Geriatric1927: The heartfelt internet sensation

Peter Oakley. Image / YouTube
Peter Oakley. Image / YouTube

Peter Oakley, who has died aged 86, shrugged off the expectations of old age to become an Internet sensation through his wistful, heartfelt and honest video diary on YouTube.

As "geriatric1927" - his "handle" for 435 video postings that he collectively titled "Telling it all" - Oakley set viewers straight on how the world looked from a pensioner's perspective. For seven years, his views as an octogenarian vlogger (video blogger) were to be a tonic to a youth-saturated online audience.

He regaled viewers with tales of growing up during the war, his love of motorcycles, the topography of his hometown of Bakewell, Derbyshire, and the various small ignominies, frustrations, and joys of being old in Britain during the Noughties.

"I would find it difficult to tell you what I do here," he stated on his profile page, "as it doesn't fit into any one genre. As an 86 year-old I reminisce about my life today and stories of times past.

I might cook a meal or read you a story or tell you what has been happening during the week in which I upload the video. It is kind of like 'shooting the breeze'."

FIRST VIDEO

Oakley made his online debut on August 5 2006 with a two-minute video titled "first try". A delightfully incongruous blues song plays him in as he sits, wearing a beige v-neck jumper, looking slightly off camera. "I, um, got addicted to YouTube", he begins, "a fascinating place to go to see all the wonderful videos that you young people have produced so I thought I'd have a go at doing one myself."

Thereafter he used his video blog as a platform to "bitch and grumble about life in general from the perspective of an old person who's been there and done that and hopefully you will respond."

Respond they did - his first post has, to date, received nearly 3 million views and over 10,000 comments. Subsequent films - lasting between five and 10 minutes - touched on personal reminiscence from his Army service, working life or marriage, or on broader topics such as education and ageing. The combination appealed to young and old alike.

"Biographies are generally boring sort of things unless there's some anecdotes in them," he said. For seven years he delivered anecdote upon anecdote with impeccable manners, an eiderdown-soft delivery, self-deprecation, and shot-from-the-hip candour. His imperative, as EM Forster termed it, was: "only connect".

EARLY LIFE

Peter Oakley was born on August 20 1927 and grew up during the war in Norwich, where he witnessed the devastation inflicted on the city by German bombers. "My father was a butcher and I loved him," he recalled of his early family life. "He taught me the trade and how to drive a motor car when I was 10 years-old. That wouldn't happen today." On leaving school at 16 he got a job with the local authority's public health department (he later trained as a health inspector).

He was conscripted into the Navy at 18 and became a radar technician (a period he chronicled at length in his video logs). After being demobbed he studied at university in Leicester where he was to pursue his two lifelong loves - an art student named Patricia, who would become his wife, and motorcycles. He eventually gave up the "proper job" to become a garage mechanic, turning a bakery into a workshop, and finding his real calling.

VENTURING ONLINE

It was in the wake of his wife's death in the late Nineties that Oakley began looking online for pen friends. After the hugely positive response to his initial YouTube posting he began his "Telling it all" series with the admission that he was "absolutely overwhelmed and don't quite know what to say. If I should break down during this video then I'll click the button and I will come back to you as soon as possible. I just need to say thank you, thank you, thank you."

Oakley began each film with a jaunty "Hello Youtubers" before continuing with whatever had caught his attention since his last entry. This could be a memory, an observation or a helpful tip. In his opus on "Making an English Cup of Tea" he explained the importance of warming the teapot (his aunt "who thought she was very posh" would yell at him that she expected "boiling water not boiled water"). A walk into Bakewell along the river path inspired another video, a visual "poem on some thoughts when looking at an old gnarled tree" ("I know exactly how you feel," was his starting point).

GROWING POPULARITY

Inevitably his YouTube popularity drew the gaze of the world's media. He initially refused requests for interviews, which he considered "pointless and dangerous". In his seventh video he addressed this intrusion and made a statement declaring that several "geriatric1927" websites had been created by others. "I leave you to make up your own mind about their motives," he said wearily. His aim in making the films was, he reiterated, to reduce his loneliness and isolation, not to nurture any ambitions to become a celebrity. He later relented after a BBC interview. "They were so lovely," he said. "I can't think how many TV companies have been since. I don't regret it."

UNPLEASANT CORNERS

Oakley believed that YouTube "reflects the whole of society". But he was aware that the Internet had its more unpleasant corners. "Whilst I've not been taking part in chat rooms I have seen what goes on and, well, pretty disgusted by it really," he said in 2007, "because people could hide behind any sort of identity." The transparency of his video log, however, allowed him to develop friendships and, he acknowledged, become "a grandad kind of figure" to a global audience.

A WHOLE NEW WORLD

In 2006 he said his YouTube adventure had been "one of the major changes and breakthroughs in my life and given me a whole new world to experience". In his last post on February 12 this year - in which he appears gaunt from the effects of cancer and is bundled up in a dressing gown - he completed his series of his Navy service tales before a typically humble sign-off: "That's it really. And sort of in conclusion I will say possibly my final goodbye. So goodbye."

He is survived by a son and daughter.

Peter Oakley was born August 20 1927, died March 23 2014

- Daily Telegraph UK

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