Tag Archives: life

Victoria Derbyshire: ‘After cancer, I’m squeezing life out of every second’

On Monday 27 July 2015, at 4.35am, Victoria Derbyshire was in her kitchen, with the kettle on, Googling “inverted nipple” before leaving home to present her daily BBC2 current affairs programme. Google came up with a list of explanations, one of which was breast cancer. It is usually best to ignore online diagnoses but, in this instance, her preliminary search was right. By 29 July she was having a biopsy, by 31 July it was confirmed she had breast cancer, and on 24 September she had a single mastectomy. And at this point she did something unusual: she made a video of herself, sitting up in her hospital bed in an NHS gown, after coming round from the operation. Pale, then suddenly smiling, she held up two pieces of card. On one, she had written: “THIS MORNING I HAD BREAST CANCER.” Then she showed us the second: “THIS EVENING I DON’T!”

Watching the video, you notice she talks as if she feels she has had a narrow escape. She takes little breaths between words, as though resisting speechlessness. “Today I had a mastectomy and I feel – all right – I can’t believe it.” There is relief in her pronunciation of that slightly questioning “all right”. She looks from side to side, as if bad news might be lurking in the room. She describes the NHS team as inspiring, shows us the black arrow inked on to her right wrist (to make sure the surgeons did not operate on the wrong breast), and has an impressive shot at explaining breast reconstruction – the tucking in of the implant, the pulling down of skin, the hammocky mesh over which skin will eventually grow – although she casts around for the word “reconstruction”, almost lost to morphine.

It is extraordinarily plucky and self-possessed to turn a vulnerable, private experience into reportage. She announces that she wants to do it not only because she is a “pretty open person” but because more than one in three people will be diagnosed with cancer in their lives. “Obviously, I have looked up those stats,” she adds, like the journalist she is. The video was the first of an illuminating series (all on YouTube) documenting her chemotherapy, radiotherapy and emotional reactions to treatment in an attempt to “demystify” the disease, learning as she went.

The public response, with messages from the medical profession as well as fellow cancer patients, has been overwhelming. Derbyshire has inspired countless tweets, emails and column inches. And now there is a book: Dear Cancer, Love Victoria. Once past the title (who thought that was a good idea?), it’s as easy to read as it must, at times, have been hard to live.

Victoria Derbyshire’s first video diary after her mastectomy.


Victoria Derbyshire’s first video diary after her mastectomy. Photograph: BBC

Cancer writing has become an industry, but this is a book that is more reportage than memoir; it distinguishes itself with its informative immediacy, taking the temperature of every moment. It does not belong on the same literary shelf as the columns of Ruth Picardie, Christopher Hitchens or Jenny Diski, for whom writing came first – cancer simply a subject that could not be ignored. In intention, Derbyshire’s book is closer to Sophie Sabbage’s wonderful The Cancer Whisperer. Sabbage resolved, on the advice of a consultant, never to allow herself to become a “patient”. Derbyshire is similarly determined to hang on to being a journalist. The result is unusually upbeat, not least because she seems, with any luck, to have seen cancer off.

When she walks into her publisher’s offices, she is precisely as she appears on television. She is 48. Piquant face, pointed chin, bright smile, glossy hair. Being herself is her forte on TV. And she is natural in her videos too, talking to the camera as though to a friend. This morning she has come straight from presenting her programme, wearing a crisp, candy-striped T-shirt and smart blue trousers. She has changed only her shoes, swapping heels for white plimsolls. She is chirpy, smiling, focused. I watch as she gracefully adjusts to being interviewee, not interviewer (she has done her homework, asking a friendly opening question about my sons).

You might assume, if you didn’t know better, that talking to her would be like chatting to a neighbour. But you have only to watch, to take just one example, her recent handling of a meeting between housing minister, Alok Sharma, and the residents of Grenfell Tower to recognise that this Bafta-winning journalist is an impeccable professional – and fearless. She tells the minister to stop talking in “platitudes”. She calmly keeps the peace, hushing the shouting, raging, heartbroken residents. Seeing that she is on their side makes you feel on hers. You also detect the steel in her, a steel tested by cancer.

As she sits down, I ask if she were to make a 10-minute video diary right now, what she would say? “I’d start with a health update because I had my check-up yesterday – and all is good, touch wood. That is a big hurdle, every six months. Talking off the top of my head, I can’t believe I’ve had cancer. I’m here now – alive, happy, healthy. It’s almost like it never happened, yet it’s absolutely vivid in the front of my mind. And then, depending on your diagnosis [she seems to assume her viewers all have cancer], I’d say, ‘If I can get through this, so can you.’ That wouldn’t last 10 minutes, but that would be my opening gambit.”


Losing your hair makes you look like a cancer patient. I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me

When she started out on her treatment, she tells me, she knew nothing about cancer. She is about to say more but interrupts herself with a statement that sounds planned: “Everything I say has a caveat, which is that every diagnosis, cancer and treatment is different. I’m not speaking on behalf of everyone. This is purely my experience.” She continues: “What matters is the mundanifying of cancer – although that is not even a word.” It is now, I say, and she laughs: “But you know what I mean? The normalising of it. Cancer shouldn’t have this uber-powerful status. Cancer can be manageable, you can go to work, have a drink if you want to, pick kids up from school. I didn’t know you could do all those things when you had cancer. I’d no idea, so that was the big surprise for me.”

What most needs demystifying, she believes, is cancer surgery and breast reconstruction. She remembers exactly how she felt making her mastectomy video: “I was recording through the night, I was on such a high.” Morphine? “Partly, but mainly I was on a high because I was alive.”

Not everyone has been equally admiring of that video. In her book, Derbyshire draws attention to Deborah Orr’s critical Guardian column in which she suggests that Derbyshire oversimplifies cancer. Disarmingly, she wonders, in the book, whether Orr is right. Orr, who has had breast cancer, chafes against what she defines as the “tyranny of positivity”. Does Derbyshire recognise that positivity can be negative?

“I felt stung by her column because I’d given an honest account post-mastectomy. I wasn’t faking it. And, hey, guess what? When I started chemo it was a bit more shit, and I didn’t gloss over that either.” And I then remind her how, pre-surgery, she felt a morbid fearfulness that was anything but positive. She even took the precaution of writing individual letters to her young sons – Oliver (now 11) and Joe (eight) – in case she didn’t make it through the operation. She adds: “I’ve no idea if being positive has any impact on recovering from breast cancer.”

Turning her experience of cancer into journalism was helpful to her because it gave her “another purpose, apart from being a cancer patient. It felt a natural decision, partly because, over the decades, people have shared some unbelievably personal experiences with me.” As you watch her chemo videos, it becomes clear that the most personal physical issue is her hair – she is far more obsessed with losing her hair than losing a breast.

