‘Age is just a number’ – a book review

Recently wandering through the excellent Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street I came across a book which, having now finished reading it, I sense may be about to change my life! It is not often one has that experience with a book, so let me explain.

The book is titled ‘Age is just a number’ and the author is Charles Eugster, a dentist from England, now living in Switzerland. The subtitle is ‘What a 97-year-old recordbreaker can teach us about getting older’. At the age of 63, he took up competitive rowing. At 87, he took up bodybuilding. And at the age of 95, he started competitive sprinting for the first time in his life. He is now a world record-holding athlete. His book is part autobiography, and part inspirational in describing the steps, and the mental processes, he went through in achieving quite the most extraordinary physical accomplishments.

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He explains how, following a divorce in his 60s, he realised in our 50s and 60s we are at the pinnacle of entrepreneurial capacity and he therefore decided to establish a publishing business to publish newsletters about dentistry. He did not even consider the prospect of retirement until the age of 75, and then only because dexterity was becoming an issue with precision dental instruments. He remarried in his 70s and then was widowed at the age of 82.

There is no way to describe the following paragraph so I will just repeat it in full, because it is quite profound in it’s insight.

“In a modern world there is the less than attractive game we have been primed to expect, and that may well become a reality if you allow it to. I’m talking about old-age defined by frailty. Typically, such a day might begin with your carer opening the curtains and talking to you in loud, breezy but simplistic terms. They may help you sit up, assist you in a trip to the bathroom, dress and then feed you before settling you in the sunny spot in the common room. Nobody talks very much. By and large your fellow care home residents seem to inhabit their own memories. Still, you could always look forward to lunch. As long as it smashed to a pulp you shouldn’t have any difficulties. There is also visiting time in the afternoon. If you’re lucky, a relative might pop in to see you, but they have busy lives to lead so they won’t stay long. After that, you can expect a light supper and bed, before this daily routine repeats until those curtains close for good. I’m sure you’ll agree, this is not exactly a wonderful life scenario, and yet we have been conditioned to head towards this broken, dispiriting outcome as if we have no option.”

Charles explains, using his research into many medical and nutritional journals, how from the age of 50 we begin to lose muscle and increase fat. Although he was rowing nearly 6 days a week he didn’t feel he had the capacity to continue to pull the oar satisfactorily. He felt flabby. So, at the age of 87 he set out to lose the flab and acquire the muscle that many people assume to be an impossible task. In an amusing section in the book he explains how he went to a gym and told the instructor that he wanted a beach body, “There are beautiful 70-year-old girls out there,” he said, “I’d like to turn their heads.”

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He went to the gym three times a week, and improved his diet by cutting out fatty, salty and sweet items and just reducing the size of portions on his plate. He made significant improvements and then, at the age of 89 he met a former gymnast who introduced him to a combination of exercises to increase his muscle size by exercising them in groups. Building on his previous work in the gym he now started working on squats, crunches, chin-ups, push-ups, pullups, thrusts and lunges.

In summary, he worked all the various muscle groups in his body through repetition and resistance to the point of exhaustion, and then kept repeating them until he reached exhausted again. He combined this with protein supplements and amino acids and began to feel much stronger and better than he had ever done in his life. At the extraordinary age of 90 he goes on to describe how he took up competitive sprinting!

So why has this book changed my life? Here I am at the age of 56, last year I was able to take part in a charitable 10k road run in 54 minutes. I’ve barely had a sick day in my entire working life, and would consider myself to be in good health. My military background clearly helped, where the early emphasis on physical exercise gave me a good foundation for life (I ran my first marathon in four hours 20 minutes when I was 45, and then a half marathon at the age of 53 in one hour 58 minutes).

But, recently I have not been enjoying my sleep, I find it hard to wind down, I rarely take the time to visit the gym, and I may be lucky if I run once every few weeks. I have certainly gained over 15 lbs in the last four years. My interest now is how to re-develop the motivation to re-build and then maintain my physical and mental health. I can’t even contemplate the thought of retiring and not having any kind of physical or mental stimulus.

So I have set myself a challenge, what if I establish Charles’ foundations in excellent muscular tone and robust fitness in my 50s, rather than starting to reach that point in my 80s. Will that, with an increasingly entrepreneurial mind-stretching activities through by charitable work, in addition to pushing myself creatively in my paid employment, enable me to enjoy the next 40 or even 50 years in a high state of physical and mental well-being?

I am now two weeks into my new plan. I have decided that going to the gym, and going for a run, and exercising at home, are the priority. Each of these requires self-discipline, and acceptance that it is hard work, it is certainly not easy to find the time to undertake these activities, and then when undertaking them to push oneself to the physical limits. But I have begun, and am slowly making progress in making exercise the priority. And, looking back at the first two weeks, I’m beginning to notice some differences. My arms and shoulders are showing signs of definition, I have lost an inch off my waist, I’m sleeping soundly for the first time in months. My energy levels have increased. I do still have a long way to go with improving my diet as I’m still enjoying my wine and spirits and chocolate far too much! So although after two weeks I’ve only lost 2 pounds in weight, my body is beginning to change shape.

