They say a watched pot never boils. I’ve never been bored enough to try it. But I can tell you for sure that if you stare at it, an iPhone doesn’t ding — no matter how furiously you do so.
I was hoping for a text message from a hot American I had been determinedly pursuing via WhatsApp. But it was not forthcoming. So I called Nichi, the dating guru who introduced me to the Inner Circle, the app where I’d found the American. She sidestepped the real issue — my sending an overaggressive text message demanding the boy meet me for a date or else — and instead invited me to the app’s après-ski party in Soho. “Bring your girlfriends,” she said.
So I called my only remaining single girlfriend and invited her along. Alas, my SG is even doomier about her prospects than I am about mine, so the moment she turned up she declared that every man in the entire vicinity was dressed like he was going skiing; that they were, therefore, all complete berks and we should just go home…
With every column, I invent a fresh excuse, unearth an old metaphor, so I don’t have to date. Which you might consider an important pursuit for a dating columnist. But my heart has been pulverised and I haven’t been able to.
It has been almost a year since I saw the man who took a rotating blade to my innards. He did it carelessly, suffered nothing himself. I’m sick of rehearsing the details even to myself: we met, I pretend he’s called Zinedine Zidane because when I met him on Halloween two years ago that’s who he was dressed as, he made me laugh like no man ever has and I was mad about him from that instant. But he made it clear that he was up for an affair and no more. And since he was getting married to someone else, I had to decline that so generous offer, absolutely.
I know I should be over it. But still I can’t quite eat, and can’t quite sleep, and can’t quite think. I wake up alone, every day. I count it a week well spent if I’ve painted my own toenails. Or untangled the mess of my hair. I run around the park to a song by the Internet, in which the singer repeats, “I don’t love you no more” over and over again, hoping to brainwash myself to the point where that’s true…
Love is a game I’ve lost. So now I must date, which, if you ask me, is an exhausting, undignified, seemingly neverending bout of musical chairs. One day the music will stop, and if I don’t want to end up alone, I must run round and round, trying to snag a man before they all disappear.
Everything is speeded up, exactly like it was when I was an asthmatic six-year-old, and instinct dictates that I should drop to the floor, refuse to move, stick my fingers in my ears and howl: “But I don’t want any of these chairs. I want that shambolic excuse for a recliner over there, which isn’t even part of this damned charade, since another girl’s bloody sitting on it.”
But to confess to such thoughts, or act in such a way, is stupid. Hopelessly defeatist. Everyone tells me I have to get up and carry on. So I sprint faster and faster. Become dizzier and dizzier. Feel sicker and sicker. As everyone else stares and points and mutters: “Good grief, I’m glad I’m not her.”
There must be a better way, I thought, casting about for inspiration. So how about this for a heartening tale..?
Halfway through London Fashion Week, the Millennial and I fell out. Before this (hot as hell, confirmedly gay) roommate of mine moved in, I could sprawl about all day half-naked, eating mango chutney from the jar, obsessively writing and rewriting my own sentences. But it is such a sad little existence, he begs me to desist.
He’s also fed up with me on the matter of ZZ, the man I “refuse” to stop mentioning. I try to tell the boy that when a man finally arrives in your life and causes you to understand, once and for all, the meaning of Bonnie Tyler’s power ballads and the oeuvre of Bryan Adams, it might be impossible to forget. But the Millennial is much too young, and much too cool, for (Everything I Do) I Do It for You…
Imagine a world in which you’re 90 years old and nowhere near middle-aged. An app on your phone has hacked your DNA code, so you know exactly when to go to the doctor to receive gene therapy to prevent all the diseases you don’t yet have. A microchip in your skin sends out a signal if you’re at risk of developing a wrinkle — so you step out of the sun and hotfoot it to your dermatologist. Every evening you sync your brain-mapping device with The Cloud, so even if you were caught up in a fatal accident you’d still be able to cheat death — every detail of your life would simply be downloaded to one of the perfect silicon versions you’d had made of yourself, ensuring you last until at least your 1,000th birthday.
This may sound like science fiction but it could be your fate — provided you can afford it. If current research develops into medicine, in the London of the future the super-rich won’t simply be able to buy the best things in life, they’ll be able to buy life itself by transforming themselves into a bio-engineered super-race, capable of living, if not forever, then for vastly longer than the current UK life expectancy of 81 years.
