The XX Factor

“I Just Exist From Day to Day Now.’

The world’s oldest man, 113-year-old Brit Henry Allingham , died on Saturday, which prompted the British media to do a lot of thumb-sucking about old people. Normally, I’m annoyed by this kind of opportunistic opinioneering, but one sublime radio segment redeemed the whole enterprise: The Sunday morning Radio 4 show Broadcasting House included a amazing interview with 103-year-old Hetty Bower and 89-year-old Alison Selford. I encourage everyone to check it out. (You can download the whole show or listen at the show page ; the segment begins at 21:56 and ends at 29:43.)

They’re both old lefties-Hetty (seen here with Bianca Jagger at a 2008 anti-war protest) reminisced about general strikes, general elections, and her suffragette sister; and Alison was once the TV critic for the Communist Party newspaper the Daily Worker . They’re feisty and smart and still in possession of their mental facilities.

Still, I was reminded of last week’s conversation about the Downeses’ assisted suicide when the interviewer asked about living without their husbands after long marriages (Alison’s lasted more than 50 years and Hetty’s almost 70). Hetty told Paddy O’Connell: “I’d much rather have gone when he went, because my vision had already started deteriorating, and Reg used to read to me. We enjoyed the same kind of book, and [I remember] his reading with his arm around me, holding the book, because I could no longer see. That didn’t seem to matter then, because his eyes were my eyes.”

When O’Connell asked, “Is old age like this a gift?” Hetty answered quickly, “No, I wish I had died when Reg died … I can’t say living since then has been anywhere near as full and real or happy. Of course it hasn’t been. I just exist from day to day now.”

Photography of Henry Allingham by Geoff Caddick/AFP/Getty Images.