‘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.