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Never Too Old

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Eric Giles is proud to be one of DB’s – and Hong Kong’s – newest oldest permanent residents. Elizabeth Kerr reports

Eric Giles is living proof that you’re never too old to start a new chapter in life. Teetering on the cusp of 100 (his centenary comes in August) and smartly dressed like any gentleman should be, Discovery Bay’s most mature new permanent resident relaxes in his favourite chair in the flat he shares with his daughter Denise, and cats Bluebell, Marmite and Snowflake. He faces the water, slightly bemused by all the commotion. Age is just a number, after all, and he h as a sister who’s already 101.

Nonetheless there’s a mischievous, good-natured gleam in Eric’s eye when he considers answers to the various queries fired at him. He lets two of three domestic aides– equally good-natured Raisel, Melita and Ruena – fuss over him, as he consults quietly with friend and neighbour Susan Ho. Her father lives downstairs and is a regular hang for Eric (sadly he’s been stuck in Australia for most of the COVID-19 lockdowns).

When I mention he’s the first person I’ve ever met that had reached 99, Eric throws down an epic side-eye. “Wow. I’m sorry. If I’m the first person you’ve met, your next choices are not going to be terribly impressive.”

A life well-led
Born in Aldershot, about 50 kilometres south of London, in 1921, Eric spent some of his twenties in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. “I started out stationed in England, but then the Japanese were starting to cause a bit of trouble, so I was transferred to Asia,” he understates. He spent time in Burma (now Myanmar) and then India, but didn’t actually get to see Hong Kong back then.

When Eric got back to Aldershot, he took the civil service exams and kicked off a career in government bureaucracy. Which one? He starts chuckling again, almost sheepish, as if bracing for blowback. “I was in customs and excise. Enough said, “he says with a knowing laugh. Who likes the taxman? But Eric has fun with the image; he can banter with the best, and the job served him well. “I opted for that because it was more of a mixed type of employment to choose from,” he says. “I actually liked it.”

Before long he met fellow Aldershot denizen Mavis, who would go on to become his wife of nearly 65 years. Both played tennis, and wound up as a fairly successful mixed doubles team. “We won various cups. We weren’t professionals but we weren’t bad,” he recalls. Eventually the couple got married and moved to Woking, just outside London, where they settled, built a home and had their only daughter.

It was Denise’s career in medicine that helped Giles and Mavis see the world. They visited her for extended holidays, including in Swaziland (now Eswatini), where she worked for 11 years. “Mavis enjoyed it so much I was often on my own,” he says. “That was very nice too, and I don’t know if we wouldn’t have retired there if Denise was still there. I wouldn’t have minded, but that was way before she moved here. She’s been here 30 years.”

 Golden years in DB
The Giles’ first visit to Hong Kong was in 1981, on another extended holiday, with regular vacations after that in order to be doting grandparents to the daughters Denise adopted, Khetsi and Sindi, currently in Greece and the UK. Eventually retirement beckoned, and after a few years of pottering (as we all plan to during retirement), Eric and Mavis decided they wanted to live in the SAR.

“Hong Kong is a nice place to spend retirement,” Eric states. “The weather is lovely, and I suppose being here, in this location, I’m spoilt.” For Eric, DB is ideal; necessary regular services –doctor, pet store, barber – are easily accessible, and it felt familiar. “We knew what we were coming into. It was another extended holiday until Mavis said, ‘Do we have to go back?’ I didn’t want to move anyplace else. I have no regrets.”

The couple resettled in DB in 2013, and Eric seems not to miss the UK –certainly not its politics. His view on Brexit, for instance, is that he would not have voted in the referendum even if he had been able to. “The result of the referendum will affect younger people for years to come,” he reasons, “so they should be the ones deciding the outcome.”

Sadly, Mavis was only in DB for less than a year before passing away. Eric’s residency became permanent last November, which was an important step for him personally, as a way to demonstrate commitment.

Words of wisdom
Eric doesn’t fancy himself special, but for the rest of us he’s a living repository of 20th century headlines – an eyewitness to world history. Eric has lived through the Great Depression, the Second World, Korean, Vietnam and Cold Wars, South America’s Dirty Wars, two Gulf Wars, Nixon, Thatcher, Apartheid, Suharto, Pol Pot, two Duvaliers… the list goes on. It’s hard to resist asking if the world is changing, and if he has any words of wisdom.“

Of course, the world is changing, “he says quickly. “And I like to think it’s getting better. I certainly don’t have all the answers, and I don’t want to force my views on people, but I’m happy to give advice.” As an aside, his friend Susan points out he’s great at it too.

So, the question must be asked: What’s the secret to reaching99? Eric chuckles that chuckle again, and waves off any mystery. He’s remarkably fit, having only had cataract and heart surgery according to Susan. That elicits a raised eyebrow. “I don’t remember that.” He gets fresh air every day, and keeps his mind engaged with Mexican Train and strategy games with friends, crossword puzzles and Sudoku, and reading (currently John Jakes’ On Secret Service).As has been said before, he did everything in moderation.

“I worked hard, did my best at work. I smoked when it was kind of ‘illegal.’ When it became OK,I didn’t want to anymore. I never really drank,” Eric reasons. “I watched a lot of liquor go down the drain and I saw what happened when people got too fond of the drink. I determined I’d never be that guy. As far as exercise went, I played tennis quite a bit.”

As the afternoon wears on, Eric loosens up and the regular teasing and bantering Susan talks about starts up. Like most, he’s planning on a low-key Chinese New Year, or rather, he thinks he is. “I used to enjoy giving a red packet to the lion dancers at the residents club [DBRC] and watching the fireworks from one of the terraces at the Peninsula,” he says.“ These days though, I leave the planning to Denise…and just show up when I’m told.”

And what are Eric’s hopes for 2021,the Year of the Ox? “I would like to make it to 100 and receive a card from the Queen,” he says. “I have a better chance of doing so by living here rather than if I was in the UK. Hong Kong is a safe place to be during the pandemic.”

Raisel and Melita start flipping through a bound collection of photos Denise had made for Eric’s 99th birthday. Everyone looked like a movie star in the 1940s but Eric– in his RAF uniform and cocked beret – was silly handsome. He lets himself bask in the attention of four women. Just for a bit.

Photos by Baljit Gidwani

 

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