The older I become, the easier I find it to sink into that old-gittish state of believing everything has got worse with the passage of time.
In my childhood there was the hippie movement, when young people felt that peace and love and expanding your mind might be a nice idea, helped along by the occasional mild, non-psychosis-inducing joint. Nowadays, the drug of choice is cheap booze, with rampaging chavs turning town centres into a Hogarthian nightmare of vomiting and violence fuelled by alcopops and super-strength lagers.
Then there are South West Trains, which drive me to the brink of apoplexy almost every day of the week. They offer a slower and less reliable commuter service to London than was available 40 years ago, along with appallingly loquacious guards who seem to be running their own private radio station and impertinent pre-recorded announcements asking passengers, sorry customers, not to give money to any beggars who might be aboard. Why the hell shouldn’t we, if we feel briefly moved to compassion?
And have you seen how ridiculously easy it is to get four As at A-level these days? The kids today don’t know they’re born, and, blimey, we had proper summers back in my day (and what a vile phrase that is) rather than Old Testament deluges, and then there are all these bloody Poles coming in…
You see what I mean. Once you get started it is hard to stop. I know a lovely man called Frank, a reformed alcoholic turned Buddhist, who describes anger as like picking burning coals out of a fire with your bare hands and throwing them wildly at your enemy. It hurts you far more than it hurts the object of your ire.
And if one pauses to think for just a moment, there are so many things that have got better over the past four decades — restaurants, for instance, and the busy, beautiful South Bank of the Thames in London, of which I never tire, and the fact that even after ten years of a Labour government the unions no longer regularly hold our country to ransom.
Something else that has improved, in my admittedly limited experience, is rock festivals. As I confessed a year ago, my first and apparently last festival was Reading in 1972, when the vibe was far from mellow and my friends and I subsisted on beer, milk, rancid burgers and Number 6 for three days and largely sleepless nights with only John Peel and Rod Stewart to cheer us up. But this year I thought I really ought to give the experience another try. I was too slow off the mark for Glastonbury (thank God, I thought, as I gazed with delicious schadenfreude at the TV images of the rain and the mud) but did secure tickets for my 14-year-old son Edward and me to attend Guilfest on Saturday. I wish I’d gone for the full three-day experience now because it was an absolute delight.
Back in 1972, Reading seemed to be absolutely packed with menacing-looking druggies and boozers. Guilfest (which takes place in Stoke Park on the outskirts of Guildford) was full of families with happy, face-painted kids in tow, young couples in love and not a few delightful old hippies of pensionable age. The mood was extraordinarily friendly, and I didn’t hear a cross word or a raised voice all day. Two cheery-looking uniformed police officers patrolled the site as if it were a village fête, and it seemed as if the long-lost hippie vision of a utopian community in which everyone gets along and looks out for each other had been achieved at last. People drank a good deal of beer and chilled margaritas, to be sure, but the mood was always mellow. Most astonishingly of all, I didn’t see anyone smoking dope, which was a shame as I’d been rather looking forward to a day of passive cannabis inhalation. Instead, everyone was busy forming orderly queues for the gourmet food stalls, or shopping for clothes and frisbees. What a thrill it was to be able to buy a tie-dyed, extra-large Grateful Dead T-shirt at last, somewhat to the surprise of the stallholder, who said there wasn’t much of a call for them these days. Even the lavatories proved bearable.
Topping the bill were Squeeze, reviving their catalogue of witty, touching pop songs with superb aplomb, despite singer Glenn Tilbrook battling a throat infection. He made up for it with some blistering guitar solos. But the band that really blew me away were Ghosts, a group of preposterously youthful indie kids who delivered a cracking collection of songs full of love and lust, longing and regret, all powered by irresistible hooks and melodies. Their debut album, The World is Outside, offers sherbet-lemon bursts of pure pleasure and deserves to become the feel-good hit of the summer — if we ever have one. Watching them, on a rare and blessed afternoon of sun and warmth, the impossible happened. I felt ridiculously young again, and happy, almost as young and happy as my son, who has it all to come and was grooving along beside me.
Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph