It has been known for some time that a regular low dose of aspirin can reduce a person’s risk of suffering heart attack and stroke. According to the most recent research, it can also significantly reduce the development and secondary spread of cancer. The only downside is that there is no workable nationwide screening program so people choosing to dose in this way face a one in a thousand chance of suffering internal bleeding, which could prove fatal. The question is, then, is it worth the risk?
The issue was discussed on Monday night's Newsnight where a typically earnest Kirsty Walk interviewed experts on the subject, including Dr Clare Gerada, from the Royal College of General Practitioners. When asked whether, in view of the risks, Dr Gerada would herself consider dosing to extend her life, she responded, ‘I believe there are much more boring things we can do to improve our lives, such as giving up smoking, such as reducing your alcohol intake, such as moderating your diet and keeping your weight under control’.
Yes, I agree, but that rather depends on what one means by ‘improving’ one’s life. If improving one’s life means increasing the number of seconds between the moment you pop, beslimed, from your mother’s birth canal until the moment the doctor calls time on you then, I suppose, I would have to concede Dr Gerada’s view (although I would point out that there are even more effective ways of doing that than the ones Dr Gerada suggests, such as living in an oxygen tent, taking nutrition intravenously and sleeping with your head under the duvet). But if, like me, you take the view that life is more than just the number of unary marks you can carve onto the stone wall a prison cell then I would have to take issue with Dr Gerada.
Consider the British born, American polemicist, raconteur and downright wit; my man of the moment, Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens died in December last year, aged 62, after a relatively short but widely publicised battle with esophageal cancer. He was well known as a voracious drinker and smoker, which, considering he once declared himself to have good genes on both sides of his family, may well have contributed to his demise. But what a life he led. Travelled the world; met some of the most inspiring, not to mention sinister, people of his time; debated with the best of them fought with the worst. An acclaimed journalist and orator, he put his success, in part, down to, ‘the junky energy that scotch can provide, and the intense short-term concentration that nicotine can help supply.’ Now compare Christopher to his conservative, Old Testament brother, Peter Hitchens. No? He writes for the Mail on Sunday. Enough said.
Christopher Hitchens is not, of course, the only great man to have led a great life to commend the contributions of his vices. When asked about his close relationship with the drink, Winston Churchill once said, ‘I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.’ Incidentally, Churchill lived to 90.
But it isn’t just vice as a means to an end. Vice can give us that moment of repose, that abnormal against which we can dash the normal. That quiet respite from an otherwise all too hectic world. Many have considered their vices so essential to their happiness, in fact, that they simply couldn’t imagine a life without them. Mark Twain, for example, in a letter to a friend of his, wrote in 1870 ‘...when they used to tell me I would shorten my life ten years by smoking, they little knew the devotee they were wasting their puerile word upon -- they little knew how trivial and valueless I would regard a decade that had no smoking in it!’ Jean-Paul Sartre, following a trip to the doctor’s at which he was told he could either give up cigarettes and carry on living into a peaceful old age and a normal death, or keep smoking and have his toes cut off, then his feet, then his legs, later commented to a friend of his that he ‘wanted to think it over.’
Now, let’s play that game. Who would you rather invite to a dinner party? Hitchins, Churchill, Twain, and Satre - men who, with a glass in one hand and a smoke in the other, enlightened the world with books and articles such as: ‘Missionary Position: Mother Theresa in Theory and Practice,’ ‘Being and Nothingness,’ ‘Huckleberry Finn,’ and, ‘A History of the English Speaking Peoples’ - or all of the journalists that contributed to this month’s Men’s Health Magazine, who, between shaving their balls and staring at themselves in the mirror, have managed - I’d like to imagine, in a kind of monkey and typewriter kind of way - to bash out such inane drivel as ‘39 flab burning super meals,’ ‘loose fat in your sleep,’ and ‘how to look 10lb slimmer’? Who has contributed more to the world? Who has led the better life? Who, as Hitchens once asked when trying to convince an audience to side with him in a serious debate about the existence of God, has the bluest eyes and is the most sexually attractive? (okay, possibly the Men's health journalists. I'll give you that last one).
The simple matter is this. Yes, we can give up the fags; yes, we can give up the drink; yes, we can become vegans or convince ourselves that we are lactose intolerant in the quest to extend our lives; but with those sacrifices not only do we dispose of our vices but also a part of our humanity; a part of our poetry. Abraham Lincoln probably said it best when he said ‘It has been my experience that those with no vices have very few virtues.’
So forget your one in a thousand chance of internal bleeding. (I would, as Twain would say, take that statistic and light my pipe with it). Rather that than the risk being the most boring guest at the dinner party; the kind that sucks the life from you by telling you about their latest foray into fruitarianism, like some puritanical, social dementor. No, I’ll take the aspirin in spite of the risks. I’ll take it in order that I might hope to improve my life in a more rational way by helping to protect against ill health whilst holding onto the pastimes that are essential to my daily enjoyment of life and which are not for trading. And, in doing so, I will of course take on board another slightly suspect comment that Dr Gerada made, that, though it protects against what we are told are the natural consequences of vice - stroke, heart attack, cancer, etc. – ‘the idea that aspirin can be taken to offset the risks of smoking and drinking needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.’ Then so be it. Pass me the aspirin. And where’s that salt?