by John Morrison


95: Risky Business

It's budget day: one of those comfortingly old-fashioned occasions, like the Queen's Speech, Derby Day or the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race. In time-honoured tradition the Chancellor of the Exchequer stands at the door of Number 10, hoisting that famously battered red case to appease a flock of photographers.

We're invited to imagine the chancellor beavering away, late into the night, in his little office next door. Not presiding over an army of accountants and mainframe computers, crunching numbers into an infinity of possibilities... but sitting at his desk, by the light of a Tiffany lamp, scribbling on the back of an envelope with a quill-pen. It's an appealing image.

The budget speech fails to bring Milltown to a standstill. What's the chancellor going to do: put a few pence on cannabis? Increase the VAT on incense sticks and didgeridoos? Announce pension provisions for the terminally bewildered? Instigate Hole Improvement Grants for those still undecided about getting their belly buttons pierced?

Wounded Man is one Milltown resident who is left unmoved by fiscal forecasts. As usual, the budget speech addresses precisely none of the questions he'd like answering. Never mind about the Euro, he thinks, why don't we have a 99p coin? Think how convenient that would be. Whenever the Bank of England decides to prop up the economy by buying sterling, what does it buy sterling with? Pesetas? Escudos? Chocolate buttons? And, in our next reincarnation, how can we ensure that we inherit our own money? If it's true that we can't take it with us, think how reassuring it would be it would be to find it was still there when we came back.

Wounded Man's ineptitude with money is quite a contrast to the Smug Git in the Stoic, who occupies his customary seat at the bar. With his leather-buttoned cardigan, sensible mail-order trousers and polished brogues, he's the very picture of suburban self-satisfaction, ready to inflict his views on any unsuspecting drinker who strays too close.

Whenever he listens to a budget speech - and he's heard quite a few in his time - he changes his lifestyle. Instantly. Thanks to a lifetime of being prudent, careful and forward-thinking, he knows all about PEPs and TESSAs, and the exact moment when he should transfer some of his savings from an instant-access account to a 30-day high-interest account, in order to take advantage of any byzantine tax loophole that his accountant might recommend.

He's trading in his car - an unassuming Fiat Chutney - for a new model that boasts airbags and a whiplash protection system. Keeping to a steady 25mph, sensibly straddling the white line down the middle of the road, he knows he'll come to no harm. He can carry on driving like an arsehole, and the only folk at risk will be other hapless road-users. They are usually stacked up behind him: a seething entourage of frustrated motorists, crawling along narrow South Pennine roads. Thankfully, he doesn't drive much these days: just a weekly trip into town to pick up a new tin of car polish. As a founder member of CLOC (the Central Lane Owners' Club), he's entitled to special discounts.

He looks to have feather-bedded his declining years, so he can spend them sitting comfortably in his own chair at the Stoic, boring everybody witless with his financial nous and foresight. After one of his interminable monologues, detailing where his money is this week, and exactly how hard it's working for him, we wait for him to choke on a pork scratching.

But life is risky: an unpredictable white-knuckle ride from cradle to grave. Disaster can strike at any time. At random, out of a clear blue sky. We can't insure ourselves against calamity. We may think we've covered every angle, every possible scenario... and then, just as we become smug and complaisant, life has a nasty habit of bowling us an unplayable googly.

Every tragedy is followed, routinely, by a bout of hand-wringing and soul-searching. "How could this possibly happen?", we wail. "Let's make sure that this kind of tragedy never happens again". Why? Tragedies are going to happen again. Even in the best regulated organisation - and, God knows, this is Planet Earth we're talking about - things have a habit of going awry.

The amazing thing is not that accidents happen... but that they don't happen all the time, everywhere. Cars manage to avoid each other on a remarkably regular basis. Trains mostly stay on the tracks. Ships float. Most amazingly of all, planes tend to stay in the air - despite dozens of gravitational rules that suggest it's impossible. And the people with a foot on the gas, and a hand on the steering wheel, are the very same people who keep pushing at a door marked 'pull', and make serious plans about what they'll do once they've won the lottery. Anyone who harbours the illusion that people are basically sensible has obviously never driven on a motorway in thick fog.

Our understanding of risk and probability appears ingenuous, to say the least. On the one hand, those lottery odds of 14,000,000-to-1 tempt us to think: "Maybe... just maybe". On the other hand, similar odds that the Sellafield Nuclear Plant will go into meltdown - ushering in a nuclear winter that will last for generations - make us think: "Impossible...". And yet, no matter how feckless we are as individuals, the human race survives. Forget about weeping statues; forget about cripples walking away from their wheelchairs. The real miracle is that we behave as abominably as we do, commit lunacies anew, and yet can still expect redemption. Perhaps there is, after all, a celestial hand on the tiller.

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