I used to say that my father was the only man I knew who would slow down when he saw a green light. I put that complaint down, now, to late adolescent irritability, and the tedium of our slow daily commute from Windsor to London in the early 1980s, my father driving, with exemplary patience, through traffic jams and endless traffic lights. I remember a friend of mine – a driver, unlike me – pointing out that it makes very good sense to slow down. If the light’s green now, he said, it will very soon change to red. Better to be prepared.

Sadly, as we grow older, we become ever more aware of aftermaths. Anticipation stretches beyond the high point, to include the waning as well as the waxing of things. For the optimist, perhaps, the other way round as well, the waxing as well as the waning.

So I’ve come to dread the 21st of June, Midsummer’s Day. I know it should be a day for celebration, and I do my best to enjoy it, but I can’t help thinking it’s the start of another decline, as the days begin to shorten from the 22nd. Although the 21st of December is, by the same token, the beginning of better things, gradual loss is much harder to endure than gradual gain is to enjoy.

Weddings depress me, too. There’s so much hope. I can’t help thinking of them as unrealistically optimistic, full of fragile joy, to be followed by the inevitable decline into bickering and divorce. I can’t blot out anticipation and simply enjoy the moment.

(On the other hand, breaking with melancholy for a moment, I did enjoy my own, and I’m as optimistic as I was five years ago.)



The trees are coming into leaf in Prague, though the air is still cool and the sun isn’t shining warmly. Spring is the loveliest time of year, my favourite season, perhaps all the more so because I know the lights will soon turn red again, and, with any luck, green again, eventually.

Walking home from the metro I was reminded of Philip Larkin’s almost optimistic poem:

The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.


Isn’t it marvellous that…..?

I am fond of my mother, on the whole. At 94 she’s as intellectually astute as ever, or very nearly, a champion of atheism, socially tolerant, and, thankfully, only slightly infirm. But I so wish she could be more of an optimist. It’s her view that the world is a lesser place than when she was young, or even middle-aged. It’s lost its innocence, it’s more cynical, its values have declined. I know that pessimism and nostalgia afflict the elderly, but I don’t see that’s she’s changed very much since I’ve known her. She’s always been a glass-half-empty lady, not a glass-half-full one.


So, I had a bit of a row with her the other day. I was tired after a long day of travelling, and my tolerance was at a very low ebb. What depresses me is that  she sees everyone, whether the man or woman or child in the street, or the politician in Westminster, as selfish and grasping. Only animals are innocent and deserving of unqualified admiration. Unusually, I snapped.

‘Before I come to see you next,’ I said, ‘I’d like you to work on a list of ten sentences that begin, “Isn’t it marvellous that…..”.’

Of course, I can think of more than ten. Top of my list might be ‘modern dentistry is almost painless,’ and I’d go on to list the decline in poverty, disease, tyranny, violence, injustice, and so on. True, there are some balancing evils – pollution, global warming, obesity, and so on. I’m not against sentences beginning, ‘Isn’t it awful that…..’, but I don’t want them to dominate.

I won’t hold my breath, and I probably won’t hold her to it, but I was thinking of this yesterday when I saw this report on the BBC Website. My mother was a teacher, so I’m hoping she’ll notice this one. I find it very cheering.

Children are reading more. Reading is cool. Isn’t that marvellous?!

Lost innocence is hardly a new theme. Humanity has never lived in the Garden of Eden, hence our longing for it, but it doesn’t exist in our youthful past either.