“Can’t do it, guv. Against regulations.” Those words make my heart sink.
I slipped into Tesco to buy chocolate (for Mrs Trafford: my strict personal regime forbids it). I had no change, so asked apologetically, “Can you change a £20?”
The young man at the checkout replied breezily: “Sorry. Not allowed to take that.” I was aghast: then I saw him grinning, and realised he was having me on.
How easily I believed him! I reckon we’re so used to being told that one thing after another is prohibited that I was instantly ready to sympathise with the Tesco employee about yet another daft rule coming down from management.
It’s the world we inhabit nowadays, and the process of becoming conditioned to finding all kinds of things irrationally forbidden starts young. A while ago some of my students at school wanted to do a fundraising stunt for charity. When I said regretfully that it wouldn’t be possible, they automatically assumed, “It’s about Health and Safety.”
“On the contrary”, I replied, “There’s nothing wrong with the idea. It’s just we can’t manage it that day”.
The teenagers had immediately concluded that H&S was the reason for not being permitted to do something outside the ordinary.
In institutional life it’s easy for negative instructions to proliferate. If we’re not careful, a school can become plastered with negative notices: No entry for pupils; no bags allowed; no running in corridors.
I’ve always tried to replace these with positive messages. If we really want to stop children leaving their bags all around the place (and we do, for reasons of Health and Safety!), we can write Please put your bag on the rack provided (though my Bursar once observed wryly that it’s hard to get round the legal requirement to post no smoking signs: I find those signs in taxis saying “Thank you for not smoking” just a little coy).
We Brits have always tended towards authoritarianism when it comes to signs. In pubs and elsewhere you encounter splendid reproductions of old Victorian prohibitions: no spitting, no swearing, no fighting. When I was young there were warnings in swimming-pools: no diving; no bombing. They might as well have added no breathing; no fun.
We can readily become heated about all this and berate the authoritarian nature of the nanny state: doctors telling us how much we should eat or drink; those Caution: wet floor signs we trip over in public toilets; schools banning conker-fighting; “bloody Brussels” binding us with pointless regulations and labyrinthine bureaucracy.
It’s easy to view all silly, interfering regulation and instruction in terms of some wider conspiracy or overarching urge for control. When we do so, we perhaps sense the spirit of so-called populist votes that mischievously, rebelliously overturn the tedious predictability of staying in a constricting, stultifying Europe, or of electing the predictable, experienced but essentially dull Hillary Clinton to the White House.
It’s nonsense, of course. The Health and Safety Executive doesn’t ban people from swathes of activity that used to be integral parts of everyday life. It merely asks that we assess risk where necessary, and don’t do stupid things: and it gets fed up with being used as the justification for timorous decisions by people unwilling to exercise responsibility.
We are human beings in a free country, however much we might moan. We have a voice: we can complain about petty-fogging regulations or silly notices making our lives difficult. When we find ourselves printing off those negative signs I’ve described, we can ask ourselves (a) whether they’re necessary at all and (b), if we must post them, whether we can couch them in positive rather than negative terms.
This isn’t something demanding social change. It’s not about “the people rising up” in rebellion against some strangling bureaucracy: it’s just about common sense and our refusing as individuals to be inconvenienced by petty rules.
For no particular reason, I’m reminded of a West Country joke. Old George is standing at the bar in his local, complaining about the way the pub has been modernised, all the old fittings removed and smart new vinyl introduced. “I do miss the old spittoon in the corner”, he complains.
“Ar, George”, replies his friend. “Thee always did!”
Spitting in the pub? Can’t let you do that nowadays, mate. Against regulations.