Immortal longings

26 August 2013 - 02:35 By Darrel Bristow-Bovey
Shigeo Tokuda, 79, the world's oldest porn-movie star
Shigeo Tokuda, 79, the world's oldest porn-movie star

So Carmelo Flores Laura, a former Bolivian cattle herder who turned 123 last month, is now the oldest person who has ever lived outside of the Bible.

Whenever a new oldest person is announced there's a scurry to uncover the secret of their longevity. The health industry disapproved of the previous record holder, Jeanne Calment, who died near Arles in 1997, aged 122. She famously smoked until the age of 117, drank heavily and ate chocolates till the day she died. (At which point, the moralisers nodded sagely and said, "I told you it would get her in the end.") You always had the feeling that the health police would have liked to push her into a tar pit when no one was looking.

The health industry is better pleased with Laura. There were smiles all round when he told interviewers that he eats a daily diet of quinoa. Quinoa! The secret of long life! But when it comes to health, you generally find what you go looking for. The secret of his success might indeed be the quinoa, or it might just as easily be his enthusiasm for eating fox meat and nuggets of skunk, or indeed his proud lifelong coca habit. Anti-carbohydratists are delighted that Laura doesn't eat rice or noodles; they don't dwell on the fact that the second-oldest person in the world - one Misao Okawa from Japan - almost certainly does.

I have a personal interest in monitoring these developments. People are surprised when I tell them that I'd like to live forever, or as close to forever as I can get. Wouldn't you miss your friends, they ask? To which I answer: I have friends who moved to Australia and I miss them too, but it would be far worse to join them.

It's not that death is so awful, but it does cut you off from the good things: winter sunlight and train journeys and new books and Test match cricket and Sinatra songs and making jokes and eating honey with your breakfast and taking afternoon naps. Perhaps in time and with age these things will no longer delight me and death will seem the kinder option, but I hope not, and it seems somewhat defeatist to decide now that it will.

But isn't death just one long afternoon nap anyway, they say? Yes, but you don't get to wake up.

I'm always looking for tips. In 1933 a Chinese Zen master named Li Ching-Yun died, allegedly at the age of 256. To be fair, Li himself only ever claimed to be 197 years old, but a Chinese university professor subsequently found records proving he'd been born even earlier. When approached for advice about longevity, Li offered this: "Keep a quiet heart; sit like a tortoise; walk like a pigeon; sleep like a dog". This is the kind of useful advice you get from Zen masters, which is why I never bother to ask directions in Tibet. When it comes to tips about longevity, you get koans or you get quinoa.

You also get people like Yoshiro Nakamatsu, the master inventor of Tokyo. He has the world record for patents - nearly 4000 of them, including the soy-sauce pump that made his fortune and such other useful items as a rotating spaghetti fork for lazy pasta-eaters, a wig that can be used for self-defence and a condom with a magnet inside (to enhance female sensitivity). He also claims to have invented the floppy disk and the CD. These latter claims are disputed.

How does Nakamatsu come up with all these inventions? He holds that oxygen-deprivation is the key to creativity, so he swims underwater to the point of blackout, then scrawls his latest idea on a waterproof notepad using a waterproof pencil - both of which he invented - before floating gently belly-up to the surface, like some pallid Edison of the deep.

Nakamatsu believes that consuming food shortens your life. He has taken a photo of every meal he has eaten in the last 34 years, which makes me wonder whether he didn't also invent Instagram. He eats just one meal a day, and always the same one - a combination of pureed seaweed, cheese, eggs, eel, prawns and chicken livers, plus a special supplement of his own inventing. Nakamatsu is 85 and is confident he will live to 144.

Am I tempted to follow his lead? No, no more than I'm going to start walking like a pigeon, or eating skunks, or quinoa. I suspect the art of living longer is like the art of living itself: what works for one person doesn't work for another. The best thing you can do is be as happy as you can and hope you get lucky.

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