When adults want to become children again

Philip Hensher
Tuesday 16 July 2002 00:00 BST

If you hadn't had any warning, Clapham, in south London, looked extremely bizarre last Saturday night. Over the last decade, it's been turning into a Saturday night destination in its own right, and Clapham High Street often presents a spectacle not far from one long party. Currently, Soho is where the A-gays and the hen parties collide; the cutting-edge parties in dank tracts of Vauxhall, studiously ignoring anything resembling a star turn – Yoko Ono appeared unheralded on the stage at Crash a month or two back, and the dance floor was stiff with indifference.

But Clapham is where you go for a good, old-fashioned, middle-of-the-road, jolly-up, and if, with the startling appearance of a couple of private members' clubs, it is much more metropolitan than it was, its atmosphere is one of fun rather than posturing. So on Saturday night, when I first saw a bunch of white, straight, thirtyish people dressed in school uniform, I thought it was an estate-agents' outing in fancy dress, and nothing more.

In a moment, though, a pair of girls went by in decidedly ill-advised gymslips, and then some more; boys in grey shorts, white shirts and stripey ties, in their dozens. Very odd; it was rather like one of those days when one sees nothing but heavily pregnant women, or when a foreign ship docks, and the entire West End is filled with Italian sailors for one happy afternoon. And then it clicked; it was, indeed, a fancy dress party, on a huge scale. Up on Clapham Common, it was School Disco.

The School Disco phenomenon has escalated so rapidly that by the time anyone with any pretence to being cool even noticed it and started saying "God, how special is that," it was entirely out of control. About three million junior accountants spent Saturday night twanging each others' bra straps and, for all I know, saying to complete strangers "My friend really fancies you."

To me, it sounds unutterably grim, but clearly a lot of people find it enormous fun, so good luck to them. But there is something rather odd going on here, a more general urge, which seems to be quite a new thing. The interesting thing about the School Disco fad is that it isn't entirely based on nostalgia.

Nostalgia has always been a powerful force; people have always loved reminiscing about the books they read and the passions of their adolescence, and held a special place in their hearts for the songs of their youth. (Not me – I always thought I couldn't bear pop music until the Dance Revolution of 1987, and then I realised it was just 70s and early 80s pop music I couldn't stand).

But entwined with this is quite a new feeling, an idea that it would be good not just to revisit the scenes of past happiness and see them through adult eyes, but actually become a child again. The signs that adult culture is being infantilised are everywhere, and have been much commented on; the rise of the "kidult", the middle-aged man with his PlayStation, or the perfectly respectable solicitor who puts on a gymslip in the hope of pulling at School Disco.

There are more extreme and bizarre manifestations of this; I understand that rather sinister "playgroups" exist where grown men can put on nappies and be pampered like babies for a few hours, pooing their pants to their hearts' content. But it has gone into the mainstream ineradicably. Adults have always happily re-read their childhood favourites, sinking soppily into Black Beauty or The Wind in the Willows and finding it just as nice as they did when they were eight years old.

The new and rather strange phenomenon is that of adults buying and reading new children's books, which can carry no weight of nostalgia for them. If some children's literature, such as Philip Pullman's trilogy, is rich enough to deserve the attention of adult readers, a lot, like the Harry Potter books, is only doubtfully so; and the adult fad for a book for five-year-olds called Guess How Much I Love You I must say I find faintly sinister.

Of course, one shouldn't overstate the case. Many of the adults who read Harry Potter, or went childless to see Shrek or Monsters, Inc, will also enjoy Philip Roth and Pulp Fiction; it is not the whole of their cultural life. And, to be honest, there is not much to choose as far as maturity goes between going to School Disco and going to a techno club in Vauxhall.

But when adult culture takes on the behaviour and appearance of childhood, it is fair to ask what is happening to childhood. Childhood, without much doubt, is being sexualised fairly brutally; it is not that the sexuality of children is being recognised, more that children are being asked to imitate the sexuality of adults. There is a direct connection between something like School Disco and the shops that enable five-year-old girls to dress like King's Cross prostitutes; and, if School Disco harms no-one, the desires behind it have damage in mind. St Paul, I understand, had something to say about childish things; for once, I think he may have a point.


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