An old man’s guide to living dangerously

With their puritanical lifestyles, the young are getting it all wrong

9 April 2016

9:00 AM

9 April 2016

9:00 AM

As an old man, well past my Biblical sell-by date, I cannot for the life of me understand why increased longevity is received as such a universal blessing. One thing’s for sure; its celebrants are not the oldies themselves, so it is time someone challenged this assumption.

Let me start with a parable. It concerns an Eastern European country whose parliament was considering a total smoking ban. In response, a consortium of tobacco companies demonstrated that the savings made in healthcare as a result of the decline in smoking-related diseases were chicken feed besides the reduced payout in pensions as the result of premature death — not to mention the fiscal increment from the habit. In 1999, the report said, the Czech economy enjoyed a net gain of 5.8 billion koruna (£103 million) from smoking. Last year, the Czech Republic finally imposed a smoking ban in restaurants — the last EU country to do so.

Longevity is not good for governments and it’s not good for us. For the vast majority, as Ecclesiastes says, ‘The years approach and you will say, I have no pleasure in them.’ As sinews become stiff, bones brittle, breath short, eyes rheumy, ears blocked, our bodies become a burden. Our physical incompetencies are an embarrassment.

Help is at hand, naturally. Last week, I received a catalogue aimed at my invalid class with an emphasis on incontinence. It featured a plethora of gadgets to camouflage gerontal leakage — offering source obstruction, material absorption and fluid diversion. The remaining pages offered a bazaar of geriaids for putting on stockings, separating toes, amplifying sound, enhancing vision, supporting backs, necks, knees, elbows and wrists. There were tools for opening cans and jars, reducing pressure on feet, keeping food off clothes, for lying flat, sitting down and standing up. There was a blanket with sleeves for keeping warm while watching the TV.

The catalogue gave insight into a crumbling world, buttressed and cushioned with elastic, foam, Velcro and viscose. And all of it ultimately useless, because surely we should be grown up enough to recognise with dignity that we inhabit finite bodies. Aged 77, I feel like an old car: for every part that is replaced or reconditioned, another will pack up.

But in any case, the body is the least of our worries. The real issue is losing our minds. As the cells misfire, the chemicals unbalance, the synapses disconnect, we lose our faculties, along with keys, spectacles, wallets and directions. The existential reality of decline is aggravated by the prospect of total physical and cognitive disintegration, the details of which are well known to us, so we live in physical discomfort and mental terror. Old age has graduated into a form of pre-traumatic stress disorder.

Worse, we feel guilty. We obstruct the pavement and slow the traffic. We monopolise the waiting rooms and cause delays at the checkout. We block hospital beds and subsidise Big Pharma. We are a waste of space on a seriously overcrowded planet. We are in the way and those who are most impeded are the young. We can see this and are, therefore, ashamed of ourselves.

There is a simple way to bring this process to a dignified end and the tobacco anecdote gives us a clue. At the root of longevity is a preoccupation with health and safety. Today’s young people are urged to forego the joys of alcohol, the reassurance of nicotine, the delight of saturated fats, replacing them — at increased expense, by the way — with vitamins, baby oil and elixirs. They are required to wear hard hats and harnesses for any activity that might occasion a broken nail or bruised ego. Thus they will enter their eighth decade starved of joy, their souls disappointed but their bodies relatively undamaged and healthy. They will provide the reaper with endless pleasure because his job description has now changed — from terminator to tormentor. Essentially, the health-and-safety agenda programs us to live life to the empty in order to live dying to the full.

It is time to turn the clock back to a more dangerous era, but only we crumblies have the authority to advocate it. I am not obviously proposing a life of foolhardiness and debauch; but I am uncomfortably aware that as I look back, it is those moments when I went too fast, dared too much, fell too far, drank too deep which bring a smile to my lips, an ache to my heart.

My advice to young people is simple. Eat, drink, even smoke, and be generally merry, because that way you might be spared too many days of misery for yourself and your friends and family. Live short and prosper.

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Show comments
  • Rik

    Hear,Hear who wants to trade the joys of life for a few extra years as a mindless bag of flesh sitting in a wheelchair on a puddle of excrement.Go for it, Moderation is for Monks

  • You would not avoid the extra years “as a mindless bag of flesh”, you would only anticipate them to the sixties and seventies instead than to the eighties and nineties.

  • davidofkent

    I fail to see how smoking and excessive drinking can be termed ‘making merry’. Enjoying life’s genuine pleasures in moderation is ‘making merry’.

    • David Simpson


  • right1_left1

    Excellent article containing basic common sense.

    I’m getting on a bit Nearly 80.
    .Still ride a motor bike. A fast one too. Nowhere to go fast tho.
    I enjoy a pint.Never smoked Eat reasonably well and watch my weight.but health still deteriorating
    Slowly but surely.

    I got knocked off a bicycle last Oct No doubt by some young punk
    I dont know he didnt stop.
    Not going to be prosecuted as far as I know.
    I did demolish police arguments as to why he shouldn’t be taken to court.
    They have since stopped communicating with me!

