Last week I went to a dinner for the retired consultants of the hospital in which I had worked. How everyone (apart from me, of course) had aged! I have seen the future and it is death.
But let that pass. It was only six weeks from Christmas, and so, in this land where Christmas lasts at least three months, there were festive Christmas crackers by each place setting. Each, as is customary, contained a joke – as it happens the same joke, as follows:
Q: What award goes to designers of door knockers?
A: A No Bell Prize.
Is there a factory somewhere – surely not in China, where the crackers were made – where such punning jokes are concocted?
It was on the other side of the little piece of paper, however, that the real joke was printed:
WARNING! Not suitable for children under 36 months because of
small parts which may represent a choking hazard. Retain this
product safety information for future reference. Carton made from
recyclable material. Please dispose of packaging safely.
In the bottom left hand corner of this scrap of paper were the cryptic words, ‘Refers to toy content only.‘
What crushing responsibility pulling a Christmas cracker now confers upon modern man! He has not only to ensure that no child younger than 36 months comes near it, but he must file away (safely, I suppose) the warning for future reference, and presumably bring it out again whenever he contemplates pulling a Christmas cracker again. He must dispose of the packaging not merely tidily, but safely, though it is not altogether clear what unsafe disposal of a small carton box would be, unless it were setting fire to it in a gunpowder factory. The question begins to play on one’s mind: there are previously unsuspected dangers in disposing of a carton box. What could they be?
Of course, not one in a hundred persons who pulls a Christmas cracker will even read the notice on the back of the joke, let alone obey its mad injunctions. Nevertheless, we inhabit a country in which such warnings are legion and everywhere and seep into our consciousness and render us permanently nervous, as if we were beset by a thousand small dangers amounting by summation to a large one. For protection against this large danger there is only one resort: government and more government. Government decrees warnings against alleged dangers that justify more government.