AMORTALITY by Catherine Mayer (Vermilion, 2011)
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“What a drag it is getting old”.

Mick Jagger wrote these words when he was still in his early 20s. It’s a line from ‘Mother’s Little Helper’, the first track on The Rolling Stones’ 1966 album Aftermath.

Far from being the usual affirmation of the ‘sex,drugs and Rock’n’Roll’ lifestyle, this atypical Stones song addresses the plight of stressed housewives who turn to prescribed drugs to calm their nerves. Jagger adopts a mockney accent in an attempt to convince us of his sincerity but it all sounds very mannered and false.

If Jagger still finds aging a drag he hides it fairly well. Now in his mid-70s he’s still performing concerts and impregnating young women with abandon. He is living proof of what Catherine Mayer calls ‘amortals’; those who refuse to ‘act their age’ and live as if it were impossible to die.

With improved healthcare, it’s not just the  wealthy who are living longer with plenty of energy left to burn. Mayer observes that “there is no such thing as age appropriate behavior anymore” and refers to the growth of this ageless living as a “grey tsunami”. Fast approaching 60 and having run my first full marathon last year, I feel that I’m an active member of this tidal wave of ‘amortals’ but found the book disappointing.

It was conceived as “a guide to an uncharted phenomenon” and in the opening chapters the author is at pains to reassure us that it is not intended as a polemic. However, by the end, she gives up any pretense of objectivity when she challenges institutionalized ageism, stating : “I hope readers will take from this book inspiration to push for change, on a personal level and as consumers and voters”. So much for not being polemical!

The image on the cover is of a bungee jumper and this gives the misleading impression that the book could serve as a primer for those looking for advice on how to check off items on their bucket lists. Instead, it’s a pseudo academic study of people who are resolved to “making the most of life and the least of death”.

Smart turns of phrase like this reveal Mayer to be a talented journalist (she was once editor of Time magazine) but it takes more than catchy slogans to maintain a reader’s interest over 250 pages. Unfortunately, the content amounts to little more than a magazine article extended to book length.

Ignoring the plebs, most of her examples come from what she irritatingly describes as “celebrityland”. With barely concealed awe she gushes over the achievements of individuals such as Richard Branson, Angeline Jolie, Lynne Franks, David Cameron and various Royals. When at a loss for more quotes she gets them from her own friends and family.

A pointless meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury is the background to fence-sitting chapter on religion in which in a mere 26 pages says nothing of real substance about Catholicism, Christianity, Scientology, Judaism and Atheism. There is a total lack of depth in any of her arguments so her views on faith could be summed up by saying: different people have different beliefs; and some people don’t believe in God at all.

To complete the word count there is plenty of other blatant padding. Admitting to be being no expert on nutrition or fitness she resorts to mind-numbingly obvious statements like: “Being a little less overweight and a bit more active can have a dramatic impact on health and life span”. Who knew?!

She adopts a largely uncritical stance towards the cult of personality and the mindless pursuit of consumer goods. “We queue overnight for iPhones and become embroiled in near riots for ‘limited edition’ clothing lines”, she writes, to which I want to respond – you speak for yourself!

Mayer’s husband is Andy Gill of the post-punk band ‘Gang of Four’ who, in 1979, made an excellent album called ‘Entertainment!’ The songs are scathing indictments of consumerism in all its forms but instead of endorsing this position Mayer quotes from one of the tracks , ‘Natural’s Not In It’ : “The problem of leisure, what to do for pleasure”, as if the song is merely about the difficulty of making shopping choices.

This sums up the lack of substance to back up the broad-based themes of this book. What begins promisingly as an examination of a very real demographic shift ends up as something akin to a superficial study of current marketing trends.

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