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Lucky you weren’t prosecuted in Police State UK.

  • newname

    If or when I get to 80 I’m going on the gin and chocolate diet.

  • albertcooper

    I am 82 ,83 June 16th and a Blues and Jazz Singer and guitarist.I still gig with my Bluesband and Jazz Group,and will continue to do so

    • Bertrude


  • seangrainger

    Sorry guv I claim ownership of this thesis. In response to some daft claim by The Royal College of Physicians about cost to state of alcohol consumption 15 years ago I ran the numbers on my HP12C. Without breaking sweat I got the NPV saving to Nice Mr George from premature death to £70billion. I sent it to the BBC Point Of View Sue Cook but of course it weren’t up their alley so ignored.

  • investigator

    One is not “condemned to a miserable old age.”
    One can terminate one’s life, with nembutal, or nitrogen gas, or many other substances.
    Anyway, to be old is not necessarily to be incompetent; look at David Attenborough.

    • CRSM

      Yes, but it shouldn’t have to be this way. Having a one-stop euthanasia clinic in each county town, where anyone, of any age, can request a painless and peaceful end is needed now. After all, it’s something we mercifully grant to loved pets, why not for us humans?

      • investigator

        What do you mean, “it shouldn’t have to be this way.”
        Do you mean, “individuals shouldn’t be allowed to end their own lives, painlessly. Only recognized clinics should be allowed to do it?”

        And then you recommend “a one-stop euthanasia clinic in every country town, now.”
        Don’t you have any knowledge of the way politics works?
        That’s like asking for “total honesty from every politician, now.”

        Your request, if any responsible person put it forward, would be met with an explosion of outrage to make the eruption of Krakatoa look like the squeezing of an adolescent’s pimple. The saintly Pope Francis would go into paroxysms .
        Get real.

        Let’s extend the possible as fast as we can, with nembutal, nitrogen and other available techniques.

      • milford

        Yes but the NHS prescribes billions of pounds worth of drugs to keep these elderly people artificially alive so as they can consume billions of pounds worth of drugs paid for mainly by the hard work of tax payers. This all to keep Big Pharma company directors in Ferraris and yachts so they can swan around on the French Riviera.

    • greencoat

      Yes, Old Ma Attenborough is cute but I don’t like her fixation with ‘climate change’.

      • investigator

        What a stupid and nasty comment.
        In the fifties and sixties homosexuals of an obsessive and distorted disposition used to refer to heterosexual men as “she.” Are you such an antiquated and repulsive sort of homosexual?
        And “climate change” has nothing to do with this subject. It seems that you will simply use every opportunity, no matter how inappropriate, to air the contents of the stinking little drawer you call your mind.

  • ex-pom

    Two other things:-

    In Anglo-Saxon / Norse times, the most utterly shameful death imaginable was a “Straw-Death” i.e. you died helpless, drooling and decrepit lying in your bed. It was considered back then as we now consider Paedophilia in the modern Age:- utterly obscene and disgusting beyond belief !

    The only acceptable and glorious way to go was to die in battle, finally succumbing after swinging your sword to the bitter end against impossible odds and surrounded by the bodies of your enemies.

    Whereas now the culture dictates that, should you need to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, then you must first put on a hard-hat, safety-goggles, protective gloves and a hi-viz jacket !
    OR ELSE !!

    My other point is that modern people, particularly the young, think that Death is only an option and is only caused by bad life-choices made by “Bad” people. If only people did not drink, smoke, eat “this bad thing” or “that bad thing” ( these “bad things” are always changing constantly BTW ), and spent all their spare time running round and round and round in aimless circles or peddling their little bicycles like hamsters on their little exercise wheels, then they can somehow escape from Death,

    To quote the Venerable Bede:-

    “The present life of man upon earth, O King, seems to me in comparison with that time which is unknown to us like the swift flight of a sparrow through the mead-hall where you sit at supper in winter, with your Ealdormen and thanes, while the fire blazes in the midst and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest, but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter to winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all.”

    Basically, we all fly in from the unknowable Darkness of Nothingness into the Mead-Hall where is Light, dancing, drinking, feasting, singing and laughter and then we fly out the other window back into the unknowable Darkness of Nothingness.

    You can either enjoy your brief time in the Light, dancing, drinking, feasting, singing and laughing; or you can sulk miserably in the corner peddling your silly bicycle and maundering, hissing with malevolent self-righteousness at those enjoying their brief life.

    Either way, the end is exactly the same; you fly out the other end of the Mead-Hall into the Darkness.

    • David Simpson

      what’s wrong with “peddling my silly bicycle”? It’s dangerous, exciting, may provoke a convulsion, loads of fresh air and birdsong, and it’s “good for the environment”. When drunk, it’s even more interesting . . .

      • Maureen Sutton


    • Charlie Angel

      “modern people, particularly the young, think that Death is only an option and is only caused by bad life-choices made by “Bad” people.”

      Your excellent post – and this comment in particular – reminds me of a somewhat bizarre conversation I had last year with a very fit young man who had been boring me to death with his talk of his arduous fitness regime and diet…

      Not being able to take it anymore I said to him: “But you do realise that you’re going to die one day, don’t you?”

      At which with a very confused look on his face, he blustered, “Yes but I am really fit. I go to the gym every day, I look after my health, my diet….”

      “yes, yes I know. You’ve told me. But you’re still going to die one day. As the Buddhists say a healthy body is simply the slowest way of dying…”

      But alas, the message didn’t seem to get through. And no, for some reason I don’t get many invites to dinner much either…

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Go out in style. Anyone seen that Semtex waistcoat?
        Don’t mess with the elderly.
        They’ve out a lot less to lose.

    • greencoat

      ‘The only acceptable and glorious way to go was to die in battle, finally succumbing after swinging your sword to the bitter end against impossible odds and surrounded by the bodies of your enemies.’

      Given the Islamic invasion currently under way, many of us are likely to get this very opportunity.

  • Rupert Collier

    Loved this article, chapeau to the scribe. It’s en route to my parents as I write. Obviously I had to print it out onto A4 in double sized, bold font so they could read it. Only joking, they are both fit as a fiddle in their 80s (father) and 70s (mother) – and they never missed an opportunity for a gin or a bottle of red their whole lives.

  • David Simpson

    hooray. currently drowning in krazi on Naxos. my only concern is the cost of my funeral, which I have attempted to abate by donating all my rotten / rotting organs to medical science.

    • Bill Kendall

      Why be concerned about the cost of one’s funeral, we won’t be around to pay it?

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Have a letter box for HMRC final demands on the plot.

  • John Steadman

    I’m 70, and have just made the wholly unwise decision to keep riding my Honda 650 motorbike, at little risk to anyone other than myself. Silly, yes, but as alternative to waiting for death and the dying of the light…..well…a no-brainer.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Give blood, buy a motorbike”

    • David Booth.

      I prefer my Vespa 300Gti, clocked myself doing 90mph the other day, scary but by golly I knew I was still alive (at 68!)

      • John Steadman

        Sounds like a fuel-injection problem, David, or a binding rear-brake.

  • Mr B J Mann

    In a word, what do the health nuts want to stay healthy FOR?!!

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Growing old disgracefully.

    • Bonkim

      How do you do that?

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        It’s really quite simple. Get into character as an English gentleman and put yourself in a region where supply and demand runs in your favour.
        Or as they say at the Press Club in Tokyo on a Friday evening referring to trophy girls friends: “Younger than that whisky you’re drinking”
        But don’t use that male chauvenistic line in over-taxed UK, where they can’t afford better than a 12-year-old malt.
        Growing old disgracefully.

  • Bonkim

    All social security and health services should be withdrawn once the person has reached 75. After that every day is a bonus and people should not be kept bed-ridden any time.

    the Eskimoes used to walk out in the snow never to return when they could not chew leather.

    • maic

      My God! I’m past your deadline! Can’t you make it 85? Then(assuming I can still walk unaided) I can toddle down to the local Termination Centre for a cup of tea and a final injection – it won’t hurt a bit!

      • Bonkim

        Why waste energy walking to Heaven? Will send something to put in your tea – it will be painless I assure you meeting EU Health and safety standards. One has to be kind to the last breath.

  • chris

    I’ve long thought that things such as gyms, green diets and healthy lifestyles involve too much time and lifestyle change which is not necessary and often more stressful in itself. Was there anything wrong with going for a 20minute walk to the offie to buy cigs, beer and a paper? this way, you get exercise and social interaction with real people, upon return to the house you can crack open a tin and light a ciggie whilst relaxing to read the paper or stick on some tunes. The walk and small amount of alcohol and reading will help get a good night sleep. It’s better than pounding a run machine and returning home to whisk a smoothie full of sugar and drinking green tea whilst surfing the net.

  • Jacobi

    Such wisdom, Dakers!

    As you say only we oldies have the authority to advocate recklessness without the pangs of guilt. So lets use it!

    Young people are a bunch of wimps. Safety helmets when cycling in the local park, brightly coloured life jackets and wet suits for half an hour sailing 200 yds off-shore in an on-shore light wind, exciting
    “dangerous ” rock climbing in an old church steeple with top ropes and big cushions at the bottom.

    What on earth is wrong with a life of debauchery for a year or two anyway (with the odd Confession that is, Catholic you see), before settling down with a nice bird?

  • Tom Sykes

    Brilliant. I am 64 and very active at work and play. I have friends who are not and they have aged. I intend to be very healthy when I die.
    On the other hand I sense that I am slowly withdrawing from the everyday cares and anxieties of a busy life and feel that life itself may be preparing me for an acceptance of death; which is good.

    “Life’ll Kill Ya”….Warren Zevon…great song