane. Only a sharp swerve and the fast braking of the car behind saved me. As I grappled with the steering wheel, my heart pounded in my chest. I was shaking. In short, it reminded me of Zorbing. But this all-too-real near-death experience put such adrenalin chasing into grim perspective. It also occurred to me that if I had been squashed then, pretty much my last act on earth would have been getting my bum out on a beach in Portsmouth. There are, I realised, thousands of other things I'd rather do before death catches up with me. And I'm glad I've still got the chance to do them.

Don't bother: More overrated ideas

Learn and perform the Kama Sutra: What would actually happen if a man were to take seriously the book's instruction to rub into his lingam the "remains of a kite... ground into powder and mixed with cowach and honey"? Would it really make a woman "subject to his will"? Or would it actually be a bit smelly and off-putting?

Trace your family tree: If you come from a normal family, your true line can probably be traced no further than your great-grandma's milkman in the 1920s.

Try to get on TV: Look at the people on TV: Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, Boris Johnson, Jade Goody, Jeremy Clarkson... Do you really want to be like them?

Go to the North Pole: It's cold, lifeless and there's nothing to see. This experience can be recreated with far less expense and bother by going to Dunfermline. Or listening to the music of Phil Collins.

Walk from Land's End to John O'Groats: There are all sorts of reasons why walking 1,000 hilly miles in the British weather is inadvisable, but the most important is the necessity of walking through the West Midlands and Staffordshire.

Suck up to God: Why assume that getting on your knees and praying is the best way to win His favours? No one else likes a kiss-ass, so why should He? SJ

'Sod That!' is published on Thursday by Orion at £9.99. For water-sphering details, go to

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