A chance encounter on a country lane led to some interesting generational observations from The Times columnist Charlotte Edwardes.
It's Saturday, in the middle of the night, and I'm driving on a narrow country road, hedges riding high on either side. On the radio is one of those programmes designed to keep insomniacs company, and twice in a short stretch startled animals I haven't seen since childhood books leap into my headlamp beams — a badger, a stoat. As the road broadens beside a wood, I see a red car ahead, stopped, its hazards flickering like a signal lamp. Beside it are an elderly couple; he is in black tie and she in a shimmering gown and fur stole. I slow down. Their boot is flipped and he is retrieving what looks like a jack. They have a flat tyre, I guess. They probably need help. At their age, in their clothes, changing it will be a mucky, strenuous job.
I lower the window.
"Hello, are you all right?" I say this to the lady. Her hair is steely-silver in the night, her mouth is razor straight.
"Just a flat," she says. Her voice is as crisp and biting as the winter air. "We're fine."
"Do you need any help?"
"No need," says the man. He's jamming the jack beneath the chassis.
"We're fine," the woman says. There's a note of impatience in her voice, and I can't tell if it's directed at me or at him.
I drive on, marvelling at their determination. I wonder if this attitude was shaped by rationing, by making do, by a natural inclination to self-fix. I say to my son in the back, who has been stirred from sleep, that they are an example of their wartime generation. "Stoical," I say, "like Grandma and Grandpa," who get cross if we ask if we can help with anything. "Do stop fussing," they say, as if one of them is not in a wheelchair and the other hasn't recently been through a hip op, cataracts and a brush with cancer.
"Boomers?" he asks. Through the meme OK Boomer — the internet-popularised retort to the supposed narrow-mindedness of the baby-boomers — he has been taught to view that generation with suspicion. Boomers, he informed me last autumn, are radical Brexiteers, climate-change deniers and would like to arrest and possibly kill all teenagers. I assured him they are not that bad.
"I suspect pre-boomer," I say. "Probably the tail end of the silent generation."
A little further on, just as the short story on the radio is coming to a dramatic close, I come to a T-junction, and there is another car pulled over, blinkers going like a rave beat. This time the doors are open and four passengers are milling around. Someone is in the boot. Someone is wearing a hi-vis vest, presumably from a breakdown kit, as the red triangle has also been opened up and placed in the road.
My son slides down his window. "Are you OK?" he asks, breath fogging in the air.
The woman in her 40s is in a flap. "Oh Lord, who knows? We've got a flat tyre," she says. One of the men, smartly dressed (perhaps they've been to the same party as the others), is holding a yellow metal contraption in front of him, turning it around and around, as if trying to work out which way up it goes. Another is standing, hands in pockets, face pale from drink. The woman in the hi-vis doesn't seem sure if she needs us or not. "Are we OK?" she asks the others. No one seems sure.
When we eventually drive away, my son asks what generation they are. "Generation X," I grimace. "My generation."
"But can you change a tyre?"
Only because I was forced to by a military father who saw this as part of "life training". Frankly, it's the one thing he taught me that has come in useful, unlike semaphore, Morse code and how to escape a capsized boat.
"What would millennials do?" he asks.
"They'd be in an Uber," I tease. "Crying. What about Zoomers? What do you think your generation will do?"
He thinks about this. "They'd look up how to fix it on an app. They'd film themselves fixing it. They'd put it on Instagram Stories. But in the end, probably, they'll find a way of inventing a tyre that doesn't burst."
Written by: Charlotte Edwardes
© The Times of London