Please, not just William

A couple of years ago a locksmith high on junk food pulled out of a McDonald's drive-thru without looking and wrote off my car. At the time, since I went in a split second from steel-cosseted calm to rain-drenched shock, I wasn't that pleased; but as time has gone by I've realised that he did me a big favour. However, it isn't the madness of autogeddon that I wish to examine this week but the plague of overfamiliarity that has swept British society.

Sitting in the police transit van a few minutes after the accident, I was chivvied through my statement by a couple of officers: "Calm down, William," said the WPC, reading my name from my driving licence. "We need to get the facts straight here." I was annoyed by the young woman's
tone, but it wasn't until my shock wore off - a few hours later - that I sat bolt upright and ejaculated: "She called me William!"

PC gone mad

The absurdly youthful police officer is a standard-issue accessory of middle-age, but it can only be in the past decade or so that they've begun to address valetudinarian members of the public by our first names. I blame "Call Me Tony" Blair for this insane inversion of social mores, as it wasn't until the kidult air-guitarist acceded to power that such informality became de rigueur. Now everyone calls me Will: people I've never met before, writing me formal requests, employ the ghastly salutation, "Hi Will", or even more absurdly, "Dear Will Self" - as if I were a Quaker - and as for those I encounter in the flesh, only in the US or Germany do they use my proper title: Mister Self.

I would be the first to acknowledge that formality - inasmuch as it implies an unwonted deference - should be spurned. I have never addressed anyone with a title as Lord Bureaucrat-turned-Arms-Dealer (or however it is they style themselves), and when shop assistants call me "sir", I'm quick to correct them.

However, there is a certain degree of respect that necessarily obtains to the hierarchy of age. Traditional African democracy was once described as “the elders sit under the big tree and talk until they agree", not "the senile geezers will sit under the big tree and bicker until they're carted off". A failure to accord senior citizens proper respect is, to my way of thinking, akin to those sinister forms of depersonalisation that totalitarian regimes enact against their chosen scapegoats. By patronisingly calling our elders "Maeve" and "Gerald", we make it that much easier to exile them to the gulag of the care-home system. But watch out, all you infants who behave in this fashion, for lo! - one day you will be infantilised so.

Gordon handshake

How can we explain this mass intimacy that has overtaken us? For clearly we do not live in an egalitarian society - let alone a grotesquely enlarged circle of friends. With so-called political correctness, the policing of language has clearly been an attempt to inculcate non-prejudicial attitudes to women, to ethnic minorities, to disabled and gay people. To a large extent this has succeeded, but only because the necessary adjustments to the law have taken place in parallel.

Nothing of this sort has happened to political and economic hierarchies. Just because you can call the Prime Minister "Gordon" to his face, it doesn't mean that you're welcome to drop round to Downing Street unannounced and goof out in front of the TV while Sarah rustles you up a snack.

In a society that has widening income differentials, and an entrenched hereditary monarchy, there is a delusional quality to everyone being on first-name terms. When I hear a minion calling his master "Dave", or "Harriet", or "Mervyn", I'm reminded how much hypocrisy became impacted into the single ascription "comrade" under the Soviet dictatorship, or "citizen" under the Terror.

Just as we insist on the right to presume close acquaintance with strangers and the powerful, so we regularly spurn those we come into intimate contact with. I'm grateful to my wife for pointing out that no one on London buses ever bothers to salute the driver; instead, they swipe their Oyster cards and walk on by. All sorts of encounters - in shops, banks, cafés - are downgraded in this way to the status of mechanical operations. Can such people seriously complain, if, having spent the day blanking their fellows, they return home to answer a phone call from a robot that croakily intones: "Hell-o, Will-i-am . . ."

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Nightmare on Cameron Street