“Losing your hair makes you look like a cancer patient. I didn’t want to look like a cancer patient. I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me. I’m not saying I wanted people to be unkind, because many people were gorgeous to me. I just didn’t want to be pitied.”

[embedded content]
Watch Victoria Derbyshire’s video diary about taking her wig off.

I had never seen a “cold cap” (a hat designed to prevent or reduce hair loss during chemotherapy) before watching her video – demystification in action. Not that it’s reassuring. It looks like a penitential helmet, seems to be far more painful than the chemo itself and, when she takes it off, leaves shards of ice in her hair. In retrospect, was it a mistake to persevere with it? “No, it was worth it psychologically… I kept about a third of my hair and could say to myself, ‘I still have some hair, I’m vaguely in control.’” She also demystifies wigs, even showing how to shampoo one. But I tell her I have a friend, being treated for breast cancer, who, after watching the video in which Derbyshire takes off her glossy, convincing wig to reveal the return of her own hair, felt indignant because Derbyshire’s new hair looks fantastic, better than the wig. “That is her perception, isn’t it? But my whole life, I’d had long hair… ” So you were not aware how great your new hair looked? “No way! Are you joking? Viewers sent me amazing messages saying, ‘It must be nice to have a new haircut.’” But she explains there is nothing nice about a haircut “imposed on you by cancer and chemotherapy”.

Would she describe herself as vain? She exclaims in an endearing whisper: “No, I wouldn’t! To be honest, if you look at some of those video diaries, there is no way you could say I was vain. Jesus Christ! I think about myself going to work with a swollen face because of medication, my eyes and nose streaming because of chemotherapy, no eyebrows, no eyelashes, wearing a bloody wig and going on national TV.”

It is one of the nice things about Derbyshire that she never takes offence. And, in spite of her professional steel, I can see that in private she is soft as a marshmallow. In a video made on 1 May 2016, after her 13th radiotherapy session, she looks anxious. “I don’t know why but I’m having a real wobble today,” she says, “I’m just thinking about – and I’m sure this is completely normal, I’m sure everybody who has ever had a cancer diagnosis will think this – I’m thinking about what if this cancer comes back?… I don’t know why this is in my head today, I don’t know what the reason is. I can’t think of anything rational.”

It’s a commentary that stops one short: why does she say her fear is irrational? Surely she is looking into the eye of a particularly frightening truth? Momentarily she looks dismayed, then rallies: “I didn’t acknowledge it at the time, but you have just made me see that and you’re right.” She was “irritated with myself”, she elaborates, for “wasting time” with depressing thoughts while her treatment was still ongoing.

At one point, talking about her working life, she highlights the importance of “going with the unpredictable”. This was her approach to cancer, too. And it is one of the most powerful things about Derbyshire’s videos that they reveal that, just when you might expect to feel elated or when it might be convenient to feel extra-calm, you might find yourself ambushed by gloom. Preparing for her final chemo session, she remembers: “I felt different to what I was expecting. I’d built up to the last session. I woke at six, thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s the last chemotherapy; I’ll never have to wear that cold cap again. Thank goodness, this is another major part of the treatment that is going to be behind me by lunchtime.’ But when the timer went off, I was in shock. I raised my arms in the air… Oh God, I’m going to cry – sorry.” She wipes her eyes. “And I just put this blanket over my face because tears started to come. I didn’t say anything. Mark [Sandell, her partner] was sitting opposite me, and once I’d got up to hug him he said – typical him – ‘It feels like just yesterday you were diagnosed.’” And that made them both laugh because it was the opposite of the truth.

There is, potentially, a limbo at the end of cancer treatment. “I’d spent seven months concentrating on the day ahead every day,” says Derbyshire, “focusing on the next bit of treatment and, suddenly, the major part of it is over and it’s just processing it in your head.” She was saying to herself: “What the f- and whoa… I can’t believe we’ve just got through that.” She drove home with Mark, holding hands. “We were saying with disbelief, ‘We did it.’ And then he went to pick the children up and I couldn’t stop crying, I was texting everyone.” She couldn’t wait for the kids to come home, started to make tea for them and then suddenly realised: “There were no more tears. I’d cried all the tears out of me.”

Mark, a former editor of the World Service’s World Have Your Say programme and now an executive producer, was “amazing throughout, caring and funny – which was brilliant”. He was doing the practical stuff “like a single dad”. The toughest times were after chemo because “I was in bed and knackered and grumpy”. Her understanding of her boys and their emotions is moving. After telling them about her diagnosis, she writes: “Both boys are now looking at us. Neither asks any questions, which is very unusual for them. It could be because we’ve been too casual or because they understand completely or because they don’t quite understand enough.” Later, there were “definitely stresses”. “Joe cried in class, and when he and Oliver came to see me after surgery I had these drains coming out of me and they were so quiet. They just asked, ‘How are you Mummy?’”

And how are they, these days? “They appear unscathed but I’ve no idea in the long term. They were pretty robust – they took their lead from us.” She was as honest with them as with us: “I introduced them to the nurses and doctors. They went into the chemotherapy suite so they could see it was light and airy and not a scary place.” I suggest that if her handling of the Grenfell meeting is anything to go by, she must be a super-calm mum? “Pretty much, although not when the boys come in from football and tread mud into the carpet – it feels like Groundhog Day. I do lose it, but no more than most parents I hope. I’m pretty straightforward.”

Victoria Derbyshire during her days at BBC 5 Live.


Victoria Derbyshire during her days at BBC Radio 5 Live. Photograph: BBC

Derbyshire was born in Bury, Greater Manchester, the eldest of three children, and has talked openly about growing up with a physically and verbally violent father with whom she is no longer in touch. Having a violent parent, she now says, “definitely had an impact. There is an example and you decide: we’re not going to follow it because it’s shit. I think that is partly what has given me the absolute determination I’ve always had that our family unit would be strong, that we’d be together. Mark’s parents separated when he was 11. So did mine – I was 16. My mum was the significant person in my life, and thank God for her and the love she gave me and my brother and my sister.”

There is no mistaking how crucial family support has been to her experience of cancer, and she makes a point of not forgetting Gracie, the family’s black spaniel. Purchased a month after diagnosis, Gracie makes guest appearances in some videos, frolicking across the green grass of Middlesex: “Whether I was on a high or experiencing a crushing low, Gracie would be determined to lick my face.”

Derbyshire is a worker – she made her name on Radio 5 Live as co-presenter of the breakfast show for 16 years before moving, in 2015, to BBC2 and the BBC News Channel. Cancer has not altered her attitude to her job. She describes herself as a good listener and a compassionate person with a “nothing-to-lose” attitude to journalism. She is forensic, “sweats the small stuff” professionally, but will concede that she now has a “sense of perspective that means I’m not wasting any time on pointless anxieties, annoying people or on things that go slightly wrong – it’s all fine”. She laughs. “I’ve always lived to the full but now I’m squeezing life out of every second. I want to spend more time with family and friends – they’re the most important part of my life. But I’m saying yes to more things. I want to embrace everything.”

