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Kids like Gazza and Blair make me feel grown-up

WHY DOES the England midfielder David Beckham, wearing a sarong, look more stylish than Paul Gascoigne in almost any garment he has ever been photographed in? Why does Gazza's friend Chris Evans give the impression of being a nerdy teenager, worrying, as he stumbles from night clubs at 4am, about his mum's reaction when he gets home? As for James Major, with his new haircut and his shades and his near-naked fiancee on his arm, we are not exactly talking maturity here. What Gascoigne, Evans and Major have in common is their apparent inability, regardless of what they say or do, to act their age or anything approximating to it.

This is a widespread malaise, perhaps the defining one of our times, and a list of the people who suffer from it would easily fill the remainder of this column. They certainly include Teddy Sheringham, the England player who tried to claim on Friday that being discovered in a night club at 6.45am when he was supposed to be in training for the World Cup, was the result of being "set up".

But not all of them are men and I can't help wondering whether the departure from the Spice Girls last weekend of Geri Halliwell indicates a weariness with constantly having to behave in public like a rebellious teenager. Being 13 is bad enough first time round, without having to go through it again in your mid-20s, when you no longer have the excuse of spots and raging hormones.

The problem extends to the highest echelons of public life, as Tony Blair reminded us again last week. The Prime Minister, whose performance on Des O'Connor's World Cup Party revealed either an unconscious talent for mimicry or a gargantuan desire to please, regardless of the company he finds himself in, is a complete stranger to the gravitas once associated with his office. He doesn't seem to know, with any great certainty, who he is or what is expected of him - fine if you're Holden Caulfield, protagonist of JD Salinger's classic account of teenage angst, The Catcher in the Rye, but a little worrying in someone who is in charge of 55 million people. Mr Blair has even begun to make me feel grown-up, in spite of my passions for dancing and shopping, which is not the effect you expect from an exact contemporary.

To go back to Paul Gascoigne, he could hardly have looked more ridiculous last week if he had put on a skirt for the crowds of photographers who besieged the Hertfordshire house of his estranged wife, Sheryl, after he was dropped from England's World Cup squad. On Tuesday, as he set out for a consolatory lunch at a nearby Italian restaurant, he resembled a disgruntled toddler, ordered to visit an elderly relative, who refuses to leave the house unless he is allowed to wear his new track suit ("Paul, you know Granny doesn't like trainers...") Someone had persuaded him to finish off the ensemble with a wildly unmatching jacket, creating a vivid image of the internal tensions which have dogged him since his tears on the pitch made him a star during a World Cup match in 1990.

GASCOIGNE has been fortunate in the past because, for so many observers, his particular kind of boyishness signals vulnerability - and triggers a protective instinct at odds with our knowledge that he is frequently little more than a childish, drunken lout. This is, of course, the heart of the problem: not that so many people refuse to grow up, but our ambivalent and even admiring attitude towards infantile behaviour. Temper tantrums, crying in public, making scenes, confessing to emotional immaturity, have become certain routes to celebrity, whether you are a footballer or a novelist or a member-by-marriage of the Royal Family. So pervasive is this trend that Helen Fielding, author of Bridget Jones's Diary, has become the cheerleader for thirtysomething women with teenage obsessions about boyfriends and weight. (Fielding received a rebuke from an unexpected quarter last week when the Sun demanded: "Do these new role models demean women?" The short answer is "yes").

Fielding's male counterpart, who has been around rather longer, is Nick Hornby. His first book, Fever Pitch, founded a genre I have come to think of as the literature of vain inadequacy. Beginning with his account of his own career as an Arsenal fan, and continuing with his latest novel About A Boy, Hornby's hallmark is to write about people - usually men - whose emotional development got stuck during their teenage years. What I mind about these books, and their swelling ranks of imitators, is that they identify a state of perpetual adolescence not in order to analyse or change it but to wallow in it. Even worse, they elevate it into something heroic.

I'm just a big kid, they proclaim. I can't help it, and what's wrong with that? Quite a lot, actually, which is why David Beckham's appearance in the south of France last week was so refreshing. A man needs to be quite sure of himself, and especially of his masculinity, to step out with his girlfriend for the evening in a Jean Paul Gaultier skirt. Playing with assumptions about gender isn't for boys, which is why Paul Gascoigne veers hopelessly between the masculine uniforms of frock coats and designer sportswear. I wouldn't go so far as to say I'd like to see him in a Vivienne Westwood dress. But it would at least demonstrate a degree of development which has been conspicuously absent from his career to date.

AS A keen reader and occasional contributor to the defiantly Old Labour paper, Tribune, I am puzzled by a couple of paragraphs in last week's issue. A Labour Party member in Doncaster, the playwright Ron Rose, has apparently been summoned to a meeting later this month where he may face charges of failing to show commitment to the party's aims and objects. (These are, I assume, to adore the leader at all times. What could be simpler?) Mr Rose tells Tribune that he intends to be accompanied at the hearing by a friend, whose allegedly disparaging remarks about New Labour he goes on to quote. They are a little John-Majorish for my readers, but I can't help wondering how Tony Blair will react on hearing such observations attributed to his father-in-law, the actor Tony Booth.