22 December 2012

On being a "deviationist" in several senses...

It's not something you claim, more something you confess (usually under duress).

I recently watched "The Golden Age of Steam Railways" on BBC4 about the redevelopment of the Talyllyn and Ffestiniog narrow-gauge railways in North Wales; the last 15 minutes or so concerned the construction of the "deviation", a loop from Dduallt round the the Tanygrisiau reservoir to restore the full track to Blaenau Festiniog. Like the page I linked to, that last sentence probably told you more than you ever wanted to know about the potentially obsessional world of the railway enthusiast.

I have enormous respect for the thousands of people who worked on what must count as one of the greatest purely voluntary civil engineering projects ever undertaken, over a ten year period. My involvement was trivial and incidental, so I claim no credit--but I do have a debt to the project, for what I learned.

First, I participated in a weekend working-party. Leave London after work on Friday, pile into a minibus, drive up the A5--largely pre-motorway--arrive on site at 11pm in the dark and climb to the base in a Nissen hut (no plumbing) --work every possible hour until dark on Sunday, and then travel back. And pay expenses for the privilege...

... and a week's working party, noted here, rather nostalgically.

My previous account concluded, "Wouldn't have missed it for the world." That is rather over-stating it. I can come clean. I hated every minute of it. I did it out of some perverse sense of duty and allegiance to an organisation which I really enjoyed belonging to in my teens, and out of loyalty to a good friend who was leading the group and who wanted a sidekick...

However, some memories do abide...
  • From today's perspective, the whole set-up appears naively trusting--I don't remember even having to provide a character reference to become a leader of a residential group of 12-15 year old boys, based in a Nissen hut up a mountain and totally isolated from the rest of the world (other than on foot over difficult terrain) between 8 pm and 8 am. It was not simply a "safeguarding" issue--that term and indeed that concern were unknown then. Indeed, I suspect that to have raised concerns about potential abuse would have been one of the few grounds for disqualifying anyone from participation--it would have drawn attention to an unhealthy preoccupation with such matters.
  • As I recall, the team leader received a cash float for expenses. He did keep it in a locked cash-box--but I seem to remember he brought his own box, and he kept track of expenditure in a notebook. In those days printed receipts were unknown, so if someone forgot to ask for a written one, we had to rely on memory and price labels.
  • We did have a first-aid box, with the usual compliment of bandages and the like--but as far as I know there was no check on the first-aid qualifications of the leaders. (That may not have been noticed, because one of us was a medical student--which status does not of course guarantee practical first-aid competence.)
  • We spent our days hacking at rocks with picks and shovels. The health and safety precautions surrounding the use of explosives were indeed quite tight--only the Colonel (Campbell, who lived half-way down the mountain) had explosives clearance--and I remember going to pick up the gelignite from the depot in the valley, which was plastered with score-boards announcing "220 days since the last accident", and the like.
  • But I don't recall any hard hats, steel-capped boots, eye- or ear-protection...
I could go on.

But in a related vein: a few days ago, I and a few former colleagues--all with a background in education, although I was probably the oldest--met for one of our occasional walks. The conversation turned to the Jimmy Savile case, and an animated discussion about whether "it was all different in those days" was a legitimate defence for the conspiracy of silence which surrounded his abusive acts. (I won't say "alleged". He's dead, and if I had heard those rumours then so had everyone with any connection with children's services. And I've written about abuse here, and here, in particular.)

It strikes me that;
  • We assume (ideological hegemony) that our current values are best/correct/right... (How dare I suggest otherwise? "I was beaten every day and b****red every night at [boarding] School, and it didn't do me any harm!"---is no longer a legitimate claim.*) ....
  • Our predecessors were not: 1: naive-- 2: ignorant-- 3: in denial-- 4: complicit-- 5: participant in relation to abuse. That categorisation is itself predicated on a frame of reference focused on the detection of presumed abuse.
  • There's a clear divergence here between an approach to any initiative which is about the maximisation of happiness (the utilitarian "hedonic calculus" in its most benign form) and about the prevention/mitigation of harm, even when the latter is a pre-requisite of the former. The harm perspective claims the high ground so much that it can never be claimed that enough has been done on that front, and so there is never enough energy left for the happiness agenda**. (I leave aside the possibility that some organisations in the field have a vested interest in exaggerating risk in order to raise their profile and their funds...)
What has happened to our perspective and discourse, particularly relating to young people and risk, in the past thirty years? Why? Can and should the pendulum swing back? What are the costs of the current defensive approach--both social and personal?

I'm reminded of Daddy Walker's famous telegram in Swallows and Amazons (1930) in response to the children's request to go sailing; "BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WON'T DROWN" Today that approach would be regarded as tantamount to abuse.

* For the record, I do agree.

** Of course, the reality of some risk, however unlikely, will always remain. Since I starting drafting this post, the Newtown massacre has taken place. Followed by the bizarre and chilling take on it by Wayne LaPierre of the NRA.

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