Michael Bywater: Warning - this column contains words

'What do they take us for? A bunch of docile gullible babies?'


Eighteen months ago I lost my temper with a train. It was a First Great Western train, and the precise bit of the First Great Western train I lost my temper with was the Refresca Café Bar, where, according to the guard (train manager), the steward (customer service host) would be happy to serve us.

Refresca Café Bar. Not the buffet; the Refresca Café Bar, as though there were other cafés, other bars. As though passengers (customers) could say: "No, to hell with the Refresca Café Bar, let's try Carlucci's, adjacent to coach A. Or how about Les Deux Magots by the disabled toilets? They say Jean-Paul Sartre can often be found there chatting to Beckett and Robespierre."

So I lost my temper. "What do they take us for?" I shouted at my companion. "A bunch of docile, gullible, big babies?" And so a thesis was born: that the root cause beneath so much of the annoyance and dysfunction of our public life was that those in charge - the baby boomers who are now running politics, industry, the media and everything else - were determinedly refusing to grow up, and, what's worse, were equally determinedly infantilising the rest of us.

Once I got my eye in, the evidence was everywhere: the fatuous announcements, the bossy tickings-off, the imbecilic rhyming slogans, the fake relativism, the meaningless corporate drivel, the self-help books, the nonsense about alternative medicine (alternative to the sort that makes you better), the food-faddery, the Starbucking of coffee from a grown-up stimulant into a frothy kiddies' gloop sucked out of cardboard buckets (warning: hot beverages are hot) by grown men in children's clothes.

May contain nuts. May contain bad language. Not intended for use as a dental drill. Not edible. Do not eat toner. Remember objects in the mirror are behind you. Do not pour water into your TV set. Switch on by setting on/off switch to on position. May contain small volcanic stones. Do not use for other use.

Try it for yourself. Every half-hour or so ask yourself: "Am I being treated like an adult?" and, more worryingly: "Am I actually behaving like an adult?". And the answer, more often than not, is: "No, damn it."

One of the great authorial delusions is that things will change between our finishing a manuscript and the book being released. Not this time. Things are carrying on as before. David "Dave" Cameron has appeared on his video blog to tell us he's just like we are. Tony Blair still pro-noun-ces ev-er-y syl-lab-le while ignoring Parliament and public opinion. First Great Western train managers still blither about the Refresca Café Bar, and tell us that "we are now on our final approach into Paddington", as though we are all sitting there pretending we're in an aeroplane. How 'citing! Oh, wheeee!

Look at the TV schedules (and listen to the music played on your satellite programme guide; you can't be left in silence in case you start to think). I'm off again. Nothing will change. Infantilisation is too profitable for Them, and too easily gratifying for Us.

TalkTalk is a damnably infantile bit of branding (itself the epitome of infantilism) for a telephone service. But - here's a real example - Philip Moore of Wimbledon, in his eighties, signs up for TalkTalk and finds that he and his wife cannot get incoming calls for a month (their daughter died recently and it hurts) and, after spending hours on the phone to a call centre listening to music, the system hangs up on them. Now they can't make outgoing calls, and when I ring Carphone Warehouse press office to find out what the hell is going on, they say: "We'll get back to you", and don't.

An everyday story of consumer life. But is it infantilising? Of course it is. Because the defining characteristic of the infantile is impotence, and the Moores and I have been rendered impotent by this process. Meanwhile, Carphone Warehouse gets (a) the money and (b) us off the line. There's the key process of infantilisation: give us the money: now bugger off, sonny. And will we? I fear we will.

'Big Babies or Why Can't We Just Grow Up?' will be published this week by Granta Books

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