Bob Weighton is spry, beady, dryly funny and has better hearing than me.
He pops down to Waitrose, does his own cooking, reads avidly, writes poetry, makes furniture and ornaments out of recycled materials, is well-versed in current affairs and has only recently given up his ecological column in Church News.
Which, had he been 80, would be pretty good going. But Bob is 111 years old — he’ll be 112 in a few weeks. He’s the oldest man in the world, for goodness’ sake.
It’s a title he has held for just a few days — ever since Chitetsu Watanabe, previously the world’s oldest man, died in Japan on Sunday — and he is feeling rather low-key about it.
Bob Weighton was around for the sinking of the Titanic, the Queen’s Coronation, the introduction of television, the invention of the internet, the explosion of social media and what he calls ‘all that gender hoo-ha’. ‘I can remember so many events in history,’ he says
‘It’s just one of those things,’ says Bob, when we meet in his cosy, book-filled flat in Alton, Hampshire.
‘For me to become the oldest, someone else had to die, so you can hardly call it a joyous occasion.’
More poignantly, Alfred Smith, from St Madoes, Perthshire, the man Bob calls his Scottish twin, passed away last summer. Alf and Bob were neck and neck on the age front — same birthday, same year.
‘We never met, but we sent each other Christmas and birthday cards,’ says Bob.
‘We had a real bond.’ A couple of years ago, on their 110th birthdays, a news team filmed them waving hellos to each other from their respective sitting rooms.
A life well lived: Bob (back right) in his first portrait in 1908
Now there’s just Bob left, looking, well, anything but 111. (Coincidentally, Bob shares the title of Britain’s oldest person with Joan Hocquard, from Poole, Dorset, who was also born on the same day — March 29, 1908.)
His body might be creaky but his white hair is thick and springy, his eyes sharp, his voice, strong and deep — ‘I’ve always spoken very clearly’ — and his memory robust.
‘I don’t really know why it’s me,’ he says of his new title. ‘It’s not something I ever intended, wanted or worked for. I suppose the trick is just to avoid dying.’
That is something he has done very adeptly through five monarchs, 26 Prime Ministers, two World Wars, a 60-year marriage to his beloved Agnes, three children, ten grandchildren and 25 great-grandchildren.
He was around for the sinking of the Titanic, the Queen’s Coronation, the introduction of television, the invention of the internet, the explosion of social media and what he calls ‘all that gender hoo-ha’.
‘I can remember so many events in history,’ he says. ‘And I was forced to participate in some of them.’
Over the years, he has also learned a few key lessons. That laughter is far more precious than possessions. That friends and family are everything.
That youthful ambitions often wilt and pall with age and stop mattering so much. That money isn’t the route to happiness — ‘I’ve never really earned much money, but I can’t think of anything I wish I’d been able to buy.’
And that, thankfully, the self-absorption of youth evaporates.
‘When you’re young, you think everything revolves around you. I’ve learned through hard experience to forget myself and think more of other people.’
Bob (left) with Reg Mobbs at the Easter Youth Conference in Whitby in 1933. When he qualified in 1925, the shipping industry was in decline, so in his mid-20s, he moved to Taiwan to teach English
Which is perhaps why, despite his extraordinarily advanced years, there is just one birthday card from the beaming Queen on display in his packed bookshelves. Naturally, she sends one every year to those over 100.
‘The first one was satisfying — I wouldn’t say it was exciting,’ he says.
‘But after a couple, I said: ‘Yes, I’m still here, I’m still alive,’ and I asked Her Majesty to stop sending them.’
‘Because it would be a waste of taxpayers’ money and she’s got enough on her plate with Harry and . . . what’s she called? And also I don’t need a load of cards cluttering the place up.’
Robert Weighton was born in Hull in the year production of the Model T Ford began.
He was the middle of seven children to a Scottish vet who, unusually for the times, insisted his three daughters had access to the same further educational opportunities as his sons.
Bob can still vividly remember the first air raid over Hull.
‘Nobody imagined bombs coming from the sky. There were no preparations, no defences, so we all hid under the dining room table on blankets’ he says.
Bob was an awkward boy. Shy, self-effacing and earnest. He tried hard at school — ‘I was average, not brilliant’ — dreamed of becoming an engine driver and trained as a marine engineer.
When he qualified in 1925, the shipping industry was in decline, so in his mid-20s, he moved to Taiwan to teach English.
It was in Birmingham, on the course to prepare for the move abroad, that he met Agnes. It was not quite love at first sight — ‘I fell for her within months,’ he says.
Unfortunately, she was destined for a school in Ghana and Bob was off to Taiwan on a seven-year stint. But they wrote regularly and four years later she joined him.
They were married in Hong Kong in 1937. ‘She was just lovely. I wouldn’t say she was the most beautiful person in the world because that wouldn’t be true, but we got on very, very well,’ he says.
Agnes and Bob were married in Hong Kong in 1937. ‘She was just lovely. I wouldn’t say she was the most beautiful person in the world because that wouldn’t be true, but we got on very, very well,’ he says