There are two sorts of people: those who can’t wait to grow up, and those who wish they never had to. It’s fair to say that women figure predominantly in the first group and men in the second, hence the preponderance of male fans of science fiction and fantasy — and dewy-eyed reminiscence about children’s television. I’ve been in many female friendship groups and can’t remember a single occasion on which we’ve sat around thinking about past puppets. On the contrary, the childish things we typically recall are our awful choices of make-up and clothes, and our adoration of the pretty-boy pin-ups in our teenage bedrooms: that is, the things we used to hasten the arrival of longed-for adult life.
The internet helps those reluctant to put away childish things just as much as it helps those too shy to have sex with real people. I imagine the Venn diagram of the two types has an overlap the size of Alaska. And it can be no accident that one of the first internet sensations was Friends Reunited, where adults, weary of the drudging, workaday world and their grudging grown-up marriages, could seek out their playground loves and feel young again.
There is no end to the online appetite for sweetness of all sorts; websites celebrating nostalgic confectionery flourish, leading to the paradox that middle-class parents communally fetishise the sweets they ate as schoolchildren while treating the confectionery their little darlings might get their clammy paws on as the work of the devil. There’s even a school of writing named after defunct candy; the coming-of-age novel The Queen of Bloody Everything was recently hailed as ‘a wonderful example of Spangles Lit’.
Greg Healey writes a column for the gorgeously named Shindig! magazine on this very subject and — perhaps because of the exclamation mark — I was expecting Not in Front of the Children to be a rompish easy read. But this look at children’s television animations from the end of the 1950s to the early 1970s is social history of great depth and erudition; Healey is not messing around when he titles chapters ‘Mr Benn and the Five Stages of Grief’, ‘Mary Mungo and Midge and the New Jerusalem’ and ‘Scooby Doo and Our American Monsters’.
Who knew, for instance, that the bowler hat and pinstripe combo of the stereotypical City clerk started life, respectively, as protective headgear for working-class men in high-risk occupations, and as a way of identifying convicts? Or that the 1954 committee of the Wolfenden Report on sexual offences was asked to refer to homosexuality and prostitution as Huntley and Palmers (after the biscuit manufacturers) in order to spare the feelings of ladies present? Healey is a lovely writer, playful and original: the animated Mr Benn, minus the briefcase and umbrella of the books, he says, looks ‘oddly naked, incomplete and maybe even a little flighty’.
Should we be worried that people now find maturity increasingly difficult? Has it something to do with nuclear weapons and knowing we’ll never again have to get out ourselves and defend the realm? Well, the ‘kidult’ has been with us for more than a decade, and though women may complain about male ‘commitmentphobes’ (aka someone who’s waiting for someone he’s really keen on before he gets married), there seem, if anything, to be rather too many children around in the West — especially in restaurants.
But there is always the spectre of half a million young Japanese men — hikikomori — who have entirely forsaken adult life for the solitary pleasures of online gaming and pornography. They are an important component in what the Japanese government calls ‘celibacy syndrome’, an imminent national catastrophe which has seen nearly half of their young women as well as more than a quarter of their young men ‘not interested in, or despising, sexual contact’. The Japanese Family Planning Association predicts a whopping one third plunge in the country’s population by 2060. Feminism — often blamed for the rise of the kidult — is hardly a big thing in Japan; but the nuclear bomb certainly was.
So, given such extremes in Japan, perhaps we should be keeping a weather eye on our own ‘adultescents’. It’s mind-blowing to think that a fondness for Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds could lead a species to the brink of extinction. But stranger things happen at sea — especially if Captain Pugwash is in charge.