I was born into a post-war world. A world full of so-called comics that weren’t – and weren’t meant to be – funny. Comics with titles like Victor and Valiant, in which Our Boys were heroic Tommies and Germans were Fritz (untrustworthy but a bit pathetic) or The Hun (nastier, yet somehow oddly glamorous in their villainy).
On these pages you were supposed to understand, and take seriously, such warnings as: “Look out! Three Fokkers coming out of the sun!” Germans worse silly helmets and tended to say “Aaaaarrgh!” a lot while falling off buildings. They bore not the least resemblance to the real-life young Germans who occasionally came to stay, who were rather nice and rather serious.
But then, The War – when the Hun was Bad and Britishers were Good, and Frenchie was Good but Weak – was ancient history. It belonged to the mythical time of my parents’ memories (which weren’t much like the comic-book version). It belonged to that Time Before I Was Born.
Which is to say it was as impossibly prehistoric as the King’s Cross fire is to my daughter. Or the Hungerford massacre. The opening of the Docklands Light Railway. The first showing of The Simpsons, or Star Trek’s Next Generation. The year, that is, of the Great Hurricane.
See what I mean? If you’re my age, those are all recent events. They all took place in colour, while the major events of my childhood happened in black-and-white.
When I was born, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were as long ago as the invasion of Iraq is today. And we’re still awaiting Lord Chilcot’s report into how that began.
My parents bought the house I was born in from an old couple who remembered the man who built it. Literally built it, with his own hands, after coming home from the war. The Napoleonic War, that is, which ended at Waterloo in 1815. History is made of real lives – and how oddly it weaves around them.
The worldwide web is generally reckoned to have begun around my 34th birthday. It was two or three years before I heard of it, about the time the first search engine was launched. By the time I was 41 I was writing a weekly column about the wonderful things you could find online. If I was still writing it, this week’s piece would be about a simple but brilliant site called You’re Getting Old! (www.you.regettingold.com). Simple, that is, in concept and appearance, but clever as all heck behind the scenes.
It works like this. Tell it the date of your birth and it will regale you with all sorts of interesting facts about your life. Like how many days old you are, how many breaths (roughly) you’ve taken, how many times (roughly) your heart has beaten, how many times the moon has orbited the Earth since you were born.
More entertainingly, if sometimes a little bafflingly, it will give you the names of two celebrities whose combined ages, in days, add up to yours. Today I’m as old as footballer Cristiano Ronaldo and singer Adele combined.
It will tell you approximately how many people out of 100,000 born on the same day as you are still alive. In my case, 87,283. My mother, who is as old as the actresses Kylie Minogue and Lucy Liu put together, has outlived all but 6,634 of her 100,000 contemporaries.
And then there’s that thing about time before and time after. I remember the shock I felt the day I realised that Led Zeppelin’s fourth album was older history than the end of World War II had been when it was released. And that day was 18 years ago. Blimey. How time, etc.
Now I learn, from You’re Getting Old!, that the start of the Second Boer War was nearer my birth date than today. (In my mother’s case, that statistic is given to the Battle of Navarino, the last major battle fought entirely between sailing ships. My daughter gets the law making seatbelts compulsory for drivers.)
Among other things I learn is that I was a month old when Sputnik became the first man-made satellite in space, six months when CND was founded, and 11 (years) when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon. (Actually, I already knew that last one. I remember it.)
I was 40 when Princess Diana died (I remember that too). The same age Mum was when the Berlin Wall went up. I wonder what will go down in history when my daughter’s 40.
And I wonder how many people there will be in the world then. When my mother was born there were fewer than two billion. When I came along it was up to 2.9billion. It’s now 7.34billion… and clicking up faster than your heartbeat as you watch.
A question of power
1: Do the sums actually add up, or was last week’s big announcement just a political stunt aimed at voters here and non-voters in China?
2: How can it be right to offer a foreign country a multi-billion-pound guarantee to build nuclear power stations at the same time as axing the feed-in tariff supporting the infant solar industry?
3: How much progress could be made on genuine renewables such as wind, sun, wave and tidal power – and its storage – with the £24billion Hinkley Point is expected to cost?
Many more questions apply, but let’s start with those three. Anyone with an even vaguely plausible answer to any of them should send it on a postcard to the Department of Energy and Climate Change at 3 Whitehall Place, London.