How to stay alive, part one

Country Life Every Week - - My Week -

My mother’s best friend was mar­ried to an Amer­i­can am­bas­sador, who, when­ever they came to visit, used to make a bee­line for the kitchen, where, wreathed in smiles, he would im­merse him­self in do­mes­tic tasks such as de­frost­ing the fridge, pol­ish­ing the sil­ver or wash­ing up. ‘you have no idea,’ he would ex­plain, ‘how te­dious it is hav­ing ev­ery­thing done for you all the time.’

It doesn’t sound much, but, if I say so my­self, I used to work it up into quite an amus­ing story: the diplo­mat who en­joyed skivvy­ing while his se­cu­rity de­tail and chauf­feur waited out­side. I would draw a com­par­i­son with my own fam­ily, whose motto ought to have been Numquam ab­sque servis suis (Never know­ingly un­der­staffed).

I would also weave in de­scrip­tions of var­i­ous ec­cen­tric Self ser­vants: my grand­fa­ther’s bat­man who, as soon as I was five or six years old, used to give me rac­ing tips; a dog-mad nanny who would pop the chil­dren into her dachs­hund’s bas­ket when it was time for their af­ter­noon nap; and our son’s house­keeper who, for some rea­son, be­lieves he’s called Greg (she is prone to gnomic pro­nounce­ments, such as ‘Mu­sic is mu­sic, Greg’) and can’t un­der­stand why there is so much post for some­one called Jack.

I was on the verge of telling the story again to some new friends (long­stand­ing friends be­ing wont to com­plain if they hear the same tale too many times) when it oc­curred to me, for I am cur­rently in a pen­sive frame of mind, that I had been miss­ing the real point, viz. it’s al­ways the small things in life that bring the great­est plea­sure.

This is hardly an orig­i­nal thought. Mar­cus Aure­lius, for one, pointed it out al­most 2,000 years ago: ‘Very lit­tle is needed to make a happy life; it is all within your­self, in your way of think­ing.’ It is quite one thing to think it and quite an­other to feel it, how­ever. At the mo­ment, I am feel­ing it and the rea­son is, I am sure, that my beloved first cousin, Bess, died sud­denly a few days ago. She had been bat­tling can­cer on and off for 15 years, but I had be­come so used to her beat­ing off each at­tack that her death has come as a ter­ri­ble shock.

Now, the ma­jor events of the past week—sell­ing my home in Amer­ica and a new book deal, to name just two—seem wholly in­signif­i­cant. In­stead, it is what I would oth­er­wise have con­sid­ered mi­nor, con­ge­nial but un­note­wor­thy ac­tiv­i­ties that have been bring­ing me real joy: singing my favourite hymn, Morn­ing Has Bro­ken, in church on Sun­day morn­ing; ly­ing on the grass and star­ing up at the sky (even though the dogs kept drib­bling all over my face); mak­ing cin­na­mon toast for the twins.

The cin­na­mon toast war­rants spe­cial men­tion, in­ci­den­tally, be­cause I’m slightly afraid that it is about to be­come a for­bid­den in­dul­gence. For sev­eral months, I have been avoid­ing a thick, se­ri­ous-look­ing book en­ti­tled How Not to Die. It hasn’t been easy, as there are three copies in the house—all gifts— one by my bed, one in my study and one in the kitchen. There have been times, frankly, when I felt it was fol­low­ing me around. This seemed to be the right week to tackle it.

The main premise of How Not to Die is that the 15 top causes of pre­ma­ture death—ev­ery­thing from heart dis­ease to ia­tro­genic dis­ease (I had to look it up, too; it means when you peg it as a re­sult of a med­i­cal pro­ce­dure or med­i­ca­tion and is the third big­gest killer in the Usa)—are largely caused by our diet.

It’s backed up with ex­traor­di­nar­ily con­vinc­ing ev­i­dence to show that it’s not just meat and dairy that are short­en­ing our lives, but all pro­cessed foods. Oh, and al­co­holic bev­er­ages, with the ex­cep­tion of red wine (phew). In a nut­shell, and nut­shells are on the menu big time, the best way to en­sure a long and healthy life is to eat a whole­food, plant-based diet.

The thing is, I am quite con­vinced that the book is right. In fact, it’s fully my in­ten­tion def­i­nitely to make the com­plete switch over by the next, um… Well, soon, any­way. My one reser­va­tion can be summed up by an old, but rel­e­vant, joke. How can you tell if there is a ve­gan in the room? Don’t worry, he or she will let you know.

I’m al­most as ter­ri­fied of be­com­ing that ve­gan as I am of short­en­ing my life through ex­ces­sive con­sump­tion of cin­na­mon toast and its ilk. Still, as John, Vis­count Mor­ley said: ‘The great busi­ness of life is to be, to do, to do with­out and to de­part.’ The plan, then, is to do with­out and thus de­lay my de­par­ture. Well, that’s the plan.

‘I’m slightly afraid that cinam­mon toast will be­come a for­bid­den in­dul­gence

Jonathan Self is an au­thor and raw dog-food maker (http:// hon­eysre­al­dog­, who lives in Cork Next week Joe Gibbs

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