Iain Murray: Fountain of youth: do I look like I was born yesterday?

Scientists may be on the brink of discovering the secret of immortality, but would we not find that life had lost its excitement if celebrities never aged? asks Iain Murray

At last it’s within our grasp, the product for which man has yearned from the moment he crawled from the primordial slime only to discover that he had developed wrinkles. The product that would have saved Dorian Gray from a lot of trouble, the product that could transform Joan Collins and Liz Taylor from what they are into what they think they are. Yes, folks, it’s the elixir of youth and it could soon be in a pharmacy near you.

Also, surprisingly, it is the ad person’s dream. Surprisingly, because if ever a product was destined to sell itself, the eternal youth potion is it. However, on closer examination the potion is more selective than might at first be supposed. In fact, to be brutally honest, it’s not a potion at all, nor does it promise eternal youth, but it makes a good story.

According to the Daily Mail: “the secret of eternal youth could be unlocked in an experiment by UK scientists to turn back time for cells in the human body”. The report says that the Edinburgh-based PPL Therapeutics, the firm that helped create Dolly the sheep, the world’s first animal clone, will, for its next trick, take a skin cell from an adult and “force it to return to its earliest state with a potent cocktail of chemicals and part of a human egg”, which is not unlike the ingredients for a hangover cure.

The hope is that the regressed skin cells will be used to make primitive stem cells, which in turn can be manipulated to make a perfect match for anything in the human body, from skin and blood to whole organs.

In a sentence that tellingly reveals the peculiar blend of sorcery and chemistry that describes this branch of science, PPL chief scientist Dr Alan Colman says: “Ultimately, what we would like to do is wave a wand at the cell and change it into whatever we want.”

Now that really is an adman’s dream. Can you imagine a product that can become any part of us that we want it to be? The implications are enormous – as indeed would be the appendages of men previously afflicted by a certain uncertainty but now availing themselves of a wonder treatment – with any one of us free to choose bits and pieces of anatomy according to preference: an upturned nose, a dimpled cheek, a jutting jaw, a finely turned calf, a patrician brow, all there for the asking.

Somewhere along the line, however, amid all the images of waved wands and perfect breasts, the secret of eternal youth has been mislaid. But if we look carefully it is there, in that reference to “regressed skin cells”. What the Daily Mail’s medical reporter had in mind was perhaps the notion that if we take a potent cocktail of chemicals, add a dash of human egg, whisk briskly and swallow three times a day, our cells will regress in a pleasing way.

Day by day, in every way, we shall grow a little younger. No more wrinkles, no more sagging flesh, goodbye varicose veins and falling hair, farewell the rheumy eye and the involuntary dribble. Roll on the day when a 60-year-old can look in the bathroom mirror and see reflected there the acned youth of yesteryear. O brave new world that has such people in it.

It will take some getting used to. Part of the compass bearing of life is to distinguish between people according to their age. It will take time to adjust to a world in which the sultry vamp swinging a mean hip on Potters Bar High Street is a woman of some 70 summers on her way to collecting her pension. Worse still, to discover that the slack-jawed youth who just sauntered across the road in front of your tootling Vectra and waved two fingers as you slammed on the brakes, was 80 last birthday and should know better.

And wouldn’t life be poorer without the malicious delight to be had in watching celebrities ageing? At present an entire industry is served by our need to see grainy pictures of the rich and famous taken by telephoto lenses as they disport themselves on faraway beaches. How much easier to face the day warmed by the knowledge that Jerry Hall, too, has cellulite.

There are those who argue that there are few spectacles more ridiculous than that of a tabloid newspaper hauling its spotty bottom on to its high horse to proclaim that the pillars of freedom would topple should the famous fail to be photographed in their bikinis. But not us. When the Daily Mail runs a leader bemoaning Anna Ford’s puzzling objection to “flattering and charming holiday images” taken of her by a long-lens paparazzo, we share its astonishment. And when the Daily Mail says it has “high regard for Anna Ford although [she] is not a proper journalist”, we nod in solemn agreement. It takes a proper journalist to sit down and write captions to pictures taken on the sly of a news reader in her swimming costume.

It would be a sorry day for democracy should Anna Ford, Jerry Hall, Judy Finnigan, the Duchess of York and others look eternally youthful in expensively snatched pictures of them. Some of the fun would have gone out of life.

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