Embracing everything includes the gym twice a week to offset the side-effects of Tamoxifen – she had a rough start with the hormone-based drug. “I’d wake up feeling like an old woman – not good. I was never a gym person but I’ve worked out that exercise helps alleviate joint pain. Now I feel about 35; I’ve so much energy – and no pain.” I ask if she worries about people less lucky than herself in terms of their diagnosis or support.

“Cancer is a lottery,” she concludes, “in terms of whether you survive or not. I know that and am so grateful. There aren’t enough words to express my gratitude. I have friends who have died of cancer. It’s outrageous and unfair.” But who is she grateful to? When she thanks NHS staff for saving her, does she not reflect that they work as unflaggingly for patients they can’t save? She opens her arms wide, somewhere between rueful shrug and appreciative surrender: “I’m grateful to… the ether… to Lady Luck… I’m grateful to… whoever rolled the dice for me.”

Dear Cancer, Love Victoria is published by Trapeze (£18.99). To order a copy for £16.14 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

William Giraldi on life as a bookish bodybuilder: ‘It’s a poisoned way to be a man’

As a teenage bodybuilder, William Giraldi would hide a battered old Keats paperback between the pages of Muscle & Fitness magazine to read during his evening cardio, a move he calls “a reversal of the classic Playboy mag inside a textbook”. His new memoir, The Hero’s Body, is littered with anecdotes like this: tales of the insecurities and absurdities of masculinity, which document the lengths men go to in order to feel a sense of self-worth in their manhood. Literature, art, music – almost anything that would be of no use on a battlefield – were condemned as effeminate by Giraldi’s family and gym buddies, forcing him to pursue these interests in secret.

“That’s the perfect illustration of the kind of bifurcated life I was leading at the time,” Giraldi says, likening his furtive Keats reading to that of a gay person in the closet. “You’ve got this part of yourself that’s central to yourself, that’s at the hub of you. You can’t express it, you can’t exert it, you can’t walk the way you want to walk in the world because of how you’ll be perceived.”

The first half of The Hero’s Body explores Giraldi’s foray into the world of weightlifting and muscular showmanship – initially sparked by the weakness he felt following a bout of meningitis at 15 – while the latter portion delves into his father’s violent death in a motorcycle accident a decade later. Both, he says, were the result of “a primitive form of tribalism in which men were forced – or volunteered – to prove themselves in the most dangerous ways”.

Throughout history, males have participated in initiation rites as they enter adulthood. To Giraldi, this goes someway towards explaining why his bodybuilding began in his mid-teens, and yet his father was significantly older, in his 40s, when he got into biking. “It shows that it never really goes away, that there’s an initiation rite but then once you’re initiated you’re never let off the hook. You’re never free from it. It’s a poisoned way of being a man, because you can never win.”

William Giraldi (centre) with fellow competitive bodybuilders on the Jersey shore just before a show, 1994.


William Giraldi (centre) with fellow competitive bodybuilders on the Jersey shore just before a show, 1994.

While many of the ideas he raises are universal, The Hero’s Body is a somewhat turbocharged, uniquely American take on what it means to be male. Giraldi grew up in the aptly named Manville, New Jersey (“a town straight from the blue notes of a Springsteen song”) at a time in which masculinity was at its most brutally realised in both US politics and pop culture. After the failures of Vietnam, America needed an injection of sheer masculine posturing – something to which Stephen E de Souza, the screenwriter behind Commando, Die Hard and numerous other 80s action flicks, attributed the rise in big, muscular action stars.

Indeed, it was under a Hollywood actor who specialised in portraying particularly strong, manly characters, that much of this new force of hypermasculinity reared its head. “After the presidencies of Ford and Carter, who, let’s face it, weren’t very masculine presidents – Carter was effeminate, Ford was ineffectual – Reagan comes along and he’s full of this masculine brute and bluster. He was the guy who was pretending on screen to be of highly masculine stock, and then he gets into office and we needed to pump up, as it were, our national image,” says Giraldi. “I think [de Souza] is correct about Vietnam, but keep in mind also that Reagan’s administration was a full stop on the victories of feminism in this country, and the emasculating effects of feminism.”

The idea of a showy celebrity whose presidential campaign is fuelled by a group of insecure, virulent, anti-feminists hardly feels like a distant memory in 2017. While several decades have passed since Giraldi’s adolescence, exploring the male psyche feels as essential now as it would have been 30 years ago. On the current president’s “ostentatious masculinity”, Giraldi considers it a compensatory act: “The Trumpian bluster, the masculine showmanship of Trump is a facade. It’s a front, it’s hiding deep wells of weakness and what is perceived as femininity.”

Although Giraldi’s steroid-abusing, bodybuilding teens may be unfamiliar territory for most (some reviews have criticised The Hero’s Body for being unrelatable, which seems only true in the most superficial of readings), at the heart of the book lies a series of real, human stories about men and their self-destructive behaviours. One passage that struck me as particularly familiar is in the aftermath of his father’s motorcycle accident. Two of the bikers who had been with him that day claimed to have heard him say he didn’t feel well, words Giraldi knew his father never would have spoken. It has echoes, I tell him, of my own father’s death, which was preceded mere seconds earlier by his assertions that he was feeling better after a few days under the weather. “That would have been a glaring signal of his weakness, and to the clan,” Giraldi says. “To be perceived as weak when you’re a man is a death of another kind.”

William Giraldi as a baby, on the lap of his grandfather, with his father standing alongside: Manville NJ, c.1975.


William Giraldi as a baby, on the lap of his grandfather, with his father standing alongside: Manville NJ, c.1975.

Giraldi believes he began subconsciously writing The Hero’s Body the day of his father’s death, accumulating lines in notepads here and there over the years that followed. In a demonstration of his newly open love of literature, he refers to Benvenuto Cellini’s 16th-century work Autobiography, in which Cellini advises men to wait until they’ve passed 40 to write their life stories. As it happened for Giraldi, by the time he’d reached this milestone, he’d “been born as a father, and with that comes its own brand of staggered excellence.” The arrival of his sons spurred him to tell the story of their grandfather so as to keep his memory alive, and, it would seem, to try to prevent them from going down the same path their male ancestors had done. Notably, none of Giraldi’s children were given the first name William, breaking a family tradition that stretched back four generations.

Unsurprisingly, Giraldi has taken a very different approach to bringing up his sons than his father and grandfather did. While he admits he has no way of knowing if such a shift in ethos is widespread (“There are millions of men in this country who are doing the very things with their sons that my father tried to do with me and his father did with him”), he is, as are many fathers today, conscious of the harm caused by pushing traditionally gendered ideals on their children.

