Welcome to Hedgewizard's Hollow! This week, I have been seeking a crucial screw in the grass. I should explain... It was Number Two Son's fifth birthday recently, and a few days ago a hot and extremely disgruntled courier staggered down to the Hollow carrying two very cardboard boxes. These proved to contain a trampoline, a very generous grandparental gift, and after hiding them under a sock* for a few days Number One Son and myself dragged them out to the garden for assembly.
The actual trampoline was extremely easy to put together and an impressively simple piece of engineering, but the instructions were written in a manner that somehow conveyed the sense of a foreign language, even though they were in English; "locate into the slot the safety tab here as indicated" being a nice example. We were able to work things out, but as we slapped together the safety netting, cushioned edge, padded uprights and apparently mandatory safety notice,** N1S could see the emergence of a pattern.
"What safety precautions did trampolines have when you were a kid, Dad?" he asked. I thought for a minute. "There was a little bag attached to the frame," I said at last, "to put your teeth in during the journey to hospital." I remember the only privately-owned trampoline in 1970s South Belfast with some fondness and more than a little fear. It was on the far side of the Sloanes' garage, invisible from the house and therefore, in the minds of children everywhere, practically municipal property. However, so hazardous was this device that using it unaided was widely regarded as suicidal; you took a mate with you to watch you bounce, and holler if you started drifting away from the middle.
I was never injured on the Sloane's trampoline myself, but I did see an older boy making a mess of his dismount and falling through the mat with one leg on either side of one of the massive springs. He bounced once, a hard little bounce that spoke of boundless pain and surprise, and then toppled motionless to the waiting earth with a horrible breathy squeak. The tale spread through the neighbourhood like wildfire and it was more effective than any laminated safety sign, I can tell you; we could not have been more careful of the spring-loaded beast if it had been surrounded by skulls on sticks, or festooned with the testicles of the unwary.
But then again, it was the 1970s. In the 70s we hurtled around in vehicles uncluttered by seat belts and innocent of airbags. In the 70s we heated our homes with monoxide and trimmed our hair with chainsaws - or so you'd think, judging by the impressive welter of legislation passed in the last decade or so under the bloated grey umbrella of "Health and Safety".
Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying we should go back to the 70s*** nor change over to an Indonesian approach to road safety (where a dozen people routinely sit on the roof of a bus, ducking down every time it goes under a bridge, except when someone forgets). But some time in the recent past somebody set up a department staffed by maybe a hundred regulators, gave them salaries and a coffee machine, left them to it and then unexpectedly died in the elevator on the way out. Now no-one knows where they are or how to stop them. They've been ticking away ever since, chucking out reams and reams of directives on how things can be made safer and safer, and making less sense every year.
F'rinstance, we have a fluorescent tube flickering at work. It's annoying. A few years ago I would have turned the circuit off at the fuse box, stood on a chair to take the old one out, and replaced it with a new one from a nearby electrical store. Ten minutes, tops. Now however, H&S policies in the workplace mean that I have to contact our maintenance department. Then a third party maintenance firm send a van out from sixty miles away because they're the lowest bidder to replace the tube. The last time this happened, said van didn't have the right bulb on board and had to return the following day. Net result? I quietly retire the old tube and do without the light, until so many tubes have gone that we can't see what we're doing any more, although this itself should probably trigger a "risk assessment".
That's not an isolated problem, by the way; there's hardly a day goes by that I don't see something in the paper about the gonzos at the Health and Safety Executive stopping someone from doing something. The quaint English custom of conkers was all but killed off a few years ago (for anyone that doesn't know, this involves passing a length of string through the large seed of a horse chestnut, drying it, and then using it to try to kill someone else's dried horse chestnut seed. It's more fun than it sounds), Christmas Puddings may no longer contain a coin, and nationally fewer village fetes and town festivals are held every year because of the rising costs of complying with daft legislation.
My point is this. Life is an inherently risky business. No matter how hard we try, we can't eliminate risk for ourselves and we certainly can't eliminate it for our children - although we can suck all the fun out of their lives by trying. Using N2S's trampoline as a metaphor for life, does sticking a mesh enclosure around it (which he hurls himself against with great joy, trusting it to save him) merely keep him safe - or does it stop him from perceiving and calculating the risk all together?
* It's quite incredible, but the invisibility field generated by just one of N2S's socks is quite potent enough to hide two six-foot boxes. I've long speculated about why both sons are unable to see their discarded socks and put them into the laundry basket, and this experiment shows just how powerful the effect is. I'm actually very relieved that I didn't use one of Number One Son's socks. In his case the invisibility field is so powerful that even I might not have been able to find the boxes again (except possibly by scent).
** A legal nicety. Some years ago an enterprising security firm began supplying potentially lethal intruder deterrents; razor wire, electrified door handles, tear-gas tripwires, that sort of thing. Test prosecutions resulted in judgements designed to deter householders from using these devices, as a result of which we all now understand that we have a legal duty of care towards any visitors to our property - even if such visits are by an uninvited unshaven man in dark clothing, and occur at 2am. This is why my chickens are protected by a fence with a sign on which says "Caution! Electrified fence! Do not attempt to steal these chickens if you have a heart condition or pacemaker!", and why N2S's trampoline has a similar warning notice. After all, we wouldn't want the burglars to be bruised if they were tempted to enjoy an illicit moonlit bounce now, would we?
***Although it's an interesting thought. There was a highly interesting party in Dundrum in about 1984 that I'd like a second crack at, except this time without drinking half a bottle of stolen cherry brandy before attempting to speak to the girl in the white dress. I wonder what happened to her? After the dry cleaning, I mean.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist May 2008