An extract from Captain Tom’s ‘Life Lessons’

In this exclusive epilogue from forthcoming book Life Lessons, the late campaigner shares his thoughts on death – and why he lived life with 'few regrets'.

Captain Tom
Photo: Emma Sohl

That is the great fallacy, the wisdom of old men. They do not grow wise. They grow careful.

Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961)

Every night when I go to bed, I perform all my morning tasks in reverse order before saying a little prayer and sliding under the duvet. Closing my eyes, I assess how my body feels after a day of activity, holding my head in my hands and allowing my gnarled fingers to follow the contours of my skull. The thought occurs to me that this lump of bone is 100 years old, something I’d never considered before. If it was a vase or a bowl, it might even be valuable

Being this old probably explains why my hearing has diminished over the years. After all, I am listening through century- old ears. Without my aids, I’m plunged into a world of silence much like my father’s. I’ve had two new knees to stop them complaining, but I lost my teeth a long time ago, probably due to my childhood habit of crunching sugar lumps.

Having always been five feet ten inches, I have shrunk quite a bit in recent years, curled over as I am like a human question mark. This has changed my shape so that I now need to tighten my belt to stop my trousers falling down.

Two things I haven’t lost yet are my sight and my marbles. I’ve worn glasses for many a year and can still see perfectly well through them, which is a blessing – although when I look in the mirror these days I barely recognize the face staring back at me. As for my mind, well it gets a bit forgetful sometimes, but people assure me that I’m still sharp for my age.

Being so dreadfully old, I expected some physical limitations along with the normal deterioration of my bodywork, but I didn’t bank on being quite so tired. This is something the younger generation doesn’t always allow for. I am constantly surprised by how even the slightest exertion requires a nap or three to compensate.

There is nevertheless something almost reassuring about accepting the decline that I cannot prevent. A kind of calmness overcomes you when you realize that the end might come at any time. Death becomes somehow easier to think about and not something to be afraid of. It’s not that I’m giving up; it’s more a case of throttling back and quietly cruising along towards the inevitable. Just like when my eighty- five- year- old father gently told my sister, ‘This will be my last meal,’ before taking to his bed, never to rise again.

There are nights when I lie in my bed and wonder if I’ll ever get up again, as I never thought I’d live this long. Nobody imagines being 100 and most of us believe we’ll have done all right if we last as long as our parents did. Logic and science tell me that I shan’t be around for many more years, but my competitive streak keeps me going.

None of us know when our time will come, but knowing that it will likely be sooner rather than later does focus the mind and makes every day precious. People say we should live each day as if it’s our last, but we can’t be happy all the time. That would be bad for us. Life isn’t perfect and we have to feel sorrow sometimes to know what happiness is. But we can at least choose to find some joy in each and every day.

My advice would be not to assume that you’ll live as long as me and don’t put anything really important off, because tomorrow could be your last. Forgiveness is a good place to start because it isn’t healthy to keep carrying bitterness in your heart. Nobody is perfect. Accept that and move on. There’s not enough time in this life to waste it on anger and hatred.

People often ask me what the secret to old age is, but I really don’t have one other than to keep breathing. I’ve never paid much attention to health advice and have eaten whatever I liked. The good news is that when you get to my age everyone treats you with kindness and respect. You can’t put a foot wrong because no one dares argue with you.

I am also often asked if I have a ‘bucket list’, and although there are a few places I have said I might hope to visit, I’ve done almost all that I want to do and, in any event, I’m afraid to mention anything in case it gets arranged. On one TV appearance I said it would be fun to travel across America on Route 66 – riding my motorbike. I’m not sure I’m up to all that time on a motorbike now, so I joked that I’d settle for a Bentley. But I should be careful what I wish for because the next thing I knew, someone offered to provide me with a luxury car!

I must admit that I do miss gadding about, but I doubt I’ll have time to do much more. This old chassis has had a good run and is soon headed for the scrapheap. Not that there’ll be much to salvage, mind. I find myself wondering what the end will be like and whether I’ve had my last bowl of porridge.

I only pray that I don’t linger on or go into a home. That would be a final mercy. Once that happens, I want everyone to say, ‘Well done, Tom!’ and hopefully reflect that I’ve done a bit of good. Life will go on. Babies will be born. People will eventually forget about Captain Tom. For a while, though, I’ll be remembered for the last few years of my life rather than those that went before, and that’s a rare blessing in a world that tends to celebrate youthful endeavour.

Previously, my funeral would have made one little line in the local newspaper and been attended by only a handful of people, but I expect there’ll be a few more now. Someone will have to make extra cake and sandwiches, and it won’t be me. I want the service to end with ‘My Way’ by Frank Sinatra because I always did things my way and especially like the line about having too few regrets to mention.

It’s odd and rather touching to think that people might weep over my passing – strangers I’ve never even met. If I can, I’d like to watch my own funeral from a distance. That would be quite the joke as I looked down and chuckled at everyone making a lot of fuss over me.

Even though I have a space reserved in the village churchyard, I want to be cremated and my ashes taken back to Yorkshire to be with my parents and grandparents in the Moore family plot. I wouldn’t mind having a little white headstone somewhere to mark my existence, a bit like the ones they have in military cemeteries. Nothing too fancy.

Several people have asked me what my epitaph might be, so I’ve given that a bit of thought too. When I was younger, I enjoyed listening to The Goon Show on the wireless, and one of the comedians who always made me laugh the hardest was Spike Milligan. Like me, he fought in the Second World War, but was wounded in Italy. When he died at the age of eighty- three, he wrote his own epitaph, which was engraved in Gaelic on his headstone. It reads: ‘I told you I was ill.’

This always made me laugh, so I think I’d ask for the simple inscription of my name, the dates of my earthly span, and the words: ‘I told you I was old.’

That’ll do me. And hopefully, some day it will make someone smile.

Extracted from Captain Tom’s Life Lessons published 2 April 2021.

Captain Tom's Life Lessons

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more