The Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor John Beddington, took to the airwaves last week to announce that the world's population is currently increasing at the rate of six million people a month. By May 2010 our already overcrowded planet will have had to find space for another 72 million human beings. By chance, only a day or so later, my local paper, the Eastern Daily Press, brought news of a couple who are doing their philoprogenitive damnedest to keep these figures on the up. Dax and Susie Christian of Norwich – he is 25, she a year younger – have so far produced seven children since she first "fell pregnant" – that terrible phrase – at the age of 15, and are looking forward to No 8. Mrs Christian remarked: "I like being pregnant and I like having babies. Being part of a big family is fun and it makes me feel needed and loved."
The interesting thing about this resolute determination to make motherhood a full-time career was the faint air of defensiveness that attended it. The newspapers of my childhood were full of stories of this kind, in which exhausted and dropsical-looking women stood proudly regarding the forest of hands tearing at the playpen bars, and worried fathers of 10 went off to check their insurance policies, and the general reaction was nearly always approving. Back then the urge to procreate, even beyond utility, was seen as a sort of primal force, if not a basic human right. Now self-justification lurks behind every disposable nappy-sack. The £24,000 a year that the family receives from the state is clearly preying on Mrs Christian's mind. "Everyone has the right to a big family," she declared, "and I shouldn't be criticised for being on benefits."
The temptation to write this down as a pattern example of state-funded young persons' fecklessness is irresistible. At the same time, Mrs Christian turns out to have both an A-level in childcare and a nine-month stint as a special needs teaching assistant under her belt: in fact, she sounds like an exemplary parent. As so often in our vexatious age, a moral judgment hangs worryingly out of reach.
A couple of years ago Radio 4 produced a mesmerising account of the conduct of parliamentary by-elections, in which a succession of party activists lined up to reminisce about all the dirty tricks in which they had taken a hand. The highlight of this catalogue of sharp practice – opponents' advertising posters being torn down, spirited intrusions into candidates' private lives and so on – was the united front maintained by Labour and Conservative witnesses. All had been guilty of the basest subterfuges in the prosecution of their party's interests, they cheerfully admitted. But if you wanted some real skulduggery, you should go and talk to the Lib Dems.
I remembered this accusation only the other day when a publication called Eaton Focus fell on to the doormat, urging me to support the Lib Dem candidate Mervyn Scutter in next week's county council elections. Mr Scutter is an excellent councillor, always answers emails and has my eternal gratitude for getting the speed limit reduced at the point where the A11 runs into Norwich, but the document sent out in his name is deeply misleading. "It's the Lib Dems or Conservatives in Eaton", runs the headline, next to a bar chart of "How our area voted last year", demonstrating that the Lib Dems picked up 1,950 votes, and the Conservatives 1,523, with the Greens and Labour a negligible third and fourth on 375 and 324 respectively. The implication is obvious: a vote for Labour is a vote thrown away. And yet a little research reveals that this is not a like-for-like comparison. In fact the "How our area voted" statistics are taken from the 2008 city council elections. In the previous county council contest, Labour did rather well, took 939 votes and ran the Tories a close second. Next morning came a circular from the Green Party, with another bar chart showing the Greens on 29 per cent, followed by Labour on 25 per cent, the Conservatives on 23 per cent and the Lib Dems on 21 per cent. This, too, had no bearing on the county council vote or even the European elections which take place on the same day – it was a representation of how votes had been cast across Norwich in 2008 – but at least the Greens took the trouble to label it as such.
The really depressing thing about the age one has reached (48) is how old the people you admired when you were young have suddenly become. Morrissey, I discovered to my horror this week, has just turned 50. Siouxsie Sioux, a daily newspaper revealed, is now an implausible 52. I took my 16-year-old son to see Martin Amis at the Norwich Playhouse the other week and watched in stark bewilderment as a grey-haired old party of 59 shuffled uncertainly to the lectern. All this provoked the question: is there any environment in which the late forty-something still feels young?
Happily, the answer is yes. I felt remarkably youthful at a Magazine reunion concert earlier this year, hunkered down amid the rheumy-eyed old gentlemen in black leather jackets. Half an hour at the AGM of the Royal Society of Literature is enough to transform me into the blithest of young shavers, ever fearful that some vigilant commissionaire will turn me out for trespassing. Meanwhile, the sleek conveyor belt of the professional future gleams ominously on. Even if one is still around in 30 years' time, and even if there are still books, what on earth will there be to write about? At any rate, I am keeping up with my bogus literary diary ("Salman R____ rang, terrified that our affair will become public ... To dinner with Anita B____, who cheated at Scrabble again") – a dead cert for the bestseller lists of 2040.
The most amusing aspect of Conservative complaints about the education system is that many of the outrages being complained about tend to have their origins in bygone Conservative education policies. All those gargantuan pass rates in GCSEs, with 60 or 70 per cent of the candidates routinely sailing through? It was the Tories, alas, who abolished the old normative rate. The granting of full university status to former polytechnics and the (presumed) decline in standards, degree courses in golf course management and so forth? That, I seem to recall, was the fault of nice Mr Major. Those eternal laments about the number of secondary school pupils who give up history at 14? The Tories, again, who made the subject optional for GCSE.
Point-scoring aside, the jeremiads about the average child's lack of basic historical knowledge, which surfaced again this week, are painfully accurate. Running a church youth weekend last year, I was taken aback by a question and answer session in which a roomful of teenage boys was invited to choose between a series of polar opposites (hot/cold, sweet/sour and so forth). Seeking to ginger things up a bit, I asked the 15 year-old standing next to me, "Cavalier or Roundhead, Tim?" Tim look puzzled. "Well then," I breezed on. "Charles I or Cromwell?" Still Tim looked shifty. It was all too much for my steely-eyed 17-year-old assistant, who clearly attended a very good school. "Oh come on," she bellowed, "you can't not know that." It was worse. Tim had never heard of the English Civil War. Meanwhile, sales of games consoles are rocketing.
Ghastly as Mr Nick Griffin of the British National Party undoubtedly is, I was a bit puzzled by the outsize furore kicked into gear by the news that he might be attending a royal garden party as the guest of a colleague (in fact Mr Griffin has now declined the invitation, on the grounds that he "did not want to embarrass the Queen"). When one thinks of all the truly dreadful people with whom Her Majesty has been forced to shake hands in the 57 years of her reign, the BNP's finest seems rather anodyne. Mr Griffin might be a fascist goblin, but at least – unlike those fellow-travelling Labour MPs of the 1950s or the late Anthony Blunt, Keeper of the Royal Pictures – he doesn't take his orders from the representatives of a rival power, whose interests are diametrically opposed to our own.
If it comes to that, the Queen was recently obliged to hold a state banquet for the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao. If half the public outrage focused on the prospect of Her Majesty enjoying 30 seconds' conversation with one sad home-grown bigot could be transferred to the spectacle of this state-enjoined feasting with tyrants, then human rights agitation might really start to get somewhere.