Magazine | February 8, 2010, Issue

Carried Away

‘It’s ’Elf ’n’ Safety, mate, innit?” You only have to spend, oh, 20 minutes in almost any corner of the British Isles to have that distinctive local formulation proffered as the explanation for almost any feature of life. The signs at the White Cliffs of Dover warning you not to lean over the cliff? It’s Health & Safety, mate. Primary schools that forbid their children to make daisy chains because they might pick up germs from the flowers? Health & Safety, mate. The decorative garden gnomes Sandwell Borough Council ordered the homeowner to remove from outside her front door on the grounds that she could trip over them when fleeing the house in event of its catching fire? Health & Safety. The fire extinguishers removed from a block of flats by Dorset risk assessors because they’re a fire risk? Health & Safety. Apparently the presence of a fire extinguisher could encourage you to attempt to extinguish the fire instead of fleeing for your life.

In December a death in the family brought me face to face with Health & Safety. I don’t mean the deceased ex­pired because he tripped over a garden gnome or succumbed to a toxic daisy chain: He died of non–Health & Safety–related causes. A funeral just before Christmas is always a logistical nightmare, and I didn’t really start grieving until the car pulled into the churchyard. It was a picture-perfect English country setting: The old part of the church dates from the 9th century, and the new part from the 10th century. I felt a mild pang of envy at such a bucolic resting place: mossy gravestones, the shade of a yew tree, cattle grazing across the church wall.

Ahead of us, the pallbearers emerged from the hearse, very sober and reserved. And at that point they produced a contraption halfway between a supermarket cart and a gurney. “What’s that?” asked someone. Funeral directors are immensely finicky, and, in the course of a thousand and one questions about the size of this, the color of that, nobody had said anything about a shopping cart.

“Oh, that’s to roll the coffin in on,” replied one of the pallbearers.

“Hang on,” I said. “You’re pallbearers. Aren’t you going to carry the coffin?”

“Not allowed, mate. ’Elf ’n’ Safety. The path’s uneven.” He motioned to the dirt track leading from the church gate to the door.

“The path’s been uneven for a thousand years,” I pointed out, “but it doesn’t seem to have prevented them holding funerals.”

“It’s not me, it’s ’Elf ’n’ Safety,” he said, sullenly. “They’d rather we wheeled it in in case one of us slipped. On the uneven path.”

#page#We conferred. The ladies were unhappy about the Wal-Mart cart. “Screw this,” said my brother-in-law gallantly. “We’ll carry it in.” He motioned to me and a couple of other male relatives.

“You can’t do that,” protested the head pallbearer. “You’re not licensed pallbearers.”

“So what?” I said. “As you’ve just explained, a licensed pallbearer is explicitly licensed not to bear palls.”

“You can’t just pick up the coffin and take it in!” he huffed. It was now the undertakers’ turn to confer. Inside the church, the organist was vamping the old Toccata & Fugue and wondering where everyone was. I had a vague feeling we were on the brink of the more raucous moments of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s funeral, with rival mobs tugging his corpse back and forth.

The pallbearer returned. “We’ll carry it,” he informed us, “but you blokes have to help us. That way, if ’Elf ’n’ Safety complain, we can say you made us do it, and they can take it up with you.”

“I don’t believe New Hampshire would extradite for that,” I said confidently. And we made a rather moving and solemn sight as we proceeded stiffly down the dangerously uneven path that villagers had trod for over a millennium until we reached the even more dangerously un­even ancient, worn flagstones of the church itself.

As they say over there, it’s Health & Safety gone mad, innit? Or as a lady put it after the funeral, as we were discussing the fracas, “There’s only one thing that annoys me more than Health & Safety gone mad, and that’s when people say, ‘Ooh, it’s Health & Safety gone mad.’” I know what she means. In Britain, the distillation of any daily grievance into a handy catchphrase seems to absolve one of the need to do anything about it. As long as they can grumble the agreed slogan, they’ll put up with ever more absurd incursions on individual liberty. No state can insure its citizenry against all risks, although in Nanny Bloomberg’s New York City and hyper-regulated California they’re having a jolly good go. And that’s the point: The goal may be unachievable, but huge amounts of freedom will be lost in the attempt. The right to evaluate risk for oneself is part of what it means to be a functioning human being.

