Bucket Lists

Dr Vernon Coleman

It is widely believed that the idea of making a list of things to do before you die is something new. It is known colloquially as preparing a ‘bucket list’ (as in making a list of things to do before you ‘kick the bucket’).

The idea isn’t new.

Not many notions in life are brand new – and this one certainly isn’t.

I have a suspicion that if I spent a few days studying the Greek classics I would probably find evidence that the Greeks were aware of the idea. And I daresay that some 16th century gentleman had a little bucket list of his own tucked away safely inside his doublet or stuffed unceremoniously down his hose.

But in modern times the idea was first introduced into the public domain by a man called Sir Hilary Blood.

Sir Hilary was a former British diplomat who was, at various times in the 1940s and 1950s, Governor of the Gambia, Governor of Barbados and Governor of Mauritius. He did a lot of governing. And, of all the odd places where the notion of making a ‘list of things to do before you die’ might have been published, it was in the 1956-57 Winter Annual of a sports magazine called The Cricketer that Sir Hilary originally aired his thoughts on what we now call a ‘bucket list’.

‘I keep a list of things to be done before I die,’ wrote Sir Hilary with the unaffected simplicity common among that small group of mid-20th century English gentlemen who managed to keep a straight face while wearing hats with ostrich plumes in them and who were happy governing foreign people in foreign parts.

He may not, of course, have been the first to have the idea.

But, in relatively modern times at least, Sir Hilary appears to have been the first person to put the idea down on paper. So, in my book, he should get the credit.

Everyone’s idea of what to put on their list will vary, of course. And to a large extent the contents of each individual’s list will depend upon their age, their health, their wealth and their life expectation.

A young, fit, well-off individual may have ‘climb Everest’, ‘ski down a black run’, ‘drive a car at 150 mph’, ‘take a boat trip up the Amazon’, ‘run a mile in under six minutes’ and all sorts of other active and expensive activities on their list.

Someone older and very slightly less well-off might be happy with a desire to feed the pigeons at St Mark’s Square in Venice, take a boat ride on Loch Ness and have dinner at Maxim’s restaurant in Paris.

Someone with severely limited financial resources might be happy with hoping for a bag of chips a bottle of beer and a copy of the evening paper.

And even quite elderly individuals may still harbour hopes; albeit perhaps less dramatic aspirations than those nursed by those who are still young in body as well as in spirit.

For example, I still remember the surprise Mr Thomas Pidgeon gave me just after his 90th birthday.

Mr Pidgeon was an extremely likeable old man, utterly honest and as straight as a die: an old-fashioned gentleman in the real sense of the word. He wasn’t a rich man but I had long ago learned that you don’t have to have a big house and a lot of money in the bank to be a gentleman. His eyebrows went sharply upwards as they approached the centre of his forehead, with the result that he looked constantly startled, not unpleasantly so, but just startled; as though he had just seen or heard something rather surprising.

‘I have had a comfortable life,’ he had told me when we first met. ‘I always found life too easy so I never tried hard enough. And so now I don’t suppose I can complain about never having achieved anything very much. I’ve always been too careful; I’ve always been too well behaved. The funny thing is that although I never worried much when I was young, I now worry more than I ever did. I worry about everything, because I know how easily and frequently things can go wrong. If I have to go somewhere I worry whether the taxi will arrive and if the train will be cancelled.’

I remember he shrugged resignedly at this and added: ‘So I solved those particular fears by staying at home. These days I don’t go anywhere.’

Like most of the people I talked to who were in their 90s or over, Mr Pidgeon had a recipe for his longevity.

Mr Pidgeon’s explanation (and implicitly his recommendation) was that he ate a pickled egg every day for his breakfast and a pickled onion before he went to bed.

These days, only individuals who are 100 or over are asked for the secret of their long life but back in the 1970s it was generally considered that anyone aged 90 or over had definitely ventured out of middle age and was entitled to be regarded as ‘mature’.

I used to write down some of my favourite explanations for having reached a ripe old age. Here are a few:

a) ‘I owe my longevity to smoking. I have been smoking a pipe since I was 21. I find that it settles my nerves.’

b) ‘I wouldn’t have lived this long without drinking a glass of whisky every day. Whisky kills germs and bad cells.’ (I think that by this he meant that it killed cancerous cells. For all I or anyone else knows he could be right.)

c) ‘I never drink water.’ The old man who offered this piece of advice told me that when Humphrey Bogart and John Huston were making ‘The African Queen’, most of the crew fell victim to water born infections. Katherine Hepburn was very ill for much of the film-making. However, Humphrey Bogart and John Huston stuck to whisky and avoided the water. Both remained healthy throughout the duration of the shoot on location.

d) ‘I have never touched fruit or vegetables.’ The elderly lady who told me this insisted that in her opinion both fruit and vegetables were full of poison. e) ‘I have never exercised. Exercise wears out the body.’ f) ‘I ate a lot of fat, suet and dripping.’ The 97-year-old woman who told me this claimed that plenty of fat would keep out the cold and help fight off infection. Surprisingly, she wasn’t at all overweight and at the time her heart was in tip top condition. She died a year short of her 100th birthday. She fell, broke a hip and was taken to hospital in Barnstaple. Unfortunately, she caught a nasty bug in the hospital and never came out.

I’m not sure that I believed any of those recipes for a long life. I’ve always rather believed that for most of us our longevity (or otherwise) is a result of a mixture of genes and luck.

Taken frrom Vernon Coleman’s book Young Country Doctor Book 15, Bilbury Memories. To buy a copy please 'click here’

There are 15 bestselling books in `The Young Country Doctor Series’ – all are available as paperbacks and eBooks. The books describe the adventures and experiences of a young doctor practising as GP in Devon in the 1970s.