Years ago it was still possible to make use of a direct train service between Oxford and Cambridge. A single-track two-carriage diesel unit ambled slowly from village to village or hamlet halt along the way, crossing the West Coast main line at Bletchley. Now the track has been cut down into unconnected lengths and it is the X5 five counties coach service that runs several times a day between the two ancient cities; beloved by me, who went to school in Oxford and university in Cambridge.
One thing that the coach does not offer, however, is a rear view for passengers. Taking the train always held out the opportunity to move to the back and take one of the rearward facing seats there. There was nothing quite like slumping there, with the sound of the diesel engine burbling underfoot, and watching beneath half-shut eyelids the countryside slip by through the hot, sunny afternoon, the farms and copses steadily receding towards a flat East Anglian horizon.
Remembering those summer journeys is to recall how the bridges and signal boxes appeared to view, now large beside the track, then dwindling away to vanishing point as the train ambled inexorably onwards, leaving all such features behind. So it has been throughout the years between there and here, then and now, as receding distance exacts its toll on what we think important, resizing all the events and interpretations of our lives to features newly dimensioned, to be resized in turn, all along the track.
Looking backwards redraws our history. By comfort or threat it diminishes what we once thought of as great. But it only works if you acknowledge its basic reality: that all the while you are watching the past recede, with all the various regrets and rewards that brings, you are inescapably travelling forward towards a different perspective, with its own gifts and anguish still to come.