I seem to be feeling very old recently; or, more accurately, made to feel very old. There are several reasons for this, not least that when I last checked my mailbox, it contained a tax form and some insurance documents.
In the last two weeks, two of my friends turned 22, friends whom I regard as equals — no, let’s be honest, whom I regard as my superiors. This is disconcerting when you realize that, at five-and-a-half years younger than I am, they’re closer in age to my cat.
At least, they were before the death of my cat earlier this month, an event that really accentuated the passage of time. Sweep was 17-and-a-half, and the last in a long and noble line of Baldock family pets. Next time I go home, it will be a pet-free zone (unless you count Winkin, Blinkin and Nod, the goldfish in the bathtub pond, but they don’t respond to their names and are very difficult to stroke).
Everyone is now younger than I am: baristas, Oscar nominees, police officers, tennis players. Of the 16 quarterfinalists at the Australian Open, only three were older than I. Tim Henman, who is less than four years my senior, is now treated with the sort of nostalgic sympathy reserved for an arthritic Labrador applauded for rising to its feet and staggering in pursuit of a tennis ball.
And having spent a lot of the past year reading Shakespeare, it’s now slightly crushing to my thespian ambitions to realize that, strictly speaking, I’m too old to play Romeo and Henry V, and it won’t be long before I overtake Hamlet, Richard II and Richard III. After that, it’s only Macbeth and then downhill all the way to King Lear.
Being 27 and a half, one naturally uses phrases like “I remember” and “didn’t happen in my day” with more frequency than before. Of course, every generation cries Wolf; the trick is to notice when the beast actually appears. Fortunately, I have cast-iron evidence that, in one small way, standards have fallen.
When I was very small, one of my favourite books was called “Tootles the Taxi.” This book of rhymes for children, with a quality of verse slightly above that of a Hallmark greeting card, introduces assorted helpful anthropomorphic vehicles, including the eponymous Tootles. Even at a very young age, I was aware that this book was dated — the illustrations were good, for one thing, and it used the word “Omnibus.” With a couple of noble exceptions, those people who correctly preface ‘bus, ‘plane and ‘phone with apostrophes are either dead or the sort of reviled pedants who get their slightly disturbing kicks from writing letters to local papers. (Sorry, ‘papers).
Twenty years later, it’s a genuine piece of cultural history: Willie the water cart, Ronnie the railway dray, Cuthbert the coal cart and Billy the baker’s van have disappeared from British streets, and Minnie the milk float can’t be far behind. (Perhaps the conspiracy theorists in Women’s Studies could suggest reasons why only the milk float and caravan are female — although Tootles, to be fair, is a gender-neutral name, and I wouldn’t like to even hazard a guess at Minkie the motor-bike and Binkie the bicycle. Maybe they’re a lesbian couple.) And when one verse begins “I’m Ike the ice-cream van / Looking so gay,” you know you’re in a different world, although — as it was published during the Eisenhower administration — a slim possibility remains that “Tootles” is actually very subtle political satire.
And then, last summer, I stumbled across a horrific version from 1984. The cheery world of Minkie and Binkie has vanished, replaced by the upstart helicopter, hovercraft and jet plane. Some of the rhymes are simply updated; no longer, for instance, can Tony the tractor admit that “a farmer sits on me / And gives me a hand.” And there is the preposterous notion that Trevor the train speeds down the line, “wherever the station, / I get there on time.” Whoever wrote that hadn’t used British Rail for a while.
But even when the vehicle survives, the modernizers haven’t been able to resist. Where Flashy the fire-engine was “off to a blaze,” Freddy is now “off to a fire.” Where Monty the motor coach was “out for a spree,” Mabel the motor coach is “off on my way.” Where Tony felt his life was “one round of toil” (not surprising, considering his farmer), Tommy the tractor often works “until it’s quite late.” Where Minkie ran “with a zest,” Mickey the motor-bike goes “at great speed.”
Surely it is not beyond the wit of parents and/or teachers to explain the concept of “zest” or “spree” or “toil?” And nobody — but nobody — has ever been shot down in a “fire” of glory.
On the other hand, enforcing a lowest common denominator guarantees the older generation something to feel self-satisfied about, so it’s not all bad.
Nick Baldock thinks he can. He thinks he can. He thinks he can!