Andrew Martin: We're so afraid of dying, we don't dare live

Our writer was a swot, but even his boyhood was reckless

Share
Related Topics

A boy of primary-school age looking along the shelves of a bookshop would be relaxed at the sight of all those titles advertising "A 1,000 Experiences You Must Have Before You Die". He has plenty of time to get round to seeing the Taj Mahal at sunset or having sado-masochistic sex in the Reeperbahn. But if he noticed the list released this week by the National Trust headed, "50 Things To Do Before You're 113/4" then he might have felt the pressure was suddenly on.

The trust's injunctions reflect a report it has commissioned, which indicates that a quarter of all children never play outside, a third have never climbed a tree, and one in 10 can't ride a bike. This because they're spending four and a half hours a day in front of a screen. I was not a particularly hearty child myself. In fact, I spent much of my schooldays swotting in York Reference Library, as did my arch academic rival, and I made a point of never leaving before he did. But, looking at the NT list, I had done almost everything on it by the time I was 103/4, let alone 11.

Playing conkers, for example. If it was autumn, that's what you did, always making sure beforehand that "stampsies" were allowed – that is, if your mate's beloved vinegar-conditioned sixer (it had won six matches) fell off its string then you'd stamp on it. You had to get that in writing, because a purely verbal agreement never seemed to stop you getting beaten up if you exercised your right. Building a den? Of course, you built dens in the local woods, always with the idea of relocating to them full time, or at least spending the night there... which never seemed such an attractive prospect when seven o'clock rolled around, and The Man From Uncle was on the TV. Rockpooling? In summer, you spent half your time clambering about on Filey Brigg, that barnacled promontory at the south end of the bay. I was encouraged in this by my dad, who had practically been a professional rockpooler in his own youth, and who taught me you could get a limpet off a rock only if you did not come between it and the sun, thus triggering its defensive light sensors.

It's not so easy to do the things on the list as it once was. On Filey Brigg, there's now a sign saying "No Safe Access". Of course, there's no safe access. That's the whole reason the 10-year-old boy is there! And conkers has been frowned on ever since 2006, when a headmaster in Carlisle required his pupils to wear goggles when playing. Health and safety is taken to be the impediment to an outdoor childhood, but I wonder....

I was in India two weeks ago, where boys will still be boys. I came out of St Paul's Cathedral in Calcutta, and saw a lad of about 10 holding two strings, which rose up vertically towards a red kite that seemed to be a 100 feet above the vertiginous central tower. Of course, he was grinning hugely. In a jungly region of the north-east, I looked 70 feet up a gnarled banyan tree and saw a small boy testing the safety of a branch. In a town called Tinsukia, I saw two boys playing tag on the flatbed trucks of a moving freight train.

In India, it is often said, life is cheap. But it is also religious. I do not endorse playing tag on freight trains, and I note that is not being suggested by the National Trust, but perhaps the main difference between the safety-first childhoods of today and the freer ones of the past is our relatively recent secularisation. Life must not be even slightly risked, because there is nothing else.

Andrew Martin's book 'Underground, Overground: A Passenger's History of the Tube' is published next month

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Cleaner

£15000 - £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you've got first class custo...

Recruitment Genius: Mobile Applications Developer / Architect - iOS and Android

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a medium s...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Account Executive - £40K OTE

£11830 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working in a friendly, sales ta...

Recruitment Genius: Web Designer

£15000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron gives a speech at a Tory party dinner  

In a time of austerity, should Tories be bidding £210,000 for a signed photo of the new Cabinet?

Simon Kelner
Prime Minister David Cameron says his party must not ‘remain neutral’ in the EU membership referendum  

Greece might just have gifted David Cameron with EU referendum success

John Mullin
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most