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: Sales Executives - OTE £60,000

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Care Workers Required - The London Borough of Bromley

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This homecare agency is based in Beckenh...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Polish minister Rafal Trazaskowski (second from right)  

Poland is open to dialogue but EU benefits restrictions are illegal and unfair

Rafal Trzaskowski
The report will embarrass the Home Secretary, Theresa May  

Surprise, surprise: tens of thousands of illegal immigrants have 'dropped off' the Home Office’s radar

Nigel Farage
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas