“Quotes of the Day” caught my eye in Thursday’s Herald, this one from Tory MP Sir Nicholas Soames, on the decision to silence the chimes of Big Ben for four years in order to protect the hearing of workers during the refurbishment of the Elizabeth Tower:
“Tell these poor little darlings to put headphones on.”
He might have said, “It’s health and safety gone mad I tell you!”
I developed an interest in health and safety from a very young age – I think I was about three – when I saw my first corpse. It was on Byres Road in Glasgow’s west end. A bloodied man lay supine, inert, across the tram lines. He was a cyclist whose front wheel had got jammed in the line, and he was struck by a vehicle. A lady, deeply upset, was screaming for somebody to bring a blanket to cover the body. Precisely this scenario recurred in Edinburgh earlier this year, at the corner of Princes Street and Lothian Road. The victim was a medical student.
Shortly after the Byres Road incident, Charlie, a pal of mine, abruptly ceased to come out to play with me. He had died, I was informed, as a result of having stuck a pencil up his nose. I was strongly advised never to stick a pencil up my nose. Indeed I never have. I suppose he must have breached the cribriform plate and introduced a bacterium with subsequent meningitis and perhaps a cerebral abscess.
At school, the russet front cover of the standard F2 jotter was completely dominated by road safety advice.
DANGER! DANGER! DANGER!
And then, a list of dos and don’ts.
At the kerb, halt, look right, look left, look right again…
It occurs to me that Nicholas Soames’s grandfather Sir Winston Churchill must not have had the benefit of an F2 at Harrow. In 1931 he stepped off the kerb and under a car. In his own words, he nearly died. Granted he was in New York and forgot the traffic was coming in the wrong direction but even so, if he had looked right, left, and right again, he would have saved himself a lot of trouble and a considerable period in hospital. Or, as the F2 sums it up:
Better a moment at the kerb, than a month in hospital!
How true. Winston’s summing up of the entire episode was characteristic.
“Live dangerously. All will be well!”
Despite, or perhaps because of the F2’s dire warnings, our cohort was given remarkably unsupervised and unrestricted freedom. We went out to play all day and in all weathers. In addition to the road safety advice, we were advised never to accept lifts from strangers. I was playing on a tricycle on the pavement of Glasgow’s Crown Road North – I was about four – when a mad woman came over, hurled abuse at me, and pitched me off my trike. I played chases with my cousins around the back lanes of the west end of Glasgow. I fell down a basement in Crown Road North again, cut my head open, and spent a night in Yorkhill Hospital for Sick Children. The following week I fell in Kinoull Lane and did the same again. Our games were largely of our own devising. We fashioned bows and arrows out of string and bits of cane. It’s a wonder one of us didn’t lose an eye. We had a crazy phase of firing air pistols at one another. We used a Gaelic bible for target practice. It survives, covered in bullet holes.
When I was in Primary VII I was in a team that took part in a road safety quiz competition under the auspices of the City of Glasgow Police. One of our teachers, Mr Ross, tutored us on the sorts of questions we might expect to be asked. We would stay behind after school for a practice session. Mr Ross would light a cigarette – Players or Capstan or Senior Service – and fire questions at us. He must have done his job well because we won the competition. We went on TV. I remember being grilled in a studio in BBC Scotland on Queen Margaret Drive. The programme went out live in the early evening. After that, by way of thank you, I and my fellow team members clubbed together and bought Mr Ross a packet of ten Senior Service. I got them from the Windsor Café just across the road from the school, where I would occasionally pop in to buy a “tipped single” for threepence. I was 11. I didn’t particularly realise it at the time, but I think Mr Ross was touched, perhaps even moved. It was like something out of The Browning Version.
I saw a great deal of road carnage while working in emergency medicine in New Zealand. The annual road toll at the time was about 500 fatalities. In a population of – then – just over three million, that is appalling. Per capita, it would equate to an annual road toll in the UK of 10,000. People were rather fatalistic about it. There seemed to be little awareness that road trauma, trauma of any kind, was a pathological entity that had an epidemiology. Trauma could be studied in terms of its aetiology, pathogenesis, morphology, and clinical features. William Haddon, the father of injury prevention in the United States, left us a model whose application might sometimes prevent, and would always attenuate trauma. This model is the Haddon Matrix. The Haddon Matrix is a square divided equally into nine smaller squares, like a template for a game of noughts and crosses. The x axis is a time axis labelled pre-event, event, and post-event. The y axis is a space axis labelled host, vehicle, and environment. In each of the nine squares are listed the interventions that might cut down morbidity and mortality. Take a road crash as an example. Here are some interventions you might consider:
Pre-event: host – go on an advanced driving course; vehicle – design to withstand impact; environment – enforce appropriate speed limits.
Event: host – wear a seatbelt; vehicle – deploy an airbag; environment – site crash barriers at dangerous bends.
Post-event: host – educate in the principles of first aid; vehicle – equip with an emergency locator beacon; environment – provide a sophisticated advanced trauma life support system.
You might say that is all common sense and indeed it is. But is sense common? Only a generation ago there was a political struggle to make it illegal not to wear a seatbelt. Such legislation was deemed by some to be an infringement of personal liberty. In motor sport, around the same time, three time F1 world champion Jackie Stewart started campaigning to improve survival rates in race car drivers who at the time would kiss their wives goodbye on the morning of a race and not know if they would return at night. Sir Jackie looked at drivers, cars, and race tracks. I don’t know if he was aware that he was utilising the Haddon Matrix. He was ridiculed and vilified by a substantial constituency of the old guard who thought that if drivers were not prepared to dice with death they should be sent a white feather. Some people entertain an absurd nostalgia for the good old days, of boys in grey flannel shorts and girls in gingham playing bows and arrows and hop-scotch in the street, of grinning miners with dirty faces and pneumoconiosis lighting up, and of the brylcreem generation driving death traps without seat belts up trunk roads without speed limits. Next to that, and to return to the Palace of Westminster, I suppose hearing loss due to noise exposure constitutes a less severe insult. Yet it is an occupational injury. I find myself deeply suspicious of somebody who cares to make a crass remark about “little darlings”. Why not shut the bongs down for four years? Radio Four could have a different outside broadcast every day at 6pm. I would recommend Glasgow University Tower.
I suspect the reluctance to silence Big Ben runs parallel with the reluctance of the establishment to vacate the Palace of Westminster for its much needed refurbishment. They can’t bear the idea of moving into a modest municipal building in Cardiff or Liverpool or Belfast or Dundee. I wonder if they fear, deep down, that without the pageantry, the trappings, and all the pomp and circumstance, they will be left with nothing but a void of vacuous emptiness.