Tuesday 16 February 2010

Risk and elitism in the firing line

All-out war continues, not just in Afghanistan, but against domestic enemies as diverse as risk, elitism, racism, sexism, obesity and drunkenness. Almost the complete range of my interests and enthusiasms, in fact.

I was powerfully reminded of the campaign to eliminate risk by a report on Saturday that no fewer than nine fire engines had raced to Newcastle’s Mansion House so that firefighters (not, God forbid, firemen) in gas-tight suits could deal with a deadly seepage of mercury from an antique clock.

Forty years ago, just across Osborne Road at the Royal Grammar School, my schoolmates and I regularly amused ourselves by shunting globules of mercury around the railway lines carved in the ancient desks of the science department by previous generations of bored youths. Clearly we are lucky to be alive.

I returned to the school on Friday, in response to a kind invitation to lunch from its governors, and found that the passage of time had not erased a feeling of mild foreboding on entering the premises.

I arrived on the dot of 12.30 to avoid the risk of being slammed in late detention, carefully checked that my tie and trousers were properly fastened, and felt vaguely guilty that I was not wearing a crested blue cap.

Perhaps it is because the place has undergone such a comprehensive physical transformation since I left in 1971 that I feel strongly tempted to send my own son there, when he reaches the appropriate age in around 2017. All I will need is a full-time job in the North East paying enough to cover the fees, with a minimum retirement age of 75. All offers gratefully received.

My own parents faced no comparable concerns, because I enjoyed a Northumberland County Council scholarship; one of those devices designed to promote social mobility (still very good, apparently) but abolished because they were also redolent of elitism (now thoroughly bad).

On Sunday, my wife and I found another front opened in the war against risk at the church where we were married, which had been transformed into a building site. Contractors were busily levelling the floor, which had served perfectly well for two or three hundred years, because Elfin Safety now deemed it to pose an unacceptable “trip hazard”.

Later that day, I found myself in a restaurant opposite a man who shockingly observed of the passers-by “There are a lot of foreigners around here.” Ordinarily this would have been the cue for a visit from the diversity awareness police, but it merely raised a slightly puzzled laugh because the speaker was my Iranian father-in-law. A man so comprehensively assimilated that he answers the question of whether he prefers to be known as Iranian or Persian with “Actually, I prefer to be called British.”

I did not dare to ask how he felt about the news that the BNP was now prepared to admit (“welcome” might be pushing it, I guess) ethnic minority members. But I was interested to find that my wife’s uncle thoroughly approved of some distinctly non-PC remarks I had posted on my blog about that Iranian “criminal in uniform” Ali Dizaei, who rose almost to the top of the Metropolitan Police by relentlessly playing the “racism” card against anyone who stood in his way, and somehow became president of the Black Police Association despite what many might have seen as the fatal handicap of not being the least bit black.

This Persian feast was not quite the romantic meal √† deux I had envisaged for my first Valentine’s Day as a married man, but it certainly beat the previous 40 years of moodily chewing a TV dinner for one, and regretting the lack of mawkish greetings cards on my mantelpiece.

Yes, even I am prepared to concede that, once in while, some things do change for the better.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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