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19 June 2024

The cheering sounds of childhood

Innocent, childlike play is one of the great delights of life. We should try to keep in touch with it.

By Nicholas Lezard

Oh, the pain. No, I am not referring to Rishi Sunak’s, who had to go through childhood without Sky TV. I had to go without Channel 4 until I was 19 and you don’t hear me moaning. I am talking about the pain in my legs. I boasted a couple of weeks ago about not having suffered any aches after doing all that exercise in Poland. But now it seems as though my legs have simply been biding their time. Today I feel as though yesterday they pedalled on a fixed-wheel bike up Ben Nevis, ran an ultramarathon and then spent the night being beaten up while I slept.

I have no way of accounting for this. Yesterday I did no more than the usual amount of exercise: walk down to Waitrose, buy a bottle or two of wine and some cheese, take the lift back up to the car park, then shuffle the remaining 50 yards or so to the Hove-l. True, I have two flights of stairs to negotiate once I get to the front door, but still. Come to think of it, I only had two glasses of wine last night, so it isn’t even as if I have a localised hangover. Something has gone radically wrong. Right now I am looking out of my window at the patch of sea available to my gaze and it is a beautiful day and the sea is an inviting blue: if I was fitter I’d walk down the hill to the beach and have a little stroll, but at the moment that shot isn’t on the board. Have you spotted the problem, readers? It is in the word “hill”.

Then again, there is a lot to be said about the view of the sea from the Hove-l’s desk. (By the way, when I said I was looking out to sea, I was slightly bending the truth. I was looking at my keyboard. If I’d been gazing at the sea while typing it would have come out as “rigjht jnow I Qam looking at thwe sea”, which when I look at the screen again is a hell of a lot better than I thought it was going to be, but still a headache for the subs.)

I might have mentioned the sea view before in this column. Forgive me: but not much else happens round here. Earlier today I had a nice chat with a Waitrose driver watching a colleague back an enormous delivery lorry into its parking bay, but I’m not sure I could spin a whole column out of it. The sea, though, I could go on about, for it is ever-changing, as many people have noticed over the years. Today it is flat as a pond but sometimes, when the light is like this, and there is a bracing breeze, I find I am at the precise distance from it to go back to childhood, and family holidays to Cornwall, when we felt that the holiday had not begun with the drive in dad’s Vauxhall Victor – a traumatic business which involved taking the cats with us and always meant them being sick, and then worse than sick, at some point during the day – but with the first glimpse of the Atlantic from between the trees and hedgerows of the last fiddly B-roads. The point about the breeze is that it dapples the waves with ridges of foam, and that is the sight that does for me what a madeleine did for Proust.

Childhood is also on my mind because the Hove-l looks down on the back garden of a house round the corner, and this house has three children, and a dog, and a cat, and always, or often, when the weather permits, all of these, apart from the cat of course, which is aloof to these things, play in the garden. They play like children used to, the way people say children don’t play any more. Two girls, I’d say about nine and 11, and one boy, I’d say about six. (I can’t be sure because I don’t stare at them, that would be a bit iffy.) The other day they were playing with a space hopper, and if that doesn’t take me back to my childhood nothing will.

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But it also takes me back to my children’s childhood, and although our garden was the size of a cat-litter tray they’d still play in it, and there was always the park; I was lucky to be there for the time when they did this kind of thing, and missed out on the door-slamming isolation of adolescence. There is something very cheering about the sound of children at play, and it occurs to me that in the three and a half years I have lived here I have never heard my neighbours’ children in tears or fighting.

And that three and a half years hits me with a bang: it means that I have, out of the corner of my eye, been watching them grow up, and if we all remain living in the same place then there will soon come a point when they will stop doing this. My friend A— made a joke about my being like some creepy old perv and I laughed it off but actually I was hurt – not because of the accusation behind the joke, which was neither intended nor anything that my conscience is going to bother me about, but because society has degraded to the point where such a joke can be expected. But innocent, childlike play is one of the great delights of life, and I’d go out and do it again myself if it weren’t for these legs.

[See also: Uneasy rider]

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This article appears in the 19 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, How to Fix a Nation