11 NOVEMBER 2006, Page 49

The tyranny of nanny

Nicholas Harman

BIG BABIES by Michael Bywater Granta, £14.99, pp. 262, ISBN 1862078831 ✆ £11.99 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655 Grumpy grand-dads do their job best when, behind the façade, they pretend to be really loveable. Michael Bywater, who accepts the irritating label of ‘baby boomer’ (born 1953), makes no pretence of loveability. Instead he is very, very funny. ‘Something has gone wrong,’ he says, and he knows what it is; the nannying that we all put up with in practically every transaction of our lives. A lesser man would blame it on the obvious culprits, the lying advertisers and politicians and health-and-safety regulators and all the jumped-up ‘authorities’ whose condescend ing orders and advice and cajolements plague us every day. Bywater knows that the ones to blame are ourselves, the big babies who put up with the nonsense. It is all, he rightly points out, our own fault, and there is no chance that we will do anything to stop it.

The idea is simple, the execution sharp. Example after example hurtles painfully off the page. He finds 25 separate, mostly meaningless, written notices on a single carriage of the train to Swindon, deconstructs an advertisement for an impossibly expensive watch, and wastes little time on our prime minister and his friend in Washington. The jokes, some of them as disgusting as Swift’s, do not flinch before things people hold dear, including religious belief. Facing the absurdity of ‘intelligent design’, he can only point out that ‘eighty per cent of everything is stupid’.

This review would give you lots of laughs if it consisted entirely of Bywater quotations. But he is a hard man to quote. The fun of his method is to wrap a simple story in elaborate sentences, curling down the page with afterthoughts and timely self-contradictions. He casts himself as an accomplished and welleducated person (can fly an aircraft, remembers Latin tags, refers glancingly to Derrida), and ruefully acknowledges his own pretentiousnesses. But although he admits to wearing the sort of ‘pilot’s watch’ that pilots never, never use for telling the time, he shamelessly poses for his jacket photograph in dark glasses, as though he needs helping across the road.

We get the idea, and the technique, after a dozen pages. But back it comes again and again. Each hilarious example is followed by another hilarious example, and if he cannot find one in real life he gets it off the internet, that inexhaustible mine of ill-written tripe. Bywater, so good at writing newspaper columns, has difficulty filling a whole slim book. The reader’s remedy, no doubt, is to buy the book and read it in snatches, with brief relish. The index is particularly enjoyable, including the admirably obscure entry: ‘aorist tense, implied by hyphenated adverbial modifier, example of, 12n’.

With 20 years of temporal seniority over the author, I find a central flaw in the claim that his baby-boom crowd is outstandingly disadvantaged by the absurdity of the world it has survived into. In my time the advertisements, although by present standards fairly restrained, nevertheless asserted that cigarettes made you attractive to women and dark beer was ‘good for you’. There were no health-and-safety nannies, but children got chilblains, and the dentist drilled away without stabbing anaesthetic into their gums. Grown-ups couldn’t tell that the government was lying because it did practically everything in secret, and when you were 18 it gave you a scratchy uniform, encouraged a man with stripes on his arm to yell obscenities at you, then sent you off to be blown up on the other side of the world. The good old days were horrible too, without even Michael Bywater to help you laugh at them.