Kidding myself

I look in the mirror and see this greying, wrinkled, gonk-faced old man looking back at me

I turned 40 three weeks ago. Even as I write those words I still refuse to believe them. Me? 40? It doesn’t make sense. My calendar must be malfunctioning. I still feel like I’m 20… unless I am walking up some stairs. I still behave as if I am 20. In fact I behave more like I am 20 than I did when I was 20. So I can’t be 40. I am nothing like a 40 year old.

When my dad was 40 he had been married for 17 years, had three children, two of them teenagers. He had worked hard as a teacher all his adult life and recently been promoted to headmaster, wore a suit and tie every day and had proper grown up hobbies like listening to classical music, gardening, golf, DIY and making elderflower wine.

I, conversely, am single, I’ve never been married and am childless. I am sloshing around in the insecure (in both senses) world of stand up comedy. Most nights I go drinking with other people in their twenties (“other” because I am in my twenties, remember), most daytimes I play on my Nintendo Wii. I have the latest Arctic Monkeys CD, wear Converse trainers and recently acquired a skateboard – though tellingly I am too scared to be on it when it’s moving, but it’s good to casually hold, whilst walking down the road, nodding at other sk8erbois (it means skater boy, granddad). I have no practical skills whatsoever, paying other people to mend broken stuff and even do my cleaning.

If I stop and think about it my life I is pathetic, so generally I don’t stop and think about it. I’ve been in total denial. Which is why I buy trendy, figure hugging T-shirts. Because if I am going to deny the fact that I am old, I might as well deny the fact that I am fat as well.

Reassuringly I am not alone. Whilst many people in their 40s have families and responsibilities, an increasing minority still resemble teenagers. Scary, wrinkled, grey-haired teenagers, with some kind of terrifying premature ageing disease, but teenagers nonetheless. It’s enough of a phenomenon to have been given its own portmanteau label– Kidult. They’re adults, but they behave like kids. Which is at least better than being a kid that behaves like an adult. Though I was probably one of those too.
So what’s the cause of this new social trend? Is it just a collective mid-life crisis? Partly perhaps. The start of one’s fifth decade is an unsettling and upsetting land-mark.

In my latest Edinburgh Fringe show, aptly titled, “Oh Fuck, I’m 40!”, I discuss the perspective that being half way through your life suddenly gives you. It’s like getting to the top of a hill. For your first 39 years you’re struggling up the steep slopes, heading for the top as fast as possible, not even looking around you, desperate to see what’s on the other side. Finally you are at the summit and get a clear view both ahead and behind.

You look back and you see a lush, fecund valley, full of cavorting young people who wanted to be your friends, but ahead of you is a sheer cliff dropping into a stony, icy crevasse, littered with the bodies of the dead and dying. You want to turn round and do the climb again at a leisurely pace, but you are man-handled into a toboggan and sent whizzing down the slope. You might get thrown off at any point and die or get to the bottom and die. All that is certain is you are going to die, soon, along with all the other idiots who rushed to get over the hill, only to find that the hill was what it was all about.

So it is perhaps inevitable that, faced with this sudden realisation that we are over the hill, many of us make one last grasp at the green grass of youth: desperately trying to get fit in the gym, buying a sports-car, having an affair with your secretary. But this is usually just a temporary aberration and I don’t think qualifies you as a true Kidult. A mid-life crisis is something a grown-up has. We Kidults suffer from the Peter Pan syndrome – we never grow up in the first place. We remain children, because unlike our parents we are able to.

My parents’ generation’s lives were all pretty much mapped out: they had limited choices about what they could do professionally, needed to work to survive and got married early either because sex outside of wedlock was frowned upon, or because they had had sex out of wedlock and pregnancy had followed.

A proper job and the responsibility of a family will soon make a twenty year old grow up, whether they want to or not. But my generation had more choice. Whilst my dad almost automatically followed his dad into the teaching profession, I had career options. Perhaps foolishly, but fittingly for someone who wanted to remain puerile, I chose writing and performing comedy. Even had that been a viable profession in the 1960s, my dad could never had gone down it, a) because he is really not funny in spite of his best efforts and b) because he had a wife and young children to support, which requires money. I was in debt for the first decade of my career. If I’d had a family, I’d be teaching history in a comprehensive right about now. And I might well have been happier.

Effective contraception along with the subsequent shifting social attitude to sex outside of marriage means that my generation has much more of a choice about when and if they have kids. It means marriage and responsibility can be postponed indefinitely and we are able to focus entirely on ourselves. If that isn’t a big step to becoming a perpetual teenager I don’t know what is. Though in reality the Kidult will probably be focused on their career – working hard to play hard – they just have the kind of career that doesn’t slot into the traditional 9 to 5. And their spare time is all their own.

To be honest I still always assumed I would be in a serious relationship and have spawned progeny by the time I was 40 and part of me regrets that I haven’t settled down. But mainly I’m glad. I would never have stayed married to the women I thought I loved when I was 25. I was more of an idiot then than I am now. I don’t think anyone should get married til their 35. Imagine having to live your life by any other decision you made at 22!

Having said that, when I was about that age, I did make a pact with my friend Emma that if we were both single at 40 we would marry each other. It seemed so unlikely that it was a promise I made all too readily. Though as it turns out, both of us are still fancy-free, because Emma is a Kidult too. Certainly they are less prevalent than the male version there are female Kidults. They are rarer because to be a girl Kidult you really can’t have children yourself or even desperately want them. You can’t be a Kidult if you are a mum. I know women with grown up children who regress a bit when they are in their forties, but the bubble will be burst when your 20 year old child tells you to grow up.

But women who aren’t that bothered about children are also able to ensure they don’t have them and you will spot them if you look for them, dressed up in gear from Top Shop, looking pretty good as they have time and money to look after themselves, because they’re not looking after anyone else, chasing after young men (or women) at night clubs, and generally being pesky and having the time of their lives.
But I can’t marry Emma. Kidults can’t inter-marry, mainly because nothing would ever get done and what of the progeny of such an unholy union? It doesn’t bear thinking about.

I must admit I’ve had fun, but sometimes worry that I’ve left it too late. Too late to find someone, too late to have children. But there’s still a little time left on the toboggan ride to death. And if I spawn at the right moment I’ll be able to enjoy my kids while they are still cute and giving me unconditional love and then die just as they are approaching their teenage years, saving myself an awful lot of unpleasantness.

Writing this has made me wonder why I am a Kidult? Am I trying to compensate for some perceived privation in my childhood? If my parents had just bought me a Scalextric would none of this have happened? Am I making up for being so square during my teens and twenties? Or is it just as I originally posited, I do it because I can.

I am the first to admit that my life can be slightly depressing (whose isn’t?), but it’s hard to change. Doubly so for me, because I am a comedian. It’s my job to be childish. I have made a living portraying this foolish, immature, eternal teenager on stage. Now I look in the mirror and see this greying, wrinkled, gonk-faced old man looking back at me. If I carry on with the puerile schtick I am in danger of turning into the English Wee Jimmy Krankie. Though I would never marry my own brother – however desperate things got.

Whilst fairytales can come true, it can happen to you, if you’re young at heart, I think as with most things it is a question of balance. Being grown-up doesn’t mean we can’t occasionally be silly and have pointless fun, but if you only do the stupid stuff you’re missing out too. And I am going to change. Before I am 50. I wouldn’t want things to get embarrassing.

I guess what I am saying is that if you’re still young, slow down a bit and enjoy the climb and if you’re over the hill like me then there’s nothing wrong with trying to do a bit of the descent on your skateboard. Might as well have some fun! It’s all downhill from here.

Richard Herring began writing and performing comedy when he was 14. His career since Oxford has included a successful partnership with Stewart Lee and his hit one-man show Talking Cock
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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle