Tuesday 5 December 2006

How stupid can you get?

Dangerous things, fireworks, as the residents of Lewes have just been reminded in a tragic and spectacular fashion. The reports reminded me of this paper’s tally of North East casualties from Guy Fawkes Night, which included a 22-year-old from Sunderland who had been “left with serious internal burns after launching a rocket from his backside”.

I have been lying awake at nights wondering just what combination of circumstances could lead anyone to conclude that this was a good idea. It’s the sort of behaviour that so often leads to a citation in the annual Darwin Awards, presented to those people (actually, let’s be honest, men; it’s always men) who have done most to enhance the human gene pool by removing themselves from it in an extravagantly stupid manner.

In a world increasingly obsessed by Elfin Safety, as I wrote last week, one has to ask: was he properly warned? Did he buy the rocket from one of the major retailers who were being lambasted by the Chief Constable of Northumbria for having fireworks on sale? If you buy a bottle of milk from Tesco, it comes with a small, bright red warning on the back: “Allergy advice: contains milk”. Just in case you missed the same word in much larger but less luridly coloured letters on the front of the pack.

Did the rocket carry an equivalent panel saying “Safety advice: do not ram this projectile it into any part of your body before lighting the blue touch paper”? If not, I sense that some wholesaler or retailer could well be in a lot of expensive trouble as the lawyer elves Blame and Compensation set to work.

On the bigger issue, just how do fireworks depots come to be Iocated on small industrial estates near houses? It’s a mystery on a par with that warehouse full of priceless art in east London which proved to be sharing its premises with a whole host of highly flammable small workshops. Or the Buncefield oil storage depot, surrounded by housing and a huge range of businesses including, surreally, a leading supplier of secure off-site back-up for companies’ IT systems.

I visited a fireworks factory once, in the far-off days when we actually made things in this country. This was very sensibly positioned on an island in the River Trent, and comprised a series of well-separated brick buildings to localise the risk of any explosion. Raw materials were transported very slowly around the site on the back of ancient tricycles. I am not making this up.

The highlight was a demonstration of the firm’s recent diversification into crowd control, which was basically a big firework that discouraged rioters by pelting them with ball bearings. It blew large holes in the cardboard cut-outs they’d assembled for display purposes. Invited to develop a positive PR campaign for this exciting new development, I made an excuse and left at the speed of a rocket exiting from a milk bottle or, indeed, a backside.

Now products like that, and the location of dangerous enterprises near people’s homes, are definitely the sort of thing that any Government should be clamping down on. My well-developed “bah, humbug” instincts tell me that fireworks generally are an anti-social nuisance. But as a libertarian, I feel that it is wrong to prevent people buying them. In general, we should have the freedom to spend our money however we like, so long as we behave responsibly.

The problem is that we have moved into a world where no-one is considered to be a responsible adult any more. Our personal freedoms are ever more constrained as huge teams of officials work around the clock to eliminate even the slightest risk that we might harm or kill ourselves. Yet on a vastly larger scale, oil and fireworks depots continue to go up in flames. Can we really claim to have got our priorities right?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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