Tuesday 12 December 2006

Growing up

What do you want to be when you grow up? It would be as fair a question to put to me now as when it was posed by the headmaster of Akhurst Boys’ Preparatory School in the very early 1960s. Then, the real answer was driving one of those magnificent steam engines that still hauled crack expresses through Little Benton. Or, failing that, one of the stately yellow trolleybuses that used to glide along Newcastle’s major thoroughfares. (I’ve always had an eye for the technology of the future.)

But too many boys had opted for those by the time he reached “H” in the alphabet, so I just said I wanted to work in an office like my dad, on the grounds that it beat being out of doors in all weathers with a pick and shovel. I can still vividly recall Jack Russell Perry’s horrified reaction: “Good heavens, boy, you must want something more from life than just being comfortable!”

No, actually. It would be nice to have been a great lover, a proud father, a competent PR man, even a vaguely amusing newspaper columnist. But having enough to eat, a fire in winter, a comfy sofa and a warm bed still come right at the top of my list of priorities.

Meanwhile, other people have got on and done things. When my contemporaries started breeding in serious numbers 25 years ago, I remember thinking what a frightfully grown up thing it was to do. Now the first of them are becoming grandparents, which seems even more so. I imagine I will be thinking the same thing in another two decades or so, when it’s our turn to die.

I’m confessing to this extreme case of arrested development because even someone in my pitiful condition is beginning to wonder at the babyish antics he sees around him. The other night I sat through a very moving concert next to a man who, from his greyish hair, I judged to be about my own age. Yet every five minutes or so he reached beneath his seat and proceeded to suck greedily on a bottle of water, like a baby demanding its teat. I know we are warned about the dangers of dehydration, but surely we can get through three hours of Handel without these sort of antics?

I don’t know whether the growing illusion that we are all infants was created by government or merely aggravated by it, but there can be little doubt that the growing stream of nannyish precepts is making things worse. Eat this, don’t eat that, take exercise, don’t smoke, turn your heating down, don’t speed, kill Patricia Hewitt. No, sorry, that wasn’t the government, that was the voices in my head. But you know what I mean.

Since I don’t have any children and don’t own shares in Halfords, I regarded this year’s introduction of compulsory child booster seats with a fair degree of indifference. But I did pause to wonder how a nation of adult electors, with one of the world’s oldest parliamentary democracies, came to have this sort of pettifogging rule imposed on it by an unelected bunch of bureaucrats in Brussels. Their next mad idea, speeding down the track, is to make us all drive with our headlights on at all times. Something which might make a bit of sense on the forested roads of Scandinavia but hardly seems necessary in Britain, still less Malta or Cyprus.

But that’s not how the EU works. It thrives on creating uniform rules and regulations for every aspect of life. The only element of variety being created by the fact that we choose to implement them with the utmost ferocity. Whereas, as Willy Poole observes in his bulletins from deepest France, our neighbours simply ignore the ones they find inconvenient with a Gallic shrug.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all grew up and went back to running our own lives?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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