The science of turning back the clock has never been more advanced. In Boston, a drug capable of reversing half a lifetime of ageing in mice is about to be tested on humans in a medical trial monitored by Nasa. NMN is a compound found naturally in broccoli which boosts levels of NAD, a protein involved in energy production that depletes as we get older. Professor David Sinclair, who headed up the initial research at Australia’s University of New South Wales, doses himself with 500mg daily, and claims that he has already become more youthful. According to blood tests analysing the state of the 48-year-old’s cells, prior to taking the pills Sinclair was in the same physical shape as a 57-year-old, but now he’s ‘31.4’.
Meanwhile, Hollywood stars looking for the elixir of youth might want to keep a close eye on developments at Newcastle University where last February Professor Mark Birch-Machin identified, for the first time, the mitochondrial complex which depletes over time, causing skin to age. Mitochondria are the battery packs that power our cells — so if we want to slow down ageing we need to keep them topped up; doing so would be transformative for our appearance. In the future, Birch-Machin believes, we’ll not only be taking pills and applying cosmetics, we’ll have implants in our skin. ‘Implants will tell us the state of it — how well our batteries are doing, how many free radicals, and will inform us how we are doing with our lifestyle,’ he says. ‘You can store it, log it, have that linked to your healthcare package.’
Such medical discoveries are being translated into treatment at an unprecedented rate. The day after the results of Birch-Machin’s study were published in The New York Times, his department was contacted by nine companies hoping to turn his research into revolutionary pharmaceuticals. In 2009, Elizabeth Blackburn, a professor of biology and physiology at the University of California, won a Nobel Prize for her work on telomeres, the protective tips on our chromosomes that break down as we get older, leaving us prone to age-related diseases. Blackburn discovered an enzyme called telomerase that can stop the shortening of telomeres by adding DNA — like a plastic tip fixing the end of a fraying shoelace. Today, rich Californians now use telomeres therapy to prolong the life of their pets.
Last year, in Monterey, California, the start-up Ambrosia (founded by Dr Jesse Karmazin, a DC-based physician) began trialling the effect of blood transfusions, pumping blood from teenagers into older patients, following studies that found that blood plasma from young mice can rejuvenate old mice, improving their memory, cognition and physical activity.
Dr Richard Siow, who heads up the Age Research department at King’s College London, believes we may be soon reach a significant point in anti-ageing research because of the massive amounts of money allocated by governments and charities worldwide in the hope of making a breakthrough. Indeed, according to a survey by Transparency Market Research, by 2019 the anti-ageing market will be worth £151 billion worldwide. ‘Life expectancy in many countries has already increased from 65-68 all the way through to 70, 80, 85 because people are now surviving heart disease, strokes and cancer,’ points out Siow, who has been studying anti-ageing compounds found in Indian spices and tea. ‘We are now redefining what ageing means. How can we extend that period of health so we’re not a burden?’
It is in Silicon Valley, however, that the really radical advances seem likely to be made. Freshly minted internet tycoons appear willing to pay any price to prolong their lives and a critical mass of geeks is working furiously towards understanding our biology at an unprecedented rate. Take Dmitry Itskov, the Russian billionaire founder of the life-extension non-profit 2045 Initiative, who is paying scientists to map the human brain so our minds can be decanted into a computer and either downloaded to a robot body or synced with a hologram. Or Joon Yun, a physician and hedge fund manager who insisted at an anti-ageing symposium of the California elite in March that ageing is simply a programming error encoded in our DNA. ‘If something is encoded, you can crack the code,’ he told an audience which, according to The New Yorker, included multi-billionaire Google co-founder Sergey Brin and Goldie Hawn. ‘Thermodynamically, there should be no reason we can’t defer entropy indefinitely. We can end ageing forever.’
And then there’s PayPal founder (and Donald Trump supporter) Peter Thiel, who has a net worth of £2.1 billion and has reportedly invested in start-up Unity Biotechnology — which aims to develop drugs that ‘make many debilitating consequences of ageing as uncommon as polio’. Thiel has also offered funding to individual researchers, such as Aubrey de Grey, the Chelsea-born, Cambridge and California-based gerontologist who ploughed the £11 million he inherited from his artist mother, Cordelia, into founding the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence Research Foundation in Mountain View, which promotes the use of rejuvenation biotechnology in anti-ageing research.
Of course, the best known element of the ‘immortality industry’ is cryogenic freezing. Despite its reputation as the last resort of wealthy cranks, it remains in business; at the Alcor cryonics facility in Arizona, 149 corpses have already been preserved in liquid nitrogen at a temperature of minus 196°C since it was founded in 1972. Worldwide there are thousands of people signed up for cryogenics services, including Alcor’s 28 clients in the UK. The service doesn’t come cheap (full-body freezing costs £165,000, while having your head cut off and frozen is around £60,000) but it has some impressive-sounding clients, including de Grey and Dr Anders Sandberg, research fellow at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute.
‘It’s a gamble but it’s still much better than being dead,’ says Sandberg. He envisages a world in which the brain is paramount, so when his is revived it could be transformed into a sort of computer programme containing all of his memories of life on earth. ‘If you actually exist as software you have a lot of options. I do enjoy having a physical body but why have just one when you could have lots of different ones?’
Of course, if such experiments do come to fruition, they could have far reaching implications for our society. Already, a rapidly ageing population is placing enormous stress on healthcare and pension systems worldwide. De Grey sees the problem of over-population being cured by a dwindling birth-rate. But he says little about the impact this would have on the young.
Then there’s the question of whether we will one day be living in a world defined by gaping differences in life expectancy — where the ‘haves’ live for 10 times longer than the ‘have nots’. ‘Mortality has been the great equaliser from beggars to kings to emperors,’ says Dr Jack Kreindler, medical director at the Centre for Health & Human Performance in Harley Street. ‘If people embark on really sophisticated, targeted therapies to repair damage to their cells… I think we’re definitely entering into “them” and “us” territory.’ As projected in Homo Deus, the best-selling book of Israeli academic Yuval Noah Harari, Kreindler adds, we could witness ‘a schism in humanity where we have some people so bioengineered that only the very, very rich can sustain the amount of maintenance required to look after their enhancements, while others simply can’t afford to do anything but be natural.’
Nevertheless, the quest to overcome mortality continues apace. Last year, at a TEDx symposium Kreindler convened at the Science Museum, Daisy Robinton, a post-doctoral scientist at Harvard University, put forward the theory that ageing should be considered ‘a disease in itself.’ She described the excitement in the medical community at the discovery of CRISPR/Cas9, a protein that seems to allow us to target and delete genetic mutations in our DNA. ‘Gene editing provides an opportunity to not only cure genetic disease but also to prevent diseases from ever coming into being,’ Robinton claimed. ‘To treat our susceptibilities before they ever transform into symptoms.’
If this theory became fact, dying of old age might one day seem as outmoded as being felled by one of the mass killers of the past for which we get vaccinated. If gene editing on this scale is possible, Kreindler says we have to ask: ‘Can your cells become immortal, can they live forever?’
At the Centre for Health & Human Performance, treatments may still be firmly rooted in the 21st century, focused as they are on helping athletes optimise their fitness and celebrities such as David Walliams complete gruelling challenges for Sport Relief. But Kreindler is clearly in awe of what the latest medical advances might mean for the future of the human race.
‘I don’t believe this should be only for the very rich,’ he says. ‘If you’re going to do things, don’t just do it for the billionaires, do it for the billions.’
In the heart of west London, there is what is thought to be a hidden paradise. Private gardens, surrounded by white stucco mansions pristine as wedding cakes, where children roam through landscaped lawns and pampered pooches piddle against the trees. Where pop stars puff through their exercise routines out of sight of the paparazzi and, by night, the ghost of Hugh Grant attempts to scale the iron railings, muttering ‘Oopsidaisy’, with all the other plebs who can’t get in.
In reality, though, it’s hell. Notting Hell, to be precise: a place where homeowners sitting on a pile worth merely £5 million battle with those whose homes are worth more than £20 million. Here, dingdongs signal not the doorbell, but all out war — between parents and pet owners, party animals and pedants. It’s bankers vs billionaires, Brits vs Yanks: All struggling, tooth and nail, to acquire the biggest house, build the largest basement, raise the brightest children, enjoy the wildest sex, and throw the party to end all parties.
‘A communal garden is the ultimate house trophy, an unambiguous symbol that you have “made it” — especially for the Americans,’ explains the author of the Notting Hill Yummy Mummy blog. ‘They infuriate the native Brits because they drive the prices so high only the richest can afford to live here. And once they get here, these hedge-funders and finance guys don’t just compete at work; they compete at home, too. They have to own a “wow” house, with the absolute best swimming pool/Jacuzzi/slide/aquarium/zipline/cinema set-up.’
Alas, even the most spacious Georgian villa rarely comes with room for a frigidarium — a posh name for a cold spa — so incomers dig deep into the clay beneath their homes to build what are known as ‘iceberg’ basements. Trophy wives battle yummy mummies, and vice versa, over planning permission — with Filipina maids caught in the crossfire. The conversions, which often take years, bring builders, trucks, dust and noise, interrupting morning mindfulness meditations and ever more exhibitionist yoga routines.
