Consulting the Oracles

Daily Mail (London), July 30, 1999 | Go to article overview

Consulting the Oracles


Byline: VAL HENNESSY

THE BOOK OF LIFE: ONE MAN'S SEARCH FOR THE WISDOM OF AGE by ANDREW JACKSON (Victor Gollancz, [pounds sterling]18.99)

HANDS UP all who fantasise about chucking their job and wandering the world for two years. This is exactly what thirty-something Andrew Jackson and his wife, Vanella, dared to do, backpacking through five continents.

Their aim was to get a book out of it, their theme being to interview venerable old-timers with the wisdom of lifetimes to impart.

Jackson was a whizzkid advertising executive, with an Audi quattro, an expense account, champagne lifestyle and loadsa salary. Vanella ran her own successful strategic planning business.

One evening they stood in their kitchen, togged up in their designer suits, exhausted, dispirited, and realising that they were in a rut, with no space in their lives for anything but work. They decided to quit their jobs, rent out their flat and travel in quest of oldies.

'It felt scary, like jumping off a cliff. Yet it was the easiest thing we ever did,' recalls Jackson, and hats off to him.

They take off for Moscow to a meeting with Mr Straostin, 98, who once shook hands with Stalin and survived ten years in a gulag for supporting capitalist football.

They meet with Grigorii Dobrenko, 90, an absolute double for George Bernard Shaw, who believes he owes his long life to fasting, avoiding tobacco and alcohol, thinking good thoughts and believing in God; and Hermed Lannung, 103, owner of a samovar that belonged to Leo Tolstoy.

WHEN Russians see it, they have tears in their eyes,' croaks Lannung, while Jackson makes a mental note 'to touch the 3ft of polished brass for luck . . . it's not every day I find myself in the company of a kettle that made tea which helped sustain the writing of War And Peace.' In eastern Slovakia they meet Cyril Murva, 95, who worked as a cowman until he was 80.

He attributes his long stint to 40 ciggies a day and plenty of gin. He tells a dirty joke, wheezes himself to a standstill and plants a passionate French kiss upon the horrified Vanella.

To Cairo, where they encounter the mellow Saba, 96, a knight of the British Empire and a last remaining Egyptian knight whose tip for survival is moderation in all things, drink lots of water, early to bed, early to rise and who, until recently, did 120 daily skips of his skipping rope.

Listening to his gentle philosophy Jackson ponders: 'I wonder how significant it is that Saba's values - diligence, perseverance and thrift - seem quirky and old-fashioned, somehow at odds with the world today.' In Istanbul, they take tea with Mrs Duran, 103, one of the last remaining relics of the Ottoman Empire. Originally from Brighton, whose seafront she last saw in the time of Queen Victoria, she eloped with a Turk. …

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