“I really do hope to win this,” he says. “I really hope for them to understand that they could be men while loving literature and music and art, that real men are merciful, that real men are kind, that real men show love towards those who are weaker, not scorn.”

For all his awareness of toxic masculinity now, Giraldi still feels regret that he didn’t realise sooner. “I wasted a lot of years in these issues and these problems, and in sorting out these tangles,” he says. “I wish I had got right down to what my life would become, I wish I could have been saved a lot of that tangle.”

William Giraldi on life as a bookish bodybuilder: ‘It’s a poisoned way to be a man’

As a teenage bodybuilder, William Giraldi would hide a battered old Keats paperback between the pages of Muscle & Fitness magazine to read during his evening cardio, a move he calls “a reversal of the classic Playboy mag inside a textbook”. His new memoir, The Hero’s Body, is littered with anecdotes like this: tales of the insecurities and absurdities of masculinity, which document the lengths men go to in order to feel a sense of self-worth in their manhood. Literature, art, music – almost anything that would be of no use on a battlefield – were condemned as effeminate by Giraldi’s family and gym buddies, forcing him to pursue these interests in secret.

“That’s the perfect illustration of the kind of bifurcated life I was leading at the time,” Giraldi says, likening his furtive Keats reading to that of a gay person in the closet. “You’ve got this part of yourself that’s central to yourself, that’s at the hub of you. You can’t express it, you can’t exert it, you can’t walk the way you want to walk in the world because of how you’ll be perceived.”

The first half of The Hero’s Body explores Giraldi’s foray into the world of weightlifting and muscular showmanship – initially sparked by the weakness he felt following a bout of meningitis at 15 – while the latter portion delves into his father’s violent death in a motorcycle accident a decade later. Both, he says, were the result of “a primitive form of tribalism in which men were forced – or volunteered – to prove themselves in the most dangerous ways”.

Throughout history, males have participated in initiation rites as they enter adulthood. To Giraldi, this goes someway towards explaining why his bodybuilding began in his mid-teens, and yet his father was significantly older, in his 40s, when he got into biking. “It shows that it never really goes away, that there’s an initiation rite but then once you’re initiated you’re never let off the hook. You’re never free from it. It’s a poisoned way of being a man, because you can never win.”

William Giraldi (centre) with fellow competitive bodybuilders on the Jersey shore just before a show, 1994.


William Giraldi (centre) with fellow competitive bodybuilders on the Jersey shore just before a show, 1994.

While many of the ideas he raises are universal, The Hero’s Body is a somewhat turbocharged, uniquely American take on what it means to be male. Giraldi grew up in the aptly named Manville, New Jersey (“a town straight from the blue notes of a Springsteen song”) at a time in which masculinity was at its most brutally realised in both US politics and pop culture. After the failures of Vietnam, America needed an injection of sheer masculine posturing – something to which Stephen E de Souza, the screenwriter behind Commando, Die Hard and numerous other 80s action flicks, attributed the rise in big, muscular action stars.

Indeed, it was under a Hollywood actor who specialised in portraying particularly strong, manly characters, that much of this new force of hypermasculinity reared its head. “After the presidencies of Ford and Carter, who, let’s face it, weren’t very masculine presidents – Carter was effeminate, Ford was ineffectual – Reagan comes along and he’s full of this masculine brute and bluster. He was the guy who was pretending on screen to be of highly masculine stock, and then he gets into office and we needed to pump up, as it were, our national image,” says Giraldi. “I think [de Souza] is correct about Vietnam, but keep in mind also that Reagan’s administration was a full stop on the victories of feminism in this country, and the emasculating effects of feminism.”

The idea of a showy celebrity whose presidential campaign is fuelled by a group of insecure, virulent, anti-feminists hardly feels like a distant memory in 2017. While several decades have passed since Giraldi’s adolescence, exploring the male psyche feels as essential now as it would have been 30 years ago. On the current president’s “ostentatious masculinity”, Giraldi considers it a compensatory act: “The Trumpian bluster, the masculine showmanship of Trump is a facade. It’s a front, it’s hiding deep wells of weakness and what is perceived as femininity.”

Although Giraldi’s steroid-abusing, bodybuilding teens may be unfamiliar territory for most (some reviews have criticised The Hero’s Body for being unrelatable, which seems only true in the most superficial of readings), at the heart of the book lies a series of real, human stories about men and their self-destructive behaviours. One passage that struck me as particularly familiar is in the aftermath of his father’s motorcycle accident. Two of the bikers who had been with him that day claimed to have heard him say he didn’t feel well, words Giraldi knew his father never would have spoken. It has echoes, I tell him, of my own father’s death, which was preceded mere seconds earlier by his assertions that he was feeling better after a few days under the weather. “That would have been a glaring signal of his weakness, and to the clan,” Giraldi says. “To be perceived as weak when you’re a man is a death of another kind.”

William Giraldi as a baby, on the lap of his grandfather, with his father standing alongside: Manville NJ, c.1975.


William Giraldi as a baby, on the lap of his grandfather, with his father standing alongside: Manville NJ, c.1975.

Giraldi believes he began subconsciously writing The Hero’s Body the day of his father’s death, accumulating lines in notepads here and there over the years that followed. In a demonstration of his newly open love of literature, he refers to Benvenuto Cellini’s 16th-century work Autobiography, in which Cellini advises men to wait until they’ve passed 40 to write their life stories. As it happened for Giraldi, by the time he’d reached this milestone, he’d “been born as a father, and with that comes its own brand of staggered excellence.” The arrival of his sons spurred him to tell the story of their grandfather so as to keep his memory alive, and, it would seem, to try to prevent them from going down the same path their male ancestors had done. Notably, none of Giraldi’s children were given the first name William, breaking a family tradition that stretched back four generations.

Unsurprisingly, Giraldi has taken a very different approach to bringing up his sons than his father and grandfather did. While he admits he has no way of knowing if such a shift in ethos is widespread (“There are millions of men in this country who are doing the very things with their sons that my father tried to do with me and his father did with him”), he is, as are many fathers today, conscious of the harm caused by pushing traditionally gendered ideals on their children.

“I really do hope to win this,” he says. “I really hope for them to understand that they could be men while loving literature and music and art, that real men are merciful, that real men are kind, that real men show love towards those who are weaker, not scorn.”

For all his awareness of toxic masculinity now, Giraldi still feels regret that he didn’t realise sooner. “I wasted a lot of years in these issues and these problems, and in sorting out these tangles,” he says. “I wish I had got right down to what my life would become, I wish I could have been saved a lot of that tangle.”

