Magazine article The Spectator

In Search of Lost Time

Magazine article The Spectator

In Search of Lost Time

Article excerpt

My friend Mickie O'Brien, late of 47 and 44 RM Cdo, died the other day. I'm not sure how old he was - late 80s, I would imagine - but, whatever, it was good going for a man who should have been killed at least twice in the 1940s, once at the Battle of Kangaw when the Japs shot away half his stomach and once when he walked deliberately into a minefield to rescue a French farmer. For one exploit or another Mickie won an MC.

The question I used to ask Mickie most often was how he managed to cope with so much fear and horror. He always replied that he had the perfect temperament for wartime soldiering: 'a strong sense of fatalism and no imagination'.

I wonder if these are the same characteristics that helped him enjoy such a decent innings. Or did all the booze pickle him? Or was it in the genes? These are things I often wonder about my surviving elderly friends.

Is there anything I can do to be more like them? How much of it is in the mind (such as the cussedness of the dear Halifax pilot chum I call Cantankerous Old Bugger - COB for short) and how much of our fate was already predetermined on the day we were born?

This being a TV review, I am, uncharacteristically, able to give you a pertinent, TV-related answer. That's because of a marvellous experiment the BBC conducted this week in a three-part series called The Young Ones (BBC 1, Tuesday). What they did was to take a group of celebrity pensioners - actress Liz Smith, former editor Derek Jameson, ex-newsreader Kenneth Kendall, hoofer Lionel Blair, umpire Dickie Bird and actress Sylvia Syms - and see whether, by transporting them back in time, they could help them regain their lost youth.

It was all based on an experiment that was originally conducted at Harvard in the 1970s. Apparently, if you can trick an old person's brain into thinking it's still in its prime then mind and body will follow. To this end, the BBC created a kind of pensioners' equivalent of the Big Brother house - interior-designed to look as though the Seventies had never gone away and we were all still sleeping under purple sheets, drinking out of brown coffee cups with embossed swirly motifs and playing Pong on our home video consoles. Just like the celebrities would have remembered life being in their heyday.

Even in its abbreviated version on the sketchy preview tapes some of it did seem to go on a bit, with lots of narratorial explanations, re-explanations and re-re-explanations of what the experiment was about, what had happened so far and what might be happening next. …

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