Meanwhile, back at the headquarters of the Health & Safety Executive itself, it was reported in 2007 that staff are forbidden to move chairs lest they do themselves an injury. Instead, a porter has to be booked 48 hours in advance, which makes last-minute seating adjustments at staff meetings somewhat problematic. “Pull up a chair”? Don’t even think about it.

It’s good to know that at their own HQ the ever more coercive tinpot bureaucrats don’t just talk the talk, they walk the walk. Even if they won’t push the push. 

Mark Steyn — Mark Steyn is an international bestselling author, a Top 41 recording artist, and a leading Canadian human-rights activist.

In This Issue


Politics & Policy

Assimilating Down

If Rep. Luis Gutierrez gets his way, Americans will soon be engaged in another bare-knuckled brawl over the future of U.S. immigration policy. On December 15, the Illinois Democrat unveiled ...
Politics & Policy

Balancing Act

The Obama administration’s signature education initiative, Race to the Top, has produced genuine headline news: The Democrats, usually seen kowtowing to organized labor’s demands, for once are standing up to ...
Politics & Policy


A trailer for the new movie Daybreakers invites us to “ima­gine a world where almost everyone is a vampire.” That shouldn’t be too hard. It seems like we’re already living in ...


Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

Future Imperfect

In this intriguingly contrarian re­work of the Thomas Friedman “hot and flat” motif, Gregg Easterbrook asserts that venture capitalists are no better than lottery players when it comes to choosing ...
Politics & Policy

Generation Gap

The dilemmas of youth are universal. Consider Nicholas and Victoria, a pair of late-blossoming youngsters cur­rently making their way toward adult­hood at a multiplex near you. Respectively male and female, ...
Country Life

Upstate Blues

Christmas has come and gone, even for the Eastern Orthodox, and the stores are looking ahead to Valentine’s Day. But many upstate lawns still have their Christmas decorations: Santa, Frosty, ...


Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ Just wait to see what we have planned for Vermont. ‐ The earthquake spared nothing, from ordinary homes to the palace and the cathedral, and cost tens of thousands of ...
The Long View

From the Wednesday Inbox

TO: FROM: SUBJ:  our clients Dear Joe: I just got an e-mail from my client. He has been watching the Massachusetts Sen­ate returns closely — he says it reminds him a lot ...
Politics & Policy


FOOTNOTE *He lied. [When he left and said he didn’t love you anymore, that he needed to find some space to grow as a person, above all, as an artist, a writer of some ...
Happy Warrior

Carried Away

‘It’s ’Elf ’n’ Safety, mate, innit?” You only have to spend, oh, 20 minutes in almost any corner of the British Isles to have that distinctive local formulation proffered as ...
Politics & Policy


Incumbent Slayers In his review of Craig Shirley’s Rendezvous with Destiny (“Bliss Was It in That Dawn,” January 25), Jay Cost writes that Ronald Reagan “was the only candidate in the ...

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

O’Rourke’s America

With apologies to Margaret Atwood and a thousand other dystopian novelists, we do not have to theorize about what an American police state would look like, because we know what it looks like: the airport, that familiar totalitarian environment where Americans are disarmed, stripped of their privacy, divested of ... Read More

Kurdish, Syrian, and Turkish Ironies

Outrage met Donald Trump’s supposedly rash decision to pull back U.S. troops from possible confrontational zones between our Kurdish friends in Syria and Recep Erdogan’s expeditionary forces. Turkey claims that it will punish the Syrian Kurds for a variety of supposed provocations, including aiding and ... Read More

LeBron James Looks Like a Fraud

So, LeBron James claimed that Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey was simply “misinformed or not really educated on the situation” when he tweeted his support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. “I don’t want to get into a feud with Daryl Morey, but I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Hey, Good for You, Chelsea Clinton

Chelsea Clinton declares on The View that she’s not considering running for Congress. Throughout the run-up to the 2016 election, I was a pretty dyspeptic critic of Chelsea Clinton -- from her $1,083-per-minute speaking gig at a university, to her selection to give the keynote address at SXSW, to her awards ... Read More