When your good old days turn up in the obituaries

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The Independent Online
MEMORY LANE is stretched out in front of me, and I am condemned to plod along it. I fear I made rather a fool of myself on the local radio's Desert Island Discs look-alike show, run by the local MP's ravishing son. 'Over the top, Dad,' was the kids' verdict, and I think they were being pretty kind. They say I chose great music, though, so the bit that matters was worth listening to.

It seems I have to be careful with my voice. It can sound oddly camp and fluttery. 'Snobby,' opines the eldest child. Of course, it is impossible to be a snob now, except as a hobby. I found myself sitting in a pub in Kentish Town, north London, the other night - feeling very country cousinish, roaring along with a blues musician, an actor and a man who would rather be a sculptor - laughing like a drain at a joke I had just cracked, to the effect that one should not give the working class baths because they will only keep koi in them.

(I always feel I can say what I like in Kentish Town because it has been both home and workplace. In the Sixties, I spent a few years as a van driver delivering groceries around London from a depot there. I know it is not a licence to claim insight into the way the other half lives, but on the other hand it gives me a slight edge over the average yuppie.)

Anyway, the other night I was beefing about the young. It is this feeling that we are getting a new generation which seems mildly opposed to culture as well as to class-consciousness. It is not that they dislike loveliness, but they fear elitism. They love the instant because no one dares tell them there may be gratification elsewhere. They seem to think the past is nothing to do with them. So I have been mulling over the proposition that, until recently, it was only people who knew they were uneducated who thought of Lord Nelson as a man on a pub sign; now we are in danger - having banished both class and history - of living in a world where hardly any young person could tell you much about the greatest Englishman ever to have lived.

Indeed, modern young people would think one nave to indulge in hero worship. All this is poignant because, as I holidayed in a tent in a field earlier this month, I belatedly read in a gossip column an item about Leonard Cheshire's death. Twenty years ago, I was his driver and went to live in a caravan in a field on a hill in Suffolk to be near him.

Familiarity did not breed contempt, but I did see the egotism that can lurk - and probably will always be a major prerequisite - in a hero, which he certainly had been, or in a saint, which is what he was perhaps on the way to becoming. As I remember him, there was a childlike quality in the man and perhaps that, too, is necessary in a hero in transit to


I remember feeling that my job involved the attitude of a squire to a knight. A functional devotion was needed. Oddly in a terrible chatterer, I realised from the start that the most important thing was to talk when spoken to. And I remember clearly what I take to be a servantish luxury. Wherever we went, the great man was feted; I much enjoyed my secret knowledge of his fallibilities. And I enjoyed being awake and in charge of his fate while someone with his track record was asleep in the back.

We talked about the war a bit. He said the trick to survival was to head straight into the thick of things. Most mistakes arose, in his mind, from someone having 'lost his head'. It applied to driving, about which he was very cool. I especially enjoyed his satisfaction when I overtook someone fast and neat and with no greater margin of safety than was strictly necessary. He would say 'well done' and go back to reading the Bible or dictating endless letters.

Then there was the pleasure of going back up the lane to my caravan, parked outside an isolated barn where, I was told, four farm labourers had hanged themselves over the past couple of generations. My cat would often meet me nearly a mile from home, and walk companionably back through the dawn or the moonlight. One morning I found the farmers' men working in the dark at hedging. A fire roared its way through the cut branches. If I lay in bed, I could see deer grazing in the field outside the window.

Within a year my circumstances were improved, as I thought it. I became especially proud of a plum velvet suit that was the very model of the tailoring the late Tommy Nutter had been pioneering. Affluence and I turned out not to be suited. Indeed, I keep coming back to the thought that I enjoyed living in the caravan a good deal. Why not try it again?

The children, for all that they are not snobs, insist that the prospect is deeply embarrassing. But then they sense themselves judged by their conventional friends, while I am increasingly conscious of the appraisal of all these extraordinary, eccentric people looking out from the obituary pages.

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