I'll never have it so good

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The Independent Culture
FOR ME, 1993 began with the extraordinary news that I was going to be a father; it ended with a hug from Ian Wright (a moment so intense that all I could do was blush, stammer and pray I wasn't going to faint or burst into tears or do something else that would reveal my hopeless lack of cool). In between the positive pregnancy test and the excruciating embrace, I got married, moved from a tiny one- bedroom flat into a house, my son was born, my book got into the best-seller lists, the BBC paid for me to watch Inter Milan at the San Siro, my football team won two cups, and the bet I had on them to do exactly that paid for a honeymoon. It was a joke year, really, the sort that leaves you shaking your head with the perversity of it all. If God existed, he'd employ someone to spread these things out a bit more evenly, so that even the crappiest years have something to recommend them, but I'm not complaining. For most of 1993 I felt like one of those vile kids who saves all his sweets up for when everybody else has finished theirs.

And now it's over, and I'll never have another one like it, which is as it should be, but which is also a little bit frightening. Is that it, then? Have I already started the long descent towards pension schemes, Inspector Morse videos and Led Zeppelin boxed sets? Having never had a year in which more or less everything went right, I have no idea what one is supposed to do after it. How does everybody else cope? Because it seems to me, even if nobody ever talks about it, that we all have a year which we suspect may have been our best; and it seems to me too that it is more likely to occur in the first half of our lives - traditionally the time when one meets one's life partner, has children, becomes established in one's work, discovers drink and sex and music - than in the second, when we lose our jobs, our teeth and our friends, and our children become crack addicts or Tory MPs. Is that right? Does anybody have any evidence to the contrary? And if it is right, how does anyone manage to get old without whingeing unpleasantly through their last two or three decades (I do worry about becoming an unpleasant whinger - in fact I fear I may have become one already - but I fail to see any alternative).

Yes, I know that there are lots more nice times to come, that I can watch my son grow up, that there are all those reruns of Cheers, that Arsenal might score more than one goal in a match sometime in the Nineties, etc. But I'm becoming more and more confused about the whole subject of pleasure. What are you supposed to do with it? How long should it last? Is it OK to keep good things in a box inside one's head, and bring them out for occasional examination, or is that living in the past? And anyway, the pleasures of adulthood are all complicated: they come with worries trailing off them like tentacles. I prod my son every five minutes to make sure he's still breathing; my new house may well be repossessed, unless it falls down first; my last book may have done OK, but my next one will bring only misery and humiliation. And my football team may have won two cups, but I know - and this knowledge would have eluded me at 14 - that they were useless for the entire season. And - the big one - I may have had a good '93, but there are plenty who didn't.

Between about 1964 and 1967, I spent my summer holidays on Bournemouth beach. My cousins and I derived pleasure - enormous pleasure - from damming up with sand the waste-pipe that spewed dirty water across the sand and into the sea, building an elaborate network of canals and tunnels, and hoping that our excavations would channel the water safely and efficiently; if we failed, and we frequently did, the sunbathers in our immediate vicinity would find themselves, their towels, their newspapers and their lunch soaked by raging torrents of sewage. This, perhaps understandably, made them unhappy.

I couldn't take that much pleasure in soaking people with sewage now. I'd feel bad about it. I'd feel bad about messing up their day, and I'd feel bad about being ankle-deep in some unspeakable and probably poisonous murky liquid. But there is simply no comparison between the joy of soaking sunbathers with sewage at the age of nine and the joy of becoming a house owner at the age of 36: I'm happy not to be nine any more, on the whole, but I'd like to find a way of recapturing that sort of straightforward absorption.

I rather suspect that I'm not the only one. The December '93 issue of Book Collector tells me that I can buy a T S Eliot first edition for less than pounds 15; if I want a Captain Scarlet doll, however, I would have to cough up more than pounds 200. Granted, the Eliot is a lesser prose work, and OK it's only the boxed Captain Scarlet dolls which command that much (you can pick up an unboxed one, apparently, for as little as pounds 100), but even so . . .

You can see the logic of the market forces here, though. T S Eliot was a great man and all, but how much fun was he? One wouldn't want to get drawn into a Keats/Dylan type debate about the relative merits of Eliot and Scarlet (for my money, Eliot was the better poet, Scarlet the better Mysteron destroyer); but it's a fair bet that an Eliot essay has never provoked the same visceral thrill as a Captain Scarlet doll. All over the country, it seems, maybe all over the decadent Western world, people are trying to recapture the raw excitement of those raw sewage days. The tragedy is, of course, that money doesn't help, and that once you've spent pounds 200 on a Captain Scarlet doll you will find that you no longer feel quite the same about him as you once did. You're likely, in fact, to feel a bit of a berk.

The traditional response to the discovery that the older you get, the less untroubled fun you have, is to blame the fun. Open any paper or magazine and you'll be able to read some middle-aged bore telling you that the fun has gone out of politics, or Christmas, or football; that Nirvana aren't a patch on Black Sabbath, that Casualty isn't in the same league as Emergency Ward Ten, that the quality of the free gifts in packets of Coco Pops has fallen dramatically. The argument that we no longer find the gifts as entertaining as we once did rarely seems to occur to anybody. Still, this sort of moan is the very DNA of newspaper columns: allow me to be the first to tell you that, compared to 1993, 1994 is a complete and utter waste of time. Happy New Year.-