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19 March 2015

One hundred years of Ronnie: at a centenary birthday party in Spennymoor, County Durham

Swimming, war and teaching Bryan Ferry: as more of us see our centenary, one man shares his story.

By Ben Myers

Ronnie is shaved, dressed and waving as the staff wheel him into the room. Houdini was still climbing out of straitjackets the day Ron was born in Spennymoor, County Durham, back in February 1915. Kafka was proofreading The Metamorphosis for publication. Asquith was about to be replaced by Lloyd George as prime minister.

Life in Spennymoor wasn’t easy. The ironworks had closed, along with a number of pits. Less than 10 per cent of houses had indoor toilets; most human waste went in with the ashes. By the 1920s the town was deep in depression, but Ron was lucky. He lived in one of the bigger houses. His father was a tailor whose children were always well dressed. And he was bright. In 1933, the year the SS led a torchlight parade to mark Adolf Hitler’s election as German chancellor, Ron went to nearby Durham University.

Soon after, he met Alberta – Bertie – who worked in M&S. They married in Houghton-le-Spring. But then came the war. Ron was deployed to the Cocos Islands, a strategic location for intelligence-gathering in the northern Indian Ocean, 7,246 miles from Spennymoor and his two young children. He ran the library and lived off English sausages. At night, land crabs took over the island. As his fellow soldiers were demobbed, Ron found himself the last to leave. He was alone in his tent for weeks. The war never left him.

Back home, he taught mathematics. One of his pupils was Bryan Ferry. “A bit sure of himself,” Ron says, “but always impeccably dressed.” Another of Ferry’s classmates was Howard Kendall, who took Everton to Cup glory in the 1980s. Ron still has people come up to him now – men and women, similarly stooped and ageing. “You won’t remember,” they say, “but you taught me geometry in ’53 . . .”

Retirement in 1976 brought a little leisure time. Ron and Bertie took full advantage of the package-holiday boom. They became sunlounger-lizards, always just back from the Med with new leather coats and photographs taken by Spanish waiters. Bertie died in 1995 with Ron in the chair next to her. He showed little visible emotion when she passed – public expressions of feeling by northern men are a more recent phenomenon.

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He liked to swim every day at the public baths in Hetton-le-Hole until he hit 90, at which point he quietly griped about the “pensioners” – two decades his junior – who would gossip at the shallow end.

Ron’s in a residential home now. He forgets things – people’s names, which order to put his clothes on. But he never forgets the war. He never forgets Bertie. Last month the Department for Work and Pensions called his daughter-in-law, Dorothy, to confirm his approaching centenary so that the Queen could send her customary card. A rare occasion, Dorothy thought. Not at all, the DWP representative said: 5,000 cards go out every year and the figure is rising. In 1915 life expectancy for men was little over 50 but advances in medicine, diet and exercise have changed all that. The DWP calls again the week of the birthday, “just to check”.

The home is helping host his party. We’re all here. Ron’s children, Geoff – my father – and Pauline, over from Spain. Grandchildren; three great-grandchildren, too – people who may live to see 2110. The Office for National Statistics estimates an average life expectancy of 96 years for the next generation of newborns.

Ron is happy. He’s enjoying the attention. I ask him what he thinks of the future. He smiles. “I’m thinking of going back to work next year,” he says.