x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

The looking-glass world of death and diets

The elusive dreams of longevity and slimming, a possible Abba reunion and Pete Postlethwaite's face.

Frailty and loneliness can make living longer a mixed blessing

Thousands of people in the baby-boomer bracket will reach retirement age this year and by the year 2080 one in six people will live to be 100.

When you're in your 20s and can't conceive of the idea of getting old, the thought of living for a century or more seems entirely possible. "I'm gonna live forever" were the words of the song Fame from the 1980s movie, but would you really want to live forever or even into your 11th decade?

Who would want to be alive if they were immobile, ill, lonely and poor or any combination of those things. It would be great if we could halt the ageing process around the 60 mark. It wouldn't be so bad to live life as a centenarian if we inhabited the body of a 60-year-old. Sadly, it rarely works that way and nature tends to slow things up gradually.

Many of the baby boomers in the West were risk-takers in youth, with large mortgages, multiple debts and not enough tucked away in the pensions kitty, so their futures may be looking rather bleak in terms of worldly comforts. Thousands will have no option but to carry on working for another decade.

I know a delightful 97-year-old who quite simply refuses to acknowledge her great age and accuses her daughter of bullying her when she calls to make sure her mother has taken her various pills and supplements at the right time of day. The old lady is amazingly active and cantankerous, still insists on living on her own and is interested in everything around her.

She's a bit of a one-off though. The reality is that many old people simply sink into lonely immobility as their senses fade and their lives contract. Their world tends to revolve around what they eat and how they slept. Friends die off and they don't feel inclined to make new ones.

Arab cultures tend to be much better at looking after their old people than western ones. Elderly parents are revered and cosseted at the centre of family life and not packed off to an old folks' home as they are in the West. That's the way it should be, of course and with improved diets and living conditions and the incredible advances of medical technology, old age should be much more pleasurable.

I hope to grow old disgracefully and be a thoroughly mischievous ally to my grandchildren if I'm lucky enough to have them. I intend to take them swimming in the middle of winter, let them build bonfires in the garden whenever they like, camp under the stars and stay up till the small hours singing folk songs and telling stories till they beg me to go to sleep. That's the plan anyway.


Mind over matter can be torture

At this time of year after all the indulgences over the holiday period, newspapers and magazines are full of diets, exercise regimens and promises of a new body in weeks with minimal effort.

It's all rubbish of course, as keeping up a programme involving eating less food and exercising more is really tough, as anyone will tell you.

Even if we successfully manage to lose a few pounds it seldom makes us happy. A UK poll carried out by the diet company Slimming World rather depressingly reveals that even a woman with a svelte size 12 figure looks in the mirror and sees a fat person. Only one woman in 17 with a healthy weight considers herself "slim".

There might be a bit of false modesty about this particular survey, as few of us would tell a complete stranger that we feel happy about our reflection for fear of sounding big-headed, but it's worrying to think that only six per cent of the women asked thought that they were the right weight for their height and felt that they looked slim.

Last year I went on a slow but effective weight-loss programme and for one brief shining moment managed to squeeze myself into a pair of size 12 trousers. I think it lasted for about a month actually, but during that time I felt very happy about my size.

Even at my thinnest though, my head never really accepted that I was slim. I'm of the firm belief that it takes the brain more time than it takes the body to adjust. If you've ever been a size 16 and above, you tend to see yourself forever with size 16 eyes.


French whine leads the world

Gallic gloom has reached epic proportions for the French, who have just been "outed" as the most pessimistic people in the world. They truly are les misérables, according to a global survey gloomily titled Survey of Hope and Despair.

Les Français have been grumbling away for centuries, so it's hardly a surprise. The British, however, have only joined the ranks of the despairing since the recession began two years ago. Iceland, Romania and Serbia are right up there with the grumps.

Looking on the brighter side of life threw up two unlikely candidates in Nigeria and Vietnam, which is surprising bearing in mind the depth of corruption and an unsettled political leadership in the former and the legacy of a 20-year war in the latter, but apparently both peoples are relentlessly optimistic about life. Strangely, the Afghans also ranked high on the happiness scale, despite decades of strife and uncertainty.

Europeans and Americans all scored minuses, which tends to suggest that the higher the standard of living, the less it is appreciated. Poorer countries such as Bangladesh and Vietnam, experiencing even small economic booms, were more optimistic than any western nation.


A superb bad guy, a marvellous good guy - and a great loss

It's sad to think we won't be seeing the battered, craggy features of the actor Pete Postlethwaite again, except in his old movies. He was only 64 when he died of cancer on January 2 and I can't think of many other actors that I could have watched even reading out the phone book.

He had one of those faces that people might have said was made for radio, had he not cornered the market in a range of cranky and unusual characters.

He played goodies and baddies with equal conviction and was nominated for an Oscar for his role as Giuseppe Conlon, the father of one of the four men convicted of the 1974 Guildford bombings and later freed, in the film In the Name of the Father.

I particularly loved his understated performance in Brassed Off as the cancer-stricken leader of a colliery brass band dreaming of glory in a national competition. The scene when he walked on to the stage of the Royal Albert Hall in London to claim and then turn down the coveted trophy in protest against pit closures, when he should have been on his deathbed, was one of the most moving ever.


An Abba reunion would sell like hot cakes - if it ever happened

Every few years somebody starts a rumour that the four members of the 1970s supergroup Abba are going to get together for a reunion. So far it has never materialised, largely, we're told, because the reclusive Agnetha Fältskog (the blonde one) has hidden herself away on an island near Stockholm to get away from prying eyes.

They turned down a reported US$1 billion (Dh3.7bn) offer for a 100-date tour 10 years ago. None of them needs the money so their fans have just had to make do with the various remixed CDs of their greatest hits and performances of Mamma Mia!.

Now, however, Fältskog appears to be in favour of getting together. In an interview with a Swedish magazine, she says she thinks it would be fun to perform together again and perhaps stage a reunion for a good cause.

Relations between Fältskog, who was once married to Bjorn Ulvaeus, and the others have been distant over the years and Ulvaeus declared just three years ago that Abba would never appear on stage again.

Yet with album sales of 375 million, countless tribute bands and a solid and loyal middle-aged fan base, a one-off concert would be an instant sell-out. It would be the hottest ticket on the planet and I would kill for one.