I have also committed to writing more regularly in this blog, but in a manner which forces me to conduct research and provide where possible evidence based writing for the readers. I have also agreed to accept an offer to join the faculty of a university in California to help them build the curriculum for an ethical leadership course. At some stage in the next few years I intend to study a second language, perhaps Spanish. So, plenty of mental stimulus as well as physical.

Anyway, life changing the book certainly has been, I am enjoying pushing myself physically and mentally and re-developing the self control and self discipline needed to work hard in the gym and whilst out running. I will write again on a regular basis with updates on the progress, the good and the bad, on this project. I hope you will find it inspiring.

How I became one of the best dressed men at Newmarket Races

In the space of just a few minutes yesterday I went from casual ‘punter’ at the Races to being faced by a media scrum (for the first time in my life!). They all wanted to take my photograph. But why?

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The third Friday of July is one of my favourite days of the year. My wife and I travel the short 55 minute train journey from home in Ipswich to Newmarket to attend the July festival of horse racing. We enjoy a leisurely two hour lunch in the excellent Mozart’s in the Premier Enclosure and then head the finish line on the course and watch the 6 races thunder by. A modest wager on each race is necessary, and we traditionally win one or two of those – certainly enough to cover all the wagers of the day!

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Yesterday, upon entering the race course, a young lady asked if I would like to be photographed for the ‘Most Stylish Man of the Day’ award. Amused, and naturally a little flattered, I agreed. This was just before 12 pm. I then forgot all about it. Four hours later I received a text message informing me I had been selected in the top 10 (out of over 300 entrants) and should report to the main marquee!

Here I am, along with mainly very young men, a preponderance of exposed ankles and no socks, beards, unshaved faces, sunglasses (worn indoors), skinny trousers, and poorly fitting jackets. There was even a young man, as bemused as me, who was wearing his Father’s old Savile Row tweed suit which he had tailored to fit him, (and he was wearing socks!

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Interestingly the gentleman on my left in the above photograph (now in his 60s) had also arrived at the races not knowing about this competition and had dressed as individualistically as he always does! After a degree of standing around being assessed and interviewed the final three were announced – I came third. It was hilarious to me to win a range of prizes for being dressed the way I normally do!! My prizes included a bespoke shirt (worth £125), two tickets to Aintree Races, some products, two tickets to a Football Match and a few other items. And then the media scrum – cameras, journalists, questions. It was rather fun!

The 2nd and 1st young men were charming, but at least 30 years younger than me!

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When I met one of the judges later she told me the key piece of my wardrobe which caught the judges’ attention were my trousers – they loved the drape, the cut, the classic look. I felt validated in my love of the classic 1920/30 look – that golden era will never be out of style (my blog article on these trousers is here). Is it too much to hope we are perhaps finally seeing the end of the skinny trouser?

 

 

How to re-create classic summer trousers

I made a conscious commitment to myself last year to acquire less clothes and accessories this year, and focus instead upon building a classic foundation to my wardrobe. I have long admired the style of the 1920, 1930s – the so-called “golden era” of men’s fashion – so I naturally turn to this period for inspiration, using the many photographs and images available online. In particular I have collected a significant number of drawings made by Laurence Fellows – one section of my Pinterest account is principally dedicated to this collection. Looking through this growing array of beautiful images one of the more consistent and prevalent styles of the era is the loose fit, doubled front pleats, with turn ups (cuffs in America) cream (think vintage cricket flannels) or white trousers. The acquisition of these has been the foundation item I have focused on this summer.

Finding such trousers today, especially in the awful world of the “skinny’ or ‘slim’ fit has however proved very challenging. There is no shortage of cotton chino or linen versions in the cream or white tone (but without the turn-ups), but the drape and hang of cotton and linen material lacks the essential elegance I was looking to replicate.

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The great Cary Grant

Eventually I decided my only option would be to commission a pair and have them made. Before you, dear reader, think I have suddenly moved out of the modest financial comfort zone of this blog and into the rarefied world of bespoke clothing, do not worry. I sourced them from a tailor I have used several times, one who is generally accessible to many of you – Raja Fashions from Hong Kong.

This traveling tailoring service became extremely helpful. You make an appointment on-line through their website – the tailor visits most major centres of many countries every few months (ideal often for a second fitting) and takes up residence in a hotel suite. An appointment lasts for up to one hour.

I explained to the tailor I was looking for a classic 1920/30s style, reminiscent of early cricket/ tennis trousers, and that I needed them in a light weight fabric for the summer months. I even showed him some Laurence Fellows images. He searched through his many fabric books and swabs and eventually found a very light weight wool fabric in white and a cream tone. So light was the fabric it was almost transparent but the tailor explained a full lining would be required, and it would also help with the drape. The lining would not create any difficulties for the breathability of the wool fabric. Both colours – the white and the cream – looked exactly the classic and vintage style I was seeking, so much so I could not make up my mind! The price per pair was also very reasonable and, after he offered a special reduced price if I purchased two pairs, I eventually decided to opt for a pair of each! The tailor then also had a book of designs, which included the exact style I needed.

