Bob Mulligan is one of 37 centenarians featured in a new book called Keepers of History. The 102-year-old grandfather of broadcaster Jesse Mulligan brews his own beer and ascribes his longevity to good gut health.
1. What was Takapuna like in 1925 when you moved there at age 7?
It was a very small, rural suburb with no electricity. We had gas lighting and cooking. I travelled to Belmont Primary School in trams drawn by little steam engines they used for logging kauri. When the tram couldn't make it up the hill they'd go back to the bottom, load a bit more coal on the fire and try again. Catching the ferry was great fun. You got to know the characters that sat on the back seat of the bus after a few beers on the way home and entertained everybody. Occasionally a late passenger would try to jump on to the ferry after they'd pulled away from the wharf. It either ended in success or disaster.
2. Your family returned to their farm near Ashburton when you were 12. Were you expected to be a farmer too?
I was. My father was the eldest of 12 in a family where men became farmers and women married farmers. He let me study agriculture at Canterbury University but I got friendly with the medical students in my class and decided to switch to medicine. I was a fourth year student when World War II broke out. I wanted to go straight off to war but had to stay behind to complete my training. I was posted to a flying boat squadron in Fiji where I met my wife Jean who was nursing.
3 You were marred to Jean for 62 years. Do you have any tips for a long marriage?
You work together, you do things together. Our bond became stronger when we lost our son Kerry at age 19. We could share our feelings and we had a lot of good friends who rallied around us. I've noticed a lot of people's attitude toward marriage has changed, they seem to just split up and leave the kids to fight for themselves. That's terrible. It didn't happen in my time, you stuck together for the sake of the children.
4. You were a surgeon at Whangārei Hospital from 1950 to 1979. What were the biggest advances you saw in three decades?
There were only two surgeons when I was first appointed so I was a jack of all trades. It was pretty primitive. The main anesthetic was the rag and bottle. You'd put a mask on the patient's face, pour ether onto it and they'd cough and splutter. People's lives were much shorter in those days. Tuberculosis was rife amongst Māori who were a largely rural community and thought hospital was a place where you went to die. Travel took a long time because the roads were so bad. A child in Rawene with appendicitis might not get to Whangārei Hospital until 10pm. The ambulance was a van that had to be emptied out and driven by the local farmer after he'd done his evening milking. Getting the air ambulance really made a difference.
5. You're now 102. What's the hardest thing about getting old?
Losing all your friends. It's hard to make friends at my age. You haven't got common interests, that's the trouble. I live in Selwyn retirement village in Whangārei. I've been on my own since my wife Jean died 10 years ago. I'm lucky my two sons live nearby. It's important to have an interest. I read the Herald from cover-to-cover every day. I get the Guardian Weekly< and various magazines and books. Fortunately I've still got good eyesight. I belong to U3A and I get a lot of interest out of going to their meetings.
6. How do you stay healthy?
I think that having good bacteria in your intestines is very important. People should only take antibiotics when absolutely necessary. I have strong ideas about diet. I cut out sugar completely about eight years ago. I have seasonal fruit instead of cakes or scones. I agree with Peter Snell that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. I have grapefruit in season or a glass of orange juice, a plate of rolled oats with yellow-top milk and one slice of five-seed toast with Vegemite. Lunch is usually soup. For dinner I buy precooked meals with meat and three veg delivered once a week which I write a cheque for.
7. Have you managed to keep stride with technological advances?
The family gave me one of these jolly cellphones a few years ago but I found that my granddaughters kept ringing me up at any hour of the day just for a chat! I thought, "Blow this."
8 Do you enjoy exercise?
Yes, but I don't like rugby because of all the trauma it leaves. The head isn't supposed to be banged all the time. Ex-players have become mentally slow in their 60s and 70s and the knee wasn't built for rugby - it's a hinge joint, not a sideways joint. I was keen on cricket when I was young. Now I play indoor bowls twice a week, tai chi once a week and snooker with my son.
9. Do you smoke or drink?
I gave up smoking with my eldest son when he left school. I said to him, "If you give up, I'll give up." We're both pretty stubborn and pig-headed so we did it. That was a while ago. He's 71 now. I still enjoy a large glass of my home-brewed beer before my evening meal but otherwise only drink a little alcohol on social occasions.
10 Have you figured out the meaning of life yet?
Well, no. I was brought up in the Anglican Church faith. I used to attend church regularly but I've given that up. I don't believe in God. I do consider myself spiritual, I suppose.
11. What's an important lesson you've learnt in your lifetime?
Trying to keep my mouth shut. Not to be too critical of people who do things differently. Accept that just because you wouldn't have done it that way, it doesn't mean it's wrong. Friendships and family are the most important things.
12. What's the biggest issue facing the next generation?
Global warming is the thing that we've got to look out for. We should all be driving electric cars. The Government should bring in legislation whereby they're comparable in price to the others.
13 (Bonus question). Are you proud of your grandson Jesse Mulligan's broadcasting career?
I am. I could tell you a few stories about Jesse when he was young, but I won't because you might put them in the paper.
• Keepers of History: New Zealand Centenarians Tell Their Stories by Renee Hollis, RRP $39.99