How can we expect our children to grow up, asks Harry Mount, when British culture is becoming increasingly babyish — full of primary colours and little letters
It first struck me how babyish modern Britain has become when I got a flyer through my door about a new doctors’ surgery in Kentish Town, my patch of north London. I’d bicycled past it as it was being built — it’s your usual faceless ziggurat of undecorated, angular white concrete, with spindly, metal-framed windows half-blocked by lime-green steel grilles. No worse than the usual publicly funded horrors dumped on London’s pretty terraced streets; no better.
And then I read the flyer — the design was apparently based on a children’s game, consisting of putting L-shapes within each other, the flyer’s author said, as if this was proof of its beauty and excellence. Suddenly, I started seeing it all over the place: Baby Chic — babyishness masquerading as sophistication, hipness and novelty. The old Education Department is now the ‘department for children, schools and families’ — and all this is officially in baby-friendly lower case (what’s the point of learning what the big letters are, if you’ve already gone to the trouble of learning the little letters, and anyway aren’t little letters just so sweet unlike those horrible, big, grown-up ones?).
It’s all lower case on the metal plate outside the department’s Whitehall HQ, too, with a children’s painting of a rainbow alongside as its new symbol. And it’s the same treatment for the buildings the government puts up. In the SureStart (why not run words together? Keeping them separate is just so prescriptive and grown-up) centre in Poplar, near my work in Canary Wharf, they’ve had the bright idea of getting the children to decorate the façade. A series of squiggles and shaky-handed pictures of whales, bees and snails are randomly scrawled around the front door. I had to get up close to establish that they weren’t graffiti.
At a school in Thornhill Road, in Islington — a fine arts and crafts, late Victorian board school — the only thing desecrating it is the noticeboard at the front which proclaims that Mr M.J. Chappel is the ‘lead learner’. Mr Chappel, you see, may be the headmaster but really he knows no more than the kids — in fact, he should be sitting with them on the other side of the classroom, not standing up and being all dictatorial like that.
No wonder that, when these children leave school, few of them leave childhood behind. They’ve never been told to grow up. In fact they’ve been told the opposite; that there’s more wisdom among innocent children than among those wicked, warlike grown-ups. So, when they do get older, they inevitably go on behaving like children: eating things that are bad for them, swearing at figures in authority, unable to sit still or stay quiet on a train, incapable of paying attention for more than a few seconds at a time, impossible to drag away from their little tellies and stereos, even when they take on sleek grown-up form in the shape of laptops and iPods.
The list of grown-up babies goes on and on. Gang members insist on respect and throw babyish tantrums if they don’t get it, insulting each other’s mothers and threatening to kill one another. Adults read Harry Potter and rush to see The Lion King. Newsnight is unable to maintain a moment’s silence on its reports without a sudden blast of house music in the background. British adults, particularly men, have been dressing like babies for some time now. The watchwords are bright, primary colours, bagginess — to allow for expansion as you, like your baby, fatten up through the different clothes sizes — and as much cropping as possible to prevent the constriction of your cheerfully wagging baby limbs: crop tops, short sleeves and trousers cut off at the calf. Wonderful that you can now get adult-sized, squashy, comfortable trainers without those tricky laces, and Crocs, too, in lovely, lurid shades of plastic. And what about the nearest adult equivalent to a Babygro — the infinitely expandable tracksuit top and bottoms in pink terrycloth?
The same goes for food. No need to chop up, peel or liquidise food for the baby adult, because the supermarkets already stock ready-peeled oranges and beans, liquidised eggs and ready-made omelettes. Popeye Series, Jeff Koons’s new exhibition at the Serpentine, shows how popular Baby Chic is across the Atlantic, too. It’s full of babyish inflatables — cartoonish monkeys hooking their tails together to form a simian tower; Disneyesque lobsters doing handstands on kitchen chairs; with Popeye and Olive Oyl cropping up where Koons can’t be bothered to think up a new figure. There is a knowing archness to it, along the lines of, ‘You know this is babyish; I know this is babyish. But by putting it in a grown-up gallery, it becomes clever, subverts the norms, all that sort of thing, doesn’t it?’
Baby Chic isn’t the same as dumbing down, which means getting hold of something a little bit difficult — say maths lessons, or BBC drama — and then taking it down a few notches to make it appeal on a low-brow level. Baby Chic instead consciously apes babyish designs and transfers them to adult institutions, leaving them at the baby level, not daring to take them up a few notches to meet grown-ups halfway.
An attempt to be friendly, open and unstuffy, Baby Chic ends up being patronising and depressing; like being asked to play hopscotch by a High Court judge because he doesn’t think you’re up to anything more complicated. And it’s not just patronising to adults; it restricts children too. Children aspire to be more grown-up. That’s why they state their age at its upper limit — ‘I’m seven and three quarters, next month’ — while we grown-ups bargain our ages downwards. Their young, spongy brains have a much greater capacity for Latin verbs, times tables and Victorian novels than our declining, mature brains. Fine to turn to trashy thrillers and soaps once you’re grown up, as long as you’ve stuffed a few difficult things in your head when you were a child. If all you’ve ingested as a child is the trash, you’ll find it trickier to deal with difficult things when you’re an adult.
There’s nothing wrong in childish things appealing to grown-ups, if they remind them of their childhood or are beautifully done. But the artistry behind, say, the Babar books or Where the Wild Things Are requires sophisticated, adult skill. The horrifying thing about Baby Chic designers is that they imitate the scrawls and doodles done by children for themselves, rather than the expert art produced by adults for children. It’s dangerous to present babyish things as sophisticated like this — it implies that the human mind, and its capacity for the appreciation of beauty, shouldn’t pass beyond childhood. I Corinthians xiii 11 got it right: ‘When I was a child, I spoke as a child… but, when I became a man, I put away childish things…’ How can a teenager be expected to put away childish things when his parents are still desperately clinging on to them?
A Lust for Window Sills — a Lover’s Guide to British Buildings from Portcullis to Pebble-Dash by Harry Mount is published by Little, Brown (£12.99).