Maureen Lipman, who is to become a Dame, protests at being infantilised by increasingly irritating and inane Health and Safety announcements
In my day there was much talk of infantile paralysis – a bleak prognosis among childhood illnesses. It meant iron lungs, iron boots and years off school. Its medical name was poliomyelitis, abbreviated to polio. Today, in the aftermath of its blessed eradication in all but three countries, I’d like to reclaim the term ‘infantile paralysis’ for the way – thanks to Health and Safety – I am being made, daily, to feel.
Increasingly, inanimate objects issue directions at me in warm, mellow voices like a slightly dotty friend. The lift tells me lovingly that the doors are about to close or open, whether I’m going up or down and what I might expect to find when I reach my floor. I’ve been known to mutter, ‘Shut up, you’re a lift.’
My bus stop now digitally alerts me to the right bus. On the Tube or a train, the mellow voice advises me to ‘Mind the gap’, to be wary of unclaimed packages and look back at the rack above my seat to make sure I have taken all my belongings. The voice is that of my late mother, only missing the flat vowels and the threat of a hanky with spit on it.
It makes one feel quite gaga and utterly without common sense. All right, I did leave my pashmina in the overhead rack and I do have cranberry flapjack in the corner of my mouth, but I don’t want some voiceover actor, who earns more than I do, telling me off about it.
To add insult to injury, they’ve now painted two feet on the escalator steps – a left and a right foot – in case a grown person who’s been standing on escalators since she was on solids isn’t sure which way to face while travelling upwards.
My satnav talks down to me. Well, it has done the Knowledge, after all.
‘Right at next junction… No, I said right… And round the scary roundabout and up the stairs to Bedfordshire… you have reached your destination, check your teeth for spinach. Turn off the engine, pinhead.’
If you want really helpful instructions, buy a carton of juice. The printed guidance on my smoothie is beyond useful; it’s overfamiliar. ‘Hi! I’m your strawberry, raspberry, passion-fruit, kale and Jerusalem artichoke, five-a-day friend! Lick me, suck me, let me slide down your throat and you’ll grow thick hair and pert breasts in seconds…’
‘Bog off!’ I think. ‘I have friends of my own and you’re a carton!’
Its promises only get more ardent. It promises to taste good and do me good and never use concentrates or preservatives. ‘Concentrate on how preserved you feel now,’ I tell it. ‘In the wheelie bin, you wet, cardboard harlot.’
Have you checked the back of a packet of almonds recently? It will say, ‘beware. This product contains nuts!’ Or a packaged Stilton? ‘This cheese can kill! Do not consume if you are pregnant, or allergic to dairy or James Blunt.’
The situation is less clear in lavatories. Do you now turn a tap, press a tap or waft your hands around beneath the taps to satisfy the ‘please wash your hands’ sign. If the temperature takes you by surprise, you might have missed the very small notice saying, ‘beware! water very hot!’ Now you must fathom the drying of those clean, lightly burnt hands. Do you hit the dryer repeatedly underneath? Or do you thrust both hands downwards into the hand-shaped gaps and watch your ancient skin fly off the bones of your hands like long johns on a washing line?
Is the machine which looks like a dryer in fact a dispenser? If so, is it the type with paper towels dispensed in stacks of nine or ten which drop to the floor (‘beware this floor is wet!’) in a clump? Or the kind with a sheet of scratchy paper that descends, nicely torn, via a handle? It’s all trial – and mostly error.
It isn’t just inanimate objects that infantilise me. The estate agent, whom I’ve never met, rings cheerily: ‘Hi, Maureen. Tommy here. How ya doin’?’ How am I doing what? Pulling my knickers up? Going to school on my own? ‘Very well, thank you, but Mummy says I’m not to speak to strange estate agents. Goodbye.’
And don’t get me started on ‘pop’, as in ‘Just pop in here, dear, pop your clothes on the back of the door, pop on this gown, then wait in the waiting room until I can pop you in to see doctor.’
Am I imagining I’m being talked down to? Perhaps it isn’t patronising prattle but genuine concern? I resolve to meet the world with the warmth and friendliness that it metes out to me. Then I find myself on a train.
‘This weekend, the hour has changed,’ says the mellow voice, ‘which means it may be darker than usual when you return home at your usual time. Please take care.’ Once again, Health and Safety has endangered my health and safety by sending my blood pressure rocketing.
‘Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything,’ wrote Shakespeare, defining the seventh of our seven ages. He should have added, ‘Sans common sense… aw, bless.’