Big Babies: or - why can't we just grow up?
Michael Bywater Granta Books, 256
In Big Babies: or - why can't we just grow up?, Michael Bywater presents the hypothetical situation of a Martian anthropologist sent to London, Planet Earth to do a recce. After arriving by First Great Western train (thus ensuring a low profile) and having a look around, he would report back to Mars that an odd cultural situation was at play. The Martian would discover that some grown-ups had decided to continue being children, treated others like children, so that eventually everyone had started behaving like children. Then, much like Peter Pan and his lost boys, they had started to crave a Wendy figure: a role subsequently shared between advertisers, politicians and corporations alike.
Bywater's hilarious social commentary highlights our loss of ability to manage our own lives. Mortality in a post-Darwinian era, he argues, is significantly more fragile than it was when we had a cushy afterlife to look forward to. Now we don't want to grow up and die and that just be it, so we've all made the unanimous decision not to.
With nothing to aim for we just spoil ourselves, make luxurious demands and dribble. We have decided to lower our standard of reading to that of "How to" books - and we lap them up because we like to follow instructions. We walk to work cocooned by our iPods, "like carefree children wrapped in auditory cotton wool", we slurp away at our beakers of coffee for kids with froth and sprinkles (none of that strong black stuff from cups, yuck!), and then we log on to our My Computers (merely a variation of My First Computer so as not to scare us). We accept it because we are scared of everything. We live in a "Mummyverse" full of behavioural infantalisers carrying out risk assessments on potential life hazards to keep us safe. We live in fear of being inappropriate or offensive. We just live in fear.
Bywater partially places the blame upon the advertisers who have reduced life to an exercise in branding. They have convinced us that we are lacking in almost everything, and our responses to their offers can be compared to a baby having something waved in front of its eyes. Does baby know what it is? No. But baby still grabs at it, he wants it now! Now! This is precisely how Big Baby finds himself the proud owner of a loan which will perpetuate (and consolidate) a large debt. Nobody has our best interests at heart, despite what we might think.
Overall, this is a satisfying, amusing rant that paints a worryingly accurate portrait of an increasingly solipsistic nation. Politicians, lawyers and reality TV stars all come under equal scrutiny, as Bywater's sharp observations fuels his righteous outrage.
If after finishing the book you can't hear the author's grumblings ringing in your ears, log on to "thebywater.com". Bywater's introduction to the blog reads: "The trouble is, even once I stopped writing, instances of our infantilisation kept coming. This is for the stuff that didn't make it into the book . . ." Here you can both comment on the Iraq war and ponder the rotundity of IT geek Bruce Quigley's face.
I have no doubt that before long we shall all be crawling off the Tube, blending dinner and jumping into a romper suit before making demands for a bedtime story (or refusing to go to bed because we've not been told to). If drastic measures are not employed, we will crawl, roly-poly and cartwheel our way to the grave, squabbling and hair-pulling en route.
So what action should you take? What should you do about the fact that your political, social, sexual and intellectual affiliations are monitored and you possess the power of a foetus to change it? You should wait to be told what to do, obviously. But if there's nothing to be done about it until you have been told what to do about it, why should you bother reading this book? Because I say so. And don't answer me back, or there'll be no Father Christmas.