What is longevity all about? What does it truly mean to age well? And furthermore, what does it mean for our life if we choose how we do things - is there a handbook?
Well it might be worth talking to Omagh-based centenarian Bob Lingwood to find out these answers as he reaches that milestone today! Entrepreneur, soldier, company director, award-winning gardener ...the list goes on and on.
Living a full century of life was once considered a rarity, but that’s changing and Bob is the living proof. While genetics certainly have a lot to do with it, unlocking the secrets of centenarians like Bob could help all of us live longer.
Bob was born in Suffolk on this day in 1918. He moved back a few days later to Chelsea because mother, Louise, was working in the munitions factory there. He was born into a hard no nonsense family. His father, Leonard, who worked in the shoe repair industry he describes as a man who believed in discipline, while mother was a little more relaxed and certainly a big influence on how he subsequently approached life. He had two brothers, Jim and John, both deceased.
He says he enjoyed a happy childhood in a London which was recovering from the ravages of World War One. "It was a good place to be, where I lived we had great communities that sadly are not there any more."
Of course anyone who knows Bob will also know of his passion for Chelsea FC. He recounts his days as 'a nipper' squeezing in through the turnstiles to watch the games, coming early to games to get autographs, to eventually playing for their schoolboys’ side and spending sometime as a ball boy during big match days. Even today Bob can recall all the great players such as Hughie Gallagher, Andy Wilson, Alex Jackson and Jackie Crawford; great games and highs and lows and can tell you who played well last Saturday and who didn’t! He also fights their corner when debating with supporters of other teams - a true Blue!
After finishing school his mother talked to the principal about what to do next and when he found out his father was already involved in the shoe industry, he suggested Bob follow his lead. This he did and admits he threw himself into learning every aspect of shoe manufacturing from foot measurement to actual shoe-making.
One of the most interesting facets of the job was making theatrical shoes for performers in the West End of London. These included ballet, tap and special shoes for all sorts of performers. When he was 19 he also joined the Territorial Army primarily, he says, to learn about motor engines which led to many adventures, but one particularly memorable and unique incident during World War II.
"I was called up before war was declared and indeed spent my 21st birthday in France. We did nothing for the first six months, then one night I was on guard duty when I noticed hundreds of planes flying over and search lights all over the place - the Germans had invaded Belgium.
"We were immediately pushed up to Brussels which we tried to defend, but we were no match for the Germans. They had superior equipment and firepower, so we went through a process of retreating."
This, however, threw up its own challenges as Bob, who was by now a Lance Corporal, and was one of the last to leave because he had been detailed to lift telecommunication lines. Unfortunately for him he ran into two armoured German vehicles and being outgunned, had to surrender. He was marched off to Alast, which was in the Flemish province of East Flanders, 19 miles north-west of Brussels.
"There was a bridge in the middle, but it had been blown up. I could see our troops on the other side. I noticed our guard, who was sitting on the back of a motorcycle with a machine-gun, got distracted but told us to march on up the road. When we got out of sight I said to our boys, 'let's make a run for it' and we did and headed back towards the bridge.
"Some of our boys could swim, some couldn't but we shoved them on to the bridge and they clambered over. Suddenly the Germans returned and started firing. Amazingly we weren't hit. I was the last one going over but a French soldier in front stopped and surrendered. I told him to go but he wouldn't, so I thought it was either him or me so I pushed him into the river and clambered across the broken bridge to the other side."
Bob might have thought that was the end of his troubles but it wasn't, he now had to explain himself to his own side.
"On the other side the bridge was being defended by an elite brigade of British Army guards. I was interviewed by the captain but at the end of it he didn't believe me adding some of my story didn't add up and told me he suspected that I might be German. At that time some Germans were infiltrating our lines to get information. I was put in the guard room for four days - so I was taken prisoner by both sides on the same day - and there's not many prisoners that can say that!"
After rejoining his unit Bob was sent to Dunkirk where he had to endure constant air bombardment for four to five days before being able to wade out to a small craft before making it out to a larger ship.
"As we clambered up the side of that ship on a rope ladder, we changed out of our wet clothes only to find ourselves under fire shortly after again. The ship eventually sunk but we managed to get off thanks to a Destroyer coming alongside"
Bob received shrapnel wounds and when he got back to England was transferred up to hospital in Sunderland. After a period of recuperation he rejoined his unit at Aldershot, who were subsequently deployed over to Northern Ireland on July 11, 1940.
"We knew nothing about Northern Ireland. We were camped in Lisburn for two years and integrated well with all the civilian population. Every Sunday the camp was empty, we were invited out to tea in local houses."
Bob made a special connection during one of these visits.
"I got invited to a house for Sunday tea where there were five girls, three boys, three aunts and a mum and dad who all worked in the local Barbour's Mill. I got invited back for a few weeks and eventually started courting the eldest girl, Emma, who I eventually married in 1942."
One of the stipulations Bob had to agree to when he asked her mother for permission was that they not get married until the war was over. He agreed to this initially but when he discovered a short time later that he was to be posted to the Middle East, they got married.
"We didn't see each other for the first three-and-a-half years of our marriage!"
After postings in several locations Bob came back home and after he was demobbed from the army. He was awarded a military medal for his wartime endeavours from King George VI.
He went back to the shoe industry in London but realised changing times needed new approaches. To this end he started to improve his skill set and moved from job to job just to learn the latest in the manufacturing and business side of things. He also undertook a range of courses and night classes and eventually he held down various positions from factory manager to company director.
However, as production increased the company he worked for needed more space and wanted to increase production.
Once again Bob looked to Northern Ireland.
