Sans everything

Time of our Lives

Tom Kirkwood <em>Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 277pp, £20</em>

Giorgione painted La Vecchia around 1509, but how old was his model, or indeed Shakespeare's for the seventh rung of decline into "sans everything"? A woman of 40 during the renaissance and an Elizabethan man of 50 might well have looked ready for one of today's residential homes. The greying of the population scares governments, which are daunted by the health and welfare implications and call, too late, for self-help. The response from the Blair government to the recent royal commission on the long-term care of the elderly has been, "thanks, we'll think about it". No good saying "we can't afford it". Old people may lose their faculties but they will never be "sans vote".

Gerontologists study the biology of ageing while geriatricians (and now politicians) specialise in the consequences. Tom Kirkwood is one of the former breed but reckons that more can be done to lighten the workload of the latter. Even so he thinks that expectation of life will go on increasing. In England and Wales, in Victorian times, it was two to one against survival to age 65; today it is bad luck if you die before you can collect a pension. Soon telegrams from the Queen will have to be restricted to those who make 110 - and so we go on.

The oldest reliably documented age at death is that of Jeanne Calment from Arles, France, who could remember Vincent Van Gogh. She died in 1997 at the age of 122. We can forget about those old men from Georgia in the former USSR. Kirkwood has a happy phrase for fictional ageing when official records are absent: the elderly "set the clock of their age too fast". Obituary writers encourage competitiveness, too, in a mild way. Death at 88 is just that but live a year longer and you will have passed away, more impressively, in your "90th year", not at a mere 89.

Not mentioned in this book is the rumour that Madame Calment stopped smoking in old age but then defiantly took it up again, a pattern, albeit anecdotal, that sits uncomfortably with Kirkwood's preventive thesis. But no one can argue convincingly for prevention until some myths about ageing have been dealt with.

Kirkwood's academic reputation was made at a time when he was not even in the field of gerontology, by his "disposable soma" theory of ageing (1977). This demolished the idea that ageing is biologically necessary and inevitable; nor is there some gene for mortality which switches itself on once a person's reproductive usefulness is over. This may sound non-Darwinian but order is restored by the theory itself: as we age, it becomes less and less efficient for our cells to repair the damage that chance and our bad habits impose. Our genes do get us in the end, but indirectly, via their sense of priorities.

Time of our Lives is an optimistic book published at a time when requiring old people to provide for themselves is the new political correctness. The sort of assistance from which Kirkwood's proposed preventative regimens would benefit is simple and cheap. Cells are equipped with the means to mop up unwanted, damagingly active molecules generated by oxygen but, if that system cannot cope, diet may help. For instance, some vitamins are antioxidants, and these are found in fruit and green vegetables. That senescence might be prevented by antioxidants is not a novel idea. I recall much excitement in the 1970s over animal experiments. Kirkwood adds other elements, of the oatmeal and exercise variety, but the important thing is that he is not offering the prospect of magical drug cures for ageing. For example, he is right-ly sceptical about the benefits of anti-dementia agents.

Kirkwood describes the theory well and writes entertainingly, a rare combination in a scientist. His book is a vital biological companion to the current debate on care for the elderly. But I was left unsure whether senescence can be avoided rather than merely postponed or, worse, prolonged. If it can, how will people die? In an odd epilogue, Kirkwood describes a world in which people live beyond 200. Once your reproductive quota is used up, a neurotoxin capsule is implanted that detonates at a preordained time, whether you like it or not. After a few days, that is that. The Bard's version of events suddenly sounds more appealing.

David Sharp is deputy editor of the "Lancet"

This article first appeared in the 26 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The great Balkan lie

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis