My dear mother will be 91 years old this year, the same age as my father when he died two years ago. She lives alone in the family home in England and still looks after herself, and complains that she cannot remember things quite as well as she used to.
But she does remember the important stuff. She remembers her childhood in London and her extreme poverty when my grandmother struggled, with the help of friends – but not her husband whom she had justifiably abandoned – to care for Mum and her four elder siblings. There was no welfare state then but Mum remembers a happy childhood. She talks of stuffing cardboard into her worn-out shoes and of her brother and sisters disappearing to be cared for by others when her mother just could not cope. Yes there was hunger, dismal accommodation, simple homemade toys and, as the youngest in the family, the inevitable hand-me-downs, but also joyful family reunions. Now she is proud that she prevailed, and scoffs the so-called hardships that those on welfare “suffer” today.
She learned shorthand typing and was soon working in an office to help support the family. She was a very pretty teenager and had lots of boys ask her out – but if they asked, then they were not what she was looking for. My father took a different approach. He found out where she lived, knocked on her door and when she appeared said simply “Put your coat on, we’re going to the pictures”. “Lovely”, she said.
She survived the Blitz in London but lost many friends and neighbours. My parents married in 1942 and my father was shipped out to Burma in the Army. When dad came on home leave she became pregnant with me, but he was then shipped out again to fight. Meanwhile she was evacuated from London and sent to a farm at Gilsland in Cumberland, not far from the Scottish boarder.
So this is what I try to imagine. My father is fighting with the real possibility of being killed. My mother has been shifted away from friends and most of her family to a remote part of the country, and with me growing inside her she had, in her dark hours, to think that perhaps I could be born without a father. I was born in 1944 when my father was still overseas.
There were many in similar situations, both in England and in Australia. But fortune smiled on my parents, my father survived, they both returned to London and my brother was born. After all that you can well imagine that adventure and risk were not part of their chosen lifestyle. They made themselves, and my brother and me, as secure as they could. We even abandoned London and its terrible, coal induced, smog because I became asthmatic. My asthma disappeared as soon as we settled in clean, green Somerset.
My father worked hard, eventually starting his own agency and we moved into the middle class. He was my hero and I remember clearly during a family holiday at Hastings, seeing him leap off a pier fully clothed and rescue a drowning child. I particularly remember his watch – which had filled with water and which the child’s grateful parents got repaired. Of course since then, while diving, I’ve filled many watches, cameras and lights with water, and every time I do, I think of my dad.
It will come as no surprise with that history, that my mother has a cautious, even sometimes nervous, personality. I love her dearly, but after an hour’s conversation with her I often feel the need to go out and do something dangerous. She still worries, on my behalf, about those sharks. “Watch those sharks, Rob!”
We talk on the phone every day, and I now visit England every year to see her. She loves my visits but even then is torn between my presence and the safety of the aircraft I will fly on. This year it is “I’m so pleased you are not here Rob, the weather is freezing! You would not like it!” Meaning: airplanes should not be flying, and she knows I hate cold weather.
So the feeling that I get after my mother’s attention involves recklessness. However I have been able to substitute adventure for recklessness. Yes I take on risk when diving, and perhaps make higher risk dives than some would choose to make. This risk is a product of the environment and increases with increasing depth and current, decreasing visibility, rough seas, enclosed spaces and myriad features of a dynamic underwater environment. This risk is the same for all divers attempting the same dive at any particular time. What is different for every diver is the degree of danger.
If you have the necessary skills, knowledge and equipment, and good health, then you can make the dive safe for yourself. That just means that it is unlikely that you will be injured on the dive you are about to attempt. Reckless behaviour, where your skills etc. are not sufficient for you to overcome the risk, is what produces danger. Risk and Danger are not the same – easily illustrated by considering a dive in a swimming pool, where the risk is very small, but the dive deadly dangerous for someone lacking knowledge of the consequences of breath-holding using SCUBA.
I escape the restrictive feeling of being cocooned by my mother’s care, not by doing anything actually dangerous – but by assuming risk and having the skills etc. to make it safe. Since I know my ability quite well, but not yours very much, I generally think it is safer for me to dive solo. Besides all that, my Mum would be upset if I hurt myself, so just for that reason I try to avoid doing so.
Now I live in Australia and I have to tell you that I am sick of being told to be careful. I do not need to be told to be careful. My Mum does that for me. What is more I do not like to be lumped with the common denominator of folk who do not practice skills, do not study to gain knowledge and do not have a clue as to what they are doing, nor assume responsibility for their actions. But that is the way of the Australian Nanny State I live in today.
I do not need my cigarettes in plain packaging, because I do not smoke – I gave that up when I left London smog – but felt desperately sorry for the shop assistant at a gas station recently who had to read a long list of brand names pasted outside the cigarette cupboard to try to find where the brand requested might be. She could not open the cabinet to look, “I’ll get fined for that”, she said, even though the packets are difficult to distinguish. Now we have a new raft of driving laws with draconian penalties including one for not having two hands on the wheel. Is a LAW required for this? There are far too many of these petty laws and rules. I survive by treating them all as “suggestions”.
I do not like to be ordered to have a fence around my pool on my own property let alone pay to have it inspected. I do not like a policeman telling me when I can cross the road, let alone a flashing light showing me when. And I do not like divemasters telling me how deep I can dive, demanding to know how much air is in my tank at the end of a dive, and how deep I have been. Guys, it is none of your business.
Have you ever wondered why so many young people do really dangerous and often fatal things? I bet they are rebelling against the Nanny State. Kids need adventure, and they need to learn that they can have excellent adventures and survive by understanding the difference between risk and danger. It should not be “Don’t do that!” it should be “Let me show you how to do that, scare yourself silly, and live!” On the other hand, another war might keep them occupied.
Please do not regale me with all the arguments for the Nanny State. They are rubbish, designed to smother your personal freedoms. My Mum thinks they are pathetic too. She is of independent mind and so am I. As I write this the news of Margaret Thatcher’s death has saddened me. She was a believer in personal responsibility. Me too. But in Australia the Nanny State is getting worse and even I am starting to take the rules far too seriously. I love this country so make a plea that we stop the nonsense and get back to our adventurous roots. So here is notice.
If Australia keeps on creating restrictions to my happy enjoyment of life, restricting the things I like to do the way I want to do them – with my behaviour having no effect on anybody else’s ability to do exactly what they want to do as well – then watch out.
I am going to be tempted go out and do something really dangerous. Sorry Mum….