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The style option at Raja Fashions

Measurements were taken and, three weeks later, my two pairs of trousers arrived by FedEx. They are magnificent – if that is not too strong enough word to describe the humble trouser! These classic fit trousers will last many years. I have been occasionally accused of living in the past – but sometimes the past has the perfect answer, in this case a relaxed fit, easy to wear throughout the Summer months, breathable, roomy (allowing air to circulate), so why try reinvent the wheel?

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Wearing the cream trousers at Newmarket Races

My friends at Raja Fashions have enabled a contemporary solution to be found for a vintage re-birth of a great men’s trouser!

At what point in a crisis does a leader have to make the decision to resign?

I can still remember with some vividety the Falklands War of 1982. I was in my very early twenties when it happened. I recall the shock, the chaos, the emerging pride in the armed forces as a task force was assembled with incredible speed, and then the tension of the next few months until the war was over and then a feeling that the United Kingdom had become great again. What I also remember very clearly is the resignation of the Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington, which happened within days of the invasion of the Falkland Islands by Argentina. I have been reflecting on this swift, very high profile, resignation over the past few days, particularly in light of the Grenfell Tower block fire and tragedy.

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The Grenfell tragedy has highlighted an interesting leadership situation. We have seen HM The Queen visit the victims and survivors, the Mayor of London attend the scene, the Prime Minister form a task force to manage the post-crisis situation (as well as visit the scene), and local councillors and officials from Kensington and Chelsea Council attempt to manage the crisis on-site. Even the opposition party has become involved by attempting to score political points from the tragedy. To a lay person you could forgive them for feeling confused as to who is ultimately in charge and leading in the post-tragedy environment. In a way this leads to the growing sense of public frustration and is ammunition for the mainstream media and social media commentators to create and maintain a feverish state of angst and calling for those responsible to be held to account before any realistic inquiry findings could be published.

In the past 48 hours the leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council has now resigned – the first person in these many layers of involvement to do so. But, this is 11 days after the tragedy. Was he right to resign? Indeed, when is it appropriate for a leader to resign in a crisis?

The true test of a leader is how they handle problems and take action. Unfortunately, despite training and practice, no one in a leadership position really knows how they will perform in a crisis, and it is often a case of ‘baptism by fire’. Inevitably some leaders do not perform when the pressure is on, and it is, in my view, appropriate that they should step aside and accept their own limitations. It can be a very sobering moment of self-reflection.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter (Harvard Business Review June 2, 2014, ‘When to Resign, and When to Clean Up the Mess’) concluded ‘Cleaning up a mess requires strong will, fast action, new approaches, and a lot of credibility. One resignation doesn’t restore trust, but it opens the door for someone who can’.

A problem/crisis will normally see a leader move through 3 stages of performance and decision:

1) Did they cause, or know in advance about, the problem? One-off problems will always arise, but is this a widespread systemic problem?  Do they therefore believe they are best placed to manage it?

2) Are they able to rely on the confidence and trust of those around them?

3) Once managing it begins are they able to cope? Does their performance (or lack of) become the story?

I would advocate in (1) a leader should resign – it will lead to (2), and you cannot lead without followers. In the case of (3) once your performance (poor) becomes the story you must resign. In the case of the leader of the Council he was found sadly lacking in any of the leadership skills necessary to manage the tragedy (notwithstanding I am sure he was competent as an administrator in his day-to-day role), and those took some time to emerge – the delay in his reaching the decision to resign made him the story, and with no choice but to go.

The opposite of course to all of this are those leaders who rise to the challenge and are superb are managing problems and crisis. They understand it is how the problem/crisis is managed – communications, timing, accountability and above all their displays of compassion. Unfortunately today we too often find a sense of self-first where leaders appear more interested in keeping their jobs than solving the problem. It doesn’t take courage to self-reflect and make a judgment on behalf the greater needs of the mission, it should in fact be second nature in a not-for-profit world where values-based leadership qualities are so important.

Returning to Lord Carrington, he took immediate full responsibility for the complacency and failures in the Foreign And Commonwealth Office, and in his resignation letter to the Prime Minister said “….the right course, and one which deserves the undivided support of Parliament and of the country. But I have concluded with regret that this support will more easily be maintained if the Foreign Office is entrusted to someone else.” Lord Carrington felt that ”it was a matter of honour that he should go.”

And his story is one worth keeping in mind as a leader. His resignation was not the end of his career. He stepped aside for the greater need of the nation and the mission – yet, two years later, he was appointed Secretary General of NATO, and went on to hold a number of distinguished positions. He remains the longest serving member of the House of Lords. The word honour sadly is often looked as anachronistic in today’s society, but the quality of knowing and doing what is morally right is one of the great foundations of life, as those of us fortunate enough to have been instructed as such at School and as military officers know too well. Lord Carrington displayed such honour and courage, and his reputation remained intact. I’m not so sure the leaders of the Grenfell tragedy will emerge in the same manner.