Soundings Soundings

Youthful aspirations

BMJ 2002; 324 doi: (Published 27 April 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;324:1045
  1. Kevin Barraclough, general practitioner
  1. Painswick, Gloucestershire

    On an unexpectedly free afternoon I set off on my bicycle through the unexplored lanes. It was a still, clear day, with a low, watery sun. After several miles I left the lane and entered some woods. Each ride looked the same under the trees and I quickly lost all sense of direction. When I emerged I was looking at a view I had not seen for 20 years. Caught in the horizontal sunlight on the other side of the steep river valley was the Italianate manor where I had spent my school years.

    I am not quite sure why I have returned so rarely to the school I left a quarter of a century ago. I do not recall either undue unhappiness, or happiness—only an intensity of experience beside which those of adulthood seem somewhat faded. But I do feel a little shame when measured against all the things I had planned, in those adolescent years, to do with my life.

    My aspirations did not seem unreasonable at the time. I think I intended to create the Grand Unified Field theory that had eluded Einstein in his last half century. Fermat's Last Theorem may have come into it, and I certainly wanted to write the definitive novel of the decade. On the other hand I was fairly realistic about some things. I knew I was unlikely to become the second Bill Wyman on bass, and I was never going to get to sleep with Sue Stanway, even if I dealt with my acne. But mostly, anything seemed possible.

    My hubris was not peculiar to myself and originated, I suppose, from a general certainty that is characteristic of youth. But there was also a particular spirit of the early 1970s that, I suspect, was not unlike the boundless confidence of those first few decades that sparked the Renaissance. “A man can do all things if he wills,” wrote the archetypal Renaissance man Alberti. It seems an oddly naive belief now, but seemed less so then.

    When I got back, weary and muddy from the bike ride, I heard someone on the radio commenting about Bill Wyman reaching 65 and becoming a pensioner. “I thought he was a pensioner years ago,” said one young woman. “He already looks like a scrotum with sunglasses,” said another. “Or a tortoise with a disregard for sun creams.” They broke into peals of irreverent laughter. Have the young no respect?

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