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Why not celebrate wellness for a change?


IN LAST weekend’s Times Magazine there were no fewer than three big stories about serious illness. The first was an interview with the new Today presenter Emma Barnett, whisked away from Woman’s Hour, about her endometriosis and struggle with IVF. She was featured on the cover, looking as sultry and glamorous as ever and billed as talking about ‘her private trauma’.

Yes, so private that it was splashed all over a major magazine. And it’s not the first time Emma Barnett has spoken or written about her health and fertility issues, by a long way.

In the same issue, former broadcaster Alastair Stewart – also featured on the cover – talks about the day he was told he had dementia. Further on in the magazine, foreign correspondent Sebastian Junger is interviewed about his biggest battle for survival, when an artery ruptured in his abdomen and he nearly bled to death.

It seems that we have a ghoulish fascination with illness which is growing all the time. The so-called Good Health pages of newspapers are always about illness, and every day some celebrity comes forward with their cancer, arthritis, depression, diabetes, autism, menopause, ME or other ‘journey’. Then, as often as not, they make television shows about the battle with their condition, whatever it may be.

There are also endless books and memoirs pouring out about the authors’ problems with severe, lifelong illness. We can expect a slew of material about ‘my battle with long Covid’. Some have been published already. Sometimes these authors are famous, sometimes not. It makes no difference, as publishers seem avid for any stories about living with chronic illness.

But why not celebrate wellness for a change? I wrote an article in the current issue of The Oldie magazine saying that at the age of 80 I have never been ill in my life. The editor Harry Mount (cheeky boy!) labelled me ‘Superwoman’. He believes there are many oldies who, like me, are completely fit and well, but that we are never mentioned. Instead, the emphasis, especially as we get older, is on all the ills that flesh is heir to.

Well, I’m not particularly a superwoman.  I just don’t go looking for illnesses and am certainly not going to be dragooned into queueing up for the latest jabs and boosters. As I point out in the article, my lasting good health – so far at least – has nothing to do with the ministrations of the medical profession.

My ex-husband, Neville Hodgkinson of this parish, the same age as me, is also perfectly well and says he has not been to see a doctor for over 50 years.

The other week, an 86-year-old friend from childhood was staying with me, as I am writing his life story.  He read my Oldie article, and told me that he, too, was as fit as a fiddle. He goes skiing, plays golf, swims every day, is still working and says he is about to take up tennis again (as a young man he was a county champion). He said that he was fed up with reading all the illness stories in the newspapers and longed for some positive, upbeat and happy tales instead. He told me that at this stage of his life he didn’t want to be made miserable all the time or labelled decrepit because of his age.

Over the years, there have been several attempts to launch publications that concentrate on good or happy news, and none has succeeded. We are told that positive stories ‘write white’: in other words, they are not compelling or dramatic enough to engage the reader, and this is why in recent years misery memoirs, of which Charles Spencer’s about his brutal boarding school days is the latest, have become bestsellers.

But is this always true? Jane Austen said ‘let other pens dwell on guilt and misery’ and her novels are still enjoyed the world over and frequently dramatised for the screen. Jilly Cooper’s jolly, upbeat stories have been wildly popular, although she does introduce a darker note in her latest, Tackle!, when Taggie, the wife of her hero Rupert Campbell-Black, has recently had a cancer diagnosis. Was she required by the publishers to put that in, one wonders, to make the book seem more modern and relevant?

I also believe that the rags-to-riches story of my friend, who left school at 14 with no qualifications to work as a builder’s labourer and ended up on the Sunday Times Rich List, is at least as gripping as any tale of sadness, serious illness and loss.

While so many friends and neighbours, including some members of my own family, have gone down with covid or what passes for it, I have not had so much as a sniffle; no thanks to testing, jabs, masks, lockdowns or any other of the nonsense thrown at us. And at my age, I am supposed to be ‘vulnerable’.  I’m sure I would have been a gibbering wreck by now if I had obeyed any of the strictures, instead of the hundred per cent healthy octogenarian I actually am.

We’ve experienced so much doom and gloom over the past four years, much of it fabricated, that surely we now need some serious cheering up. So let us commend the well, the successful, the brave, the happy and those who have risen above all the propaganda and fearmongering to remain in fine fettle, rather than constantly dwelling on sickness and disease.  

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Liz Hodgkinson
Liz Hodgkinson
Liz Hodgkinson is an author and journalist.

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