"I suggested we look at Northern Ireland and explained as the government we giving out advance factories it gave us scope to expand. We looked at two, one near Belfast and one in Omagh. We visited both but found they couldn't do enough for us in Omagh. They were more than keen to bring us here.
"We decided this was the move we wanted and began a period of training at the Scott's Mills premises before the opening of our new factory. They provided us with the space for us to install machines so when the factory was ready we had a workforce trained and ready to move in. I brought some management team from London and they merged in super and the factory really flourished."
Bob said he was grateful to his father-in-law for some very useful advice when setting up, advice which really paid off, he said.
"He said on your application form don't ask religion or don't ask what school they went to. We took his advice because by this time I learned more about Northern Ireland. So when we started the factory we made it clear no emblems, no flags, no football teams, nothing going up - we're here to make shoes and that set the standard."
He explained that as well as that they stuck to all the rules regarding the workers too so much so that some other employers used to give out because they were losing workers to him as the pay in the shoe factory was better.
It ended up the Omagh factory, the Tyrone Shoe Company, was making approximately 8,000 pairs of ladies fashion shoes per week, 40 weeks a year, employing up to 180 people a week between 1968 and 1975 with the finished product going mainly to England. Some were for mail order and others for export.
He said he was lucky the 'Troubles' never really interfered with their operations. He had only one incident to deal with when an attack on the nearby police station blew their windows out! The only other mishap came when their premises were flooded and stock got damaged. Unfortunately the factory had to close eventually because of overseas competition and their cheap labour.
Bob was faced with a dilemma after that. He had to make a decision on job offers coming in from Britain, South Africa and New Zealand or stay at home. The fact he had roots embedded in both Omagh and in his wife's family's case, Lisburn, the couple decided to stay put.
But he didn't sit still and soon he set up a small manufacturing unit making shoe components, specialised footwear, sport footwear and comfort footwear in a premises behind the Silverbirch Hotel. He did that until he retired at 70 employing 15 to 20 people in the process.
Just when he should have been putting his feet up, Bob was approached by international running, training and casual footwear manufacturing giant, Reebok, on a consultancy basis. This opened a whole new chapter for him as they not only drew on his vast knowledge for their products, but sent him to all corners of the globe to help them improve their business operations.
"A trip to Europe was a day job, the trips to places like China, India and South America lasted for weeks in some cases," he said.
He admits his five years with the company helped him stay busy and build up a little nest egg for his retirement - whenever it would arrive! He also did a bit of consultancy work for another major sportswear footwear manufacturer, the Boston based firm, New Balance.
Bob always poured a lot of energy and enthusiasm into anything he undertook and it was the same when he started to get involved in local groups in the Omagh area such the Probus Club, the Churches Forum, the Access Forum, the Strule Arts Centre and, of course, his beloved Omagh Gardening Society.
He also kept up his interest in running and completed at least six miles, five days a week and up to 20 miles at the weekend. One of his highlights was carrying the Olympic torch in Omagh when it passed through in 2012.
Not only was he the oldest torch-bearer in Northern Ireland, but the second oldest in the entire UK. A large photograph depicting the event takes pride of place in his home.
Bob is instantly recognisable, a permanent fixture at many social and cultural events in the town but although he has been here for 50 years, makes no secret of his origin and the fact he cherishes his London roots and his strong 'cockney' accent, even though strictly speaking he's not a native of East London, as he points out a 'cockney' is traditionally one born within hearing of Bow Bells, there's few who would dispute his DNA in this regard.
He has been back and forth to London, mainly for Chelsea matches and family occasions but he also managed to attend a Queen's Birthday Party event a few years ago where he was honoured for his services to the community.
Sadly Bob lost his wife Emma, approximately 10 years ago and son Michael, when he was only 40 and now resides with daughter, Denise, at their Omagh home at Sunnycrest Gardens.
"I came to Omagh at the age of 50 so I have been here 50 years and apart from five years in the army, I'd been in London. I was lucky that in my education and business years I was in a vibrant environment in that city, it couldn't have better and I learned a lot. I then came to a small, happy, friendly town where everyone knows each other. It's completely different so in a way I couldn't have had it better. If I had retired in London you wouldn't know who you are going to meet in the hustle and bustle so I'm more than happy I stayed here.
"I love people, enjoy their company and don't mind how many come visit me every day."
Despite an unfortunate trip that left him initially with a cracked bone in his hip a few years ago, Bob is independent and has the vitality, vigour, energy, enthusiasm and love for your life of a man still in his prime. Sadly his hip injury kept him confined so long in the one place that his knee muscles are not as strong as they ought to be and he now has to motor using his wheelchair or aided by a walking frame.
Much of making it to your 100th birthday is beyond your control, as longevity is partly dictated by genetics and the medical history and health habits of your parents and grandparents.
But there are also a handful (okay, a lot) of lifespan-enhancing practices that you can adopt today — like taking your allotted vacation days, eating more leafy greens and getting enough sleep. What is Bob's secret?
"My secret is 'work hard, play hard. You can put all sorts of fancy words on it but basically that's it. Maybe another secret is love your neighbour. My point is tolerance. I've been so fortunate, I've always got on with people and have been able to motivate them and you don't get that with any fancy training. It's something you have either got or your haven't. Quite honestly I would say I could solve the Northern Ireland problem. Maybe that's going a bit far, but any common sense tells you people can get on."
Although today, Wednesday, is his actual 100th birthday, Bob will celebrate the occasion this Saturday, September 22, with a party at the Silverbirch Hotel, Omagh where family, friends, former work colleagues and probably lots of other chums from down the years will join him for this very special occasion. St Eugene's Brass and Reed Band and Bob Quick and The Big Brass Swing Band will provide the entertainment. It promises to be quite a party!