I have been taking a little time out from the play world lately, and am remodelling an apartment that’s been vacant for some time. It feels good to be doing slightly dull, practical things, to be methodical and physical, scraping and scrubbing to the sounds of the radio.
This project brought me to B&Q, for more masking tape, a putty knife, sugar soap. I was at the self-checkout, swearing under my breath at the little voice telling me to replace my items in the bagging area and fumbling with my wallet, when a red box flashed up on the screen.
Customer Service Assistance Required.
Really? I thought I’d been managing quite well with the stupid thing, but a helpful sales associate came up, punched in a number and headed out.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Age restricted item,” she explained. “I had to tell it you’re overage.” She giggled.
“Really? Which one?” She lifted up the putty knife from my bag.
“It’s a knife, you see.”
“Oh. And what’s the age, on a putty knife?”
She told me, and I nearly had to use the knife to scrape my jaw off the floor.
Let’s leave aside for a moment the arguable knife-ness of a putty knife, or the effectiveness of an age-related ban on such things (which are widely available in Grandmother’s kitchen drawers all over the country). Concentrating only on the age limit set, this was astonishing. Before I tell you, let’s recap other national age limits.
In the UK, you can legally smoke at 16 (presumably after you’ve legally had sex). You can work, and start paying taxes. You can leave school.
You can drive at 17, drink at 18, and get married without your parents consent ( though hopefully sober). You can join the army, and vote on how those taxes you’ve been paying for the past two years are to be spent.
Now where might you place the potential hazard of a putty knife, pictured above, on that scale? Alongside cigarettes or children? Military warfare? Marriage? Does a putty knife, in the hands of a young person, offer more or less danger to themselves and others, than those things do?
You’re wrong! It’s worse than all of them. Putty knives are SO TERRIFYING that you must be 21 to wield one.
I am imagining that this it a company policy, rather than a national one, but I don’t know. It’s the first time I’ve been IDed for one, at any rate. Even so, it makes a point about our fears of young people and how long we believe that youth continues for. I can see why B&Q don’t want to be linked to any knife-related horror (oh, the publicity!) but this still seems absurdly inflationist about the nature of the danger, and how long that danger goes on for.
A person could be a professional interior decorator, with their own business which supports a partner, and children already in school, before being allowed to buy a putty knife at this store. They could have been working legally in the field for 5 years, and still considered incompetent, dangerous to the populace.
This is the kind of discrimination that illuminates our own panic about children, and paints them all with the broadest possible brushstrokes of violence and ineptitude.
What to do about it? I was wondering just that later, while scraping at the walls. The peelings of long gummy paper came away and revealed this – not the answer to my specific question, perhaps, but other Douglas Adams fans out there will recognize it as the Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything.
For now, that will have to do.