Communal gardens were invented to provide oases of calm in the middle of the city — but the mania for building below ground has unleashed chaos.
One long-term resident irked by all this is the novelist Rachel Johnson, who grew up in Notting Hill, and whose neighbours include celebrities such as Rita Ora and Ruby Wax. In 1992, Johnson bought a ‘falling-down semi-detached house off Elgin’ for £385,000 and now sits pretty in a house worth more than £4 million, simply by virtue of never having moved.
‘Five householders at the last count were putting in double basements in Elgin Crescent alone,’ Johnson complained in Harper’s Bazaar. ‘My husband says that when you live in a place that you can’t afford to shop in it’s time to move. But I won’t.’
Still, it makes for comic material and Johnson has now spent eight years eviscerating the vulgarities of the super-rich in her Notting Hellseries of novels. The latest, Fresh Hell, opens with a murder in an iceberg basement.
‘It’s all fiction!’ bellows an exasperated Johnson, when I ask her about how she gets her inspiration forher fabulously pulpy books. ‘How dare you ring me up like this?’
So, alas, no actual lesbian sex scenes chez Elgin like the one depicted in Fresh Hell, which is hotly tipped to win Johnson an unprecedented second Bad Sex Award. (‘My whole body was buzzing, as if I’d run away from a charging bull and hurled myself over an electrified fence only to find myself at a cheese-rolling event…’)
But there’s no shortage of real-life shagging, according to Notting Hill Yummy Mummy. ‘Due to all the building work, many women spend far more time with their workmen than their partners,’ she says. ‘This causes a lot of affairs. One woman got pregnant by her architect and initially tried to pass the baby off as her husband’s.’
The French contingent is typically relaxed when it comes to les liaisons amoureuses. Russian oligarchs, meanwhile, like to keep their friends close — and their mistresses around the corner.
Gossip is rife. Aberrant behaviour is closely monitored — and stamped on — by a network of residents’ associations. (The TV producer Peter Bazalgette was living in Kensington Palace Gardens when he launched Big Brother, which no one thinks a coincidence.) Barbecues and ball games are strictly verboten.
Elderly residents can be particularly crotchety when it comes to screaming infants and yapping puppies. They remember the bad old days: when Jimi Hendrix overdosed at 22 Lansdowne Crescent and you’d step outside expecting to get shanked, rather than pistachio cronuts. One of the most contentious issues is tree-felling. Typically, residents of houses that are south-facing prize the beauty of the ancient trees, while those in the north-facing ones rant about the lack of sunlight.
One garden square somewhat lacking in more hysterical shenanigans is Stanley Crescent. Its residents’ committee, stuffed with energetic, enthusiastic Americans, not only throws a convivial annual fireworks party — to which plenty of outsiders are invited — but permits (horror of horrors) football. It is so child-friendly that when the Obamas moved into the White House and wanted a really good set of garden swings, they copied the one in Stanley Crescent.
It is believed in these parts that the number of children you have indicates how much money you have, since the bigger your brood, the more you have to fork out on private education. So there are a lot of children in Notting Hell. With several birthdays every week, the fiercest rivalry of all is reserved for children’s parties. Parents outdo themselves to create the costliest, most original extravaganza.
Bouncy castles are erected, private pony rides laid on, gardens are transformed into fairgrounds complete with Ferris wheels and candy floss machines. Every-thing is outsourced, so there is an arms race for the best children’s entertainer. Magicians, clowns and face painters are passé — what you really need is a troupe of acrobats, or the ‘insect man’ to awe children with creepy crawlies. One celebrated birthday party had the young guests dress up as knights to embark on a quest around the garden to find and slay a dragon — the dragon being a giant piñata.
Party bags — which used to consist of a piece of cake, a party popper and a pencil sharpener — are now bags of loot to rival the ones they hand out at the Oscars. They contain gifts that in less affluent areas of the country would be given as main birthday presents: Barbie dolls, stuffed animals, a Play-Doh kit or a Disney character. The parents must also be taken care of, with champagne and canapés.
Still, whatever jealousies seethe in garden squares, there is no shortage of people desperate to get in. Houses cost 25 per cent more if they come with access to a communal garden. And one day soon the residents may even forget their squabbles and unite to counter a greater threat to their lifestyle. Kensington & Chelsea council periodically mutters that more access to these sacred spaces might be granted to people who live locally but who can’t afford the adjoining homes. When this was last raised in 2008 it was a suggestion repelled most vigorously. Paradise might not mean a garden, these days — but letting the oiks in? Well, that would be hell on earth.