I have such a vivid memory of being down by the river near Big Ben in London on New Year’s Eve and we wanted to get in to Parliament Square for the upcoming fireworks as we had done in previous years. It was an amazing place to be. We got there at around 9pm to find a fat rope and a heavy police cordon blocking off the area. There were some people on the desirable side of the rope but very few. It had been cordoned off at about 6pm that evening for health and safety reasons. It had been cordoned off when it was virtually empty and that was the bit that we struggled with. Of course you need crowd control but why cordon off prime New Year’s Eve public space before it was filled. This was no doubt a decision made by someone in an office to manage risk and it was nonsensical. And the poor police on the ground were just getting grief for it all evening. I wanted to scream at the Mayor that this was insanely ridiculous and he was an absolute killjoy. But I didn’t want to spend New Year’s Eve at Her Majesty’s pleasure in a cell somewhere. We had champagne to drink. So I buttoned it.
The poor old Health and Safety brigade have long been the butt of throw-away castigating comments when we feel behaviour is unreasonable or freedoms are curtailed. “Health and Safety gone mad” we say. I still have a blood boiling problem when I think of arriving in a small airport in Ireland with 2 young kids, paying a king’s ransom for a hire care with car seats and the guy saying to me that he couldn’t help me with the car seats for health and safety/insurance reasons. I can understand that he didn’t want to fit them in case I had an accident and then had a great idea to sue him but seriously, the big lazy lump couldn’t even help me carry them to the car. And the car was parked miles away. If I had a free hand, I would gladly have done the time for flattening him that day. It was a classic example of someone being lazy and in the wrong job but hiding behind health and safety. There is a lot of abuse of “health and safety” because people have become risk averse and are scared of being sued for God knows what.
Lazy lump was a one-off. Ever since, when I pick up a hire car and I find someone helpful – and the Irish tend to be faultlessly so – I am so gushing with thanks and praise that I appear a bit unhinged and they try to escape as soon as possible. I am working on the balance thing.
In Norway, health and safety as a basis for shaping society seems to be at a different stage of development altogether. There is a general premise that it is up to you to use a bit of common sense or ‘cop on’ as we Irish would say and if you do something stupid, then it is your fault and you might just ruin it for everyone. Collective ownership of common sense seems to work.
It is very common here to go to the beach in summer and bring your barbecue to grill lunch. There are no dedicated areas for grilling. There are no signs or rules. People are expected to use their common sense and not cause harm to anyone or damage to anything. In other countries, you would have a list of rules as long as your arm with the do’s and mainly don’ts. The only official nod to beach barbecuing here is big containers for safe disposal when you are finished.
People also light fires in the forest here. Again, the unwritten rule is that you don’t do anything stupid to harm man, beast or nature and everyone will continue to enjoy these freedoms.
I was stunned when I first went to Holmenkollen Ski Jump here in Oslo. I was with some friends visiting from Ireland. Holmenkollen is very impressive, host to numerous ski jumping world cups and even the Winter Olympics back in 1952. The jump is some 60 metres off the ground and there is a platform at the very top which is open to the public and gives a great view of Oslo and the fjord.
Wait for it, there were no security guards or staff manning the queue of bus loads of tourists who had never learned the art of queuing. Chaos but people found a way not to take each other out.
There was no staff member in the glass walled scary lift going at a 60 deg angle up to what felt like the sky. If you passed out, someone would hopefully roll you out at the top.
And the best bit, there were no security personnel on the platform at the top. No-one to say keep back from the edge, don’t jump, don’t lean over as you take your best photo. For some reason, we were stunned by this. We weren’t being managed, directed or protected from ourselves or others around us. That was our own job.
This owning of responsibility must be backed up by an attitude to litigation because this is what has partly ruined everything elsewhere, the ease at which you are promoted to find someone to blame and sue even though you made a mistake or did something not very clever.
The Norwegians don’t seen to subscribe to this. As daft as it sounds, it makes me feel quite grown up and responsible. I am being asked to use my discretion and decision-making power a lot more on a daily basis. I am not being told what to do all of the time. I am not being ushered along by lists of do’s and don’ts and ropes to keep me off the grass and security to stop me from injuring myself or someone else on rugged rocks or a straight flat path.
Maybe it will all change here too, it’s just a matter of time. One of the teachers at the barnehage said to me there are a lot more rules and directives now than 20 years ago. Some of that is inevitable perhaps. But right now, I am OK with the fact that I am trusted to make decisions and then own the consequences.