William Giraldi on life as a bookish bodybuilder: ‘It’s a poisoned way to be a man’

As a teenage bodybuilder, William Giraldi would hide a battered old Keats paperback between the pages of Muscle & Fitness magazine to read during his evening cardio, a move he calls “a reversal of the classic Playboy mag inside a textbook”. His new memoir, The Hero’s Body, is littered with anecdotes like this: tales of the insecurities and absurdities of masculinity, which document the lengths men go to in order to feel a sense of self-worth in their manhood. Literature, art, music – almost anything that would be of no use on a battlefield – were condemned as effeminate by Giraldi’s family and gym buddies, forcing him to pursue these interests in secret.

“That’s the perfect illustration of the kind of bifurcated life I was leading at the time,” Giraldi says, likening his furtive Keats reading to that of a gay person in the closet. “You’ve got this part of yourself that’s central to yourself, that’s at the hub of you. You can’t express it, you can’t exert it, you can’t walk the way you want to walk in the world because of how you’ll be perceived.”

The first half of The Hero’s Body explores Giraldi’s foray into the world of weightlifting and muscular showmanship – initially sparked by the weakness he felt following a bout of meningitis at 15 – while the latter portion delves into his father’s violent death in a motorcycle accident a decade later. Both, he says, were the result of “a primitive form of tribalism in which men were forced – or volunteered – to prove themselves in the most dangerous ways”.

Throughout history, males have participated in initiation rites as they enter adulthood. To Giraldi, this goes someway towards explaining why his bodybuilding began in his mid-teens, and yet his father was significantly older, in his 40s, when he got into biking. “It shows that it never really goes away, that there’s an initiation rite but then once you’re initiated you’re never let off the hook. You’re never free from it. It’s a poisoned way of being a man, because you can never win.”

William Giraldi (centre) with fellow competitive bodybuilders on the Jersey shore just before a show, 1994.


William Giraldi (centre) with fellow competitive bodybuilders on the Jersey shore just before a show, 1994.

While many of the ideas he raises are universal, The Hero’s Body is a somewhat turbocharged, uniquely American take on what it means to be male. Giraldi grew up in the aptly named Manville, New Jersey (“a town straight from the blue notes of a Springsteen song”) at a time in which masculinity was at its most brutally realised in both US politics and pop culture. After the failures of Vietnam, America needed an injection of sheer masculine posturing – something to which Stephen E de Souza, the screenwriter behind Commando, Die Hard and numerous other 80s action flicks, attributed the rise in big, muscular action stars.

Indeed, it was under a Hollywood actor who specialised in portraying particularly strong, manly characters, that much of this new force of hypermasculinity reared its head. “After the presidencies of Ford and Carter, who, let’s face it, weren’t very masculine presidents – Carter was effeminate, Ford was ineffectual – Reagan comes along and he’s full of this masculine brute and bluster. He was the guy who was pretending on screen to be of highly masculine stock, and then he gets into office and we needed to pump up, as it were, our national image,” says Giraldi. “I think [de Souza] is correct about Vietnam, but keep in mind also that Reagan’s administration was a full stop on the victories of feminism in this country, and the emasculating effects of feminism.”

The idea of a showy celebrity whose presidential campaign is fuelled by a group of insecure, virulent, anti-feminists hardly feels like a distant memory in 2017. While several decades have passed since Giraldi’s adolescence, exploring the male psyche feels as essential now as it would have been 30 years ago. On the current president’s “ostentatious masculinity”, Giraldi considers it a compensatory act: “The Trumpian bluster, the masculine showmanship of Trump is a facade. It’s a front, it’s hiding deep wells of weakness and what is perceived as femininity.”

Although Giraldi’s steroid-abusing, bodybuilding teens may be unfamiliar territory for most (some reviews have criticised The Hero’s Body for being unrelatable, which seems only true in the most superficial of readings), at the heart of the book lies a series of real, human stories about men and their self-destructive behaviours. One passage that struck me as particularly familiar is in the aftermath of his father’s motorcycle accident. Two of the bikers who had been with him that day claimed to have heard him say he didn’t feel well, words Giraldi knew his father never would have spoken. It has echoes, I tell him, of my own father’s death, which was preceded mere seconds earlier by his assertions that he was feeling better after a few days under the weather. “That would have been a glaring signal of his weakness, and to the clan,” Giraldi says. “To be perceived as weak when you’re a man is a death of another kind.”

William Giraldi as a baby, on the lap of his grandfather, with his father standing alongside: Manville NJ, c.1975.


William Giraldi as a baby, on the lap of his grandfather, with his father standing alongside: Manville NJ, c.1975.

Giraldi believes he began subconsciously writing The Hero’s Body the day of his father’s death, accumulating lines in notepads here and there over the years that followed. In a demonstration of his newly open love of literature, he refers to Benvenuto Cellini’s 16th-century work Autobiography, in which Cellini advises men to wait until they’ve passed 40 to write their life stories. As it happened for Giraldi, by the time he’d reached this milestone, he’d “been born as a father, and with that comes its own brand of staggered excellence.” The arrival of his sons spurred him to tell the story of their grandfather so as to keep his memory alive, and, it would seem, to try to prevent them from going down the same path their male ancestors had done. Notably, none of Giraldi’s children were given the first name William, breaking a family tradition that stretched back four generations.

Unsurprisingly, Giraldi has taken a very different approach to bringing up his sons than his father and grandfather did. While he admits he has no way of knowing if such a shift in ethos is widespread (“There are millions of men in this country who are doing the very things with their sons that my father tried to do with me and his father did with him”), he is, as are many fathers today, conscious of the harm caused by pushing traditionally gendered ideals on their children.

“I really do hope to win this,” he says. “I really hope for them to understand that they could be men while loving literature and music and art, that real men are merciful, that real men are kind, that real men show love towards those who are weaker, not scorn.”

For all his awareness of toxic masculinity now, Giraldi still feels regret that he didn’t realise sooner. “I wasted a lot of years in these issues and these problems, and in sorting out these tangles,” he says. “I wish I had got right down to what my life would become, I wish I could have been saved a lot of that tangle.”

William Giraldi on life as a bookish bodybuilder: ‘It’s a poisoned way to be a man’

As a teenage bodybuilder, William Giraldi would hide a battered old Keats paperback between the pages of Muscle & Fitness magazine to read during his evening cardio, a move he calls “a reversal of the classic Playboy mag inside a textbook”. His new memoir, The Hero’s Body, is littered with anecdotes like this: tales of the insecurities and absurdities of masculinity, which document the lengths men go to in order to feel a sense of self-worth in their manhood. Literature, art, music – almost anything that would be of no use on a battlefield – were condemned as effeminate by Giraldi’s family and gym buddies, forcing him to pursue these interests in secret.

