This article is a preview from the autumn 2020 edition of New Humanist

In these difficult days, it might seem callous to brag about my recent transformation. But the facts are too plain to ignore, too evident to disguise. Take my body. Six months ago, I’d resigned myself to its deterioration. I can’t pretend I was happy about my inability to walk more than half a mile without a rest, or the manner in which my stomach overlapped my belt like a Shrove pancake. Nor was I exactly pleased by a mental decline which was jeopardising my ability to complete the Times crossword or follow the plot of any television drama that made greater demands upon my interpretive powers than Midsomer Murders.

But I was easily able to write off these deficiencies as the inevitable signs of ageing. There was reassurance to be found in the more evident incapacities of my peers. What jerked me out of this community of misery, made me realise that such deterioration was not inevitable, was nothing more than a set of weights and an Italian primer.The weights were a present from a neighbour who I suspect had become all too aware of my physical decline when he’d discovered me crouched in the hallway trying to lift an Amazon parcel which contained nothing more ponderous than half-a-dozen rolls of rubbish sacks. “At least give the weights a try,” he’d pleaded.

If there’d been anything else to do, I would have demurred. But without a restaurant or a cinema or a friendly dinner in prospect, lifting a few weights up and down every day seemed almost alluring. So alluring that I began to lift weights every other morning of the week. And after a mere 12 weeks of this mindless activity, I received my reward.

One morning as I was going through my normal bathroom routine – hot shower, close shave, two minutes on the electric toothbrush, one pink statin pill and two vitamin E supplements – I noticed that something had happened to my right upper arm. What had previously been nothing more than a blank expanse of listless flesh now sprouted a tiny muscle. If I flexed my arm, it rose with all the ovoid insistence of a robin’s egg. And there was more to come. After one more month of pointless lifting, I noticed that my chest, which had formerly sunk despairingly into my body, was now a bulky rival to my belly. To all intents and purposes, my body was actually gaining strength and vitality and, it has to be said, a certain beauty. I was becoming younger.

It would have been a somewhat hollow success if my mind had not undergone a parallel development. And that’s where the Italian kicked in. I’d always intended to expand my mind by mastering another language, in much the same way that I’d always hoped to grasp the essentials of nuclear physics and the ground rules of Hegelian dialectics – but it was only as I surveyed the vista of open time lying before me that I wrote off for my Speak Italian Like the Italians Do course.

It wasn’t an easy exercise. Holidays in Rome and Florence had made me sufficiently adept at ciaos and grazies and buona seras but I was now plunged into complex intellectual territory, along with full length sentences: “Non posso lavorare finche non avro bevuto il caffe.” (“I can’t work until I have drunk my coffee.”)

Three weeks ago, my intellectual growth became as evident as my muscular enlargement. I actually dreamed in Italian. There I was in dreamland, standing beside the Trevi fountain with my new Roman friend, chatting about the weather in Italian. And he was answering back, and reminding me (still in Italian) of the time when Anita Ekberg had taken her erotic plunge in Fellini’s masterpiece.

Last Thursday, on a visit to Broadcasting House, I had my first public opportunity to display my rejuvenation. Although my producer and studio manager were too engrossed to notice, on my way out of the building I saw an old actor friend whom I’d last met several years ago. This would be the perfect test. I subconsciously flexed my muscles and swung my cortex into gear. “Hello, Tom,” I said in my deepest voice. “Long time no see.” “Why, Laurie,” said Tom. “How very clever of you. You’ve had your hair dyed grey!”