Boris Johnson—Mayor of London, former Member of Parliament, journalist, and well-known cycling enthusiast—wrote a piece in the Telegraph recently in support of parents who allow their kids to bicycle to school by themselves. A head teacher (US: principal) had threatened to report parents to social services for putting their children’s safety at risk by allowing them to bike to school without adult protection; Johnson called the parents “heroes”, who “have taken the sword of common sense to the great bloated encephalopathic sacred cow of elf and safety.”
You’ve got to love a politician who can churn out that kind of verbiage, but some American readers may be wondering about the final phrase.
It’s usually spelled ’elf; if we’ve gotten to the point that educated people like Johnson are dropping the apostrophe, then the phrase has well and truly entered the language. ’Elf stands for health, a compromise between a phonetic spelling and punctuation to show that the h ought to be there at the front, but isn’t. It’s health the way Cockneys and some other English speakers would pronounce it. Such a person with, let’s suppose, a brother called Keith might say “The doc told Keef ’e’s got to give up ’is ciggies, they’re bad for ’is ’elf.”
The phrase health and safety is shorthand for the mass of laws and regulations created to protect us. If you’re not a Cockney you can mock the term by saying ’elf and safety instead, to show you think regulations have gone far beyond where common sense might expect them to stop. (Cockneys can do that, too, it’s just that you can’t tell they’re mocking since they’d say it that way anyhow.)
Editorials also rail against the nanny state—a phrase suggesting we’re burdened by laws and regulatory safeguards, as if we can’t take care of ourselves so the government has to do it—or the compensation culture—a phrase used by those who think people don’t take responsibility for their personal actions any more, but feel that if anything at all goes wrong, someone ought to pay them for it. Together with ’elf and safety, the phrases suggest an attitude toward minimizing risk that comes close to saying that life should have no risks, that bad things shouldn’t happen, and that if they do, it’s always someone’s fault.
I didn’t pay a lot of attention to any of these until they hit me where it hurts: in a library.
The Bodleian, the University of Oxford’s main research library, is the oldest library in the country and one of the oldest in Europe. It was founded in 1602—the year Shakespeare was writing Alls Well That Ends Well, the year before Elizabeth I died, and almost two decades before someone on the Mayflower said, “Look, chaps! I do believe I see some sort of land or something over there.”
Being historic doesn’t get you any slack from ’elf and safety. The Bodleian’s oldest reading room, called Duke Humfrey’s Library, looks like my idea of heaven. The Harry Potter filmmakers cast it as Hogwarts’ library. But ’elf and safety staff banned the centuries-old practice of using stepladders to get to the topmost shelves on the gallery (a sort of mezzanine); the gallery railing, it seems, is too low, and someone falling off a stepladder could fall all the way to the floor below.
Problem: the library doesn’t want to re-locate the books. Those books have been there for centuries, and that’s where the library thinks they belong. So it’s stalemate. Until some compromise is reached (if I may suggest the obvious, there are ladders with safety cages around them) students can look up and see the books, but that’s it. The next-nearest copy of most of those volumes is going to be at the British Library in London, since these aren’t the kind of things you pick up from a rack next to the latest Dan Brown at the public library; Duke Humfrey’s Library concentrates on manuscripts—and papyri—produced before 1641.
That story piqued my interest because I’m a library junkie. Now almost every week I notice new stories in the press: packages of nuts that must by law be marked “May Contain Nuts” for the safety of allergy sufferers who might accidentally ingest a nut while they’re eating their package of nuts; bilingual (English-Welsh) “No Smoking” signs sent to freelancers to be posted, presumably, over their desks in converted attics, to remind everyone that workplaces are now smoke-free. (Actually the law doesn’t apply to those working at home so long as delivery workers don’t enter the building, and fewer than two employees who do not live there come onto the premises. This led one freelancer I know to ask why you’re allowed to poison one secretary, but not two.)
’Elf and safety has become such a hot topic that in the rush to give the public examples to tut-tut over, lots of stories appear that don’t hold up to scrutiny. For example, it’s not true, although it was widely reported, that schools now require children to wear goggles when playing conkers.
There is no US equivalent of playing conkers as far as I know; Wikipedia says that Americans play the game, but I only know it as a British phenomenon. Conkers are the beautiful hard seeds you find inside the spiky balls that fall from horse chestnut trees; where I grew up, we called them buckeyes. You force a hole through a conker/buckeye, thread a string or a shoelace through the hole, and take turns swinging your conker against somebody else’s until one of them shatters—thus the perceived need for goggles. Players try various schemes to harden their conkers—I’m told soaking in vinegar is popular—though chemically treated conkers aren’t considered strictly fair play.
It turns out no such goggle requirement existed: a single safety-conscious head teacher (US: principal) bought goggles for conker-playing children at his school, by some reports the kids thought the goggles were fun, and it all happened years ago anyway. What does seem to be true, from what I can tell, is that horse chestnut trees have been lopped, totally removed, or had their seeds harvested by council (US: local government) workers in a variety of places across the country and for a long list of reasons: risk of children being struck by cars while gathering conkers, risk of children falling from trees ditto, risk of pedestrians slipping in the mulch of conker shells on the pavement (US: sidewalk) below, risk of concussion from falling conkers, and so on.
While it may seem that cutting down trees is overkill, each institution has to interpret for itself how the health and safety regulations apply. In the case of the Bodleian, university officials rather than government officials banned the ladders, but did so in an effort to comply with legislation one section of which, headed “Avoidance of risks from work at height”, says employers must take “suitable and sufficient” measures to ensure the safety of workers on ladders. That being rather vague, and with our increasing tendency towards litigation, you can hardly blame the poor ’elf and safety officer. Presumably the head teacher who won’t let the kids bicycle to school alone was doing his or her best to comply, too.
In part to separate urban myths from truth, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), an arm of the government’s Department of Work and Pensions, has set up a website, complete with a myth of the month; this July they debunk the story going around that HSE banned sticks in candy floss (US: cotton candy). I mentioned a while back that at our church fête this year, the candy floss was sold in plastic bags and not on sticks, but apparently this is neither down to ’elf and safety or “the nanny state gone mad” (a much-used phrase), but with what’s cheaper for the candy floss seller.
The HSE also defends itself against charges of requiring trapeze acrobats to wear hardhats, prohibiting graduates from throwing mortarboards into the air, banning poles in fire stations, and prohibiting the strange—to me—local practice of hanging teddy bears and similar toys on the front grilles of rubbish lorries (US: the front grills of garbage trucks). Any number of eccentric British traditions have been plagued with rumours of cancellation due to ’elf and safety, including pancake races and cheese rollings.
I don’t really mind most of those things—though I suppose the world would be a sadder place if firefighters couldn’t shimmy down poles—as long as they don’t mess with the availability of books. If there’s been any resolution to the Bodleian’s dilemma in Duke Humfrey’s Library, I haven’t read it in the papers or found it on the web, but apparently most of the content of those unreachable volumes is available electronically. Book lovers know that’s not the same, though. You miss the texture and the smell. Anybody lucky enough toget to work with medieval manuscripts shouldn’t be blocked by ’elf and safety from the thrill of turning real pages. That can’t be reproduced—and neither can the excitement of riding your bike to school for the first time all by yourself.
UPDATE: Just found the response of the headteacher in the conkers story. He says that it was the kids’ idea to wear goggles and that after publication of the story about his school, the World Junior Conkers Championships on the Isle of Wight began requiring players to be goggled.