“That’s the perfect illustration of the kind of bifurcated life I was leading at the time,” Giraldi says, likening his furtive Keats reading to that of a gay person in the closet. “You’ve got this part of yourself that’s central to yourself, that’s at the hub of you. You can’t express it, you can’t exert it, you can’t walk the way you want to walk in the world because of how you’ll be perceived.”

The first half of The Hero’s Body explores Giraldi’s foray into the world of weightlifting and muscular showmanship – initially sparked by the weakness he felt following a bout of meningitis at 15 – while the latter portion delves into his father’s violent death in a motorcycle accident a decade later. Both, he says, were the result of “a primitive form of tribalism in which men were forced – or volunteered – to prove themselves in the most dangerous ways”.

Throughout history, males have participated in initiation rites as they enter adulthood. To Giraldi, this goes someway towards explaining why his bodybuilding began in his mid-teens, and yet his father was significantly older, in his 40s, when he got into biking. “It shows that it never really goes away, that there’s an initiation rite but then once you’re initiated you’re never let off the hook. You’re never free from it. It’s a poisoned way of being a man, because you can never win.”

William Giraldi (centre) with fellow competitive bodybuilders on the Jersey shore just before a show, 1994.


William Giraldi (centre) with fellow competitive bodybuilders on the Jersey shore just before a show, 1994.

While many of the ideas he raises are universal, The Hero’s Body is a somewhat turbocharged, uniquely American take on what it means to be male. Giraldi grew up in the aptly named Manville, New Jersey (“a town straight from the blue notes of a Springsteen song”) at a time in which masculinity was at its most brutally realised in both US politics and pop culture. After the failures of Vietnam, America needed an injection of sheer masculine posturing – something to which Stephen E de Souza, the screenwriter behind Commando, Die Hard and numerous other 80s action flicks, attributed the rise in big, muscular action stars.

Indeed, it was under a Hollywood actor who specialised in portraying particularly strong, manly characters, that much of this new force of hypermasculinity reared its head. “After the presidencies of Ford and Carter, who, let’s face it, weren’t very masculine presidents – Carter was effeminate, Ford was ineffectual – Reagan comes along and he’s full of this masculine brute and bluster. He was the guy who was pretending on screen to be of highly masculine stock, and then he gets into office and we needed to pump up, as it were, our national image,” says Giraldi. “I think [de Souza] is correct about Vietnam, but keep in mind also that Reagan’s administration was a full stop on the victories of feminism in this country, and the emasculating effects of feminism.”

The idea of a showy celebrity whose presidential campaign is fuelled by a group of insecure, virulent, anti-feminists hardly feels like a distant memory in 2017. While several decades have passed since Giraldi’s adolescence, exploring the male psyche feels as essential now as it would have been 30 years ago. On the current president’s “ostentatious masculinity”, Giraldi considers it a compensatory act: “The Trumpian bluster, the masculine showmanship of Trump is a facade. It’s a front, it’s hiding deep wells of weakness and what is perceived as femininity.”

Although Giraldi’s steroid-abusing, bodybuilding teens may be unfamiliar territory for most (some reviews have criticised The Hero’s Body for being unrelatable, which seems only true in the most superficial of readings), at the heart of the book lies a series of real, human stories about men and their self-destructive behaviours. One passage that struck me as particularly familiar is in the aftermath of his father’s motorcycle accident. Two of the bikers who had been with him that day claimed to have heard him say he didn’t feel well, words Giraldi knew his father never would have spoken. It has echoes, I tell him, of my own father’s death, which was preceded mere seconds earlier by his assertions that he was feeling better after a few days under the weather. “That would have been a glaring signal of his weakness, and to the clan,” Giraldi says. “To be perceived as weak when you’re a man is a death of another kind.”

William Giraldi as a baby, on the lap of his grandfather, with his father standing alongside: Manville NJ, c.1975.


William Giraldi as a baby, on the lap of his grandfather, with his father standing alongside: Manville NJ, c.1975.

Giraldi believes he began subconsciously writing The Hero’s Body the day of his father’s death, accumulating lines in notepads here and there over the years that followed. In a demonstration of his newly open love of literature, he refers to Benvenuto Cellini’s 16th-century work Autobiography, in which Cellini advises men to wait until they’ve passed 40 to write their life stories. As it happened for Giraldi, by the time he’d reached this milestone, he’d “been born as a father, and with that comes its own brand of staggered excellence.” The arrival of his sons spurred him to tell the story of their grandfather so as to keep his memory alive, and, it would seem, to try to prevent them from going down the same path their male ancestors had done. Notably, none of Giraldi’s children were given the first name William, breaking a family tradition that stretched back four generations.

Unsurprisingly, Giraldi has taken a very different approach to bringing up his sons than his father and grandfather did. While he admits he has no way of knowing if such a shift in ethos is widespread (“There are millions of men in this country who are doing the very things with their sons that my father tried to do with me and his father did with him”), he is, as are many fathers today, conscious of the harm caused by pushing traditionally gendered ideals on their children.

“I really do hope to win this,” he says. “I really hope for them to understand that they could be men while loving literature and music and art, that real men are merciful, that real men are kind, that real men show love towards those who are weaker, not scorn.”

For all his awareness of toxic masculinity now, Giraldi still feels regret that he didn’t realise sooner. “I wasted a lot of years in these issues and these problems, and in sorting out these tangles,” he says. “I wish I had got right down to what my life would become, I wish I could have been saved a lot of that tangle.”

Charlie Gard will move to hospice where life support will be withdrawn

A high court judge has made public a plan which will see Charlie Gard “inevitably” die shortly after being moved to a hospice and having life-support treatment withdrawn.

Mr Justice Francis has set a timetable to govern the final period of the boy’s life. Doctors at Great Ormond Street hospital and Charlie’s parents, Chris Gard and Connie Yates, disagreed over how long he should receive life-support treatment.

Medics said he should move to a hospice soon and life-support treatment should end shortly after his arrival.

His parents wanted more time with him and said he should receive life-support treatment for a number of days. The judge on Thursday made public details of an order that will result in Charlie dying shortly after moving to the hospice.

Francis had said on Wednesday, following the latest in a series of high court hearings, that Great Ormond Street’s plan would take effect if agreement could not be reached by noon on Thursday.

The judge’s order says it is in Charlie’s best interests for life-support treatment to be withdrawn. It says Charlie should receive palliative care. The order says Charlie will continue to be treated at Great Ormond Street for a period of time before being moved to the hospice, which cannot be named for legal reasons.

It says doctors can then withdraw “artificial ventilation” after a “period” of time. The order says everyone involved agrees that the “arrangements” will “inevitably result in Charlie’s death within a short period thereafter”.

