Oliver Cross: Downside of wanting to live for ever in a foreign country

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THIS week I read a poem called Listening to Collared Doves, which is a rather gloomy meditation on how times change and we’re all doomed.

The thing about collared doves, which started out in Asia and moved rapidly across Europe in the last century, is that the first breeding pairs weren’t spotted in England until 1955 but there are now around two million of them, their dull three-note call drowning out the once-dominant calls of native birds, such as wood pigeons.

The poem, by E.J. Scovell (not to be confused with Private Eye’s poet in residence, E.J. Thribb) reflects on how things change around you, so that you end up living in a different country than the one you were born in, even if you’ve never moved anywhere. In the foreign country that is my own past, for instance, there were no computers or curry houses and people still sent telegrams.

Eventually, says Scovell, the changes become wearisome. She (the E stands for Edith) remembers an old friend who adapted as best she could as she moved from a Victorian childhood through “our century of grief .” She had done everything she wanted to do and, concludes the poet, “our natural span may be enough.”

Enter the Office for National Statistics which has just announced that a third or more of the babies now being born will live to enjoy (if that’s the word) their 100th birthdays – not that this is a statistic; it’s more of an informed guess which could go horribly wrong.

Still, while increased life-spans have all sorts of important financial and social implications, I think the psychological ones are also of interest; will the babes-in-arms now being dragged around Morrison’s think, when they get to 100, that the whole thing’s been worth it, or will they regret that their natural span has been so stretched by medical advances that they are living longer than they want to.

This happened to both my parents, who in ill-health in their eighties, ended up with no wish to prolong lives which were no longer a pleasure to live, even if it meant making a negative contribution to UK longevity targets.

In the Tennyson poem Tithonus, a handsome young man (this is a Greek myth, so try not to worry about plausibility) is granted his wish for immortality by the goddess Aurora, only to find that there’s a catch – he can live for ever but he can’t stop getting older, so that he withers away to “a white haired shadow.”

He regrets, like the old woman in E.J. Scovell’s poem, that his natural span has been exceeded. He yearns for a restoration of the natural order, where:
The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.

Of course, things needn’t turn out too bad; it will depend on whether active, useful life is elongated on the same scale as chronological life and whether services can cope with so many ancient people – although there’s comfort in numbers and tomorrow’s 100-year-olds should feel less isolated than today’s.

And, on a more positive note, by the time the country gets swamped by centenarians, you and I will be dead anyway.

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