Laurie Graham

The pernicious creep of Big Nanny

The pernicious creep of Big Nanny
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Waiting at a coach station recently, in the space of seven minutes I was cautioned three times by the disembodied voice of Big Nanny. No smoking or vaping was allowed. Cycling was prohibited. Pedestrians were directed to use only the designated crossings. I almost wished I’d opted to travel by rail, but then I remembered that Big Nanny rides on trains too.

In a quieter era of rail travel the only announcements, apart from service cancellations, used to be the one about refraining from urination when the train was in the station, and advice not to poke your head out of the window of a moving carriage. Which some dimwits nevertheless did with tragic consequences and so removed themselves from the gene pool.

Now, though, Train Nanny never shuts up. She reminds us to keep our belongings with us at all times and to take them with us when we reach our destination. To carry a bottle of water in hot weather. And most gratuitously of all, to take care when alighting. To what extent this last is just a bit of legal ass-covering, I’m not sure. If I choose to ignore the advice and do a reverse pike somersault on to the platform, will it be entirely my own foolish business? I hope so.

Nanny’s script suggests we are infantile, that as soon as we leave home we become clueless waifs, but the spectrum of human fallibility is broader than that. Some of us are deaf to everything save our own thoughts; some are reckless, or plain anti-social. After hearing those announcements do people still leave behind their umbrellas or briefcases containing sensitive government documents? Do passengers still faint from dehydration on hot, crowded trains? You bet.

The Secretary of State for Transport has promised us less of ‘See it, say it’, but it hasn’t gone away. I heard it on a train this week and as ever it provoked in me an almost unbearable itch to report something that ‘doesn’t look right’. That grown man wearing his baseball cap sidewards, for instance? Sorted.

I joke, but through gritted teeth. Most of these announcements are redundant. They are, at best, a brain-numbing irritant. I suspect they reduce the attention we pay to truly important announcements like ‘Leave the station by the nearest exit immediately’.

Nanny follows me everywhere. Hold the escalator handrail. Hold tight when the bus is moving. Be careful. Don’t run with scissors. All rather obvious advice that I first heard 70 years ago. I began to wonder if I was being oversensitive – was this just a case of elder-tetchiness? We’re all being subjected to Caution Creep, after all. Some embrace it, most ignore it. To me, ‘staying safe’ has become a suffocating concept.

When did Caution Creep start? Not that long ago, it turns out. I do remember having a stepladder labelled ‘Use at owner’s risk’, which seemed fair enough. I also recall a pushchair with a tag that said ‘Remove child before folding’, which I thought was quite amusing. But perhaps it was meant seriously. Perhaps Nanny was already at work on her project to caution us about everything.

In spite of the threat of nuclear warheads, my post-war generation and my own 1970s children grew up relatively free of doom and jitters. We climbed trees and waded in unknown waters. We even talked to strangers – some, perhaps, who had wicked designs on us. It was how we learned to survive.

My grandchildren’s generation are different. Theirs is a world of kneepads and safety helmets and hi-vis tabards. They know that conker fights can cause injury, as can the injudicious swinging of a yo-yo. Even running in the playground is now something to be done with care. The message, and it is a pernicious one, is never, ever to take a risk.

Covid restrictions have of course opened wide the door to Caution Creep. Those who were already of a nervous disposition have become anxious to the point of agoraphobia. Notices on shop doors announce ‘We’re keeping you safe because we care’. An empty corporate virtue-signal. As a person of a certain age, I am wearied by these meaningless assurances and prompts. They tempt me to live whatever years I have left on the platform edge of life. Let’s all stay safe? Let’s not, but say we did.

In fourteen hundred and ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue. I doubt he’d have the gumption to do it nowadays. There’d be a wet surface hazard warning on the gangplank and that’d be that. He’d go home to his mum, who would no doubt be relieved because you can’t be too careful. Except that I very much fear you can.