Do I taste the milk of human kindness?

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The Independent Online
WHEN YOU are nearly eight months pregnant, and feeling like a grumpy beach ball, Philip Larkin's advice, 'And don't have any kids yourself', has a certain appeal.

This is especially true if you are experiencing a fourth pregnancy, as I am, and harbouring few illusions about what the next few weeks of heavy-footed plodding through life will bring.

But something strange seems to be happening around me. Everyone I meet - acquaintances, friends, total strangers - is behaving in extremely courteous and kindly ways.

If this was my first baby perhaps I would assume that everyone loves a pregnant woman. But my past experience (based on a decade of motherhood) is that this is, or has not been, the case at all.

Let's consider yesterday. I was standing in the queue in the sun at the garden centre. A young man, sporting an alarmingly trendy inch of designer stubble on his chin, asked me what I wanted. 'A bag of compost,' I said, startled.

'Let me carry it to your car, in your condition you need help,' he smiled.

This vignette is no exception. I dropped a packet of biscuits in a shop - pregnant women are extremely clumsy - and two middle-aged women dived to pick it up, their rather grim faces breaking into indulgent smiles. Supermarket packers insist on wheeling my trolley to the car, taxi drivers get out of their cabs to open doors.

Breathlessly catching a crowded InterCity train with two children in tow the other weekend, two teenagers made room for us while a third with headphones at full blast lifted the suitcases on to the rack without any fuss or, indeed, being asked.

I have been pondering why this should be. I don't think I look more alarming or more fragile than the last time I was pregnant four years ago. But it is certainly different from the offhand treatment I recall. Is my experience

untypical?

It appears at first to be oddly out of line with the general tone of savagery in British urban life where child murderers, teenage rapists and thuggery seem the everyday currency. Am I just circulating among those who form a thin veneer of civilised behaviour on the top of a seething cauldron?

I don't think so. The question I want to pose, albeit tentatively, is whether it's possible that a revulsion against the dark side of our uncivil society is producing a renewed respect for the vulnerable, in my case an obviously pregnant woman going about the life-enhancing business (those of the Larkin persuasion please note) of producing the next generation.

I have an overwhelming sense of doing the right thing at the right time, catching the mood of the moment in a personal act. It is an odd experience.

During the first decade in which I was busily building up a stable family situation, I frequently felt envious of my totally career- minded closest women friends, who seemed to spend any spare energy and cash whizzing off to ski slopes and other glamorous retreats. Now I find they are interrogating me with interest about the so-called secret - as if there was one - of combining the elements of family life and, in my case, a large family with a career. I do not intend to sound smug. I'm simply reporting on a change in attitude.

The one place my theory does not hold true is when it comes to the National Health Service and the state of the maternity clinic I am visiting. Conditions have deteriorated to the primitive. Fifty per cent more cases are being pushed through the same, unexpanded clinic, with predictable queues, three-hour waits, sordid waiting rooms, desperately unhappy professionals who know their service is inadequate. I long to stand up and start a chant: 'We are not going to put up with this any more.' Perhaps it is just as well that the check-ups, again

all part of the new NHS, are so infrequent.

Yet I remain in a state of surprised optimism. Perhaps the spring is producing green shoots of hope for British society. My experience, and I do not mean this as a homily, suggests that it is within the power of everyone to improve the tone of everyday life through the small social exchanges we undertake each day.

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