Music and poetry aren’t luxuries: they literally saved my life | Sam Walker

I’ve suffered from severe anxiety and depression since the age of 20. I tried again and again with many approaches to fight back against mental illness: therapy and exercise; cognitive behavioural therapy; medication; trying to be more open with the people closest to me. All of these things helped in different ways but they didn’t completely fix me.

Towards the end of my 20s I couldn’t cope. On numerous occasions I fantasised about taking my own life. I was in a lot of pain but it was a pain that nobody else could see, so it didn’t feel justifiable to me. It didn’t feel like it should have been there.

In my darkest time, I made a decision that I had one last thing to try – and that was to stop hiding. I couldn’t keep up this double life, portraying happiness to everybody. It started with a poem. I found that putting my thoughts and feelings into poetry somehow made them easier to say.

When I’d written poetry previously, I didn’t feel that I could share it as it was still too exposing for me, but this time, as a last attempt, I did something terrifying that later turned out to be absolutely necessary for me. I filmed myself performing the poem and posted it online.

The response I got turned out to be life-changing. It transformed how I saw everything that was happening to me because for the first time I was showing that I wasn’t afraid to talk about it. That was the biggest step I’d taken.

Poetry then turned into music when I realised that these words could be lyrics. That became my next weapon in the battle against depression. When I write a song like Smile All the Time, I’m able to be far more honest than I would be if I was in a general conversation. When I perform as Samantics, I release so much energy that it becomes very cathartic. I’ve experienced huge benefits from both writing and performing.

Since that first video went live, I’ve been contacted by so many people thanking me for saying what they feel yet couldn’t bring themselves to say. That gives me a purpose and makes me feel happy to be me, which is rare. I’ve been told that I’ve helped explain something that somebody didn’t fully understand before. Music has a way of reaching people without being intrusive – I feel that’s especially important when supporting young people through mental illness.

Medication and therapy can be helpful for some but for many young people who are struggling to express themselves and end up bottling their emotions, music and poetry offer hope, something to hold on to, plus a new focus with new methods of release. It’s something that they can keep coming back to as a positive anchor, something that doesn’t trigger worry around potential side effects or cost, and that can be a source of connection and community with other people.

That’s why I believe healthcare professionals, clinicians and commissioners need to listen to young people’s voices when shaping services and open up to the health and wellbeing benefits that the arts can bring. For me, music and poetry haven’t been some kind of nicety or luxury add-on, they literally saved my life. If our health services could embrace the opportunities presented by creative activities like writing, music-making and performing, they could save other people’s lives too.

Samantics contributed to the all-party parliamentary group on arts, health and wellbeing’s inquiry report, Creative Health, released tomorrow. It recommendsthat arts on prescription in the NHS into their commissioning plans and to redesign care pathways where appropriate. Also, that Healthwatch, the Patients Association and other representative organisations, along with arts and cultural providers, work with patients and service users to advocate the health and wellbeing benefits of arts engagement to health and social care professionals and the wider public.

Music and poetry aren’t luxuries: they literally saved my life | Sam Walker

I’ve suffered from severe anxiety and depression since the age of 20. I tried again and again with many approaches to fight back against mental illness: therapy and exercise; cognitive behavioural therapy; medication; trying to be more open with the people closest to me. All of these things helped in different ways but they didn’t completely fix me.

Towards the end of my 20s I couldn’t cope. On numerous occasions I fantasised about taking my own life. I was in a lot of pain but it was a pain that nobody else could see, so it didn’t feel justifiable to me. It didn’t feel like it should have been there.

In my darkest time, I made a decision that I had one last thing to try – and that was to stop hiding. I couldn’t keep up this double life, portraying happiness to everybody. It started with a poem. I found that putting my thoughts and feelings into poetry somehow made them easier to say.

When I’d written poetry previously, I didn’t feel that I could share it as it was still too exposing for me, but this time, as a last attempt, I did something terrifying that later turned out to be absolutely necessary for me. I filmed myself performing the poem and posted it online.

The response I got turned out to be life-changing. It transformed how I saw everything that was happening to me because for the first time I was showing that I wasn’t afraid to talk about it. That was the biggest step I’d taken.

Poetry then turned into music when I realised that these words could be lyrics. That became my next weapon in the battle against depression. When I write a song like Smile All the Time, I’m able to be far more honest than I would be if I was in a general conversation. When I perform as Samantics, I release so much energy that it becomes very cathartic. I’ve experienced huge benefits from both writing and performing.

Since that first video went live, I’ve been contacted by so many people thanking me for saying what they feel yet couldn’t bring themselves to say. That gives me a purpose and makes me feel happy to be me, which is rare. I’ve been told that I’ve helped explain something that somebody didn’t fully understand before. Music has a way of reaching people without being intrusive – I feel that’s especially important when supporting young people through mental illness.

Medication and therapy can be helpful for some but for many young people who are struggling to express themselves and end up bottling their emotions, music and poetry offer hope, something to hold on to, plus a new focus with new methods of release. It’s something that they can keep coming back to as a positive anchor, something that doesn’t trigger worry around potential side effects or cost, and that can be a source of connection and community with other people.

That’s why I believe healthcare professionals, clinicians and commissioners need to listen to young people’s voices when shaping services and open up to the health and wellbeing benefits that the arts can bring. For me, music and poetry haven’t been some kind of nicety or luxury add-on, they literally saved my life. If our health services could embrace the opportunities presented by creative activities like writing, music-making and performing, they could save other people’s lives too.

Samantics contributed to the all-party parliamentary group on arts, health and wellbeing’s inquiry report, Creative Health, released tomorrow. It recommendsthat arts on prescription in the NHS into their commissioning plans and to redesign care pathways where appropriate. Also, that Healthwatch, the Patients Association and other representative organisations, along with arts and cultural providers, work with patients and service users to advocate the health and wellbeing benefits of arts engagement to health and social care professionals and the wider public.

Rise in life expectancy has stalled since 2010, research shows

A century-long rise in life expectancy has stalled since 2010 when austerity brought about deep cuts in NHS and social care spending, according to research by a former government adviser on the links between poverty and ill-health.

Life expectancy at birth had been going up so fast that women were gaining an extra year of life every five years and men an additional 12 months every three-and-a-half years.

But those trends have almost halved since ministers made a “political decision” in 2010 to reduce the amount of money it put into the public sector, said Sir Michael Marmot. The upward trend in longer life that began in Britain just after the first world war has slowed so dramatically that women now only gain an extra year after a decade while for men the same gain now takes six years to arrive.

The rate of increase was “pretty close to having ground to a halt”, Marmot said.

“I am deeply concerned with the levelling off; I expected it to just keep getting better. Since 2009-2015 it’s pretty flat, whereas we are used to it getting better and better all the time,” added Marmot, who published a major review of health inequalities for Gordon Brown’s Labour government in early 2010.

In 1919 men lived for an average of 52.5 years and women for 56.1 years. That rose to 64.1 years and 68.7 years respectively by 1946. Life expectancy then rose in an almost unbroken gradual upward curve to 77.1 years for men and 81.4 years for women in 2005 and again to 78.7 and 82.6 in 2010, the year David Cameron’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition took office.

Since then life expectancy has continued to creep upwards, but at a slower rate, according to Marmot’s latest analysis. In 2015 average life expectancy in Britain was 79.6 years for men and 83.1 years for women, according to the latest Office for National Statistics data.

Marmot, who is the director of the Institute of Health Equity at University College London, denied the rise had stalled because there was a natural limit to how much life expectancy can increase. “It is not inevitable that it should have levelled off,” he said.

There is no reason why the UK could not emulate Hong Kong, where life expectancy for men is 81.1 years for men and 87.3 for women – the highest in the world – Marmot added. Hong Kong has overtaken Japan in terms of how long citizens can expect to live.

Marmot, who has also advised the World Health Organisation, did not claim that the introduction of austerity had led directly to life expectancy stagnating. But he highlighted that “miserly” levels of spending on health and social care in recent years – at a time of rising health need linked to the ageing population – had affected the amount and quality of care older people receive.

The long-term trend for NHS budget increases is 3.8% a year, with rises of 1.1% a year since 2010. “If we don’t spend appropriately on social care, if we don’t spend appropriately on health care, the quality of life will get worse for older people and maybe the length of life, too,” he added.

Marmot cited the growing numbers of deaths among the over-75s and over-85s and continuing high death rates from heart disease as other key potential factors in the stalling rise in life expectancy.

“Life expectancy has been increasing year on year for a generation, to the extent that we had begun to take it for granted as inevitable. But this authoritative analysis suggests this long period of improvement may now be coming to an end, with big implications for us all,” said a spokesman for the charity Age UK.

Cases of dementia and Alzheimer’s have been rising so rapidly that they are now the leading cause of death for both sexes, among women 80 and over and men 85+.

The increase in dementia and needs of the ageing population will place the NHS and social care services “under considerable strain” in the near future, Marmot added.

Dr Matthew Norton, director of policy at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “This report shines a spotlight on a hard truth: that unless we can find ways to prevent and treat dementia, deaths from the condition will continue to rise as our population ages. The reality today is that with no treatments to stop or slow the underlying diseases, the condition is placing an ever-growing strain on our health services.”

The Department of Health played down Marmot’s findings. A spokesman pointed out that the NHS had just last week been judged to be the best, safest and most affordable healthcare system out of 11 rich countries analysed in a major review published by the Commonwealth Fund, a respected US thinktank.

“Life expectancy continues to increase, with cancer survival rates at a record high whilst smoking rates are at an all-time low. We continue to invest to ensure our ageing population is well cared-for, with £6bn extra going into the NHS [in England] over the last two years and an additional £2bn for the social care system,” he added.

Rise in life expectancy has stalled since 2010, research shows

A century-long rise in life expectancy has stalled since 2010 when austerity brought about deep cuts in NHS and social care spending, according to research by a former government adviser on the links between poverty and ill-health.

Life expectancy at birth had been going up so fast that women were gaining an extra year of life every five years and men an additional 12 months every three-and-a-half years.

But those trends have almost halved since ministers made a “political decision” in 2010 to reduce the amount of money it put into the public sector, said Sir Michael Marmot. The upward trend in longer life that began in Britain just after the first world war has slowed so dramatically that women now only gain an extra year after a decade while for men the same gain now takes six years to arrive.

The rate of increase was “pretty close to having ground to a halt”, Marmot said.

“I am deeply concerned with the levelling off; I expected it to just keep getting better. Since 2009-2015 it’s pretty flat, whereas we are used to it getting better and better all the time,” added Marmot, who published a major review of health inequalities for Gordon Brown’s Labour government in early 2010.

In 1919 men lived for an average of 52.5 years and women for 56.1 years. That rose to 64.1 years and 68.7 years respectively by 1946. Life expectancy then rose in an almost unbroken gradual upward curve to 77.1 years for men and 81.4 years for women in 2005 and again to 78.7 and 82.6 in 2010, the year David Cameron’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition took office.

Since then life expectancy has continued to creep upwards, but at a slower rate, according to Marmot’s latest analysis. In 2015 average life expectancy in Britain was 79.6 years for men and 83.1 years for women, according to the latest Office for National Statistics data.

Marmot, who is the director of the Institute of Health Equity at University College London, denied the rise had stalled because there was a natural limit to how much life expectancy can increase. “It is not inevitable that it should have levelled off,” he said.

There is no reason why the UK could not emulate Hong Kong, where life expectancy for men is 81.1 years for men and 87.3 for women – the highest in the world – Marmot added. Hong Kong has overtaken Japan in terms of how long citizens can expect to live.

Marmot, who has also advised the World Health Organisation, did not claim that the introduction of austerity had led directly to life expectancy stagnating. But he highlighted that “miserly” levels of spending on health and social care in recent years – at a time of rising health need linked to the ageing population – had affected the amount and quality of care older people receive.

The long-term trend for NHS budget increases is 3.8% a year, with rises of 1.1% a year since 2010. “If we don’t spend appropriately on social care, if we don’t spend appropriately on health care, the quality of life will get worse for older people and maybe the length of life, too,” he added.

Marmot cited the growing numbers of deaths among the over-75s and over-85s and continuing high death rates from heart disease as other key potential factors in the stalling rise in life expectancy.

“Life expectancy has been increasing year on year for a generation, to the extent that we had begun to take it for granted as inevitable. But this authoritative analysis suggests this long period of improvement may now be coming to an end, with big implications for us all,” said a spokesman for the charity Age UK.

Cases of dementia and Alzheimer’s have been rising so rapidly that they are now the leading cause of death for both sexes, among women 80 and over and men 85+.

The increase in dementia and needs of the ageing population will place the NHS and social care services “under considerable strain” in the near future, Marmot added.

Dr Matthew Norton, director of policy at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “This report shines a spotlight on a hard truth: that unless we can find ways to prevent and treat dementia, deaths from the condition will continue to rise as our population ages. The reality today is that with no treatments to stop or slow the underlying diseases, the condition is placing an ever-growing strain on our health services.”

The Department of Health played down Marmot’s findings. A spokesman pointed out that the NHS had just last week been judged to be the best, safest and most affordable healthcare system out of 11 rich countries analysed in a major review published by the Commonwealth Fund, a respected US thinktank.

“Life expectancy continues to increase, with cancer survival rates at a record high whilst smoking rates are at an all-time low. We continue to invest to ensure our ageing population is well cared-for, with £6bn extra going into the NHS [in England] over the last two years and an additional £2bn for the social care system,” he added.